Essays & Confessions

The Moment I Realized I Was Being A Financial Asshole

By | Friday, August 19, 2016


As part of the daily grind of creating an online presence, I visit sites that offer up beautiful, artistic products — graphic design, photos — for cost-free, digital use. Last night, I was sifting through one of those sites on another late, late night.

It went like this: I wrote the text for one of my Money School With Jane classes going up on my website at the end of this month. I realized I needed some graphic flair to give the content a visual kick and interest people. Then, I did what I have done a thousand times before: I found a font so heartbreakingly, gorgeously detailed that I proceeded to click the “Download for free” button at the bottom of the page.

But this time — unlike the thousand times before — I felt like shit.

I had noticed a name at the right of the page: the name of the graphic designer who had created the font. I clicked on the link to learn more about him. He sounded really cool; he had been working in his industry for years, and he had clearly put so much time and effort into bringing this perfect font into the world. And here I was, downloading it for free.

I know there are many artists who enjoy sharing their work with the world for free. But I know many artists who don’t. They struggle to pay rent. They can’t afford health insurance. They can’t afford to have kids. Their life is a daily fight to survive and continue to make their art, and it sucks for them.

Why the hell should we be allowed to download a font designer’s work for free? I mean, let’s be clear — if there were no value to what he created, I wouldn’t be downloading it in the first place. The font was a thing of beauty; it reflected thoughtful, artistic awareness with every distressed brush in the lettering. When did we become the kind of entitled society that demands all things of beauty be free? Because if there’s anything I’ve learned from being a portfolio manager on Wall Street, nothing is free. There are embedded tradeoffs in every choice we make.

The truth is that every seemingly-small decision we make about how we spend out money (on what, or on whom, we invest and save) says something big about us on a personal level. On a collective, social level. When you choose to spend or not spend, you’re voicing an opinion, whether you’re conscious of it or not. Whether you agree with the status quo or not. Whether you are supporting something sustainable or not. Whether what you’re monetizing makes the world a slightly better and fairer place, if your monetized product just makes things a tad worse for everyone else.

Not thinking about the power of your own financial choices doesn’t make you natural; it makes you complicit.

We’re all guilty of it. We’re so busy that sometimes, it feels overwhelming just trying to get through a typical day. A lot of good people fall into the trap of believing that there’s such a thing as a financial Switzerland, a neutral fairyland that stays above the fray of conflict and corruption. But in real life, what ends up happening to a neutral territory is that aggressive, invading armies overpower the neutral setup and get to establish their own bank accounts (and financial moralities) there. Not so neutral, after all.

This “neutral fairyland that’s actually complicit in an opportunistic system” was the statement I was making as I downloaded the font designer’s quality work for free. I was pretending that his work should have no financial value, simply because I could get away with it and benefit financially from it. I was treating him like he was not my equal. And I was making the world a slightly shittier place for all of us.

One of the things I’m trying to do with my current money school “project” is to re-contextualize money for individuals, so that people can begin to understand how truly relevant the management of their finances is to their inner — as well as outer — life. How much personal financial management means to our collective health and wellness. A mantra I’m struggling to put into video form is the idea that what we do individually affects someone, somewhere; and what is done to them is done to us. Our financial decisions are personal and collective. How we treat someone else with our money reflects who we are.

I clicked around the site for a few more minutes and noticed that he also offered a few fonts for sale. I tucked them into my shopping cart and checked out. I also found that the site itself offered the ability to make a donation. I did that, too. This artist is responsible for real expenses to maintain his site; he needs to pay in order to offer these gorgeous fonts to me. I should — and everyone should –be paying for them.

Do you like working for free? I sure as hell don’t. If you catch yourself expecting free products to be offered up to you as a consumer, ask yourself: “If something’s free, does it mean it has no value?” Because someone, somewhere put her or his blood, sweat, and tears into making this thing that you’re treating as financially worthless. Ask yourself how much you’d like it if people were doing the same thing to your work.

I know that in our current economy of free apps, you may think (even gleefully) that it’s possible to get many things we need for free. It might look free to you, on your end, but — in the grand scheme of things — nothing is free. The content providers behind those free apps are, quite possibly, being financially treated like shit. The value of these underpaid creators is being captured and “paid for” by others — advertisers, investors in VC’s, hedge fund managers, legislators with special interest groups behind them — who have different incentives and interests than our own, as consumers. These larger interest groups control the market, because they pay for the content, not us; they make it appear “free” to general consumers and thereby control both the producers, the buyers, and the whole market.

The point is this: if we want our economic world to reflect our values, we need to decide what those values really are and start transacting them. Money is power, sure. But remember: it’s our money. Which means it’s our power. Choose conscientiously about how to use your power.

Jane Hwangbo is a former investment analyst and portfolio manager who founded Money School with Jane, a personal coaching program designed to change the way individuals see and interact with money. Visit her website or find her on Twitter.

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