Despite Americans’ enduring love affair with money, conflicting messages about money create real conflict in the minds of many. On the one hand, capitalism tells us money is good, righteous, even dutiful. And on the other, religion cautions us against the corruptibility of money and greed.
Many people struggle to reconcile these opposing messages. You may be one of them. Regardless, every one of us must come to terms with our own complex relationship with money.
Our culture tends to hold money and work in high regard, something worthy of a lifetime’s pursuit. Our self-esteem is often derived from job title and work accomplishments rising and falling in line with our bank balance.
We are infamous for our default greeting, “So, what do you do for a living?” as if work were the defining characteristic of a fellow human. “That question is so reductive,” a Polish immigrant once lamented.
Even past presidents have invoked spending money as a patriotic way to bolster the economy to support our fellow countrymen and women. The American Dream itself could be summarized as follows: If you work hard enough, you too could achieve material success and have a good and satisfying life.
The Mad Men (and women) of Madison Avenue further promote this idea of material nirvana. Advertising taps into the human psyche, and with every impression, we are further convinced of what we need: a brawny SUV for tearing up snow-capped mountains; “Eau Sauvage” cologne strong enough to slay even the most exotic woman; a whitewashed Mediterranean home perched over a sun-kissed azure sea.
Then, once advertising has persuaded us to buy something, we’re confronted with “only 3 left in stock - order soon.” The powers that be have funneled us onto a consumption Slip 'N Slide, but it’s so fun and frictionless that we hardly notice. Does anyone actually believe there are only three boxes of Java Chip Oreo cookies left in Amazon’s fleet of warehouses? Does it matter? No. Scarcity works.
As Robert Cialdini points out in the New York Times bestseller, Influence, “When something is in demand and scarce, or at least seemingly so, it creates a double whammy of wanting it that much more.”
Perhaps that helps explain our preoccupation with money. The U.S. economy is twenty trillion dollars or about one hundred thousand dollars per adult per year, yet still, we worry there won’t be enough for us.
While money sits comfortably on its throne, we hear, again and again, the opposing message that “money doesn’t buy happiness.” A modern cultural meme, the phrase is uttered so often it is almost accepted as fact.
Even the wealthy say it. In a documentary, Ivanka Trump, with Central Park’s green expanse cast over her right shoulder, says weakly to the camera, “Everybody knows money doesn’t buy happiness.”
Then there’s the religious undercurrent that says, “Don’t make money your God. In fact, give 10% to the church.” We are cautioned that fulfillment and lasting satisfaction cannot be realized in the material world. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,” we are told.
And since Christianity is the largest religion in the U.S. with 205 million followers and 380,000 churches or about one church for every 500 citizens, Christian values profoundly influence our beliefs and culture. Even our currency reads, “In God we trust,” with that all-knowing eye monitoring our every exchange.
Other religions invite us to give up all our worldly possessions for a happiness beyond birth and death.
Such conflicting messages about money tend to elicit one of two beliefs: cash is next to godliness, the solution to all our worldly problems, or money is the root of all evil, the source of all our earthly problems.
Indeed, perhaps no other object is simultaneously as lauded and vilified as money.
This cultural duality was reflected in my family’s messaging about money: the more money you had, the better, and the less you had, the better.
My dad grew up middle class and ran our household like a cross between a corporate executive, Catholic priest, and drill sergeant in a veneer of suburban perfection. He thought money was the greatest thing since, well, the invention of money and brought new meaning to the term “gross domestic product.”
My mom grew up hand-me-down poor on a farm. One time her mom paced a local store for an hour while fretting about the affordability of a new shirt for her daughter. My mom believed the less money you had, the better and holier person you were.
It’s no surprise I developed a financial neurosis that my father and two sisters have been all too quick to point out. At times, I would be faithfully building a startup, my back sore, fingers swollen and itchy from sixteen-hour days in front of a computer motivated never to have to work again (never start a business for money, by the way). Other times I would be on the sofa faithlessly contemplating the meaning of life, my bank account circling the drain.
Whether you believe money is next to godliness or the root of all evil, the one thing we can all agree on is that money doesn't buy happiness, right? When we hear Ivanka’s words, we think, she’s right; money doesn’t buy happiness. But in the next moment, that little voice whispers, Then again, if I had her money, I’m pretty sure my life would be better. Probably a lot better.
In this way, money is like political correctness - few buy it, yet nearly everyone buys into it.
The well-off don’t even believe this cliché, even when it comes out of their own mouths. And why would they? It would be like a CalTech PhD in nuclear physics saying, “Everybody knows IQ doesn't make you any smarter.” After all, isn’t life better the more money you have?
One study actually found the opposite. “…when asked how happy they are at the moment, people with more money are barely different than those with less” (Diener, Ng, Harter, & Arora, 2010). Yet the same study found that people with more money are more satisfied with their lives.
While intellectually, we think money won’t buy happiness, emotionally, we still believe it will. Our gut tells us that money itself is not the problem but instead not having enough money. After all, don’t we all secretly believe we, too, will be rich someday?
A survey from YCharts confirms this view: while average millennial savings is only $12,000, 65% of millennials ages 22 to 37 believe they will be millionaires by age 45. As rational as we fancy ourselves, emotions dominate our beliefs and behavior.
Religion itself furthers our fondness for money. Religious beliefs, ideologies, and rituals can feel aloof, heavy-handed, and dogmatic. Its doctrine and culture can feel out of step, exclusive and exoteric. Some feel like they don’t fit in; others wonder if they even want to fit in. Churchgoers smile, yet something often feels amiss.
Confirming our doubts is the massive defection from Christianity—24% decrease in adherents over the past thirty years alone. And with little or no budget, religions cannot compete with the billion-dollar advertising campaigns of Apple or Nike. If that’s not enough, for most the idea of trading in modern niceties for the asceticism of a monk or a nun is unappealing at best, heretical at worst.
So religion and spirituality can feel like a nonviable alternative to money for meeting our worldly, and even, non-worldly needs.
At the same time, most of us intuitively understand there’s more to life than money. And, of course, nobody wants to go to hell. And so, while we spend most of our time feverishly pursuing money, we hedge our bets with occasional visits to church, shrine, synagogue, ashram, mosque, or temple.
“Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in its forms - greed for life, for money, for love, for knowledge - has marked the upward surge of mankind.” ~ Gordon Gekko
While religion is complex, indefinite, and intangible, money is simple, immediate, and concrete. Whereas studying the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Tao Te Ching may leave us with more questions than answers, money answers our immediate wants: the latest iPhone or tacos al pastor with avocados and tomatillo salsa.
And finances offer some measure of control and stability in a fickle world that regularly lets us down. “I’m done chasing women,” a high school friend once lamented, “I’m just gonna focus on work.” Sure, I thought, that’ll last about two weeks.
Money is powerful and versatile.
Who doesn’t like dressing up and going out on the town? Or experiencing the exotic sights, sounds, and smells of a foreign country? Or surging onto the highway after another dull day at the office? A friend of mine has a BMW M5, and let me tell you, it’s fun as fuck. That is if you don’t mind the side effect of the urge to puke.
Money is our default go-to. It makes us feel secure and fortified by a bank account full of cash, just maybe the promise of a deathless life.
Finances also insulate us from all the bullshit - slights, insults, and pettiness - of life. Why clean your own toilets, wipe your own baby’s ass or fly coach with a “basket of deplorables” when you can outsource all of life’s unpleasantness, or better yet, commandeer your own Learjet?
Recently, I ordered food at a Greek restaurant only to learn that their toilet was broken. The guy at the convenience store next door said, “We don’t have a restroom.” When asked where he goes, he shrugged. If I were eating at a more expensive restaurant, I thought as I drove 1.4 miles to the nearest restroom, maybe my meal would have come with a working toilet.
Money is also a steady and faithful companion. When it has been raining for three weeks, our partner has been moody and withdrawn, and our boss is being unreasonable, finances are there to cheer us up.
Feeling lonely? Watch a docuseries. Bored? Eat a double bacon cheeseburger. Anxious? Pour yourself a cocktail or three and ease back into a La-Z-boy. My go-to comfort food is tortilla chips, glorious tortilla chips.
But what happens when we return from our feel-good fiesta? Well, we just gotta get some more. Seemingly without an alternative, we return, again and again, to the one thing that kinda works: money.
Are we here to make gobs of money and take over the world? Or are we supposed to give up on cash altogether, shave our heads and join the movement?
Earning money is rational and sensible. Economic security is primary to our survival and allows us to provide for ourselves and the people we love. It also helps protect us psychologically from unhappiness. Who hasn’t felt the pain, anxiety, and misery of not having money?
Yet, for those who think money is next to godliness, not being unhappy is not the same as being happy. Finances are like the weather. Sunshine and money may make it easier to be cheerful, but they do not guarantee happiness. Just look at all the rich, depressed people. The reason is that, rather than being a satisfier, money is a dissatisfier.
I suspect the reason people with more money are more satisfied has more to do with the sense of accomplishment and fulfilling one’s potential while earning money than how much money is in one’s bank account.
If you devote yourself to accumulating wealth, you may wake up one day a middle-aged capitalist cliché wondering why life feels so meaningless despite all your worldly success. While you may be materially full, you will likely be emotionally empty.
Instead, why not seek a “good enough” amount of money and then get on with the activities that are meaningful and fulfilling for you. Like the happiness, joy, and fulfillment that comes from a deep and regular spiritual practice.
For those who think money is the root of all evil, divinity alone may fill your heart, but you will be without a roof, and your belly will be empty. The Japanese say, “Kasumi wo kuu,” which roughly translates as, “only immortals eat mist.” In other words, mortals like me, and perhaps you, cannot live on spirituality alone.
A minority goes out of their way to avoid money altogether. When, despite their best efforts, finances still manage to make it into their lives, their subconscious ensures they lose it. And most likely, all. Paradoxically, often it is those with the least amount who are most obsessed with financial security.
So, the answer is we need both money and spirituality. But aren’t money and spirituality irreconcilable, you may ask? No, as my own experience illustrates.
In the first year of my MBA program, I borrowed a book contrasting Taoism with Buddhism from the school library. Within the first chapter, I thought, this is the exact opposite of the course I’d set for myself: becoming a millionaire, but this sounds like the ultimate path that I will come back to someday. I returned the book to the library and resumed studying.
Four years later, more money and more miserable than ever, I picked up where the book left off and started practicing yoga. That led to meditation, silent retreats, Buddhist psychology, Greek philosophy, Hinduism, Quakerism, men’s groups, psychotherapy, books like The Energy of Money and many other spiritual and secular disciplines and practices.
Along the way, and through many ups and downs, I discovered money and spirituality not only are not irreconcilable but are, in fact, compatible. They complement one another like movies and popcorn.
For better or worse, modern society revolves around money. We depend on finances for our livelihood, and having money doesn’t make you bad or any less holy. Money also frees us to invest our life energy in ways that bring lasting fulfillment.
So despite its limitations and power to make us do crazy-ass shit, financial health is vital for our physical and mental wellbeing. Just don’t make finances your God. Because money will neither save you nor will it provide you what each of us ultimately seeks: the pure joy of wakefulness and the perfect peace of equanimity.
That said, studies reveal that the more money we have, the less compassionate we tend to be. So when it comes to money, enough really is enough.
I have (mostly) reconciled my childhood conditioning around money. But a few years ago, while on a silent retreat, I noticed a respected teacher driving a new Audi SUV. At that moment, my mom’s voice elbowed its way in. "I don't know if a spiritual teacher should drive such a nice car." followed by "Guess that’s one more area for me to practice."
I’m still learning, and my relationship with money is still maturing.