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Reforming Your Inner "Material Girl"
by Pamela Ayo Yetunde

Tax day is just around the corner.  If you are an early-bird who has already filed her taxes, congratulations!  For everyone else, here are a few tips to save you money and time.

Recently I was invited to speak on the issue of Black Economics.  As I contemplated my remarks, I thought it best to begin with the greatest obstacle to our financial power – our preoccupation with the material.

We must have a collective preoccupation with the material because studies show that Black Americans have never owned more than two percent of the nation’s wealth.  Some researchers have found that the more money earned in the community (nearly $400 billion annually), the more our share of the wealth dwindles (currently estimated around 0.5%).  If neither theft nor poor math accounts for this discrepancy, then what does?

Our inner “material girl” screams for release and seductively whispers for attention.  She cannot be ignored, for her appetite for expensive and unnecessary things is hearty.  Material girl must be fed, but she’s only satisfied when you buy something you don’t need, at the expense of doing what is necessary.  She is usually a very bad girl.

Is there an inner “material girl” in you?

bulletAre you more concerned about the amount of your next raise than the amount you will contribute to a charity?
bulletAre you more concerned about the size and shape of your physique than how you’re going to treat the people you’re trying to impress?
bulletAre you more concerned about the next shoe sale rather than the next volunteer opportunity?
bulletAre you more concerned about increasing the limit on your credit card than increasing the value of your mutual funds? 
bulletDo you watch 50 or more hours of TV a week, but meditate, pray or sit quietly just 30 minutes?

If you’ve answered any of these questions, “yes,” then you may have a material girl lurking inside you.  If it helps any, you are not alone.

No one, save Madonna the singer, admits to love of things.  Even when challenged, some of us deny our dependence on the material.  In hundreds of conversations with my clients about their obstacles to achieving their financial goals, only two or three admitted they are materialistic. Most people have been preoccupied with the material at some point in their lives because our culture applauds material attainment and our economy thrives on materialism.    

In Random House’s College Dictionary, materialism is defined as:  attention to or emphasis on material objects, needs, and considerations with a disinterest in or rejection of spiritual values. 

Humph!  Who said anything about disinterest or rejection of spiritual values?  Generally speaking, we are a buying and religious people. Faith brought our people through slavery, through Reconstruction, through the Great Depression and through the Civil Rights era.  I guess that’s why we claim we are a spiritual people.  But can faith help us keep the inner material girl in check?

Absolutely! With compassion, you can see the spiritual side to people and the world.  The more you focus on people, the more objects and trinkets become immaterial.

So why choose to be more compassionate when we could simply remain materialistic? Compassion is a win-win for everyone and does not require anyone to renounce an appreciation for things.  Take my life, for example.

In college I aspired to become a highly paid advertising copywriter.  A falling-out with my mother caused me to re-evaluate the meaning of life.  During this lonely period, I realized two things: I would be unhappy without love and the world did not need me to be wealthy, but simply required me to assist people in need.  My newfound mission disappointed my advertising professor yet compelled me to see the world beyond my provincial existence in Indianapolis. 

During six weeks in Zimbabwe, I visited a refugee camp.  Thousands of scantily clothed Black people lived under rickety tents eating bowls of meal under an unbearable sun. They had been there for several months.  I was there for 30 minutes.  As I was reminded of my wealth, my inner material girl was humbled.   I also had my first true test in compassion – I felt their suffering as if it was my own.  My soul was shaken, my worldview turned upside down, and my preoccupation with things material diminished.

As you think about your money management goals, and your inner material girl begins to cry for attention, plot your beliefs on a value line.  At one end put material, on the other end, put spiritual.  Then list your budgetary items.  For example, if you are single without children and rent a two-bedroom apartment to store your stuff, ask if your rental decision was inspired by the material or the spiritual (maybe you needed the second bedroom for a meditation room). 

Recall experiences that have made you more compassionate.  Was it encountering a homeless person on the street?  Was it a story about a crack baby abandoned in a garbage can?  Maybe it was a misfortune in your life and the pain of it makes you pray that it doesn’t happen to other people.  If you cannot recall an experience that has led you to be more compassionate, think of what would make your life miserable.  No job?  No food?  No housing?  No love?  And give away some of what you have to someone else.

Focusing on spiritual values helps us reform the inner material girl in us.  With the material girl subdued, we can take economic responsibility for the long-term well being of our families, our communities and our society.  Denying the material girl immediate and temporal gratification gives us the fortitude and means to become collectively happier and wealthier. 

Scientist and philosopher, Albert Schweitzer said that the happiest people in the world are those who have sought and found a way to serve.  I know this truth, because as I serve the investment education needs of our community, I have less desire to listen to my inner material girl.  Through serving, I have become happier and more prosperous.  I know that saddens my inner material girl, but girlfriend can’t always get what she wants.