Degrees of Financial Freedom

Funny how impending death or long-term incarceration focuses the mind.

In the moments when their lives are laid barest, the sick, dying and imprisoned fall into two camps. The first remembers happy memories and remains at peace with whatever lies ahead. The other obsesses about things left undone or sentiments left unsaid. But the latter group’s obsessions relate to people or to experiences — almost never to each person’s material condition. I have yet to meet a person in prison or in a hospital who spent much time thinking about property or money or financial histories or credit scores.

The life lessons I’ve gleaned from ministering to the sick and imprisoned came into sharp relief this week, subsequent to a casual conversation with a few friends over cigars and adult beverages. The TL;DR version: Financial freedom as a concept is important to a fully flourishing life, but there’s remarkable disagreement as to what the idea entails.

I thought about it and it seems like we can put “financial freedom” on a scale of sorts:

  1. No income, no assets, no or bad credit. Significant life constraints.
  2. Limited income or assets. Bad credit. Routine difficulty in meeting life needs.
  3. Limited income or assets, but average or good credit.¬†Holding one’s own.
  4. Adequate income, bad credit. Potential for comfort demolished by personal financial mismanagement.
  5. Adequate income, average/good credit. Lives a comfortable, if not luxurious, lifestyle.
  6. Above-median income or assets. Bad credit; does fine day-to-day but options for major purchases (mortgages, auto loans) reduced.
  7. Above-median income or assets, good credit. All needs met and can “splurge” without really thinking about it.
  8. Significant income/assets. Life’s an oyster.

As I think about my friends and family, I see them falling all over my eight-point scale. I know one person who makes due on surprisingly little income. I know another who spends every penny of the many, many dollars he makes. I also know a well-off lawyer who won’t spend to save his life.

I also think about Steve, a guy I knew from the Herald. He had one life goal: To get his degree, buy an old Airstream trailer and head for the West Texas desert. He wanted a motorcycle, a dog, a shotgun and the freedom to explore his art and photography without worrying about keeping up with the Joneses.

Inasmuch as people stress over money, when you’re on your deathbed you don’t generally lament that you didn’t have a higher credit score.

Perhaps the truth is more Biblical: Financial freedom isn’t something that Dave Ramsey confers, but rather it’s a state of mind. If you can meet your needs, you’re free; if you can’t, then it’s time to change your life plan.

Just remember: At the end, no one cares.

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