Money Equals Freedom. Right?
I used to joke that I came out of the womb thinking about money. I would sell my Barbie dolls to kids in the neighborhood, and negotiate allowances with my parents. I started looking for babysitting gigs while I was still of the age where I needed a babysitter myself. Even in those days, no self-respecting Mom would leave her toddler with an unknown ten year old, so I settled for being a mother’s helper. It was a lower pay grade, but I got my foot in the door.
The money began to trickle in as I built a good reputation. My network expanded, and I advanced to solo-sitting. Soon, I added a paper route to the mix. My brother and I spent most of our tip money that year on Christmas presents for our parents. It seemed only fair, given they were the ones driving us on our routes when it was too cold or snowy for bikes.
Then came a big leap to my first “real” job – clerk at the local pharmacy. It only paid $1.50 an hour but it was indoors. Every week, I received my pay in cash in a little white envelope.
In my free time, I would count the days till our summer vacation at the Jersey shore, and the money I'd need to pay for the fun stuff I wanted to do there. Mostly though, I spent it as I earned it. Sadly, my budgeting muscle wasn’t developing as well as my earning muscle.
I moved up to the big leagues for teen work back then - fast food, scoring a gig at Roy Rogers at the Garden State Plaza. They had just begun construction to convert the outdoor plaza to an indoor mall. I'd park my bike and walk through tunnels of plywood and scaffolding in my cowboy hat, red poly blouse, and blue denim-ish wraparound apron. I prepped and stocked the salad bar, wiped tables, and refilled a million ketchup bottles. Ultimately I got to work the register. Sitting at the manager’s desk at end of the day, counting my drawer, I knew my work would always revolve around money. Soon after, I took my first accounting course, and I was hooked.
Through the rest of high school, college, and beyond, I kept my focus on earning more, spent freely, and never managed to save. This led to accumulating a mountain of really stupid debt that I didn’t get out from under until my early thirties, after years of robbing Peter to pay Paul. A purgatory of my own creation. It was a hard won lesson that I vowed I’d never forget, and I haven’t. Not that I've done it all perfectly, there have been, and continue to be, other lessons to learn. That's another story.
Even with the debt paid off, I was surprised that as my income, assets, and security grew, I never quite found that freedom I assumed would come. It always seemed just around the bend, so I kept striving, kept working hard, kept advancing. By all accounts, I was succeeding. But I didn't feel it. I felt like a mouse in a maze, sniffing cheese but never finding it. I grew weary. What began as a vague sense of dissatisfaction musroomed into a painful hole that no amount of money, things, or experiences would fill.
I began to pull off the heavy blankets of a comfortable existence, looking for purpose and meaning underneath. As I found it, I allowed it to shape the way I live, the people I surround myself with, and the work I choose to do.
My ego doesn't like seeing my income lower it might be because of the choices I made. But my heart is happy. The more I let go of the image of what I've been told success looks like, the more I enjoy the success I've achieved.
Now I know why, in all my years of working with people and money, I never observed a case where more money alone led to greater happiness. It doesn't.
Once your basic needs are met, and you've got a bit beyond that, more isn’t necessarily better. Freedom, and the happiness it brings, is primarily an inside job, best measured against an internal measuring stick. One that includes so much more than dollar signs.
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