What Are You Working For?
Remember your first job, the measly wage, and how you suddenly equated every purchase with the long, greasy hours spent flipping burgers? My first job was lifeguarding and it paid $5.50 an hour. I could fill up my gas tank for two hours of sweating, sun-burnt boredom, or I could maybe buy a shirt on clearance at the mall. In many cases, these adolescent accountings revolved more around wants than needs and thus hardly grasped the true purpose or value of money. But there is something valuable to be learned from this teenage practice: work is in many ways the opportunity cost of our expenses. Today the “typical” American lifestyle will keep you working far past the age when previous generations retired, and this will result in far less options between now and then.
(When I talk about work I don’t mean vocation or calling, just simply a way to get a paycheck. Work may be much more than that to you but we can get into that in a future post.)
Let’s translate that gas tank equation into grown up terms: by how much does your commute reduce your salary? Most people don’t know, or care. We’re Americans. We drive. End of story. (The answer, based on a conservative $0.34 per mile, is $795 per mile annually.) I’m not suggesting you start bicycling to work, but illustrating the way we view many of our expenses. We tend to accept cultural norms regarding lifestyle and expenses without challenge or even thought. The solution isn’t to pull an all-nighter with Excel until you know how many minutes in your cubical a chalupa costs. Instead of obsessing about details, get the big picture about expenses and work:
- Begin to see the average American lifestyle as extravagant rather than necessary.
- Free up some dough by cutting costs that don’t add much value to your life, anyway.
- Put that money to better use so you can become more financially flexible. This may include paying off debt, saving/investing, and giving to charitable causes.
- Flex those finances—take new opportunities, pursue a new job, travel, volunteer, retire before 70!
According to Proverbs 13:7, people may pretend to be rich, but actually have nothing. This perfectly describes the financial situation of many in our society because most people use credit to acquire everything from a car to a coffee. We think this is normal since almost everyone does it. Financing is advertised for everything—furniture, televisions, blenders. And credit cards cover those purchases too small for “three easy payments.” So we have everything but own nothing. There is a place for debt, but this state of affairs is not normal, or desirable.
The real problem isn’t that your smoothie came out of a borrowed blender. The problem is working away your life to pay outrageous interest, pretend to be rich, and wonder why you’re poor. Money is one of the top stressors identified by Americans, as well as a top source of marital tension leading to divorce. “I can never get ahead financially,” I’ve heard so many people say, and they think the problem is their income, when really they are buying into a lifestyle almost no one can afford. Since our culture’s financial wisdom isn’t working, why not try the 3,000 insights of the Bible? Many modern wealthy people concur: pretending to be poor is the way to great wealth.
Whether you’re up to your ears in debt or you save every penny earned, we all have room to challenge our thinking about money. Along with time, it’s a tool we want to use wisely. We’ll consider some biblical insights about money in the next post, but for now, think about what you’re working for, and how many years you’re willing to do that. The American dream is a treadmill turned on high that’ll keep you working, sweating, and going nowhere. Anyone want off?
Naeurt, Rick. “Health, Money Woes Top Stressors in U.S.” Harvard School of Public Health. 9 July 2014. http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/07/09/health-money-woes-top-stressors-in-u-s/72264.html.
 Rampell, Catherine. “Money Fights Predict Divorce Rates.” The New York Times, 7 Dec. 2009. http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/12/07/money-fights-predict-divorce-rates/