A few weeks ago my husband and I made a dubious purchasing decision on iTunes. We rented and watched The Queen of Versailles, a strange US documentary about one of the wealthiest families in America and their experience of the 2008 GFC.
The kind of wealth this family has is genuinely unimaginable. Watching Jackie and David Siegal have to cut back after David’s timeshare empire hits a rough patch is especially strange. For this family, ‘cutting back’ means selling a $65m house still being built. But there are some familiar moments, too – David yelling at his family to turn some lights off is one. In many ways, this family lives in an entirely different world, but challenges like the chaos of raising 8 kids (!!!) and dealing with Christmas on a budget makes their plight very, very real.
But of course, these people’s attitude to money was by far the most fascinating thing for me. And oddly familiar. It took me a while to figure out why, because by no means have I ever been anywhere near that kind of wealthy, but then I got it.
It’s because of this:
I am no hardcore gamer, but I find this game super fun, and at times is eerily lifelike. Here’s what playing The Sims has taught me about money.
1. Getting it feels really good.
Like, really good. Especially when you start off with nothing. Finally having enough money to buy some new furniture, get a car, upgrade to a bigger house is one of the few moments where it feels possible to ‘win’ in this game.
In fact, I’ve noticed that watching the my sims’ money grow gives me a very similar feeling to when my husband and I put money into our savings account. Something about rewards and dopamine being released in the brain, perhaps.
2. Having it feels less good.
I haven’t experienced this in real life, and I kind of hope I never do. Documentaries like The Queen of Versailles and playing The Sims really make me think that not only does money not buy happiness, it also guarantees its absence.
Let me explain. You start off with nothing; perhaps a spouse and a dinky little one-room house on a big plot of land. The furniture is scungy, poorly made and things are breaking all the time. You both work your butts off and money starts coming in – slow at first, but quicker as time goes by. Soon, you start being able to at least spend a little; replace the crappy oven with a sleek new one, buy some books, go to the theatre. Your lifestyle improves, you’ve got some financial freedom and you’re no longer at risk of homelessness if something goes wrong.
And then as your salary rises, you get a little more comfortable. Now most of the furniture in your house has been replaced; it’s looking great. Money keeps coming in, so next you redecorate. But the house feels a little small for all the extra stuff you’re buying so you decide to just demolish the thing and build a nice new one. You have great fun doing that, and love the end result.
But something’s wrong. Your bank balance keeps rising, but you’ve run out of things to spend the money on. You stop going to work, because really, what’s the point? You stop going out because hey, you’ve done everything. There’s no achievement in anything anymore because you can do whatever you want.
This is what seemed to happen to the Seigal family. Jackie Siegal was straight out of an episode of Extreme Hoarders: their garage looked like it had 30 bikes in it and I think she had 10 dogs. But I totally get it; what else is there to do when you have everything and everything is within your grasp, other than just collect more stuff?
3. You always want more, but at some point you don’t really want more.
Maybe it’s like happiness; maybe the fun really is all in the pursuit. But then what’s really the point of the pursuit? When finally you reach a point at which the rising bank balance is no longer meaningful, you’re not really going anywhere, and more stuff just gets in the way (literally – you’re tripping over it).
In The Sims, this is the point at which I usually shut the game off. I get complacent; there’s just no point anymore. It’s usually only months later that I want to play again.
Watching The Queen of Versailles was like getting a glimpse of what it would be like if The Sims never ended; if you couldn’t turn the computer off, get it out of your system and start again from scratch when you had the time. This is their life – this painful, sad, futile search for happiness that is all pursuit and no conclusion.
I don’t think it has to be this way. I think money can be fun, and useful, and can lead to an easing of life. But it is a gift, which needs to be held with open hands.
If I had one wish for my husband and my financial future, it is that we would never have enough money. In a sense, this is a very cowardly wish; I don’t think anyone ever thinks they have enough money. But if we are always working hard, always praying for God to provide us with what we need, always thankful for what we have… well, perhaps we can live life without the pursuit of more that makes switching The Sims off so easy.