Thursday, June 7, 2012

Should we feel guilty about spending money that is not our own?

[Image taken from here]

An interesting conversation happened yesterday in the summer business ethics class I am presently teaching. Summer classes are always interesting to teach, because there tend to be a larger number of older, non-traditional students (i.e. students who have chosen to come back to school after working for a number of years). I don't normally write about things at work in this blog, but this particular conversation actually has some spiritual significance (actually, what conversation doesn't? :-)), so I'll thought I'll share it here.

Anyway, sometime during class yesterday, the topic of discussion turned to money, and the fact that so many of us do not have much of it. One student--I'll call her D--is a single mom and non-traditional student who has decided to come back to school full-time in order to advance her career further (she needs a degree in order to be eligible for promotion to the managerial level at her job). D told the class that she had to borrow a considerable amount of money from her parents in order to go back to school and cover many of her living expenses. She added that she often feels guilty about spending this money that is not hers. Another student, B, also chimed in, and voiced his agreement and sympathy with her feelings. B shared that he had also had to borrow money from family or friends to make it through some tight spots in the past, and he had also experienced similar feelings of guilt at spending this money that was not his.

At this point, M, an older gentleman who had moved here from Africa some years ago, joined in the discussion. He seemed genuinely puzzled about the guilt that B and D were experiencing. M simply couldn't understand what the whole dilemma was about. "You need money, you borrow from friend, you spend it! What's the problem? It's not as if you are borrowing money to just go out on the town and have a grand time; you really need the money in order to survive! You are not doing anything wrong! So what's the problem?!"

A very spirited back-and-forth ensued between M and pretty much the rest of the class, with the rest of the class trying to get M to appreciate this notion of guilt that comes from spending wealth that is not one's own. I don't think they were successful at all in this effort; after fifteen minutes or so of this back-and-forth, M still seemed very puzzled and perplexed by this notion of guilt.

During this entire back-and-forth, I mostly stood back and observed what everybody had to say, only interjecting occasionally to make sure that anybody who had anything to say got their turn to speak. Toward the end of this fifteen-minute period, I walked over to the whiteboard, and wrote a few things on it to try to spell out the difference between M's view of money and B's and D's view of money. This is what I wrote on the whiteboard:

B's and D's view

(1) Money that is one's own
(2) Money that is not one's own, that comes to one through loans or the kindness of others.

M's view


The point that I'm trying to get across here is this: B and D (and, I suspect, most of us) draw a clear-cut distinction between money that is our own (and which we can presumably spend in any way we want with total peace of mind) and money that comes to us through loans or the kindness of others. Being money that is not one's own, the spending of this money causes much guilt and angst.

M, on the other hand, does not draw any such distinction. As far as he is concerned, there is only money, period. It doesn't matter where it comes from: So long as one does not obtain the money through force or deception, one is totally justified in happily spending it.

After reflecting upon the matter for a little bit, I can't help feeling that M is the happier person: If spending money that is not one's own is the source of so much guilt on the part of so many of us in the industrialized world, the person who never feels any such guilt must have a much lighter burden of guilt to carry around as emotional/spiritual baggage, and must therefore be so much lighter and happier. For this reason alone, there is much to envy about his position.

I should be happy to leave everything at this: After all, the best stories are often those that tell themselves, without any attempt on the part of the storyteller to inject any dreary moral-of-the-story or any contrived leading questions. But alas, this being a yoga blog, I can't help posing a few questions here. So bear with me. Is M's view of money a more spiritually evolved view than the one held by B and D? Or is it just a different view that is perhaps the product of a different culture and/or worldview?

I suspect that many people will look at M's view and think it naive, even morally irresponsible: After all, things that we borrow from others are things that need to be paid back at some point in the future. In spending money borrowed from others, we are spending money that we already owe to these others. How can we possibly treat these with the same emotional attitude as money that we have earned through our own efforts, money that is truly our own without qualification?

But on the other hand, things seem very different if we pose another question: Is there really such a thing in this world as money that is truly our own without qualification? Think about this: Even if you are, say, a very successful businessperson who has made a lot of money by what is seemingly your own effort, it is still true that your material success is possible only because of certain things that may or may not be within your control (being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right people, creating a product or service that many people happen to find useful or appealing and are willing to pay money for, etc.). Is money that comes into your possession because of factors that may or may not be within your control money that is truly yours without qualification? And if no money in this world is truly ours without qualification, what good does being guilty about spending money that is not our own do?

Well, maybe all this is just the self-rationalizing consolation of somebody who doesn't have that much money that is truly his without qualification in the first place. In any case, thanks for reading this, if you made it this far. May you have many many money of your own soon (if you don't already have many many such money, that is :-)).              


  1. Hi Nobel, Interesting discussion. I think it's important for me to be able to let go of whatever decision I make. Guilt in this context seems to serve no purpose at all. It would stop me from being able to be in the moment and that is all we ever really have. I don't think that it is unimportant where the money comes from but for me I would ideally weigh it up at the time. Can the person giving the money afford to, do I really need it, etc. Once the decision is made it is time to let the whole thing go and live my life. Easier said than done sometimes I know!

    1. Hi Helen, I'm with you in believing that guilt in this case serves no purpose at all. After all, if one can do what needs to be done (borrow money, spend money, return money) without the excess emotional/spiritual baggage, so much the better, right?

      But I also agree that this is almost always easier said than done.

  2. Thanks for this post Nobel. I guess the problem comes when returning money becomes difficult (trouble finding a job, or some other emergency issue that requires money etc). Also sometimes people with M's view of money don't make returning money a priority (not always, but occasionally), so they end up delaying the return of money indefinitely.

    1. Yes. it is true that very often, M-like people also tend not to make returning money a priority. So perhaps the key is to have M's mentality about borrowing and spending money, without having an M-mentality about returning it :-)