Paying to Get Ahead: The American Dream?

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Paying to get ahead

Well into my second year of blogging about my dream of achieving financial mastery, I am continually reminded that mastery of anything is as much about one’s head as it is about one’s behavior.

Hence, I seem to be going through a period of re-thinking my thinking about money.For readers who are looking for some tips and strategies on saving money, I’m not giving you much when I write about this stuff, for which I apologize.

But in my humble opinion, all the tips and strategies in the world can’t hold a teaspoonful of water if they aren’t backed up by right thinking.

Money behavior is  a matter of digging up the underlying beliefs, and working on getting those right in order to get the behavior right. If we’re not doing that, all the budgeting and numbers-crunching and money diets in the world won’t amount to a hill of beans.

Some money beliefs are personal, and some are cultural. Last week I mentioned the book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael J. Sandel . I thought I’d give you an example from the book about how our cultural beliefs about money are influencing our individual money behaviors. Sandel’s got a whole chapter on paying to jump the queue.

It’s no secret that you can pay to get ahead, quite literally, nowadays. But as a culture, we haven’t really talked about whether that’s a good thing or not. We just seem to be taking it for granted.

We pay a premium to get telephone support on the software we buy. People who don’t pay the premium are stuck with “knowledgebase” articles instead of personal assistance.

We pay extra to jump to the front of the line on the popular rides at Disneyland. People who don’t pay extra just keep on waiting.

We pay more to go to the front of the airport security line, or to “pre-board” our plane.

There’s  even talk of letting solo drivers buy passes to use commuter lanes so they can get to work faster during rush hour, while the other shlubs who don’t pay extra creep along in the regular lanes.

If you’re like me, you probably just shrugged your shoulders and said, “Yeah, so?”

But think about it. What does it mean that you can buy your way to the front of the line?

It means that if you have the money, you get treated differently. Yes, you get the same ride – but without the wait. You get the same software, but also the help to make the most of it. You get on the same plane, but a lot more conveniently. You drive the same miles, but faster.

Meanwhile – and this is the important part –  the people who didn’t pay extra are also treated differently, and not in such a good way.

In other times and with other issues, that was called “separate but equal.” Two drinking fountains, one for whites and one for blacks. Everyone got water, they just got it separately. So, that’s equal treatment, right?

Of course not. Way back in 1954, the Supreme Court struck down separate but equal because separate is inherently not equal. Back then, people were separated by the color of their skin. Now people are separated by whether they pay extra or not.

Try out a little thought experiment and see if it works. Imagine two drinking fountains, one in the hot sun and one in the cool shade of a sheltering tree. One is for white people and one is for black people.

Which one do you think the white people got? Same water, but not an equal experience.  Now imagine the same two drinking fountains. One costs 50 cents, and one is free. It’s obvious which one costs money.

Same water, separate fountains, hardly equal. Otherwise, what would be the point of paying?

Someone’s going to leave a comment saying that treating people who pay differently from people who don’t is not the same as segregation, and my analogy therefore lacks accuracy. Black people can’t control being black, whereas people who have money to pay for premiums can control having money. All they have to do is work for it; and if someone’s willing to work for it, then they should be able to use it to buy privileges.

It sounds good if you say it fast, because it goes to the heart of capitalism. But it is a slippery slope in a lot of directions. As Sandel points out, capitalism envisions a market economy, not a market society. Exactly which kinds of privileges should be up for sale?

For that matter, where’s the dividing line between a right and a privilege?

We have experience charging people for their rights, and the courts don’t like it. And do we really actually live in a world where everyone has an equal and limitless opportunity to earn, and where laziness and ignorance are the only excuses for not having the money to buy privilege?

Or is that just a theoretical world we’ve convinced ourselves we live in, when the truth is actually much different?

My dream of financial mastery is not just personal, it’s cultural. Paying to get ahead – is that truly the American dream?

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  • Catherine

    In my 20 years in banking I was privileged to see thousands upon thousands of people’s financials — right down to how they spent money every day.  What I found most interesting was…

    The most wealthy looked the poorest in appearance  — not holes in clothes — but you’d never guess they were wealthy by appearance.  It’s as if they really didn’t want people to know that they had money.  When I’d talk with them, I’d get statements like, “I’m just a poor boy from Arkansas..”  Really?  With 45 rental houses, millions in the bank and enough money to buy the city?  What kind of poor is that in Arkansas?

    The wealthy (not inherited money rich) would nickel and dime me over every financial detail looking to cut out expenses everywhere.

    The wealthy drove used cars and paid in cash.

    The wealthy never agreed to pay for anything as offered — EVER.

    The wealthy didn’t have credit card debt and what few cards they had (usually 2 or less) they paid off every month and were the lowest of interest rates.  They only used the cards to get free flyer miles or some sort of perk or they’d never use them at all.

    The wealthy stuck to budgets so tight that the average person would rather be tortured than live that way.

    The wealthy knew EXACTLY how much money they had in every account, how much money was in their wallets and how much change was in their car.  They knew exactly what they spent money on that week – to the penny.

    Now the new rich, inherited rich or pretend rich did the opposite of all of this, they …

    Wore brand new clothes, drove brand new cars, went out to dinner at least once a week.  Only bought the best of everything.  And would be the ones to pay extra for what you are talking about.

    So many of them carried credit card debt that made me nervous 150k and more, but boy they sure looked rich.  Often many of them needed help straightening out their checking accounts from bouncing too many checks.  

    The real rich conserve money like conservationists conserve energy, and they wait.  They wait with their money to buy cheap when cheap happens.  They wait for houses to be at their lowest prices and pay cash.  They wait for stocks to be at their lowest and buy then.  They buy low and sell high.

    So if it costs 50 cents for water, I bet they’d carry their own, or figure out a way to hook up a paying water fountain in their own yard, but the real rich won’t pay extra for something they can find or create for free.

    Great post.


  • What a powerful thought and way to look at this.  What’s interesting is a lot of “old money”  does not spend money on “extras” I wonder how they would spend money in Disneyland — would they stand in line because the thought of paying extra for the same ride seems like frivolous spending?

  • remy

    Jayne, so thoughtful. I haven’t really thought about it like that – and I think that if I had lots of money there could be no end to the ‘upgrades’ I could buy.  But then the more I buy the more I have to make. Im all for people making money and spending it the way they want.  But the social aspect of what you describe has me intregued.  And so early on a monday too!~ Rem