What’s your price?
February 17, 2016
The cynics among us say that we all have a price.
Although my instinct was to reject that truism, it may be true. We all care deeply about something in our lives. Sometimes we care about those things more than our own lives, sometimes they mean more to us than our principles.
Sherry and I were chatting about money as a tool for manipulation. Her extended family has ways they manipulate family members using money and so does mine. In most cases, I’ve gotten a very small dose of the Controlling Juice, but it’s bitter enough to inform my independent streak which has grown a league and a half wide.
Both our families have a cultural tradition of Filial Piety, though it plays out in different ways.
My parents were a mix of traditional and non-traditional in their approach. They instilled in me a sense of responsibility using filial piety, but it was an example, not an expectation. “Big Cousin bought his mom a house because he loved her, wanted her to be comfortable, and because he could afford to. Not everyone can do that so it’s good that he’s been so responsible with his money that he could.”
Showing your love was important, but being sensible was much more important to them. They cherished the salt dough handprint made in kindergarten as a gift as much as anything I bought with my red envelope money. Thanks to those conversations, I knew everything they did for me was out of love, not as a down payment for retirement (and some parental obligation to keep me alive). And everything I did for them was out of love for them (and out of my self-imposed obligation to keep them off the street). Neither of us expected money from each other.
But the idea of bragging rights that Sherry described was absolutely part of the mainstream culture and there was talk in the community of how I was taking care of my parents. No one said a word to me directly, it simply became obvious when I hit 25, “marriageable age”, and suddenly people I’d never met before were coming over for tea and a visit.
It was all a ruse to introduce me to their sons. “This will be a good daughter in law,” they said, “she would take good care of us in our old age.” As if there was no more to me as a person and a potential spouse than my ability or willingness to support my family. But they’re an older generation, maybe there wasn’t anything more important to them.
Obligations, everywhere I looked. Thus, any offer of money is looked at not as a gift, but sideways and scrutinized for intention, strings, and expectations. Is there any situation in which I need money badly enough to take it as a gift rather than taking out a loan?
So far, history says “no.” There’s no situation where I would want something badly enough that I’d take a lien against my integrity for it. If I need it, and can’t afford it, I find a way to pay for it. If I want it, and I can’t afford it, too bad. End of story.
Why so stubborn?
Two reasons, same experience
Number 1: Mom’s family. Immediately after her death, knowing that their behavior to her had been despicable, and was going to be public knowledge now that she was gone, they desperately wanted to look good. In our culture, the way they could fake it would be to pay for her funeral. That way, after treating her like dirt beneath their feet during the worst years of her illness, they could say “Of course we loved her, we paid for her funeral and everything!”
The price tag on “saving face”: $7,000
They harassed me endlessly, from the moment they knew I was coming back to arrange the funeral, to the moment the funeral began. CLASSY.
I didn’t consider it for a second. I also didn’t give them the courtesy of an answer. I just ignored them and wrote the check, letting the few sane elements of the family tell them to Back Off. A few of them went a bit further and pointed out that, money notwithstanding, I’d always taken care of my family. It’d be a cold day in Hell that I’d accept a handout from them, even if I went into debt in the refusal.
They were right, of course.
I didn’t go into debt but nothing would have convinced me to give them the satisfaction and I don’t regret it for a millisecond.
Number 2: I grew up poor. In most cases, money gifts within closer members of the family are just part of cultural traditions and mean nothing more than well-wishing. But in cases where there’s great disparity between the giver and the recipient, “gifts” become “charity.” And like it or not, charitable giving is considered a virtue, charity acceptance is not. By the same token, someone who gives to charity is good. But someone who needs charity is looked at through a different lens, one where they’re judged, and found wanting. I learned quite early on, there is so much stigma around accepting help that I wasn’t willing to ask for help of any kind.
What if the situation had been different?
What if she was still alive and they offered money for her medical care, money that I couldn’t afford at the time? I’d already paid over thousands to fix her terribly painful dental situation. I’d already paid hundreds of thousands for their living expenses, over the previous ten years, and that’s after I’d paid several tens of thousands of their debt. All of this before my salary reached $60,000, annually.
What if they had offered me enough money to buy her good health insurance?
What if they had offered me enough money to ensure some level of stability, as a hedge against my ill health, loss of income, and homelessness?
For nearly two decades, I’ve dedicated my life to save, invest, and plan for the worst possible scenario. We’re not free and clear yet but that self reliance and drive has gotten us pretty far down the road. Ten years ago, though, it wasn’t clear if and when I’d get clear.
What if I’d been offered an easier way out that could have saved Mom some suffering, for some unspecified obedience or compliance, all those years ago? Would I have swallowed my pride and taken it? I hate to think that I would cave but in hindsight, knowing that my best efforts weren’t enough to help her, the smart money is on YES.
What if it was an outrageous amount of money?
Barring the scenario above, the highly unlikely theoretical in which my mom’s family cared enough about her to offer me help to help her (they didn’t), what if the situation was less about your need, and more about the amount?
What if it was millions? Billions?
There’s a point at which our instincts must be to start rationalizing how much good you could do with that money, isn’t there? I know mine starts to say, with $5M, you could do a lot of good. With $5B, you could do a whole lot more than that. You could, for this outlandish amount, put up with the price of [something really annoying].
Or substitute “do a lot of good” with whatever it is you’d want to do.
Would it be worth accepting the money with one hand, and a possible shackle on the other?
If we’re talking purely in currency, how big would the bucket of money have to be for you to willingly walk away from what you believe? What would you be willing to sacrifice, or tolerate? If we’re talking about valuable gifts not calculated in currency, like good health, what would you think, then?