Shane and I have started subscribing to the Freakonomics podcast. It's really interesting, and it's especially nice for taking the dog for a walk. Some days I want music, some days I want information. Yesterday was one of those days, so I took the dog for a huge ramble (about an hour and a half) and listened to the episode titled "The Church of Scionology". It's about passing down family businesses and whether or not it actually works well. (Answer: not usually.) It got me started thinking about estate planning, though. Just in very general terms because to truly plan your estate you need heirs and, you know, an estate. But I'm an admitted (over-) planner and I like to have at least an idea of the important things before decisions really need to be made. So I asked myself, why am I saving money? I don't really care about having money for the sake of having money. That's stupid. Money, for me, is no more than a means to an end. With that view, saving money for the sake of saving money is silly. So what am I saving it for? What's the point?
I think that there are basically four economic classes: destitute, poor, those who have enough, and those who have more money than they really know what to do with. Shane and I both put ourselves in the "poor" classification, with the modifier "fortunate". We're fortunate because we have a lot of advantages most people never get: we have college educations, we have prospects even in this terrible economy, and our parents taught each of us the importance of working hard and saving for the unknowns in life. We won't be in the "poor" category for the rest of our lives, so it's important to me now to start thinking about what I really want and what's truly important to me.
I don't think my dreams are really any more grandiose or modest than most people's. I don't need or want billions of dollars. I don't need or want to own my own jet/yacht/racehorse, etc. I don't need buildings named after me. What I do want are: a house, big enough for the family we want to have and maybe a little bit of space for family to visit but no bigger. A bigger house means more work for upkeep, more taxes, and higher energy costs.
I want to live debt-free (including all debts: student loans, mortgage, etc). In fact, I will end up staying in my current job longer than I initially planned because one of the benefits is free education. It's worth it to me to stay in a job that's not my "dream career" (I don't even know what mine is!) so that I can work toward other goals.
I want to be able to donate to charities in larger increments than I'm currently able to. I think that it's always important to help others out, and I know that there are plenty of people out there who aren't as fortunate as I am.
I want to be able to give my kids a college education, if they choose to go to college, the way my parents did for me. I don't want them to have to start their "real" lives burdened with huge debts.
And I want to travel the world. There is so much to be learned from experiencing places different from your own and meeting people outside your normal sphere. I think everyone should be required to travel to at least one foreign country, and I feel bad when I meet people who've never even been outside of their home state. Usually they seem proud of this fact, and all I can think is that they're covering up how scared they are to encounter anything different from what they know. That's no way to live.
I realize that a lot of these dreams are the dreams of the privileged. It's true, what they say about counting your blessings. Most people in the world are wishing for nothing more than safety and assurance of their next meal. I try to keep that in mind. Any time I feel down about us being poor, I remind myself of how much worse it could be. It helps, but it also just makes me feel bad for everyone who isn't as well off as we are. I firmly believe that helping those at the bottom makes life for everyone better. Happiness, health, and education are not finite resources. We can all do something to help out our fellow humans, and by helping one we help the world. (For more ideas and inspiration about donating/helping others, check out The Simple Dollar and this blog.)
But what about a legacy to leave behind? One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard about estate planning was this: you want to leave enough money so that your kids can do anything, but not enough so that they do nothing. Even if I did, somehow, make tons of money, I wouldn't want to leave it all to my kids. Inherited wealth is like anything else: too much of a good thing is bad. If I do end up with lots of money, it's going to either a charity or to set up a scholarship so that I can share in some of my good fortune.