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.

    Retirement Redefined

    A few years ago, Angie and I were watching a football game on TV when a commercial for TD Ameritrade came on. I wasn’t really paying attention but for some reason when I heard the word retirement, I spontaneously muttered, “I think I will retire tomorrow.” It sounded good in my head and of course, impractical at the same time, as it tumbled off my tongue. Though I expected no response, I still remember to this day what Angie said – just one little word, okay. This wasn’t the same okay that I usually get when she’s reading and only half listening to me. It was more like the one I get when I suggest we go get ice cream.

    “And then what will we do?” I asked with a hint of sarcasm that was mainly directed at myself for suggesting such a thing in the first place.

    Without missing a beat, she said, “Well, if it rains like they say it’s going to, then we’ll watch movies.”

    It was just that simple. And yet that profound.

    For several days after that, I pondered the question: Just what is retirement anyway?

    In my grandparents’ day, retirement meant you were old enough to receive your company’s pension and could spend your days doing all the things you had dreamed of while working for 40+ years. Today, I turn on the news and retirement means that our older generation is no longer employable in their career field but can’t support themselves because they’ve overspent and under-planned, so now they must work at Walmart. Don’t believe it? Just Google “Americans Unable to Retire” and you’ll be bombarded with sad statistics like 85% of Americans are worried about retirement, only 54% have a retirement savings account, and 24% fear they will never be able to retire.

    Or maybe it’s time we call bull-crap on those statistics and the pessimists who publish them and come up with our own definition of retirement.

    Jacob Fisker did. He’s the author of Early Retirement Extreme.

    Pete did. You may know him as Mr. Money Mustache.

    Long, long ago, the definition of retirement was simply to withdraw to some place, especially for the sake of privacy. I like that. I like it a lot!

    If I were going to craft my own definition of retirement, I might start out pretty similar, with one that has nothing to do with money. But you can’t do that, I hear you saying. Money has to be the starting point. You have to have enough of it to survive once you aren’t working anymore.

    Nope. Not in my definition.

    Retirement is not a financial achievement, though as Americans, we’ve come to see it that way. We work for years to reach a point where we can buy back our most valuable resource – time – and use it as we see fit. We think retirement is when we can travel, spend time with loved ones, take on new hobbies, or simply greet the day with no intentions. No wonder so many of us find the concept of early retirement so appealing! We want to do those things now. If we wait until TD Ameritrade says that we have enough money, most of us will be long past dead!

    Retirement shouldn’t be about how you spend your money, but rather, how you spend your day. If you want to work, that’s okay. If you want to fish all day, that’s fine too. It’s your life, live it however you want. And don’t wait until you reach some arbitrary age or ask permission from some greedy brokerage firm to do it. Retirement starts the day that you choose to spend your time pursuing life instead of money.

    Retirement is a state of mind, a place of peaceful living and time spent with loved ones, a nap on the couch, or an afternoon enjoying a good book. Retirement is getting up each day, knowing your time is your own, regardless of what you choose to do with it. And by that definition, retirement is a place we can arrive at any age.