Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Money

When you get to a certain age you can't help but think, briefly, about the different paths that your life might have taken and maybe start to try to explain why it has taken the course it actually has. Being inclined to look for overall principles rather than precise details I've realised that, for me, one of the most important defining characteristics has been my attitude to money.

The idea that the most important influences in you life occur early on has often been summarised in one of the many variants of the phrase "Give me the child up to the age of seven and I'll show you the man", and thinking back to my own early childhood I can readily summon up instances that reflect my ongoing relationship with money.

The first was when, at the age of 5 or 6, I'd spent 6 shillings of my pocket money on a catapult (30p in today's money but a lot more then) and my main memory is not of the catapult itself but of lying in bed worrying about having wasted the money. The next, when 8 or 9, was when I got the ridiculous toy that I'd lusted after - a toy gun* that could fire a number of different kinds of projectile and would best be seen in the hands of Rambo - and realised after about half an hour of playing with it what a completely ridiculous thing it was and, more importantly, what a fool I'd been to lust after it. In addition, as a curious and numerate child, I'd usually catch sight of my parent's bank statements and couldn't help but notice that at the end of every month they were about £100 overdrawn. Though I've no idea if I ever discussed this with them at the time, it struck me as obvious that if they just spent a little less one month then the overdraft would get cleared.

So, precocious little bugger that I was, my early attitude to money was that if you didn't want to worry about it then it was best to avoid spending it and that even though you thought that buying something would make you feel better it usually didn't. Since then I've only ever really been happy spending money on things that were necessary, like getting the roof fixed before any more damage got caused, or books (but even then the first thing I did when I got a Kindle was to raid the old classics that were out of copyright and have ended up a late George Eliot fan as a result) The very concept of "retail therapy" has always struck me as oxymoronic even if just in the sense that if the answer to your problem is "shopping" then it couldn't have been much of a problem in the first place. Much better to go out for a walk, chop some wood, make a cup of tea,,,,

I once read an interview with the enormously rich Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone. As far as he was concerned 

"I doubt if any successful business person works for money. For most people who are reasonably successful it's a way of keeping score, that you're doing all right."

So, once you've got enough even the hyper wealthy simply want more as a way of demonstrating their status. I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to care about money that much, to devote my life to getting a bigger heap than someone else, but not only does it all feel so vacuous it's also now been shown that beyond a certain point - where you've got enough to provide a decent roof over your head, food on the table, clothes on your back and a modicum of entertainment - having more money doesn't make you any happier. Indeed, it's also been shown that for major status purchases, like a new sports car, the greatest pleasure is in the anticipation and, after a week or so, the initial thrill of being seen to be able to drive around in the thing is replaced by envy of those that can drive around in something even newer and flashier.

A recent opinion piece in the New Scientist on OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) suggests that the rationalisation for the OCD (an obsession with hygiene for example) might actually follow the behaviour rather than precede it. You find yourself repeatedly doing something that you know is a bit wierd so, to avoid cognitive dissonance, you come up with a rationalisation. In my case it could be that my early, and slightly fearful, attitude to money led almost directly to my obsession with how we might distribute the Earth's finite resources in a more equitable way, and the answer to that problem has never seemed less likely to be "shopping". 

* A quick search under "1960s toy rocket launcher gun" confirms that it was a heavily marketed "Johnny Seven OMA" (Where OMA presumably stands for One Man Army)

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