There was a lineup of legal envelopes, each filled with a precise amount of cash. The envelopes were labeled on the outside with how the money was being used, whether general bills or an upcoming extracurricular activity. This filing system was how my mother budgeted. Checks were rarely deposited into the bank where they’d be left to exist as an ephemeral number to remember and work with, but cashed and handled tangibly so as to visually itemize and account for things. During this time, before my mother actually started working for a bank -ironically enough, she would take any extra cash, the individual bills of tens and twenties, and fold them up to tuck away into different wallets or pockets of unused purses. This sort of savings mechanism was instilled to ‘hide it and forget it.’ There was always a later day when you’d be wearing the coat or switching out to a different purse to carry, and you’d find some cash inside. It was both a delight and a relief. It showed up when you needed it. It always showed up.
As children, the way money is openly discussed or never spoken of, the way it is rationed or wasted or abundantly available, forms the stories we come to believe about money as adults. Was there no consideration of costs because all goods and services and experiences simply existed? Did most purchases hinge on deliberation or anxiety? A set of emotions and psychology then develops around giving and getting, abundance and stinginess. Culture, class, and the work ethic seen round out the rest of our behavior.
Covid exacerbated a momentum already building. It initially forced everyone into the same mental gymnastics regardless of socioeconomic status. We came face to face with our work lives, our savings or lack thereof, and how we value both our time and our money. Worst case scenarios and survival modes were realized for many. How much living was dependent on a weekly check and reliability of tips? How much credit card debt could one take on, or how much savings could be expended? The work-a-day to pay-for-a-day was no longer a viable option. A large swath of society does this. There’s only so much robbing Peter to pay Paul can do. The micro-level, household versions of a Ponzi schemes came crashing down.
All the while, we had moved so far away from cash, we invented new currencies and new forms of commerce. To be flush with cash now implies illegality or need for privacy: how is it accounted for? which high-priced goods like art and property can the monies be invested in? Though, also, to be cash-driven and cash dependent implies the person lives paycheck to paycheck and has no savings or wealth established. Cash is rarely handled; everything is digitized. As we no longer physically hold it, we are mentally losing a grip. We are suspending ridiculous values onto intangible goods: songs; NFTs; disappearing art. Tweens think they can take down the stock market; news sites are inventing the term ‘true tax rate’ to call out the wealthiest; our government is simply adding more zeros by vote. We have lost a singular belief and a collective plot. A complete disregard has set in. Without a consistent plan or principal, everyone is becoming an opportunist. Everyone has different incentives; everyone also seems to be exhibiting different forms of selfishness. Supreme survival mode kicked in during Covid. Supreme selfishness will be a disaster. Brazen hackers have no qualms. Looters of convenience and drug stores are condoned and allowed. A dam has broken, and a bunch of new stories have been created. This one American story of capitalism cannot hold.
Capitalism proposes to lift all boats. I don’t dispute this; it has brought people out of poverty. In doing so, the wealth gap has gotten significantly wider. Sadly, the segments of society who’ve always needed a handout will always need a handout. It is both physically impossible to work multiple jobs, and mentally impossible by lack of education to break the chain of poverty. When the government has been providing aid for generations, though, it’s a cultural issue. Is someone really ‘keeping you down’? This is one of those stories people tell themselves.
Some never have the opportunity to save. There will always be a lower class and an impoverished class. There is no turning back after the government starts sending out a check to help. Government providing assistance is an objective argument. Providing a certain quality of life is subjective. It’s now a matter of how much and to whom. I am not a fan of modern monetary theory, and I’m not advocating the continuous printing of money, but a universal basic income is inevitable. Another concurrence is the implementation of automation; fewer jobs in a growing population. The advocates for socialism grow louder, too. And why wouldn’t they?
My mother used to say, money is ‘easy come, easy go,’ implying two things: if you don’t work very hard for it, the less you appreciate it; also, the more money people have, the more they spend; and/or, the more they invest and save. Values. Values are now volatile. People think they are owed. Some see no price. We are in the Wild, Wild West of commerce and entrepreneurship. While all these disparate behaviors around money are being exhibited, it’s worth investigating the personal ones held. Do you have a safety net, a retirement plan; or are you trying to keep up with the Jones’? I only know my personal beliefs and stories. I see money as a tool; it’s always flowing and will always flow; there isn’t one big pie we’re each getting sliver of; that I’m grateful I don’t have to worry. It always shows up. The only advice I can impart is: NO DEBT; save a bundle; invest the rest.