Realigning our [Financial] Values

How do we fight the Man if we continue to buy his cheeseburgers?

Mark Sundeen, The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America

I’ve been devouring knowledge like good food here lately. We started daily Spanish lessons on a free app called DuoLingo, and today will be our 16th lesson. We’ve watched 3 documentaries, including The Minimalists: Less is Now. And, I’ve read 5 books already! From happiness to surviving narcissistic parents to life as an expat in Mexico, all of them have been good, but the book I just finished, The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America by Mark Sundeen, is by far the best, and it is the one that has got me thinking (again) about priorities, consumerism, and the pursuit (and use) of money.

The book tells the story of three different people in search of a more sustainable, ethical, and simple life. It’s not a how-to book chock full of ideas for the average Joe to pretend to live a simpler life. There’s no list of eco-friendly upgrades to buy to increase your sustainability. No, this is a boots-to-the-ground journalistic look into the lives of folks who said “screw the system, I have a better idea!” and it is downright inspiring. In fact, I feel more inspired than I have in a long time!

I have felt for a while that our financial life was out of alignment with our values. The holidays were one big testament to that fact. You see, every year, we say the next one is going to be our last to participate in the charade of gifting. I call it a charade because it has become (in our family) an almost meaningless exchange of stuff, all in the name of tradition, and inevitably someone doesn’t get what they want or doesn’t think the gifts were fair. There’s no love, no joy, and no gratitude attached to any of it. And yet, we go right along with it. Why? Because, after a few years of trying to buck the system, we realized we weren’t going to win and to keep the peace, we did it their way.

Not anymore! On January 1st, we wrote right atop our “not list” that we were not going to be guilted into buying stuff.

We’re only 6 weeks into the new year and we’ve already been tested on this twice. Just yesterday, while in the store grocery shopping with my mom, she asked what Angie and I were getting each other for Valentine’s Day. When I said “nothing”, she responded, “Well, don’t you think you should? How do you show your love if you don’t even get each other a card?” Without missing a beat, I said, “that’s exactly how we show our love, by NOT buying anything”. She shook her head and told me a story about how my dad used to get her flowers, candy, and a card every year. (My parents are divorced, mind you.)

So no, there will be no V-Day gift. No Easter basket. And no pile of gifts under the Christmas tree this year. Each person on our gift list will receive one gift from us and that is it. As to the type of gift, we are still debating that. Will this put us on the naughty list? Probably! But you know what? I don’t really care. I’m just so over buying stuff.

Which brings me to the whole consumerism thing…

We’ve never thought of ourselves as shoppers but COVID boredom leads even non-shoppers to do stupid things (like spending a half day online browsing for reading chairs while sitting in a reading chair). I mentioned in our 2021 Goals that we were not going to shop at Amazon anymore. That has a lot to do with not wanting to shop in general but it’s also because I find it harder and harder to support big businesses when I can no longer buy things (like a reading chair) right here in my town. Heck, we can’t even buy a cupcake here! The last remaining bakery closed over a year ago.

When I read an article that said Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, makes more in one second than I do in a month, it kind of hit me – this man doesn’t need my money any more than I need his stuff. So we stopped sending him our cash. And we stopped sending it to a lot of other retailers too – Kohl’s, Wayfair, Best Buy, and more. I would love to add Walmart, but sadly we live where there are few options for purchasing certain supplies (like the organic soy milk we use to make our yogurt and most everything my mom needs on a daily basis). Maybe one day there will be a better option, but for now, we simply try to limit what we purchase there.

Part of removing the temptation to buy stuff, is removing the ability to buy stuff. We have 3 major credit cards and 2 store credit cards. Though we almost never carry a balance, we have found ourselves using the cards to buy things we might not otherwise have bought (at least not that day anyway). So, this week, we closed out all of these accounts, except for the one we use for travel. No more Target Red Card (that I actually got paid to open, otherwise I would never have had it in the first place). No more Kohl’s card. And Capital One, with it’s annual fee, went bye-bye too.

Next up, I plan to tackle the daunting task of finding a more ethical way to invest our retirement funds. If we’re not going to spend our money at Amazon, we certainly don’t want to invest it in them either. I mean, that’s just a little hypocritical, don’t you think??

I have been reading about socially responsible investing but I still have a ways to go in understanding it all and picking the right path for us. For starters, I want to know that the companies or funds we invest in aren’t just green-washed versions of the companies and funds we are trying to get away from. Having worked in the non-profit world for a very long time, I know that not every good cause is actually managed in a way that benefits the supposed recipients. Similarly, I’m sure that not every company that labels itself eco-friendly, sustainable, responsible, or green, is actually any of those things. So this part of our alignment process could take a while.

Now, let’s circle back to that book I mentioned before. The Unsettlers speaks to that part of me that would love to live without money. It talks about alternative lifestyles, community living, growing your own food, moving away from working for others, and maximizing how we spend our most precious resource – time. What I gained from reading the stories of folks “doing it their way” was encouragement. This wasn’t a self-help book by any means but it does encourage folks like me (and you) to find those things in our lives that we are most passionate about and do them to the exclusion of everything else. Don’t waste time on the nonsense, simply eliminate it, and go on about your business. I like that. I like it a lot. Which, is why we got into minimalism in the first place.

Sometimes, we just need a reminder to set us back to the path we started on.