#90: Wanting wisdom, craving financial fortune cookies
6th June, 2022
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. This week, becoming wiser with money by understanding that however much you crave fortune cookies, you don’t really want them.
Because spaced repetition is cool (and because apparently I'm not above doing a clip show) for this, the 90th edition of Idiot Money, a recap of some stuff from the earlier days. Other clip shows can be found here.

1. Life isn’t a race, it’s a dance

  • Advice to say ‘yes’ to everything, or ‘no’ to everything is pointless fortune-cookie crap. Constraints are the key to getting shit done. However, the problem with getting shit done is that sometimes what you get done is shit. It’s simpler to always say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ than it is to admit that the point of life is to continually increase your capability to master increasing levels of complexity.
  • Any idiot can climb a ladder. Non-idiots check it’s against the right wall. Wiser folk still, right wall or not, wonder if perhaps climbing the same simple steps for all eternity is really the best metaphor for living in the first place.
  • You become wiser as a side-effect of a way of living. A way of living defined by the exact sort of consciousness fortune-cookie trivialities work against.
  • Financial advisers are in the perfect place to leverage knowledge of what has worked (and what hasn’t) when it comes to financial decision-making. Yet they are incentivised to enable lacklustre life choices, not challenge them.
  • The winner of the rat race is still a rat, yet countless rich folk pay advisers stratospheric sums to brag about the ‘winning’, not to be questioned about what it is they’ve actually won.
  • People don’t seek advice to be guided to the work they have to do. They seek it to be told the work is all taken care of. Yet you can’t delegate living wisely.

2. How money is mapped in your brain determines how well it serves your life far more than how you spend or invest it

  • It doesn’t matter how well you can afford things if those things don’t afford living well.
  • You can hack your habits to make you more productive at doing anything, but it’s kind of pointless if you’re still trapped in a worldview that thinks personalised numberplates are a sign of class.
  • We’re not crap at knowing what we want, as is often claimed. We know what we want when we pay attention. We’re just crap at paying attention.
  • The worst thing about money – its ubiquity in our decision-making – is also the best thing about it. Because the same machinery that spirals us down when we don’t attend to it spirals us up when we do.
  • You are not what you think or do. You are what you’ve thought and done. You become what you think and do… what you pay attention to.

3. The dumbest damn thing I’ve ever read in personal finance

  • A first-class way to be dumb with money is to believe that having money means you aren’t dumb.
  • The dumbest thing I’ve ever read in a respected personal finance book is that there is a direct link between salary and intelligence. This is not only laughable, but also dangerous, for it sets its believers up to make some truly terrible life choices.
  • We live in a world where money excuses a lack of wisdom, character, and virtue, and therefore one in which on some level we believe it must be a substitute for those things.
  • If you think money worries go away when you have lots of money, you don’t understand money, or worry.
  • We believe other people are drastically more self-interested than they are… so we publicly praise self-interested motives (and denigrate their absence) to fit in not with others but with the collective myth.
  • We want to live well, not expensively. We want the Good Life, not the appearance of it. This requires seeing clearly what our Good Life actually is. What we actually want at the level of our souls, not the level of our ability to respond to adverts.

4. Personal finance isn’t about making the most money, it’s about making the most out of your money

  • Delegation shouldn’t be the end of confusion, but the beginning of understanding.
  • A common retired-client scenario is to ask about ‘objectives’ or ‘goals’ and get a typical ‘oh, you know, tick along, continue with our current lifestyles’ as an answer, with maybe a ‘fund the grandchildren’s education’ thrown in here and there. Ask a silly question, get an unusable answer.
  • Opportunities, potential, life… their impermanence is the source of their value, not something to try to remove, be it through hoarding, believing happiness comes from having rather than becoming, or pretending life is lived tomorrow.
  • If you only live once, then the thing to do is to take more conscious care over your decisions, not less (and conscious care does not mean ‘abundance of caution’). Equating YOLO with ‘don’t think, just do’ works only in a world where we’re so terrified of thinking through what we really want to do with our life that we’re sometimes better off not thinking.
  • We regret more what we didn’t do than what we did. But we often regret what we did too. We never regret doing what we deep down know we want to do, regardless of the result.
  • ‘The way to make your life as good as possible is to aim to spend your last penny on your last day’ is about as idiotic a take on the value of money in a life as it’s possible to have.
  • If you’re driven by what you can afford, rather than what you care about, you’ll be taken for a ride to places you don’t care to go. And at some point, it’ll be too late to turn around.

5. Living mindfully with money

  • Meditation isn’t relaxation. It’s not listening to a soothing voice telling you to relax your eyelids and think happy thoughts for five minutes.
  • There’s nothing wrong with plain old relaxation. You should do it now. Drop your shoulders. Unclench your jaw. Breathe into your hips, not your sternum. But meditation (for our neuroplastic, better-living, purpose) is different. Not least because if the only time your shoulders are dropped, your jaw unclenched and your breathing deep and horizontal is when you remember to sit on a cushion for ten minutes every now and then, then… well, I shouldn’t need to spell out why that’s perhaps a touch troubling.
  • The best intentions are pointless if they’re forgotten when they’re needed. The fact you don’t live in a meditation hall makes a money philosophy rather important. Because a philosophy is a way of living, and if you’re living something, it’s with you in everything you do.
  • Lunchtime mindfulness sessions may be all the anti-rage in workaholic-enabling offices, but they reaaaaaaally miss the point. If your job sponsors your slow suicide by keeping you simmering with stress and sedentary for more than six hours a day, making it a bit easier to stay there for 10 hours a day isn’t a plus point. Padding, whether it’s on a shoe or in a cell, doesn’t treat pain, it incubates it.
  • Rewiring your world is an active, participatory, process. A constant cascade of choices to remember to live your life in becoming not having mode, to continually refresh your interest and your intention in aligning what you care for with what you care about.
  • Meditation isn’t contemplation. Meditation and contemplation are cognitively opposing processes, not synonyms.
  • Meditation is looking at the lenses – looking not through the way your mind is framing things, but looking at the framing. It’s getting a better grip on how you make sense of and indeed contribute to constructing your world, to become better at constructing it more consciously.
  • Meditation isn’t turning off, it’s tuning in. Turning off from what’s irrelevant can help us tune in to what’s not, but if the focus is the turning off rather than the tuning in, you’re most likely to simply replace one irrelevance with another, in a doom-laden spiral of passively-absorbed distractions.

6. Looking AT the money lenses you normally look THROUGH

  • You see the world through your relationship with money. Therefore, if you want an easy, flowing life rather than to be swept along by a flow of easy distractions, there are few more valuable things you can do than look at your relationship with money.
  • Meditation is attention-paying training: paying attention to how you pay attention. Think of the difference between making a conscious spending decision and being conscious of how you make spending decisions. The difference, in the context of your life – which is probably the context in which you want to think about life choices – is huge.
  • If you want to make better decisions by default, the answer isn’t to pay greater attention to every decision. It’s not even to make your decision-making better, e.g. by carrying around a checklist that you crack out on special decision-making occasions. It’s to make your decision-making machinery better.
  • Just as a child learns a language less by formal language lessons and more by living in a world shaped by that language, you improve your decision-making machinery less by specifically training your brain and more by living in a world shaped to do the training for you.
  • Meditation is insight-generation training. because of its unique role in our decisions and the thoughts that drive them, there’s no better conduit to conscious, examined-life, world-construction than money. Insights arise when we break the frames through which we’re so used to seeing the world we forget we’re even looking through them, and look through new ones. If you’re looking how you’ve always looked, you’ll see what you’ve always seen.
  • ‘Being present’ – the poster-child of living meditatively – trains you to be more insightful. But it doesn’t work by you toddling off into nature and Instagramming the shit out of some sun-splashed woodland; #shinrinyoku. It works because when you scale down your attention, you train your mind to be less representational and inferential – i.e. to jump to fewer conclusions in a way that means you are paying less attention to everything.

7. Money could be the best catalyst for conscious living, but we choose to make it the worst

  • To live well with money requires remembering that you are a human, not a robot – you operate according to a philosophy in an inherently uncertain, impermanent world, not according to an algorithm driven by a simplistic set of numbers. Alas, that the narrow view with which we choose to look at money persuades us otherwise. Living meditatively is a way of remembering the implications of being human in a world set-up to encourage you to believe that where money is involved, you become a robot.
  • Because our relationships with money, and the world-building consequences of them, are within our control, we can choose to become wiser with money, rather than blindly hoping that making it, spending it, and investing it with something like blind abandon (largely unconsciously, but sometimes deliberately so) will somehow result in us making the most of it.
  • We fail to really know money beyond its features and function and into its fittedness with our worlds and end up wasting god knows what because of this.
  • It’s so sad that it often takes making millions for people to stop and really think about what they’re making it for (and most don’t stop even then).

8. And finally….

  • From Idiot Money #47, three stories to demonstrate that living well and living expensively are not the same thing and that we show off only our insecurities.
  • And from Idiot Money #49, some satire (probably my favourite post to write).