Observation

For Richer or Poorer—What Is Wealth?

I don’t know many wealthy people. But I know one. An old friend of mine, who after university, didn’t bum about like me, but got a job.

I met up with him a few weeks ago, and we started talking about money and wealth and what it meant — if anything. As a way of quantifying our progress since we left university almost twenty-five years ago, we totted up all the money we had in the entire world.

It was a bit of fun, we were a bit drunk, but the results were very telling, and quite surprising. My friend has a house worth £800k, has investments worth £300k, plus a steady job earning him £150k a year.

‘So you’re a millionaire,’ I commented. ‘Congrats, you’ve made it!’

He stared at me in disbelief. ‘You’ve no idea, Phil, have you? You’re probably richer than me.’

‘Yeah, right,’ I said, quaffing my beer. ‘I work on a farm in Normandy, for God’s sake, and earn €19k a year. I don’t own any property, and except for my savings, have no investments whatsoever. Compared to you, I’m a pauper.’

He didn’t see it like that, though, and told me that despite his big salary, come the end of the month, he probably has less money than me. In fact, by the time he’s paid his mortgage, his two cars (BMW & Mercedes), utility bills, food, petrol, clothes, nights out, booze, holidays, trips for the kids, etc., there’s barely enough to feed the dog.

I didn’t believe him. My friend has always been prone to exaggeration, but this was silly. And yet, he insisted it was true. Even his wife backed him up.

‘Even after my wage,’ she declared. ‘We still struggle.’

I was reeling. Struggle is not a word I’ve ever associated with my friend. I have other friends who struggle, but not him. I thought my old university flatmate had got it sorted: rich and wealthy beyond my wildest dreams. Turns out, he can’t even feed his dog.

‘So, what do you do for money at the end of the month?’ I asked. ‘Beg?’

‘Not quite, but close,’ he admitted. ‘We borrow. Take out loans, or get another credit card. Move money around.’

I felt cold. Is this how people live these days? On a financial precipice, playing one credit card company off against another, just to pay some bills. If they do, this monthly digital financial hustle seems exhausting. Harder than actually working. Or perhaps I’ve been living in rural France too long, and have lost touch with the reality of 21st century England.

‘I could lend you some?’ I offered, half joking,

I could tell he was considering it, but laughed it off.

‘Why not?’ I insisted. ‘I have money in the bank.’

‘Really?’ they both answered in unison.

I wondered what had happened to my friend. He was no fool at college and had always got much better grades than me and had worked hard to get where he was. And yet, he seemed to be squandering it on £5k TV sets when he couldn’t even afford to feed the dog. It seemed absurd.

My friend freely admits he sometimes gets up in the middle of the night and starts work, he’s so worried about losing his job. It’s not that he’s on the verge of being sacked, his position is quite safe, it’s just that if it happened, it would be a catastrophe. As a result, he’s always tired, doesn’t eat well, and by his own admission, is overweight.

He’s always been a bit of a spender. At university, he was always the one to get the rounds in down the pub. Always the one to buy everyone shots of tequila at closing time. And always the first to run out of money.

He often accused me of being tight. Arguing that money was there to spend, not hold onto like a teddy bear.

‘I’m not tight,’ I would argue. ‘I just don’t like spending money. There’s a difference.’

This subtle difference has shaped our lives, and will probably shape our futures. I doubt either one of us is going to be rich (I mean mega rich), but if one of us ends up poor, it won’t be me, that’s for sure.

After the stay with my friend, I concluded there were two types of wealth:

— Pure wealth

— Perceived wealth

The first one is money in the bank. This is me, albeit on a very minor level. The second one is my friend: lots of shiny whistles and bells (and cars), but when you look in the vault, there’s nothing there except dust.

There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact, I don’t really care. But next time you think someone is richer or wealthier than you, and before you start to feel bad about yourself, go and have a look to see what their dog has got in its bowl. It might surprise you.


This article was originally published on Medium on 25/01/22—click here


(Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash)

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Feature, UK

Why I Can’t Talk About Money (Ever!)

(Image/Josh Appel/Unsplash)
During my early thirties, I made the stupid mistake of completing a Masters degree in Creative Writing. I thought I was doing myself a favour, instead I just got into debt.

After I’d finished, I started writing small ads for a local newspaper in Bristol while the bills mounted up. I occasionally changed jobs, but my wages couldn’t keep up with the payments, so I filed for bankruptcy. Then my father found out.

‘Why didn’t you ask?’ he inquired. ‘I could have helped.’ He wasn’t rich, but generous enough to help out when someone in the family needed it.

‘Because I can’t talk about money, Dad.’

Still can’t.

Only last week during a job interview, I couldn’t get round to talking about money. And because my prospective boss didn’t mention it either, the matter seemed closed.

When I got back home and my wife asked me about wages, I just stood there like a dummy. ‘I don’t know,’ I mumbled. ‘I didn’t ask. The minimum I guess.’

This wasn’t the first time. Years ago, I’d worked for a guy selling Christmas trees. And yet three weeks into the job, I still didn’t know how much I was getting paid for standing around in a freezing cold car park selling half-dead conifers.

As time passed, I became more terrified. Each morning I wanted to ask, but as soon as I saw him thumping about the yard like a bulldog with his equally terrifying son, the fear overtook me, and I got on with the job.

I mean, who does this? What loser works for three weeks without knowing how much he’s getting paid? True, my boss was a fierce bastard you wouldn’t want to be up against in a bar brawl — unless you wanted your arms and legs broken. But was I always going to be the coward hiding under the table?

By the time Christmas Eve rolled around (it’s amazing the number of trees sold on the 24th), I still hadn’t asked, and the matter was only resolved when he palmed me a nice roll of twenties. ‘Bet you thought I wasn’t going to pay you, eh?’ he ribbed me.

‘Ha! Not at all,’ I laughed it off, practically fainting from exhaustion and mental fatigue.

When I recovered and started looking for another job after New Year, I vowed never to let the same situation happen again. And yet here I was, almost ten years later, doing exactly the same thing. Attaching no more worth to myself than a man walking up the thirteen steps to the gallows. Even killers had a price on their head — I didn’t even have that.

I had to fix this situation. The thought of starting another job with this kind of uncertainty would kill me — I may as well start knotting the noose myself. Which was why I was standing outside my new employer’s office the following morning knocking on his door.

‘Come in,’ came his reply.

I waited a few seconds, then walked in. He was at his desk, looking straight at me as though he’d been waiting for me all night. I hadn’t slept a wink either due to the worry, so I told him why I was here.

My boss eyeballed me. ‘I’m sorry, didn’t I mention it? It’s the minimum hourly rate. Is that OK?’

I was about to say, ‘That’s fine.’ When a thought opened up in my mind. Was I meant to wrangle here? Was this what normal people did? Negotiate?

On the few occasions I’d bought something at a private sale, the vendors had always looked shocked when I’d paid the asking price. I once bought a van for 900 quid. It was a total wreck. I knew it, the seller knew it, everyone in the entire world knew it. But I paid the owner anyway. Four months later, I sold it for scrap.

‘Could we go for twelve?’ I asked my boss. I was sweating now, this was new territory for me.

‘I could do ten fifty,’ he proposed.

I breathed in. ‘Eleven.’

The boss paused, then shrugged, then pretended to look at some data or chart on his desk, which I saw was actually a blank sheet of paper. ‘OK. Fair enough. See you Monday.’

As I walked home, I felt elated, my pride restored. For once I wasn’t walking into a job with a rope around my neck. And even though I’d only negotiated £1 more, it felt like a million. As though all my numbers had come in at once. I’d overcome something big. Some error in my programming that I’d been carrying around with me for years, had been miraculously rectified. Just like that. Just by being bold.

I’d even enjoyed it and was secretly looking forward to the next interview. Which, if my past job record was anything to go by, wouldn’t be too far away. What would I say? Something like this perhaps:

‘Hi, thanks for inviting me in for the interview. Look, I don’t want to be rude, but before we start, can we please talk about money.’


My novel Le Glitch - a story about getting lost - is out now! Click here for details

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