What happened to the dream of having a million dollars?
I don't want to sound as comically ignorant as Dr Evil requesting a far-too-low payment in return for not destroying the world, but seriously, whatever happened to One Million Dollars?
A million dollars used to be the dream, the Lotto win, the favourite fantasy shopping exercise. Yet today the question, 'What would you do if you won a million dollars?' seems most likely to be met with a lame or alarming answer, like 'pay off most of my mortgage', or, worse still, 'use it as a deposit on a new house'.
This deeply depressing financial madness struck me recently when discussing the future with my debt-loving wife, who informed me that I was being some strange species of flower called a Worry Wort and that I needed to get over myself because "everyone has a million-dollar mortgage these days".
Now I'm sorry, and I know that interest rates are so low that such a thing would only cost you, roughly, $20,000 a year in interest alone, but there's just something about all those zeroes with a minus sign in front of them that would (and no doubt soon will) cause me to suffer chest pains every time I opened the banking app on my phone.
Call me crazy or, worse still, old, but I've long associated the idea of genuine freedom with the seemingly outdated idea of being mortgage-free (apparently this is something only Boomers got to experience, and I should just appreciate being young and never debt-free).
As long as one owns some of a house in Sydney, or what my wife and others prefer to call "an asset", then one should be satisfied with their financial lot in life, and happy, nay delighted, to continue paying interest on that associated debt for the rest of your days. Even if it is ONE MILLION DOLLARS (I find writing it in capitals provides at least some of the appropriate heft, although I can confirm that shouting those words has no effect on people who aren't bothered by the idea).
Some time after this robust discussion, as I lay in a darkened room with iced towels on my head, I was approached by my teenage son, who wanted to know why I'd been crying, again.
We had a long and, I hope, informative discussion about inflation, stagnant wage growth, the false economy of borrowing money over 20 years on the basis that interest rates look likely to stay low for the next three, and ham and cheese croissants.
Having wasted most of my life by being a journalist rather than an economist, I found the idea of inflation particularly challenging to explain to him as he struggled to understand why the price of things, and houses in particular, constantly rises.
The only technical term I could find to appease him was "greed". Human beings, it seems, constantly want more, and given the chance, many of us will fleece our fellow man out of every possible dollar to get that more.
I was sorry to explain to him that, many moons ago, Australia was actually an affordable, nay wondrously cheap, place to live, but by my observation, the introduction of the GST in 1999 had changed all that. I moved to London in 1997 and was financially crushed by how expensive it seemed. Visiting home over the next few years, I was moved to tears by how cheap a case of beer, or a ham and cheese croissant, was in Australia.
And then the GST hit, and it was as if every shop owner and retail company couldn't believe their luck. Prices jumped 10% overnight and people happily kept paying, so why, they seemed to think, would they not pay 20, or 30% more?
It seemed, at least from my very personal point of view, that things really lost control from there. Back in 1997, I'd sold a motorcycle to raise the funds for a deposit on a sizeable house, which cost a then-intimidating $125,000. Today, $125,000 would be barely a deposit on that same home. And I dread to think what it will cost by the time my son is ready to dream about buying one.
For the past decade or so I have undertaken an unscientific yet undeniably illuminating pricing survey, where I seek out the price of a ham and cheese croissant in every country I visit (they are a remarkably global foodstuff), and while I've seen some expensive ones in Europe, the Australian habit of charging $9, $12 or even $14 for what is essentially a flaky sandwich remains unmatched.
Are we more greedy, and perhaps more gullibly willing to pay more for things, than other countries? I'm sure there's data that would dispute my lived experience, but that's certainly the way it feels.
And at this rate it's surely only a matter of time until a ham and cheese croissant will cost One Million Dollars.
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