What I've been trying to say

by Philip Brewer on 12 July 2008 26 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

You can choose how you want to live.  If you choose to live simply, you gain a certain kind of freedom.  In particular, you're free to choose to do the work that's the most satisfying, rather than the most lucrative.  Choosing to live simply doesn't mean that you have to give up all the cool stuff you want.  It means, rather, that you have to focus on a small number of wants--the ones that matter the most to you.

My brother suggested that I should put together a talk to give, so I'd be ready on the off chance that someone wanted to hire me to speak about personal finance and frugality.  Toward that end, I spent some time looking over the posts I've written, and realized that I could boil down much of what I've been trying to say into just a few key points.

With your indulgence, I'll mark my one-year anniversary of writing for Wise Bread with a brief summary of what I've been trying to say, together with some links to the posts where I tried to say it.

You design your life

If there's an over-arching theme to my posts, it's that you're responsible for designing your life.  Inevitably, all the key decisions that have been made so far were either made by someone else altogether (your parents) or else by someone less experienced and less wise than you (that is, you--when you were younger).  You can't go back and change decisions that have already been made, but that doesn't mean that the design for the rest of your life is immutable.  Start today to design the life that you want to be living.

Everything else is tactics.

Tactic one:  Live intentionally

Figure out what you really care about and live in accordance with those values.  This is the key enabling step for living frugally.  If you don't know what you want, you'll try to fill the gap with stuff--and that never works.

There's a lot of talk in the frugality community about understanding the difference between needs and wants, which I think kind of misses the point.  Your actual needs (food, shelter, clothing) are so minimal that (in a rich country) you could probably satisfy them for free--but that's no way to live.  (For more info on that, read about freegans.)

My point is that almost every dollar you spend--even those spent on food and shelter--actually goes to satisfying wants as much as it does needs.  That makes it critical that you come to understand your wants.  If you do, you can focus your spending so that it satisfies your most important wants as cheaply as possible.  Satisfying the next tier of wants--the ones bring a feeling of luxury and splendor to your life--depends even more critically on having a clear understanding of what you want.

That same clear understanding is also what helps you deal with pressures from friends, family, neighbors--and that automatic urge to have what the next guy's got.  If you keep things in perspective, it's possible to live like royalty on $20,000 a year.  It helps if you choose to have style, rather than a lifestyle.

Part of this, perhaps the most important part, is to pay attention.  Pay attention to your spending.  Pay attention to your earnings (and what you have to do to earn them).  Pay attention to your feelings--that's the only way to come to understand your wants.  Remember that a budget is a tool, not a constraint.

Tactic two:  Raise some capital

A lot of personal finance and frugality sites seem to focus at the two extremes of personal capital--the one of trying to get out of debt (i.e. negative capital) and the one of trying to save for retirement (i.e. enough capital that there's no need to work).  I like to point out that there's a huge and very fertile range in between.

Some people target all their saving and investing at something in particular--buying a computer, buying a new car, putting a down payment on a house, sending the kids to college.  These are all worthy goals, but the sequence of them can easily eat up all your savings for virtually your entire life.  I think people who do this miss out on certain large advantages that come from having some untargeted capital.  Having a little capital saves you buckets of money.  It also gives you a lot of flexibility in how you live your life.

Establish an emergency fund, then start investing.  Keep your money in the right kind of compartments for the maximum tax advantage, but consider investing some after-tax money as well.  Focus on investment returns that support your true goals, not the false goal of maximizing your investment return.  Be sure to consider non-financial investments (such as insulating your house, buying tools, learning a skill) and don't miss out on the huge tax-free returns that come from stockpiling stuff that you're going to use.

Tactic three:  Find your true calling

Find meaningful work, so that you can spend your time doing something that you care about.  After your family, nothing matters more for your overall happiness than your work.  It should be something that's important, that uses your talents, and that garners you the respect of your peers.

Freeing up money to save and invest is really the less important advantage of living frugally.  A much bigger win comes from the fact that it gives you the opportunity to do the work that you feel called to do, rather than whatever work might earn you the most money.

My biggest piece of advice for someone in school is this:  Quit your job.  At least, quit your job if it's just a way to earn pocket money.  If you're in a position where you'll have a roof over your head and food to eat, even if you don't work, seize the opportunity to try doing whatever work you think might be your true calling in life--even if you have to do it without pay.  Finding your true calling is infinitely more valuable than whatever money you might earn at a part time job, especially if you can find it early.  Even negative information--knowing that some particular kind of work is not your true calling--will be worth more than pearls as you go on to design your life.

Being an employee is only one option, but it's an important one, so it's worth knowing that the way to catch the eye of an employer is by being your own unique self, and that the way to get a job once you've done so is by taking the trouble to figure out what they need done, and demonstrating that you can do it.  

Before changing jobs, give some careful thought to exactly what it is that you dislike about your current job.  When you're unhappy with your current job, it's easy to imagine that anything would be better.  In fact, though, plenty of other jobs would be just as bad or worse.  Happily, it's not too hard to figure out if a potential new job is going to have the same sort of problems that you're suffering from already.  (Basically, just ask.)

If you're ever in a position to hire employees, I suggest that don't worry nearly as much about whether they can do the specific task that you have in mind for them as you do about whether they're the sort of person that you want to work with every day.

>Your best investment--much better than anything you can buy with mere capital--is an investment in yourself.  A skill is something that will never have to be left behind in a flood, never get burned up in a fire, never be expropriated by the taxman, never seized by a creditor, and can be carried across any international border without payment of duty with the simple statement, "Nothing to declare."

Tactic four: Do for yourself

There's great profit to be found in specializing.  If you do what you do best and I do what I do best, we both come out ahead if we exchange goods and services, rather than each of us doing a poor (or even workmanlike) job at the other's skill.  That's true enough, but it leads to the perverse notion that the market value of what you produce is the true measure of its value, which leads to the perverse result of people deciding that it makes no sense to spend time and effort doing or making things themselves, because it would be more profitable to spend their time working for money and then hiring any other work done.  The fact is, there are many good reasons to do things yourself.  One is simply because it's an activity that you enjoy doing, whether or not you can earn any money at it.  Another, though, is to move the activity outside the money economy--and if you can move a substantial fraction of the most essential activities of daily living outside the money economy, you can protect your family from any purely financial problems (of which there seem to be plenty just lately).

Once you focus on satisfying your most important wants, you'll surely find some lessor wants that don't quite make the cut-off.  Sometimes you can find a cheap way to satisfy some of these.  Often, though, the cheap substitute is poor enough that you're better to just do without than to settle for what you can afford.

Tactic five: Value community and experiences over stuff

The economic structure of a household with a single adult in it is simple:  Earn enough money to buy everything your household consumes, plus provide through direct labor all the other needs of your household.  Add one or more adults to the household and your options expand considerably.

One of several advantages is that there's a great deal of stuff that you can share.  Sharing within households seems quite natural.  Sharing between households is less common, but there's no more powerful tool to raise everyone's standard of living than to share.

And stuff, whether shared or not, is really the least important part.  When you want someone to know who you are, you tell them what you've done, not what you own.

Beyond tactics

Simple living isn't just tactics.  For many people, it's also an expression of their values.  Living light on your wallet is also a way to live light on the planet.

The economy

There are a few things that are not so much tactics as they are background information.  I happen to know a bit about economics, so I've written a bit about issues in the economy that you should take into account when you're designing your life.  The main ones on the economy in general are:

And, because I think it may be the most important issue facing the economy just now,  I've also written a number of pieces about energy prices:

A life of freedom

Near the beginning of Walden, Henry David Thoreau writes:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.

Thoreau had a kind of education that most people don't get any more, so he would have known the etymology that the word:  de-liberate means "from freedom."  He goes on to say:

I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

I'm afraid I'm no Thoreau to write so clearly and vividly as that.  But I've written as clearly and vividly as I know how to say that designing your life is your most important task, to provide a few clues and tools about how to do it well, and to give you a bit of insight into how things work in those parts of the world where I have a bit of understanding.  As of today, I've been doing it for a year, and I plan to go right on doing it, as long as I can think of useful things to write, and clear and vivid ways to write them.  Thank you very much for your attention.  I hope it has been, and will continue to be, rewarded.

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Guest's picture
J.D.

Philip, I love your posts. I've been telling people you're my favorite writer in the personal finance blogosphere right now, and it's true. You bring a wisdom and depth of experience to the table that seems to be lacking in so many other writers. Please keep up the good work. (And p.s. -- I'd love to feature a guest post from you at Get Rich Slowly. A broad overview of your philosophy, like this, would be awesome.)

Guest's picture

Thank you Philip,

This truly was an inspiring post. I know I certainly would appreciate hearing this "talk" in person!

People are always so quick to blame others for their problems. But in my cases we sleep in the bed we've made.

Guest's picture

This was a fantastic summation of the real meaning behind simplicity. I enjoyed every word, and loved your mention of Thoreau.

Guest's picture
Guest

I think the key to increasing one's abundance is reducing one's wants.

Guest's picture
shawnna

I was just contemplating this exact topic the other day. I'm a young person who has significant amount of school loans + a car loan and although my pay is competitive I wouldn't say I make a lot of money. Yet somehow I managed to pay a VERY large amount off on my car since January (will have it paid off in a few weeks) and every year I plan a trip to Europe.

I pondered how it happened that can I accomplish this yet others only dream of doing the same, and I figured it all came down to making choices and prioritizing. I'm not the type who has or buys a lot of clothes or goes out to eat all the time. I live close to work and bike there frequently. I don't purchase pointless crap that's going to collect dust on my or someone else's shelf. I make my own bread and cleaning supplies, and I don't have cable. By making the choice to cut out these simple and instantly gratifying purchasing experiences, I get to have a much more fulfilling life experience.

Guest's picture
Guest

I salute your bravery in always saying it "like it is". At a time when many chase the unimportant, you are a refreshing voice of reason. Thanks, Philip, and keep posting your straight ahead wisdom.

Guest's picture
Guest

I would have to second JD above in saying you're my favorite financial blogger around right now, for exactly the reason that you post not only about finance, but about why we do finance the way we do.

I have a younger sister who has just graduated high school with the world at her fingertips and not a clue what to do. I've been searching for the words to suggest to her to pursue passion and to live with purpose, and I think this is it exactly. I'll be pointing her this way. Thank you.

Guest's picture
Jeremy

Philip,

You remind me a lot of my father in law, a man I respect dearly. I am still fairly young, so I am not trying to pin you as old with the comparison. I really enjoy your posts and hope they will continue. Hopefully one day I will be able to leave this job I have, though sometimes fulfilling or satisfying, and find a life of freedom doing something I truly enjoy. For now I have to pay the bills and take miniature freedoms when I can, but you give us the inspiration to pursue a permanent freedom.

Thank you!!

Guest's picture

It is posts like this which so succinctly and wonderfully states all the relevant issues that makes me conclude there's little left to say. Maybe we should just set it in stone - like Euclidian geometry.

Philip Brewer's picture

First, sometimes you can say it better with practice.  Second, even if you don't say it better, you can always say it differently--and some people who would never have understood the first version will understand the second.  Third, things do change--especially the details, like what's going on in the economy or how to use new investment tools that weren't available before.

Benjamin Franklin was a great writer, but I'd be sad if the only American work on frugality was Poor Richard's Almanack.  Nobody says it better than Thoreau, but it turns out that I'm not always trying to say exactly the same thing he was saying.  There were a number of great writers on frugality in the 1970s, but much of the details have changed since they wrote.  (For example, in the wonderful classic Possum Living, Dolly Freed has nothing about IRAs or 401(k)s, which didn't even exist back then.  She does have a whole chapter on buying land at a sheriff's auctions, which do still exist, but which are different now than they were then--and vary enormously from place to place.)

Will Chen's picture
Will Chen

You are one of the most thoughtful bloggers around.  We are very lucky to have you with us.  =)

Out of all the great advice that passes through the personal finance blogosphere, I think this sentence from you is my favorite:

"A budget is not a constraint. A budget is a tool for maximizing pleasure and satisfaction."

Guest's picture

quite off topically, are those the canyon stairs at Reed College in your photo? If not they are a stunning replica!

Guest's picture
Suz

Philip-
To echo the comments ahead of me... your posts are always such a breath of fresh air among all the personal finance blogs. My husband and I are talking about moving "into community" (read: a christian activism community) and we're really struggling right now about how much we would 'loose' for doing that. For all we want the lifestyle change, its still very hard to break away from old patterns of 'want want want' and into the pattern of 'live!'

Thanks for the reminder.
-Suz

Philip Brewer's picture

@Jenny:

The photo was taken at Shades State Park in Indiana.   (I fear I have a weakness for pictures of forest stairways like this--I've got dozens of such photos, mostly from parks in Illinois and Indiana.)

Guest's picture

aha. interesting. I am a former Illinoisian but I've never been there.

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Kevin

Philip,

Great post. I've seen similar ideas in various voluntary simplicity books, but this is the only distillation I've seen that is both concise and clear. It's nice to have a reference to a description of these ideas that's only a couple printed pages long rather than hundreds.

Your posts have truly offered something unique and I have enjoyed them thoroughly. After a year or so of reading frugality blogs and books, a lot of content gets to be repetitive rehashings of the same details (CFLs, index funds, etc). By contrast your writing looks at the big picture, often from a perspective that's new to me.

Best wishes.

Philip Brewer's picture

I'm so pleased to hear from people who enjoy my writing and find it useful.  You'll quite turn my head.  Thank you all for the generous praise. 

Guest's picture
David

This is beautiful, it made me cry.

Guest's picture
alison

Philip: what a nice surprise to find your blog, filled with serene wisdom in this fast paced times. Sometimes when I see everyone (including me sometimes) running around in a frenzy stressed life, and now the economic troubles, I wonder where we lost the dignity in frugality, as when our parents managed to cook and clean on basic supplies and spend little time on the Tv and more in the garden and/or with the family... most of the media demands you buy an unattainable image of wealth and youth that does not relate to everyday life and is not soul-fulfilling.

Again thank you for your words and keep the good writing coming.

Guest's picture
James Sa

Hi Philip: your articles are great. I am wondering may I have your permission to translate some of them into Chinese to spread your ideas even wider and inspire more unintended minds.

Best Regards

Philip Brewer's picture

@James:

Thanks for the praise!

The admins tell me that they're thinking of plans for offering our content in other languages, so they'd rather I didn't.  However, I'd be pleased to do a guest post that you could translate and post somewhere.  Let me know!

Guest's picture
James Sa

Hi Philip, that's would be great. thanks. I don't know how guest post works but a short article about your Blog itself would be a good one. And I could translated and link to your blog.

Guest's picture
Hogan

Hi,

Just wanted to send out a message about a website I created (http://www.finmind.com) for personal finance since it could help out people in this group. I used to do all my finance stuff on Excel, but that was a pain because I had different versions floating around on different computers.

This website does stuff like track expenses, create a budget, etc. If you want to give it a try, visit http://www.finmind.com. It's free and I am not making any money off of it (no ads). Send me any comments if you have feedback or suggestions.

Thanks,
Eugene

Guest's picture
Nebula

I didn't see anywhere I can create new categories. I do like the pie chart of expenses, though!

Guest's picture
Eugene

Hi Nebula,

Functionality for adding custom expense groups/types should be available by next week. Please use the feedback form on the site if you have any other suggestions/requests.

Thanks,
Eugene

Guest's picture
Meech!

Off topic a bit but... was that photo taken at Hawk Mountain? I recognize the staircase we usually take from the top lookout back to the bottom. There are gorgeous gnarly tree stumps at the base of the stairs. (^_^) Lovely photo!