Relax

January 25, 2013 § 21 Comments

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In a bit less than six months, my next book comes out. It’s called SAVED: How I Quit Worrying About Money and Became the Richest Guy in the World. In full candor, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this title, which does not really covey the complexity of the issues the book explores. On the other hand, there’s a certain truth to it that I appreciate: On some level, I do feel as if through the process of writing SAVED I was saved from much of my angst over money and furthermore, that I have evolved into a world view rooted in an appreciation of the immense non-monetary wealth surrounding me.

The truth is, however, that I have not fully quit worrying about money. This reality was brought into distressingly sharp focus this week, with the arrival of a statement from the holder of my dormant IRA account, to which I have not contributed in many, many years. In fact, I’d forgotten the damn thing even existed, and given the paltry sum it represents, it might as well not. At some point about a decade ago, Penny and I made a conscious decision to fully commit to our long-held belief that our best “investments” would be in our land and infrastructure, the retirement of our debt, and time spent with our boys. Any money that might have been squirreled away as a safety net for an unknown future has instead been spent on things like fruit trees and soil minerals. Two greenhouses. A pond. Our last mortgage payment was three years ago, and we carry no other debt. Our primary vehicle is a 17-year-old Subaru. (Not so long ago, Penny picked up a hitchhiker. He got in, twitched his nose, and said “This car smells like the farm I used to work on.”) Over the past decade, I have steadily earned less and less, to the point where we now live on just under $30,000 per year. This allows me a degree of autonomy regarding how I spend my time that has become unusual in contemporary America, and for this I am enormously grateful.

Nine days out of ten, I feel good about our decisions around money. I truly feel as if I have quit worrying about money and become the richest dude in the whole cotton pickin’, dangblam world. But on about every tenth day, I get a little panicky. Yeah, we have some savings, but it ain’t much. And yes, I have enough work lined up that I can claim job security, at least for the next six months or so. Hell, that’s more than an awful lot of my friends and neighbors can claim. But still: The nature of my work means that I am responsible for maintaining my income flow. Once one project ends, there are only three people I can rely on to find the next: Me, myself, and I.

I’ll leave you with this short excerpt from SAVED and ask, if you’re interested in sharing, about your relationship to money.

Yet I cannot deny a certain degree of resentment that money – or a lack thereof – commands so much of my attention and generates the overwhelming majority of the strife I experience. I cannot help feeling somewhat bitter that, no matter how hard we try, no matter what deprivations we endure (and there have been plenty, I assure you), Penny and I remain beholden to the monetary realm. I am bothered by the fact that for the majority of my adult life, I have fretted over money. And then, ridiculously, I fret over my fretting: Why have I allowed myself to worry so much? I have never gone hungry, or spent a night unsheltered from the elements. I have never even been at risk of these things. Most of my worry, I have come to realize, has emerged from a place of uncertainty and fear. Not over the present, mind you, or even the medium term future, but over the belief that I should be accumulating monetary wealth in preparation for an unknown future. Why? Because it’s what I’ve been told I must do; it’s what we all have been told we must do. And so we collect the nuts, trading our time – which is to say, our life – for them, and squirreling them away and then worrying about whether or not they’re squirreled in the right place, at high enough return, to enable us to live the life we someday hope to live. 

 

 

§ 21 Responses to Relax

  • Julie says:

    I love your writing! Thanks for all you offer. And great picture too!

  • ncfarmchick says:

    I don’t think I worry about money per se but the limited choices that sometimes accompany not having enough. By this, I am referring to major life changing circumstances like being able to afford necessary health care not buying a cute pair of shoes. Your words remind me a lot of the book “Your Money or Your Life” which got a lot of people thinking about “life energy” and how much of your life you are willing to spend for things. My family and I have and value a pretty basic life by most standards and have made choices that support that. The best one of all was my husband accepting a much lower paying job this summer but one that allows him to work from home. Even though our boys are just 18 months and 8 months old, we could see a big difference when Daddy became more than just the guy they saw for an hour or so before bedtime and on the weekends. A lot of men are taught to, at least somewhat, measure their value by the amount of money they make. I would not say my husband believed this but even he was surprised how much anxiety accompanied the decision to take the new job. Very quickly, however, he realized it was the best thing he ever could have done. While we have always been frugal, having our children was a major factor in committing to a life focused on being together and only doing things which support that choice. How we make moeny is just one of those choices. Not buying unneeded things or overscheduling our lives are others So, I guess I would say our relationship to money is to view it as a tool for allowing us to stay together, healthy and safe, not as a status symbol or an escape. Can’t wait to read your new book! Thanks for sharing so much of your life. You leave me inspired with each piece.

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Thanks, Dawn.

      I am beginning to think that perhaps the healthiest way to view money is simply as one of many tools for acquiring the things we need. I suspect that so many of our society’s money-based woes are the result of viewing money as not a means to an end, but as an end itself.

      • ncfarmchick says:

        Good point and I agree. Reminds me of something my grandfather said about how many people he knew viewed money after going through the Depression. He said people just saved, saved, saved out of fear but, when things improved, no one told them it was OK to spend some of their money. This is kind of the other side of the spectrum where people are so afraid to spend money, they do without very basic things or worry incessantly because they think they are going to be broke tomorrow. My other grandfather was a victim of this thinking. When he passed, his children discovered he had MUCH more money than even he knew he had. Sadly, he could have gifted a lot of it to charities or to his other grandchildren (many of whom have really struggled) but his estate owed the government almost $1 million in taxes. It literally made my father sick to learn this but they did not have the kind of relationship where he ever would have known or felt comfortable asking if my grandfather needed help managing his money. That is not a happy way to live any more than the person who seeks happiness in the next shopping trip.

  • Sandra Ragsdale says:

    First, money is not evil. Just like guns are not evil. Money is simply a medium of exchange, at a constantly fluctuating rate of exchange. Granite used to cost whatever it used to cost 100 years ago. If other materials have supplanted its use, then granite is not worth what it used to be.
    Since we’re physical beings, we have physical needs. It costs money or labor or barter or credit to satisfy those needs. Everybody is in that same boat. Even those with billions could conceivably lose their wealth. It’s happened before.
    The difference is in people’s attitudes toward money; is money a means or an end in itself, how much is enough, I can never have too much, I measure my self-worth by money, I want to make more money than the next guy, if you’ve got it flaunt it. Ugh!
    I think it’s just normal and human to worry about the future and therefore about money, that is, having enough money to meet uncertain future needs. Again, everyone is in that boat.
    Personally, I’ve been much happier since I got out of the stock market and haven’t had to nervously and compulsively check stock prices for years. Not chasing money is liberating.
    Henry David Thoreau: I make myself rich by making my wants few.

    I very much enjoyed your first book and look forward to reading the second. Thank you!

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      I absolutely agree. I do not think money is evil. But I think it is powerful, and I think our intent for our money means a lot. Like guns, I suppose.

  • bethany says:

    I am very interested in the issue of reconciling a less money-centric lifestyle with responsible long-term financial planning. I am a pension actuary, so I understand the risks and costs of planning for our retirement years, or any long-term financial planning. I also share the values you’d expect here – we live below our means on a small homestead, I’ve traded promotions for time off to travel, etc. But I have to admit that I struggle with my own retirement planning.

    I’d love to be able to look at the guidance out there and punch some numbers, but there are so many factors that they’ve never considered – is it reasonable to assume that I’ll be able to grow most of my own food? forever?? how do adjust for lifestyle changes required when risks that feel utterly safe today inevitably drift towards unsafe (e.g. I anticipate more reliable – and more expensive – vehicles will move from the can-live-without column to the important-to-have at some age) How do I take advantage of the tax advantages of the system when that system is set up for investing in stocks and bonds work for me when I’d rather invest my retirement savings in a local business?

    Wish I had more answers, but I’m really happy to hear it’s on someone else’s mind.

  • This resonates deeply with me, too! Thank you for being so open about what you and Penny have and do. It is refreshing. People usually are more open about their sex lives than they are about their money lives — always alluding to it but never mentioning numbers (unless it’s the square footage of their home or the age of their car). This only increases anxiety.

    I, too, know there must be a balance, but it won’t be found in a particular mix of spending and saving. It will be found in releasing attachment to a specific kind of future and living fully — making the decisions that feel best — in the present. You seem to be doing that better than most!

  • I would imagine most people view it at a level of maintaining their current lifestyle. This is long before worrying about being able to provide for your family. But the adage “we are all one paycheque away from homeless” is not far off of what we personally experience and have discovered most of our friends feel as well. When you ask the uncomfortable question at a party “what if both of you lost your jobs and were unemployed for more than 3 months?” (because I’m weird like that and will ask uncomfortable questions at social gatherings) most say they would be in serious trouble. Press what that means and the majority would admit they’d lose their house and have to move in with their parents. Well that’s not an option for us – our parents are either in supported living or are on the other side of the world and unavailable because of costs to get there. Have we save for ‘retirement’? Yes we’re working on it. But if we were to be unemployed for longer than 3 months right NOW that would disappear pretty fast. I think many of us need to be “SAVED” from ourselves and start looking at the value we place on the exchange of currency. Because it really is just paper. We can’t eat it, or cover ourselves in it, or be loved by it. However what Bethany says is very true. I am watching family struggle in their 60s and 70s to make ends meet. They couldn’t possibly grow their own food because they live in subsidized housing or they are not physically able to, even if it was something available to them. Dementia and cancer that requires care and housing that costs money they don’t have. I worry about that scenario more than anything else because I fear being a financial burden to my children – as our parents have become for us. We are now giving money to family that should be going to debt reduction or savings because they didn’t take measure to save for their own future. I’d like to say setting ourselves up to look after needs would be ideal, but in reality I want to ensure I NEVER have to ask my children for money. Thanks for the conversation. Now I’m really looking forward to your book!

    • Melissa R says:

      I am not sure where my convictions lie on this topic of helping to care for your older family. It’s something I am working on. But here are my thoughts:
      I think it may only be HERE (in the US) and NOW (in modern times) that we feel/think/plan this way. In the past, and now in other countries, isn’t it true that the “workable” generation works and cares for the younger ones and the older ones who already did their work.
      WHY is it that your money should be going to debt reduction or savings instead of going towards the care of your older family? WHY isn’t THAT the actual way it should be?
      One generation works to keep everyone going and then the next generation takes over. Your family worked to pay for your life until age X (18, 20, 25?). And now it’s your turn.
      We wouldn’t all be stressed over working now to ensure our future if we knew that the circle of life meant that we would be cared for by our loved ones when we could no longer care for ourselves.
      Who would expect elderly to be able to provide their own shelter, food, warmth? Why do we do that now? Why do we do it to ourselves?
      Additionally, my father wanted nothing, his whole life, more than to retire, but he died months before he could enjoy that dream. Instead of living in the now he always lived for retirement and then didn’t get it.

      • I agree with your thoughts Melissa – completely. However our situation is a bit different than the ideal scenario you describe. I would venture to guess we are not the only ones paying for parents that made, and continue to make, poor choices. Without going into all the sordid details, part of that plan is not to have debt that needs looking after in my post working years. That includes the potential for illness in the short term that I couldn’t possibly plan for. That includes not living beyond our means. We choose to live that way but our families don’t and we are left with constant requests to fix what they refuse to deal with. The most recent was to the tune of $20K. We had to start noting these ‘gifts’ on our taxes because they were accounting for so much of our annual income. Yet these family members are not claiming it because we pay off their credit cards or gambling debts or mortgages about to foreclose or a funeral. That is one legacy our parents, in our family at least, have given us. No different than the attitudes of those that had lived through the depression – the experience has shaped our relationship with money forever. Dreaming of a utopian family dynamic that has grandma living with us because she lost her farm and that’s just what families do; is simply not my reality. I wish it were. (actually maybe not because with 8 divorces on both sides we’d have 7 parents currently “unable to pay their own way” living with us!!) I might not be able to leave my children with anything but my love and time, but until that point I will also never ask them for money. It is my mantra: I will not be a burden to my children.

      • Ben Hewitt says:

        Thank you for sharing some of your story, sibach.

      • Ben Hewitt says:

        Melissa,

        Yup.

  • Jeannie says:

    Ben,
    I can’t wait for your new book to come out. The last two have been excellent. I’m so sorry that I had a schedule conflict and did not have the opportunity to meet you when you were in Ohio.
    All I can say is follow your dream. My husband and I did. We started our own business 7 years ago, and have never looked back. That’s not to say its all been easy, we’ve had many sleepless nights-but we’re in charge of our own destiny. No accountant hiding behind a desk in some far off place can threaten our security. We are our own security, except for taxes, every ounce of our productivity is for our future together. We don’t carry any debt so we don’t need a lot to get by on. Making our own entertainment at home, spending time with friends, and learning skills
    are some of the best investments we’ve made in our future.

  • Peter Burke says:

    I appreciate the irony. Relax…about money…are you kidding! And yet I supposed it can be done, just not by me. We have mortgaged on several occasions to get money for school and business. We only have a retirement becasue I work for someone else with a good plan. The important feature of money comes from investing in yourself and not possessing it. The one thing that has been with me from when I was a young man is that money does not make people happy, thingss do not make people happy. There is more happiness in hard work than in boredom, there is more happiness in enough than in too much, there is more happiness in friends than having an empty castle or seven homes. One line from a Guru Nanak poem was “Let Contentment be you wallet” it is a great poem I’ll have to look it up and send it. Enjoyed the post-Pete

  • Angela says:

    I think my opinion about money is as similar to yours as is possible. I’m thankful that I’m still pretty young and we have already realized these truths and that a simple life with time with our family is worth so much more than material things. I love the part about saving money for the future because we have be taught we have to, something I have haven’t thought much about.
    I look forward to reading your book!
    Angela

  • Elizabeth L. says:

    Recently I have learned to respect money and the power it can and has wielded over my life. I am currently paying off student and credit card debt. My husband and I both work full time and are probably enjoying the best benefits and highest paychecks (less than $100,000 annually combined) we expect to see in this lifetime. This is because until I finish my graduate degree (on my company’s dime) and we have children, we are both in corporate life. Once those babies come and we transition from Southern NH to Northern VT, we plan to live a simpler monetary life, but one more rich is happiness than we can imagine. I have been poor and I have been lonely, but I have never been both at the same time. When I have relied on money to make me happy (i.e. the credit card debit I am now taking responsibility for), I have been deeply lonely in spirit. When I have been poor, I have been deeply fulfilled by ingenuity and camaraderie. I know my monetary life will fluctuate, just as I can guarantee my daily mood will. Taking it in stride, knowing that today I only have few dollars in my wallet and respecting those few dollars and perhaps next week I will have a few extra and respecting those is what helps keep me mindful about the whole picture. If I loose my job tomorrow or my husband does, or we are strapped for cash I will work where ever I have to, I will sell whatever excess stuff I have. Today I have, tomorrow I may not. I have been in both places and they no longer scare me. What truly scares me is the prospect of going back to being deeply lonely. Deep down I know this will never happen again, I have too many good friends and family to be there for me- I only need to learn to reach out. Perhaps that is the true fear behind money- the fear we out on our own with no help in sight.

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Hey Elizabeth,

      Really interesting thoughts regarding loneliness. I’ve think a lot about money in the context of human interconnectedness, and while of course there are no absolute truths, I deeply believe that monetary abundance is a contributing factor to interpersonal impoverishment.

  • Karen says:

    This is pretty timely for me as well. I’ve been thinking for some time about the value of money versus the value of my emotional and physical well-being, and in the spring, I’ll be giving up my soul-sucking cubicle job (instead of just threatening to year after year). Mine is the larger salary, but my husband’s job provides health benefits for us both, and I’ve learned in the last year or 2 just how much less than my current salary we need to live on comfortably. I have several skills and interests I’ve never had the time to see if I could make any kind of living from, and that’s what I intend to do. If it doesn’t work, or doesn’t work right away, I can always temp at my old job, without committing to going back to it.

    With regard to the other person who posted about people who lived through the Depression and their attitude toward money, I recently lost an aunt at 86. Her husband, much older, had worked very hard to see that she was secure in what he assumed would be a long widowhood. When he died, she owned her house free and clear and had significant savings. She continued to live like there was no money, buying food from the dollar store and denying herself even simple things, and after she passed, she received a denial letter from the state for her application for food stamps. The quarter-million dollars in the bank didn’t seem real to her at all.

    Also, the fact that she left said quarter-million to another relative was the boot in the butt that I needed. No one else was going to help me out of my miserable situation. It was, as you say, just me, myself and I. And I’ll do it, and we’ll find a way to make it work.

    Looking forward to the new book.

  • Chris McCarthy says:

    Money, with it you are afraid you will lose it, without it afraid period. I like the idea of bartering for goods and services..ppl are friendlier when you barter because there is usually effort involved..and appreciation. I wish we lived in a community that lived this way..off the grid I suppose. I never thought I would aspire to a “hippy”existence, however I do, Retirement is right around the corner and I cannot see us ever “retired” because of the cost of living. I look forward to reading your book,perhaps it will put explain how to deal without money…

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