The Life You’ve Always Wanted?

We all have our ideas of what the “perfect life” would be like but often the images in our mind are a far cry from the reality we are living.  If you were able to travel back in time and ask a younger version of yourself if this is the future they’d choose for themselves, what would their answer be?  Twenty years ago, could you have envisioned the life you have today?  Is it everything you’d imagined or have your dreams evaporated into thin air?

Chances are, the life you are living today is nothing like the life you expected to have.  You sold your ideals for a dollar bill.  Why?  “Because that’s just what adults do.” We have to make a living to pay the bills.  There’s food to buy and television to watch.  How are we supposed to save the world when we’re up to our eyeballs in debt?  The mortgage isn’t going to pay for itself, is it?

“It is what it is.” There’s no time for dreams.  Dreams don’t pay the bills or put food on the table.  Our younger selves didn’t understand what it meant to be adults.  We have obligations now and we’ve built our lives around some idea of what it means to be a “responsible adult” in today’s world.  What we ended up with is a career that steals our time and energy, a mortgage that drains our income and debt from all the Stuff we bought to furnish and decorate our home.  We have many thousands of dollars in Student Loans and a couple of cars to pay for.  Oh yeah, and the credit cards…

It looks like being an adult isn’t all that we’ve been led to believe.  All of our lives we’ve been told that adults are “responsible”, implying that it’s somehow more virtuous to fall in line and follow the leader than it is to follow our youthful ambitions.  The “responsible” thing to do is find a job, get married and have children, buy a house and a couple of cars, then keep your nose to the grindstone until it’s finally time to retire.  When that day does come, we hope that our health will last long enough to enjoy the life of our dreams; the life we’ve been waiting our whole life to live.

And what has it all amounted to?  A garage full of Stuff we never really needed in the first place, kids that seem to resent our very existence unless we’re buying them something, a spouse that we barely seem to know anymore and a huge house we aren’t able to enjoy because we are at the office earning a paycheck to pay the mortgage.

Sure, we have all the Stuff we could ever imagine.  We drive nice cars and wear nice clothes.  Our home is decorated like a magazine cover and on the weekends we are able to relax with a cold beer in the backyard.  On the surface things seem wonderful.  A little deeper though and things don’t look as good anymore.

What are we sacrificing to create this image of the “perfect” life?  Our time, our energy, our sanity?  If the average person starts working fresh out of college at the age of 22 and retires at 67, that’s 45 years of life sold for a dollar bill.  We’re trading our life to fill our garage with junk, for a heap of metal to take us to a job so that we can pay for that same heap of metal.

What if there were a different way?  What if you didn’t have to spend your entire life working?  Would you do it?  If you knew that in 10 years you could be financially able to walk away from your job with enough money to pay for all your expenses, would you have the ambition to make it happen?

There is a way, it is possible!  The only problem – of course there’s a problem – is that to get there, you have to minimize your spending and save.  “But that’s Un-American!” Our entire lives we’ve been told to “get out there and boost the economy.”  After the attacks on September 11 we were told to go shopping as a way to stand up against terrorism.  Does that mean we’re supporting terrorism by saving money?  Of course not!

What I’m talking about isn’t a new concept.  It isn’t impossible.  It’s been done before and it’ll be done again.  And not just by a few outliers but by many thousands of people.  Will you be one of them???

What’s the secret?

Live Frugally: Cut your expenses to the bone.  Anything that doesn’t offer real value to your life is out.  That might mean going without a contracted cell phone, cable television, TiVo or Netflix.  Find alternatives or other ways to occupy your time.  It may seem impossible now but you can live without these things.

Get Out of Debt: You can’t be financially independent when you’re in debt.  Get out, get out, get out! By adopting a frugal lifestyle, the extra money you’re able to save can be applied towards eliminating your debt.  After you’ve saved up enough money to cover six months of living expenses, every penny should be thrown at your debt.

Save: Once you’ve paid off the last of your debt it’s time to save like never before.  It may take you a few years, maybe even ten or 15, to save enough money to become financially independent but that’s better than 45 years!

Invest: This is where the magic is!  With the money you’ve saved, you can invest it into conservative investment vehicles which will pay you interest in fixed intervals over a specific length of time.  If you’ve saved and invested enough, this interest will cover all of your monthly expenses.  Now your money is working for you, not the other way around!

If you’d like to learn more about the process outlined above, I recommend checking out the book Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez.

How Did We Get Here?

"Thrift Shopping" by philbonnell @ FlickrIn my continuing exploration of thrift I oftentimes find myself wondering how we’ve gotten to where we are today.  As a nation, we used to place an emphasis on the virtues of hard work, thrift and frugality.  We took pride in our possessions.  Today we consume twice as much as we used to 50 years ago however our Gross National Happiness has continued to decline during that time period. 

It all begins at the end of World War II when a push towards television advertising changed the way advertisers campaigned for business.  By 1955 there were 30 million household with television sets.  Advertisers now had a captive audience which it could work to sell a generalized perception of consumption.  It worked to sell a higher standard of living.

What does all of this mean?  According to Victor Lebow’s 1955 article in the Journal of Retailing titled “Price Competition in 1955″:

The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats…”

 We’ve been sold this idea of success through years of intentional marketing.  For decades businesses have been working to create social pressure in order to get us to conform to the standards which they have defined in order to sell us their products.  We’ve been taught that in order to be accepted by society we must consume.  Each day we are the targets of 3,000 advertisements telling us to eat here, drive this car, wear these clothes.   

Marilyn Manson discusses how the media creates fear which in turn causes us to consume:

…You’re watching television, you’re watching the news; you’re being pumped full of fear…There’s floods, there’s AIDS, there’s murder…Cut to commercial;  buy the Acura, buy the Colgate.  If you have bad breath, they’re not gonna talk to you.  If you got pimples, the girl’s not gonna fuck you.  It’s a campaign of fear and consumption.  And that’s what I think it’s all based on; [this] whole idea [of]: ‘Keep everyone afraid, and they’ll consume.'”

For more than half a century we have been sold this story of conformity through consumption.  It is no surprise how our society today values material possessions far more than we did even 50 years ago.  Ironically, if there were to be a widespread conversion back to thrift and frugality, our economy would suffer.  This is called the Paradox of Thrift.  Our economy is set up on the basis that we will consume at a certain level, and if there is a shift towards frugality on a widespread scale, the economy will retract.  Sound familiar?  Its what is happening today.

The problem is that our spending rate is not sustainable and we must return to a more frugal way of life.  Of course, no one is going to tell you that you need to save your money.  As a matter of fact, most people will tell you to spend in order to boost the economy.  These people are not concerned with the long-term viability of our economy.  They are more concerned with boosting the numbers of the market today.

Now is a great time for us to return to the values of our grandparents; things like thrift, frugality and being thankful for what we have instead of concerning ourselves with what we don’t.

Frugal for All the Right Reasons

"Endless Travel" by buggee @ FlickrMany people think that frugality means a person is a tightwad, boring or self-righteous.  There is a perception that a person cannot be fun or exciting if they chose to spend money thoughtfully instead of frivolously.  A frugal person may not coalesce in a circle of friends which finds itself socializing over drinks at an expensive lounge, however, this does not reduce that person to a boring stiff.  It only means that their priorities are in different places.

For me, frugality is all about living in harmony with my values, my environment and my finances.

The way we are treating the planet frightens me. We have an ocean being choked by our discarded plastics, polar ice caps which are disappearing, and Air Quality Alerts have become as common as Thunderstorm Warnings.  Frugality allows me to eliminate the volume of stuff which passes through my hands and into a landfill by not buying it in the first place.

I haven’t always had this perspective about waste. I used to be a super-consumer, buying everything I could get my hands on. There was an insatiable desire for stuff. I never had enough and always needed more.  As I began to analyze my life and my priorities with more scrutiny I learned that I was not directing my finances in ways which were conducive to my values.

I would always talk about wanting to travel around the world, but instead of saving for a plane ticket, I would buy a DVD. Instead of getting my passport, I would spend the money on clothing. I knew what my priorities were, but because I wasn’t aligning my spending with them, it was likely that I would never accomplish anything I wanted to.

Eventually I realized that by spending frivolously I was blocking my own success. I was living paycheck to paycheck because I was spending as fast as the money would come into my hands.  When I stopped spending my money on things which provided my life with no value I began accomplishing my goal of travel. 

My first travels were short camping excursions to the Rocky Mountains and extended weekend trips to other places I’ve always wanted to see like Niagara Falls and Washington, DC.  As I continued directing my finances in ways conducive to my goals, the trips began getting longer and further away.  My first major international trip was to Argentina for 2 weeks and about 6 months later I was off to Aruba for a 2 week vacation in the sand and sun.  Now I’m looking forward to 9 days in the Las Vegas area at the end of May.

The same people who may consider my frugality boring often tell me they wish that they could afford to travel as often as I am able to.  They seem to think I hold some sort of secret that I’m not letting them in on but the truth of the matter is that I prioritize my time and money in ways which allow me to achieve my goals.