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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #26, 11/15/2006

Freedom... Burning a Hole in Your Pocket

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

When a worker has just been paid, we sometimes say that the money is "burning a hole in his pocket." This is money that the person feels somehow compelled to spend, and not usually for the best long-term purpose. Our fine Las Vegas casinos thrive on this night-after-payday income, and this kind of pressured, compulsive spending drives a good portion of our local and national economies.

Why is it that when you suddenly have cash in your pocket, you feel the impulse to spend it? This is a lot deeper question than it seems.

There are a lot of meaningful long-term things you can do with your money, but your mind tends to go blank about them as soon as the cash is in your hands. Once you have money, then your whole psychology changes.

If you give any of us $50,000 in crisp hundred dollar bills, that wad is probably going to vanish quickly on things that we will later regard as frivolous: a car, a boat, a cruise, some jewelry. When you suddenly receive a big lump-sum of resources, it is hard to use them wisely. Instead, you feel a secret pressure just to use them, so they'll go away.

Money in your pocket represents freedom. $50,000 could mean the freedom to not have to work for a while and do something else that is more meaningful to you—or it's the down-payment on a Lexus. In most cases, the Lexus will win, because it is something that settles the question right now.

Money burns a hole in ones pocket because freedom is terrifying. We all claim to want freedom in the abstract, but when it actually happens to us, we'll do everything in our power to make it go away. We'll fight to the death to defend the freedom of our country, but what this concept amounts to for most of us is the freedom to construct our own prison.

Young people have a lot of freedom—way more than they know how to handle. Once they graduate from high school or college, they essentially receive their whole lifetime of freedom in one lump sum. Through various mechanisms of contract, emotion and impulse, it is easy to spend all of your future freedom at once. You can get married, have a baby and sign a mortgage, all before the age of 21, and then your life is pretty much programmed.

It is like receiving all of your lifetime income at the beginning of your adulthood: "X" million dollars. The wisest thing to do is hold onto it, use it carefully, and try to stretch it out for the full duration. That's not what most of us do, however. Once we have freedom, we try to spend it all as soon as possible.

What is freedom? It is the ability to adapt to unforseen circumstances, both in the outside world and in ourselves. When we are young, we don't know much about ourselves, but we also can't foresee the possibility that we might change—so why not the marriage, the kid and the mortgage? The fact is, we will certainly grow and change in unexpected ways, but only if we have left ourselves the physical ability to do so. You can't become a movie star or President of the United States if you have already locked yourself into some other kind of life.

Freedom doesn't always feel good. Its mere presence creates anxiety within us. The freedom to pursue any career you want, to go anywhere in the world, to choose any friend or partner, can be profoundly distressing, even more so, sometimes, than being locked in prison. You ask yourself, "Who am I? Where do I go? What do I do?" Real freedom, without structure, can be very lonely and frightening.

It is like someone giving you a blank piece of paper and saying, "Here's your life, fill it up with something.... and you WILL be graded." Faced with a blank slate, people tend to panic and go, "Aggggh!"

This kind of unstructured freedom is terrifying, and people will run from it whenever possible. Faced with an infinite array of choices, most people will gladly sign on the dotted line—any dotted line—just to make that scary uncertainty go away.

If you give an employee a raise, what does he do? He goes out and buys a new car. Actually he doesn't really "buy" the car in the present tense; instead, he sells some of his future freedom for it on the installment plan, thereby committing himself to his new income level. In effect, after a new round of contractual commitments, he ends up just as poor as he was before.

The installment plan is an instrument of Satan. It assures that otherwise successful people will always be imprisoned. Just because you're making $100,000 a year doesn't mean you're rich, because obligations and expectations—and foolish choices—tend to expand to absorb those resources. Committed to a more expensive home, expensive cars and expensive "necessities" that you once regarded as luxuries, you may find yourself trapped in the kind of soul-sucking job that can make you $100,000 a year, even if it isn't best for your personal development.

Given a romantic relationship that is ill-defined, that has no direction, that isn't really going anywhere, and what do couples do? THEY GET MARRIED. All that freedom was burning a hole in their pocket. Given a marriage that is ill-defined and going nowhere, what do couples do? THEY HAVE A BABY. Now, you got direction, buddy—Big Time!

People always talk about "commitment" like it's a good thing. Sometimes it is. You can't accomplish anything in this world without some kind of investment of your resources over time. You can't even get a job without assuring the boss that you are at least going to report for work tomorrow.

But so much of what we call commitment is just a senseless throwing away of future discretion, because freedom was too much for us to bear.

There is another connotation to "commitment". If you are sent to a mental hospital against your will, you are "committed" to it. You can also be "committed" to prison for any term up to life for a momentary indiscretion.

Commitment is a powerful tool, for both good and ill. It is nitroglycerin that needs to be handled with extreme caution.


Reader Comments

“So True!” —CD 6/6/07 (rating=5)

“Wow, this is good reading. Too bad no one listens, and still blow their money anyway. I make more than enough money to get by, and have always been a saver. Now I have a car payment, but I still have plenty of savings, but I don't know why. Why do I have money and just let it sit there in a bank account doing nothing? I guess it is a good security blanket to fall back on in case of trouble.” —Mike 10/11/07 (rating=4)

“what a negative way to talk about home family & money. so have nothing. credit allows us to live a life with luxuries, so what if you have to pay them off. it gives us a reason to strive. someone must have burned you but good. what did you lose your car, family and home. sounds like it. so take your money put it in a some cloth tied to a stick and go enjoy your life. sounds like your a tight wad. u suck” —linda 2/4/09 (rating=0)

“I'm a "poor student" trying to figure out why I keep spending all the money I ever get - good insight! I'll think about this when I'm making my next decisions about what I want to trade in my money/freedom for, and what I don't want to waste it on. Thanks!” —Chelsea 4/13/10 (rating=4)

Ratings so far: 4 5 5 4 4 1 0 4 (Average=3.3)

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