The Teen Talking Circle Project

In 1996 both DS talking circle focus groups met with Vicki Robin, co-author of the best selling book, Your Money or Your Life, and founder of The New Roadmap Foundation. All the proceeds from her book and honoraria for public speaking goes into the foundation for grants. Today, Vicki spearheads the movement for Conversation Cafes, which bring people together to connect and network over a variety of topics.

Vicki: I want to ask all of you here a question. If you had enough money, (financial considerations aside) and could buy anything in the world, what would it be?

The Group Response: A tropical island; a nice house; the rain forest; turntables so I could DJ; mass quantities of undeveloped land; to start a commune; drugs; a Costco warehouse of pharmaceuticals; a down-payment on a house, pay off all my debts and get a new pair of shoes; The Navy; a year-long vacation in Europe; money for college tuition; a recording studio and all the instruments; a plane ticket to New York; The Seattle Seahawks; enough money to feed, clothe and house every person on the planet; to buy time/freedom.

Vicki: Okay, let’s look at this more deeply. Behind all these material desires are thoughts and feelings, internal needs that having these things satisfies. Like buying a tropical island, how would that make you feel?

Meaghan: I could put a little house on it and live there by myself

Vicki: Would there be anyone else on it?

Meaghan: Not for a while.

Vicki: So actually that might be a need for solitude... What about the turntables? How would it make you feel if you could be a DJ?

Maria: I’d love the feeling of making people happy.

Vicki: What’s behind the drugs?

Annie: Being able to get away. I don’t want to say escape, it’s more like living a different experience.

Vicki: So it’s the experience of something new, stepping outside normal reality and seeing what’s there.

Annie: New perspectives.

Vicki: So, what about food, clothing and shelter for everyone?

Linda: I’d feel guilty about having money if others were suffering.

Vicki: So it’s some sort of justice that you really want.

Linda: I’d say that was correct.

Vicki: What we’re hearing is that behind the all the things is a set of feelings you want to have that you think those things will give you. But because most human beings don’t separate the things from the feelings, we can get ourselves in a lot of trouble vis-à-vis money. If you think that the only way you can have an experience of solitude and be at peace with yourself is by having a tropical island, you can get yourself locked into working a long time to get the money to buy the tropical island and then what happens if global warming happens and it’s swallowed up by the ocean! All of us want things, there’s nothing wrong with wanting things, but we need to ask ourselves, “okay, what are the feelings I think I’m going to be able to have out of buying that item? Are there other ways I can have those feelings? Especially if the thing I want costs so much money that I’m going to have to work years to have it or I’m going to have to violate my principles to have it?” What’s important here is to think about the relationship between money or stuff and being happy.

We all have to fill our basic needs: food, clothing and shelter. That kind of spending is very important. ...And then there’s spending money on things that are just nice: music artwork, delicious food... These are things that add to happiness, love, pleasure; Things we can really enjoy. But ... there is a point beyond which spending more money is not going to give you more happiness. A lot of people in our culture get locked into these cycles of spending more and more and more. It’s all about, “...then I will be happy.” More is always better. You know the feeling: you really want something badly and as soon as you get it you start thinking you could have a better one. What happens is if you are pushed only by material desires and you don’t develop other sides of your personality such as your relationships with other people, your sense of connection with the rest of life, you run the risk of ending up at mid-life feeling very empty. People who get there say, “But, what’s it all for. I don’t know my kids, my wife’s leaving me?” Giving energy and attention to having a great marriage is not the same as buying your wife a lot of stuff.

Wind: In your book you contrast making- a- living with making -a- dying?

Vicki: Number one, we do not have to spend the best years of our lives and most of the years of our lives in this process of making a living so that you can have more and more at the material level. It’s possible for each person, no matter where they are in life, to define what’s enough for them. If your answer is, “never,” you start making a dying; you’re a wage slave. You devote your life to making the money to have the things or you don’t and you feel that life is not worth living. You have a choice which desires add to your life energy and which you say you’re not going to spend your life going for.

Linda: What if you’re in a position where you’ve never had the “good things” - maybe you’ve lived in poverty...or on such low income all your life and you don’t see anything changing?

Vicki: For people who have had so little or who have been marginalized, it may be important to have the experience of having the things, but this information would simply give them the opportunity at some point to say what is enough. Also, often people in “disadvantaged” communities don’t have good education on being a good consumer. There are more advertising dollars spent on black Americans than white because they are more apt to try to consume their way to acceptance. Right now there is a much stronger push towards consumerism in countries like India and China where the middle class is growing, because these are people who have not had the car, the refrigerator, the middle class things. We’re in a situation right now in the world where there is this push to consume on the part of people who have never had, but who have seen the life-styles of the rich on television and have assumed that having all that stuff was going to make them happy and acceptable so there’s this effort to accumulate so that you’ll be okay. Right now there’s a big push in the advertising industry to market to people your age.

I’ve been in people’s homes who I know have very little money and yet they have incredible furniture. I know they’re paying for it on-time (credit cards), which means the cost of each item of furniture is being paid in installments. When you do this you’re paying so much interest on each item that it’s exorbitant. The environmental component of this is that the world does not have enough resources for everyone to enjoy the lifestyle we have here in the US. So now what? How do you ask Americans to consume less? It’s very hard. We’re trying to educate people not that they should consume less or should consume at a certain level but to really take a look at what things they do buy that make them happy and what things are just useless. And if people set aside the useless, that will lower consumption in North America by 20 to 25% and hopefully that will make enough space for people from disadvantaged communities to come up to our level.

It’s really important to recognize that the world has a constant megaphone that is blaring messages into your brain and you think they’re yours. Marketing and advertising is a very calculated, thought-out process. We’re either told that we’re losers if we don’t use this or that product or if we do use it, our lives will be better and we’ll be happy. The marketing motivators are: being ahead of the curve, fear, sex, greed, and envy. These are the basic tools marketers work with in order to make you buy a product.

So, where do we see all this advertising?

Group: Television; magazines; all over our bodies; our clothes; how we smell; logos; billboards; radio; movies; storefronts; super models bodies; everything; concerts; sports events; MTV is one big ad for lifestyle, music, and relationships; coupons; junk mail; internet; telemarketers; direct mail; textbooks; yearbooks ; free samples; door to door; word of mouth...

Vicki: We are in an environment of advertising that is constantly influencing our choices. The only reason I’m saying all this is because the more you know about what’s going on the more you can make a conscious choice. ...So, what’s money? Money is the be-all and end-all of having what you want. But most of the things you want, you can have in non-financial ways. You can earn respect without money exchanged. Same with power...As a matter of fact, if you take a look at other cultures, the ways people got power were spiritually: retreats, praying, fasting - they would come back in their society with a capacity to lead which didn’t have anything to do with money. Money is a problem for some people because they don’t have enough and for other people because they have more than they know what to do with it. For example, I don’t take any money for anything I do. All the proceeds from the book, all my honoraria from public speaking goes into our foundation and we give it away. The fact that we give all this money away, in a society that worships money, is one of the most powerful things that I do. I’m not doing it for power’s sake, I’m doing it because I have a savings account that yields an income for me that more than meets my needs so I don’t need more money. I’ve discovered in my life a way to live life that is very fulfilling; I live very simply.

Wind: I find that with a lot of young people to talk about working less and simplifying is something they don’t have the luxury to do, because a 40 hour a week for them doesn’t necessarily earn enough money in this economy to live a simple life.

Vicki: I’m not saying cut down, be simple. I live the way I do because I enjoy it. All I’m saying is that there is a way to approach earning and spending money that will allow you to be more in control of it and not run by it, so that you can make choices for yourself. Money, at a bottom line level, is something that you trade the hours of your life for. You sell your life hours for money. If you make ten dollars an hour, after you pay taxes, car fare, child care, buy clothes, etc., you may be only making five dollars an hour. Okay now you go out and spend your money and you realize I’m not spending money, I’m spending my life energy. So, anybody with some self respect has to ask, “Is this thing I’m spending sixty bucks for worth six hours of my life?” If it is great, buy it. But if not, don’t. It’s very simple. But somehow or another, that very simple message has been forgotten. Instead we live in this world that says, “you can never have enough of anything and buy more and more stuff,” forgetting that you are investing your life in the work place in order to get those things or you’re sending yourself further and further into debt. Money is not happiness, power, or success. It’s not proving yourself to the other kids. If you can liberate yourself from thinking money is going to buy you those things, you will have control in your life and then you can direct your life energy towards whatever you want.