In today’s world, we praise and celebrate people with money.
Closer to home, people with money are often treated differently in our local organizations and at our dinner parties. Most people, it seems to me, would like to join them and have extra money in the bank.
In fact, if you were to ask a roomful of people, “How many of you would like to be rich?” Almost every hand would go up.
Having a lot of money is a symbol of achievement in our society that most people aspire to acquire.
Even from a young age, many of us fantasized about having a lot of money when we get older and how awesome that would be. And as we get older, it is something we work hard to achieve.
But let’s pause for a moment and entertain a new, and slightly uncomfortable, thought:
Is having a lot of money really something we should be proud of?
Why are we celebrating it? Why are we chasing it? Maybe it’s not something to proud of… maybe it’s something we should be embarrassed about instead?
Before I go any further, let me start with two assumptions about money that should get us thinking differently:
1. There are, almost always, outside factors that played a role in one’s accumulation of money.
Many people who have money were born with it—and I’m not always talking about inheriting a fortune. (Merely starting life in the middle class makes living a middle class lifestyle infinitely easier to achieve.)
And there are other factors, outside one’s control, that almost certainly resulted in one’s accumulation of excess: the country or city of our birth, the families we were born into, world events, even the innate talents and abilities we were given at birth play a part.
These advantages often pave a smoother road to prosperity for some than for others.
Of course, this isn’t to downplay the hard work that someone might put in to acquire wealth, it’s just an acknowledgment that there were other factors, outside your control, that contributed to that accumulation.
Which brings me to my second point:
2. Money doesn’t always measure effort (or talent).
Having a lot of money does not necessarily mean you’ve outworked others or are more talented.
In my life, I’ve encountered countless individuals, particularly in the nonprofit sector, who are incredibly skilled and dedicated. They could have potentially made lots of money but chose instead to funnel their talents toward noble causes. Some, knowing full-well, what they were giving up to pursue the work they chose.
Additionally, I think of the countless parents who’ve prioritized raising their children over building bank balances. They, too, have made a significant impact with their work and talents, it’s just not reflected in their net worth.
They chose to chase something else instead.
I want to mention those two points because I think they are important in helping us reframe the accumulation of money in the first place.
But it’s this next thought that really makes me wonder if having a lot of money is something to be proud of:
3. Every dollar held in our bank account is a dollar that could be used to help someone else.
Consider this, when we hold onto more money than we need, we do so at the expense of others. Our excess could provide food, family, education, work-training, and/or opportunity to people who desperately need it.
Over 25% of the world’s population lives on less than $4/day. Literally, every extra dollar in our bank account is a dollar that could be spent to meet the needs of others.
And here we are, with extra money sitting in bank accounts, investments, or even just things we bought and forgot about. Holding onto extra money means missed opportunities. I wonder if the awareness of that reality should motivate us more than it does.
Keeping more money for ourselves than we need is a sign that we could be helping others, but are choosing not to. There may be any number of reasons for that decision (and some of them might be healthy), but a large number of reasons are not (greed and worry come to mind right off the top of my head).
Now, I can’t claim to know the personal circumstances of every individual reading this.
But perhaps today, more than anything else, I just want to raise a question that you’ve maybe never considered:
Is having a lot of money really something to be proud of?
Or is it something we should actually be embarrassed about—given all the need around us?
Before I end, it might be helpful for me to clarify a few things that I’m not saying:
- I’m not glamorizing poverty or suggesting it’s a more virtuous state. All financial states come with their challenges and lessons, and poverty isn’t inherently more noble.
- I’m not advising against saving money. Just as ants store up food for the winter, it’s wise for us to prepare for the future. I’m just wondering if there’s a point where saving for our unknown future should be more heavily weighed against someone’s actual need today.
- This isn’t an article discouraging ambition. Every single one of us should be working as hard as we can to become the best versions of ourselves in order to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Hard work (paid or unpaid) is not something to be avoided.
- I’m not arguing for earning less. Everyone should earn a fair wage for their efforts. This isn’t about purposefully earning less than you are worth or the value you bring to an organization. If you’re doing a job, you deserve to be paid well for it. I’m just wondering where we should find pride with the money that we’ve earned.
- Nor is this a political stance. Regardless of the system of government, disparities are going to exist. This isn’t about advocating for a political system that forces individual decisions, this is about each of us making decisions with the financial wealth we have—regardless of the government system.
Again, I’m not going to pretend to have all the answers for everyone’s unique financial circumstances.
I’m just wondering in a world where financial excess is the goal of many, is that even something we should be trying to achieve?
Is having a lot of money really something to be proud of?
Maybe it’s revealing more about our heart than we realize—and not in a good way.