Real money magic: priming the pump

What’s to be done when a well runs dry? Here’s a tip: try priming the pump before calling a well driller. The same can be said for when we run dry, creatively or spiritually or even financially: with the right skills and components, even on our worst days we are not lost causes; our pumps too can be primed.

Applying that to money can seem like a catch-22: if it takes money to make money, where in Tartarus should I look if I don’t have two cents to rub together? The fact that this is not an easy question to answer is a deep and enduring problem in our society. Those resources which do exist to help the penniless can be hard to identify, and even when they are known there can be barriers from geographic to bureaucratic in the way. While it’s been decades since I needed to rely on public assistance to pay for rent, food, and medical care, I haven’t forgotten how efforts to prevent welfare fraud made it harder to earn enough to escape that trap. I had to use the most dangerous pump-priming technique available to me: taking out student loans, hoping I’d eventually make enough money to pay them off.

For the most part, I don’t borrow money that I don’t know I can repay. I am risk-averse, which means that my pumps don’t get primed as quickly as some. Priming a pump with borrowed water when there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to repay right away is something I’ve done more than once with dissatisfying results. I understand that there are others for which the combination of timing, circumstance, and personal motivation make this a risk well worth it; recent history is peppered with examples of stupendous success based on other people’s money. Infomercials, too, are filled with those tales, and it’s largely due to that sort of soulless shilling of dream-chasing that I have sometimes nearly come to ruin. Lending that targets the desperate is often particularly predatory. Feel free to borrow if you wish, but it’s rarely something I counsel. If you come to me with a tale of woe, I will listen sympathetically, but when asked for advice to avoid doing to oneself again I will definitely recommend not borrowing more money as a first step.

Borrowing aside, what remains is finding ways to increase income, and, for the advanced practitioner, controlling expenses.

The former, identifying new or greater sources of income, might involve seeking a raise or a new job, find an additional job, joining the gig economy, selling things that are lying about the house, or turning hobbies into revenue streams. It is not the purpose of this passage to give specific tips on doing these things, the specifics of which can vary. (Moreover, my life experience only includes a couple of years surviving solely on thanks to government assistance, and that was before Clinton gutted most of those programs.) What’s important to recognize is that there is almost some level of control over how much money comes in, although making more money usually requires a sacrifice of time spent doing other things. If it means watching less television, that might not be too bad, but if the sacrifice is time with one’s children, the calculus gets trickier.

Find what you’re willing to give up — even temporarily — and you’ll have a sense of how much time you can focus on earning more money. That equation can change from day to day, even hour to hour; sometimes it’s going to be a tough choice between spending time with the kids and ensuring they have food to eat, but mostly not. The key is that we make these decisions all the time, and the challenge is doing it consciously.

In short, working with money is, and always will be, something that carries with it risk. That’s especially true when undertaking new ventures, for which the downside is unclear. Priming the pump represents that initial risk: is the water I have in this container before me going to yield more if I pour it down that hole than if I pour it down my throat?

The answer to that question can only be determined with some discernment, but that’s a big enough topic it deserves a post of its own.

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