More Than Money
Issue #8

To Spend Or Not To Spend

Table of Contents


We believe there are countless ways to live that can balance giving to ourselves with contributing to the world. Unnecessary polarization of the two comes, in part, from confusion over two concepts: what we "deserve" and what we feel "responsible for." We touch on these below.

I Deserve It All!

We sometimes hear people say, "I deserve to live well, I deserve this cashmere sweater...this comfortable a car..." We think "deserving" is a red herring, an irrelevant and emotionally charged factor that confuses the issue. Everyone deserves--as basic rights--many of the things purchased by people with wealth: a safe home and neighborhood, a good education, meaningful work, healthy food, clean air and water, control over one's life.

Other accepted privileges (like countless throw-away goods and packaging, dangerously polluting engines, "cheap" goods made by grossly underpaid workers) no one "deserves," because the creation of these privileges degrades other people or the earth's resources.

People who tell themselves, "I deserve this. I need to be good to myself," are often arguing with harsh voices from their past. They may have grown up wealthy, yet deprived of love, of stability, of being valued for who they were. Meanwhile these children were told, "Be grateful--you have it all." People who grew up with variations on this theme are sometimes compulsive givers who feel essentially worthless and have great difficulty spending on themselves at all. For these folks, knowing that they can spend on themselves can be an important act of reclaiming self-love.

But for most of us, consuming is overrated as the infallible way to be good to ourselves. We don't say, "I'm feeling a little low, so to cheer myself up I think I'll go shoot a cow and cut down a couple of trees." We do say, "I'll treat myself to a nice steak and then go buy a few books," and it amounts to the same thing (from the environment's vantage point at least). Advertising teaches us to equate self-nurturance with consumption, and this belief is toxic both to the planet and to our sense of internal well-being.

I Don't Deserve It!

We sometimes hear inheritors say, "If only I had earned this money, then I would deserve to spend it comfortably." But purity is not so clear cut. Does the celebrity earning $3,000,000/year deserve so much more than the surgeon earning $300,000/year or the schoolteacher earning $30,000/year? To complicate things, most people with "earned" wealth invest their money, so in time a significant portion of their assets are as "unearned" as any inheritor's.

Whether the money is earned or unearned, people have to deal with the conflicts generated by having so much when others have so little. Many of us, when confronted with the inequities in the world (or even with the difference in circumstances of our friends) feel guilty about our material abundance. Often this guilt is a confusing blend of two distinct emotions: compassion--that is, empathy for the pain of others--and hatred, aimed at ourselves for not taking responsibility for correcting the injustice.

Compassion can be a healthy and positive force in people's lives. Naturally we feel pained by others not having what they need! Of course we want to fix it! Watch a mother and child walking past a homeless man, and you're bound to hear, "But why can't we take him home, mommy?" As we grow up, our open-hearted caring for other living beings either gets bludgeoned out of us or eroded away bit by bit. Directly or indirectly, we're told "It's too overwhelming and hopeless out there. The best you can do is be responsible for yourself and your family." And so we close our hearts and deny our fundamental connection to our neighbors, to humanity, to the living systems that sustain us.

Unlike compassion, which can motivate us towards loving action, self-hatred is purely debilitating. It often comes from taking over-responsibility for what are systemic problems (eg. poverty, racism, starvation...) Our individual action or inaction did not cause the messes of the world, and our individual actions alone will not fix them. If we lose this perspective, the self-hatred side of guilt wears us down and pushes us into immobilizing denial. Responsibility at best is an ability to respond. Three steps to taking healthy responsibility are these:

  1. Train a loving heart: Notice the suffering in the world (including your own), even if you haven't the vaguest idea how to change things. Respect your caring as a beautiful and valuable part of yourself.
  2. Practice self-forgiveness: While recognizing your connection to the exploitation of others and the earth's resources, affirm that you are not to blame. You do not intentionally create the suffering of others. It is incredibly challenging to know what to do, and you haven't had sufficient information and support to figure it out.
  3. Take action: With the motivation of your compassion, with energy released from self-blame, take ongoing steps, in collaboration with others, to bring your life into greater alignment with your values, and to help change the underlying systems of injustice. .

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