Money profoundly affects our lives, for good and for ill, and in ways so hidden we’re hostage to them; to take control, and channel the energy of money to our benefit, we need to train our vision
Money fucks us up. It fuels our external journeys, but it distracts us from our internal ones. We’ve forgotten how to access mental security because it’s so much easier to buy the cheap material substitute. We want self-improvement, but self-deception is so much shinier, and it’s always on sale.
There are three things you can do with money – spend it, save it, and invest it. We reliably do all of them not only worse than we could, but in a way that compounds stressful thoughts, rather than eases them. The causes of this run deep. They’re woven into the seams of our societies and mapped inside our brains. Being wiser with money is about far more than efficient and effective saving, spending or investing. It goes to the root of our sense of and understanding of our ourselves.
Some think a certain level of money whitewashes these problems out of existence, or at least out of consciousness; out of sight, out of mind. My job was to be in these minds, and I promise you their problems were far from out of sight. Others believe problems go away if you denounce them. Yet calling money evil doesn’t absolve you from your attachment, it tightens the screws.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Money may be necessary, but its evils are not.
To borrow from Hamlet,[i] there is nothing either good or bad about money, but thinking makes it so. To one it is a prison, to another a paradise.
On its own, money is meaningless. It is contact with humanity that imbues money with magical powers. Chief among these is its power to change our minds – literally.
Amid the unceasing cultivation of neuronal connections that adapts us to survive and thrive in changing circumstances, our interactions with money trigger paving or pruning of neural pathways like nothing else.
Because it runs through everything we do, money is the best place to focus whatever energy we can muster for behaviour change. Embedded in our lives means embedded in our brains, whether we like it or not. Few things excite our emotions like money, yet because we pretend we become robots in our dealings with it, we get a distorted view of money, ourselves, and how the two interact.
The relationship we each have with money – that is both shaped by and in return shapes our mental maps – is under our control. This is excellent news. For it means money messes us up only when we choose to let it.
We can, if we choose to:
free up time, energy, and money itself, and increase the quality of everyday life, simply by changing how we think and act with money;
see money as a source of comfort and confidence, not as complicated and scary;
learn how to spend our money to make life better, rather than simply more expensive;
learn how to see savings as a sign of self-love, rather than self-deprivation; and
learn how to reap the rewards of investing without needing a crystal ball or a maths degree.
In short, we can go from being fucked up to flourishing. From relying on beliefs to seeing more clearly. And we can do it all without equivocation or fortune-cookie claptrap that overuses the word ‘abundance’ and overlooks how to engender real change.
In addition, this book will help you understand all you need to know about the weird world of financial advice, including how to spot a good adviser from one that looks even better but is giving you a hug only to distract you from your pockets being picked. And why the adviser you think is the best for you could well be the worst.
The journey towards financial enlightenment begins with philosophy. You can sort your finances ‘perfectly’, but without getting your philosophy sorted first, you may be less fucked up, but you’ll be far from flourishing.
Fertilising our neural soil with philosophy allows us to nurture an all-weather wisdom that transforms how we think, feel, and act with money, that strengthens us from the inside out, and that makes the right call the effortless one, forever more.
This is wisdom in the sense described by historian Will Durant: ‘an application of experience to present problems, a view of the part in the light of the whole, a perspective of the moment in the vista of years past and years to come.’[ii]
For millennia, wise minds, from ancient philosophers to present-day neuroscientists, have mused about our relationship with money. Along the journey of this book, we will borrow their wisdom, internalise it, and forge it into a practical toolkit for revolutionising that relationship.
The practical steps on your path towards financial enlightenment are an unfolding story of becoming wiser with money, its star’s fate determined by each fork in the road
Money is the great universal. That’s sort of the point of it. This means it gets involved in all sorts of decisions. To do one thing is to not do a million other things. The way your brain works says that how you do anything is how you do everything: every decision is a vote for one version of you over another. Grand stories are told by granular steps.
By assigning a translatable value to the competing components of each decision, money can save us from paralysing confusion. But it can – and regularly does – go too far. Having a universal converter doesn’t stop an incalculable number of decisions needing to be made. We need mental defaults. But the defaults we’ve ended up with aren’t wise ones. Our common money defaults deceive us, and ruin our decisions.
Doubt is drawn to kicking cans down roads. Yet later is just now with less time to enjoy living with the outcome of whatever decision it is we’re dodging.
This is why a grounding philosophy is so important. Because it wisens up our defaults, linking them to a vision big enough and cool enough to get us to stop and think things through, rather than being blindly swept away by self-deception.
At each moment of decision, our self-deceiving beliefs about money send us down unnecessarily dumb and dangerous paths. Becoming wiser with money corrects this, and steers us instead in the direction of our dreams – towards financial enlightenment.
The aim of this book is to inject a shot of consciousness at each crossroads, to break unhelpful patterns and build better ones in their place.
The three main sources of monetary self-deception are:
Believing money is something you have, rather than part of who you are.
Believing other people’s money defaults can be valuably adopted as our own.
Believing the importance of money lies in numbers, rather than narrative.
The way we cede control to these self-deceptions is subtle; that’s how self-deception works. Mental mirrors can be uncomfortable to look at. Rear-view ones that force us to reflect upon what we’ve done with our lives are all the more so.
But the pain of not confronting them, of remaining trapped by them, far outweighs the discomfort of doing so in a quest for freedom. Financial enlightenment is not a state. It is a process of cultivating a positively reinforcing capacity for making better decisions.
It is your sight, not your soul, that needs to change. This is about self-love, not self-control. It calls for clear thinking, not hard-assed discipline. It’s not about learning lessons, but practising them.
In any anthropocentric tale, the point of a path is rarely its destination. Humans move along paths to grow; to arrive is to stop moving, to stop growing.
A focus on a destination may start you going somewhere, but maintaining it gets you nowhere. Dreams of somewhere may ignite a spark, but it’s the arriving, not the arrival, that keeps our fires burning.
We need both a zoomed-out view to check we’re on the right path, and to zoom-in on each individual step that keeps us there. The flourishingness or fucked-up-ness of our fate flows like a waterfall from a cascade of droplet-sized decisions. Little lifestyle choices add up to big brainstyle choices.
On the one hand, this is lucky. Money is an ever-present at the forks in our mental roads. It’s the perfect vehicle on which better-decision-making machinery can hitch a ride. On the other hand, this is unlucky. For ten thousand reasons, the paths either side of each fork are not created equal. The bad way is often a highway, with a flood of fancy cars offering lifts, while the right way is overgrown with weeds, barely visible without hours of hacking about with a machete.
To take the path towards financial enlightenment is to participate in a process of becoming wiser with money. It is the becoming wiser, not the being wise, that is important.
It is a participatory process because money isn’t wise by itself, and you cannot be wise with it, without it.
Becoming wiser is to see the right path more clearly, by clearing out the weeds of self-deception, in such a way that we progressively and systematically side-step future self-deception by default. Each step is a choice, between self-deception and its opposite, rationality. Our rationality is our capacity to overcome self-deception in a reliable and systematic manner, so that we may stay on course, take the right next step, and trigger a cascade of insights that levels-up who we are and what we’re capable of.
Rationality isn’t about not feeling. It’s about a more refined appraisal of inputs into our predictive model of our place in the world – and feelings are very much part of these inputs. But behaviour changing protocols that rely only on exciting emotional responses are not reliable if the excitement fades before the habit highway forms.
Money misleads us into believing it will bring us what we want, when in reality it is only a well-disguised substitute.
Some wants are met by having something. We relate to them in a subject-object fashion. There is ‘I’, and there is ‘it’. ‘I’ owns ‘it’. ‘It’ can be controlled by ‘I’ in service of solving problems. ‘It’ is replaceable. There are many ‘its’, and each one is a good-enough substitute for all the others.
Other wants are met only by being, or rather becoming something. Like wanting to be in love, or wanting to become mature. These wants are about a relationship, between you and the world, or you and another person, or you and yourself. They relate not to solving isolated problems, but to the very meaning of your existence. Relationships are expressions: they do not fall into neat categories, finding adequate substitutes is not easy.
In the words of Erich Fromm, whose landmark book To Have, Or to Be? set out the distinction, being and having ‘do not refer to certain separate qualities of a subject as illustrated in such statements as “I have a car” or “I am white” or “I am happy.” ’ They refer, rather, ‘to two fundamental modes of existence, to two different kinds of orientation toward self and the world, to two different kinds of character structure the respective predominance of which determines the totality of a person’s thinking, feeling, and acting.’[iii]
It would be a mistake to think of one mode as good, and the other bad; they each have their place. What is very bad indeed though is when we try to meet being mode wants with having mode answers. Unfortunately, inciting this confusion is the foundation of marketing, and marketers have got awfully good at it. Want love? Want maturity? Have sex! Own a Ferrari! Have sex in your Ferrari!
‘In the having mode of existence,’ wrote Fromm, ‘my relationship to the world is one of possessing and owning, one in which I want to make everybody and everything, including myself, my property.’[iv] We believe that if we ‘own’ the answer to our wants, we will be somehow secure. It’s a tempting illusion. Sadly, it’s bollocks.
Haves will only take us so far. And when we use having something as a substitute to becoming something, where it takes us is far away from where we want to be. When Prince Siddhartha Gautama left his palace – where he allegedly ‘had’ everything – on his way to becoming the awakened, enlightened one (the ‘Buddha’) this is what he came to realise.
If anything feels more like something you have rather than something you are in the process of becoming, it will never feel real. Consider the difference between ‘having’ health versus living healthily, or a job title versus being the competent creator of value for others. In all cases, becoming who you want makes having what you want happen by accident. The reverse is not true.
Faking it really can make it, as dreams of a having a six-pack can kick-start a journey to living healthily. But it can also end with a life in service of a metric, rather than a metric in service of a life. In a choice between fundamental modes of existence, metrics are signs of things to be forcefully done, rather than expressions of a way of living. And chores always eventually go undone.
When the bad way is the highway it doesn’t take a lot of effort to zoom along down it. In many instances, it takes no effort at all. When defaults go bad, inertia carries us to places we don’t really want to be. It is less a path, and more a conveyor belt.
Jumping into a car simply because it’s chaffeur-driven isn’t always wise. Where we’re going is important. How we experience getting there is more important still. You can’t climb a mountain in a mobility scooter, and even if you could, you’d feel worse than if you’d hiked up instead. The more we hike, the easier and more enjoyable it gets. But to keep it enjoyable, we don’t keep it easy. We seek new challenges. A baby doesn’t take its first steps, think it’s nailed it and put its feet up. It learns to run.
When it comes to the forks in the road on our path to financial enlightenment, we need to see thinking in the same way. The conveyor belt of unthinking will always be tempting, but that doesn’t mean we want to hop on.
The inaction of unthinking inertia is broken by thinking. This doesn’t happen automatically. We need to train our vision for mental triggers – thoughts, words, phrases, and concepts we know we’ll encounter that we can use as reminders to confirm the consciousness of our actions. That remind us to pause and think before blindly going off course.
Do this often enough, and you soon start to dance through your financial life not with discomfort and confusion, but with effortless effort. Doing without feeling like it’s a chore. Fighting without feeling like it’s a fight.
Thinking is not the same as believing. We commonly say ‘think’ to describe a process involving precisely zero thinking. I caught myself doing it at least a thousand times in writing this book. Questioning what we have really thought through and what we’ve unthinkingly reacted to is a non-negotiable when initiating any behaviour change.
Money’s role in our stories seems like it should be super simple. It’s odd how it doesn’t work out that way. Why do those with money not live reliably better than those without it?
Odd, that is, until you realise that not only does it not work this way, but it cannot work this way.
This isn’t because money cannot buy ‘happiness’. Because it can. Just not the way we believe it can (N.B. this isn’t about ‘buying experiences’ either).
We deceive ourselves when we believe money’s role in our lives is about inanimate numbers that decorate the narrative, rather than being a living, breathing part of the narrative itself. Money is integral and instrumental, not merely incidental, to the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.
At each fork in the decision-making road, our options can appear daunting. As we constantly encounter new forks, there is no way to forecast where each explosion of possible path combinations will lead. It would be like trying to calculate every combination of chess moves. Not even the biggest, baddest, computers come close to doing that. Instead, they filter. So should we.
All forks are defined by seeing money as either a mere number, or as part of our narrative. To see the distinction more clearly requires unlocking overlooked ways of knowing.
We will look later at the different ways of knowing something, from propositional (facts), to procedural (technical skill), to perspectival (relevance in context), to finally participatory (how we interact with something – how it changes us, how we change it, and how a meaning emerges that belongs to neither it, nor us, but to the interaction).
By necessity, we know money in a participatory way. Yet when it comes to money, we ignore this type of knowing, keeping this apparently inanimate, functional medium of exchange firmly in the first two categories, with perhaps an occasional peek into the third when for a brief moment a Mastercard advert reminds us that there are some things money can’t buy, before we nod sagely and go shopping for ‘everything else’.
We shall also look at how, when considering the classic pictorial timeline of evolution – where knuckles cease to drag, and everything gets rather less hairy – we must dress the figure at the end, so integral are our clothes to who we are. And how outside of a proportion of people that rounds to nothing, we must also give this tip of the evolutionary chain some money (and companionship to share its story with).
Your life is not a number. It’s a narrative. So why chase a number as the way to enrich your story? Why try to become what you want by having something as a substitute, when the having never works? Why trust to the impersonal luck of unthinking, when the personal judgment of thinking is always available? Why settle for anything less than becoming wiser with each step?
 There are innumerable ways to categorise what we do, of course. This model is the best for our purposes. If you’re wondering where ‘give it away’ fits in, it’s in all three, but mostly spending, for, as we’ll see later, it’s a fundamental means of allocating your resources towards living a Good Life.
 Fromm uses ‘being’ rather than ‘becoming’; I prefer ‘becoming’, though the distinction is not hugely important, and in referring to modes of existence, they are interchangeable.
 We’ll discuss definitions of ‘happiness’ and related terms in Part 1, Section 3.4.
 Part 1, Section 3.2.
[i] Allusion to William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2
[ii] Will Durant, Fallen Leaves
[iii] Erich Fromm, To Have, Or to Be?
[iv] Erich Fromm, To Have, Or to Be?