Martin Young
Martin Young

How much money is enough?

A R12 500 a month salary, much discussed in business, economic and political circles at present, is the wage fought for by striking platinum miners in the longest and most damaging strike in our country’s history. The recent agreement puts that figure within sight.

I couldn’t live on R12 500, and I’m sure most readers on this site for their own families’ needs would agree. For a platinum belt informal settlement dweller however, it is conceivable that R12 500 would comfortably pay for food, clothing, transport and minor luxuries for a small family. But it is unlikely that the families are small, and that this amount has to go far further than most of us can imagine. What we do know is that R12 500 is significantly more than most of the striking miners were earning beforehand. Will it however be enough?

How much money for anyone is “enough?” I know I don’t earn “enough”. The times when I had to worry about unexpected car repairs or whether I could afford a tank of petrol are happily gone, but an ideal of having 10 years’ worth of salary banked as an interest-gaining pension to maintain the quality of life I enjoy now is unachievable simply because I don’t earn enough. “Poor planning” you may argue, but things like good educations, family needs and simply enjoying life for the present got in the way. (Nevertheless I’m working on it — I have the luxury of having a “Plan B”.)

money

I look at the mind-blowing salaries of top executives of South African companies, and wonder whether they find these incomes adequate? A residence in Dainfern is not cheap, and a holiday house on Beachyhead Drive in Plett is even more expensive, but an additional flat in London or chalet in France may stretch even the few million rand a month salary package. And for the heavy-hitters at the top of the earnings charts even several monthly gorillas may not cover the cost of private jets to allow them to visit all their possessions on a regular basis.

Wayne Rooney now earns £300 000 a WEEK! How does one even begin to spend that much money? The trap however is that Rooney’s income potential will remain that just as long as his talent and/or fitness last, and on current form at the Fifa World Cup in Brazil Rooney is treading on thin ice. So to retain his current quality of life he will still need to put away more. So even Rooney earns too little for his long-term needs.

There is always going to be someone with a faster car, bigger boat or younger, prettier wife. Spare a thought for the executive chasing those dreams, bearing in mind that the acquisition of a younger, prettier wife may cost him half his possessions in the divorce court. On those terms and with those aspirations he still doesn’t earn enough.

What drives this urge to load oneself with bigger, better and more costly possessions? I believe the answer is “comparison” — that we too easily compare ourselves with others on a consistent basis and find ourselves lacking. The sense of lack drives the need to compete, and the easiest form of visible competition is by possessing bigger and better stuff. Each step up the ladder of success remains crowded by those competing with each other, and so the comparisons never stop, and the amount of money at hand is never enough. Each increase in income sees the goalposts set a little further away, and the next rung up the ladder is always a little higher.

The mega-wealthy are just as much at risk of this condition. Midway through writing this post I came across this about Hillary Clinton, arguably at one stage the most powerful woman in the world and still potentially a future president of the US, bemoaning Bill’s and her relative poverty with assets of “only” $100 million.

At the lower-income level this urge to compete is most bizarrely apparent in the actions of the Izikhothane, most of whom certainly do not have the incomes to indulge in these demonstrations of ostentatious wealth. But the message in these actions is “Compare yourself to me — I’m so wealthy I don’t need to worry about this stuff, I can burn it and throw it away”.

Comparison then is the problem, a true killer of joy and contentment. We compare ourselves to others too often based on what we think we lack, not on what we already have. The only real solution is to stop the relentless scrabble to the pinnacle of consumerism, where the guy with the most when he dies wins. The mantra of contentment, common to so many religions, is “Be happy with what you have got”. It’s easy enough in principle if you are well-housed, well-fed, educated and satisfyingly entertained. And yet so few of us get it right.

Back to the striking miners. I have little doubt that within a few months R12 500 will no longer be enough for them. The allure of new disposable income is to spend it, and the better prospects one rung up the ladder will soon see the question again resonate throughout that troubled industry: “How much money is enough?”

The answer, as it has always been, for them and for us all, is “Just a little bit more”.

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