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Money (That's What I Want). Isn't it?

21/02/2016 6:33 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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A child places Australian coins into a piggy bank

That early Beatles song always intrigued me, even as a kid. "Money don't buy everything it's true, but what it don't get, I can't use." Then I heard the Pink Floyd song, 'Money', as a teenager and I felt as if my brain had just exploded. David Gilmour's rough-satin voice made me feel as if I was in another place, in another time. Like I was all grown-up already.

Maybe that's the appeal of money. It makes us feel as if we're not kids anymore. It lets us forget the smallness, vulnerability and cluelessness of childhood, when parents -- those archetypal, looming figures -- made all the big decisions and the world out there was a vaguely exciting but intensely frightening place.

I remember my first pay cheque. It was 1990 and I was 17 years old. It wasn't from McDonalds or the local supermarket. I was lucky -- I made it through an audition for a choir that performed every Christmas in a pantomime at the Sydney Opera House.

I climbed up an enormous fake Christmas tree, on scaffolding that was hidden from the audience, dressed in a red robe with sticky bare feet, and sang Christmas Carols. I was paid $8 an hour, and to me that felt like riches. I used to give it all to my mother, not knowing what else to do with it.

Money. It's what we want, isn't it? It's the panic that wakes us in the middle of the night, fearing we don't have enough. It's the illusion of scarcity. An illusion, that while we logically know has no basis, never seems to fade. If they have more, then we don't have enough.

I personally know a couple of multimillionaires, self-made men with big ideas and decades of tenacity -- and they're in no way immune to this anxiety. Having lots of money doesn't necessarily mean the dread of losing it vanishes.

We always tend to compare ourselves to those in our immediate vicinity: neighbours, family members, school parents, close friends. We measure our financial worth against the prevailing social strata we swim within. Alain de Botton calls this 'status anxiety', and widens it to include worries about our looks, our skills and our place in the social hierarchy.

We don't measure ourselves against Hollywood royalty, or slum-dwellers in Mumbai. Our angst is relentlessly home-grown. Status Anxiety is also the name of an Australian accessories company that manufactures handbags and belts... now what does this say about us?

Money is still one of the last taboo subjects, along with death. In Western culture, I don't know many people who openly discuss their finances, with up-to-date figures on what they earn, and how much they bought and sold their houses for.

So what are we worried about? That people will judge us for how much we make, or how little? Are we afraid people will want to borrow money, or somehow think differently of us once they know? Or are we worried they'll conclude that we haven't worked hard enough for what we've got?

My husband makes decent money, by society's standards. Even so, we often worry that we can't make ends meet. Is the answer to this living simpler, more frugally? Wanting less? The older we get and the more wisdom we (hope) we have, this seems to be the best solution.

So we sold the trophy home. We now have no mortgage. We don't own a house either, but hey, that's a minor detail, right? We have no debts to anyone. We are planning on moving up north, near Queensland, where land and homes are (relatively) cheaper than Sydney. We want to live off-grid, grow some of our own food, taste a highbrow, post-capitalist version of the life that came so naturally to our Greek village ancestors.

I just typed in 'Money is a...' on Google. What came up was this: Money is a hoax. Money is a hoax, debt is slavery. Money is a medium of exchange. Well, all of those may be partly true, the last one categorically so. Money is a medium of exchange. But that's not all it is.

It represents so many different things to different people. It can spell freedom, breathing space, respite. It can also mean conflict, loss, long battles over wills and estates. It can mean power. And for some, particularly in the developing world, it is something unimaginably remote and unattainable.

Sometimes I fantasise about a world where we barter what we make and grow, or a gifting economy where we trust that by giving to one person what we have at the time, what we need next will come to us from another.

For this to work, there's one small detail. We need a global cataclysm. We need a dismantling of all the systems that we've taken for granted since we left our nomadic hunter-gatherer ways and settled in one place, grew crops and eventually created complex civilizations. We need smaller groups of people working together autonomously, without a centralised system of government and banking.

How many of us are really ready for that? On days like today, I feel that I am.

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