Numbers on a Screen — When Money Feels Unreal

My 77-year-old dad tested positive for COVID-19 two weeks ago. I was worried sick, but thankfully on Day 10, his fever broke — he’s much better now.

It felt horrible, because I’m stuck here in Kuala Lumpur, 362 km away from my hometown. The never-ending lockdowns meant I couldn’t be there in person. I could only send some money home, and call my family every day.

COVID-19 changed our world. Often it feels like I’m living my life only within these four walls, and everything else has moved online. Unreal.

Ever felt the same?

It’s changed the way I feel about money too.

Adventures in the Crypto World

Last week, I tried to take part in an NFT drop. A process where X number of NFTs are put up for sale on a website. There’s countdown timers and all — like waiting for a Black Friday sale. When the timer hits zero, you’re supposed to click the button. Your crypto wallet gets deducted, and an NFT (e.g. a picture of a cute lion) appears in your wallet later.

At 11:00:00 p.m., I hit the button but failed. It turns out 55,000 people around the world were trying to buy 10,000 NFTs at exactly the same time. The project sold out in less than three seconds.

Nine hours later, I woke up to see the NFTs already being traded in marketplaces. Minimum price at that point was 60 SOL. Buy-in price was 1 SOL (~USD 120). Meaning technically you could have made 60x your money — turning USD 120 into USD 7,200 within a few hours.

I estimate my failure to get the NFTs was a timing thing. Milliseconds. Maybe microseconds. The difference between me and a 60x (paper) gain was how quickly I tapped the button on my laptop.

(p.s. There are big risks to investing/speculating in NFTs. I can only say I jumped into it with eyes wide open and a fixed amount of capital — capital I’m willing to 100% lose. Assuming you’re new to crypto, please start with something “boring” like Bitcoin first.)

Is Absurdity the New Normal?

If an overnight 60x gain sounds absurd to you, I agree. Actually, multiple things here are absurd:

  • Tens of thousands of strangers on the Internet trading with each other using decentralized technology.
  • Non-Fungible Tokens, NFTs — despite usually being a piece of data on a blockchain + a .jpeg picture — worth thousands of dollars. Some are worth millions.
  • Billions of dollars sloshing around in the NFT ecosystem.
  • An 18-year-old kid somewhere probably made 10x your net worth last week.

Author Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I’m convinced that crypto is a magical technology. But I also know there’s a huge amount of hype and speculation happening right now. Crypto legend Erik Voorhees said it best:

Perhaps the biggest absurdity of all: Why do I get to spend all my free time dabbling in experimental crypto projects, while some people struggle to even put food on the table?

It often feels like a game to me now. For some people, an increase to wealth is just higher numbers on a screen. For others, it’s the difference between a good night’s rest and going to bed cold and hungry.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers. But I know inequality sucks.

Digital Money Doesn’t Feel Like Money

Things were weighing heavy on my conscience, so I recently donated some money away.

Giving usually feels nice, but for some reason, this time it was different. I didn’t feel anything as I hit the “Confirm” button. Emotionless. It didn’t feel good, but it didn’t hurt either.

I guess there’re a few ways you could look at this. One, maybe I’m just an asshole who’s giving away too little, that it doesn’t even make an impact. Or maybe, this near-complete digitalization of money has taken something away from our relationship with it.

In the last 1.5 years, I’ve probably used cash fewer times than I did in a week before the pandemic. This, coupled with the fact that I’ll never see the effects of my donation — at least not in person — makes it feel even more distant. I hope to God the money feels very real to those I’m trying to help, but for me, it was just numbers on a screen going down.

Researchers have long written about how credit cards make people spend more money. I never understood this quirk of human behavior, but it makes more sense now. The same principle probably applies to casino chips and cryptos too.

It just doesn’t feel like money anymore.

Adapting to the New World

Maybe when I can go out again, I’ll feel the “real” effects of money more.

In the meantime, here are lessons I’ve learned about money that feels unreal:

1. You Don’t Need Very Much

There’s been little to spend on during these lockdowns. No five-star hotels or faraway flight tickets. Sometimes we get expensive meals delivered to celebrate events, but you have to admit — fine dining only works in restaurants.

Most of my time has been spent on “basic” things: working, reading, and investing online. Yes, I miss the beach. But overwhelmingly, I’ve realized I’m okay. I’m satisfied.

It’s liberating realizing many of the expensive things I’d gotten used to are optional.

2. Loved Ones Are True Wealth

The few things I really miss aren’t expensive from a monetary sense. They’re all relationship-based.

Visiting my parents. Playing basketball and trash talking with my friends. Taking my wife out for a nice dinner.

Warren Buffett once said:

“When you get to my age, you’ll really measure your success in life by how many of the people you want to have love you actually do love you.”

True for every age.

3. Your Relationship With Money Cuts Both Ways

There’s upside and downside to everything. What I’ve realized is I’m more stoic — less emotional — than the average person. I likely have a stronger detachment to money than most.

Does being less emotional make me a better investor? A better poker player? I’d like to think so. But not feeling the lows also means I can miss the highs.

Similarly, I’m pretty sure someone who loves impulse spending gets a kick out of discovering an amazing deal. But the downside might be feeling guilty later, then ending up with credit card debt.

Understanding your personality and relationship with money allows you to tweak your behavior — to find the right balance that works for you.

4. It Doesn’t Always Have to 100% Make Sense

In a world where novel, unprecedented things happen daily, it’s worth remembering that nobody has perfect knowledge. Being comfortable with uncertainty — the ability to make good decisions with imperfect information — is critical.

This requires some faith. Sure, we don’t know what effects the vaccines will have on us in five years, but taking the vaccines today will at least allow us to get there.

The most miserable people I’ve seen in recent times are those who feel they need 100% certainty in everything.

You and I are discussing NFT bubbles today, but there’re still people stuck in 2017 saying Bitcoin doesn’t work, because “it’s not backed by anything!”

Yes, change is hard. But being a dinosaur leads to extinction.

– – –

If money feels like just numbers on a screen, congratulations. You’ve already reached a privileged level of wealth.

There’s no map for solving these first-world problems we’re exploring: feeling disconnected with money; trying to make sense of this weird mix of online + physical worlds. That’s why it’s so uncomfortable.

Striking the right balance — between having faith and being realistic; being humble enough to learn new things and taking guidance from age-old wisdom — will help us succeed.

– – –

Pic from Pexels: Markus Spiske

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  • Great article!

    I never understood why paying in cash makes people spend less either. When I have cash in my wallet I feel rich, so I spend more. (I call it the rapper syndrome – look at all the rich rappers and influencers posting about driving around in Ferraris with a million dollars cash in the trunk!) So I carry no cash at all. I never have credit card debt, but if I did I’m sure I would feel poorer and anxious not to spend too much until it was cleared, but maybe I am an outlier.

    I wonder whether studies into cash payments actually ignore the fact that people who are forced to pay cash often have less access to credit cards, are likely poorer and therefore have a lower budget. A prime example would be the McDonalds study which found that people who pay cash spend less.

    • Thanks Sak, appreciate you dropping by!

      Good point you raise about credit cards vs cash payments at McDonalds. Wonder if there’s any conclusive research on that.

  • There’s quite something about the way you write, Aaron. I admire the way you are able to communicate your very unique perspective with so much clarity. Hope you know how much of an inspiration you are in this financial literacy space.

  • Dude, do you consider to up your game by selling NFT of your articles? Start with this one (not sure if I can afford or not).

    • Hi CK,

      Thanks for the suggestion! Have put some thoughts around NFTs before. Monitoring the space and figuring out if/when is the right time for me. 🙂

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