I’m not lacking the requisite self-awareness to acknowledge each of us has a relationship with money. What strikes me is how I’ve been seemingly pre-occupied with money from a young age. From the first time my Mom handed me a $20 bill to go pay our bill at Big Boy as a young kid to get the change until now at 44, it’s dominated way too much of my thought process. Between money and sex, it’s a two-way tie for most amount mental bandwidth with the least amount of tangible results.
Wasn’t it Marvin Gaye who said “one-way love is just a fantasy”, or something like that? For the vast majority of my existence I’d think about money, but it doesn’t give a rip about me. If we wanted to get all philosophical or existential, what is money even? If we pulled that thread we’d probably be pretty disappointed to find out that it’s mostly an idea some powerful people agreed had value to keep society from being a chaotic shambles. Or a way to barter and exchange goods and services in an agreed upon way. But I digress, as that’s not what I came to write about.
As I’ve been going through a lot of book learnin’ and knowledge-seeking this past year it’s started to dawn on me that this shared illusion has created a weird, stressed out, often overworked society and culture here in America. But the nature of the work isn’t labor-of-love. That would be more understandable.
In fact, it’s ‘can barely-stand’ for most people, which is astounding to contemplate. Think about it, most of your contemporaries go to a job they tolerate at best, loathe in many instances, to make a living. Who decided this is the way it should be? What institution has so covered the wool over our collective eyes that 90% of the US suffers most of our waking hours to buy crap they don’t need or support a family they hardly get to see because they have to make money? It’s a giant, unnecessary circle jerk.
All of that’s pretty macro, now it’s time to get micro. Myself, I have the luxury of working when I want, if I want, with who I want (for the most part). Am I some overheated MLM’er about to tell you about my ‘opportunity’? Hell no! I’m just a regular guy who has a wife, 3 kids and lives in the suburbs of Nashville, TN (Franklin, to be exact).
Ten years ago, I was laid off from my job as a recruiter for Genworth Financial Medicare Supplement Division. All I had was my life-and-health-license, 6 months of unemployment, my wife and a dream. At that point I became an independent Medicare broker, which is what I am, and still am, today. Because I’d been recruiting agents like myself, I knew where to start, how to sell and had a general sense of how to get into my particular industry. And I had the wherewithal and personal belief to go ahead and present to people and go meet them in their homes. Over-and-over again. Hundreds, and by now, thousands of times.
But the selling was the easy part, relatively speaking. I know my stuff and how to do the job. Setting and getting appointments was the challenge. I had to learn to be charming and earn a modicum of trust over the phone enough to get in front of folks.
But back to the money part, all my life that I can remember I’ve worked. At ten my Mom told me when I was trying to convince her to buy me some nonsense my friends had that I wanted, “Randy, you can have anything you want. You just have to be the one to buy it”. Now we can debate whether or not that’s the best lesson to teach an impressionable kid, but the effect it had on me was profound.
From that point on I made it point to earn money just about any chance I got. From shoveling snow, to selling toys I didn’t want anymore (before the internet and EBay mind you), to stealing from my Dad, I learned to rely on myself to buy just about anything I could afford that I desired. Early on it was junk food from the corner store, later to become music to clothes, I got my own shit. I was lousy at saving, which is something my wife and I hope to teach to our kids coming up here. I was worse at giving. For me, those were two concepts that I struggled with for the longest time. Saving and giving were two things that took the longest to come to. The way I figured it was if I had to work for it, so should the less fortunate. I found a way, why can’t they? I’m not saying I should’ve felt that way, just that’s where my head was at for the longest time.
As I matriculated out of the education system, I had a stronger work ethic than I did a desire for higher education. Which wasn’t that worst thing, considering my brother, and scores of others like him, have tens of thousands in student loans they have little hope of paying back in their lifetimes. I can see that happening to me if I’d have gone down that road as I never wanted to go to school for anything in particular. It’s fairly likely my degree would’ve likely not been in anything worth paying four years of college for.
Because I only had a high school diploma and some college my prospects in the traditional working, career-driven, world have been limited. In retrospect maybe that was a blessing in disguise, because once you’re indoctrinated into the corporate machine of raises and promotions it’s a dangerous and soul-sucking place to be. Seduced by the game and the ostensibly successful world it pulls you into.
I drifted from working in restaurants as a server to administrative work in office settings until I moved to Tennessee at 31. All the while I barely made a working wage and supplemented my meager income with Handwriting Analysis gigs and catering jobs. Had I continued on that path it’s inevitable I’d be one of the aforementioned 90% who are making a living any way they can manage, with no mindful purpose. For most in this situation it’s a matter of being too scared to leave the comfort of a reliable paycheck (especially if you have a family) for the unknown of finding more meaningful, perhaps better-paying work. Or maybe being willing to downsize their lives and live with less and work less and enjoy their lives more and at least get more life satisfaction out of the bargain.
The other factor that comes into play, even for executive-level people, or those with high-paying jobs, is the lifestyle creep that happens when you live in a nicer area, or socialize with people in your socio-economic strata (which, typically happens because birds of a feather tend to flock together). You could be making several times more than I was when I was in my 20’s and have the same amount of security economically (which is little) because to keep-up-with-the-Jones’ it costs way more. From your home, to your clothes, to the schools you send little Johnny and Megan too, just because you make more doesn’t mean you have money. Ironically, to keep up appearances, you usually just wind up with nicer crap and more credit-card bills and more bondage.
Now back to me. I’m kind of a weirdo who marches to the beat of his own drummer. I had the advantage of growing up poor, so I’ve never felt the need to keep-up-with-anybody. I’ve lived hand-to-mouth and paycheck-to-paycheck for most of my life. I realized a long time ago how little strangers and neighbors actually care about me. It’s nothing personal, it’s just how most of us in this culture are programmed or brought up. I’m hardly any better at such things. The fact is most others are too busy worried about what everybody else thinks about them to consider my style or circumstances.
As my income rose and I began to make six figures (my wife also does well for herself), I never went ahead and got a fancy car (now I buy my car outright instead of financing it, which in the long run makes me richer). I have a great house, but if I wanted to upgrade, we could easily get one. My clothes? I wear decent stuff I mostly buy on-sale, but nothing designer and I’ve never been a jewelry guy. As my financial situation improved, and continues to do so, my lifestyle, such as it is, remains mostly the same.
Where my family does splurge is going on vacations. We get away as a family several times a year and never go in-debt to do it. When I was growing up our idea of a vacation was camping. Seriously. In my 20’s all I ever did was stay-cations. So now that I can do it, we go for it. And we get the hell out of Tennessee to recharge and refresh (unless we go to Gatlinburg, Tn 😊).
Since I have plenty to live on, and more, from a monetary standpoint, I’ve chosen to work less and enjoy my life more. For a long time, I felt guilty not adhering to the 40-hour, or more,-a-week mindset. Like I was shirking some imaginary supervisor by golfing three times a week instead of making mind-numbing sales calls. As if anyone, other than myself, actively cared how much time I spent actually working! What I found was when people called me, I was very responsive, and I still am. What I didn’t have naturally was the desire to go work for works sake, and this perplexed me.
Even though I knew it was silly or ridiculous, it was a feeling that refused to be shaken. Like when a soldier has survivors-guilt when he makes it, but his company-mate doesn’t, only much less serious. I’d feel like my friend or family who was struggling to make it and had no personal time was more virtuous than me and I was doing-whatever-the-hell I wanted. Like writing this long-ass essay. Too often I felt like an over-priviledged layabout.
Then last year happened. And my perspective shifted completely. As fate would have it, my mother-in-law was diagnosed, at first, with something called Executive Function Disorder (think ADD for adults) which eventually evolved to dementia and she could no longer live on her own. At that point, my wife and I had to deal with her house, and her belongings, in addition to moving her into a nursing home. We had no idea the sheer amount of crap she’d accumulated in the ten years since her husband had passed. This woman must’ve been spending and shopping nearly every chance she got. It was staggering how many clothes, jewelry, random stuff and garage-estate sale items we had to sort through.
I thought to myself, “I’ve heard of Minimilism, but Beth must be a Maximaxlist. She’s got at least five of everything!”. That was thing. Because of the nature of her condition, she’d constantly forget (or maybe misplaced) what she’d bought before and continued to buy the same item or items repeatedly. She had quite the horde. Listening to a Dave Ramsey video led me to stumble across a pair of good friends who go by “The Minimalists”, Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus. What a discovery! Through their ethos, and well-presented documentary and books it made me look at life through a new perspective that maybe I was doing several things right that I thought I was doing wrong, and doing many things wrong I believed I was doing right. Internally, it helped me resolve a lot of my circumstances and see them for the true gift they are.
First off, money and what it represents, or even why it’s important (or not as important). I began to question things that never really occurred to me consciously. What even was important or of value to me? What choices I was making about how to live my life and why. Was I living a life of intention or one of drifting?
Since this essay is about money, we’ll pretty much stick to that and what that’s related to. Through the Minimalists I discovered F.I.R.E. (Financial Independent Retire Early) and the F.I. (Financial Independence) community. I discovered Vicki Robin’s “Your Money, or Your Life”. So many of the feelings of being lost, feeling inadequate and confused over the years, despite all the outward appearances of ostensible success, started to form together and I could name my pain, or at least why I’d been feeling the way I had. And how unnecessary it was to live your life thinking, or caring, how others judged me. Even if the random person thought less of me, what did it matter? As long as I was there and doing things for the betterment of my family and friends, what difference did it make? And thinking I had to have certain possessions or things to be complete? That was absurd.
This society, this culture, is set up, from an incredibly young age, for all the participants to feel less-than or like they need all the things and status signifiers to feel whole. But there is no end to it. It’s an endless maze. An ultimately fruitless pursuit. All so huge corporations can continually profit from the machine that’s been running and mutating since post-WW2. Consumer culture and Western ethos, has perverted everything from medicine and health to the jobs we unhappily work, to the debt we accrue to pay for the whole stinking thing. We all participate whether we’re aware of it or not.
My feelings of angst and discomfort were born from playing a game no one is designed to win, that I was unaware I’d even signed up for. I was on the ride and the more I read, the more I wanted to get off. Is this why Jeremiah Johnson did what he did way back in the 1970’s? Or Leo’s character in “The Revenant”? My life is no Hollywood script. I just wanted to know why I had all the money and comfort I’d ever dreamed of, a great spouse and three healthy beautiful children, could do most anything I wanted and worked from home for myself helping people in a noble profession and still felt unsatisfied. That I was somehow lacking something. Somewhere I was missing out. And feeling everybody was judging me harshly for it, when I was the only one doing anything like that.
I began digging into these books, podcasts, videos and teachings and slowly the scales began to fall from my eyes as I began to connect to the dots and come to some realizations:
1. You can design your life the way you want. Nobody can tell you what to do or how to feel. Furthermore, most people would probably love to have the options and freedom I have. Don’t waste or squander this opportunity by feeling guilty about it. If someone judges you harshly that’s their issue, not yours. Odds are few will give a shit.
2. I had the freedom to run my business and help people for the right reasons without needing to unduly bias them. If I can make their situation better I happily do so and do a service to them and me. If they’re in the best scenario for them, let them know and don’t talk them into something worse or they don’t want. Furthermore, I strive to make mistakes of effort, not mistakes of neglect. Stuff gets messed up and needs fixing but I don’t want to go into something knowing there’s a problem I’ll have to fix or explain about later.
3. I desired very little I didn’t already have. In fact, listening to “The Minimalists”, made me realize I wanted to downsize and get rid of a lot of stuff that wasn’t serving me. Once our house is paid off and my kids are no longer in daycare there will be plenty of money to enjoy my life doing the simple things I enjoy most: walking, listening to podcasts, writing, playing video games, and spending quality time with my family. Come to think of it, I have plenty of that as it is, with daycare and a mortgage to pay.
4. Through “Your Money Or Your Life” it got across to me that my time was more valuable than money. It’s finite. Why waste it doing things you hate if you don’t have to (sometimes you have to and that’s part of life) and can afford not to?
5. Through the Financial Independence (F.I.) movement I realized I’m already no longer doing mandatory work. I could literally just keep my current client base and service my referral base and have more than enough to live on since my industry in renewal-based. Luckily, I enjoy what I do and helping people understand their Medicare options is second-nature to me. I don’t know why I’d leave my industry at this point. I work by choice, not by obligation, which to me, is ideal. And if I don’t want to work, that’s always an option. In essence, I’m already F.I. as far as what I consider F.I. to be!
As my income has increased, my desires and money I actually spend has gone down. Now we do have three small kids (7, 4 and 1 years old as of this writing) and that’s expensive, but my wife and I are set up for the rest of our lives about as well as can be, short of being ‘rich’. But my life is rich. Rich in love. Rich in freedom. Rich in learning.
I’ll leave you with this thought, what if money was just a trick, a red herring? What if society hadn’t obscured your moral compass and what you knew to be truly important? What if you didn’t have to look for every life hack, or side hustle just to be able to enjoy your life once-in-a-while? It all starts with a reframe, and goes from there. Would you consciously choose to lead a life trying to chase and fulfill ephemera like nice clothes, cars, private schools, fancy homes, etc.? Does getting these things, at the cost of your time, money, much of your freedom, and your attention, worth the effort and energy you pour into it? For me the answer was an emphatic no.
Importance and self-worth aren’t derived from a number in a bank account, no matter how awesome or depressing that figure may be. Your life is yours, and you’re free to live it how you see fit. On your deathbed nobody asks how many hours you worked or how much money you made. Your life’s impact is best shown by how many people are sad you’re gone and will continue to carry your legacy forward.