I remember the night like it was just yesterday. We were in the “white house”, as it is now known, upstairs in the boys room (I grew up with 3 brothers, shared a room with 2 of them). I don’t know what day of week it was, because, well, I was 7, and days of the week didn’t really matter. What was significant about this day was that I had just learned how to play a few hands of poker. My brother had shown me what a flush, a straight, and what 4-of-a-kind was, so I was pretty much an expert. I also learned that when people play cards, they place a bet with their money, hoping that they had the best hand of cards to win everyone else’s money. This was going to get interesting.
The Power of Money
Up to that point, I knew that money could buy me stuff. My parents would give me a small allowance, or I would get some money from a birthday or Christmas card and I would use that money to buy something I wanted. At that point in my life, it was airheads, hot wheels or baseball cards. Treats and toys were for special occasions, so it was pretty amazing to my 7-year-old brain that I could usurp the standard household operating procedure and use my own money to buy candy or toys when I wanted to. I needed more of this powerful green paper if I was to have the freedom to do what I wanted, when I wanted.
I had never been motivated to steal anything (that I know of), except one time when I took bubble gum from the store as a little kid (Seriously, bubble gum at the checkout line is just screaming “STEAL ME!” to all kids who are 3′ tall and under with its shiny, colorful wrappers, easy to grab packaging and gum squares packed full of sugar. If I didn’t steal it, I would be a weird kid. The gum was a quick one-time thing, and my parents brought me back to the store, had me return it and apologize to the manager. Never did that again). But something in me that day decided that I wanted more money, and I needed a way to get it. Playing poker seemed like a great way to get more money.
Us kids didn’t have much of a net worth, though we apparently were doing better than 11% of America who had a negative net worth (U.S. Census, 1993). Our assets were toys that depreciated almost faster than new cars, though mostly because we damaged them within 5 minutes of getting them. We also had a small amount of our holdings in jolly ranchers and airheads. We were probably 50% toys, 20% candy, 30% cash. And since I was not able to liquidate the toys or candy very quickly, cash was a much more valued asset in our household.
So we arranged a late night (like, 7 pm-ish) card game in the boys room between my older brother, my sister and I. I explained to my naïve, 5-year-old sister that if she wanted to play, she needed to bring her own money. We went over the rules; “Aces are the best, a bunch in a row is good, all the same color is the best, all the same number is good too.” The cards were dealt (I think each person had a different number of cards, but that didn’t matter), we all threw in a couple dollars, and the game started.
Now, the details are a little fuzzy, but I remember having to talk my sister through how to bet more money, and as she started asking why, I was deliberately vague with my answers. I had decided that I wanted her money, and I would do whatever I needed to get it. This included completely lying to her face about how the game worked (because I had no clue how it worked either) and how to win money. My brother had checked out and taken his money back, but my sister and I played a few more hands. I happened to” win” every hand, and after about 10 minutes, I had $5 of her cash.
I explained to my sister that we played the game and I won her money, so it was now my money. She wanted to know how to win it back, so I told her that she needed to play me again when she had more money. She looked a little sad, but resolved that her fate was set and went back to her room to go to sleep. Meanwhile, I counted my cash “winnings” in my room, bragging to my brother how I had won my sister’s money. We both went to sleep, my conscience clouded by the victory and the spoils. I crossed a very important line that night, which helped define my relationship with money.
The next day, things were pretty normal, beside the fact that I was now a very wealthy man. But I didn’t make it far past breakfast before my sister talked to my mom about our card game the night before. My mother quickly rushed me up the stairs to talk to me about my behavior! I was told that I was not allowed to take my sister’s money, that we should not be gambling in our house and that I needed to give her the cash promptly. I knew that I had done something bad in taking my sister’s money, but I still nervously explained to my mother that I had won the money playing cards. Mom didn’t care, the money was not mine to take and I was in trouble for teaching my sister to bet her money.
I was also forced to apologize for taking her money. I reluctantly did so, but I felt the loss of that extra cash as I handed it over. I really wanted the freedom and material things that money represented, and I was really bummed that I had to give it up. Something about those $1 bills made me justify cheating and lying to bring them into my possession. You know what? I don’t think I ever told my mom that I had cheated either. I think let that one go, because I really wanted to keep the money!
My Relationship With Money
I did not realize it explicitly that day, but money was something that seemed to have a lot of power from that point forward. It was the cause of fighting, struggle and stress, but also the gateway to joy and celebration. I learned that I needed it, and more importantly, I wanted it because of what it could do for me. I also learned that I could be tempted to lie or cheat to obtain it, and that I was capable of giving in to those temptations.
Now, I don’t have any memory of ever stealing money after that point, probably due the swift action of my mom and the consequence of being caught (and it’s illegal!). I also have always had a very strong conscience about these things, but for some reason I was able to ignore it that day.
I don’t believe that money is inherently good or bad. I believe that people can use money in good or bad ways. The popular Bible verse seems to always be misquoted, but the actual verse says “the LOVE of money is the root of all kinds of evils.” I totally believe this, and as evidenced above, I was even capable of this type of greed. I have since put money in its rightful place, but it is still something that I have to check my conscience on as I pursue business ventures and other money decisions.
I ask myself questions like, “why am I doing this? Am I focusing too much time/energy on making/spending money? Am I compromising morally/ethically in any way to make money? Do I believe that more money will make me happy?” The answers to these questions reveal where my heart is at, and can help get me back on track with my priorities. This is a great self-assessment to have any time you are faced with a money-making/spending opportunity, especially in business. If you find that your answers don’t line up with what you actually believe and where your priorities are, you can then make some decisions to get lined back up. So, I guess the question is, how do you define your relationship with money?
Comments: When did you first realize that money had some power? Have you ever cheated/stolen money? What was your motivation?