Lately, I’ve been pestering my friends with a lot of “what would you do if” questions. What would you do if Warren Buffet gave you a million dollars? What would you do if you could retire tomorrow? What would you do if Ryan Gosling, Tom Hardy, or Charlize Theron offered to…ya know? These questions are almost always simultaneously irritating and self-indulgent. Most people are just trying to get through their day, enjoy their partner, indulge their dreams, and eat cake without agonizing over the sugar content. But most people also love to talk about themselves.
People answer these questions the same way they fill out dating profiles. If someone asks what food you’d eat the rest of your life the answer they want to hear is, “Cookie dough ice cream smothered in melted chocolate fudge and bananas.” If you say, “Rice and beans because that’s what I can survive off of without wanting to die three weeks later,” somehow you’re the asshole.
My pestering question of late has been: What would you do with your money if you didn’t have any debt?
The answers tend to fall into three categories. There’s the ice cream: buy a new guitar, buy a banjo, buy a stand-up bass, buy a 4K tv to optimize displaying games on the Playstation Pro. Then there’s the dinner: upgrade to that 100% wool suit I saw at Brooks Brothers, save the money for a down payment on a house, buy a ticket to Tokyo and wander Japan for a month. Those are all nice 1. But sprinkled throughout these answers are the vegetables. The things people want to do more of – foster stray cats and dogs, spend more time in a soup kitchen, or simply donate money to good causes – but for various reasons don’t.2
The sort of ironic consequence of being in debt is that we don’t really sacrifice too much from the first two categories. People still want fancy dinners, or new records and books; they still want to take days off work to go on long hikes, or spend money to go out to the movies. They still try to save money. But the good causes – the altruistic things we want to do because we know they are good and because we know how good they’ll make us feel – we dismiss those first.
Consider my own finances. I have about $7,200 of debt to pay off. Though I’m looking forward to saving more money and owning a small piece of land, I’m also looking forward to being the type of person who donates 10% of his money to charity. Every last penny I have should go toward paying off that debt so that I can reach both these goals as soon as possible. The debt comes with the real cost of around 50 dollars a month in interest, plus the opportunity cost of what I could buy instead. And yet I still buy records and used books, I still make a 50 mile commute each week into Los Angeles to see my friends and drink homemade ginger brew from a fancy bar3. I’ve sacrificed a little, but not all that much.
What about that 10%? I upped my donation to the Against Malaria Foundation from 5 dollars a month to five dollars every other week, or roughly .3% of my income. I’m not sure how to feel about this. I feel ashamed that I can’t or won’t yet donate even 1% of my income to a charity that could use $3,500 to save another human life. But I also know I don’t pay any social penalty for this. Nobody gives me shit for barely donating the equivalent of a netflix subscription to save a human life. Yet that $7,200 of debt might as well follow me around chanting, “Shame!”
The common answer to this financial anxiety is of course, “You could die tomorrow and wouldn’t it suck if you died tomorrow and never got to climb Mount Kilimanjaro?” 4 This analogy has always seemed silly, if not a bit perverse. Though you could get struck by a bolt of lightning5, or die from a terrible auto accident6, or get eaten by a shark7, or be killed during a terrorist attack8, the statistical reality is that you most likely won’t. It’s a much better bet that you’ll live many more decades in relative health. This isn’t true in other places in the world where a simple mosquito bite could cost you your life.
But debt is a very real anchor against doing the good things you want to do. Though I could donate 10% of my income right now, it would serve me better long term to pay off the debt faster and donate more later9. As we grind down that mountain of owed money we would do well to remember why we’re trying to get rid of it in the first place. It may seem self evident. Nice suits and new cars and fancy technology bring lots of cache and personal pleasure10. But giving away our money feels good too. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that giving away much more of our money makes us happier people. That, more than simple luxuries, might prove to be a greater motivator in removing debt and saving money.
- Umm, Japan, yes please. ↵
- Call it the Sarah McLachlan effect. When doing something good or altruistic gets overwhelmed by schmaltz, cheese, over indulgent sentiment, puppy eyes, or anything else in which someone can respond by playing the world’s smallest violin and not look like a selfish ding dong. ↵
- Thanks Joe! ↵
- Full disclosure, I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and it totally fucking ruled. ↵
- 1 in 174,443 ↵
- 1 in 113 ↵
- 1 in 8,000,000 ↵
- 1 in 45,808 ↵
- I’m not going to lie, when I first wrote this footnote it included a lot of math, most of which was so amateurish there’s no way I was going to come out of it without looking dense. So here we are with no citations. ↵
- If it’s not clear, we shouldn’t stop desiring these things. To say otherwise would argue against our entire monetary system, which I’m not ready to do. But we can add a little more cultural oomph or value to people’s desire to do good deeds. ↵