Money & Happiness - Where Money and Morality Meet

Laura Rowley

Recently, in the class I teach at Seton Hall University, we were discussing the characteristics of a morally mature conscience. What qualities or attributes would you find in the conscience of, say, Martin Luther King Jr. or Mother Teresa?

What would be the critical cognitive powers, the emotional intelligence, and the virtuous habits of a moral giant? (I highly recommend such ponderings at 8:30 a.m. It beats the pants off morning television, with no commercial interruptions.)

The Qualities of Maturity

In their book Character, Choices and Community, Russell Connors Jr. and Patrick McCormick break the mature conscience into three areas: Moral insights, which relate to knowledge; moral passions, or the ability to tap into human emotions; and moral skills, the capacity to act on our knowledge and empathy and do the right thing.

Clearly, a highly developed conscience is unique to the individual and, I suspect, like a good golf swing, the result of a mysterious soup of genetics, education, environment, and personal commitment.

Meanwhile, moral maturity shares some common ground with money maturity. People who reach a stage of money maturity understand how to make value-driven decisions that result in a genuinely fulfilled life.

Money Insights

The first attribute of money maturity is money insights. It's about knowledge: Investing the time and effort to learn the basics rights and wrongs of money management. It relates to the mental work of money decision-making: understanding the challenges you face; weighing your options; and developing a grasp of the best methods for achieving goals.

People with money insights can look at the big picture and the long-term, and acknowledge the value of saving for retirement rather than throwing up their hands and saying, "I'll just work until I die."

I have nothing against working until death -- I plan to do it myself, because I love my work. Unfortunately, you and I have no idea whether our health, or the employment market, will allow us to work until our demise.

If they don't, what's the fallback? Move in with the kids? Hope the government will provide through Social Security?

Having money insights also requires pinpointing precisely how to achieve a goal. It means taking two hours away from the singing-dancing-racing-homebuilding reality show of the week to figure out how to enroll in your 401(k) plan, or to determine whether a Roth or a traditional IRA is best for your circumstances. It means taking an hour away from the medical or suburban housewife drama of the week and learning the difference between a stock, bond, mutual fund, and lottery ticket.

Balancing immediate needs against longer-term goals is another area where someone with money insights shines. They know when it makes good sense to use debt -- such as buying a home -- and when it's foolish, such as buying electronics, clothing, or the entire season of their favorite reality show/drama on DVD on a credit card at 15 percent interest.

Moreover, people with money insights acknowledge their fiduciary duties to others. They take the initiative to plan and put money aside for a child's college education every month, rather than putting the money into, say, services and gadgets that allow one to watch 200 digital cable channels and zip through the commercials.

(Later on, when these children are paying off tens of thousands of dollars in student loans over several decades, I'm sure they'll appreciate those commercial-free formative years.)

Money Passions

Money maturity also requires money passions -- the ability to tap into human emotions that attract us to doing the right thing, even when it is difficult or costly.

For people with money maturity, cash is a byproduct of following their vocation rather than the reason they go to work. In his book Money and the Meaning of Life, Jacob Needleman asks, "How much of myself will I have to sell for money in order to be able to live more fully later, and can I regain what I've sold?" People with money passions never think about work in those terms.

People with money passions also never operate out of fear: They don't throw statements from financial companies in the drawer unopened; they have no terror of what might await them when they go to verify the balance in their checking account.

In addition, people with money passions have a healthy handle on their spending, and might even have fun budgeting, or contemplating the various opportunities their money presents.

They don't waste their cash on status symbols hoping to impress snobs with their smashing lifestyle. They're so engaged in following their own path, so busy creating the life they want, that it never occurs to them to compete with the Joneses.

They understand the broader definition of luxury -- "the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house as a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master," as Kahlil Gibran writes in "The Prophet."

People with money passions get excited about what money can create in their lives, rather than the material goods it can buy. They recognize the power of money to provide experiences that help them grow into a better person, and they are optimistic about its potential to help foster positive change.

Giving to charitable causes represents a consistent percentage of their income, no matter how much they make. When they invest or spend, they look beyond immediate returns and immediate gratification to the practices and values of the company they're doing business with, and how they affect the larger world.

Money Skills

Finally, people with money maturity have money skills -- the ability to act decisively on their knowledge and passions.

They can transform information and emotions into habits and behavior. They have the wisdom to make and sustain financial commitments, even when it requires tough tradeoffs and sacrifice. Like people with moral maturity, people with money maturity make the most of their freedom.

Most of us will never have the opportunity to make the dramatic moral gesture of, say, Warren Buffett, in his decision to donate billions of dollars to charity. For most of us, money maturity is achieved by the amount of care we're willing to invest in seemingly minor, everyday financial decisions that, over time, can be life-changing.

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