Fighting the Currency

Sometimes it’s hard not to take personal finance personally.
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CM_SEPT16_FEATURES_Currency_Opener

Illustration by Christian Northeast

Dear Money,

You’re a dick.

Sorry to be so blunt but it had to be said.

That’s not coming from some puny, persecuted grade-schooler whose lunch money attracts bullies like Trump attracts Klansmen, or from one of the millions of underprudent, overextended “victims” of America’s credit card culture. No. That’s coming from a guy who’s known, earned, owned, and ably, extensively interacted with you since the days of penny candy and two-cent bottle deposits. A person who has less debt than a dead pet. A veteran of enough Paul Krugman columns to be concerned about the risks of second-hand smug. In other words, Money, you’re being called out by someone who’s lived with you, held you tightly but transiently in his hand, gazed point-blank into your pyramid-topping eye, contemplated your gold standard-less, black-as-the-ink-on-the-right-side-of-a-ledger soul, and come out on the obverse side.

Verdict? Dick.

Which, let’s be honest, Mr. Dead Presidents, should come as no surprise. Not by a long shot. You’ve been toying with me, manipulating me, misleading and controlling me—and, I suspect, everybody I know—practically from the get-go. On the one hand, making yourself indispensable to my life by financing the switch from free breast suckling to store-bought formula; on the other, being insufficiently available to get me the Davy Crockett Coon Skin Cap I wanted, condemning me to the shame of a free-for-the-making roadkill version.

Certainly, you could blame that and countless other “less-than” disappointments (First bike: hand-me-down Huffy, not a new dirt bike; first pet: goldfish, not Rin Tin Tin; first addiction: pot at 18 years old, not cocaine at 12) on my attitude and values. And you’d be right, of course. I can, at times, be excessively comparative and covetous, a virulent neuropairing highly corrosive to sustained contentment. You can’t deny, though, that I’m a fairly typical product of the capitalist system, a system driven by a voracious, insatiable hunger for profit, i.e., you, O Great and Powerful Simoleon. It’s due to you that my consumption of goods and services stands as the number one mission of every business in America. So while I freely admit to my share of materialistic moments, it’s also undeniable that the hot pursuit of you by other entities is the fundamental force whipping up those desires. That’s manipulation by proxy, Mullah Moolah. Kinda twisted, wouldn’t you agree?

Am I renouncing you? No, I don’t have the courage for living under a highway overpass. I’m stuck with you and I know it.

Beyond that, I find even your kindnesses have a way of turning sour. Like, say, the home purchase you made possible 20-odd years ago. I loved the place then, love it now. And I give you props, offer sincere thanks, for the essential role you played in acquiring it. (I’m well aware that in an agrarian society I’d starve, unsheltered, in a barren field, taking comfort only in my deliverance from ever seeing another man in denim overalls.) But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking yours was a wholly altruistic act. Come to find out—and given the number of houses you’ve financed, you undoubtedly already knew—a house is more than a single, standalone transaction. Far more. The fixed mortgage payment is just the start of an inescapable and escalating Ponzi scheme of more random, improvisational expenses. Like replacing a leaky roof and a failing furnace, rebuilding the splintering deck and repouring the crumbling driveway, hiring electricians and plumbers, adding appliances and carpeting—in short, a cornucopia of unforeseen and endlessly-renewing repairs, swap-outs, and upgrades. All requiring…? More tender of the legal variety. More, need I say, you. Always, always more you.

Making you, in my eyes, a thief. Of time and lives. It’s the need for money—because we all need sustenance and housing and medical care and the rodent-based caps of folk heroes—that necessitates work. Forty, 50, 60 hours a week. Meaning most lives are paycheckcentric, focused on the perpetual generation of currency inflow that must be processed into obligation-fulfilling currency outflow. Assuring us that life, this one for-sure shot we get at existence, isn’t, first and foremost, a wisdom-gathering journey or spiritual passage or sensual, hedonistic whoop-dee-doo but an accounting exercise.

Think about it: Even God, Who commands total fealty from the faithful, only gets a couple hours on the weekend (the work week being, somehow, secularly sacrosanct), plus maybe a couple stray prayers or volunteer hours when they can be squeezed in. All told, the King of Heaven probably gets less than 10 percent of the time the average employee devotes to you, King Cash. And in terms of power, how interesting that The Omnipotent One defers to you, wants in on your action, asking for one-tenth of believers’ incomes. (Is your ubiquitous proclamation of “In God We Trust” some sort of co-promotion you two have going?) For anyone betting on the big God vs. Mammon match, the smart money’s on Mammon.

But tithes and the bare essentials are the least of our uses for you. We’re fervently encouraged by spouses and kids and friends and parrots (just how are we expected to procure Polly’s cracker?) alike to turn large portions of our salaries into rewards that assuage or help us forget the labors we perform to obtain you. We make our days a succession of Whoppers, watches, third cars, visits to Disney World, mani/pedis, Hamilton tickets, psychic readings, wedding planners, yet another vintage T-shirt, Hummel figurines, hairless cats, panini presses, Botox and butt lifts, whatever whatzit we’ve always dreamt of (“always” being defined as “since recently acquiring the last dream whatzit on the list”), filling our virtual, tangible, and emotional carts at Amazon, Walmart, the Apple Store, Home Depot, Victoria’s Secret—anyplace, frankly, that isn’t Sears. Plus, there’s insurance to protect all that. In other words, we freely deplete our store of dollars only to find they must be replenished. It’s perfectly diabolical and diabolically perfect. Spending makes us happy but not satisfied. Or, looked at another way, all of us are loading up with cool merch from the vendors outside the rat-racing venue.


Wow, hold on. That’s way more than I planned to get into here. Enumerating your lengthy list of Scratchiavellian machinations isn’t my reason for writing. Especially since, like I said, I’m not exactly a monk in a cell. (Don’t get a swelled head, Bucko; while worldly goods disqualify me for monastic life, atheism and my vow of licentiousness are equally problematic.) And since I have no cashless panacea, no hippie-dippie communal quinoa-and-kale-based barterfest to offer as an alternative, dashing off an anticapitalistic jeremiad seems both hypocritical and pointless.

Besides, that’s all big picture, macro stuff. My real issue is with our continuing dysfunctional personal relationship. About how, even after I hit my earning stride, you seemed determined to find new ways to frustrate me (inflation, deflation, stagflation). To fight me (trickledown economics, the S&L crisis, the dotcom bubble, the Greek debt crisis). To break me (2008, you bastard). And you did all these things smack in the face of my best efforts to make nice with you, make peace, see your side, be your partner in a healthy, long-term relationship. Not fully realizing, not for a long time, anyway, that your sole purpose in life was—is!—jerking me around.

You get that I’m talking about saving, right? Specifically, saving for retirement? You and me, getting serious, settling down together? For life? Me accumulating birthdays while you, my precious cabbage, accumulated value?

Starting a retirement plan is something your buddies the “financial experts”—the people we’ve all been led to believe don’t just know you but grok you—strongly recommend for anyone who wants to avoid spending their golden years dressed in a moth-eaten sweater from Goodwill while eating store brand cat food as they clip Big Lots coupons in the flickering fluorescent dinge and discomfort of the federally subsidized housing the (inevitable!) bankruptcy of Social Security has brought about. None of these experts, however, advocate for merely socking away x bucks a month in the bank. That won’t cut it, they say. Instead, we’re advised:

“Put your money to work for you.”

For which there’s only one translation: Invest. In a business or stock or mutual fund or commodity, any one of which, if purchased at the peak or nadir of the proper market cycle will, history proves beyond a shadow of a doubt but cannot predict with any degree of certainty, pay a return far exceeding that of a passbook account (current interest rate: Ha-ha percent), as evidenced by the colorful charts and graphs generated and dispersed by the investment industry.

Hmm, I thought, this might be just the thing. Beyond the obvious—providing economic security for the future—investing was also an opportunity to be part of your world. The world of growth and markets and assets and tax-averse rich, white Republicans. So, believing this could be something we could do together, I decided to investigate.

I quickly learned there are, essentially, two ways to go: do it yourself or hire a professional. With the former, it’d be up to me to determine the right investment(s) from among tens of thousands of options—that is, assemble a productive portfolio by researching P/E ratios, ROIs, fees, market trends, tax consequences, et cetera. Later, there would be statements to analyze, performances to evaluate, transfers and adjustments to be made, et cetera. The upshot being, to put you to work for me, it’d be necessary for me to go to work for you. Again, I mean. Since I’d already worked to get you!

Taking the other option, though, seemed a bit too through-the-looking-glass: You’d only work for me if I hired you an employee first. An employee—brokerage, financial planner, whatever—who’d be paid regardless of how good or bad things turned out. Equity/fund/portfolio underperform? Tough break. The fee or commission’s already been charged—tacked on to the purchase price or deducted from the account. What’s more, with an arrangement that paid the planner a flat percentage of the account balance (the rationale being they’re incented to make more money for clients to make more money for themselves), they’d still be entitled to a profit regardless of outcome. They could turn $10 million into $10,000 and they’d still charge for the effort they put into guiding the client’s future toward kitchen-based haircuts.

Thus did the years of trial, error, and additional bonus error begin. In case you’ve forgotten, I initially took the DIY approach, dedicating a handful of years to your care only to produce returns drearier than a Nick Cave song with a hangover. Wanting more for you (and yes, me too), I handed you over to the stewardship of a large brokerage. That was followed by a medium-sized financial planning firm that charged commissions. When that relationship ended, I found you a smallish “flat rate” outfit. You’re presently on your second one of those.

I should note none of these moves were by any means rash. I made sure to give you and your new “colleague” plenty of time—years—to work together, find your groove. And in each instance, that groove proved disappointingly identical: a perfect mirroring of market performance during down cycles, not insignificant shortfalls during up ones. That is, when the Dow, NASDAQ, S&P 500, Russell 2000, Fahrenheit 451, Newton 3.141592653589793 plunged deeply in response to world events and Wall Street Chicken Little-ism, you plunged in equal measure. But when they were up 8, 10, 12 percent, you could only grunt out 2, 4, 5 percent. Before fees. Rendering the 30-year charts and long-term projections of your growth optimistic at best, a PowerPoint reboot of The Sting at worst.

How could this be? How could my efforts, my perseverance, my checks to credentialed experts (credentialed = owners of a conference table fit for the Justice League; experts = those capable of administering bond maturity data as a sleep aid) so consistently fail to rally you to run with the bulls in the same lockstep you managed when retreating with the bears?

Was I doing something wrong, I wondered. Like setting my risk tolerance level too high? Or too low? Or underdiversifying? Or overdiversifying? Or overfocusing on prefixes for diversifying? Was I too laissez-faire with your handlers? Too laissez-unfaire? Had I failed to notice the “Check here for fabulous wealth” box on my annual statements? Could it be the gypsy curse Milton Friedman once put on me (long story)?

Or was it today’s legions of day traders, who with their 24/7 split-nanosecond buying and selling and short selling and put-optioning and call-optioning were amply cunning to harvest any earnings but too swift to be left holding the bag? More worrisome: Was this or something else I’d failed to see a warning sign of late-stage capitalism? Could it be, for instance, that growth is no longer possible or sustainable? Are people deciding they either have enough crap or more than enough debt to preclude the purchase of any further crap, thereby idling our biggest corporations—the makers and sellers of said crap—with millions of jobs lost, exacerbating the problem? I mean, who says capitalism is eternal? Doesn’t everything have a lifespan? Couldn’t it be that capitalism worked best with fewer people and better income equality and lower credit limits and retailers not being the largest corporations in the world?


Oddly, it was in the midst of this speculative cascade that it hit me: You’re actually a much bigger dick than I gave you credit for. Not because you haven’t worked hard for me (and you haven’t) but because you want too much from me. Too much of my thought, my available brain space. The comfortable retirement your growth, your “working for me,” was intended to assure has instead filled too much of too many pre-retirement years with anxiety and upset, letdown and inadequacy.

What’s more, I realized however much of you I put away to proliferate, the day I retire is the day I start weighing if what I have stashed will make it to the end. Is it 20 years of French champagne and carved ivory dentures? Thirty of sparkling cider and back alley dentistry? Will it be gone in two, ravaged by a catastrophic illness? How pissed will I be if a fatal aneurysm at 65 means not getting to enjoy what could’ve easily lasted till 80? (Answer: Don’t ask.)

Am I renouncing you? No, I don’t have the courage for living under a highway overpass or the heart to give up flights to visit distant loved ones. I’m stuck with you and I know it. So, then, why bother writing, grumbling, calling you names? Because you should know. Should know that I know. Because you’re told far too little. Plus, it feels good. And just. You could say this is my “I am Spartacus” moment. Though in this version, the slave lives.

Now, let’s get a pizza. Your treat.

Best,

bw

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