Enough With the Financial Madness!
Debt, budgeting — at home and in Washington.
BY KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ
| Posted 8/25/11 at 2:00 PM
The lesson of the U.S. S&P downgrade is: “At some point, you can’t continue to spend money you don’t have, especially if you have no plan to ever pay it back.” So says Gregory S. Jeffrey — a donor-development consultant who has worked primarily with Catholic organizations, and the author of the recent book Why Enough Is Never Enough: Overcoming Worries About Money: A Catholic Perspective (Our Sunday Visitor) — readily admitting that a farmer on his porch would tell you the same.
And yet, we do.
Odds are you’re doing it today as we near the end of another month, as the kids are going back to school with all the supplies and attire that entails, as property taxes are due, as Christmas expenses are looming on the horizon. You don’t have to be a material girl to succumb to financial anxiety.
And then there is Washington. Congress returns after Labor Day with a whole new set of decisions about appropriating taxpayer money, and all the pressures — and responsibilities — that come with it.
Gregory S. Jeffrey talks about the current economic situation for your family and your country.
Why did you title the book the way you did?
It’s a reference to the main thesis of the book: that money alone cannot give you financial freedom. Early in my career as a major-gifts solicitor, I asked a gentleman for a $100,000 gift for his daughter’s Catholic high school.
He verbally committed $100,000, but sternly cautioned that if his wife found out we wouldn’t get a dime, presumably because she would take it — along with everything else — in a divorce. He went on to admit that, even if he were to lose his job, his family would be secure. “My wife doesn’t understand,” he said with melancholy and exasperation, “that we have enough money to last several lifetimes.” Despite this knowledge, his wife continued to worry about money.
This is not a lone instance of a particular neurosis. In my experience as a solicitor, it is actually not uncommon. People across the socioeconomic spectrum assume that if they just made more, they would finally feel a sense of financial freedom. Not so.
Thus the title: I attempt to explain Why Enough Is Never Enough.
What did the Sisters of St. Benedict, whom you thank in your dedication, teach you about generosity?
They taught first and foremost by their example. They took a vow of poverty, lived in community on a beggar’s stipend, and devoted their lives to education so that even kids like me, from lower-middle-class families, could afford a Catholic education. These were brilliant women with master’s degrees and years of experience in the classroom. But, above all, they loved us like a second set of parents. They gave everything for us.
How the heck does one’s attitude toward money reveal the life of his soul? Bit much you claim there, isn’t it?
Only if you begin with the assumption that money and the spiritual life are two separate, distinct worlds. In fact, they are intimately intertwined. We just don’t see it or don’t want to see it.
In the Gospel of Matthew, 25 of 28 chapters make a direct or indirect reference to material possessions or the use of money and power, a total of 38 passages. For example, when Jesus called him, Peter dropped his nets and left the security of his job as a fisherman. That was an economic decision that revealed a trust in divine Providence. With Peter as just one example, I think it’s fair to say one’s attitude toward money reveals something about one’s interior spiritual life.
And that selling-everything bit in the Bible is just for fundamentalists to take seriously, right?
I presume you are referring to the story of the Rich Young Man who “lacked just one thing” (Matthew 19:16-24); Jesus told him to sell his possessions, which were considerable, and follow him.
This message isn’t dependent upon what we believe; it is dependent upon what we as distinct individuals are inspired by God to do. God may ask/inspire a particular Catholic, evangelical, Jew or atheist to give away everything. But he may not ask that of others. He only inspires this in an individual if it is the medicine that particular person needs. Presumably, Jesus met more than one wealthy individual in his public ministry. But it was this particular individual in Matthew 19 who was offered a remedy for his personal spiritual advancement.
Here’s the kicker: You don’t need to know the source of the inspiration to feel inspired. Fundamentalists may feel called to give away everything and know the source of that inspiration. But atheists, too, could feel the same interior motivation, even if they don’t know the One who placed it there.
Every day, God inspires noble ideas in people of every race and creed. Even as people read this, some will feel in their hearts a prompting to do great things with their wealth. The question is whether they have the courage to act upon that inspiration.
Do we really need to be generous? How about making ends meet? How about a mini-vacation with the kids?
You’ve combined three issues, so let’s tease them apart, using my own childhood to illustrate a couple of points. First, “making ends meet” refers to our moral obligation to pay bills justly incurred. My parents took this obligation very seriously, which meant a very modest lifestyle, one that has gone decidedly out of fashion. We need some soul searching in this regard.
As for a vacation with the kids, that is a good thing once you’ve met your basic obligations. So is a nice cold beer after cutting the lawn. My point: God wants us to enjoy life, and I intend on taking him up on the offer. But enjoyment has to be set in the context of the third issue: generosity. Neither of my parents had a high-school education, but they had a deep trust and faith. As a kid in the ’60s, I saw my parents write a check to the church every Sunday morning. It wasn’t much, but it was a lesson by example for my brothers and me. I’ll take that memory over a ride in a teacup any day.
How much is enough? Is that a question people even have the luxury to ask right now? You’ve seen the unemployment numbers.
How much is enough? Good question. Today it’s not difficult to find examples of executives making total annual compensation of $30 million or more. I’m curious why anyone would want to make this much. Does it really change one’s lifestyle in any meaningful way? Does the person making $30 million a year eat better than the guy making a mere $5 million? Does he finally get to trade in the old jalopy? Does he have more cell-phone minutes? At $5 million a year, it’s safe to say one’s material needs and wants will probably be satisfied. There is no reason to want more. Desiring a $30 million annual salary is simply illogical; there is little more that can be said.
Here’s what very few “climbers” realize: Somewhere on the income scale additional wealth becomes illusory. It means nothing in terms of further consumption. “Enough” becomes a meaningless word.
So let’s move on to the second half of your question regarding unemployment. Wealth may be illusory, but poverty is real. For the unemployed, “enough” means money for food, gas, medicine, and housing.
What makes you such an expert on money and morality?
I’m not. I’m just a guy who spent 25 years asking people for alms, who learned a thing or two by meeting with thousands of individuals, and listening to what they had to say in response to my requests. As I noted in Chapter 2, when you ask people for alms, the room often turns into a confessional. I learned much from others’ self-revelation.
Is it wrong to be anxious about money?
No. To feel anxious is to experience an emotion. That’s natural. The question is what to do with that anxiety, which I believe consists of two parts. One part is the practical—the issues of budgeting, investing, etc.—and there are many good people offering help today in that regard. But the other part of that anxiety rests in the spiritual realm. As the title of the book implies, enough is never enough. Money alone cannot completely cure our anxieties about having enough. I’m exploring the spiritual side of that issue.
I understand greed vs. gratitude walking in, but what does mercy have to do with envy?
God gifts every human with unique qualities, inspires them to use those gifts, then provides spiritual consolation to act upon the inspiration. Noble work requires all three.
I think many liberals have been graced by God with souls inclined toward mercy and kindness. This is why I find these souls so lovable and cuddly; they have been given a beautiful gift. But, sadly, some of those same people feel the spiritual gift of mercy in their heart but fail to acknowledge the giver — or reject him altogether. That leaves them with 1) the gift and 2) the inspiration, but not 3) the ongoing grace needed for that work. For these souls, the spiritual gift of mercy begins to atrophy into envy.
Here’s why: Caring for those less fortunate is difficult work. The moment we take our eyes off God as the source of inspiration for that work, fatigue prompts us to look at others who have not chosen to carry the same burden, and ask, “Why me? Why have I chosen to love this deeply? Why don’t others join in?”
It takes God’s ongoing grace to avoid resentment. You can almost hear Satan’s prodding: “Why should another’s life be so much more pleasant?” To succumb to that temptation is to exchange a merciful heart for one that is filled with envy.
Here, in the spiritual realm, I believe, one finds the genesis of much of “class envy.”
(A more thorough explanation can be found in Chapter 9 of my book.)
How can and should you be at peace about your financial situation?
The underlying theme of my book is that you have to make peace with money — and to do that you must make peace with God.
I think it is a safe assumption that most reading this aren’t rich. What would they be most surprised to learn about those living in those beautiful mansions that seem to always inspire an upward-mobility dream in men?
I think the middle class would be surprised to learn that being wealthy isn’t as much fun as it looks. I had a business professor who used to say, “You either eat well or you sleep well.” My corollary is that one either has time or money, but rarely both.
Is that dream wrong to have?
Not if it is an inspiration given by God. Maybe he is inspiring you to amass great wealth to do great things with it. On the other side of the coin, is poverty always bad? It depends upon how you define the word. Poverty is not a good thing if we’re talking about hunger and homelessness. But if it is understood in the spiritual sense, as a joyful detachment from material things, then it is a virtue to be admired. It is in this sense that vowed Catholic religious take a vow of poverty. So the question is not whether it is right or wrong to have this dream or that. The real question is this: “What is God calling you as an individual to do with your life?”
That, of course, prompts a dilemma: “How does one recognize God’s inspiration?” I think that Americans, as a people, are spiritually inclined but theologically illiterate. I suspect that most don’t know what it feels like to get poked by God, even when they do. This is our real deficit as a nation.
Class warfare doesn’t help anyone. does it? The rich guy reading things certainly hears a lot about how he needs to be punished for his success or luck.
Too often people unjustly accuse anyone with wealth of being greedy. But greed, an inordinate desire for wealth, is a disposition of the soul, not an issue of the pocketbook. Wealthy or poor, each individual chooses to be greedy or generous, even if all one has to give away is a kind ear. Greed and generosity are spiritual issues, not financial ones. As such, no one is immune to this interior tug of war.
What if I’m reading this and don’t have a job? Isn’t it only natural for me to be angry?
Yes. Millions of Americans can trace their unemployment to the crash of the housing bubble. For that debacle to happen, millions of Americans, from mortgage brokers and local appraisers to the Wall Street apparatus that packaged bad loans into toxic CDOs with AAA ratings, had to sidestep any ethical considerations. Either that or millions were simply inept. I think it’s a combination of the two, and a perfect example of the spiritual principle that a disordered will hampers the intellect.
What did you make of this debt-ceiling debate we just went through in Washington?
As a young person, I was taught that Democrats were for “us little people” and had a “global village” mindset. If that’s true, I wonder if President Obama has considered this: When the U.S. goes to the capital markets to finance its voracious appetite, money from around the globe gets “parked” in the U.S. at an opportunity cost to the rest of the globe. Where would those investments have gone if the U.S. had not borrowed $14-plus trillion? What portion of that $14 trillion would have been invested in projects in the developing world? What portion would have been invested in private business, creating jobs around the world? How much would have been privately invested in research and development? In short, what “good” went undone because the U.S. government sucked so much cash out of the global capital markets?
What have you learned since writing it, from readers?
Today we find a commonly held position when it comes to matters of religion: “If I understand, then I’ll believe.” But there is an ancient adage in the spiritual life: “I believe that I may understand.” Put another way, faith opens the door and sometimes precedes an intellectual understanding. Faith is the requisite posture for the intellect to realize its potentialities.
In readers’ comments I have seen this principle at work. From them, I’ve come to understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes” (Matthew 11:25).
Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist.
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