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.

Several Rejoinders

A few news stories of late have caught my eye.  Herewith a few comments:

  1. Former Democratic press secretary Terry Michael penned “Lies of the Ethics Industry,” published at on April 30. Michael’s money quote: “Four groups now work to convince us we have the worst government money can buy: (1) an ethics industry spawned in Washington by Watergate, which features nonprofits lobbying for regulation of speech they don’t like; (2) journalists who collude with ethics purveyors, writing cheap-and-easy stories fitting a corruption narrative they create; (3) politicians, especially Democratic Progressive Era throwbacks, who think evil-doing can be stopped with new and better rules and who pander to the ethics industry, the media, and (ironically) to citizens convinced that Democrats are just as sleazy as Republicans; and (4) citizens, frustrated by the budget-busting consequences of the free lunches we accept from politicians.” The bigger point Michael makes, and with which I happen to agree, is that the old journalistic adage to “follow the money” is as lazy as it is cynical. The confluence of money and policy is not, ipso facto, a negative event that threatens Joe Sixpack or undermines American freedom. Money is a tool, and fetishizing the role of money as a chiefly nefarious motive for action is less a statement of fact than an admission to an overweening cynicism that makes every politician a crook and renders every campaign dollar a cut to Democracy’s carotid.
  2. Peter Luke, a columnist and analyst covering Michigan politics, recently penned a defense of Michigan’s new bans against texting-while-driving and smoking in a bar or restaurant.  Luke’s conclusion: “Just about everyone has a cell phone with a keyboard and those of a certain age think there’s nothing wrong with using it anywhere. Just like a smoker who would never light up in the office thinks nothing of doing so after work in the bar down the street. Distilled to their essence, the smoking and texting laws are a simple two-sentence response: You can’t. Not anymore.” Well, OK.  His argument is that both texting-while-driving and smoking in bars generate negative externalities that some other citizens may occasionally bear — the fender-bender from inattentive driving, or tobacco scent on a sweater. The problem, though, is that the proper role of governmental regulation is not to preserve citizens from potential negative consequences. If I happen to be fiddling with my radio while driving, and I cause an accident, then I’m liable for my inattentiveness. I’d rather see a penalty for careless driving, such that contributors to carelessness are recognized in a citation, than to categorically assert that a lawful action is unlawful in a specific context merely because some people are occasionally negligent. Likewise with smoking: If I prefer not to be subject to a smoke-filled bar, then I will find a bar that has no smoke. Why must people who enjoy a cigar or cigarette while drinking be punished because non-smokers believe themselves entitled to go anywhere, anytime, and not encounter smoke?
  3. Victor Davis Hanson, writing in National Review, penned a nice essay on the use of euphemism and dysphemism by the Obama administration. In a nutshell: The lecturer-in-chief has a penchant for using positive locutions for things he favors (e.g., “undocumented workers” instead of “illegal immigrants”) and negative ones for things he disdains (e.g., referring to principled opposition as “phony smoke and mirrors”).  Words mean things. Amen, brother.

All for now.