The last time I saw my aunt, she off-handedly said something that has stuck with me all this time. She was talking about a bit of financial advice she’d given her daughter, nothing more than that, but she said it with the kind of conviction that comes from a long history of testing and proving. It resonated with me—it stuck—and I think that’s because it’s more than a casual remark; it’s a simple and profound truth that goes way beyond something as mundane as budget-keeping. Without further ado, here’s what she said: “It’s not how much you have. It’s what you do with it.”
She and her husband, my late beloved uncle Chuck, worked very hard all their lives. Through thrift and good common sense, they retired with no debts and a comfortable enough income to do quite a bit of traveling before he died. Then, she was left well provided for, and their five children will be provided for when she’s gone. Neither of them went beyond high school, neither played the market, they just worked hard and steadily—running a filling station, operating a storage facility, or freelance tax preparation and bookkeeping, and even Wal-Mart maintenance work. It wasn’t what work they did; it was that they did work. Really. I don’t think either of them was ever “out of work,” not even once. I always had an admiration for them that I couldn’t have for others on the basis of mere wealth accumulation.
That’s why her casual remark was so significant. It didn’t just say something; it said everything. She was talking about money management, but I see that it goes way, way beyond that. At least, it does for me. Just think about a few other contexts:
An obese girl in a check-out line using food stamps and complaining that they don’t cover beer or cosmetics. She feels very victimized by a government that doesn’t supply all her “needs.”
A woman—any woman—who demands that taxpayers cover the costs of her promiscuity. She wants us to finance her birth control, her killing of her children, her maintenance of those children she did not kill. She says she has a “right” to expect that of us. She sees no obligation for her own self-control.
But all that is trite, superficial. There are deeper meanings:
“My parish is so irreverent I don’t go to Mass there. I watch it on television or go out of town once in a while to a church where there is more tradition and more inspiring music.”
“There is no love in my marriage and no point in my staying in a unfulfilling relationship.”
“I can’t do any volunteering; I’m on disability.”
“I don’t pray any more. There’s never any sort of consolation. It’s like talking to thin air. God doesn’t love me.”
And lastly, “To him who has, more will be given. To him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” It’s a passage not so difficult to grasp when you understand that it has nothing to do with justice, or with the haves versus the have-nots, but it has everything to do with personal choice. And there are a million contexts.
“It’s not how much you have. It’s what you do with it.”