Tag Archives: money

Off the wagon, shopping-wise

ticketsWell, now I’ve gone and done it. This is bad. I went on a shopaholic spending spree. You probably sense that I’ve been doing worse over the past month, and this afternoon, I realized how bad things have gotten. I’m embarrassed to confess this to you, but I simply went and spent a lot of money without thinking hard about it. I thought I was doing better with the shopaholism, but here I am off the wagon.

I’ve been very unhappy at work, and recently, things got even worse. But applying for jobs hasn’t been enough to fulfill my hunger for satisfying work. One advantage is that I avoided buying physical objects. The other is that I’m not going to be able to afford many physical objects for a while. I have now spent enough money that from now at least through this spring are going to be belt-tightening times. Avoiding physical objects is not enough of an improvement — I simply should have not spent as much.

Zummara_MedievalOver the past few weeks, I bought tickets to 4 early-music concerts in February and March, and I prepaid for Saturday to Sunday single nights at four-star hotels for 1) the weekend before New Year’s last month; 2) this weekend; 3) Presidents’ Day weekend; and 4) Memorial Day weekend. Oh, and I’m planning to visit the nuns for three days at the end of this month, which is $400 including the bus fare.

It isn’t enough to say the concerts are cheap and that I got really good deals on the rooms, that I could bring my own sandwiches to the hotels (room service doubles the cost of a hotel stay), and that the nuns almost certainly would accept less money than I intend to give them. No, I have to admit sadly that I simply spent too much.320px-Waiter_pouring_Zardetto_sparkling_Prosecco

And regardless of how grim my finances now look for the next few months, I am very happy to have all these experiences to mull over or look forward to. I’m still on the shopaholic high at the moment.

There’s a shrill little mosquito buzz of worry about how I am going to keep up with the payments as the bills come in, and some thumping sounds of embarrassment at trying to buy my way out of my unhappiness, both muffled by my shaky confidence that as much as I am a shopaholic, I have never gotten into financial straits I couldn’t get out of. Nevertheless, despite these alarms, I still feel happy to look forward to these experiences. They are anodynes that will (um, I hope) ease the pain of my work situation.

I went back to Wikipedia about “oniomania,” or shopaholism:

Compulsive buying seems to represent a search for self in people whose identity is neither firmly felt nor dependable, as indicated by the way purchases often provide social or personal identity-markers. Those with associated disorders such as anxiety, depression and poor impulse control are particularly likely to be attempting to treat symptoms of low self-esteem through compulsive shopping.

Well, that fits my situation to a tee. My once rock-stable work identity has been shaken by some nasty events at the office; I’m anxious about landing a new job and learning it; I’m depressed at the prospect that it may take years to find a job that I can do this well in, in terms of both competence and pay; and very strongly, I feel like asserting class markers, as pretentious and shameful as it is.

I want to tell my boss: “I stay in good hotels where they call me ‘madam’ and offer to summon the bellhop to pick up my matching luggage, and I eat good room service there, where the waiter lifts the lid off the entree with a flourish. I go to sophisticated early music concerts. I have a convent I like to visit and give money to, as if I were a medieval noblewoman. I want you to know, Boss, that I am still a smart, dignified, hard-working, professional helper, the way you used to treat me.”453px-Gheorghe_Tattarescu_-_Stareta_Manastirii_Ratesti_

So as happy as I feel that I have all these pleasant events coming up this spring, it’s all rooted in bitterness and resentment, and that is not a good thing. The only positive about this is that the purpose of the convent visit is to talk with the abbess about how to handle my work situation with less bitterness and more patience, while retaining my firm decision to leave this job. But she can’t do the heavy lifting. That’s up to me.

I’m ashamed at being so pretentious and resentful and shopaholic, because compared to millions of Americans in dire straits, I’m doing all right. But I know that I am no longer in the right job if my work situation brings out traits such as shopaholism that put me in a bad situation.


Christ’s money

As you probably have noticed, the header on my blog shows three magi (mages, Wise Men) happily hustling along with their gifts for the young Christ, who is out of camera view to the right with his mom.

The traditional Christmas nativity scene or creche is a mashup of the story in the Gospel of Luke (the manger, the angels and the shepherds) and the story of the Wise Men in the Gospel of Matthew. The Wise Men probably showed up months or even years after the birth of Christ. That is why King Herod ordered all the boys in the region two years and younger to be slaughtered. It had to take some time for the rumors of Christ’s birth to travel across the land, for the Magi to do their astrological calculations, for them to travel to meet Herod, and then to find Jesus.

The gifts of the Wise Men are now considered quaint, if not actually incomprehensible. Gold famously was called a “barbarous relic” by the economist John Maynard Keynes, and relatively few people have seen it in the coin form that was probably given to Christ and his family. Myrrh comes in hard little brown chips a little paler than instant coffee crystals. Frankincense is small firm irregular blobs shaped like Nerds candies, but they are the tan, slightly translucent shade of boogers. Pure myrrh and frankincense aren’t self-lighting like incense sticks and cones; they are resins that need to be placed on burning charcoal to make fragrant smoke.

Lydian Lion One OunceHowever, like salt or peppercorns used as money in other times and places, all three of these gifts met the characteristics of money: Portable, divisible, durable, fungible, and a store of value. These substances are completely useless to a child — but extremely useful in funding the care of a child. Indeed, some have speculated that the gifts of the Magi were used to support the family during their years in Egypt. So what the mages were giving was money.

God is spirit, as St. John writes, but he also was a little kid. It’s dreadfully expensive to raise a child, even when there are no iPads to buy them, because the poorer you are, the higher the proportion of income you spend on food, so that having to feed another mouth, even a young one, can be quite a blow. The wise men may have been a little strange about astrology, but they knew about money.

Unless one belongs to a church that preaches prosperity theology, one hears among people of faith a concerted attempt to make one feel guilty about one’s comfort. One cannot be a servant to both God and money, and the love of money is a root of evil, and one should not store earthly treasures. Hermit saints like Seraphim of Sarov and Mary of Egypt who lived in destitution are held up as examples.

But this kind of preaching is as unbalanced as prosperity theology. We are called to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” It is irresponsible not to manage one’s money carefully when one has children. In this era of modern medicine where people grow old slowly and die even more slowly, it is irresponsible not to save up money for the time of disability that most people face in old age.

What is more productive than austerity preaching is to teach ascetic questioning, to challenge ourselves: Do I really need both television and internet? Do I really need clothes I do not wear? Do I need a new computer? Do I need a little gadget singing in my ear all the time? Do I need that bag of flour? Do I need that bar of soap? Do I need that pencil? Do I need those plain cotton underpants? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe we should go commando!

Some traditions call the Wise Men kings, although there is no scriptural evidence that they were kings, or even that there were exactly three of them. What is clear is that they were pretty wealthy. And this shows in the mosaic header I use on my blog: They are richly dressed in heavy, multicolored robes and red Phrygian caps; they carry fancy containers and not simple earthen pots; and they are depicted in a scene of luxury, a dreamy golden sky with delicious fruit hanging down from date trees. (If you have never eaten a whole date and not one of those crumbly pebbles, you have missed a real treat.)

Critically, above all, they are offering their gifts to God, the King of All, who normally doesn’t need anything, but as a baby desperately needs material support.

And, as Christ says, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” and “whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward.” When we look into one another’s eyes, we are seeing God in them. So in the midst of the commercialism and greed of the Christmas season, I want to affirm that in the spirit of self-questioning, the act of gift-giving, and enjoying doing so, is nothing to be ashamed of and can indeed be an expression of respect to God.

We, too, are spirit, and we, too, are flesh. We are both physical and nonphysical. As was God. So let us take an attitude neither of unrestrained materialism or unthinking renunciation, but instead follow a truer path of asceticism, which is questioning, and challenging, and taking action.


Christ was a baby who needed milk


New “best posts” page

I’m excited to tell you about a new page in the top menu (the red ribbon). The page links to what I think are the best posts from my blog to date, things I don’t want to get buried. If you were brought here by a search engine, these posts probably relate to your interests. If you’ve been reading this blog already, take a look to see if you missed any of these posts when they were first published, with my thanks to you. Click here to go directly to the “best posts” page.

Forsaking all others: To choose a charity

I have pretty well decided on this. I still struggle, however, and you may too, so I am writing about it. That is, I concentrate my charitable donations on only two organizations, with the exception of small donations now and then as a favor to friends, and turn down all others.

To say this in the face of the recent terrible storm is not easy. I strongly believe that if you do not already have an existing plan for donating to selected charities, you should give to the relief efforts. But if you have an existing plan that takes up virtually all the money you have allotted to charity, you need to think carefully, because whatever you give to one group comes out of another group’s pockets.

I suggest that if you believe that human need in times of disaster is so compelling that it is incomprehensible or immoral not to give to relief efforts, then a relief agency should be your main charity of choice all year, every year, to the exclusion of other causes, because disaster happens constantly and everywhere. When one person is made homeless because of an apartment fire, he or she is no less homeless than one person made homeless among thousands due to a storm. I do not believe it is right to give only to famous disasters.

In relation to this topic, I have a party question, or, rather, a set of questions, that causes people in the vicinity to turn and look. These have the dual traits of being a just a bit invasive yet allowing people to boast, which is ideal for party talk. You should try this. People may stammer a bit at the start, but their ultimate responses are fascinating.

Namely, what is the thought process that went into choosing your favorite charity over others? There are so many deserving causes out there – why did you choose your favorite cause? And why did you choose that particular organization over others that have the same goals? Even if you give to many charities, there is probably one that got more money than the others. For what reason or reasons?

After all, how can you say that clean drinking water should get more money than preventing child abuse? Or how can you say that a ballet school should get more money than a university? Should relief efforts for an earthquake take precedence over cancer research? How can you deny all the worthy causes out there? How can you judge between them?

There is a huge range of responses, and we all should contemplate why we want to spend our money on the organizations we do. For one of my friends, it is tax simplicity with no particular emotion. His employer has an arrangement with one particular disaster relief charity, and withholds pretax money from his pay and gives it to the organization. For another friend, the specific unique nature of one charity moved her so much that she wanted to give all her donations to it alone; there are no other organizations like it. Another friend has an emotional stake in a particular cause, but she chose one organization in particular because of its special methods, which she believes are the most effective means of getting things done for the cause. And one friend chose a very local charity so that she can make unannounced visits to see what they are doing.

For me, efficiency in use of money is key. I chose my #1 charity because there is only one category, one cause, where I have deep enough knowledge of the topic to decide confidently which particular organization is most efficiently run. Oddly, it is not the field I work in, of which I know only my little corner; instead it is the one field, rather obscure, where I can look at an IRS Form 990 (the tax return for nonprofits) and understand what I see well enough to compare organizations.

I chose my #2 charity, a very tiny one, because I have observed them in person and know a couple of specific items they need. I can have these items direct-mailed more cheaply in bulk than if the group purchases small quantities from local stores, and I know that they will use up these things completely. The efficiency of my gift is total.

If you are only giving to a charity or charities with small gifts here and there, you are not doing yourself any favors, and you are not doing the organizations a favor. Asceticism, i.e. discipline, is needed here. Give a lot, and give with focus.

Research shows that when people give a significant percentage of their income, they are happier. So be generous.

Furthermore, if you are giving to more than a few causes, then you are wasting money, because it costs charities a surprising amount of money per person per year to maintain their lists and make appeals. The more you focus your gifts, the fewer the organizations you give to, the more money goes to your cause.

Charity Navigator says,
“By concentrating your giving among a few outstanding charities, your donations will do more good than if you contributed small gifts to a wide array of charities.”

However, now that I’ve picked a couple of causes to commit to, I find it’s still hard to resist appeals from other organizations. There are constant disasters riveting the world’s attention. There is one charity that sends such wonderful pictures causing me so much delight that I once spent a couple of hours going over their elaborate mailer before deciding not to donate. Other causes I feel great sympathy for, even passion, but I am not able to evaluate them as well as I can my chosen causes. It is difficult to turn them all down, but it is the only way not to dissipate my efforts and waste the money.

But many people have no organizations at all that they are able to evaluate, or they lack a sense of the causes that are out there, so they do not even have any organizations to evaluate. So I am going to present some links I have found helpful.

Do they still say “HTH” on forums? “HTH.” Hope this helps.

Hoarding, shopaholism, and materialism

I’ve been growing dissatisfied with the way I have been referring to myself in this blog as a hoarder (or clutterer or packrat). That’s not all I am. I realized that I am conflating hoarding with shopaholism or, more technically, oniomania. I used the analogy of a bathtub to a household in my first Observation. What I now think is that hoarding is about the bathtub being plugged; shopaholism is about the water going into the bathtub.

When I said that I’ve gotten better at draining the bathtub, I mean to say that I’m getting better about hoarding. I have almost no clothing I do not use regularly, for example. I do not, as much as I used to, “hold onto a large number of items that most people would consider not useful or valuable,” as Wikipedia puts it. As I deal with hoarding, I am even finding it easier to give away “good stuff” because I see that it is junk in my hands due to being of inadequate value to me.

What I am trying to address in this blog as a whole is the drip into the bathtub, that is, my tendencies toward shopaholism, which Wikipedia describes by the criteria of “1. Over-preoccupation with buying; 2. distress or impairment as a result of the activity; 3. the compulsive buying is not limited to hypomanic or manic episodes.”

Before I proceed further, let me refer you to three bits of Wikipedia so that you can see I am talking about three different entities.

The topic of this Observation post is the way that so many self-help books and sermons make a monstrous error in addressing hoarding and shopaholism as if they were forms of consumerism, or what Wikipedia more precisely calls “economic materialism.” This leads on the one hand to a lot of unnecessary guilt among those with tendencies toward hoarding and shopaholism who however never have their problems really addressed, while there remain materialists who don’t realize they are disordered, who feel pleased with themselves because their multiple, large cars and homes are spacious, orderly, and free from any signs of compulsive shopping.

The general shotgun exhortation in sermons and self-help books is generally to the effect of, “Material objects cannot make you happy; only love can make you happy; do not love anything that cannot love you back.” To which I reply, “Well, duh.”

These thunderings about true happiness seem so obvious to me because hoarding and shopaholism are not marked by what Wikipedia terms “acquisition centrality,” which “is when acquiring material possession functions as a central life goal with the belief that possessions are the key to happiness and that success can be judged by people’s material wealth.”

Hoarders and shopaholics have various symptoms, but we are all marked by “distress or impairment” from our behavior toward possessions. I know all too well the grief comes from slipping on a pile of old magazines on the floor or from finding that due to earlier purchases, I have to pay special attention to make sure I have some financial breathing room. Shopaholics’ jokes about “retail therapy” are just that, jokes, and bitter ones at that. Our grief is not the materialist’s secret grief that nothing is ever enough.

I don’t labor under the illusion stuff makes me happy in any deep sense; that is part of what I am trying to say in my descriptions of things I want that I won’t buy. I hope it is unnecessary to point out that feeling good for a little while is not the same as being really happy. I know full well that these objects can make me feel good for a while but not in any fulfilling way. I have no illusions that my ability to buy something is a mark of having “succeeded” in some essential fashion.

So I have built up enough resentment that I want to say, cordially, “bugger off” to people who confuse the greed in economic materialism with the types of greed that mark hoarding and shopaholism. These are three different entities that are marked by greed of different kinds.

Greed is an unhealthy relationship to material goods that leads to the accumulation of more than is needed for a healthy life. The hoarder has difficulty letting go of things, the shopaholic has difficulty not acquiring things, and the materialist has difficulty understanding that more things are not the key to happiness. Two or all three can certainly overlap in one person, but they are not the same.

Some would call economic materialism a moral disorder while hoarding and shopaholism are mental disorders, and I consider that distinction misleading. All disorders are similar in that they are fundamentally a failure to reach full human potential. The issue then is to not to condemn some people and excuse the problems of others, but to help all people to fulfill their potential, each in their own way.

And so, what I am trying to deal with in this blog is my own shopaholism, my preoccupation with acquiring things that I consciously know will not make me happy but which I want anyway.

Furthermore, I firmly intend not to denigrate the material world, hence my phrase, “no sour grapes.” But that is a topic for some other Observation.

One ring that ruled my mind

I was trying to write today’s post when I realized that the first object I was describing carried so much ambivalence and confusion for me that I could not write a coherent post. My second attempt ran into similar difficulties. There are different degrees of coveting, and mired as I am in my morass of desire, I need to start with the easy pieces, the ones I can deny myself with a few hundred words.

I don’t want to write about something I cannot sincerely renounce just yet. Obviously, this blog is touching on a deep conflict inside me, which was my intent in starting it.

Hidalgo Flag RingThird object to try. Today I will write about something I have admired and wanted for many, many years, but am finally ready to say I will never have: The  Hidalgo American flag ring (at left).

It is a well known design because within the tiny field provided by a ring, it succeeds at being a blazingly distinctive, stylish, and glamorous miniature rendering of an American flag in the wind. What with the gold and the diamonds, the overall fine workmanship, and the designer name, it is certainly worth the price.

I want one so I can stare at it in the sunshine and wiggle it back and forth so the diamonds sparkle! This draws from a similar attraction to color as the Glass Gem corn I recently described, but instead of making me think of the countryside, it makes me think of myself. It’s in the same league of self-adornment as red lipstick, which I love to wear. One could perhaps get it for someone as a gift, but really, it is so distinctive, it is for the wearer to select.

Eve's Addiction flag ringI could save up to get it. And Hidalgo’s showy ring is clearly beautifully made and worth the money. The knock-off version (at right), purportedly set with cubic zirconia, doesn’t have its panache and workmanship. The stars don’t shine. At least, that’s what I feel… Or… is it just not expensive enough for me? Does the cost itself of the designer version attract me?

No matter. It is clear that the longing itself is the pleasure. In real life, I can’t bear to save up and spend that much money on something I would enjoy for a month and then stop feeling as my finger grew accustomed to it. That much money could make a real difference to a small charity, or to my future self in retirement. My longing, even though it has gone on for many years, and no matter what a pleasure it is in itself, is a sustained “Ooh, shiny!” distraction from what is important. The packrat wants to grab it and make it my own.

But indeed, in this blog, I am trying to achieve a number of important tasks, and one of them is not to say “Sour grapes!” about anything I want, but to stay conscious about both what I want and why I choose against it.

I still enjoy jewelry, and if I want to show my patriotism in a glittery way, I can always get something from Ann Hand, which is informally the costume jeweler to Capitol Hill and the Pentagon. (You ever wondered where the patriotic costume bling comes from that is worn by bureaucrats who testify before Congress, and the wives of senior military and members of Congress ? Ann Hand.)

Perhaps if I were a One Percenter or even less wealthy, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy the Hidalgo ring, because my retirement would be paid up and I could still give quite a bit of money to charity without noticing. If you can do that, maybe you would like the Hidalgo flag ring.

But I can’t do that. I can only make the firm decision to renounce any thought of buying myself this fabulous ring. I choose to spend the money and the thought-power on other things, even other amusements.

There is a reason I have not bought this ring even though I have wanted it for so long. My avarice has been caressing this particular “precious” to the point where the imagining itself is the pleasure. And now I choose to stop letting my daydreams fondle this fantasy.

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