It felt like odd timing to finally start reading a collection of short essays, “Latest Readings,” by Clive James. The review copy had been accidentally sent to me in 2015 (as far as I can discover, James is not Jewish) and sat on my to-read pile since then. Shortly after beginning the book, I saw that James passed away at the end of November, a few days after I started his work. James’ opening essay noted how sick he was, so his death was not a surprise. His death brought to mind the one other work of James’ I’d read: his novel “The Silver Castle,” which was published in the 1990s. The story, which focuses on the Bollywood film industry, greatly influenced my thinking about the different ways people spend money.
His influence helps explain the debates I’ve had with a friend who works in social services about how people should spend the funds given them. Most of the time they have no option: the money for doctor bills, rent, medicine etc. is given directly to the person or business owed. Both of us feel that made great sense because it removes any temptation that the money will be put to a different use. Where we differ is in the use of discretionary funds: money donated, for example, for holidays that is given with no restrictions on its use. My friend thinks the money should be spent carefully – perhaps to ease grocery bills over a number of weeks or saved for emergencies. I think, if the money is gift, they have the right to use it however they wish, even if it means taking a trip, eating at an expensive restaurant or other purposes my friend considers frivolous and unwise.
What gave me an appreciation of why people spend money in ways my friend considers foolish comes from having read “The Silver Castle.” Most of the plot is fuzzy in my mind since I read it so long ago, but what stood out was this: People who have never had much money don’t feel they can count on having that money in the future. Therefore, they believe it’s better to spend it on something they can enjoy now, rather than saving it for future expenses. After all, they don’t know what the future holds and the money may go to waste or be lost if they don’t spend it right now.
I was reminded of this difference in monetary philosophy when reading an article recently about why poor children don’t generally do as well on the marshmallow test. For those who are unfamiliar with this research, it’s based on a simple test. Children are placed in a room that contains a plate holding one marshmallow. Before leaving the room for a short period of time, the researcher says that if the child doesn’t eat the marshmallow, he will receive a second marshmallow when the researcher returns. The children who wait for the second marshmallow are thought to do better in school and work than children who are unable to wait. The bias occurred when the researchers didn’t consider why a child might eat the marshmallow immediately: some children’s lives are so precarious and unstable that the child knows that if he doesn’t eat the marshmallow immediately, then, in five minutes, the marshmallow might be gone. Think about that for a minute: a child might lose the little they have if they don’t eat/spend it immediately because the adults in their lives might take what little they have. So, if you feel the future is uncertain and the world is not steady or dependable, you might grab what you can and enjoy it now, and worry about an uncertain future when it arrives.
The irony of my thinking that it’s OK for people to spend money on something they love is that I’m a saver. But if I had very little money and someone gave me a gift, I’d really have to debate if I would put it aside to use as needed or enjoy something – dinner out, the books I’ve wanted to buy – rather than using it to ease my daily life. The $50 wouldn’t make that much of a difference if it’s spread over five weeks of grocery shopping, but it would make for a decent one-time shopping spree.
Is there a right way or wrong way to spend and/or save money? That’s hard to say. After all, my financial decisions have been questioned because I am a saver, not an investor. That means that I don’t receive much interest on the money I have, but I also haven’t lost any in stock market fluctuations. Yes, some people make up money lost over a period of years, but others I’ve known have never recovered those funds. I have to admit that my philosophy of money comes from my family: it was what I learned from my parents and from being raised in a middle class atmosphere. That’s why I so appreciated “The Silver Castle.” It taught me that people look and act differently because of their circumstances. It also made me extremely grateful for the benefits I’ve received.