The first time I heard the idea of a “money story” was during AmeriCorps orientation. Sitting beside a couple hundred young twentysomethings preparing to spend a year on a limited budget and a commitment to intentional living, a dynamic young woman pastor told us her money story and urged us to think about our own.
Of course, most of us were coming from a money story that allowed us to spend a year living on a stipend. I can’t say how others thought about that, but I can say that while the language of a “money story” was new for me, the experience of living on a stipend was extremely clarifying — especially in contrast to the money experiences I’d had (not all of them easy) growing up in the suburbs or attending a famous college.
Some of the most clarifying parts of the experience were when my unconscious notions of scarcity and abundance were challenged. The more I looked around, the more I began to see that I’d had access to more money and opportunity in some ways than the people I was then living among, and yet I’d also had less freedom in other ways. Conversely, I found I could have more fun and meaningful time with people with very little money. I also saw grown-ups barter and trade with each other, which was almost totally foreign to my experience.
One of the funny things about being a volunteer in a small community is that people tend to give the volunteers things, and many of the most meaningful experiences I had that year were free to me thanks to the generosity of others (many of whom didn’t have very much by the standards of the Boston suburbs).
After several months of being showered with such generosity, I came to understand that I did not want to live that way forever: sooner or later, I was going to have to take responsibility for the opportunities I’d had in the first 22 years of my life. But I also understood that I’d never be able to repay the generosity I’d been shown, and so part of taking responsibility for my independence would have to do with creating opportunities for other people in the same spirit of generosity I’d been shown.
What that means changes from day to day and context to context. But I always try to have the conversation with myself about opportunities taken and opportunities created, and whether the money story I’m telling or living at any given time honors the generosity that shaped my life.