2. Money: the biggest convention of humanity.

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This is a chapter of The Practical Buddha, the self-titled guide for a good life.  The Practical Buddha guides you through life’s big questions.  For instance, how to contemplate and deal with questions such as, “mother why do we live;”  “Is money really so important;” “Does heaven exist and what is nirvana;” Or even everyday concerns such as “Do we have the right to kill animals;” “Is there guiltless ambition.”  Here is a reflection on the topic:  doom and success, is it fate or just coincidence?

Here is a reflection on the topic “Money,” and the philosophy of money.

Follow the link here for the general philosophy of “Practical Buddha” or an overview of the topics :


Money is a strange creature, omnipresent, perhaps not omnipotent but can still bring a lot of power. Almost everyone’s daily life revolves around money, from the poor who needs it to survive, to the rich who treats wealth accumulation as life’s calling.  Even those who choose to lead less hectic lives in stead of pursuit of higher earning will nonetheless go on strike for more wages and benefits when the opportunity calls. In short, you cannot get around money in this “civilized” world. No money means no water, no food, and no roof over your head.

Money is an incredible phenomenon and the biggest convention of humanity.  This convention or unwritten agreement says that for a day of hard work, you receive a digital number on a server somewhere as payment, and without such compensation, you will not be able to pay for food that day.  Sometimes this convention takes the form of paper.  The more primitive a society is, more such papers are needed.  But even then, it’s still just a pile of printed sheets.  Yet at the end of the day, we all yield to it, from the greatest rulers to the poorest paupers, we accept that a digital number or a piece of printed paper determines a large part of our lives.  No matter who or what we are, organizations with noble causes or sinister drugs and arms dealers, we rarely question money.

And yet it is not as straightforward as we might think, for example, Money only sometimes equals Power, but not always.  The richest man is not necessarily the most powerful, nor vice versa.

Money gives you respect.  In certain countries, showing how much money you have can attract a lot of respect from others.  Thankfully, in our social democratic model, wealth is most of time neither sufficient nor prerequisite for social respect.  If you have amassed a fortune in a shady manner, for example through drug trafficking or scam, then maybe you will gain respect within the criminal world, but you certainly won’t score high with it within a broader social context.  ”Conspicuous consumption” that often accompanies an indecorously amassed fortune will more likely attract rueful glances, than respect. A hardworking baker or mason, a dedicated teacher or doctor, who acquires a degree of prosperity, will reap more esteem in this context, and rightly so.

The importance of our convention of money is proven when there are events threatening the basis of this agreement, for instance the recent financial crisis.  If there were enough people tomorrow to break the convention, the consequence on our society can equal that of the largest natural disasters.

I hereby outline some broad categories of the meaning of money from the perspective of an individual.  “Broad” because it would require a book to exam the subject in detail.

  1. The survival level

This level simply means the amount of money you need to survive.  You need it for food, warmth, cloths and a roof over your head.  The latter two are not always necessary, as in some countries you need very little to survive.  But in most countries that we are familiar with, all four elements are needed for survival.


2. The consumption level

You not only can survive, but can actually buy everything you need.  You can feast on your favorite chocolate, go to the movies, pay a gym membership and go out to restaurants regularly.

At this level, you are confronted with your first real choices, consumption, or investment (for instance a car, or even your own house or apartment.) You are forced to choose because there is not enough money to fund both.

Allow me to explain the term “Conspicuous Consumption.” Conspicuous consumption is the spending of money on and the acquiring of luxury goods and services to publicly display economic power.   The term Dutch term “Opvallende Consumptie” is a close but not exact translation.  The bottom line is that your consumption behavior by in large defines your identity.  You are identified by what clothes and accessories you wear, what kind of car you drive and what type of house you live in.  There are unwritten codes of conduct on what you can and cannot buy if you are in certain consumption class.  If you belong to a particular social group, you must conform to a certain set of rules. There is actually nothing wrong with this kind of consumption, as it constitutes a very important part of our economy, whether we like it or not.  In Europe, such behavior is at least looked upon with mixed feelings: people who only distinguish themselves through their buying behavior are looked upon strangely. Whereas in Asia, the God of Consumption is worshiped unabashedly.

How do you then deal with it? What does the Practical Buddha say about it? If you let your whole being, happiness and self-worth be conditioned upon the right handbag or a particular brand and type of car, you are of course in a quite pitiful state. If you know where your values ​​and priorities are, then there is nothing wrong with consumption, as long as you realize what you’re doing and why.  But of course, if you cannot pay the rent, but still find it a necessity to go out and drink champagne, then you have a big problem.

Personally I try to keep a healthy distance from it and never associate banal consumption with my identity.  But I said in my introduction, I have not always been consistent.

3. The comfort level.

You no longer have to make the big choices: your home is paid off or you can easily pay it off or rent another place. You have the car you always wanted, and it’s not a big deal if you need to buy a new one. Moreover, you can afford to spend on luxury items such as travel or expensive clothes.

Life looks sunny financially, but you have to remain economically active to be able to sustain your life style.  Job loss or serious illness can threaten your financial security. Should you be unemployed for a long time, you would  have to make choices: car or travel, a smaller house or drastic saving on daily expenses.  This level embraces the “middle class” in economic terms.  The middle class is the widest layer of the population and the pillar of our economy.  It should certainly be a social aim to help as many working folks as possible to this level.

4. The “fuck off” level.

This is the level where you have enough money to finance your lifestyle without having to be friendly to anyone.  Note: I find being kind is a prerequisite of leading a good life.  But the point is about doing what you want without much social compromises. In other word, if you get fired, though it hurts your ego, you can say that is doesn’t matter that much if it does not impact you financially.

Although level 2 in our region is relatively easy to achieve level 3 is definitely not easy, and level 4 is even harder.  Consider, however, it is certainly not just about your income and possession, but also about what you consider necessary.  If you can free your mind from money, you can surely in a significant degree liberate yourself by maintaining a healthy distance from material possessions.  Do you really always need the latest I-Phone, or even a car? Do you need a 1000m2 villa or does a nice city apartment also suffice?

5. The investment level.

You get into the investment level if you can live any way you like and consume whatever you want, because you have enough put aside and don’t have to worry about additional saving.  You can use your surpluses to set up economic or social projects, and invest in corporate and welfare initiatives.  This level is usually reserved only for the “one percenters”, the richest one percent of the population.

6. The power level.

You usually have to have considerable fortunes, in order to truly build social power mainly or even solely based on money. The former CEO of a medium sized company who receives a pension, for example, three million euros will tell you that his ability to influence after retirement drops to almost nil. Of course he will live a very comfortable life, but without those official titles and mandates, his social influence is limited to a friendly smile from the local gentry.  If your power and impact are purely based the amount and commitment and level of your financial wealth, you will need at least ten million Euro in Belgium.  And even then your influence is limited.  Only the club of super riches with assets exceeding a hundred million will have a wider impact, by acquiring football and cycling teams for instance.  After all, each level has its rules.

Money is omnipresent and it can be means towards happiness.  At least most people believe so, no? I see them queuing twice a week in stores – the lottery players, all dreaming of a better life that a lot of money would bring.  It can be the case.  You can buy more things, maybe even your most important asset, “freedom”, which in turn will probably give you a temporary form of happiness or feeling of happiness.  But we would be very wrong if we think that a permanent obsession for wealth accumulation brings happiness. Just think about the misery that inheritance brings in any family. If amassing money becomes a compulsion, it will not bring you any joy.

Wealth made gradually and lawfully, and with balance is probably the best approach.  Remember the lottery question again, what would you really want to do if you win the lotto.  Ask yourself the following: how would I give my life a sustainable (my apologies for the use of this word :)) positive turn.  And what I can already achieve without the lotto windfall?

You must also remember that even though money is the largest convention, it will always remain a convention.  So if you can, avoid statements like “they are still paid to do that?” Show some grace and respect to your remuneration, this will make you a better person.

To be continued or be free to comment

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