This was the question that came to my mind when I read the federal charges against Jesse L. Jackson Jr., the former congressman from Illinois. On Wednesday, he pleaded guilty to misusing about $750,000 in private campaign funds. Jackson's wife, Sandra Stevens Jackson, who resigned her seat on the Chicago City Council, reached an agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office to plead guilty to one count of tax fraud.
Part of what I do is help people understand the often-complicated issues we have to deal with when it comes to our money. But I also like to explore the mess people get themselves into when they don't have the money to buy the things they want. Most often they get into mind-boggling debt. Jackson has lost so much and for what?
You have to shake your head when you read the things he purchased. According to a property list detailed in a court document, he spent:
•$5,000 on fur capes and parkas.
$9,588 for children's furniture.
$26,700 for Michael Jackson memorabilia, including a $4,600 fedora.
$10,105 for Bruce Lee memorabilia.
$11,130 for Martin Luther King Jr. memorabilia.
$2,200 for Malcolm X memorabilia.
$2,775 for Jimi Hendrix memorabilia.
$43,350 for a gold-plated Rolex watch.
$5,000 for a football signed by American presidents.
Was Jackson, the son of civil rights activist Jesse L. Jackson, trying to appear wealthy by any means necessary? Were the Jacksons eager to impress their more wealthy colleagues or the people who run with them in their circle of power and privilege?
For many people, it can be hard to resist the urge to pretend you're rich when you're around so many people who are truly wealthy. Not an excuse, just an observation.
For years, Roll Call has ranked the 50 richest members of Congress based on their required annual personal financial disclosure forms. The ranking shows that there are lots of multimillionaires on Capitol Hill. Topping the current list is Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, with a net worth of more than $300 million. McCaul's wealth increased significantly in 2010 when he disclosed that his wife, Linda McCaul, the daughter of Clear Channel Communications founder and CEO Lowry Mays, had received "certain assets" as gifts from her parents.
But "legislators range from the super-rich to the deep-in-debt, from inherited wealth to married wealth to no wealth at all," according to an examination of congressional finances by The Washington Post. "You would find that, contrary to many popular perceptions, lawmakers don't get rich by merely being in Congress."
Ironically, Jackson and his father in 1999 co-authored a book on personal finance, "It's About the Money!: How You Can Get Out of Debt, Build Wealth, and Achieve Your Financial Dreams." "Many of our churches breed material needs, as do many of our public schools, with peer pressure to buy expensive clothing," the Jacksons wrote.
There's a lesson in the downfall of the Jacksons that none of us should miss. It's important to recognize when you have real net worth that allows you to buy extravagant stuff and when you're living beyond your means. Before you pass judgment on the Jacksons, think about the mess you might have made of your finances or the financial follies of people you know. It might not be a crime to get what you want (not what you need), but acting as if you are rich without being able to afford it can ruin your life.
(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group