You Are Not Your Money or Your Debt

Be More than Your MoneyHave a six-figure bank account? Buried under six-figure debt? When money or debt enters the picture, it’s easy to lose sight of other things. But you are not your money, and you are not your debt. If you spend any length of time in the personal finance world, you’ll see people celebrating financial victories and setting monetary goals. Of course, money is a major talking point. But it is crucial to not lose sight of the fact that people are not numbers.

Your Net Worth is Not Everything

It is so easy to villainize or lionize someone based on their net worth. If you look in the comments section of someone who has a positive net worth, you’ll see words and phrases that glisten with positive connotations: diligent, hardworking, successful, conscientious, careful, dedicated. The thought being that someone with a positive net worth has put his or her nose to the grindstone and achieved something tremendous.

That might be true. It is entirely possible that someone put herself through school, studied within a high-paying field, dedicated 60 hours a week to her career, paid down her loans, and side hustled to boost her net worth. It is also possible that someone was born into a family, which had long ago created a successful business, and the reigns were passed along to her by default.

Someone may have endured the loss of beloved parent or a cherished grandparent and was bequeathed a generous sum of money. Someone else may started college to get a degree, but may have left school when she got her MRS, happily marrying into money. There are dozens of scenarios in which someone can tout a positive net worth, none of which have to make someone a good or bad person. Some of these circumstances correlate directly to the effort, dedication, and skill set of the individual. Others, however, align more with the generosity of others or even serendipitous circumstances.

The converse is also true. Let’s suppose someone has a negative worth and then you observe him spending money on something you deem trivial or inappropriate. How many times do we make blanket judgments as a result of that? Foolish, shortsighted, unprepared, unmotivated, lazy. He’s just keeping up with the Joneses. Who does that anymore?

It is entirely plausible that this individual may be foolish and shortsighted. It is also plausible that he may be desperately clawing himself out of debt in ways that go unnoticed by others and bought that meal out or that new computer to celebrate a milestone of which no one is the wiser because he does not share his successes aloud or on a blog. He could also be dealing with any variety of hardships like supporting an aging or ailing parent, battling an illness, struggling to find employment, or dealing with addiction. Or, like many Americans, he might have simply not developed the financial literacy that is easy to take for granted.

Could someone with a negative net worth be someone who is a lazy and spouts off one excuse after another? Absolutely. Does he have to be? Of course not.

Money is a Tool, But It’s not the Only Tool

Having wealth makes philanthropy possible on a grand scale. If someone starts out by animatedly announcing, “You get a…”, think of the automaticity in which your mind screams, “Car! You get a car!” Suddenly, we are all reliving an Oprah moment with dopey grins plastered on our faces. It is tremendously difficult to dole out automobiles like they are birthday party invitations if you do not have exorbitant wealth. Money is an incredible tool when it comes to bettering the lives of others.

Money may be a tool, but it’s not the only one. I am certain that I can wax poetic about my love of education for all my years, but I will never earn enough money to gift an education building to my favorite university. It’s not going to happen. That doesn’t stop me from devoting countless hours before school and after school–well outside the terms of my contract–to tutor my students or give them a safe, warm place to spend time. Sure, I may keep them plied with granola bars when their families cannot, and I may put more of each paycheck into my classroom library than I care to admit each month, but that money pales in comparison to what my time and attention offer to my students.

I have good friends and family members who are far more generous with their time than I am. One individual in particular has not taken a vacation outside of service project trips as long as I have known her. Others only truly enjoy their weekends if they are donating their time to food pantries or assisted living communities. The same is true in the personal finance world. I read stories of people who are constantly giving up their time and insight to spread financial literacy across their communities.

These intentional good works. These acts are work of people who are diligent, hardworking, successful, conscientious, careful, dedicated. Might they have high net worths? Certainly. Do they have to? Not in the least.

So Tell Me…How are you more than your money or debt?

You Are Not Your Money or Your Debt

17 thoughts on “You Are Not Your Money or Your Debt

  1. Wonderful piece. This actually goes very well with a post that I am writing this week about keeping money in perspective. Money can do some very powerful things in this world. But it’s also very true that money isn’t everything. We should not judge people based on their net worth. I celebrate money victories because it tends to keep me motivated and determined to achieve the next milestone, but it is always wise to remain grounded in the fact that money is just a tool – no more, no less. It’s nice to have, of course, but life is much more than your collection of $1 bills. 🙂

  2. I love this post! It’s so true – money is only one part of the picture in many ways. But we can help make a difference by giving our time instead. I’ve posted before about how even if I can only afford to put $5 toward a cause, I will, but I’m also a huge fan of using other resources to do fundraising and in general, raise awareness about a cause. Volunteering is a great way to help out when money is tight, but you still want to be generous. (Also, you sound like such an amazing teacher! Those students are lucky to have you.)

    1. You’re too sweet. We should all take a lesson from you. It’s incredible to watch your creativity when it comes to supporting different causes. Maybe next year I’ll join your virtual run!

  3. This was an incredibly inspirational read. There is so much more than what your net worth dictates. As much as I save for myself, a lot of my goals are focused towards bettering my family & others that I have no relation to whether it’s donating my time, energy, or money. The influence of giving & contribution can positively grow when you believe it can. I am more than my money or debt because I make proactive choices to live intentionally & help others do so in the process. Thank you for this!

  4. Well, we’re more than our money in that we’re incredibly geeky. That’s something… right?

    But seriously, I remember the days I needed food stamps. I wasn’t physically able to cook much, so I tended to buy convenience food. And I dreaded pulling out my EBT card because I thought everyone was judging me for wasting their tax dollars. I knew I was more than someone one welfare, but I’m still not sure judge-y strangers figure out that sort of thing.

  5. It’s so common for people to be complex and yet try to view others through a single lens. To do it more accurately, use a kaleidoscope! We’re more than our money, we’re the good (or bad) work that we do in the world. We’re our relationships. We’re the ideas that spark change, or the rocks that provide a foundation for someone to grow, we’re the people we help.

    We are the sum of many parts, and we have the choice, everyday, to pick the best parts that fit into our lives and our narratives.
    It’s incredibly limiting to be defined through someone else’s single lens and I hope that we always remember that!

    1. Absolutely. Humans are so terrifically complex, I’m not sure why we constantly try to box people in and boil them down. We do it to ourselves, too.

  6. This is such a good reminder. While I know that my financial situation isn’t representative of who I am, it can be tough to remember that because in my particular situation, I know I could have made much better choices at a lot of different points. So it’s easy to start attaching value judgments to my decisions (e.g. “Oh, I took out those loans when I was in school because I was too lazy to get a second job, and that’s proof that I’m a lazy/bad person”). But of course that’s a huge oversimplification.

    1. Ah, yes. It is very easy to second guess when you have the benefit of hindsight. My husband made bigger financial missteps than I did growing up, and I constantly try to talk him through it. It’s done, it’s over. You learn from it and move on. Of course, it is so much easier said than done, but nothing is ever as simple or clear cut as it seems in hindsight.

  7. YES! YES! YES! My husband and I realized once we met other married couples trying to get through college that we were rare and lucky that we were raised in middle class homes by small business owners that taught us solid basic financial principles. We knew how credit cards worked. And we were able to graduate without debt. Some of that was hard work, but a lot of that was luck, opportunity, and the teachings of our fathers. And I agree entirely that money is not the only resource available. Time is much more valuable.

    1. You are so right! I tell my parents that all the time – they were generous with their money when they could afford to be (and sometimes even when they couldn’t really afford to be). More than that, though, they helped me develop a basic understanding of finances. That will pay dividends my whole life.

  8. I think it’s really easy to get overly wrapped up in money and let it define you. I’ve noticed it even more the longer I blog that there are times when I have to consciously step back and remind myself of it.

  9. I LOVE this post, Penny. Every word of it. Thank you.

    There is so much privilege in the PF space that goes unacknowledged, and we’re so quick to congratulate ourselves for making all of these great “decisions,” without thinking about all the ways that society puts some people in the position to make good decisions, while keeping those same choices out of reach for so many. While there are definitely financially literate and financially illiterate people, there’s so much more to it than that, and judging one another will never get us anywhere.

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