“We desire gold not for its true value but for the glittering illusion of value it gives.” – Michael Masterson
Poop Patrol and the Illusions of Getting Rich
It was a daunting challenge: two two piles of poop in the backyard but only one plastic poop bag. “There must be a way,” I thought. “Tens of thousands of dog owners all over the world must face this problem every day. I can figure it out.”
And I did.
Here’s the strategy: Pick up the smaller pile, but don’t invert it inside the bag. Carry it over to the other pile and place it on top. Now prod the edges of the larger mound into a tightly packed unit. Then pick that up using the usual technique: gather, invert, and tie.
Depositing the remains in the garbage, I felt proud. Besides getting my brain to defog so early in the morning, I’d done the environment a good deed by using one less plastic bag.
And then I got to thinking: How long does it take for plastic bags like these to decompose? In the larger ecological scheme, wouldn’t it be greener to let the shit lie?
Welcome to my morning slog, where I work out problems that I’m having with all kinds of things, including the 28 books on my to-finish-before-I-die list.
Today, I’m working on a chapter of Principles of Wealth. The book, as the title suggests, is an attempt to identify not the secrets that one needs to understand in order to make an individual business work, but the general principles that apply to all entrepreneurial businesses.
The principle I’ve been struggling with has to do with the imagined benefits of wealth. Here’s what I’ve written so far…
Principles of Wealth #37: The purported benefits of great wealth – financial security, choices, and prestige – are more valued in their absence than when they are present.
- Financial Security
The first goal I had when I began making an above-average income was to pay off my mortgage and own my house, free and clear. Without having to worry about mortgage payments, covering my other expenses would be a piece of cake. And boy, would that feel good!
The logic was correct, but the good feeling was short-lived. Less than a year after I paid off the mortgage, my wife and I had moved into a bigger house.
My income had more than doubled, so I didn’t think the new mortgage would be a problem. What I didn’t anticipate was all the additional costs that come with living in a larger house in a “better” community.
The furniture that went so well in the previous house didn’t “fit” in the new one. The new furniture, the kind that “fit,” was five times as expensive.
To keep up with our richer neighbors, we traded in our Hondas for a BMW and a Range Rover. But the extra thousands they cost were just a small part of our fast-ballooning “necessary” expenses. Our kids “had to” go to private schools. The cost of our vacations quintupled, as did the cost of dinners at restaurants. Home repairs, utilities, cable bills, and haircuts – you name it. Everything shot up!
Our family’s “lifestyle burn rate” had tripled. And although my income had gone up even more than that, I no longer felt financially secure. On the contrary, I began to worry about money almost every day.
Numerous studies have shown that once people have enough money to take care of the basic bills, their feelings of financial security do not increase as their income (or net worth) rises. In many cases, such as mine, financial anxiety becomes a way of life.
It took me years to get beyond that. It didn’t come from getting richer. It came from doing something I could have done years earlier – two simple ways to achieve financial security: Spend less than you make. And make your savings grow.
Next to financial security, the next most commonly claimed benefit of wealth is choices – the options you have in terms of living your life.
When people say “choices,” they’re talking about the kind of decisions I made when my income ballooned. They are talking about choosing to living in a large house versus a trailer, buying a Rolex versus a Timex, and flying first-class versus coach.
Yes, getting richer gives you more options such as these. But the psychological benefits of them are, like financial security, illusory and short-lived.
The BMW feels so much better than the Honda for about a month. Then it’s simply transportation. When you are stuck in traffic or get a speeding ticket, driving a more expensive car doesn’t feel any better.
I actually figured this out – and then forgot about it – almost 20 years before I “opted” for that bigger house. In the mid 1970s, K and I were living in a humble three-room house without indoor plumbing in N’djamena, Chad.
I was sitting in our front porch watching the rain spill off the roof and onto our little garden when I had this thought: “One day, you will live in a big, fancy house back in the States. But you will never live in a house that can give you more pleasure than this one.”
That was true. And it’s been true of just about everything I’ve spent money on ever since.
There is a third belief about acquiring wealth that is almost never reported in studies. That is the idea that as you get richer people will like you more.
This does not come up in surveys and questionnaires because nobody wants to admit to this base and embarrassing ambition. We have been told many times that money can’t buy love. But when you grow up without money, as I did, you don’t believe it.
In grammar school, my hand-me-down clothes and the dilapidated house we lived in embarrassed me. At least once a week, I had vivid dreams of being rich. In those dreams, I arrived at the schoolyard in a white limousine. As the chauffer opened the door, my schoolmates stared in awe at my white tuxedo and top hat.
Of course, that’s not how it works. When the day arrived that I really was “richer” than my friends and neighbors, I didn’t feel the love. In many cases, I felt suspicion, jealousy, and resentment.
Now I wonder why that surprised me. There were very few people I liked or admired that were richer than I was. The exceptions were always people that had other qualities – like kindness and humility and generosity. Characteristics that are equally available to anyone and everyone.
Hmmm. I’ll do a little more work on this, but I think it’s a good start. So now, back to the problem of the plastic poop bags…
I did a little research, and here’s what I found. As I suspected, when plastic poop bags go into a landfill, they do not biodegrade and the poop doesn’t oxidize. That’s because the bags are airtight. You need oxygen for decomposition to happen. Oxidation is how everything in nature, even Homo sapiens, returns to Mother Earth.
There is a partial solution. Use poop bags made from natural substances, such as paper or, even better, plant-based sources. The plant-based products are more expensive than plastic, but they will biodegrade.
Okay. I can do that.