“Every man dies. Not every man really lives.”
—William Wallace, Braveheart
Questioning why we’re here is part of our nature. Even my younger daughter turned to me a few weeks ago and said, “We’re here for a little bit, and then we die.” I think she was angling for a sleepover, but I suppose the sentiment was true. Impermanence in the spiritual sense is the idea that everything, particularly human life, as my daughter made clear, is transient. We’re here. Then we’re gone. We’re a blip on the proverbial radar. So shouldn’t we savor each moment with as much presence as we can possibly muster? Sure, the hustle and bustle of everyday life is distracting, but it shouldn’t be too confounding that we miss the important moments.
Stuff and the pursuit of stuff is incredibly distracting. Wanting rather than savoring. I love Naval Ravikant’s comment in his blog post that “Desire is a contract you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want.” Teaching money smarts helps you and your child see the world beyond the material things that surround us. Stuff ‘s hold over us is so powerful that I made it a key character in my new book, The Art of Allowance.
Here’s an excerpt from the book:
“We amass material things for the same reason that we eat—to satisfy a craving.”
Stuff. It’s the elephant in the room. In some cases, this metaphor is almost literal.
Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan noted in their self-determination theory that three human needs are required to live a fulfilled life: autonomy, competence and relatedness.* If we are in pursuit of or have lives filled with appropriate amounts of each, then we are much more likely to be happy, fulfilled or, as Krista Tippett of On Being prefers to say, “flourishing.”**
Autonomy is essentially freedom. (We drive the car.) Competence refers to our ability to be experts at something. (We fix the car.) Relatedness is genuine human interaction. (We drive our fixed car to a friend’s house to sing karaoke, bake cookies and play Settlers of Catan.)
Did you notice what is missing from Deci and Ryan’s imperatives? Stuff! How many of us recognize the inability of stuff to provide fulfillment as we find ourselves at the mall with shopping bags in hand? I’m from New Jersey. We know malls. We know stuff. If a boy from Jersey can learn that stuff is not fulfilling, then anyone can.
Stuff can provide only momentary jolts of excitement—not happiness in the larger sense. Understanding the power that stuff holds over us is critical as we begin the process of raising money-smart, money-empowered kids.
We don’t need to feel guilty for wanting. We do, however, need to know exactly why we want. Is it a desire planted by marketers? Or is it something
that saves us time, our most precious resource? Are we engaging in “retail therapy” to heal emotional wounds?*** If we’re fulfilling an emotional void with stuff, then we probably want it for the wrong reasons. The rush we receive from stuff is always fleeting .
A restaurant that makes our taste buds sing may be a fulfilling experience. My wife and I enjoy going out to dinner. We love food. Plus, it gives us a much-needed respite from the kids. (And if you go on half-price Monday, then hooray for you!) Experiences matter.
My dad keeps a lot of memorabilia he’s collected through the years and gets a lot of enjoyment sharing it with old friends. In a sense, he’s creating
new experiences, and I wouldn’t typically classify these mementos as stuff. In the words of Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up , these items “spark joy” for him.****
Thinking about what experiences and items are meaningful to you is worthwhile. Understanding what drives us makes it easier to help our kids learn to avoid the scourge of stuff perhaps earlier than we did.
If you’re interested in reading more about the impermanence of stuff, then please click here to download a longer sample of The Art of Allowance .
Underscoring this point, BJ Miller relayed on The Tim Ferriss Show podcast that his favorite $100-or-under purchase in the past year was a bottle of wine. In fact, it was just a roughly $30 bottle to enjoy with friends. What wine it was exactly wasn’t that important. The value came from its impermanence and its being shared with friends, sparking meaningful discussion. Those moments of conversation would be gone in an instant, and THAT realization created the meaning. Purchasing a new car, picking up a new gadget or buying a piece of clothing will never yield the same result.
Now close your eyes, and imagine a world in which all of us, including our kids, could grasp the meaning of impermanence. A world in which we’re not wanting the next thing, but we’re savoring what we have. Right now. In this moment. I recall my heading off to college and my parents wistfully telling me to savor the experience because my college years would be some of the best years of my life. That first foray into freedom is wonderful. And, of course, it isn’t the dorm room or the fresh sheets or the new computer that I remember. It’s those moments lost in time but still in my memory—like hiking up Mt. David (Fellow Batesies rejoice!) to watch the sunrise or hosting “Play Day” with the freshman for whom I was a Junior Advisor.
The earlier we can convey the importance of now and impermanence of stuff to our kids, the better. Reaching this goal is an essential element of raising money-smart children.
Now back to our world of dreams in which kids and adults are present in every moment. Where conversations aren’t constantly derailed by buzzing pockets. And, really, is there anything more rude than leaving a conversation for the impersonal, “Hey, buddy, this inanimate device’s chirping is more interesting than what you saying,” that a phone signifies? Of course, change does start with us, the adults, putting our stuff down. Stowing away our phones when we’re crossing the street. Closing our computers when our kids want to engage us in conversation. Turning off Game of Thrones if our children have an important question to ask. BTW…I’m making a note to myself to follow my own advice as I write this post. I know it’s not easy.
Stuff is impermanent. Presence matters.
*Ryan, Richard M. and Edward L. Deci. “Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being.” American Psychologist 55.1 (2000): 68. See also: Pink, Daniel. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (New York: Penguin Group, 2011), 71-73.
**“Calming Philosophies for Chaotic Times—Krista Tippett.” The Tim Ferriss Show with Tim Ferriss . The Tim Ferriss Blog, February 21, 2017,
***Plastow, Michael. “Retail Therapy: The Enjoyment of the Consumer.” British Journal of Psychotherapy 28.2 (2012): 206-07.
****Kondo, Marie. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing . Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2014.