2019 Goal Check-In (Part 2 – The One About Money)

Money…that thing that so many of us obsess about. How best to earn it? How best to save it? How best to spend it? I know these questions are important, yet for more than a little while now, I’ve felt their importance was far too exaggerated…especially in my own life. So, at the beginning of the year, I set out to redefine my relationship with money and figure out where it fit into a simple, minimalist lifestyle.

As with any project I take on, I like to start with a bit of research. In this case, I read several books on money – but probably not the types of books you’re thinking right now. I read:

  • Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder
  • $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin
  • Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado
  • Flat Broke with Two Goats: A Memoir by Jennifer McGaha

Going into this project, I thought my biggest problem with money was my tendency to romanticize the concept of living without it. What can I say? The idea of a moneyless society has always appealed to me. My best friend growing up was born in a hippie commune and, while she hated it, I absolutely reveled in the stories she told me. It seemed that everyone took care of everyone else and the need for money was so minimal, she never even mentioned it. Of course, she may not have mentioned it because we were 10 years old and at that age, money wasn’t all that. Like I said, I may have glamorized the ideal just a bit. 

Like every other version of Utopia, a moneyless life is not very realistic. The Daniel Suelos of the world are extremely rare. Most folks living without money are not doing it on purpose and their life is far from sublime. Which is why I thought perhaps reading a few books about real people living in real poverty might give me some much-needed perspective. And did it ever! 

    First and foremost, let me say – I never want to own a goat. Seriously. They make great cheese, but they are nasty creatures. I also never want to work at Amazon in my 60s, permanently reside in a RV park, sell scrap metal for groceries, or donate plasma to pay the rent. You may think I’m being funny but I’m really not. Reading these books showed me (rather quickly, I might add) that I would never survive the realities of an actual moneyless life.

    Reading about extreme poverty reiterated for me the fact that I am privileged. Even in my leanest times, I had options – too many sometimes. For a lot of people, there are no options. My disdain for money is something I can afford to have. The ability to choose to live with less is just that – a choice, that I get to make because I am privileged. I know these things but sometimes, I simply need to remember them. So, while I let that tidbit of wisdom sink in, I also read a few books about frugality to balance the playing field, including:

    • Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living by Elizabeth Willard Thames
    • Money Secrets of the Amish: Finding True Abundance in Simplicity, Sharing, and Saving by Lorilee Craker

    Let me say again, when I started this quest, I assumed that I would find justification for my contempt for all things money related and perhaps even a path to living a close to moneyless existence. Imagine my surprise when I felt my heart (and mind) being pulled in exactly the opposite direction. In all my railing against consumerism and hating on excess, it turns out I was also inadvertently equating the act of earning, saving, and spending money with these things I found abhorrent. Um…note to self…these things are not the same.

    I soon realized my problem with money is that I don’t know what to do with it. Let me clarify that a bit. I am not financially uninformed. I’m a pretty savvy budgeter. I know to avoid debt, pay bills and save for emergencies and retirement, but I was raised (like most of us) in a spending economy. Even if you were saving money, you were saving it to spend on something – like a house or a car. When you are brought up this way then decide you don’t really want to own too many things, the idea of money seems arbitrary. And in some ways, it is; but money can do more than just buy things.

    Money is a tool, just like a shovel is a tool. Most folks dig gardens with a shovel but how many times have you watched movies where someone gets whacked in the head with one (or buried alive)? My point – all tools can be used for both good and evil. Money is no exception. In recent months, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time seeing only the evil money can cause and now it’s time to focus more on the good. Always equating money with consumerism is where I lost focus. To fix this, I need to shift my mindset on money to match our lifestyle and find a financial goal that has meaning for us.

    So that’s where I’m at. No earth-shaking revelations on money management. No financial road map for the next 5 years. No match to light us on FIRE. Just more questions that we will continue to ponder.

    Side note – On the more practical side of things, we tried doing the “hands-off budget” for a few months. I’m not a fan. I thought I would be (again, imagine my surprise!) but I didn’t trust “our system” to work without my guidance and I didn’t like not having a plan. I’m all about purposeful spending but I know me all too well. I can find purpose in all sorts of stuff at the grocery store – things that wouldn’t normally be on our list, like Magnum non-dairy ice cream bars. We also opted not to micromanage our investments. That ended when E-trade closed one of our accounts for failing to fully fund it before the deadline – something I would have known about had I logged in sooner.

    The Fear of Failure…and Spiders

    As our moratorium on micromanaging money continues, I’ve started to think more about the role money plays in our lives. This post is part of that thinking process. 

    When it comes to money, there’s a certain amount of fear that is ingrained in us as we grow up. We are taught early on that we need a good education to get a good job to make a good living to pay for a good home in a good neighborhood and provide a secure future for ourselves and our family. To do this, we need health insurance and life insurance and stocks and bonds and savings accounts and IRAs. When we can’t provide these things – or find that what we’re most passionate about in life just doesn’t provide these things – then that fear grows stronger, even paralyzing at times.

    I believe that fear is irrational.

    See how cute he is??

    All my life I was afraid of spiders. Everyone I knew was afraid of them too, from my friends at school to my own parents. Having arachnophobia just seemed so normal, I never questioned it. Then one day, as I was taking a nap on the back porch, I felt something crawling up my arm. I looked down to see a hairy little wolf spider. I wanted to freak out. I mean, I was supposed to freak out, right? The only thing was, I had fallen asleep with my laptop in my lap and any sudden movement would have sent it sailing. So, I sat for a second, just me and the spider. He stopped. I stared. He was so small and well, kind of cute, and even if he had teeth, it wasn’t likely that he was going to chew me up like a wolverine. In that moment, I realized, there was no logical reason for me to be afraid. I didn’t have to do what everyone else did. And who knows, I might even like spiders (or at least some of them).

    The same thing happened for me with money. All my life I subscribed to the same fears as my friends and family. I fought viciously to keep up. I racked up student loans to pay for a degree I’ve never used. I took out a zero-down mortgage because “successful people don’t waste their money on rent”. Never mind that part of it was on a 5-year ARM. I bought stuff. I had debt. But I was living the dream, according to those same friends and family. Until I wasn’t. When the economy collapsed, I lost my home. In the months that followed, I liquidated my savings, sold what I could of my possessions to cover my debts, and still ended up filing bankruptcy. Was it something I wanted to do? Absolutely not. Was it the worst thing that ever happened to me? Not even close.

    If you’ve never filed bankruptcy, you may not know this, but the first things that you start to get – almost the minute that you leave the courthouse – are credit card offers. It seems counter-intuitive, but it actually happens. Next come the car loan solicitations. From the minute you are free of debt, someone is trying to put you back in it; because this is the way our society works. You are a financial failure if you don’t get back up on the debt pony.

    I don’t consider myself a financial failure. I was just unsuccessful at living the American Dream. Why? Because it was never mine in the first place. When I lost everything I owned, a great thing happened. For the first time in my life, my so-called friends and family stopped telling me what to do (most stopped talking to me altogether, at least for a while) and I was left to figure things out on my own – in my own time, in my own way.

    I paid off my last post-bankruptcy debt in 2009, while I was living with friends and driving a beat-up Jeep to a job 45 miles away making $11 an hour. I won’t lie and say that it was easy or that I was happy. Happiness didn’t come until much later. What I was back then was focused, but not on the things you might think. I wasn’t focused on rebuilding my credit score or getting back the lifestyle I was “accustomed” to. I was focused on figuring out what really mattered to me.

    Bankruptcy didn’t teach me the value of money. It didn’t make me want to earn back all that I had lost and hold onto it for dear life. It taught me that money doesn’t matter much at all in the end. With or without it, I was still the same person, but without it, the world held so much more potential. I didn’t have to live by “the rules” and be afraid of financial failure anymore. I had already failed, but more importantly, I had survived.

    It’s a decade later and I believe I have a pretty good handle on what matters most in my life, but my financial recovery has put me right back in the same position with my friends and family that I was before bankruptcy. I get a lot of unsolicited advice and there are some close family members who still give me grief about not owning a home (though I can successfully argue the merits of renting); not getting an advanced degree (In what? Student loans?); and not having a “meaningful” career (which actually means “lucrative” because I’m pretty sure helping non-profits find funding for programs that keep homeless youth off the streets and hungry seniors fed is pretty meaningful). Though I know better, the constant bombardment of other people’s opinions can wear on me and I start to think, maybe I’m not doing the right things. Maybe I do need to buy a house. Maybe I do need to work harder to save more for retirement. Maybe I’m not measuring up to where I should be by this age.

    Then I remember: I’m no longer afraid of spiders.

    How have your financial failures (or successes) shaped your life to this point? Do your friends and family offer you well-meaning but unwanted financial advice? If so, how do you handle it?