More Than Money
Issue #4

How Much is Enough?

Table of Contents

“Can You Ever Have Enough? If So, You're One of Few”

When asked, "How much would be enough?" J.D. Rockefeller replied, "Just a little bit more." While we might laugh at the wry honesty of his famous one-liner, it demonstrates a sad truth: even the wealthiest people often carry a chronic sense of "not enough." We the editors, believe that this attitude is counter to individual and societal well-being, and that there is a complex web of forces at work--psychological, social, cultural, economic, environmental, and political--which keeps this sense of scarcity going.

Unless those of us with inherited wealth understand these forces and respect the power they have to unknowingly shape our beliefs and decisions, it is easy to either blindly obey them or to blame ourselves for feeling "needlessly insecure." Here is our attempt to name some of the strands of this web and to suggest ways we can continue the process of disentangling ourselves.

Psychological Forces

How well were your needs met in your first few years, emotionally and materially?

If as a child you learned that your needs couldn't be met, then on a deep emotional level you may not believe they will be met now either. No amount of money can fill this hole--what helps is to heal from those early losses and to develop adult relationships that are nourishing.

What messages did you get from your family about money and security? What was the attitude of the times you grew up in? Were any of these messages conflicting?

For example, most people who grew up in the Depression tend to expect scarcity more than those who were children during the economic boom after World War II. Look at what messages were useful and which ones weren't. Reflect on which messages have been influencing your life, and ask yourself whether you would like to change any of those guiding values.

Socio-Cultural Forces

Sociologist Philip Slater claims "Our society fails [at providing all people their basic material needs] only because it has taken on, as its primary social goal, the task of fostering and supporting wealth addiction at the expense of every other human interest or goal." He says that this continues not only because of the power of the wealthy, but also because the majority of citizens themselves are closet addicts lusting after their chance to be rich.

Perhaps it seems bizarre that one could be addicted to wealth, since it's not a substance you take into your body like alcohol, and, supposedly, it's a good thing. But Slater suggests that it's not what you are addicted to, but how you behave towards yourself and others that makes it an addiction. (The concept of "workaholism" is a parallel example.) As with any addiction, the addiction is something we use to fill what seems to be a lack in ourselves. Our society trains us to be addicts, to deal with stresses and strains by buying or ingesting things, rather than by expressing or getting our lives more in balance. Do you agree with Slater? Do you feel that "wealth addiction" has affected you, your family, and your friends?

Consider what you know about other addictions. Are there any insights as to how you could loosen the hold wealth addiction might have in your life?

Our communities have broken down as a result of many forces of modern life (from the greatly increased rates of moving and divorce, to the use of cars to go outside our neighborhoods to meet our needs). Neighborhoods, religious communities, and even families no longer provide as much unquestioning mutual support and safety nets as they once did. In addition, mainstream U.S. culture supports the myth of "rugged individualism," with each person standing on his or her own two feet. In wealthier families, we are often shielded from the reality of needing each other, so our family safety net feels unreal.

If you were in financial need, could you turn to your family without disgrace? If not, who else might you lean on? How could you build other sources of mutual support?

Western culture seems to value achievement, drive, and excitement far more than balance. Sometimes unmet desires are motivating. We enjoy feeling ambitious, eager to create more.

When does experiencing "not enough" feel pleasurable, and when does it slip over the edge into constant discontent? When in your life has striving felt healthy? When has it felt out-of-whack? How could you move toward a more dynamic balance between striving for more and savoring your life as it is?

Where religion, religious community, and a centering on spiritual values once provided a widely shared foundation in American life, recent years have seen this focus replaced by an emphasis on the secular and the material. From a spiritually based perspective, quality of life can be defined as living in right relationship with God.

Where do you tap into a sense of deeper meaning in life? How does your use of time and money help you feel connected to a sense of higher good or higher purpose?

Economic Forces

How safe can anyone feel when they are surrounded by poverty? Even though the U.S. is perhaps the richest country in the world in terms of per capita purchasing power, the U.S. doesn't measure up to its promise in terms of how well it takes care of many of its citizens. For example, using a measure of different countries' social and economic well-being developed by the United Nations, the US. was in 19th place, or last among the developed nations, with a poverty rate double that of every industrialized European nation except the U.K.

Moreover, while poverty is clearly a problem in other industrialized nations, their more progressive tax rates and social programs have enabled low-income citizens to live decent lives. In the US. we lack adequate social programs in critical areas: guaranteed health care, job security, equal pay for equal work, child care for working parents, and affordable housing. Currently, one American out of every seven lives below the poverty line. How are you affected by the lack of government "safety nets" ?

Are there social reform efforts you could ally yourself with which would address any of these?

Many people who depend on investments derive a sense of insecurity from the unpredictability of the stock market. Although there's no guarantee the future will be like the past, it can be grounding to examine the reality of past stock-market crashes. Taking inflation into account to calculate "real return," the average losses from 1929-31 in the S&P 500 were 61%. Yet seven years later, the market had regained more than that amount, so 1929-38 shows a net gain of 64%!

However, recovery is not always so fast: over the ten years from 1969-1978, the market showed a net loss of 19% (mostly from the 62% drop from 1973-4)--but yes, the 1980's boom made up for it. Overall, in the 62 years between 1925 and 1987, the S&P 500 stock market index saw a compounded mean return of 9.9% per year. The lessons here are the same ones any prudent investor will tell you: diversify your assets, and reduce your risk by planning to be in the stock market for the long haul.

Are you clear what your time frame is for your investments? If you have short-term needs, have you balanced your portfolio so that you can manage if the market takes a downward turn?

Global Environmental and International Forces

Many environmental scientists, political analysts, and world economists have conveyed a picture of our world coming apart at the seams. While the rain forests and the ozone layer are getting a little thin, the imaginary lines defining countries (such as the ex-Soviet Union) are changing or simply evaporating. Many countries--the US. notably included--carry astronomical debt. Some liken the world economy to a house of cards. Some (no doubt the world's desperately poor included) are wondering whether it might not be better to see all those cards blow over.

It's hard to feel secure when you're aware of the factors pushing towards environmental, political, or economic collapse.

What actions could you take on a personal level and on a collective level to move our interconnected world in the direction of economic justice and long-term sustainability?


We hope that acknowledging the forces outside ourselves will help us more compassionately explore the effect of these broad forces on our personal attitudes and actions. Perhaps then, instead of feeling controlled by vague fears or blaming ourselves for "unfounded" insecurities, we can take open-eyed steps towards crafting what we want: financially sound lives within an economically just world..

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