Why You Should Stop Saying “Money isn’t Everything”

An insensitive and unhelpful privilege

Photo by rupixen.com on Unsplash

I’m very privileged to have a roof over my head and food on my table. I live a fairly comfortable life, and regularly add to my savings. I also have a father who has been regularly contributing to his life savings for decades.

These two facts put me in the wealthiest 7.4% of the world’s population.

Image taken from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/10/who-are-the-1-the-answer-might-surprise-you/

But having wealth in savings and assets isn’t enough. There are still anxieties around financial security that can manifest any time.

In 2018, my father had a major heart attack. Across 4 months and 2 cities, our family saw several trips to the hospital. I myself spent multiple nights in the hospital waiting room, taking my turn to be the emergency contact.

I was very relieved and gratified at how our extended family rallied around us. My father is a good man who has done his best to do good by others in their time of need. So it was heartening to see our relatives return the favor.

However, there was a problem. When we got the final bill for his treatment, insurance inevitably helped us less than we thought it would. Neither my dad nor I had the funds ready to pay the remaining bill immediately. We had the money we needed, but it was locked up in various investments.

My uncles helped us without batting an eye, and the payment was made. But it was an unspoken shame between my father and I that we couldn’t do it ourselves.

My father and I share an important trait. As men, it is a cornerstone of our character to be reliable. For Marwari men, this includes financial reliability. We expect ourselves to be capable at all times. Over the next few months, I helped my father pay back the amount as soon as we could. When we had nearly enough, I sent a larger cut of my salary than I was comfortable with so that we could square off the debt immediately.

A few days later, my father said to me, “I feel like my son has grown up.”

That incident had a profound impact on my relationship with wealth.

When people say money isn’t everything, they’re right. A good life is not just made up of sound financial health. You also need to pay attention to several other domains of health — physical, mental, social, intellectual, spiritual, and emotional.

But money is still ridiculously important. Wealth, especially liquid wealth, offers security and peace of mind that affects all other domains of health.

The 0.01% of the world likes to say money isn’t everything, because they also have problems. And the 10% like to ape them while secretly worrying about their financial security.

And wealth is hard to come by. Global wealth and income inequality has worsened across the decades. Although extreme poverty continues to (thankfully) decrease, wealth trends continue to favor an increasingly small cabal of people.

https://inequality.org/facts/global-inequality/#global-wealth-inequality

If this continues, we are doomed to have nearly all the wealth in the world in the hands of a few people.

And yet, we still bafflingly idolize the rich and demonize the poor. Financial elitism bleeds into cultural elitism, as demonstrated by our disdain for fast food.

The Wealth Gap Illustrated by Food

We hate the poor as much as we hate the fat. This is why McDonald’s is the poster-child punching bag of the elite, even though fast food feeds millions of people daily.

The USA is the richest country in the world, and yet over a third of its adult population eats fast food daily (CDC study). This isn’t all addiction or laziness or a moral failing. Fast food is the most balanced option between cheap and reliable available to thousands of people.

Closer to home, the wealth gap manifests as a paradox in food. India has a reputation for malnutrition and hunger, while also having an epidemic of obesity. 12% of males and 16% of females are overweight or obese. The richest Indians spend 9 times more money on food than the poorest.

From LiveMint’s “How India Eats: The class structure of food consumption in India”

On Linkedin India, you occasionally come across stories of low-income people eating at a McDonald’s or a Domino’s for the first time. These people share how it was a dream to be able to eat at that particular chain restaurant. Take that in for a moment.

Meanwhile, the privileged look down upon this “unhealthy eating” as a moral failure.

In the 1987 classic film Mr. India, there is a gratuitous scene of a rich man who makes his wealth by adulterating food grains being forced to eat gravel. In real life, there is no such penance. The ultra-rich sip their wine while chiding the poor for wasting their money on alcohol.

It doesn’t help that the middle class shoots itself in the foot by trying to appear richer than they are. This manifests in behaviors ranging from living well beyond your means to vilifying the poor. The middle class equates poverty with moral failing — “They wouldn’t be poor if they worked harder and stopped having so many children” (a real thing someone said to me).

The 0.01% of the world likes to say money isn’t everything, because they also have problems. Billionaires continue to think of themselves as “underdogs with grit”. And the 10% like to ape them while secretly worrying about their financial security. The Marwari community is chock-full of men that fail to pretend that their daily anxieties don’t revolve around money, all while wearing gold chains.

The obtuse notion that the poor and the middle-class should stop crying about minimum wage and salary structures and tax and wealth accumulation is tone-deaf. Our history, when not focused on war around race and national identity, can be pretty much boiled down to class struggle.

The ultra-rich could fundamentally change the world and still be billionaires but they choose not to.

The dismissive nature of saying money isn’t everything, while most of the world cries out in pain, is an unbearable showing of privilege. The impoverished aren’t few, and beyond the impoverished, the middle class is wracked with anxiety over money, optimizing their lives around their incomes.

It’s so normal for the middle class to optimize, we celebrate clever life hacks and thrifty tips. Life hack channels and self-improvement content are perpetual successes across social media because they directly or indirectly work towards making or saving more money.

Should you stop aspiring to greater personal wealth and donate all your money? No, that’s not what I’m asking. We’re not going to solve wealth inequality with one blog post. The world will still equate poverty with moral inadequacy. The rich will continue to blame the victims. Amazon will continue ignoring their workers urinating in bottles. Thousands of modern French princess-equivalents will continue to say, “Let them eat cake.”

What I’m asking is that as you ascend your personal financial ladder over time, you remember how hard life is. You remember that it is significantly harder for a lot of people. And you keep in mind how much money plays a role in your mental and physical health.

Money isn’t everything, but it sure is a lot.

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Vaibhav Gupta

Vaibhav Gupta

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Professional technical writer, 2x Distinguished Toastmaster. I write about mental health and self-awareness. Also see https://medium.com/thorough-and-unkempt