Sunday, October 28, 2007

Regarding money...

You don't need it. Really. Sure, it makes a lot of things more convenient, but it's not in the same category as air, water, and food; you won't die without it. Cash (and later, credit) is an invention we've adopted into our social conventions because it serves as a handy shorthand for barter. Money is worth exactly as much to us as we think it is. I'm writing this after a month of not having spent a single cent (I am, however, racking up a gigantic karmic debt to family, but that only brings me tighter into the circle of blood relations; this is what we do for each other).

It's like having a degree - the important thing isn't that you have one for the sake of having one, but in what you can do, with or without the sheet of paper that proclaims you proficient in something. Similarly, what do you want lots of money for? Not for the sake of having lots of money, I hope. If you want to start a business, there are many options other than loans, VCs, and being independently wealthy. I usually put in sweat equity, do some bartering, see what other people are trying to get rid of and make use of that.

First: do you really need it? What's the worst that could happen? I realize not everyone has this same luxury, but I'm able to do a lot of stupid things because I know that even if I lose everything, I can convince a passing stranger to let me use their cell phone to call - or pop into a library and grab a public terminal to email - a friend, a family member, someone who'll let me stay with them, no questions asked, while I get back on my feet. I also know it's not beneath my dignity to cook, clean, babysit, or take a minimum wage job - and resourceful enough to find other opportunities fast, or create them. I think that knowing I have a fallback plan makes me much less liable to use it.

Can you trade, convince someone else to share, or even just ask for it? Can you cook dinner for a friend who gives you a lift to the airport? I'm making websites and doing a little tech stuff for the family members who are so graciously hosting, feeding, and (despite my protests) clothing me here, and they know I'll do the same to them if they come by my place.

Can you make it instead of buying it? My cousins and I went to visit an outlying barangay of Abra, a city in the northern province of Ilocos. Their cash flow is almost nonexistent; this is a place where ~$100 a month is a princely sum that can support an entire extended family. But they have fruit trees, a clean creek, some wandering goats and chickens, own their own land and homes, hand down clothes to younger kids - they don't really need to buy much, because they can make or find most of whatever they need. I hope that a certain little project will someday render their (incredibly expensive in proportion to the total amount of money they have) expenditures for schoolbooks obsolete as well.

This may require a more collaborative mindset from that usually cultivated in the US. Money provides a convenient buffer between us and the holders of whatever goods or services we might want - no need to get to know them, figure out what you can do for them and vice versa - just hand over a wad of the green stuff and out pops a product. No need to ask permission or to share; it's private property, yours, and yours alone. Liberating? Kind of. I think it's actually restrictive. If "I can buy that!" is your only hammer, you're blind to everything except nails.

If you've got money, you might as well do something sensible with it. If you're reading this and you haven't gotten a savings account and an investment account, do it now. I don't care if you're only 20, or 17, or 13, or 9, or claim you don't have any money. Hey, Scott Adams (the Dilbert guy) says it's a good idea. Even a couple of bucks a month will get you in the habit. Put a chunk of every input to your income in a high-interest savings account like ING or Emigrant (there are many options). Get an IRA (fancy name for a special type of investment account that gives you tax savings) by opening an account with Etrade or some other broker - the cheapest one you can find. The point is to make very few trades as infrequently as possible and for as little money as possible.

Then, once a year or so, buy stuff and hold it. By "stuff" I mean an index fund, which averages a lot of stocks automagically so you'll get a pretty low-pass-sampled version of the market. Any index fund. Then don't touch that money except to add to it every year or so, until you retire. This will make it possible for you to retire in the first place. (How did you think you were going to pay for that condo in Florida? Compound interest, baby.) If you love a company you think will be around and growing 50 years from now, buy stock, but that's making stuff more complicated. That's it, if you want - no need to read bazillions of complicated. If you don't want to fuss with this "investing" stuff (I don't), get your younger brother to do it in exchange for website help.

The point is to get to the point where you'll feel secure that you're not making decisions because of money issues any more. This is a different point for every person. If you can do this with no money, awesome. If you can only do it when you have 50 million in the bank, fine. But get out of being an indentured servant to cash as soon as you can. It should be your tool, not your master.

And think about what you're going to do with this stuff in the future, since you can't very well take it with you when you kick the bucket. Personally, I agree with my parents; I want my descendants, if I have any, to earn their own way through the world. Not that I'll have much to give them, other than funds for college if they so choose. I hope to exit this earth at a nice ripe age with exactly $0 in net worth, having already spent it all on getting other people to take charge of their own educations.

And the occasional fruit smoothie, because you do have to live a little. Be a tightwad, but not a miserable one. It's totally cool to splurge on the occasional gelato if you'll really appreciate it and it makes you happy.

Note: I don't actually know anything about money and/or investing, but it's a good idea to think about it as young as possible so you won't have to waste time later on getting it set up. Other people can give better advice, but you've got to spend an afternoon taking it, or nothing will happen.

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