Sacrificing to Invest

26 11 2009

One of my regular customers is an older man who buys lottery tickets on an irregular schedule. One day, he posed the semi-rhetorical question, “what would you do if you won the lottery?”

Since I don’t play the lottery, the question is very rhetorical for me.

But I hearkened back to my wild youth, and the answer the twenty-something me would have given is unrecognizable from the one that present-day me gave.

In my wild twenties, I took the time to write out a list of how I would spend the big jackpot if I won it all, alone. The recurring theme was “buy, buy, buy.” I’d buy an Olympic Cedar home. I’d buy a Corvette. I’d travel around the world. I’d have my own music studio. Essentially, I would want for nothing.

I just finished reading The Billionare’s Vinegar by Ben Wallace, a book I heartily recommend. The book did not shape my present view of lottery winnings, or similar windfalls, but it certainly helped define the edges.

Without spoiling the plot, I can say that the story is littered with very rich people that spend their money in very questionable ways. As I read the story, I kept asking internally, “whom did these expenses help?” It can be argued that somebody benefited from millionaires tossing money around, as it could be argued that had the younger me won the lottery and gone bonkers spending all of it, a real estate agent, airline, music equipment maker, car dealer, and so on would have shared in the windfall. But the tale of massive “luxury” spending only made me consider all of the ways that the money could have been spent, and the benefits that it could have bestowed.

The present-day incarnation of myself has a saying: “I, who needs least, want; I, who want for nothing, need.”

As I survey my dwindling inventory of possessions, I ask, what are these things for? That which has a purpose remains, that which does not, is cast out.

Perhaps it is some manner of mental illness that leads me to think that I have not pared enough away. The computer could be merged with the TV set, the computer monitor and desk sold off. I could cut out TV and internet altogether, but for now I’m clinging to these if for no other reason that living alone with little in the way of entertainment or distraction probably isn’t best for me. Reviewing my monthly fixed expenses, TV/Internet is the only item that isn’t associated with merely living in an apartment or driving a car. I’ll afford myself that splurge for the time being.

Fixed expenses aside, there isn’t much left to blow on frivolous items. I remarked to a co-worker yesterday that even grabbing dinner from a fast-food joint hurts – financially. That $6 could have been spent on groceries and stretched longer than a single meal.

Arguably, I’m not exactly living what one might term “my best life”, if viewed purely through a financial lens. I am scraping by. I am well aware of the risks, and am thankful (on this day of thanks-giving) that while I can see the bottom, I’m not even close to touching it.

I have a job. I have an apartment. I own a car (almost). I don’t miss meals because I can’t afford to eat. I can feed and care for my dog. I can buy new clothes, sparingly. I can enjoy beer and wine for their own sake, not compelled by addiction or excess.

For these comforts, I am thankful.

Some days, I daydream about putting in the necessary effort to land a better job, that is, a job that pays more and provides health insurance. I catch myself thinking about the buying power this upgrade would provide, and even think back to when it was no big deal to spend $100 on a single piece of cookware. But now, I temper these flights of fancy with the question, “what are these things for?” What is the money for? Who will benefit, and how?

I am not glorifying poverty. If anything, despite my own “poverty” I am rather comfortable compared to many. I might be exiling myself to “poverty” out of a sense of inertia, or fear of the unknown, or even contentment.

What I told the man who asked me how I would spend lottery winnings, or a similar windfall is this:

I would invest in people.

I don’t need my name on buildings. I don’t need expensive homes or cars. I don’t need to travel the world. I don’t need to buy, buy, buy.

It’s not about me.

It’s about the future I wish to live to see.

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