#93: Some personal finance puzzles and how not to solve them
27th June, 2022
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. This week, becoming wiser with money by understanding that the Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and all that jazz are more than a cute angle with which to view your relationship with money, including:
  • Moving beyond surface-level financial itch scratching to living in a non-itchy way in the first place.
  • Clever solutions beat being an idiot, but they’re usually only ever a shoddy substitute for something actually meaningful.
  • Noticing the point when we have to admit it’s not the manipulations of advertising agencies, but the lost agency we have over our own life stories that’s the real source of the repetitively stupid circles we’re running in.
This is part 22 of our series on using Axiomatic Buddhist Concepts as a practical means to help us live better with money. See the series menu here. This (and the next one) are a summary of what all this feels like in the context of a life full of financial decisions. The following, final, instalment, will be an attempt to answer the question of how you can apply all this in your daily life.
You live your life guided not by reality, but by the map your mind draws up to model reality. This means you con yourself into not seeing the most important stuff to be attending to, and so keep ‘tackling’ ‘problems’ in ways that work unreliably, if at all.

The great personal-finance puzzles

Thinking about personal finance, if you do actually bother thinking about it, makes you confront some odd stuff:
  • Why do we struggle to make more out of our money? How did we end up making more and more money while making less and less out of it?
  • How is it possible to ‘have everything’ and still feel like something important is ‘missing’?
  • Why do those in ‘go go go’ mode still so often feel stuck?
  • Why do we believe that achieving the same result with fewer resources is better, except when it comes to the only result that ultimately matters: living a good life? Why do people brag about spending 10,000 a month to live as happily as someone spending 1,000?
  • Why do we want money so we ‘don’t have to think about money’, as if we make better decisions when we do so without thinking about them?
  • Why do we sacrifice our best time and energy in jobs we don’t enjoy, to earn money to then waste in ways driven by our perceptions of other people’s perceptions of us – people we don’t even care about, and probably don’t even know?
  • Why do we – almost constantly – use money in ways that don’t make our life any reliably, consistently, or sustainably better – that contribute little if anything to living in a more flowing, flourishing, fulfilling way?
  • Why do we commonly use the word ‘treat’ to describe something that leaves us poorer and in worse health?
  • Why do we distinguish between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ as if we didn’t ‘want’ a roof over our heads, or ‘need’ shared experiences with friends?
  • Why, having heard that it’s better to buy experiences than stuff, do we then buy experiences in a way that turns them into material goods, e.g. watching a gig through a phone, or going on holiday in search of the perfect Facebook profile picture?
  • For all the curated Instagram stories, no one would be happy to have their credit-card statements made public. Why?
  • Why do we act as if quality of life were measured with quantity of consumption?
We live in the richest-ever age.
If more money, or better knowing about money (in an isolated rather than integrated fashion) were really what was needed to make more of life, the multi-millionaire clients in whose heads I worked for a decade would have provided evidence of this.
Reader, they did not.
When you listen to the seekers of timeless wisdom, rather than the seekers of a quick sale, the answers to these puzzles are, rather than being characterised by a money-induced blindness, actually blindingly obvious.
The millennia-old framework of Buddhist philosophy, when viewed with the depth we have done in this series, demonstrates this (I hope).
I started this series because I saw a bunch of connections between the Buddhist philosophy highlights reel and the stuff I’d written about living better with money and thought it’d be cute to weave them together.
Perhaps, I thought, it’d also prove a handy way to get money people to think about thinking, and thinking people to think about money.
On the second of these, I was completely wrong.
There is both an ironic aversion to all things financial among those with the Team Buddha t-shirts and motivational posters, and a lack of interest in enlightenment-style freedom from those busy being blinkered by unenlightened and unenlightening views of escape-style ‘financial freedom’.
Fortunately, in the course of writing these posts, they proved to be far more than a cute overlay of what I’d already thought about.
The deeper understanding engendered by working through this stuff has made it easier for me to show up in a less-idiotic way each day, and I hope if you’ve been paying attention, the same goes for you too.
I wasn’t at the start, and nor am I now, a ‘Buddhist’. I’m happy, to paraphrase Bruce Lee, to absorb what is useful and discard what is not. And when it comes to becoming wiser with money, the ideas we’ve worked through in this series are as useful as anything you’re ever likely to encounter.
But they do require paying a form of attention rather different to that required to scroll through Twitter, or delegate all financial decisions to someone else, be that buying decisions to a price tag, or investment-planning decisions to a seller of investment products.
They require more than just avoiding idiocy. They require not stopping at the first clever ‘solution’ either. They require becoming wiser with money.

Enlightenment isn’t relief from pain, but freedom from entrapment

Most financial advice, be it based on a spreadsheet, or a list of psychological ‘biases’, is surface-level scratching.
This is hardly surprising.
Scratching itches provides instant satisfaction and relief in a way that getting surgical on the roots can’t match. And because there are a million ways the roots express themselves on the surface, there are a million ways to market clever itch-scratching techniques.
It’s idiotic to invest in something because the fund manager is based in Blackpool, or to use the word ‘treat’ to describe something that leaves you physically and financially worse off.
It’s clever to control your environment so you do this sort of stuff less often, or with less costly consequences.
But it’s wiser to do something about the wiring that led you towards both the original idiocy and the need for the clever solution in the first place.
Environment control manages temptation, it doesn’t cure it. We’re attracted to clever solutions because they promise certainty, and they’re for sale: two defining characteristics of the half-brained world we’ve constructed around money.
But clever solutions are only ever shitty substitutes for what we really want. And as we’ve often had occasion to remark, we’re not bad at knowing what we really want, we’re just terrible at paying the type of attention that allows us to see it.
To rely on a series of clever snapshot solutions (another stupid signature move of your half-brained world) is to play behaviour-change whack-a-mole rather than realise that it doesn’t matter how good you get at reactive whacking when it was perfectly possible at any point to just stop playing and go do something more fulfilling instead.
As we saw last time:
If you’re playing a game you’re not really enjoying and for which the only prize is to keep playing, you don’t have to keep playing just because everybody else is.
So much about becoming wiser with money is realising that the aim isn’t to play the numbers game more smartly, but to realise it’s an irrelevant waste of your time to play it at all. To see that it is not grasping for particular objects, but the whole framework of grasping that is the issue. To see that it’s not a smarter series of steps you want, but a smarter interdependent system – a disposition, not a mere position (hi, Eightfold Path!).
Idiot financial planning is all about plans.
Clever financial planning moves onto planning, and purpose (albeit in a limited, short-sighted sense).
Wiser financial planning recognises that those are all side effects of seeing more clearly the interdependent web of relationships with yourself, others, and the world that determine the Goodness of your life, and the role money has to play in making it so.
But this web – despite it being the only way to wisdom – isn’t reducible to a series of steps, and isn’t for sale, so to the modern mind, it’s as if it didn’t exist.

Just stop deceiving yourself! How hard can it be?

This sort of ‘seeing more clearly’ must mean dissolving your self-deception.
In the first post in this series, we saw that our overriding problem was that:
Our self-deceptions lead us to use money as relief from pain, as opposed to freedom from entrapment, and to succumb to the self-destruction it enables, rather than to embrace the opportunities it creates.
It is not news to anybody that we commonly do stuff to earn and spend money that does not contribute to something we could describe as a ‘Good Life’ (however one may wish to define that).
Why not?
We don’t do it deliberately, of course. When you can see the labels clearly, who (other than perhaps Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man) chooses to swig from the bottle with the skull on it?
The three mental poisons with which we opened this series, ‘delusion, greed, and hatred’ are not qualities anybody aspires to! Therefore if you find your life being governed by them, something’s gone wrong and you want to go about fixing it.
However, a worldview that gave rise to delusion, greed and hatred is not a worldview best placed to do something about them.
Which is why even when we do things that turn out not to work (and even when they didn’t work last time, or for anyone else in a trillion attempts) we do so fully believing they’re going to work bloody brilliantly.
And while it’s easy to blame advertising agencies for this, there comes a point when we have to admit it’s the lost agency we have over our own life stories that’s the real source of the repetitively stupid circles we’re running in.
All roads lead to self-deception, though because these roads show up only in reality, rather than on the maps our self-deceived minds drew up to model reality, we don’t see them, think the problem lies elsewhere, and so keep ‘tackling’ it in ways that work unreliably, if at all.
As Stephen Batchelor put it:
Genuine contentment is found in realizing that what one previously assumed to be capable of providing satisfaction is actually unable to do so. It is in accepting this fact and not in an ever more strenuous attempt to force the world into an impossible shape that a realistic outlook is achieved which ceases to expect from the world something the world can never provide.
You don’t see – let alone start to do something about – a loss of agency over your life stories by focusing on environment control hacks. You have to go deeper. You have to look not at your environment, but at the lenses you’re looking at that environment (and its interaction with ourselves) through.