What Goethe Can Teach You About Managing Your Money

In May, writer Maria Popova ran a lengthy and thoughtful article on her blog, Brain Pickings, that discusses our culture’s relationship with money, and the ways in which we can be happier and more fulfilled. The article ends with a reference to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose birthday we're celebrating this week. Popova suggests that Goethe, “epitomized that relationship at its healthiest.” Unfortunately, rather than developing the thought, Popova's article just leaves us with the idea that Goethe was careful with his money, and spent it wisely when he had it. As it turns out, Goethe's advice about money is particularly relevant today.

Perhaps the simplest way to look at Goethe’s relationship with money is through his suggestion that “many people take no care of their money till they have come nearly to the end of it, and others do just the same with their time.” While Goethe's take may seem a tad dark, his advice seems sound. There is a way in which possession isn’t precious until it is nearly gone. This can be seen in something as simple as hand soap. When you have a brand new bottle, it doesn’t matter how much you use, but when you’re getting low, and it becomes clear you are going to have to go to the store and get a new bottle, you start conserving, and try to make the bottle last as long as possible. Goethe is pointing to the universal human desire to revel in excess. The moral of this little quote? Be more thoughtful about your money (and, obviously, your time), and you’ll not only find that you have more money, you’ll also find that you’re happier, because you will be spending your money on what counts, not on frivolous luxuries.

Goethe's advice also includes his long list of what makes for a good life. According to the famous writer, “There are nine requisites for contented living: HEALTH enough to make work a pleasure; WEALTH enough to support your needs; STRENGTH enough to battle with difficulties and forsake them; GRACE enough to confess your sins and overcome them; PATIENCE enough to toil until some good is accomplished; CHARITY enough to see some good in your neighbor; LOVE enough to move you to be useful and helpful to others; FAITH enough to make real the things of God; HOPE enough to remove all anxious fears concerning the future.”

Goethe was a member of the late 18th century German bourgeoisie, and lived a comfortable life. As such, he acknowledges the importance of money to cover basic needs, but suggests that we don't need piles and piles of money to be happy. While his laundry list of requirements for a contented life may have overlooked some elements (Do we not need freedom? Or education? Or equality?), and is obviously an upper class viewpoint, his basic argument is a good one: we shouldn't strive for extreme wealth, but strive for enough.

The Brain Pickings article describes the way Goethe actually used money. It suggests that he learned from his mistakes when it came to cash, and figured out how to make a living off of his writing. Popova cites John Armstrong, the philosopher-in-residence at Melbourne Business School who wrote the book How to Worry Less About Money. Armstrong points out that Goethe, “was completely realistic and pragmatic when it came to money, but this did not lead him to neglect the worth of exploring bigger, more important concepts in life.” Goethe succeeded financially not only because he planned ahead and was thoughtful about how he used money, but also because he didn’t let earning it become the ultimate goal of his life. Goethe didn’t worry about money; he managed it.

While managing money is complicated, it's also essential. But it's important to remember that money is a tool, a way for people to be comfortable enough to cultivate themselves, their families, their friends, their communities, their skills, and their countries. Money is not the end goal; a good and happy life is.