Rich’s Philosophy of Money and the Meaning of Life (and the Value of Cheese)

Dear PenPen,

You wrote: As for you, congrats on your plan to amass your Scrooge McDuck-like fortune. A couple of questions: What do you plan to DO with all that money anyway? 

Actually, I never expected to amass anything, much less a pool of gold coins to swim in with ducks. I’m from a small farming town (you know, you were there), and I have a BA in Theology and an MA in Religion. Not exactly a fast track to investment banking. After grad school, I moved to Paris for 6 months (rather aimlessly) to learn French, and I lived on baguettes and peanuts. Literally.

Earn your way to happiness … by spending those earnings wisely …

That’s when opportunity knocked. I landed my first “career” job because of the French skill and I’ve hustled to move up in my company ever since. And, like a lot of people who have advanced degrees and decent careers, my wife also has an advanced degree and a decent career. Double high income.

So, whether I expected it or not, here I am with plenty of money. Is it important to me? Yes, but mostly in terms of what I can do with it. Which leads to your other questions: What will I do with all this, and what’s the point? For the answer, I need to get a bit philosophical. As any good Theology major would.

The Meaning of Life and Death … and Happiness

Whoa, this is getting heavy! Bear with me. Everyone faces these questions: “What should I do with my life? What is the meaning of life, or how can we find meaning in life?” 

For me, life’s meaning can be uncovered in three primary areas. 1- Relationships with others. 2- Personal growth and work. 3- Freedom and experiences.

1) First, the purpose of life in most theological circles is usually some version of “to love others and to be loved.” There’s a value to relationships. Ok, but what should I be doing day to day, other than giving hugs? As someone with a family, my particular journey has a lot to do with taking care of them, both in the present and in the future. I’m responsible for their well being. I also think it’s on me to make the most of my relationships with friends and neighbors, and to be generous to the needy. Most people won’t argue with this. It so happens, as a big side benefit, that humans are happier when pursuing good relationships. That figures.

2) Second, I also have a responsibility to myself in terms of personal growth and meeting my potential. Here’s what I mean by that. There’s a religious story called the “parable of the talents.” [A “talent” in ancient times was worth around 20 years of wages — actually a great deal of money, around $500,000 in today’s dollars. Look at that, almost my net worth]. In the story, a VIP gives 3 underlings some of his money to manage while he is away. These underlings range from using resources well to squandering resources (spoiler alert: it wasn’t a happy ending for the squanderers). Personally, I feel lucky to have resources at my disposal. I feel responsible for how I use those resources, whether it’s money or time or whatever. I think part of life is learning to use those “talents” and meet my potential. And it just so happens, as a big side benefit, that humans are generally happier when growing, learning, and meeting their potential. Go figure.

Meeting one’s potential is where the value of work comes in. By “work” I don’t mean just jobs. Sometimes a person needs to take a job that seems meaningless. I used to serve donuts, and that job left me empty inside. Ha! But really, a garbage man can manage his talent just as well as a neurosurgeon, albeit in a different way. Writers, artists, parents — everyone is working on some angle of the human condition (whether they are thoughtful about it or not). Each individual answers for his own life and what he did with it — not just in the sense of being judged, but also in the sense of living with gratitude and wisdom. And it just so happens, as a big side benefit, that humans are generally happier when gaining satisfaction from “work”. Again, go fig.

3) Third, what about good ol’ fashioned freedom? Yep, I think there’s value there. To me, life is best when I feel the freedom to make my own decisions — to give, to indulge, and to experience what the world has to offer according to my own priorities. Personally, I love to travel with my family and friends, to experience different cultures and interesting foods. To visit the old market in Fez, Morocco. To taste wine in Italy and sample that distinct cheese from the old country (cf. “the value of cheese,” the subtitle of our blog). It ain’t Velveeta. I don’t care too much about possessions, so if I buy something I want to really enjoy it — like a sweater from James Perse, an Irish wool blanket from Foxford, or a cast iron pot from Le Creuset for cooking cassoulet on a cold winter evening. Combine The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and the Danish concept of Hygge, and that’s what I want from possessions. And books. Plenty of books. But mostly experiences. And it just so happens, as a big side benefit, that humans are generally happier when spending money on experiences rather than possessions. G. O. F. I. G.

Ahhh, the meaning of life, explained on a blog. And in case you missed it, I also figured out the keys to happiness. Don’t you feel better now?

But wait, there’s a big buzzkill at the end! Death. Sorry to ruin it for everyone. Yep, we’re all on the Titanic. For whatever reason, I’m keenly aware of how fast time is moving, how nothing is guaranteed to me at older ages, and how I’ve barely scratched the surface of life’s experiences. Life is short. It’s often hard. So we need to make the most of it while we’ve got it. As Braveheart said: “Every man dies, not every man really lives.” And then lightning came out of his arse.

Personal Finance is Personal and How Money Helps With Happiness

What I’ve written will not resonate with everyone, but you don’t need to be religious, oddly philosophical, or a movie buff to find meaning in life. You might have different categories. If you love Doritos and Netflix, just chill and make those your categories. If you want to paint your face blue and fight for Scotland, go for it — but make sure you have intestinal fortitude (too soon?). Whatever it is, make your choices and don’t let them make you. Sure, not everyone will use their “talents” for the good of human potential, but that’s not my concern here. My concern is with what I’m doing with mine; others will have their own path. This is what makes personal finance “personal”.

So what does all this have to do with money? Money can’t buy happiness! I guess it can buy up to $75,000 worth of happiness per year, according to science. Personally, I think it’s all about how money is used. In my opinion, money doesn’t create a meaningful life, but it can help if used wisely. For example, in my 3 categories:

    • Relationships: Money provides a comfortable life for my family. We can afford healthy food. We don’t stress about money day-to-day (a lot of families do). I can fly my best friend across the world to see me, which otherwise wouldn’t be possible. That’s valuable.
    • Personal Growth / Work: Money helped me pursue my own education, work, and interests. My education didn’t cost big bucks but I always felt taken care of by my parents. I want that for my kids. And I want to give them the full opportunity to meet their own potential without amassing huge student loans. Eh?
    • Freedom and Experiences: Seeing the world, showing the world to our kids, and meeting different kinds of people — it’s exciting and humbling and interesting. It’s like reading a book, but in person! Given that life is so short, we’re not just hoarding money so we can experience the world when we’re retired. We want to do it now as well.

Conclusion: The Value of Cheese

In the end, it’s not the money I care about. I don’t want to hoard it like Scrooge McDuck, and I don’t want to waste it on a huge house. Notice I didn’t say the word “mansion” once in this letter. I want to use money in a way that brings meaning to this short life, and to enjoy that life along the way. The value of cheese is not in the buying, it’s in the tasting.  

Your cousin,

Scrooge McRicheart

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