This Was The Moment When I Realized I Was Kind Of A Financial Asshole


As part of the daily grind of creating an online presence, I visit sites that offer up beautiful, artistic items for digital use for free. Last night was one of those late late nights.

It went like this. I wrote the text for a class going up on the website at the end of this month, when I realized I needed something amazing to give the content a visual kick. Then I did what I have done a thousand times before — I found a font so heartbreaking and gorgeous in detail, I proceeded to click the “Download for free” button at the bottom of the page.

But this time, I felt like shit.

I had noticed a name at the right of the page of the digital artist who had created the font. I clicked on the link to learn more about him. He sounded really cool, he had been working for years, and he had clearly put so much time and effort into bringing this perfect font into the world. And here I was downloading it for free.

I know there are many artists who enjoy sharing their work with the world for free. But I know many artists who don’t. They struggle to pay rent. They can’t afford health insurance. They can’t afford kids. Their life is a daily fight to survive and continue to do their art, and it sucks for them.

Why the hell should we be downloading the font designer’s work for free? I mean let’s be clear — if there were no value to what he created, I wouldn’t be downloading it in the first place. The font was a thing of beauty, reflecting thoughtfulness with every distressed brush in the lettering.

When had we become the kind of entitled society where we demand things be free, financially speaking? Because if there’s anything I’ve learned from being a portfolio manager on Wall Street, nothing is free. There are embedded tradeoffs in every choice we make.

The truth is that every seemingly small decision we make regarding how we spend our money (on what and on whom), invest, or save, says something big, personally and collectively. You’re voicing an opinion, whether you’re conscious of it or not. Whether you agree with the status quo or not. Whether you are supporting something sustainable or not. Whether what you’re monetizing makes the world a slightly better and fairer place or if it makes things just a tad worse for everyone else.

Not thinking about it doesn’t make you neutral; it makes you complicit. We’re all guilty of it. We’re so busy sometimes, it feels overwhelming just to get through our days.

A lot of good people fall into the trap of believing that there’s such a thing as a financial Switzerland, a neutral fairyland. What ends up happening in real life is that Nazis get to set up bank accounts there. Not so neutral.

So here was the statement I was making as I downloaded this guy’s work for free. I was pretending that his work should have no financial value because I could get away with it. I was treating him like he was not my equal. And I was making the world a slightly shittier place for all of us.

One of the things I’m trying to do with my current money school “project” is to re-contextualize money for individuals so that each person can begin to understand how truly relevant the management of their finances is to her/his inner as well as outer life, and how much it means to our collective health and wellness. A mantra I’m struggling to put into video form is the idea that what we do affects someone somewhere, and what is done to them is done to us. Our financial decisions are personal. How we treat someone else with our money reflects who we are.

I clicked around the site for a few more minutes and noticed that he also offered a few fonts for sale. I tucked them into my shopping cart and checked out. I also found that the site itself offers the ability to make a donation. I did that too. The site has real expenses it needs to pay in order to exist and offer these gorgeous fonts to me. It should be paid.

Do you like working for free? I sure as hell don’t. If you catch yourself expecting free products to be offered up to you as a consumer, ask yourself, “If something’s free, does it mean there’s no value?” Because someone somewhere put their blood, sweat, and tears into making this thing that you’re treating as financially worthless. Ask yourself how much you’d like it.

I know that in our current economy of Ubers and free apps, you may think, even gleefully so, that it’s now possible to get many things we need for free.

But nothing is free.

There are drivers who are being treated financially like shit (I won’t get started with Uber — I’d need to write a whole new blog entry just for that), who couldn’t get paid creating fonts or making movies or dancing, who are just as valuable as you and me. The value is being captured and “paid for” by others — advertisers, investors in VC’s, hedge fund managers, legislators with special interest groups behind them. People with different incentives and interests than ours as consumers.

The point is this: if we want our economic world to reflect our values, we need to decide what those values really are, and then start transacting them.

Money is power. Our money is power.