Americans are no more likely to collect the “Freedom Dividend” than they are to win the next Mega Millions lottery jackpot, but just as playing the lottery can fuel dreams and shape financial priorities, so can the unusual political promise of free money help consumers and savers re-evaluate their finances.
The Freedom Dividend is the unconventional plan being floated by Andrew Yang, Democratic candidate for president. It would give all U.S. citizens older than 18 guaranteed payments of $1,000 per month.
I’m not going to argue the economics, the math or the politics here, because the idea likely will be forgotten within minutes of when Yang pulls the plug on his run, which could be soon.
I’ll leave it for politicians and pundits to argue about whether this kind of universal basic income plan could actually work, because you don’t need to be a fan of the Freedom Dividend — or to believe that it could actually happen — in order to benefit from it.
For years, I have suggested that the maximum benefit most people can get from buying tickets for every massive Powerball and Mega Millions prize comes from playing “What if?”
I’ve never purchased a lottery ticket; what I love about “What if?” is that you don’t have to be “in it to win it.”
All you need to do is think about how your life would be changed by the receipt of a windfall, and then to walk that jackpot down from the life-changing headline number to something more akin to what you might make from a family inheritance or a lucrative stretch of overtime.
There’s a big difference in what you would do with $100 million, $1 million and $1,000. It’s the difference between fantasy and possibility, between dreaming and doing.
That’s what makes the “What if?” conversation around the Freedom Dividend so interesting, because if you play “What if?” on $1,000 a month and see that the dollars involved would truly help you achieve your financial priorities, you at least have the potential to make it happen in real life, without any government intervention.
I spoke recently to a small group of young and new savers and investors — millennials all — who weren’t familiar with the Freedom Dividend concept, but who were happy to engage in talk about how and whether a $1,000 monthly windfall would change their lives.
For some, the additional income would go to reducing debt, paying off student loans, allowing a new parent to stay at home longer rather than returning to work, and more.
There would be increased retirement savings in most cases, fewer hours worked in others.
Just as with a theoretical lottery win, each need, want or desire falls somewhere on the priority list. The more additional income they have to work with, the more they can cover the basics and enjoy the rest.
Where a lottery-driven what-if game focuses on big bucks and heady dreams, the Freedom Dividend version is a chance to not only wonder about the financial results, but to consider how to achieve them.
In fact, everyone in the group of young workers expects to experience sufficient income growth to make this dream a reality long before their careers are done.
The trick is to plan for that income growth so that it achieves their priorities, so that debt is paid off, rather than merely serviced and extended indefinitely.
Veteran personal finance journalist Kathy Kristof, founder of SideHusl.com, said earning an extra $1,000 per month isn’t far-fetched.
Kristof said the two groups most interested in working side gigs are millennials and “semi-retired baby boomers.”
“For those two groups, $1,000 a month can be potentially life-changing,” Kristof said. “It’s the difference between making your rent without any trouble and having to dip into savings or having no savings.”
Kristof said there are options for almost everyone. Her site evaluates about 300 gig-economy platforms and “the options are almost endless ... with really good side hustles for people who want them.”
Not everyone will want to pursue those options; many people will find that $1,000 a month isn’t so much money that they want to turn their lives upside down.
There is a real value to family time, and a real cost to surrendering it cheaply just in the pursuit of additional dollars.
But Kristof’s point is that for people who see that the numbers could be life-changing, there are ways to earn the extra dollars that don’t have to feel like taking on a big part-time job.
It’s why playing what-if games around Yang’s grand-a-month plan is financially savvy.
List everything you would do with the additional income that you can’t cover now, and add everything to the list that you really would want to pursue, whether it is paying off debt or traveling more.
Determine the real priorities from the wishful thinking. Consider how your list would change if you only got half of the bonus dollars, or one-quarter of it.
The result should be a wish list with your financial priorities ranked in order of importance or your ability to achieve them.
That’s useful, even if there is never a Freedom Dividend.
If zeroing debt would be your first move, it probably should be first in your everyday financial planning. Thus, whether it is your next pay raise or some different way you come up with to earn extra income, cutting debt and reducing the stress it adds to your life should be a top priority.
You’ll achieve your wish list conventionally — cutting spending, living on a budget, planning for pay increases or taking on a side gig — rather than with the Freedom Dividend, but you’re working toward the same financial destination either way.
Just don’t expect anyone to hand you financial freedom; only if you plan and work for it are you likely to make it happen.