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From Depression, holiday spending lessons

December 04, 2008|By DAVID YOUNT / Scripps Howard News Service

After surviving the Great Depression, my wife's mother made an unusual investment decision. Trusting neither banks nor the government to protect her modest savings from an economic crisis, she chose to purchase South African gold coins instead, hiding them beneath the floorboards of her home.

She was haunted by the collapse of Germany's Weimar Republic following the First World War, when it took a wheelbarrow full of paper currency to purchase a loaf of bread.

As you might imagine, my mother-in-law's family treated her severe mistrust of financial institutions as eccentric behavior. But given the experience of world economic collapse within the last few months of 2008, perhaps she was vindicated.

Of course, her small cache of gold, uninvested, earned no interest, so it could not grow. On the other hand, it could not shrink or disappear either - not like stocks, real estate, pensions, and the assurance of paid employment.

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Traditionally, the Christmas season launches a spending spree. But not this year, as we all hunker down to get by with less, conserving what remains of our assets. Embracing the simple life in hard times is practical. It can even be character building. To be sure, it is true that some of the best things in life are free. Nevertheless, people still need to feed themselves, heat their homes, and maintain their health -- at some real expense.

What we have most to fear is that we will become stingy rather than just economical as we cut back our spending. As ever, the Christmas bell ringers are huddling beside the Salvation Army kettles imploring our assistance for those who are in greater need than most of us. In hard times it is tempting to ignore the plight of others who must depend on the kindness of strangers.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus clearly esteemed poverty over riches. But in his parables, he explained that his kingdom is defined by what people do with their wealth:

"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it" (Matthew 13:44-45).

In rich and poor times alike it's the investment we make of ourselves that determines how wealthy we really are.

Back when the American frontier was still untamed, an anonymous prospector scratched this final lament on the wall of his abandoned shack in Deadwood, S.D.

"I lost my gun. I lost my horse. I'm out of food. The Indians are after me. But I've got all the gold I can carry."

Nothing good that people achieve in this life can be lost but will be the gold they carry into the next. Not fool's gold, but the wealth of affection, experience, and knowledge we have earned this side of eternity.

Which explains why St. Paul in chains could affirm from his prison cell: "I possess everything I need. In fact, I am happy."

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