June 16, 2014
Live Fast, Spend Young
It is a problem that the majority of us face almost daily: the desire to enjoy ourselves versus the obligation to be responsible. Except for those few people at either end of the spectrum, who either go all out and Live Fast, Die Young (James Dean’s biography), or else believe that the only purpose in life is to be responsible, most of us wonder how to strike a balance.
As I am currently on something of a world tour, right now in South Africa and soon to leave for Brazil, I have been struggling with the question. Overall, I can’t say that I would have traded the experiences I have had and the places I have seen, during a trip that began in China and crossed Europe before heading to Africa. It would have been nice to have the money in the bank, but what would I have spent it on instead?
Not being one for spending a huge amount on clothes, cars, houses and the like, the main advantage of having kept the money would have been saving it for the future. But what if there is no future, for me? Or not much of one? A sobering thought, but a reality that maybe we should all consider from time to time: not all of us are guaranteed to live long, healthy lives. Should we, therefore, not only enjoy ourselves while we can, but use our money while we can?
This is the same basic argument that says “go on, take that extra drink, cream cake, expensive purchase,” or whatever may be our indulgence, because we might “get hit by a bus tomorrow.” I do tell myself that quite often. I then tell myself that if I don’t get hit by a bus tomorrow, which I almost certainly won’t, I will just be really hungover/fat/broke, so I make a variety of decisions based less on fatalist, philosophical musings, and more on the current practicalities of my situation in that particular day or week. Like most of us, I will never know for sure if I should live free or be responsible.
Overall, I suppose, I have opted a little more for enjoying the present than taking care of the future. That has brought with it some guilt, but now research from Princeton University tells me that spending while we are young is a good thing, as insurance against early death. In fact, it points out, rather interestingly, that the difference between those blessed with long lives and those cursed with short lives represents one of the greatest inequalities in human existence, yet one that is rarely talked about.
The researchers argue, “that a premature exit from life is a serious loss that should imply compensation beyond just relatives but also to the deceased person.” But how can a dead person be compensated? Well, they can’t — except in advance.
It is a risky business, of course, because many of us will not die young. And the group is not advocating a complete rejection of the responsible personal policy of getting some decent savings together. But they do point out that, for some, there may be an imbalance in the amount saved versus the amount consumed and enjoyed when young. In the West right now, we are seeing a lot of wealth tied up in the savings accounts and properties of older people. There are some poor pensioners, but there are plenty of very rich ones too. In an affluent society, saving is no longer necessarily insurance against poverty in later life, but rather the hoarding of boatloads of cash all life long. Some may never spend it out of fear or guilt. Some may start on the saving path with the intention of enjoying life later, but in the end never get the chance.
The problem with this whole concept, of course, is that spending and enjoying ourselves right now as a result of it depends on assuming that our lives will be short. It’s probably better for our state of mind that we don’t do that. But on those occasions when we do use the excuse “we might get hit by a bus tomorrow,” at least we will know that Princeton University agrees with us.
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