Back in the 90s, when I got my first “real” job, my soon-to-be boss sat me down and said: “This is what we’re going to pay you. And it’s the most money you’ll ever have.” Of course he was wrong, and he knew it. But he was also right, and I knew it.
Perhaps, if he’d wanted to be technically correct, he’d have said that it would feel like the most money I’d ever have. But he was a copywriter, like me, and maybe he knew that putting it more accurately wouldn’t sound as stark. As it’s turned out, twenty years later, I haven’t forgotten the conversation.
That may be down to word choice, but it’s also stayed with me because of its truth. Not its objective, factual truth – I am earning more money now – but because of how I’ve experienced having money since then.
When I was in my early 20s, I had hopes about how my wealth would increase and what that would mean. My previous job had been delivering pizzas, and I was doing fine and paying the rent that way. But having a decent monthly salary gave me some financial breathing space: I didn’t have to check my balance before buying a pizza, I saved enough to go on holidays and I even had some money left over at the end of the month. I thought that as my salary grew, so would that kind of comfort and carefreeness. But it hasn’t, really. It’s been a bit of a mirage.
20 years and increases later, I don’t have more disposable income. If anything, I have less. Holidays are harder because I have a family, so they’re more expensive. I think I buy fewer clothes for myself and go out for fewer meals. And a lot of months, I spend more than I earn. That isn’t the picture first-job me had of 40-year-old me.
Of course, I can afford a lot of things now that I couldn’t then: a decent private education for my kids; a house that, one day, hopefully, will belong to me and not the bank; medical aid that costs a flaming fortune but does help keep my family healthy. There’s lots to be said for all of those things. And, in those material ways, I am better off. But on the 2nd or 3rd of the month, after all those payments have gone, I’m left watching my rands and squeezing them out over the rest of the month like I never did when I started out working. It may be different for the 1%, who can go overseas every year and buy a new car every three years, and that spending doesn’t touch sides. But for me, day to day, despite a higher salary, I don’t feel like I have more money.
I suppose this picket-fenced picture of mine is a version of the rat race people talk about. Or maybe it’s gentler to talk about the hamster on the wheel. But both analogies are of rodents, both doing the same thing: basically, earning more money to go on paying for things we buy with the money we earn. And the wheel keeps getting faster.
I know this is a choice. And I know people who have chosen quite differently. They’ve consciously forsaken the convention of accumulating things. They rent furnished apartments, they use busses and taxis or they walk, they can pack their clothes in a single suitcase and their belongings in a single box. They have savings for their medical expenses and their holidays. But they don’t have much “stuff”, and their money isn’t tied up in loans or premiums or debit orders. I imagine that they don’t feel as financially constrained or bogged down as most of us. And I may be wrong, but I imagine they feel they have more money than when they started working, although, ironically, it may not actually matter very much to them.
Tempting though those choices may be, if I’m honest, I’m not going to sell my house and give up my medical aid. A lot of the things I spend money on give me security, and security is important to me. But, somehow, that security seems to go hand in hand with responsibility and obligation, not with freedom. And every now and then I wonder where all my money goes, and I remember that conversation with my first boss about my first salary, and how it did feel like more money.
Photo by: OTA Photos Follow, Money Everywhere via Flickr. CC by 2.0