Thursday, November 27, 2014

Impersonal Finance

This is a blog post I've started about 57 times and then trashed 56 times.  I can't quite figure out an elegant or kind way to begin, so everything that follows is riddled with vast imperfections.  But perhaps this latest version is good enough to share.  Fifty seventh time is the charm, so they say . . .

Here's the general gist:  I love the personal finance genre.   But I hate the phrase "personal finance".

The "personal" that kicks off the phrase "personal finance"  can be selfish (at worst) and tunnel-visioned (at best).  The very word "personal" shoves us relentlessly into ourselves.  By implication, it distracts us from all of those obligations that tether us to noble aspects beyond ourselves.   The phrase "personal finance" seems so much smaller-minded than "philanthropy finance",  or "social justice finance", or "environment finance", or other (as far as I can tell) non-existent genres of finance advice.  If you want to read about financial planning that places you and your money in service to a Higher Cause, PF ain't it.  The phrase "personal finance" evokes images of individualism, not of connections.

So, are my favorite personal finance authors selfish, self-centered hermits?  No, not by any means.

My favorite authors are my favorite authors in large part because of how much they care about justice, or mercy, or ecological sustainability, or the transcendent.  As just one for-example, Joe Dominguez of Your Money or Your Life turned my life around.  He is probably the most widely read personal finance author of the past few decades, and he spent much of his life donating both his money and time to helping others.  But even in his book, the idea of being able to help others was seen to be almost an afterthought---a kind of a side effect---that comes from achieving financial independence.  The spotlight of his book shone on the idea of independence; the notions of charity and service stood to the side and got only a second-hand halo.

But what if your goal of finance is bigger than just personal?  What if it's not just about you and yours?  What if it's about more than just getting out of (your own) debt?  About more than (your own) retirement?  About more than (your own) independence?

I can't think of the phrase I'd use to describe what I actually mean; that's part of why this is version number 57 of this essay.  In my own head, the perfect phrase would describe that I want to use my money and time not just to take care of my own needs (although that's part of it), but that I also become a force for good in the larger world.  But every phrase I actually try seems too new-age-y.  Last week in church, one of the deacons mentioned that "genesis" and "generosity" have the same etymological roots, and I started mulling over the idea of "Regenerative Finance", imagining that I was tending my finances to be a fertile field for many, a kind of a compost pile of financial planning.  It might look like mucky dirt, folks, but it's really black gold.

The questions of "Personal Finance" and "Fertile Finance"--or whatever the heck it ought to be called--are probably largely the same.

What the heck, the answers are probably largely the same, too.  (Spend less than you earn; keep track of where your money goes; be prepared for emergencies).

But even if you wind up in close to the same place at the end, it's a different mindset to believe that your money is in service not just to you, but also to something bigger than you are.
  • Can you save money by showering at the gym instead of at home?  (The money for the showers at the gym come from somewhere, after all -- does that matter to you?)
  • How do you deal with people who "borrow" things of yours and don't give them back?  (The story of the person who has your waffle iron might be an important part of your final answer, just maybe.)
  • Do you donate money to charity now, or wait until you're retired/wealthy?  (Wisdom always has to matter on this question, right?  But I think it's important to keep asking myself the question over and over, to let it nag at me.  And sometimes to let it inspire me.) 
Which I guess leads me back to where I started, which is that I love the personal finance genre.  It's awfully hard to take care of the entire world if you can't even take care of yourself.  So here's a big Thank You to my favorite bloggers for being the voices that I love to read every morning:  for giving me inspiration and ideas, and for connecting me to a world bigger than myself.


  1. And thank you for being so inspiring in your generosity!! Reading your blog has definitely encouraged to look hard at our charitable giving & to increase our giving to causes that are important to us.

    I think it comes down to net worth & wanting to see that number tick upwards. Donating to others (and building social capital) doesn't fit easily into the quest for net worth.

    This third reason is what turns me off most pf blogs "Do you donate money to charity now, or wait until you're retired/wealthy?" So well put!

  2. Interesting. I think of personal finance as the finances over which I have personal control, so it's also about spending on all the things I care about, which includes me and mine, but also fights against poverty, pain, poison, etc. But now that you mention it, it does sound selfish.

    So I've never tried to think of a better name for the genre of talking about how you will use your power over the finances that come into your kingdom (and the power to bring finances into your kingdom in the first place).

    Citizen finance sounds pretty good (as opposed to business finance). But not everyone's a citizen of the country they're in, even though they are world citizens.

    Hmm, some name that shows it's about the stuff we have control over without implying it's just about us. Nope, I'm also getting nowhere.

    Meanwhile, people do tend to think of themselves first. And hey, if everyone is helping themselves, then everyone has someone helping them. And then once you're doing minimally okay, it's easier to expand your horizons. Maslow has that whole theory about that. So I'm still okay with the name.

    1. Okay, if you *do* come up with a good name for it, let me know! -MM

  3. Public Finance actually is something, and something quite different from personal finance. But maybe a bit more inline with what you're talking about. Fixing market failure, caring about spillovers to other people, social welfare functions, etc. The role for government, the role for private charity.

    Like Debbie M, I think of the personal as meaning based on my decisions, what I have personal control over. It could be selfish or generous, depending on my individual utility curve and how much I care about other people vis a vis my self.

    (Also, YMOYL starts with talking about the environment at great length. That part just isn't very well-written, which might be why it's so forgettable.)

    1. Speaking of pf bloggers I like reading . . . yes. Of course *you* (and Debbie) think of personal in that sense -- of where you have control -- but your utility curve is pretty broad minded compared to other pf bloggers I've read.

      You don't have to get far in the blogosphere to see that it's just too easy to read "personal finance" as "that means it's all mine, period".

  4. I think of it as financial stewardship, because the choices I make are not just about me, they're about all the implications for the world around me - pension planning isn't just about my net wealth, it's about reducing the drain I will be on the public purse and my loved ones once I choose to or have to reduce the amount I work for pay in older age; investing is about sending money out into the world to do SOMETHING, that's how it generates a return, so where do I send it? Replacing a chair - well, I can choose to reuse something and prevent it going to landfill, or get the current chair fixed, or to buy a new chair that was made of sustainable resources in a local workshop, or... (we lack good yard sales here, so often reuse by thrifting is a challenge and involves quite a bit of driving which I don't enjoy and don't wish to 'spend' on).

    Giving to charity is actually often more about me - as in, I give to causes I care about but either don't think I can currently make the time to help with in person or am not psychologically suited to help with in person (e.g. charities who work with the homeless in my country, or education and sanitation in the developing world, or cleaning up beaches (I have a bad back)...), and because I can - the good feeling I get from helping others is a reward, and it's a kind of 'karmic insurance' too - I help because I want people to help the people I love when they are in need, in trouble, in crisis - the old "when I needed a neighbour..." approach, I guess. A sop to my conscience as much as a genuinely disinterested decision.

    I find most personal finance stuff to be hard to read because of the 'me mine I am an Island' attitude - being British, I find that whole aspect of American narrative stands out a lot as foreign, perhaps making it harder to overlook to get to the good stuff?

    1. I like the way you demonstrate that there's so much that goes into our choices: what we have, what we can offer, what we value, and so on.

      In the U.S. (maybe in Britain, too), I have to be careful about the use of the word "stewardship" because the phrase conjures up images of conservative politics -- I've had people tell me that stewardship means we're allowed to do whatever we want with the earth because, after all, God gave it to us to take care of as we decide best. Interestingly enough, it's not my politically conservative friends who say that, but that's the stereotype regardless.

      If it weren't for that connotation, I think I'd be right there with you on stewardship. Part of the reason I think I ought to share what I have is because it's all such an incredible gift I got without even deserving it, so why shouldn't I re-gift it with other people who can enjoy it or use it, too?

  5. At first I thought you were looking for "financial stewardship" as well: making wise choices with your personal finances such that it allows you to then do your part to make the world a better place in some way. I wasn't aware of the negative stereotype you mention. (Then I went on a mental tangent about the Steward of Gondor who was sort of doing his job but did it from a totally selfish way...)

    Formal charities have always gotten smaller donations from me while I supported my family either domestically or abroad, so in that sense I've always felt a bit selfish (because I've viewed the family as simply an extension of myself) but I did learn the hard way that you really can't take care of others, neglect yourself, and still expect to have the resources to dedicate to good causes and helping others.