Originally posted at fa-mag.com by Mitch Anthony, May 1, 2022.
I was recently going through my archives and came across some recordings I had done with Dick Wagner almost 15 years ago for a recording we were calling “Money Dialogue.” Dick, who passed away five years ago, wrote for Financial Advisor and was a recognized thought leader in financial planning. But he was more than that—he was also a truly seminal soul and thinker. He flew out to my home in Rochester, Minn., and we sat and talked all things money for three days. Suffice it to say, I’ve never found a richer conversation in all my life. His comments are timeless, and I think worth sharing with you.
Mitch Anthony: Dick, your lifetime has been allocated to exploring a lot of topics: theology, jurisprudence, and all things related to financial planning as a profession. I think this unique background might be part of the reason that led you to declare that money is the most powerful secular force on the planet.
I believe that I’m safe in saying that no one that I know of in our present age has put more thought, more heart and more sweat of the soul into the topic of money and how it impacts our lives individually and collectively. In our conversation, we’re going to explore this force—its potential, its shortcomings, and its mysteries. Dick, welcome to the “Money Dialogue.”
Dick Wagner: Thanks, Mitch. It’s good to be here.
Mitch: It’s interesting that in previous conversations, the topic came up between us that money is really not about money. I’ve heard it said that money might be the world’s most prominent metaphor—it always seems to stand for something other than itself.
Dick: Well, money is both secular and spirit, so it’s not at all odd that it would relate to our personal spirits. There’s that part of it. It is the second-most talked about topic in the Bible. It engages our days. It is how we spend our time as human beings and it’s how we work with each other. It is, I think, the world’s most powerful self-organizing force—and it is part of what human beings do. It’s an interesting phenomenon. On top of that, we add that it’s a 21st century survival skill. Then on top of that, we add that it’s still a taboo topic that we’re not allowed to talk about. We talk about what it does, but we don’t talk about what it is.
Mitch: Maybe that’s a good leaping off point for the whole concept here of these money dialogues: that there is a taboo nature around money. I remember hearing a psychologist tell of a therapy session with a couple who were having marital problems. They talked freely about their sexual lives—without shame or embarrassment or the need of a fig leaf. When he brought up money, they both raised their hands and said, “We’re not going there.” What does that tell us about our society and our culture?
Dick: It tells us that we need to go there. [chuckles] It’s what I suggested. I suspect that in terms of their own difficulties, money had an awful lot to do with it. I’ve read accounts that suggest that there are essentially three reasons people get divorced: children, sex and money—and money is probably the most predominant of all those.
Mitch: I suspect this might take us back to your comment about secular and personal spirit, but why is money so difficult to talk about?
Dick: It reveals us. It tells the truth in ways that nothing else does. If you give me somebody’s checkbook, credit card bills and tax returns, I can tell you an awful lot about them. It’s a “You can run, but you can’t hide from how you spend your money.” It reveals that where your heart is, your treasure shall also be—something that was said in the Bible 2,000 years ago. I believe there’s no truer statement than if you can look at where your money is, you will find where your personal priorities are. You can’t lie about it. It sits there.
Mitch: Money is a window to the soul.
Mitch: It makes me wonder if the taboo then isn’t rooted in the fact that maybe money or real conversation about money forces me to be honest about who I am, what I do, and what I’m really about.
Dick: I think it’s also scary. There’s a terror element to money that’s quite real. We have moved from an agrarian society where we could count on the seasons and the times and the resources that were visible to us to take care of us as we aged. Today, we’re asking ourselves to believe that this intangible—one that nobody really understands—is going to be there to serve us through the rest of our lives.
Mitch: In the agrarian society, you watched your crops grow, you watched your pigs get fatter, you put your product in the truck, you took it to the elevator, and you sold it.
Dick: Right, and you had some notion that it would renew and replenish.
Mitch: Right. Today, we’re missing all that experience then.
Dick: We’re missing that experience, but it’s also not in the nature of money to renew and replenish in the same sense that our crops or our fish in the sea did, or our resources, our coal, our oil—or what have you. That we’re asking this thing that nobody understands—this force—to take care of literally billions of people. It’s just humankind’s way of interlocking itself to provide what people need. Does it work all the time? No. Sometimes we go through pretty tough periods where money’s reliability is definitely in doubt.
Mitch: Maybe under this underlying terror that you are describing about money is the fact that we don’t understand how it works and can’t apply those same rules to money like we do the land, the law of sowing and reaping, the harvest, etc.
Dick: We can use them metaphorically, but I don’t know that we can believe that they’ll work for us in the same way. I think the best metaphors around money are all biologically based. The mechanical metaphors around money—what we’re most used to—are actually not as useful to us as the agricultural-type metaphors.
Mitch: I guess it’s awfully hard to use a metaphor like sowing and reaping, when, say, someone who has been an airline pilot or an airline flight attendant for 30 years and thought they were going to get a pension of X and [it] ends up being X divided by 60%. We began to realize that it doesn’t work the same. Money doesn’t work the same in our world as it does out in the farm field.
Dick: Well, the farm field tends not to betray you on purpose. Sometimes the floods come and sometimes a tornado will come through, but that’s part of the deal. It’s not the same thing as somebody having lied to you for 30 years.
Mitch: It’s interesting. I recently had a conversation with a gentleman whose wife had left him for another guy. The marriage, the family and everything was in absolute turmoil. I said, “Well, how are you doing?” I was just trying to delve into his mental state. He said, “Well, I’m doing fine. I got the money.” I almost fell over.
Dick: It doesn’t keep you warm at night. [laughs]
Mitch: Yes. We live in a world where this is how a lot of people think. Maybe it’s because there’s all this insecurity and fear around money. That here he is in this incredible crisis of life, personally, and the first thing on his checklist was to get the money.
Mitch: Does that tell us something about our culture?
Dick: Well, I think it certainly tells us something about this guy. I think this guy lives in a culture that says that if you have the money, you’ll be all right. I’m guessing he was pretty shook up and just didn’t really want to talk about the other stuff either.
Mitch: Yes, right. Our dialogue today is called, “It’s Not About the Money,” and it opens up a lot of areas, doesn’t it? Everyone wants money. Most people, I’m safe in saying, think they want more money. Yet, in fact, the money always seems to represent something else to us. One of the statements you’ve made is that if it’s not about the money, it’s about how you live your life. Can you explain that to us?
Dick: Money is just a tool enabling us to access the goods and services we need to live our lives, but it’s not a substitute for a life. If money becomes a substitute for your life, then it really is your life—and money doesn’t tend to do that “life” stuff very well. It doesn’t tend to provide, and you can do some awfully silly and stupid things with money—and people do.
On your death day, you will not go to St. Peter and say, “I had enough money.” It won’t make any difference to you at that point. If you deal with the money appropriately, it will be in balance. You will spend enough time on it to not do anything stupid, and you will not have wasted your precious time on Earth with what money demands of you—except to do what you must.