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More Money, More Problems?

If you’re like me, then you’ve probably experienced at least one point in your life when you felt poor. I use the word “felt” because we as Westerners probably weren’t actually poor compared to extreme poverty standards. Nevertheless, you likely had a time when you wanted to do something but couldn’t because of money.

For me, it was during my early undergraduate days. Now, I was extremely fortunate to have had my schooling paid for between scholarships and my parents, but perhaps the smartest thing my parents ever did was not give me a dime beyond paying for school. Note also that my schooling covered my boarding and cafeteria plan, so I was truly set from a pure needs perspective.

Still, being at a college in a cornfield town where the campus was smaller than that of many high schools and whose cafeteria sucked… life could get pretty boring. I kid you not, the general highlight of our weeks would be the drive across town and browsing the aisles of the local Walmart for an hour or so. We used to dream of times when we’d have enough loose cash to make the 30 minute drive to Bloomington (where I now live) and eating a modest meal at Buffalo Wild Wings. Of course, we always ensured if that happened, we had to go on nights when wings were discounted. And since we went to a Christian school that made you sign a “covenant” you wouldn’t drink alcohol, there was no beer for us.

(Man… there were some weird things thinking retrospectively about going to a Christian school. It wasn’t the worst, but the fact that we called it “covenant” and not a contract is hilarious to me now.)

I used to think frequently how nice it would be to have some extra money, and when I got my first internship that paid $14 an hour, I felt like I came into a windfall of cash. Literally, I felt like I was floating! The fact that I could go to Wendy’s and get myself a spicy chicken sandwich meal from time to time felt amazing. (The bar was set LOW, folks!)

Of course, I wouldn’t always feel this way. The happiness was fleeting, and as my pay increased with the progress of my career, I never found that same happiness. And keep in mind, I came from a Christian college where most of my friends became church pastors. Most pastors barely make above $30k a year with no benefits. Heck, I have friends to this day that have to go through some wild means just to have very basic healthcare insurance. Compared to them, I might as well have been Bill Gates.

But the money didn’t make me happy. Little did I know that 2014 would bring the darkest time in my life where I could not have been more depressed.

My story is not a unique one. I frequently reference lottery winners in other posts because there are countless stories of people that come into this windfall of cash and end up destroying their lives through gambling, addiction, and even suicide. (Just go and search Jack Whittaker. That guy’s life was utterly obliterated.) The happiness that money brings is very temporary, only to be replaced with a misery that seems to surpass that from the time when we didn’t have money.

Hence the phrase: More money, more problems.

(Quick edit for a stupid side note: I genuinely didn’t know where that phrase originated when I wrote this post a few days ago. When I just Googled “more money, more problems,” the infamous song by the Notorious B.I.G. came up, and now I feel like an idiot.)

This is certainly a counter-intuitive thought. Clearly, most people think that having money solves the misery problem, and to an extent, they are right. Being able to pay for basic necessities like food, dwelling, and healthcare are absolutely must haves. The thing we have a hard time understanding is that there’s a sort of cap on how much money you can make before it moves from covering the essentials to being more than you know what to do with. That number will differ for everybody. I’ve heard that number quoted as $75k on average, although I’d argue that’s high for many people I know living in rural communities with lower costs of living. Probably vice versa for people living in places like San Francisco.

So… why pursue more money if it’s just going to bring more problems?

It’s a question many people ask themselves, and many people answer it simply as, “Don’t try. Stay where you’re at because the more money you shoot for, the more problems you’re going to have. It’s just not worth it.”

Frankly, that’s a poor way to think about things. There’s an underlying assumption there that money and the pursuit of money is inherently evil. Growing up in a church community, it was not uncommon at all for me to hear the phrase, “Money is the root of all evil.” There is a noble thought in there that understands that money doesn’t bring happiness, but it goes too far to squash certain other things.

And when I mean certain other things, I’m talking about the work you do. Specifically, working on big ideas or big projects; working with big companies or promising start ups. It’s not a coincidence that this value-producing group of work directly correlates with a high pay or salary. The money comes from people finding your product / service valuable enough to give up a portion of their money. That’s how Apple became the most valuable company in the world. It came from every customer who bought an iPhone or iPad unknowingly telling themselves, “I would rather give up X dollars to own this product than go on living without it.” Magnify that times billions of customers, and you have a company now valued at over a trillion dollars.

Let’s glance at the lives of folks like Naval Ravikant, Seth Godin, Tim Ferriss, and to a lesser extent, me. Across us all, you can see that our sense of purpose (some might call it happiness) comes from the work that we all do. And as Naval rightly stated in an infamous tweet storm, “Building specific knowledge will feel like play to you but will look like work to others.” I can totally relate to that myself. Some might see these studies I’m doing in data science as hard work because, well, it is. But to me, I’ve put down my PlayStation controller to learn more about statistical learning because I’ve often found that to be more satisfying than playing another video game.

Here’s the kicker… it turns out that when we pursue these passions deeply, it’s not uncommon that the money follows closely behind. I’m not at all saying you’ll get mega millionaire rich in every case, but the people that are best in their field can at least maintain a basic form of living. And yeah, there are the Warren Buffets of the world that do make that crazy sum of money, but what you’ll often find amongst these individuals is that they keep making decisions using money as an enabler, not a crutch. Thinking again about Naval, he’s constantly throwing his fortune into startup companies, likely knowing that they’re not all going to succeed. I have nowhere near the amount of money he has, but I could certainly relate with the satisfaction that would come from helping revolutionize an industry, even if it meant a small loss.

My point with this whole post is simple: You should ultimately dictate the relationship you have with your money, not vice versa. Money itself won’t keep you satisfied, nor will the stuff you can buy with that money. If you let money rule your life, then yeah, your life can go down the drain really quickly. In that case, the phrase “more money, more problems” is 100% true. But it’s only true if you allow it to be true, so… let’s not do that, folks.

Okey dokey, this post ran a bit long, so we’ll cut it here for today. Mull over these thoughts, friends, especially if coming into money is a new thing for you. It can be super tempting to rush into buying something like a BMW, but not only is it not a financially prudent decision but it probably won’t make you all that happy. Trust me, this is something I definitely wish I could that naive 2011 version of me.

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