Maturity and Money

“I don’t think anyone really matures. Adults are just children who owe money.” Kenneth Branagh in Peter’s Friends (1992).

I’ve known a number of people that fit this description. I remember when I was 16, having the distinct impression that a couple middle-aged (40ish) men involved with our youth group weren’t any more mature than we were. They enjoyed buying big trucks (one of them owned the first Hummer I’d ever seen), stunting and being reckless. They seemed to have the money to support their hobbies, but I wasn’t privy to their finances. Now I work as a financial advisor. One couple stands out, where he changed jobs around age 50 and started as a junior accountant. She works for her parents. They had no control of their cash flow and really didn’t keep track at all of their cash flow. I know they owe a lot of money, mostly on a house that’s much bigger than they need and leases on new cars. They want to retire, and haven’t faced reality.

The opening quote comments, in a general sense, on a certain view of our society. Of course there are exceptions (to prove the rule), but what does it tell us about the way we see ourselves and about our expectations of others? When I was a kid, I thought my parents knew how to raise kids, knew how to manage cash flow and obligations, and knew how to interact effectively with other adults. Now that I have children of my own, I realise they were probably winging it most of the time. Often, there is no single moment when a child becomes an adult, and I believe many adults think of themselves as the same person they were five, ten and even 30 years ago. In that sense, it may be true that no one matures. Further, despite how people see themselves, the way many adults act betrays the fact that they have never matured. My high school experience was a little like a soap opera. Riding on the train next to two elderly women, I found they are still very interested in their soap opera on TV. I expect teens to rebel against authority and have trouble relating to each other, while trying to sort themselves into a social hierarchy. I didn’t realise that a lot of the same thing goes on in large corporations.

What is maturity, if it doesn’t automatically come with age? Children don’t have much control of their lives. The adults around them hand down rules, set expectations and make decisions in their place. Because children have very little room for self-determination, they don’t necessarily take responsibility for the outcome of their life. Adults, on the other hand, are expected to have more vision. Adults should set goals that they work towards in an effort to better their situation for them and their family. Adults, since they now have the power to make choices, are expected to take initiative and to be responsible for the results of their decisions. These expectations probably equate to what Kenneth Branagh’s character called maturity. But, as he pointed out, real life is different. Adults still prefer others to make their decisions for them. Many people would rather not shoulder the responsibility of making their own investments, which is why the financial advice industry continues to flourish. And it seems that a majority would rather go through life not thinking about the stressful subject of “the future”, but prefer to vegetate and read a newspaper or a magazine or watch TV. And how many men my age, fathers of young kids, spend hours playing video games? Probably more than the number who volunteer in the community, learn another language or educate themselves in their field or in a subject that interests them.

Everyone, it feels like, is expected to assume debt. Most university students seem to graduate with thousands of dollars in loans. Doctors, dentists and lawyers usually have tens of thousands of dollars owing by the time they finish school. While starting out, often in a low paying job, and repaying debt, it’s difficult to afford a new car. Fortunately (?), car loans are easy to qualify for. Then, when it’s time to start a family, a house is purchased with a mortgage, and it’s filled with furniture and electronics that are paid for in installments. Credit cards can cover clothing, a spa day, or anything else for which the cash isn’t available. Adults who have more debt than their annual income aren’t out of the ordinary. What would have been a shocking amount of debt only a few decades ago is now seen as totally normal.

The transition from child to adult can almost be marked by the availability of debt. Debt is not only available, but it is the easiest way to acquire all of the signs of adulthood: education, car, house and lifestyle. This implies that debt is more strongly related to age than maturity is. Debt is almost a given, whereas maturity cannot be taken for granted. But true maturity, living life on your own terms and for a reason that is related to your vision for yourself, is in many ways the philosophical opposite of debt. Debt will economically enslave the debtor and reduce the range of options available. A mature person will only accept that situation if it furthers their pursuit of their goals. As an example, an entrepreneur will borrow money to start a business, knowing that they will work as hard as necessary to be successful and that the extra capital will move them closer to their goals. In this case, debt is used not for consumption or to supplement a lifestyle, but for investment.

Are you a child who owes money, or have you matured? Do you see debt as a way to live better without waiting, or do you see it as helping move you toward your long-term goals? Given that you have 50 or 60 years of life in front of you, with resources better than most people in the world (and throughout history), do you know what you want to make of your life?