If we’re not already Facebook friends, please come find me. You’ll get updated on what my son Jacob is baking for Shabbat, what sports victory my daughter Sophie is celebrating this week, and how patient my husband Michael is in managing all of our personalities and schedules without losing his sanity.
If you already are my Facebook friend, then you may have noticed one recent comment of mine that set off a litany of impassioned, emotional responses. My comment was not about the upcoming elections, the state of the economy, or even the Jewish holidays. It was about not wanting to pay $128 for a new pair of black pants.
My friends and colleagues were in an uproar about my apparent lack of understanding about the value of a great pair of black pants. They were concerned about my inability to assess the long-term investment dividends that come from a great pair of black pants. They themselves had experienced so many satisfying moments from procuring and wearing their own great pairs of black pants that they wanted that joy for me as well.
I appreciated their pleas. I respected their points of view. I am even reconsidering my decision, which is, I assume, reversible (unlike the pants themselves, for which, had they been, I easily would have forked over $128.) What struck me the most was how deeply entrenched our values about money are – and how frequently I sit in judgment about how people spend theirs. What also struck me was that I wanted to stop doing it.
When I told my daughter Sophie that my Rosh Hashanah resolution was to stop judging how other people spend their money, she didn’t simply ask me why. She asked, “Why stop? It’s so much fun!” She is absolutely correct. Thinking about how and why other people spend their money is interesting, but talking about it is even more entertaining, and criticizing it can fill up any void in conversation around my house. Yes, it is engaging, but it doesn’t feel healthy. I know this from the perspective of someone whose decision about what not to spend money on was upbraided online (which, I realize, I invited) and I believe this from the perspective of someone who truly feels that people are entitled to their personal choices, whether I agree with them or not.
How about you? Do you spend too much time being engaged, enraged or entertained about how other people spend their money?
Groucho Marx once quipped, “Money frees you from doing things you dislike. Since I dislike doing nearly everything, money is handy.” He may have been joking, but there’s more than an element of truth to what he said. Money can liberate us from doing the things we don’t like to do. I pay to have someone help clean the house. I pay to have someone cut our grass. I pay to have someone do my taxes. I can do those things, but I wouldn’t do them well – and even if I did, I simply don’t want to. To me, spending money on these seem like a natural extension of my values of freedom, fun and expediency, so these purchases make sense – for me. From your perspective, these expenses may seem like a waste of money if you have different values, or even if your tangible expression of similar values would look different for you. You might choose to express your values of freedom, fun and expediency by buying a vacation package – paying more to have less planning to do. I understand that. Let’s just say that one person’s necessity is another person’s indulgence. But then let’s not say more than that – assuming we’re all adults here.
Stopping the instinct to judge how people spend their money is a hard habit to break because we can’t go cold turkey. Why? Because every time we contemplate a purchase, an investment or even an act of tzedakah, we go into judgment mode. Is this worth it? Why or why not? What would make it worth it? What will it give me? What won’t it give me? What will this say about me? What might I have to say no to if I say yes to this now? Who else is buying/investing/giving this way? What do I think about them? And on and on and on. Our judgment muscles are constantly being exercised, so they’re strong and ready to react whenever we think, hear or see “money”. What I need to do is recognize the distinction between using those muscles for myself, when and where they’re needed, and having them go into automatic, fast-twitch mode when I hear about someone’s new handbag, upcoming vacation, or charity choices.
Stepping down from sitting in judgment about how other people spend their money may mean I have less to gossip about over the dinner table or raise eyebrows about at shul. But I’m willing to spend a little more money on movies, books and magazines as alternative forms of healthier entertainment while I worry a little (or a lot) less about how you spend yours.