Can money buy freedom?
On Saturday, my friend Tyler hosted a blog meetup.
I first met Tyler several years ago. He was a GRS reader who dropped me a line to see if I'd meet him for dinner. I said “yes” — as I almost always do. Now, several years later, Tyler runs a successful blog of his own. It was fun to see his readers come out to support him.
After giving us a chance to chat, Tyler asked us to break into small groups, to work together to define the word freedom. “What does freedom mean to you?” he asked.
What is Freedom?
I was sitting with Tammy and Logan (they of the tiny house) and with our friend Michelle, who also lives in a tiny house. We brainstormed ideas. One obvious answer was that, in many ways, money equals freedom. When you have money, you have more options. Or, more precisely, when you have no debt, when you spend less than you earn, then you have more options.
But freedom is more than money, of course.
“To me, freedom means being able to what you want, when you want,” I said. We talked about that for a bit. We talked again about how money makes this more likely.
“But I think to be free,” said Michelle, “you have to somehow be aware of what your options are. You have to be conscious that you're making choices that reflect your values, choices that allow you to do what you want, when you want.”
“Fair enough,” I said.
After more discussion, we realized that each person at our table already felt very, very free. None of us worries about money: I've experienced a windfall; Tammy and Logan and Michelle have intentionally minimized their expenses so that money is no longer a stressor. We each do work we're passionate about. We have good friends, we have purpose. We've adopted lifestyles that give us freedom, or at least a sense of it.
“I think a lot of feeling free comes down to shifting priorities,” Tammy said. “It means choosing to relate to money, and other parts of life, in ways that others don't.” Tammy wasn't saying that she thinks we're better than anyone else — far from it! — but that in order to obtain this feeling of freedom, we've each made choices that we like but others might not. Such as living in small spaces. (If I'm doing my math right, the four of us live in three separate spaces that combine to total 985 square feet. My apartment is the bulk of that.)
Tyler took some more time to speak with his readers. He talked about his own ideas of freedom. “The core of freedom is conquering fear,” Tyler said. “It can be scary. We want to draw cartoons, or climb mountains, or do whatever makes us happy. But often, people are afraid of freedom because with freedom comes risk. When you choose freedom, you make choices for yourself. Nobody else makes them for you. And when you make choices for yourself, the responsibility — or the blame — for the outcome rests with you.”
At our table, we talked about the relationship between freedom and power.
“In some ways, freedom and power are interchangeable,” Logan said. “When you have freedom, you have power. Not like you have authority or control over other people, but you have power over your own life.”
“Here's a thought,” I said. “If you're lucky enough to be free, do you have an obligation to help others who aren't free? To give them this power too? And there really is an obligation, then doesn't that mean you're not actually free?”
“It's like a paradox!” Tammy said.
The Limits of Self-Determination
But here's the rub: Even if you're free, even if you have power over your own life, bad things happen. You might get struck by a car. You might have a stroke. Your country might experience hyperinflation. You're only free to the extent that you can control life. And beyond a certain point, life is out of your hands. (Though, again, the more money you have, the less impact these events have on you. Another argument for a fat emergency fund!)
What's more, as free as you might be, you only have that freedom because your environment allows you to have it. If you lived elsewhere, or elsewhen, you might not be able to do what you want to do, when you want to do it. You might not have the freedom you do now.
Because of this, and because I'm fortunate to be very free myself, I'm finally starting to think of other people. I feel called to help others move closer to this ideal, to give them find the power to do what they want, when they want.
Money and Freedom
Money can't buy happiness, it can't buy love, and it can't buy freedom either. But money does make obtaining these goals much, much easier. When you have money, you don't have to worry about the basics. To re-visit Psychology 101, money helps you build the base of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
When you have money, you're able to take care of your physiological needs, like finding food and water. You're also able to better take care of your body and your belongings, able to afford a safe place to sleep. Because money makes it easier to have these things, it further grants you the freedom to focus on higher parts of the hierarchy, such as self-esteem, confidence, and achievement. If you worried each day about how you were going to feed yourself and your family, you wouldn't have time to pursue these higher aims. You wouldn't have the freedom to do so.
But here's the thing: I don't think money does buy freedom if the person with the money becomes obsessed with protecting it or with obtaining more. Money is a tool. It's useful only insofar as it helps you achieve your goals.
An old friend contacted me by Facebook the other day. We're going to get together for coffee soon. (Where “coffee” is a euphemism for “any other drink because J.D. doesn't like coffee”.) During our conversation, my friend asked, “So what do you do now that you sold your web site? Do you not work? Do you just go to the gym and travel the world?”
Ha. I wish. I feel like I'm busier than I've ever been. But to tell the truth, I'm busy in a different way. In the past, I was busy, but I was busy doing things that other people wanted. Now, I do things that I want. Most of the time, even my work feels like play.
I'm a happy man. I have a good life. I'm able to do what I want, when I want. This isn't because I've bought my freedom and my happiness, but there's no question that having savings, eliminating debt, and living below my means has given me peace of mind, has allowed me to take risks that I might have otherwise avoided.