The Expatriated Consumer

Imagining life without debt. Working to make it reality.

Drop the Attitude, dude!

Posted by Max Finkle on July 15, 2008

Attitude. What’s your attitude about money? Theory goes that if you think like the rich do, you can achieve wealth, too. For me, I’ve got some long held opinions of the rich that aren’t very flattering. Reconciling those attitudes is taking work, because I only now, in my late thirties, am trying to confront those beliefs, and reconcile with them, so that I can move forward in my quest for financial freedom.

For starters, I grew up in a small farming community in Western Massachusetts, where most folks were living comfortably, or at least getting by. Although the factories had long since closed, there was work to be had, and many folks ran their own businesses either in construction or doing some other form of manual labor if they didn’t farm.

My family was relatively poor, primarily because my stepfather had some very serious substance abuse issues. Pretty much most of what he earned went towards his habits. That’s not to say that we didn’t have periods of prosperity in our house, but they were interspersed with longer periods of having no money.

My stepfather was a construction contractor and built homes for wealthy people all the time. He would come home with sordid tales of excess, with spoiled rich wives making them redo projects because things weren’t perfect, or eccentric doctors who insisted on gold plated faucets in their bathrooms. At the end of the week when my mom needed to buy groceries, and there was no money, it was their fault because they withheld their check for services rendered, or when he subcontracted, the wealthy contractor he was working for was giving him the run-around all the time.

Because we had no money we looked for reasons to hate those who did. The banker family in town? A bunch of snobs. The children always had the best clothes, and as far as we were concerned, walked around with their noses in the air. The family with the dad who was a stock broker? Well, they were just strange, since they weren’t born and raised in town, and were outsiders, so they couldn’t be trusted. The U.S. ambassador that had a summer home in the country? We snarled in disgust at the tennis court that marred the roadside scenery, and mocked the in-ground pool as unnecessary in country living. If those people wanted to be in the sticks with us, they should’ve acted like us as well, seemed to be the general sense of things. In other words, they should’ve acted poor, since it seemed most of us in town were just getting by.

As I got older, I continued to associate money with excess. I was far from popular, and it seemed that all the popular kids in school were well off, and all seemed to sneer at those of us who weren’t. It was also around this time that I began to be exposed to alternative media that seemed to always point to corporate excess, and the idea that the rich keep getting richer, and the poor, poorer. Those corporate execs were giving themselves all kinds of enriching bonuses while the planet was being polluted by their companies’ waste, and people like us were barely able to stay on top of our bills.

I remember watching the news during the Enron debacle, and Mrs. Ken Lay was on t.v. She was crying because the public just didn’t understand the emotional distress she was experiencing when they lost their multi-million dollar summer “cottage” in Aspen, CO. Of course it’s difficult to appreciate that when you can’t even relate, or even come close to grasping the idea that someone owned a summer home that was larger than any house you’ve ever lived in in your life as a primary residence, never mind a summer cottage.

I remember tending bar and one of my customers was a millionaire, because, as she put it, she divorced well. She had totaled her Porsche driving drunk and griped for weeks about how outrageous it was that her riches couldn’t help her duck the charges. “What’s the use of having all this money if I can’t buy my way out of this,” she lamented out loud one day.

Another time working at the bar, we looked to see a Mercedes SUV parked on the curb out front. We all marveled at the beauty of the vehicle, and wondered who it was that was lucky enough to drive it. It wasn’t long before he came in, drunk as a skunk, crying in his beer to us about his financial woes. He was worth several hundred million dollars, with lucrative government contracts raking in more and more millions. People gathered around him in awe. He bought rounds for everyone, and tipped the bartender more than the rest of the bar put together that night. At one point he pulled out a gigantic roll of $100 bills and placed it on the bar. “There’s $10,000 right there. All this money, and it doesn’t make me happy.” He cried about how his wife was spending an average of $25,000 a month, and refused to curb her spending. Everyone pitied him, and tried to comfort him.

Me, I was trying to figure out how I was going to pay my rent, since I was working two part-time jobs for nearly minimum wage. And this guy had the audacity to come here and cry to us? We were all working class Joes in that bar, aside from the occasional rich person who came in because they heard it was a cool place to hang out. They weren’t one of us, I felt, and had no business being there.

Since I never really rubbed elbows socially with the wealthy, I presumed that they had disdain for me because I wasn’t as well off as they were. Consequently, I felt they deserved my disdain, and I refused to allow myself to believe that any rich person could actually be “cool.” To me, you were only cool if you were broke. I surrounded myself with other people who were broke, and we lamented our mutual fates as we squandered our earnings on cigarettes, lottery and excessive drinking, and whatever other opportunities for instant gratification came our way.

Now, as I work to reform my financial life, I’m developing a new appreciation for money. I pay attention to stories of the generous, those people who have more, and share with the less fortunate. A friend of mine who used to own a limo service tells me tales of the rich and famous that he chauffeured around, and relates stories of generosity, and people who were just genuinely good to him, because it was their nature. I observe those with money around me, and I am more able to separate behavior and attitude from money. I try to respect my money, and obtain as much value for each dollar that I possess, so that I may have more for my future. My goal is to squander none.

Most importantly, I realize it’s okay to have money, that it’s not going to make me a bad person. It’s okay to want more, but for the right reasons. I used to want more it so I could buy stuff, now I want it so I can build a more secure future. I don’t judge others by what they have compared to what I have, I judge them for who they are. I’m developing an understanding of money, far deeper than I’ve ever known before. I’m finding that it’s not the outside influences, but the inside influences that have gotten me where I am today. As I weed through them, I’m finding the ones that make me most happy and focusing on those, and I’m finding that good things are coming my way. And it’s nobody’s fault but mine.

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