I recently completed a rather obscure novel by H.G. Wells, called Kipps. It is a story of how Artie Kipps, the hero of the story, inherits a large sum of money from a grandfather he never knew he had, only to lose it all later through an unexpected embezzlement.
The parts of this book that I really enjoyed were the parts where H.G. Wells explored how money changes our perceptions on life.
Money, not just physical
Money is often viewed as a means to attain physical goods — its psychological aspect is not often discussed. Most people would rather know the how‘s of money (“how do I make money?”) , than the why‘s (“why do I want to make the money?”) or the what‘s (“what role does money play in my life?”).
The general theory of money states that the more money we have, the happier we will be — as if money were some kind of panacea. We think that if we had more money, we would enjoy our lives more — no longer do we need to worry about how we can afford the things we want to afford.
Unfortunately, “things money can buy” is only part of what money really is. We tend to forget that the more money we have, the more expensive the things we want are going to be.
In his best-selling book, The Millionaire Next Door, author Thomas J. Stanley cites a superb example of such.
Take, for example, the affluent parents who gave their son Bill and daughter-in-law Helen a $9,000 rug that we were told contained millions of hand-tied knots. Bill is a civil engineer who works for the state. He earns less than $55,000 a year. His parents feel compelled to help him maintain a lifestyle and level of dignity congruent with someone with a graduate degree from a prestigious university. Of course, the expensive rug looked out of place in a room filled with hand-me-down furniture and inexpensive light fixtures. So Bill and Helen felt compelled to purchase expensive walnut dining room furniture, a crystal chandelier, a solid-silver service, and expensive lamps. Thus, the gift of the $9,000 rug precipitated the consumption of nearly that same amount for other “affluent artifacts”.
Perhaps receiving a $9,000 rug is not an everyday thing. But this kind of associative-buying applies to many other things as well.
Recently I bought a pair of tinted-glasses. They cost me quite a bit of money. Never ever actually having owned a pair of tinted-glasses before, I found that I did not have any clothes to match it with. This led to my purchase of some new shirts, of which color went well with my tinted-lenses.
These shirts, however, looked out-of-place with my worn jeans, so I bought myself some new ones. And as I often carry a bag when I went out, my old bag had to go, and I got myself a new one. All these purchases, because I bought a pair of glasses I thought looked “cool”.
Just imagine the expenses involved when you buy your dream house. I quote another passage from The Millionaire Next Door below.
Expensive homes are typically located in what we call high-consumption neighborhoods. Living in such neighborhoods requires more than just being able to pay the mortgage. To fit in, one needs to “look the part” in terms of one’s clothing, landscaping, home maintenance, automobiles, furnishings, and so on. And don’t forget to add high property taxes to all the other items.
The Gentleman and the Lady
Remember I mentioned the book Kipps at the beginning of this article? In that book, Artie Kipps also learns to play the part of a wealthy gentleman. In order to “look the part”, not only do we need to look the part from the material-only perspective, but also in our relationships. Artie had to disassociate from his old friends, on advice from his “gentleman mentor” and self-help books he had read, as well as from his personal gut-feelings that they were somehow out of place in his new lifestyle.
His new status as “gentleman” allowed him to win the fancy of a “lady”, Helen Walshingham — only thing was, he was brought up poor, while she had always been rich. Their mentalities were different, and he had idiosyncracies brought over from his poorer self.
I thought the way H.G. Wells wrote the way Artie proposed to Helen was magnificent, and very real. The things Artie said would not have come out different if it had been me in his situation.
‘It’s as though everything ‘ad changed. More even than when I got that money. ‘Ere we are going to marry. It’s like being some one else. What I feel is —‘
He turned a flushed and earnest face to her. He seemed to come alive to her with one natural gesture. ‘I don’t know things. I’m not good enough. I’m not refined. The more you see of me, the more you’ll find me out.’
‘But I’m going to help you.’
‘You’ll ‘ave to ‘elp me a fearful lot.’
The more you see of me, the more you’ll find me out — does the commitment of marriage not allow us pick up the courage to look at the flaws of our significant other?
Immediately after quoted speech, Helen wastes no time in helping to point out his flaws: in his speech (“there’s aitches”); his dressing (“you mustn’t be too — too dressy”); and his manner towards people (“…forget yourself a little and not be anxious”).
He sat for a long time at the open window of his sitting-room with an intent face, recapitulating that interview. His eyes rested at last almost reproachfully on the silk hat beside him. ”Ow is one to know?’ he asked.
Remember, this was right after he proposed — a proposal he deliberated over for a long time, something he had to pick up a lot of courage to do. Yes, he had the money; but did he still have an identity? It was as if money alienated him from the people he loved most, and brought to to those whom loved him least.
Money and its implications
Money has far more implications than simply being a means of acquiring material goods. More money does not just mean that one is able to afford more things — more money brings with it a mindset change. Sometimes these changes may lead us to become even more miserable than before we had the additional money.
I leave you with a passage from the book Opening The Door of Your Heart, by Ajahn Brahm.
In my tradition, monks aren’t allowed to accept, own or handle any money, whatever its kind. We are so poor that we mess up government statistics.
We live frugally on the unsolicited, simple gifts from our lay supporters. However, infrequently we may be offered something special.
I had helped a Thai man with a personal problem. Out of gratitude, he said to me: ‘Sir, I would like to give you something for your personal use. What can I get you for the amount of five hundred baht?’ It was usual to quote the amount when making such an offering, to avoid any misunderstanding. Since I couldn’t think what I wanted straight away, and he was in a hurry, we agreed that I could tell him the next day when he returned.
Before this occurred, I was a happy little monk. Now I started to contemplate what I wanted. I made a list. The list grew. Soon, five hundred baht wasn’t enough. But it was difficult to take anything off the list. Wants had appeared out of nowhere and solidified into absolute necessities. And the list kept growing. Now, five thousand baht wasn’t sufficient!
Seeing what was happening, I threw my wish list away. The next day, I told my benefactor to give the five hundred baht to the monastery building fund or to some other good cause. I didn’t want it. What I wanted most of all was to regain the rare contentment I had had the day before. When I had no money, nor the means to get anything, that was the time when all my wishes were fulfilled.
Wanting has no end to it. Even one billion baht isn’t enough, nor one billion dollars. But freedom from wanting has an end. It is when you want for nothing. Contentment is the only time you have enough.