Interview with David Brancaccio
by Gretchen Kinder
How would you describe
did you write it?
is a travel-narrative- meets-personal-finance guide. I suppose
it grew out of my own experiences with travel and money
as a child. I grew up in a family that was enriched, but
not financially rich. Any extra money my parents earned
(one as a professor of American Literature and the other
as a schoolteacher) was spent on family travel. I also had
a belief as a child that rich parents sat their children
down and taught them everything they needed to know about
saving, compound interest, and the stock market-none of
which ever happened to me, which may be why I became a financial
reporter as an adult. However, as a reporter, I learned
that having financial data is not the same thing as having
financial wisdom, so I decided to hit the streets to learn
more about people and money.
What did you
talk a good game about money. No one, for example, will
tell you they are not charitable. But the rubber meets the
road when you look at how people spend a surplus. This is
where we really see values expressed.
Nowhere are values more evident than in
our expression of our philanthropic selves. People give
away more money when they perceive that they have a surplus.
One might conclude that we can be our best selves when we
have more than we need. We witnessed that in very real terms
during the flush time of the mid-1990s, when charitable
giving hit an all-time high. Now, as the perception of shrinking
capacity sets in, people are giving away less. This perception
of having less engenders fear among individuals. "What will
happen to me (and my family) if we go to war? Will my portfolio
continue to shrink?" Yet, it may be that now, more than
in the '90s, charitable giving is needed to compensate for
rising unemployment and shrinking government capacity.
I also learned while writing the book that
when people go from having nothing (or not a lot of money)
to having a surplus, their self-perception is likely to
change. This can be terrifying.
What is terrifying
choose to spend when we have more our money reveals much
about our personalities, and we may be frightened of what
it might tell us about ourselves. For example, I like to
think that if I got a lot of money, I would do good with
it. I also know I would get a fast car. What does that say
about me? That's the terrifying part.
There can also be the fear that the money
will turn one into a creep. I've felt that-the fear that
the money will control me and my personality.
As you talk,
I'm reminded of my brother, who won $8,000 on the Wheel
of Fortune television game show. Having even this small
surplus helped him feel better about himself. Why do you
think we let money control us in this way?
in a culture of consumption. When we walk into a mall without
money, it is a humiliating experience. When we do have money,
we feel powerful. With money, we control the agenda; we
get what we want. This psychology is very powerful, and
has tremendous implications for using our money to create
possibilities. However, we're just too narrow in our focus
to think beyond material and consumptive wants, so we don't
use this power very constructively.
At a recent meeting with a grantmaking organization,
I listened in on a conversation about increasing the mandatory
government payout for private foundations. It's currently
at five percent, which means that foundations are required
by law to give away each year at least five percent of their
total assets. The problem is that many people see the mandatory
figure as a ceiling, not as a minimum. The context for the
discussion was the increased need for charitable giving
in our squeezed economy, yet, paradoxically, the sale of
private airplanes is booming right now.
What can be done
to reawaken people to their highest values at a time when
they feel financially or personally afraid?
open to questioning our perception of reality helps-by opening
our eyes or traveling (literally or metaphorically). For
instance, I live in a middle-income neighborhood of Los
Angeles, near Beverly Hills. I assume that some of my neighbors
in Beverly Hills have a different perception of their surplus
than do my neighbors three miles in the other direction,
who live in a poorer neighborhood. If the Beverly Hills
folks would simply get in their cars and drive three miles,
they could be awakened to the realities faced by another
set of Americans and, in the process, realize their relative
What power is
there in money?
can buy experience, freedom, time. Money is a tool for education.
Education keeps our perception fresh. It is harder to change
our perceptions as we get older, even though we're ostensibly
more mature. Angus King, the former governor of Maine, understands
this. He recently bought an RV and is setting out on a cross-country
tour with his family. This travel experience is likely to
do more to expand the perceptions of his children than the
power and fame of having been state governor.
An opposing force is this idea that money
is a benchmark or proxy for success. The more money we have,
the more successful we are. But we often don't take the
time to think about the question, "To what end success?"
Is it to get more dates? Why? Nowhere was this more evident
than in my conversations with Reverend Matthews, the priest
at Trinity Episcopal Church, located right next to the New
York Stock Exchange. He meets hundreds of young men on Wall
Street who are endlessly striving to be "successful," yet
they have no idea what success means. Even in the church
itself, financial success isn't linked to higher values.
Trinity is a rich church by dint of its real estate holdings
in Manhattan. It tried to go through the process of setting
up social screens for its enormous endowment, and eventually
gave up. It was too complicated. If a church, one of the
institutions we turn to for moral leadership, can't make
the leap out of the trap of equating personal value with
financial value, what hope is there for the rest of us?
What gets in
the way of making that leap?
get a lot of money, the first step they usually take is
to consult a financial planner. Most planners don't think
beyond using the money to make more money. Very few, save
for some of the socially responsible ones, help their clients
think about using the money as a tool for creating life
experience. I think it would be cool if we could create
a trade show that let people explore life experiences without
having to take ten pilgrimages across the country; for example,
a trade show that allowed people to have a window into the
experience Angus King is creating for his family. It wouldn't
be a place where people could buy the RV, but a place where
they could experiment with possibilities.
How do you know
when a possibility is right for you?
book, I write about a man named David Hunt, who buys a boat
with his surplus. David's boat passes what I have finally
realized is the important test for a surplus: If anyone
asks David if he expects his use of his money to have a
lasting, positive impact on the rest of his life, he can
answer yes. The boat is something he has wanted for a very
long time; it's a genuine expression of who David Hunt is.
You don't need to ask experts what the right
thing to do with money is. What I would do with the money
isn't what you should do with it. What you need to do is
sit down and discuss your options with the people involved-your
wife, whomever. A 401(k) plan, on paper, is a great deal
for lots of people, but I have no idea if you have something
eating away at you that you just really want to do. Following
that inner impulse could be the most important thing you
could do with your money. Will what you are doing with it
have a lasting, positive impact on the rest of your life?
Brancaccio is senior editor of "Marketplace," the daily financial
news program of Minnesota Public Radio, distributed by Public
Radio International, and the author of
My Adventures in the American Marketplace.
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