Master Your Money, Don’t Let It Master You
“Money is a great servant but a bad master.”
― Francis Bacon
I find money incredibly interesting. It’s a fascinating thing. Most fiat money — like the US Dollar, Euro, or Yen — has no intrinsic value. The only reason people go crazy for it is because we believe in its worth and buying power.
At its core, money is nothing but an instrument of exchange. At one point in the past, our ancestors decided that bartering wasn’t the most practical way of trading goods. Money was non-perishable, required very little storage space, and soon was widely accepted.
It has been around for thousands of years, and it has grown into a mighty instrument. The Mesopotamian Shekel was one of the first currencies more than 5000 years ago. In 2002, the introduction of the Euro united 19 countries and facilitated trade and exchange amongst them. Nowadays, money equivalents such as synthetic options are traded for millions and billions of dollars on stock exchanges, even though only a fraction of people understand them.
What I find most interesting about it is what I call The Money Paradox.
Ask any random person what the most important things in their life are, and you’re likely to end up with a long list of items before they even mention the mammon. For most people, their kids, health, relationships, and happiness come before the numbers in their bank account. Yet, people fuss over money (or the lack of it) like there’s no tomorrow. Stock prices, salaries, taxes, savings accounts, cash-tracking apps, and splitting bills cause a lot of headaches.
If money isn’t that important to you, it has no intrinsic value, and is a mere instrument of exchange — why does it have so much power over you? In fact, it should be the other way around.
We humans invented money to facilitate our lives, not to make them harder. But somewhere along the line, it took over. Somewhere along the line, we started worshipping money like a god, with many of us dedicating our lives to accumulating, and mastering it. Today, it controls many aspects of our lives.
The question is, how can you reclaim your power and set yourself free? It’s not so much about how much money you rake in, but more about your mindset and relationship with it.
The Power Paradox
Just like money only has a value because we believe it has one, a large part of its power over us stems from our belief that we need to have more of it.
Money only has power over you if you don’t have enough of it. When you have ample means, its tight grip around your throat loosens. You stress out if you can’t afford something, but not if you can.
Notice that “enough” is a very subjective measure. There are millionaires who stress about money and dirt-poor chaps who don’t. Even if you have more money than you can ever spend, you can still be a slave to it or addicted to making more.
Having enough comes down to managing your needs and wants. Most money problems aren’t rooted in your earning, but your spending behaviors. They are different variations of “I want this but can’t afford it” or “I bought it but actually couldn’t afford it.”
Sure, you can work more or get a better job to earn more money. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that just a little more will make you happy.
The problem is that if you don’t adjust your spending behaviors and properly balance what you have with what you want, you will never have “enough”.
Don’t Buy Something You Can’t Afford Twice
One of my good friends gave me this advice and it’s by far the best I ever got for keeping my spending behavior in check.
I know that saving for your dream car or a new phone can take a long time and once you get there, anticipation is high — but buying something the second you can afford it is a terrible idea.
First, your bank account will be back to a fat zero or whatever is left after your shopping spree. You’re back to having “not enough” cash, which is going to give you a headache regardless of your shiny new golf clubs or limited-edition sneakers.
Second, whatever you buy is almost always going to cost you more than the initial price tag. An A/C will increase your electricity bill. Your new Ferrari needs maintenance and gas. A dog can cost a ton of money at the vet. And when something essential like a washing machine breaks down, you need to have some extra money for repairs.
The next time before you buy something, ask yourself not only if you can afford it, but if you can afford it twice. Or at least, ensure you’ve got sufficient funds and earning capacities to still feel good about your financial situation after the purchase and cover any additional costs.
Waiting and working some more before you make a purchase you’ve been dreaming of for years isn’t easy, but it is definitely less stressful than freaking out about money problems afterward.
Avoid Debt like the Plague
“When you get in debt you become a slave.”
— Andrew Jackson
This advice comes from one of my finance professors and while I’ve never been one to take up debt, it has opened the eyes of many of my fellow students.
Debt comes with two major problems.
First, it will always be your dark passenger. Even though you’ll be able to silence the nagging voice in the back of your head most of the time, every now and then it will speak up. It’s a bad feeling — it takes away from your freedom to spend your money as you wish and gives you anxieties about not being able to repay. For me, my freedom is more important than anything else — and certainly more important than anything money could ever buy.
Second, debt costs you money. There’s this thing called interest, and even if interest rates are low, you still have to pay real money in exchange for borrowing. If you want to have more money to spend and keep your expenses low, avoid debt like the plague and pay off the ones you already have.
To be fair, there are some situations in which taking on debt might make mathematical or financial sense. If most of your capital is invested into stocks or bonds with a steady return of let’s say 5%, it might make sense to finance your house with a 3% mortgage.
However, this doesn’t account for the extra headaches that being indebted brings, and you should always make your decisions based on rational thoughts instead of an emotional “but I really want it.”
Measure & Manage
“You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” — Peter Drucker
It’s one of the most used and abused management quotes, but the big guru was right. If you don’t measure and understand from where your money comes from and where it goes, you’ll have no way of managing and controlling it. It will control you instead.
The problem is that tracking expenses can be a real pain in the neck. With multiple income sources, subscriptions, Amazon orders, PayPal payments, credit card charges, grocery shopping, and the occasional ATM visit, my bank account used to resemble a bowl of alphabet soup, only with more numbers.
Whenever I looked at it, I was repelled by the sheer complexity. I relied on money coming in and somehow being enough. Needless to say, I had no overview of my finances. One month, the inevitable happened: I had to ask my parents for money, something I deeply despised. They always supported me financially throughout my studies but asking for more money made me feel like a fraud and loser.
I decided that things needed to change. There are many ways to get an overview over your finances and I now rely on a simple system of three different bank accounts for different purposes. You might also consider an app like Toshl. Whatever you decide, have a way of tracking your income and expenses. You’ll be surprised to see where your money actually goes.
If You Want More, You Have to Ask
I’ve worked a ton of different jobs while studying. One thing I have learned is that people want to pay you as little as they possibly can.
When I refurbished printers, I was promised a pay raise after my onboarding period — but I had to address the issue two times to make it happen. When I was working night shifts at a bar, the owner paid all of us below the legal minimum wage. I was new on the team so I didn’t want to make a fuss, but one girl who spoke up promptly got a raise.
Everybody wants to save money and cut costs because it means more money in their bank account at the end of the day.
It’s very rare that someone will pay you more by themselves, which is why you have to take the initiative if you want to earn more.
If you want your requests to be fruitful, don’t ask for a pay raise, but gather evidence of why you deserve it.
Time = Money and Money = Time
About 20 years ago, car manufacturer Lexus launched an ad that said: “Whoever said money can’t buy happiness isn’t spending it right.”
It’s an unconventional twist on what is seen as conventional wisdom.
Can money buy happiness? Yes, but you have to spend it right.
Let’s start with the facts. A large study found that the ideal yearly income for optimal emotional well-being is between $60,000 and $75,000 a year.
That’s a start, but it tells you nothing about how to spend this money. My guess is if you blow it all on a new Lexus, you won’t be happy for very long.
Instead, you have to take a different point of view. I don’t look at money as money. Instead, I see it as time. If I want to spend money, I first have to give up some of my time to earn it.
Time is your most valuable resource because it’s the only one that is completely non-renewable. Every time the clock ticks, you’re one second closer to your death, without a chance of slowing down or going back.
Now, take a second to think about what really makes you happy. Is it your new shiny car? Is it your new pair of sneakers? Is it your flashy watch? These are all great and can spark joy, but they usually won’t make you happy in the long run. In fact, they often result in an endless chase, because there will always be a faster car, fancier sneakers, or a more expensive watch.
What makes you happy instead is to spend your time doing what you want and with the people you want, like close friends or family.
When I make a purchase, I don’t think about how much money it is going to cost me. Instead, I think about how much time I have to spend to earn that money and in turn, if that purchase is going to add to my overall happiness and wellbeing, or not. It has completely changed my spending behavior.
This is where the whole thing comes full circle. Time is money and money is time. You have to give up some of your time to earn your money, but you can also spend your money to reclaim your time. You can buy coaching to reach your goals or obtain skills faster, buy services like cleaning or a handyman instead of doing it yourself, or outsource parts of your work altogether.
What can you do with the extra time? I don’t know, but I suggest something that makes you happy.
Money Is Not Evil
“Capital as such is not evil; it is its wrong use that is evil. Capital in some form or other will always be needed.”
— Mahatma Gandhi
Gandhi has expressed a lot of smart, progressive, and eye-opening thoughts. This is one of them.
Money per se isn’t evil. It’s a simple instrument of exchange, invented to facilitate our lives. The green Benjamin’s aren’t the problem.
The problem is the relationship we humans have with money and the way we designed our monetary system, which facilitates wealth accumulation for the super-rich at the expense of the poor.
We attach too much value to it and worship it like a god. We blow tons of it on insignificant material things and then have to trade in large chunks of our time to make up for our bad spending habits. Instead of mastering our money, we let it master us.
Money only has power over us because we attach that value to it. We think it will solve all our problems when in reality, most of them are rooted in it.
It was designed to make our lives easier, not harder. It should serve us, not enslave us. And in today’s world, we have to pay attention to keep it that way.
When it comes to money, one of the most successful investors of all time is Warren Buffet. The “Oracle of Omaha” has some very specific advice regarding productivity and focus.
What Warren Buffett’s Two-List Strategy Can Teach You About Productivity and Focus
Every action has a cost.
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