Money skills are a 21st century survival requirement.
It may not always be nice; surely not "fair."
Implicit miracles abound, along with theoretically avoidable tragedies.
The "good life" is made accessible; people suffer. Personal and
cultural balance eludes.
Money. Can't live with it; can't live without it. This is our reality: To live life effectively in 21st century first-world environments, money skills are required. Without them, at least some of them, we do not survive.
Unpleasant? Unsavory? Yes. No matter. We all must deal. There are no "opt out" provisions. The natures of these skills vary among us. Their implications do not.
This does not mean that we must know how to get rich or to create large bank accounts. For some, these necessary skills are the skills of commerce and/or working adeptly wåith money itself-e.g., good investors, those working in financial services, etc.
For others, it is simply doing their job. This means education, job skills, pensions, knowing rules and legal constraints, benefits packages, political sensitivities, etc., and surviving within the worst of these. As long as the check arrives and they don't do anything stupid, they will probably be fine during their working lives. Of course, avoiding fateful errors is not so easy; neither is life post employment.
For others, money skills mean the skills of working the system, beggary, reliance upon one's family, insurance, day jobbing, welfare skills, etc., including dependencies upon the kindness of others. In any event, if we run out of money or access to money, we have survival level problems. Moreover, for most of us, we deal with these survival issues every day.
Generally speaking, "survival skills" are automatic. Humans come equipped with the essentials. Mostly, anyway. At birth, we come into the world ready to breathe, eat, drink and seek warmth. The truth is, we learn early on that if we fail to do these things, we will die.
Of course, humans soon learned it was not enough to know how to eat and drink. They needed to find some sort of access to food and water to do so. So they learned these skills along with knowledge of warmth and shelter. They also engaged in other necessary functions within their physical environments ... such as avoiding disease and reproducing themselves. Our ancestors learned early on that if they did not do so, they died. Many did.
After acquiring these skills and remembering to breathe, eat, drink, find shelter, keep warm and propagate, they learned about their world. For instance, they found out that some snakes, bugs and plants were poisonous. Or, they discovered that "drowning" was a problem with fishing and water travel. For land travel, they learned that gravity was not always a friend and that long exposure to cold was trouble. At the wrong place at the wrong time, certain animals would invite them to dinner-as the entrée du jour. So they became wise in the ways of land, animals and fire. Life was hard but they learned to deal. They were always learning. Of course, the price of that learning was often somebody's death or injury. How else could they acquire necessary survival skills? Who knew? It was simply the price of progress.
But individuals and communities learned the skills to survive. Or they died. Many did.
Do you think that was harsh? You bet it was. If you did not know about your world and how to move within it, you died. If the community did not know its world and how to function within it, the community died. Sometimes their world was hostile. Always their world was unfair. Some folks had it better than other folks. Some folks were bullies; some were victims. Some folks were leaders; some were led. Some folks had reduced physical capacities or reduced psychological aptitudes and so on through the litany of differences between human beings. Some were fighters, others robbers, others cheaters.
As humans evolved, they remembered these things or relearned them as they observed the costs of forgetfulness or feigned bravado. Unfortunately, they also learned to inflict violence upon each other. So they learned to attack and/or defend themselves. That meant such skills as architecture, engineering, weaponry, water control and animal husbandry/farming. It meant acquiring battle skills or affiliating with those willing to use their battle skills on your behalf. If you did not know how to defend yourself from other humans, you died. If you were hungry and did not attack fellow humans, you died. If your community did not know how and when to do these things, your community died. Many did.
As humans evolved, they felt a need for order. If you violated someone else's notion of order and they had the weapons and the soldiers, you died. And yes, if your community violated someone else's notion of order and propriety, your community ended up in battle. If it was not skilled in battle, it died. Many did.
Today, in first-world countries, we must remember all these other survival skills. Nothing has changed. We must still breathe, eat, drink, find shelter and keep warm, self-defend and operate within appropriate rules of order. We still must know about the world around us.
But now this world comes to us through money. In first-world cultures, money skills access the stuff of survival. For first world "us," money is our key for food, shelter and clothing. In fact, money is our chief vehicle for all sorts of mutual interaction. If we, or any of us, don't know how to function with money, at least in some form, we die. This is semi-metaphoric. Death may come in the form of physical demise, mental turmoil or spiritual angst, but if we don't know how to function with money at any rational level, we will, in fact, die. Many have.
These skills need not necessarily be those that would get grudging respect from a financial planner. From thriving to barely surviving, these necessary skills may be the sublimely developed financial skills of financial professionals, lawyers, politicians or CEOs. Or they may be simply earning and spending money in a controlled, responsible manner, just doing their work and being a citizen. Or they may even be urban foraging skills more reminiscent of forest life and the abilities to access the moneys and resources of others. Or they might be the skills of fighting, robbing or cheating.
In any case, few people are capable of functioning in first-world 21st Century without basic and sufficient money skills to get along. Moreover, levels of money skills generally determine qualities of life and, indeed often, longevity of life.
In the 21st century, money skills are survival skills. Without them, we die. Many have.
But, as with those other higher-level survival skills, it is not just individuals who must have money skills. It is also our communities. If our businesses or intentional communities lack appropriate financial skills, our businesses or intentional communities generally die and cease to be. If our various government entities lack appropriate financial skills, these various governmental entities ought to cease functioning. They certainly cease serving.
Of course, these skills and their implications, present or absent, ripple and intertwine within our communities.
Sometimes governments create laws and rules and orders that fail to understand money or its requirements. When they fail to do this within the constraints of their financial resources, they become financially sick. When they become sick enough, they die or they seek the money from others. They seek money from other countries, other people, the world around them-whatever can be had by hook or crook. And if these fail to incorporate the realities of the world around them ... well, you know.
The more we are dependent on the money forces, the worse it can get. In 2006, we are very, very dependent upon the money forces. We are more interdependent than at any time in human history. When a significant sector sneezes, we all catch a cold. The strength of nondiversified interdependency is its efficiency. Nondiversified interdependency is vulnerable, unlike the agrarian economies of the Great Depression. Food was grown, clothes were sewn, shelter was not as generally subject to the crush of debt and folks knew their neighbors. Today, food is bought, clothes are bought, shelters are generally subject to the crush of debt and the concept of "neighbor" is quaint.
Think of the Great Depression. Now think of the Great Depression made modern-i.e. few family farms; fewer real gardens. How many of us could survive for three weeks using just the food in our homes? Money provides the key to the efficiencies of interdependencies; money is similarly the tension point of extraordinary vulnerability.
Sometimes governments and communities fail to grasp the realities of air, earth, fire and water, or other aspects of the world around us. The Mayans depleted their forests. The Irish enabled famine. In his excellent book "Collapse," Jared Diamond observes dozens of groups that literally wiped themselves out by failing to understand survival requirements. They failed to support themselves or foolishly depleted their resources. Not pretty. Sometimes there is mass starvation. Sometimes there is mass migration. Sometimes there is just mystery.
Today, intelligent, informed financial skills have become imperative. They are truly 21st century survival skills. Others have ignored their imperatives. They paid.
This is our challenge. No joke.
Richard B. Wagner, JD, CFP, is the principal of WorthLiving LLC, based in Denver. He is the 2003 recipient of the Financial Planning Association's P. Kemp Fain Jr. Award, which recognizes a member who has made outstanding contributions to the profession.