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Your Money or Your Life (Vicki Robin)

Ali Abdaal
Ali Abdaal

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We lived below our means and found that there were multiple benefits from rejecting the hyper-consumer culture, including less stress, more time and greater happiness.

Rather, it’s to point out that while absolute poverty deprives our bodies of necessities, relative poverty—being so much poorer than people no smarter or more willing to work than we are—makes us dissatisfied with our lot in life no matter how much we have.

One promise of this book is “financial independence,” but that’s not just rolling in dough. It’s unhooking your thinking from the consumer culture and from assuming you must buy your way through life.

2005 study by Tim Kasser and Kirk Warren Brown,14 are happier than main-streamers. They are less materialistic, less status conscious, more interested in personal growth, friends, family, and participating in the life of their community. Happiness studies confirm again and again that these are the elements of a fulfilling existence.

Most of us spend much more than 40 hours out of the week’s total of 168 hours earning money. We must take time to dress for our jobs, commute to our jobs, think about our jobs at work and at home, “decompress” from our jobs. We must spend our evenings and weekends in mindless “escape entertainment” in order to “recreate” from our jobs.

We must occasionally “vacate” our jobs, or spend time at the doctor’s office to repair our job-stressed health. We need to plan our “careers,” attend job seminars or union meetings, lobby or picket for our jobs.

We must spend money to maintain our jobs—job costuming, commuting costs, food bought expensively at the workplace. We must spend so that our neighborhood, house, car, lifestyle and even life mate reflect our “position” in the work world.

It is defined as having an income sufficient for your basic needs and comforts from a source other than paid employment.

Penny Y. worked seventy hours a week as a successful saleswoman, but that wasn’t It. She reports, “After reading books like The Poverty of Affluence [by Paul Wachtel] I realized that my feeling that ‘something was missing’ wasn’t something only I experienced. I began to talk with others and found they often felt similarly let down. Having gotten the prize of a comfortable home with all the trimmings, there was a sense of ‘Is this all?’ Do I have to work and work and then retire—worn out—to be put out to pasture? To do nothing then but to try to spend money I saved up and to waste my time till my life is over?”

The perfect work life would offer enough challenge to be interesting. Enough ease to be enjoyable. Enough camaraderie to be nourishing. Enough solitude to be productive. Enough hours at work to get the job done. Enough leisure to feel refreshed. Enough service to feel needed. Enough silliness to have fun. And enough money to pay the bills . . . and then some.

We Aren’t Making a Living, We’re Making a Dying For so many working people, however, from people who love their work to those who barely

tolerate their jobs, there seems to be no real choice between their money and their lives. What they do for money dominates their waking hours, and life is what can be fit into the scant remaining time.

Consider the average worker in almost any urban industrialized city. The alarm rings at 6:45 and our working man or woman is up and running. Shower. Dress in the professional uniform—suits or dresses for some, coveralls for others, whites for the medical professionals, jeans and flannel shirts for construction workers. Breakfast, if there’s time. Grab commuter mug and briefcase (or lunch box). Hop in the car for the daily punishment called rush hour or on a bus or train packed crushingly tight. On the job from nine to five. Deal with the boss. Deal with the coworker sent by the devil to rub you the wrong way. Deal with suppliers. Deal with clients/customers/patients. Act busy. Hide mistakes. Smile when handed impossible deadlines. Give a sigh of relief when the ax known as “restructuring” or “downsizing”—or just plain getting laid off—falls on other heads. Shoulder the added workload. Watch the clock. Argue with your conscience but agree with the boss. Smile again. Five o’clock. Back in the car and onto the freeway or into the bus or train for the evening commute. Home. Act human with mates, kids or roommates. Eat. Watch TV. Bed. Eight hours of blessed oblivion. And they call this making a living? Think about it. How many people have you seen who are more alive at the end of the workday than they were at the beginning? Do we come home from our “making a living” activity with more life? Do we bound through the door, refreshed and energized, ready for a great evening with the family? Where’s all the life we supposedly made at work?

If the daily grind were making us happy, the irritations and inconveniences would be a small price to pay. If we could believe that our jobs were actually making the world a better place, we would sacrifice sleep and social lives without feeling deprived. If the extra toys we buy with our toil were providing anything more than momentary pleasure and a chance to one-up others, we’d spend those hours on the job gladly. But it is becoming increasingly clear that, beyond a certain minimum of comfort, money is not buying us the happiness we seek.

Participants in our seminars, whatever the size of their incomes, always said they needed “more” to be happy. We included this exercise in our seminars: We asked people to rate themselves on a happiness scale of 1 (miserable) to 5 (joyous), with 3 being “can’t complain,” and we correlated their figures with their incomes. In a sample of over 1,000 people, from both the United States and Canada, the average happiness score was consistently between 2.6 and 2.8 (not even a 3!), whether the person’s income was under $1,500 a month or over $6,000 a month. (See Figure 1-1.)

The results astounded us. They told us that not only are most people habitually unhappy, but they can be unhappy no matter how much money they make. Even people who are doing well financially are not necessarily fulfilled. On those same worksheets we asked our seminar participants, “How much money would it take to make you happy?” Can you guess the results? It was always “more than I have now” by 50 to 100 percent.

These findings are confirmed by numerous other studies on happiness. In one classic study, Roy Kaplan of the Florida Institute of Technology tracked 1,000 lottery winners over a span of ten years. Very few felt any greater happiness—or had any idea of what to do with the money. A surprising number were less happy six months later, having left jobs that had been a source of self-esteem and gained money they felt they didn’t deserve. Many turned to drugs and suffered feelings of isolation.7

We also put up with this “making a dying” existence because we think we have no choice. “Another day, another dollar.” “Everybody’s gotta make a living.” The “nine to five till you’re sixty-five” pattern, so recent in human history but so pervasive today, seems like the only choice for someone who is neither a sports nor entertainment superstar nor an eccentric. After all, there are bills to pay and an identity to maintain, and besides, what would I do with my life if I didn’t have a job?

And many of us are out there “making a dying” because we’ve bought the pervasive consumer myth that more is better.

We build our working lives on this myth of more. Our expectation is to make more money as the years go on. We will get more responsibility and more perks as we move up in our field.

Eventually, we hope, we will have more possessions, more prestige and more respect from our community. We become habituated to expecting ever more of ourselves and ever more from the world, but rather than satisfaction, our experience is that the more we have, the more we want—and the less content we are with the status quo.

More is better; this is the motto that drives us. For Americans (and increasingly for consumers in other nations) this is the motto that leads us to trade in our car every three years, buy new clothes for every event and every season, get a bigger and better house every time we can afford it and upgrade everything from our stereo systems to our lawn mowers simply because some new automatic widget has been introduced.

According to psychologist David G. Myers, author of The Pursuit of Happiness, the average U.S. citizen’s buying power (adjusted for inflation) more than doubled between 1957 and 2002.9 As a result, former luxury items became commonplace.

If you live for having it all, what you have is never enough. In an environment of more is better, “enough” is like the horizon—always receding.

Psychologists call money the “last taboo.” It is easier to tell our therapist about our sex life than it is to tell our accountant about our finances. Money—not necessarily how much we have, but how we feel about it—governs our lives as much or more than any other factor. More marriages are wrecked by money than any other factor. Why?

While we might vigorously maintain that we know that “money can’t buy happiness” and “the best things in life are free,” honesty requires that we look deeper. Our behavior tells a different story. What do we do when we are depressed, when we are lonely, when we feel unloved? More often than not we buy something to make us feel better. A new outfit. A drink (or two). A new car. An ice cream cone. A ticket to Hawaii. A goldfish. A ticket to the movies. A bag of Oreos (or two).

When we want to celebrate good fortune, we buy something. A round of drinks. A catered wedding. A bouquet of roses. A diamond ring.

When we are bored, we buy something. A magazine. A cruise. A board game. A bet on the horses.

When we think there must be more to life, we buy something. A workshop. A self-help book. A therapist. A house in the country. A condo in the city.

None of this is wrong. It’s just what we do. We have learned to seek external solutions to signals from the mind, heart or soul that something is out of balance. We try to satisfy essentially psychological and spiritual needs with consumption at a physical level. How did this happen?

Until one day we found ourselves sitting, unfulfilled, in our big home on two and a half wooded acres with a three-car garage and expensive exercise equipment in the basement, yearning for the life we had as poor college students who could find joy in a walk in the park.

We hit a fulfillment ceiling and never recognized that the formula of money = fulfillment not only had stopped working but had started to work against us. No matter how much we bought, the Fulfillment Curve kept heading down.

There’s a very interesting place on this graph—it’s the peak. Part of the secret to life, it would seem, comes from identifying for yourself that point of maximum fulfillment.

There is a name for this peak of the Fulfillment Curve, and it provides the basis for transforming your relationship with money. It’s a word we use every day, yet we are practically incapable of recognizing it when it’s staring us in the face. The word is “enough.”

At the peak of the Fulfillment Curve we have enough (see Figure 1-3). Enough for our survival. Enough comforts. And even enough little “luxuries.” We have everything we need; there’s nothing extra to weigh us down, distract or distress us, nothing we’ve bought on time, have never used and are slaving to pay off. Enough is a fearless place. A trusting place. An honest and self-observant place. It’s appreciating and fully enjoying what money brings into your life and yet never purchasing anything that isn’t needed and wanted.

Enough is a wide and stable plateau. It is a place of alertness, creativity and freedom. From this place, being suffocated under a mountain of clutter that must be stored, cleaned, moved, gotten rid of and paid for on time is a fate worse than dearth.

“Every time I get ends to meet, someone moves the other end.”

Money is something we choose to trade our life energy for.

Our life energy is our allotment of time here on Earth, the hours of precious life available to us. When we go to our jobs we are trading our life energy for money. This truth, while simple, is profound.

John Stuart Mill once said, “Men do not desire to be rich, only to be richer than other men.”

Financial Independence is the experience of having enough—and then some.

One response to those feelings of resentment and powerlessness is to spend money. “It was such a tough day that I deserve a little fun. Let’s go out to dinner /dancing/a movie/the mall.” So be prepared to discover how much you indulge yourself with “I hate my job” as the underlying reason.

Is it coincidence that “Job” is also the name of the Old Testament character who was plagued by difficulties? “The trials of Job” takes on a whole new meaning; many of us have certainly pondered Job’s question “Why me, Lord?” as we’ve bucked rush hour traffic or endured excruciating tedium.

What did you want to be when you grew up? ◆What have you always wanted to do that you haven’t yet done? ◆What have you done in your life that you are really proud of? ◆If you knew you were going to die within a year, how would you spend that year? ◆What brings you the most fulfillment—and how is that related to money? ◆If you didn’t have to work for a living, what would you do with your time? You may want to write your answers down. These questions help you focus on what you truly value, what makes your life worth living. In this next step, you’ll be finding out how well your spending is aligned with those values.

The primary tool for developing this internal yardstick is awareness. The affluence that surrounds us has been called the American Dream, and with good reason: we’ve been asleep. We wake up by questioning the dream. Asking yourself, month in, month out, whether you actually got fulfillment in proportion to life energy spent in each subcategory awakens that natural sense of knowing when enough is enough.

Our behavior is a concrete representation of our values. How we spend our time and money says volumes about who we are and what we stand for.

“Spending money on myself in ways that might bring superficial happiness but don’t contribute to lasting fulfillment,” you think, “is actually not valuing myself. It’s frittering away my precious, one-way life energy.

Financial Intelligence is knowing that if you spend your life energy on stuff that brings only passing fulfillment and doesn’t support your values, you end up with less life.

Frugality is enjoying the virtue of getting good value for every minute of your life energy and from everything you have the use of.

If you have ten dresses but still feel you have nothing to wear, you are probably a spendthrift. But if you have ten dresses and have enjoyed wearing all of them for years, you are frugal. Waste lies not in the number of possessions but in the failure to enjoy them.

Your success at being frugal is measured not by your penny-pinching but by your degree of enjoyment of the material world.

To be frugal means to have a high joy-to-stuff ratio. If you get one unit of joy for each material possession, that’s frugal.

But if you need ten possessions to even begin registering on the joy meter, you’re missing the point of being alive.

There’s a word in Spanish that encompasses all this: aprovechar. It means to use something wisely—be it a sunny day at the beach or leftovers made into a delicious new meal. It’s getting full value from life, enjoying all the good that each moment and each thing has to offer. You can “aprovecha” a simple meal, a bowl of ripe strawberries or a cruise in the Bahamas. There’s nothing miserly about aprovechar; it’s a succulent word, full of sunlight and flavor. If only “frugal” were so sweet.

The “more is better and it’s never enough” mentality in North America fails the frugality test not solely because of the excess, but because of the lack of enjoyment of what we already have.

Indeed, North Americans have been called materialists, but that’s a misnomer. All too often it’s not material things we enjoy as much as what these things symbolize: conquest, status, success, achievement, a sense of worth and even favor in the eyes of the Creator. Once we’ve acquired the dream house, the status car or the perfect mate, we rarely stop to enjoy them thoroughly. Instead, we’re off and running after the next coveted acquisition.

Keep this in mind as we explore ways to save money. We aren’t talking about being cheap, making do or being a skinflint or a tightwad. We’re talking about creative frugality, a way of life in which you get the maximum fulfillment for each unit of life energy spent.

People above the line of base subsistence, in this age and all earlier ages, do not use the surplus, which society has given them, primarily for useful purposes. They do not seek to expand their own lives, to live more wisely, intelligently, understandingly, but to impress other people with the fact that they have a surplus . . . spending money, time and effort quite uselessly in the pleasurable business of inflating the ego.3

As Max-Neef points out, most of our needs are not material! Substitution says, “When you feel a desire to shop, take time to trace it back to the need and ask if creativity rather than consumption might best fill it.”

People don’t need enormous cars, they need respect. They don’t need closets full of clothes, they need to feel attractive and they need excitement and variety and beauty. People don’t need electronic equipment; they need something worthwhile to do with their lives. People need identity, community, challenge, acknowledgement, love, and joy. To try to fill these needs with material things is to set up an unquenchable appetite for false solutions to real and never-satisfied problems. The resulting psychological emptiness is one of the major forces behind the desire for material growth.

Work is defined as something that people do not want to do and money as the reward that compensates for the unpleasantness of work.

What if we removed most of these expectations from our paid employment and recognized that all purposes for work other than earning money could be fulfilled by unpaid activities?

This observation brings us to a critical point in reexamining our relationship with work. There are two sides to work. On one side is our need and desire for money. We work in order to get paid. On the other side, and totally separate from our wages, is the fact that we work in order to fulfill many other purposes in our lives.

The real problem with work, then, is not that our expectations are too high. It’s that we have confused work with paid employment.

Redefining “work” as simply any productive or purposeful activity, with paid employment being just one activity among many, frees us from the false assumption that what we do to put food on the table and a roof over our heads should also provide us with our sense of meaning, purpose and fulfillment. Breaking the link between work and money allows us to reclaim balance and sanity.

You may love your paid employment or you may hate it; it doesn’t matter. But you do want to recognize that the purpose of your paid employment is getting paid and that your real “work” may be far bigger than this one job.

These hours are all you’ve got. There is nothing in your life that is more valuable than your time, the moments you have left. You cannot put too much awareness and intention into the way you invest those moments.

If you think you are working only when you are earning money, then you (and billions of other people) are very busy being “unemployed” a lot of the time. The everyday activities of taking care of yourself, your home and your family are all unpaid work. It’s not that we don’t notice these other life chores, it’s that we don’t always honor them. In our minds we tend to regard them as mere obstacles to surmount on the way to our “real” work, the jobs we get paid for.

Another casualty of our confusion of work with wages is our inner work—the job of self-examination, self-development and emotional and spiritual maturation. It takes time to know yourself. Time for reflection, for silence, for journal writing, for prayer and ritual, for dialogue with a caring friend to heal the wounds from our past, for developing a coherent philosophy of life and personal code of ethics and for setting personal goals and evaluating progress. Yet, instead of honoring this as important work, we squeeze what we can into evenings and weekends, devoting the majority of our waking hours to the “real work” of our jobs. Redefining work gives us back the full experience and expression of these other activities. We can honor our household duties, our relationships and our inner work and give this unpaid employment the same creativity, respect and attention that we give to our paid employment.

For the Greeks, leisure was the highest good, the essence of freedom—a time for self-development and for higher pursuits. Yet here we are in the early twenty-first century unable to really relax and enjoy our leisure. Even our language betrays us by calling it “time off” as though leisure were just a few minutes of recuperation before we’re back “on,” a once-again productive (i.e., real) human being.

If we did not identify so strongly with what we do for money, we might honor and enjoy our leisure more. It’s okay to play. It’s okay to relax in the shade and listen to the birds. It’s okay to take a walk to nowhere in particular. Leisure is not an identity crisis if you know you are not your job. The challenge, of course, is being able to deem your apparent idleness worthwhile. As Saltzman points out,

The first pitfall is that there is no guarantee that you will find someone to pay you to do what you feel called to do. It may take many years to develop your art or your research or your social innovation or your new technology to the point where those who have money want to pay for it. Most often this has less to do with the real value of your work than it has to do with luck, chance, perseverance, connections or a host of other factors. By giving up the expectation that you will be paid to do the work you are passionate about, you can do both things with more integrity. You can make money to cover your expenses, and you can follow your heart without compromise.

What relationships in your life have you put on the back burner? Has friendship been replaced by strategic business relationships? Has your family survived on the scraps of time left over from an all-consuming job? And what about your relationship with yourself? Has that taken a backseat as well? What if you had the time you needed to write in a journal or go fishing or just sit on a hillside and think? Being able to reflect on your life while you’re living it (instead of in the instant before you die) is one key to fulfillment, however you go about it. When you’re working full-time, though, quiet time can seem like just one more thing to do in an already overcrowded schedule.

Did I receive fulfillment, satisfaction and value in proportion to life energy spent? 2. Is this expenditure of life energy in alignment with my values and life purpose? 3. How might this expenditure change if I didn’t have to work for a living?

Quality of life” often goes down as “standard of living” goes up. There is a peak to the Fulfillment Curve—spending more after you’ve reached the peak will bring less fulfillment.

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Ali Abdaal

Junior doctor, YouTuber, web designer, aspiring musician. Trying out this blogging thing.