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Doing Good

Joe Kesler  |  October 27, 2020

DANIEL SUELO is one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever met. At dinner with him and some friends almost a decade ago, I spent the evening trying to understand his view of money—or, to be more accurate, his refusal to believe in money at all.

Suelo was in Montana to talk about a book that had been written about him, The Man Who Quit Money. As the title implies, Suelo—a well-educated and articulate man—made a decision in 2000 to stop using money. At the time I met him, he had lived off the land, foraged for food in dumpsters and managed to survive without using money for a dozen years. When he wasn’t traveling, he solved his need for housing by living in a cave in Utah.

The evening got even more interesting when we went with Suelo to a large, standing room-only event. He was treated as an almost god-like figure by the crowd, who seemed mesmerized by a man who had seemingly found a way to say “no” to the most dominating influence in our culture. I was reminded of the scene in Forrest Gump when a crowd began running with Gump because he appeared to have figured out the secret to life. Suelo seemed to exude the peace and serenity that others craved. The crowd was clearly captivated by the dream of an apparently happy life with no need to strive for money.

Like Suelo, Chuck Feeney has also inspired many to think unconventionally about money. And like Suelo, Feeney is also drawn to spartan living. That, however, is where the similarities end. As profiled in Forbes recently, Feeney amassed billions through Duty Free Shoppers, the successful business he co-founded. Feeney pledged to give away almost his entire $8 billion net worth before he died. He just achieved his goal.

According to Forbes, Feeney gave his money away over the last four decades to charities, universities and foundations. He has nothing left now and he couldn’t be happier. While most of Feeney’s gifts were anonymous, his story is now out. He’s become the inspiration for a movement among billionaires to give away most of their wealth during their lifetime.

I think the intense interest in Suelo and Feeney suggests that something’s awry with our relationship with money. Why is it so fascinating to hear about one guy who quits using money and another who makes $8 billion, only to give it away? When our culture teaches that happiness can be achieved through money, it’s jarring when we see others headed in the opposite direction.

As a bank executive, I worked with a lot of marketing people over the years. One of the first lessons I learned from the marketers: It’s boring and ineffective to sell the features of a product. Instead, you sell the dream. In other words, don’t emphasize the low interest rate on a car loan. Instead, encourage customers to see the bank as helping them become who they were meant to be by financing that Tesla.

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Professional marketers sell things by connecting them to happiness, life satisfaction, fulfillment and peace. The pitch is that we can become self-actualized only if we buy the products that will get us there. The logical conclusion: We need to pursue money to achieve a fulfilling life.

While some products and experiences do deliver short-term happiness, and that’s a good thing, they don’t have the ability to bring long-term purpose. Our relationship with money turns dysfunctional when we demand something of money that it can’t deliver.

One unfortunate casualty: With the rise of consumerism and marketing after the Second World War, charitable giving began to decline. Indeed, Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave an insightful Harvard commencement speech in 1978 in which he noted that the West was exchanging the pursuit of happiness through virtue for the pursuit of happiness through material goods.

I was on a radio show recently and the interviewer asked, “What’s the purpose of money?” I suggested that its highest and best use is as “a way to bless others.” This definition needs to be more nuanced. For example, one way for entrepreneurs to bless their employees is to reinvest profits in the business, so they’re able to give raises and create new jobs. The definition also shouldn’t exclude caring for ourselves, now and in the future. If we don’t plan for retirement, we may end up being a burden to our children.

I firmly believe helping others with our money can be a spiritual antidote to today’s endless consumerism. But how? If you don’t have $8 billion to give away, here are five ideas:

  • Tip generously. In Montana, hair salons were forced to shut down for several months due to COVID-19. When I finally visited my barber, I left him a $100 tip. I think he was overwhelmed, but I’m sure I got a lot more joy from the tip than he did. In this pandemic era, countless restaurants have laid off employees. As we have the opportunity to go out again, consider blessing your barber, hairdresser, waiter or waitress with an above-average tip.
  • Revisit your will. Most of us can’t give away all our money in this life because we need it to live on. When our estate is disbursed, however, we can focus not just on our family, but also on the charities we want to support.
  • Look at your donation budget. A friend had been giving away 10% of his income, but he decided to up that to 20%. That inspired me to look at my own budget. If you’re currently donating 2% of your income, perhaps a boost to 3% is a way to bless a local charity.
  • Find an international charity that will stretch your thinking beyond local needs. COVID-19 has been devastating for developing countries. This is a great time to make a difference in another part of the world.
  • When I searched for what happened to Suelo, I came across a Wikipedia update that said he moved back to his hometown in 2016 and began using money again, because he was taking care of his mother who was in her 90s. I have many friends who are sandwiched between taking care of their aging parents and helping their kids with college. It isn’t a blessing to get to old age and ask our children to care for us, because we failed to plan for long-term care. Even as we seek to help others, we should also look after our future self.

Joe Kesler is the author of Smart Money with Purpose and the founder of a website with the same name, which is where a version of this article first appeared. He spent 40 years in community banking, assisting small businesses and consumers. Joe served as chief executive of banks in Illinois and Montana. He currently lives with his wife in Missoula, Montana, spending his time writing on personal finance, serving on two bank boards and hiking in the Rocky Mountains. Joe’s previous articles were True Wealth and Life as a Loan Shark.

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