2.1.2: The only way to solve money problems

The roots of your money problems – and their solutions – are in the way your brain is wired, not how much money you have; having money isn’t the answer, being wiser with it is

Money problems are mindset problems. They therefore cannot be solved with money. They need to be solved in the mind. They need to be solved with philosophy.

For the doubters – and judging by our actions, we all doubt this, all the time – I urge reflecting on those pioneering souls who’ve filled their vaults with gold, and their hearts with sadness; no scientist could ask for a better dataset. In my own experience inside the heads of millionaires, living good lives or otherwise, the money was an irrelevance, as likely to highlight misery as it did merriment. Whether it was believing the next mansion would fill the void the previous one didn’t, or believing that the next million in the bank would unlock the feeling of ‘true financial freedom’, the one inescapable conclusion was that such beliefs were all bullshit.

And despite the part of me that clearly thought I would be different, that given the funding my financial philosophising would equip me to rule a kingdom that was happier, more meaningful and more damned eudaimonic than anything Plato or Disney could dream of, I knew this to be wrong. If something hasn’t worked for anyone in human history, it’s not an empowering belief to think you’ll be the exception, it’s a stupid one.


As Derren Brown wrote in Happy, ‘Our philosophy can be highly flexible and subject to great changes, but the important point, I believe, is to have one, and one that enables us to live more fully.’ Brown’s right, but I would tweak his assertion slightly: the point of a philosophy is not so much to have one, as to be one, or, better yet, to become one.[1]

Without a philosophy we have no default grounding guidance. In the context of living a Good Life, this is suicidal. Because we live in a world brimming with individuals and institutions desperate to infect any default void they can with their own views. As Dante wrote: ‘Renouncing the exercise of reason is renouncing existence, and so it is the same as being dead. And does not he renounce the exercise of reason who gives himself no account of the goal of his life… or of the path he ought to take?’[i]

A grounding philosophy is vital to combat the sort of incessant fiddling that characterises the worst investment approaches as it does the twitchiest supermarket-queue switchers. If you know your investments were chosen according to an appropriate philosophy, you stop worrying about whether you should be chasing this or that trend. And from a higher level, if your relationship with money has strong roots, while in turbulent times it may bend and shake, it’s far less likely to topple into catastrophe.

If your relationship with money – or anything else that plays a key role in your thoughts, from your choice of career to how you treat other people – isn’t securely grounded by knowing it’s on the right path, those thoughts are liable to spin around in fruitless circles. If you add more fuel to such fires, you still won’t get anywhere, but your head will spin, your gut will growl, you’ll feel dizzy and probably a bit sick.

One of the most reliable lessons one learns when studying how money affects us is that if you’re happy without money, you’ll likely be happy with it, and if you’re unhappy without it, no amount of money will change that. In the words of a former client, who had quite literally lived the Hollywood lifestyle,[2] ‘money is just circumstances’. Lasting happiness and good living cannot be at the mercy of such changing winds.

Money’s role in happiness, and even ‘life satisfaction’ more generally is mostly negative. That’s not to say it has negative value, but that it’s a safeguard against the sort of truly bad circumstances that make everything actively worse, rather than increasing the upside. It merely creates the platform from which to leap into the positive. Tinkering with interior decoration can be fun – it can even be a form of artistic self-expression – but the nearer it gets to being the chief focus of one’s energy, the more inefficient and distracting, and therefore pointless, it becomes. If you had only a year left to live, you wouldn’t spend any of it fussing about soft furnishings. You’d magically remember what potential value you have to give to the world and at least attempt to fulfil it. Which is, of course, precisely what you should do without a death sentence forcing your hand.

Money works as a means, but without a meaning to serve, it becomes an end. And such thinking doesn’t end well. This isn’t simply an aspiration, it’s a responsibility. We may all, in some way, run from responsibility, but when we do embrace it, we like nothing better; it quite literally sustains us. Old folk live longer if they have a plant to care for. I don’t know, but I’m willing to bet the same effect doesn’t hold if you buy a plant, neglect it, and then just buy another one when it dies. Substituting ‘having a thing’ for ‘living wisely’ never works.

page2.1.3: Does financial advice help or hinder?

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[1] This will become much clearer as we progress. Recall also the crucial difference between the having and being modes discussed alongside the Principles.

[2] And whom we’ll meet in Part 2, Chapter 4.


[i] Dante Aligheri, Convivio

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