It was the first road day of my extended family’s adventure to Tanzania this summer.  I was riding in the back of the Land Rover with Rafael, one of our three guides for the trip and a Maasai tribesman.  Enthralled by the views of the countryside whizzing by our windows, I asked Rafael about a particular plant we saw near homes and villages.  He said it was sisal, and explained the three different species of sisal that grow in Tanzania.  (I know sisal from those rough rugs.)  He asked if sisal grew where I lived, and, being from the Philadelphia area, I said “No.”

Then he asked me a question that has been bouncing around my brain ever since,“How do you make rope?”

After a sustained pause during which I’m sure my face showed some level of shock, I said, “I have no idea.  I buy it at the store.”

(top image – the author’s son with Raphael; sisal plant)

I make or grow next to nothing, unlike many of the people in Tanzania and other parts of the world. Even in the city of Arusha, most homes had small plots of corn or sunflowers, and a cow or goat staked in the yard.  I have friends at home who keep chickens and grow vegetables, but they are definitely the exceptions.

Raphael’s question got me thinking.  If you grow or make much of what you need to live day to day, does money play a smaller role in your life?  If your wallet is nearly empty, you may still be able to put some food on the table and provide for your family, at least minimally.  I know money is crucial for many things.  But it’s not the same where I live.

How would our lives be different if money didn’t play such a central role?
In our highly developed economy, work is very specialized.  We are paid for particular tasks and skills, then we must use the money we receive to meet our current and future needs.

In fact, money is so essential to our lives it holds a significance way beyond the numbers.  Many emotions are tied up with our experience of money (usually more negative ones than positive).  We embue money with special meaning.  It has become is one of the nonverbal ways we communicate with each other.  It can reflect our needs and be an expression of our values to the world.

There are pros and there are cons to this reality.  Using money to meet our needs frees up time for leisure that might otherwise be spent walking many kilometers for water, watching livestock, cooking from scratch every day — and by “from scratch” I mean from the plant or the animal, not from the grocery store package!  We get to choose how to spend that “found” time.

But among the downsides is this: being so dependent on money, we can become stressed — or even obsessed — over it.  Using money effectively requires a level of sustained attention and thoughtfulness, which is difficult in our busy lives.  Often we proceed on autopilot, and then wonder where all our money went.

Whether it is a burden or a delight, we deal with money multiple times each day.  I think this gives us a unique opportunity.  With a bit of effort and mindfulness we can probe inside ourselves, ask the deep questions, and bring information to our approach.  We can be intentional, thinking about the impact we want to have on the world while we’re here, and the legacy we want to leave when we’re gone.  

We can align our financial actions with our values and deepest commitments.

I suggest three approaches to bring to your financial decision-making:

1.Get clear on what’s most important to you.  This is the biggest piece, and it’s where I start whenever I work with a new client.  What are you trying to achieve, to create in this world?  Only when you know this can you align your money behaviors with your values.

2. Think holistically about your money story.  How do your thoughts about money influence other parts of your life?  Try to uncover your unconscious beliefs and attitudes by bringing mindfulness to your financial actions.  How do you feel when you earn, spend, or lose money?  When do you tend to stray from your discipline?

3. Be grateful!  Appreciate where you are, what you have, what you’ve accomplished.  Even in a situation of want, adopting a mindset of gratitude has a huge impact on your happiness.
Remember Raphael.  When he needs rope, he makes rope.  We have the enormous power and privilege to “make” much more than that — a better situation, a better relationship with money, a better world.

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