Where do people learn to say “Neener neener neener”? Who was the first person to actually say that to someone? It could so easily have gone the other way - someone looks at someone and says “neener neener neener” and the other person just looks back and says, “Huh? I don’t understand what you said.” Or, “Stop trying to make ‘neener neener neener’ a thing.” It spread so quickly because it’s just the most effective way to taunt people. There will probably be drone toys at some point that will play robot keep-away with us, while going ‘neener neener’ in a digital monotone. Anyway. There are a lot of flippant formulaic responses of this nature, phrases that are used to dismiss or refute what someone is saying. One of these phrases from my childhood was “How does it feel to want?”
Ice cream truck drives up the street
Child: Uh! I want ice cream!
Adult: How does it feel to want?
Child: I want ice cream!
Adult: Yeah, well, I want a million dollars.
Child: I wish I had some ice cream.
Adult: Wish in one hand, spit in the other, which one fills up first?
This is the demographic reality. For anyone below the economic median, one of the most vital lessons an adult can teach a child is how to deal with frustrated desires. Stoicism 101. You just have to learn to deal. Disappointment is your lot in life. Once you can learn that ice cream is for everyone but you, you can start to find inner strength and grit and the pride of being above that sort of thing. Right? This is why kids in my milieu got the “how does it feel to want?” message from random adults, not just parents or relatives.
While it’s true that chasing after every ice cream truck would be really distracting, and that deferred gratification is one of the fundamentals of adulting, let’s go into this a bit more.
How does it feel to want?
Usually when I think I want ice cream, what I really want is something else. Joy. Rewards. Validation. A shared social experience. Distraction. Escape. It’s not usually just that I want to stimulate my tongue. Surely I’ve realized by now that only the first three bites really taste like anything.
The other thing about ice cream as an example is that it’s something I can get 24 hours a day for about a dollar. I can keep ice cream in my freezer - I can fill my entire freezer with ice cream if I like - and I can get up and eat a bite of it every 20 minutes if I so please. So what?
What could possibly, possibly be more boring than a life of total hedonism?
We ought to be wanting more. Something bigger. Something that a six-year-old probably wouldn’t think of. Such as: I want to build my own sailboat, take sailing lessons, and sail around the world.
Actually, wait. That kind of does sound like something a six-year-old might want.
Kids are better at big dreams than we are. Another way to put that is that we start out with vast amazing dreams, and they’re trained out of us. We’re carefully taught to quit thinking that we could actually have that, live that, be that. It’s selfish and delusional! Give up already! Who do you think you are??
Aw, don’t cry. Have an ice cream.
The truth is that people’s dreams tend to be tragically under-wrought. We get stuck on “lose weight” and “get organized” and “pay off debt.” Yeah, and then what? You could do all three of those things in one calendar year if you wanted. You could completely empty a hoarded three-story house, lose a hundred pounds, and pay off $50,000 in debt if you decided to do it. What are you going to do the year after that?
What would you ask for if the fairies came and told you your wishes would all be granted?
So you want to lose weight. If you woke up tomorrow with the body of an Olympic gold medalist, what would you do?
So you want to get organized. If you woke up tomorrow and learned you had won an executive assistant, professional organizer, interior designer, chef, maid, and chauffeur for life, what would you do?
So you want to pay off your debts. If you woke up tomorrow and, instead of debt, that number was your cash balance, what would you do?
What would you do with unlimited strength, vitality, mental clarity, and financial wealth?
What a bummer it would be! Because what I really, really want most of all is for someone to listen raptly while I share the minute details of why I Am Annoyed or That Person Hurt My Feelings.
It’s even harder to image the possibilities there. What if I woke up tomorrow and people didn’t annoy me anymore? Not that they learned to behave themselves, because come on, that’s never going to happen. Just that when people got up to shenanigans, it didn’t bother me anymore. What if people kept saying rude things the way they do, refusing to keep their commitments the way they do, and it just rolled off my back? What if I found that I no longer reacted to emotional bombardment?
I’ve been practicing wanting more, and it’s really hard. It’s hard to come up with ideas. Basically right now I’m stuck on “buy new socks when I wear holes in the toes of my old socks without feeling guilty about it.” When I turn on the fantasy faucet and try out different images, I keep getting stuck on stuff that involves someone waiting on me, which I reject. Other people adore being waited on: getting manicures or spa treatments, breakfast in bed, having drinks brought to them. I have to train myself not to let my resistance to this feeling block my imagination from thinking of desirable things that don’t involve over-the-top service.
What would be some things I could want?
To be better at wildlife photography, which probably means buying a better camera and spending more time in nature
To be fluent in a foreign language, which means restructuring my schedule and giving myself half an hour a day. And then finding someone who doesn’t speak English and talking to them.
To spend time just staring at the ceiling and listening to music, the way I did quite naturally as a teenager
Yep. Those are things I can allow myself to want, things that are in my reach right now. To look at that list reminds me that I don’t direct my time toward my dreams. I spend so much of it in passive entertainment or rehashing the events of the day or grumbling about what is in my life that I don’t want. I can’t push myself to want things that I can’t imagine, things that would be so awesome that they would upend my entire sense of who I am.
What else could I want? To fit in and feel comfortable in a higher stratum than I ever had before? To feel more like myself in a stronger, more active body than I’ve ever experienced? To feel confident and powerful whenever I think about my finances? To feel the drive to move toward my goals and steamroll right over my anxiety and lack of assurance? To feel compassion or amusement instead of frustration with other people? Could I actually want to feel like I really have free will? The hardest thing to want is to want total accountability, the responsibility to create our own conditions. It’s hard to want the choice.
First there’s the underwear money. Then there’s the go-bag money. Then there’s the money in the safe. Then there’s the change jar. Then there’s the actual savings account. If you can keep track of all that, then great! You absolutely have the aptitude for financial independence.
When you’re broke, saving money isn’t always possible. I’ve been in the unenviable position of having two roommates and still paying more than half of my income in rent. In fact, in the first month of my life as an independent adult, I earned $300 net and my rent was… $300. Tricky. Why I still love potatoes and oatmeal is something of a mystery. The most important two things when you are that broke, potato-with-no-butter broke, are to keep planning for an easier future and to figure out some side gigs.
When you’re broke, it’s even more important to plan for the future than it is for everyone else. Why? Because if you always live hand to mouth, if every penny is already claimed before you even earn it, then there’s nothing left for Future You. Future You will be exactly like Present You, except old and exhausted and probably unemployable and also probably frail and ill. Imagine being so tired you physically can’t even get up a flight of stairs, and then imagine that Present You plans to force Future Old You to commute to work every day. Come on. That’s not going to work. Saving money is not optional. You have to figure it out.
Okay, let’s cheer up a bit and assume that you already are prosperous enough to be able to save some money. The great thing is that the more you learn about finance, the more money you wind up having, and the easier your life gets. The more money you have, the more nice things you can do for other people. Yay money!
Savings is a cushion. The main purpose of a savings account is to have money ready for an emergency. Interestingly enough, the way we define “emergency” tends to change depending on circumstances. New tires? A new transmission? Veterinary surgery? The goal is to have enough of a savings cushion to avoid putting unanticipated emergency expenses on a credit card.
A shocking survey came out in 2016 indicating that nearly half of Americans couldn’t come up with $400 in an emergency. That was true for me up until, say, 2005. I wouldn’t even have been able to do it with a credit card prior to 1997. I completely get what it’s like to be flat broke. It sucks. Stop doing it.
I started working for money when I was 10 years old. The lightbulb went on. If I took the opportunity to babysit or do any other random cash-generating activity I could think of, I could BUY THINGS. The first time I bought myself my own restaurant meal, I took $5 down the street to Charburger and bought a cheeseburger, fries, a drink, and a hot fudge sundae. It was magnificent. I couldn’t do algebra yet, but I could earn nice green dollars and use them for lifestyle upgrades. I used to have a little tin with a cat on it where I stashed my babysitting money. I was poor for a long time, but I did always believe in that power to go out and hustle up small amounts of cash.
The only problem was that it never occurred to me to wonder whether there was an upper limit. What if I could earn… more?
This is where the concept of saving comes in, as opposed to “savings.” A process, not a specific amount in a sock.
Those of us who are savers have generally been taught frugality, either through positive or negative examples. Some of us were trained to respect the power of money, while others stood by and watched some outrageous nonsense and learned about the perils of scarcity mindset through others’ mistakes. Usually, we have not been taught the more abstruse and complicated ways of finance. Personal finance classes in high school do not teach investment as a skill. Apparently many of us aren’t even getting the basics of consumer finance, like how to balance a checkbook or plan a budget. Much less are we taught how to build a financial empire.
The difference between “saving” and “savings” is that “savings” means whatever specific dollar amount you have put away. For many people, there’s an explicit goal. If I have X amount, then we’re okay, and if we need to spend it for some reason, then we need to tighten our belts for a while until we build it back up. This is great. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always include the sense that this savings cushion can and should be steadily increasing. A savings cushion doesn’t always include the idea that we can and should only live on a certain percentage of our earnings, setting aside as much as we can for Future Us.
Most people don’t spend every penny they earn. They spend every penny they earn AND a bunch of what they think Future Self will earn! If stuff is getting put on a credit card, then we’re spending the future.
It’s kind of like this.
Spend 101% = debtor
Spend 100% = accident waiting to happen
Spend 90% = keep going
Spend 65% = my husband and me
Spend 37% = Mr. Money Mustache
Having a savings account is fantastic. If you have one at all, good. Apparently, if you have $400 in it, you’re already better off than half of your fellow Americans. You like that savings account? It makes you feel a sense of security and satisfaction? Nice? Nice? Okay, let’s peek ahead and see how many other kinds of savings accounts there are. I know you’ll like them, too.
Scattered coins all over the place. You’re “one of mine” and your finances are a disaster.
Change jar. The secret code that tells me your household makes too many cash purchases that aren’t being tracked.
Underwear money. The place where you hide cash in your house for just in case.
Savings account. Basically a way to protect yourself if you overdraw your checking account. If you’re earning as much as 1.5% interest in your savings account, that’s amazing but wow, can we do better than that.
Holiday and taxes account. I had one of these at my credit union when I got divorced, and I had literally forgotten about it because it only had quarterly statements. When I realized I had another $1200 put away, I almost fell over in the street. It’s a kind of account where you can only take the money out twice a year, and it earns more interest than a regular savings account.
CD, or certificate of deposit. Funny how many people have actual CDs, or compact discs, but not “the good kind.” Rates vary depending on how much you’re saving and how long you’re planning to leave it in the account, but basically you can get 2% interest. Some people make a “ladder” out of CDs that come due at different dates.
IRA, or individual retirement arrangement. (Trust me, I looked it up just now). This is a way to save money for retirement. There are two kinds, one where you put in the money pre-tax and pay taxes when you take the money out, and the other where you take it out of your net income so the taxes are already paid. Not everyone can use IRAs because there’s an earnings cap. Basically, you can do $5500, more if you’re over 50. That’s about $100 a week. You don’t have to have the full $5500 to do it, though. Even if you can only save $100 a year, you can still open an IRA account. There aren’t any requirements that you keep putting money in or anything like that. This is a way to put money in the stock market.
401(k) or whatever. This is the retirement savings they set up for you at work. It’s the way most people start investing in the stock market. Some companies offer a match up to a certain percentage of your income, and there are a lot of wild and crazy, spontaneous party animals out there who turn their noses up at this free money every year. “We’ll give you thousands of extra dollars if you fill out this form and get slightly less in your net paycheck.” “NO”
There are tons of other financial investment vehicles out there. If you get to that point, study carefully, because everybody wants to get their beak wet. All that nice money, and someone always wants to carve out a percent for themselves. Although, of course, that’s certainly a poor reason to avoid saving and investing.
Saving money means trust in a better future. It means I don’t have to spend every penny today, because there will be plenty more in the future. I’m not missing out on anything, I’m gaining, because my money will get together in the dark with all the other money (just like wire clothes hangers) and start getting friendly. The reason more people don’t save and invest is because we think it’s just sitting there, like pennies in a jar. We’d be more excited about it if we realized that investment is more like Tribbles or dandelions. Every time you turn around, it’s turned into more and more.
We sold our car back to the dealership in March. Living in Southern California without owning a car has been much easier than we had anticipated. We’re leveling up our skills by setting out on a backpacking expedition without organizing transportation from the airport to the park. Yes, it’s those crazy Denhams doing the wing-it method again.
My husband and I are very efficient with our travel anxiety. That is to say, we worry about completely different things. My major area of worry is cleaning our place top to bottom before we leave. His is wanting to be at the airport three hours early. My second worry is what we’re going to eat, and his is figuring out how to find our destination on the map.
On this trip, we have a couple of extra complications. None of the campgrounds accept reservations, and we haven’t booked a way to cover the 45 miles from our hotel in Jackson Hole to our desired campsite in the Grand Tetons, Colter Bay. I think we’ll be fine because if the campsite is full, we can always just get a backcountry permit. He thinks we’ll be fine because we can just take a Lyft.
We’re both wrong.
We have no trouble getting a shuttle from the airport to our hotel. There’s one waiting outside. We inquire whether the shuttle service might take us to Colter Bay the next day, and take their business card just in case our ride-sharing plan doesn’t work out. Prescient.
When we check in, almost two hours late due to our plane being stuck on the tarmac, we find that we’re only about a mile from a natural foods store. We’re able to walk there and pick up the next day’s lunch and some tea and trail mix before they close for the night. We’ve brought oatmeal packets for breakfast and freeze-dried meals for lunches and dinners. If all else fails, we have enough calories for the week, but we’re hoping to supplement our meals with fresh produce from the campsite general store.
The next day I am exhausted and refuse to follow the plan of waking up at 6 AM to get to the campsite as early as possible. Whether this is a disastrous mistake or not would be hard to say.
For all my skill with travel logistics, I’m so useless, slow, and dopey in the morning that I’m surprised nobody has left me behind yet.
We dress quickly and haul our forty-pound hockey bags down the hotel stairs. No Lyfts answer our call. This makes sense, because a Lyft driver would be stuck with a 45-mile return trip and basically zero chance of picking up fresh passengers. We’re left with the shuttle service we used the previous night. They quote us $120, which is fine.
We could have rented an economy car for as low as $108 a week, assuming no surge pricing, but we would have had to pay insurance and gas as well. Since we got rid of our car, we also got rid of our car insurance. I once paid for supplemental insurance on a rental car, and it cost equally as much as the daily rate for the car. That’s when I actually carried my own car insurance. We don’t have roadside assistance anymore, either. We’re heading into bear country, probably on non-sanctioned terrain, so who knows what fine print we might be activating. We have basically no trust when it comes to businesses that make so much of their revenue off the dingers and add-ons and surcharges.
There are externalities to renting a car, just as there are to owning one:
Picking it up and dropping it off
Gassing it up before drop-off, which in this case would mean an extra 16-mile round trip, or paying a surcharge
Risk of collision. Greater than zero probability, non-trivial amount of hassle for out-of-state travelers
In comparison, there are side benefits to hiring a driver:
More experienced driver operates the vehicle
Knows where everything is in the area
Can offer advice and recommendations
Points out wildlife and scenic attractions
Shares local gossip and cultural context
In case of collision, driver does the paperwork
Ditto traffic citations
(I have a thing about jobs that allow the employee at least some agency, like having control over their schedule or not having a dress code).
We need to pick up some bear spray, and the driver obligingly swings by the outdoor store (which would not have been open if we had woken up on schedule, just saying…) It’s a breathtaking $40, but it costs $50 inside the park, and that’s still a lot cheaper than a new cranium or a skin graft.
When we arrive at the entrance to the National Park, there’s a $30 fee, which we pay. A short time later, we arrive at the Colter Bay campground, only to find a sign that says FULL. Uh-oh. There are two men in uniform blocking the road and waving people on. The shuttle driver is understandably nervous.
WELCOME TO THE PLACE OF UNCERTAINTY!
We ask the driver to wait while we go to the campsite office. Not only is Colter Bay full, but… every campground for forty miles is full. In other words, the entire National Park is full. Yay. We ask about backcountry permits, my hole card. It turns out that I have completely misunderstood how this works. My impression has been that if you are backpacking, and you have a permit, you can put your tent down anywhere that makes sense. The purpose of the permit is to limit the number of people inside the park at any one time, while also providing a record of your presence in case you fall into a crevasse or something.
Ignore everything I just said, because I am ignorant and my brain is full of… soggy bow tie pasta.
Evidently, in Grand Teton National Park, a backcountry permit allows a limited number of people to camp within the confines of a primitive campsite, many miles away from where we are currently standing. We could get the permit, we could go, but we’d have to hike ten miles in (and out), and we’d be on our own in grizzly territory. The other option is to drive 25 miles and camp in the nearby National Forest, where the rules are different.
My husband turns to me. “We’re screwed.”
This is totally, 100% my fault. I’m the one who did the “research” on this. At this point, I’m the one with more backpacking experience in multiple states (and countries). I’m the one who insisted on lounging around like a primadonna when we should have gotten up early like we planned. This is the moment in the Place of Uncertainty when I start the internal wail, “I WANT MY DAAA-AAAA-AAAAAD!” (A dad who would have exactly no sympathy for a problem created by my sleeping in and lack of punctuality).
We trudge back to the van, preparing to negotiate with our mostly-patient shuttle driver.
One of the three women from the information booth runs out after us. She wants to brainstorm with us a bit more. Once we put it out there that we are backpackers who arrived in a taxi, we have buy-in. We’re morons, but we’re sympathetic morons. At least we have novelty value.
It turns out that we’ve all been speaking at cross purposes. What we want is known as a “hiker-biker” spot, which is available to us because we don’t need to park a car. This is a totally different beast from the “backcountry permit” we were requesting. Somehow the part about “it’s just us and these backpacks” fell through the cracks. Jargon. The website also uses the term “walk-in,” which I assume means the same as “hiker-biker” rather than the occult meaning of a spirit taking over someone’s body. Which, hold that thought while I take notes, because that would make a rad horror film. “Walk-In of the Woods.”
We go back to the driver to keep him updated, and my husband trots off to talk to the campsite road block crew. I run after him, struggling to keep up in my new boots.
THE SIGN IS GONE.
Check-out time is 11 AM, and some of the campsites that were full when we arrived are now available.
We’ll never know now whether we would have had a simpler time by arriving an hour earlier or arriving half an hour later.
We merrily book our campsite for six days, planning to check out the morning after the eclipse. Campsites can be booked for 14 days. We can’t know for sure, but it’s highly likely that if we had waited even one more day, we wouldn’t have been able to get in. We pay $30 a day, which is pretty darn cheap for a vacation.
We send the driver home. He’s added an extra $20 for the side trip to the outdoor store and the half-hour wait at the campsite. We tip him an additional $20, for a total of $160. We confirm that we can call someone to drive back and pick us up on Tuesday.
The campsite at Colter Bay! We have wi-fi. We have electrical outlets. We have showers with no shower timers. We have laundry facilities. We have campfires. The general store has actual fresh cruciferous vegetables - and guacamole - and cashew ice cream. The only thing that qualifies this trip as “camping,” besides sleeping in a tent, is that a mosquito bites me on the butt the minute we walk into our campsite.
We have a magnificent time, a topic for another post. We see the eclipse in a cloud-free sky. We pack up to go home. We give the unused $40 bear spray to a lucky contestant who is checking in. We try to pay a couple of guys $100 to ride back to town with them, but one is going the wrong way and the other only has two seats. The shuttle driver shows up about two hours after we call. The trip back costs $150. Total: $310.
Would we have saved money by renting a car rather than paying a shuttle service? Probably. It depends on the insurance question and the gas mileage. Would there have been any rental cars available? Who knows? Would we have been able to get a campsite at Colter Bay if we had brought a car? No, definitely not. I’m going to claim that we broke even. Considering that the hotel and the plane tickets only cost us reward points, we’d rather splurge and not have to bother with the rental car hassle. Oh, and there’s that whole thing about no longer paying $600/month to own our own vehicle…
We were able to do this trip for a bunch of serendipitous reasons. I stumbled across an article about the eclipse about a year in advance, and since my husband happened to be sitting right there, I asked him what he thought about it. The date fell near our wedding anniversary, so we agreed that a trip to see the totality would be fun. It was too soon to book tickets, so I set a reminder to buy them in January. On New Year’s Day, we spent about an hour planning the trip. We were able to book plane tickets AND the bookend hotel dates using reward points. Get this. I got THE LAST available room at the Hampton Inn. That was how we determined the start date of our trip. We had no idea that Jackson Hole, Wyoming in general and the Grand Tetons in particular would be such a popular viewing location for the totality. It’s basically unfair that we were able to get in. That we paid for it with points is… well, that part is gloat-worthy.
So, we did it. We took a taxi to the wilderness and back again. We’ve been car-free for six months. We have no plans to buy a replacement vehicle at this time. It’s unlikely we’ll rent a car, either. Now that we’ve pulled off this caper, we’re broadening our expectations of what we can do and where we can go, leaving the driving to someone else.
Guess what? Chris Guillebeau has a new book coming out! I got an advance copy for attending World Domination Summit this year, which was quite gracious. It’s called Side Hustle: From Idea to Income in 27 Days. If you’re a fan like I am, you already know that Chris started a daily podcast this year called Side Hustle School. While the podcast features brief profiles of successful side hustlers, the book is more of a handbook on how it’s done.
What I like best about the Guillebeau approach is that he focuses on the practical rather than the merely motivational. People are doing this, they’re doing it every single day, and it’s easier than we think. We just need to implement our ideas. “Inspiration is good, but inspiration with action is so much better.”
Side gigs are everywhere these days. Recently, I’ve paid side hustlers to drive me through Lyft, let me sleep at their house through AirBnB, and deliver my groceries through Instacart. We were just in Jackson, Wyoming, where we used a shuttle service run by a group of young Ukrainian guys who like to ski. It’s a double-edged sword; in one sense, it’s scary to think how little some of these gigs must pay, but in another sense, it’s also exciting to think how low the bar is for someone to just wake up one morning and decide to start bringing in more money. What Side Hustle can do is to teach someone to think of more and better ways to bring in more and better money.
I started babysitting when I was ten, and it didn’t occur to me that I could quit until I was in my mid-thirties. While I was in college, I also cleaned houses, took in mending from other students, edited papers (for trade), house-sat, took notes for a deaf student, did transcriptions, dealt in consignment clothes and used books, and of course I had a work-study job on top of my regular quarter-time job. I used to say I had five streams of income in school, and I just realized it was actually more! When you’re in the hustle mindset, you just step up and act on whatever money-making propositions cross your mind.
When you’re rich, they call it “multiple streams of income.” When you’re poor, it’s just your reality. I’ve learned that middle-class people are the only people who rely on one single job. That always felt precarious and threatening to me, the thought that if I got laid off, I wouldn’t be able to make my rent. Side hustles, as Chris frequently emphasizes, are a way to spread that risk and generate independence and security.
This is an approachable, straightforward, well-tested book. Every step has an example of a real person or couple who did it, what the side business is, and how much money it made. There are examples ranging from a few hundred dollars a year to a hundred thousand or more. Side Hustle has something for everyone, and for those of us who want more, there’s the Side Hustle School podcast as a companion.
Side Hustle launches on September 19.
“Laughing all the way to the bank” is an expression I learned from my parents. They are intensely frugal people. When I was a kid, they would say this quite a bit, but mainly in reference to other people. People who had figured out a really easy or very lucrative way to make money were laughing all the way to the bank. It was an ironic, grudgingly admiring comment. I would picture someone grinning, walking down the street in a pinstripe suit, holding a wad of hundred-dollar bills and fanning through them while chortling with glee.
Not such a bad image, is it?
(It’s even funnier if it’s a woman)
The fascinating thing about this concept of people who were laughing all the way to the bank was that it was so contrary to everything else my parents taught me about money. They taught me about the value of Hard Work. They taught me that if you can’t pay in cash, then you can’t afford it. They taught me that credit cards are extremely dangerous. Every time I got in trouble for being disobedient at school, they would tag-team the “when they say JUMP, you say HOW HIGH?” lecture. “If you don’t follow orders, you get fired, and then you don’t get a paycheck, and then you don’t eat!” My parents took money extremely seriously. I don’t recall them laughing on the way to the bank, even one time.
I’m proud of my folks, and justifiably. They’ve been married for nearly 45 years now, never divorced, never married to anyone but each other. They took turns working to put each other through school, got jobs in their chosen professions, and they have indeed worked very, very hard. Their credit scores are off the charts and they’re really good savers.
The thing is, though, that hard work is only one authentic, effective way to make money.
I won $15 in a coloring contest once. That probably sounds like a dumb example. I also won $500 worth of prizes in a costume contest. I’ve won a package of Red Vines, a case of root beer, a $50 gift certificate to a book store, and a bunch of other stuff. I’ve learned that I have a pretty strong intuition about what kinds of contests and raffles I can win, and if I’m interested in the prize, I might.
I have a jar with about $66 in it, all from coins and cash that I found on the ground. Most of it was pennies. Granted, that’s 12 years’ worth of pennies, but I did not work hard for them. Most people won’t pick up a penny, but most people would pick up sixty dollars!
This attitude that winning is easy extends to other areas. Negotiation is one. I once asked for 10% off a furniture purchase, since I was paying in cash, and they agreed to discount me $16. (It was worth more in 1996). I moved into my first apartment without having to pay a deposit. A couple of years ago, we moved out of a rental house and the property managers tried to charge me $150 in cleaning fees. Now, see here! Nobody cleans like me. I wrote them a sternly-worded letter with half a dozen photos attached, and they sent me a full refund the next day. I simply expect that it’s worth my time to ask. I’m friendly, low-maintenance, and easy to please, and I’m a generous tipper. Who wouldn’t want to incentivize my business? Everyone could use more customers like me.
I like to speculate in the stock market. Well, kinda. But I did pick something recently that increased 300% in a year. I wasn’t even expecting it to start making money until the second year! I’ve doubled my money on a few picks. I remember very clearly that fifteen years ago, I didn’t even have forty bucks in my retirement account, and the day I hit three figures I was pretty excited. Woohoo! I can retire for… one entire day! Don’t spend it all in one place, honey. It never ceases to surprise and amaze me that I can earn money just by putting it in a special account and being good at trend analysis. That history degree may pay off one of these days…
Careful readers may have noticed a pattern here. I started with dumb, silly little ways to make tiny amounts of money. Then the payoff started picking up a bit.
I used to work in social services. My entire job was processing paperwork so that people could get a subsidy on their power bill. I helped elderly widows, families with handicapped kids, even a woman on an iron lung who was about to get her power cut off right before a four-day weekend. Sometimes they sent thank-you notes or candy. Sometimes they called in tears, saying how grateful they were. I felt like a fairy with a magic wand. There was really nothing hard about that job at all. I knew that my work mattered to people. A couple of times, it’s possible my work was actually a matter of life or death. The faster I typed, the faster the checks went out. Working your values is more than fun, it’s addictive.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of laughing all the way to the bank. What if it were possible to make a living off hilarity? For instance, I start laughing if I even see or think about Steve Martin. He doesn’t even have to do anything; he can just stand there. I hope he makes tons of money and spends it on all his favorite stuff any time he wants. He deserves it. When I think of all my favorite authors and musicians and actors, I want them to do well. I want them to feel happy and proud. I want them to be in a good mood so they work on more projects that I can enjoy. (George R. R. Martin! Hi there! Would you be perhaps needing any fan letters or pizza deliveries? Anything I can do for ya?).
What if, though, what if this was also true for me?
What if I could contribute to the world in such a way that people rooted for my success? What if society generally agreed that I deserved my compensation, even at a high level?
I’m playing with this idea. What if I made things that were fun to make, and people had fun buying and interacting with them, and then I had fun spending the money? What if people paid for stuff because they wanted to endorse it and encourage more of the same? What if financial transactions really meant Yes Please?
What if I, too, got to laugh all the way to the bank?
“Yeah, but we have kids.” So many parents believe that their children limit what they can do that I’m always super-excited to be able to share examples of other parents whose kids are thriving while they do whatever it is. Tsh Oxenreider gives us an epic vision of alternative parenting in which kids can be At Home in the World.
The Oxenreiders decided to take off and travel the world for nine months, an entire school year. At the time, their kids were 9, 6, and 4. One of them is on the autism spectrum. If you can think of a more compelling case for the contention that “if they can do it, anyone can,” I’d love to hear about it! While this poetic travelogue includes plenty of gory details about the kids complaining, leaving their stuff behind on like every possible mode of transportation, and inconveniently barfing, overall it seems nearly as manageable as any local road trip. Kids adjust. That was the point of the trip: to teach the kids about the world. The earlier they could learn to travel and adapt to changing circumstances, the more interesting their lives would be.
How did they do it? They SOLD THEIR HOUSE and put their stuff in a storage locker. During this round-the-world trip, the Oxenreiders were technically homeless, which was sort of the point. They had to try to find internet in some pretty obscure places in order to run their business affairs. They home-schooled the kids, who had to try to do their homework anywhere and everywhere. They stayed on a strict budget, often staying with internet friends. They walked a lot and ate as frugally as they could manage. There is enough budget detail here to make it plausible that families of limited means could still pull off a feat like this. The technical details are present, yet not the main focus of the story.
A memorable detail for me was the story of the Westbrook Effect. A family demonstrates intense hospitality to the Oxenreiders, picking them up from the airport and rolling out the red carpet for them in every way they can. The Oxenreiders are overwhelmed, protesting that they shouldn’t go to so much trouble. They explain that they are paying forward hospitality they themselves received, and that after experiencing the Westbrook Effect, they determined to do it themselves whenever they had guests. This is an idea that deserves to be spread, and it’s a fine argument in itself for reading At Home in the World.
Oxenreider writes beautifully. Her glory is in the fine, quotidian details of what makes each city unique. There is a stillness in the flurry. Reading her accounts of the homes where her family roosts so briefly makes it feel impossible not to travel, not to throw caution to the winds and book the tickets tomorrow. At Home in the World is a meditation on how to balance a sense of home with an unquenchable wanderlust. As such, it has much to offer both homebodies and inveterate wanderers.
Cinderella never really fit in. She got her prince, but he liked her best when she was either singing or silent. She didn’t catch all the references and cultural allusions at state dinners. Graceful as she was, she never really nailed the protocol. Sometimes, when they were alone, she’d get moody and start reminiscing about her past, and though he tried to be sympathetic at first, it started to wear on him. It seemed that no matter what he said, no matter how many dazzling gowns and jewels he bought her, no matter how many servants she had to wait on her hand and foot, he could never really dispel her melancholy. He caught her chatting with a scullery maid one afternoon. She didn’t really have any friends in the palace. Cinderella, lovely, lonely, and bored.
Crossing socioeconomic boundaries, in either direction, is an under-explored emotional challenge. Oh, sure, there are always plenty of stories about people who formerly had money or nice homes, only to have the rug pulled out from under them after a financial setback. What we’re missing are the stories of those of us who have risen past our original level. Nobody tells us that it can be confusing or that we may have negative feelings about it.
Survivor guilt is a real thing. It holds us back. We feel guilty if we are more financially successful than our parents, if we go farther in school, if we wind up living in a nicer home. This can come from external sources as well, if siblings or extended family start calling and dropping by with their hands outstretched.
For the record, my brothers are both extremely hardworking, and neither of them has asked for a nickel since maybe the age of eight. Our parents did a stellar job of raising frugal, industrious kids. One of my main drivers toward success is the desire to compete with my brothers, who have in fact mocked me and laughed until they fell over sideways when I was underemployed and struggling. “Do you want a ride in the WAAAAAmbulance? How about a whaaaaburger and French cries?” Everyone should be so lucky.
Seriously, familial attitudes about money go bone deep. Most of us probably aren’t even aware of the messages we carry around about how money works, how the economy supposedly works, and what exactly constitutes a work ethic. The same is true about what marriage means, how to raise kids, how to eat, how to clean house, what are acceptable house rules for Monopoly, whether a gentleman may wear a short-sleeved button-down shirt to a wedding, and a million other things.
Scarcity mindset clamps on like the claws of a crab dragging another crab back into the crab pot. Have you seen this? A dog will help another dog get through a hole in the fence, but crabs will unite to drag a brave escapee back into the bucket. If you know what I mean by this, then you know what I mean.
It’s hard to go back to the old neighborhood. Everything looks so small and shabby. Then it gets into you. It gets in like an evil fog, that feeling of how things used to be, and then you have to go home and look at your new life with old eyes, the perspective of everyone else in your old stomping grounds.
I was at the DMV one day, coincidentally the same one where I got my first provisional driver’s permit (first of three). For some reason, someone in line said something positive about Californians, and the guy behind me in line said, “Yeah, but they’re arrogant though.” This was a mind-bending moment for me. I felt recognition and total sympathy with what the guy was saying, while also instantly judging his clothes, his personal hygiene, and his teeth. Arrogance is what happens when your car runs reliably, you can afford to go to the dentist, and none of your clothes or shoes have holes in them. I mean, yes, there is arrogance in that, and even as I say it, I feel the heartlessness of it. Having everything in your life work correctly without constant obstacles could be the baseline for everyone in the world, but instead, it’s pretty much upper-middle-class. (Middle class is the same thing, only with debt and no retirement savings).
I remember. Every appliance and piece of plumbing has a chip or a dent or a malfunction, or all three. Nothing matches. Everything is broken down. If it isn’t melted, scratched, or crooked, it’s held together with duct tape or JB Weld. You just keep your head down and make do the best you can. Eat it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.
Being the crab who crawls out of the crab pot isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. (See what I did there). You feel bad for the other crabs. You’re also outside of the crab pot, alone, with no crab friends to drag you down all the time.
The thing is, whatever compassion and guilt we may feel for anyone who gets left behind, sabotaging our own success won’t help them. Succeeding is what helps them. First off, we stop being the one who needs to be bailed out all the time. It’s worth doing anything that means you aren’t someone else’s problem. We set an example. We develop connections that we can exploit for the benefit of anyone we can help, which middle-class people do as easily as breathing. They call it “networking.” We take point, going ahead down the trail and figuring out how things work in this alien land called Notbrokeistan.
Class means two things: how much money we have, and what values we carry. It’s started changing recently, but most Americans will describe themselves as middle class, whether they earn $20,000 a year or $200,000. I believe this means that most of us mean “I value having a family and a house and a Puritan work ethic.” It’s funny that as I’ve risen up the ladder, I’ve started to see home ownership as a liability and credit as a useful tool, both attitudes that completely mystify almost everyone I know. I never saw myself as middle class when I was poor, so it wasn’t all that difficult to shake off what I always saw as a distinct package of ideas. I see upper-middle-class and upper-class ideas about money as other distinct packages, and poverty ideas, too. They come in sets.
Do you know what’s true about poor people? Poor-poor and homeless-poor? They’re much friendlier than everyone else. They know each other and they stop to say hello. Homeless people keep track of each other and look out for one another. This is part of what makes it difficult to climb out of the crab pot. You “think you’re too good for us” all of a sudden while also never quite figuring out the shibboleths and unwritten rules of the next level.
It’s your duty to rise as high as you can go, and do you know why? Because otherwise you’re taking someone else’s spot. The spot you are in right now IS the highest spot that someone else can reach, at least for now. The minute you jump for the next highest branch, they put out a Help Wanted sign and your successor reaches a hand up. The minute you give notice to your landlord that you’re moving out, they put out a Vacancy sign and the next tenant puts on their happy playlist and starts packing, ready to leave their old place, for which someone else is also waiting. So get out of the way already.
I saw Jeff Goins live in an academy at World Domination Summit, and he gave out copies of Real Artists Don’t Starve to all of the attendees. The list price of the hardcover was almost as much as the ticket price for the academy, making this an act of radical generosity. Either that, or it was a savvy marketing tool, as the book includes a flyer for… wait, what?? What was I just saying? I just looked at the website for Goins’s Tribe Conference and when I saw the lineup of speakers, I sort of lost my mind. Some of my totally favorite writers and artists will be there. Ryan Holiday, Leo Babauta, Marsha Shandur, Jon Acuff, Jonathan Fields, Tsh Oxenreider, I have the worst case of FoMO ever right now. I’m cross-scheduled or I would definitely be finagling to go to this event. Anyway, I started out with a review of Real Artists Don’t Starve, and that’s no time to be distracted thinking of all the successful, prosperous artists whose work I enjoy so much.
One of the main points of this book is that we don’t make art to make money, we make money to make art. The Starving Artist rejects money with a passionate hostility. (In fact, this doesn’t apply only to artists, but to most people with a scarcity mindset). The Thriving Artist understands that money allows for the creation of larger-scale projects. Pause for a moment and think of your favorite musicians, actors, writers, cartoonists, and other artists whom you admire. If they’re financially successful, why are they still working? Obviously it’s because making their art is the most interesting thing they can possibly think of to do with their time. The money means better equipment, higher quality supplies, bigger venues, more elaborate costumes, better sound systems, and the ability to reach a larger audience. We’re fans. This is what we want from our most beloved artists, right? Then why would we deny it to ourselves? We have to accept that it’s fair to bring in money in proportion to the value that we put out in the world.
Art is love. This is why we’re transfixed by it. It’s an outpouring of talent and skill and passion that could never be duplicated by anyone else. It is well and just that the creators of masterpieces, those who have dedicated their lives to their art, should accept as much as we want to give them. For some reason, though, we hesitate to think of ourselves in this context. Oh, sure, my favorite musician should be rich so she can go on tour and come to my city. But me? Sell out? Never.
My husband is an aerospace engineer. We’ve learned from each other that engineering and writing have everything in common: the continual urge to create, the equal need to edit and edit again, the frustration of hovering right at the edge of an insight and having no idea exactly when the missing thought wave will arrive. There are two differences. One, engineers actively seek out extremely critical peer review. Two, nobody ever asks an engineer to do anything for free. We’re pretty sure it never even crosses people’s minds. “Will you design this motor drive for me? It would be good exposure!”
Why isn’t it absurd to ask artists to work for free? Why?
Real Artists Don’t Starve. This is a terrific book by a man who knows whereof he speaks. If he gets his way, we’ll all start respecting our own work, thereby bringing dignity to the profession of working artist. I can’t recommend it enough. Now I need to go back to fantasizing about being at the Tribe Conference… sigh…
I’ve told you about my jar of pennies, right? My fairy money jar? The one that has $66.30 from money I found on the ground? Usually I use my fairy money as an example of savings and possibility thinking. Today I’m going to use it as a negative example of short-sighted thinking and lack of strategy.
Okay, first of all, $66.30 is a lot more money than I would have had in savings during most of my life. I’ve had paychecks that were smaller than that. This is bad. This is supposed to summon up images of being in constant, every-single-second-of-the-day background financial stress. It’s supposed to call up images like the time a panhandler asked me for money, and I unintentionally barked laughter in his face because I didn’t even have 30 cents for a phone call, and his shoes and backpack and jacket were all in better shape than mine. From that perspective of extreme scarcity, $66.30 harvested from gutterpennies is a veritable leprechaun’s fortune.
Here’s the thing about pennies, though. I think pennies make sense to us because we can visualize them. You believe in my jar of pennies because I’ve shown you pictures of it and I talk about it a lot, but also because you’ve seen other people’s jars of pennies. You might even have one. There might well be pennies in your car, on your bookshelves, in your windowsill, on your nightstand and your dresser, and mixed in with the office supplies in your desk drawer. Pennies! They’re a thing!
What we don’t believe in are the big fictitious-feeling numbers we see in print, the numbers on our bills and our paychecks and our tax returns and in all of those news articles about retirement.
It’s this lack of faith in money we can’t see that is the reason we don’t take our savings seriously. Well, that and scarcity mindset and lack of belief in the existence of Future Self. Hey, Future Me! Say hi to the Tooth Fairy and Sasquatch! Hahahahahaha!!!
There’s another reason why we continue and continue and continue to procrastinate about saving for the future. That’s because we truly have no visceral sense of how it works when we invest. If we aren’t investing, and nobody we know is investing, and nobody we know personally knows anything about investing, how could we? Whatever we learned in school about personal finance then becomes about as relevant as whatever we learned about the First Continental Congress or polynomials or the noble gases or something. Just some random useless fact that doesn’t apply to me! “You’ll never use this,” as our motivational math teachers used to tell us, “but it will be on the test.”
I’m going to pull a little example out of my own portfolio. Now, wouldn’t it be great if, when I said ‘my portfolio,’ what I meant was my beautiful artwork? We should be so lucky. If I could draw as well as I can manage my investments, this would be an installation of a graphic novel instead of a blog. I didn’t really know what a portfolio was fifteen years ago, when I started with zero, and my first deposit was in the vicinity of thirty bucks. It hardly seemed relevant. Time has gone by, though, and I’ve started to develop that gut intuition about how investing works, simply by looking at my accounts. I never would have believed it no matter how much I read, because money didn’t apply to me or my life. N/A, not applicable. I was poor, I would always be poor, I would never be able to afford retir… wait a minute, what’s this?
Here’s an example. I bought stock in iRobot a few years back. I bought it contrary to the advice of my husband, because I’m extremely stubborn and because it was my own money that I earned and because I’m more interested in consumer electronics than he is. I bought ten shares, and I doubled my money, and then a few months ago I sold some holdings in some underperforming funds and I bought ten more shares. Now, picture two stacks of cash. In the stack on the right is $1277. In the stack on the left is $826. The stack on the right is my money, from the dollars that I put aside out of my paychecks for eight years. The stack on the left is also my money. It’s the return on my investment in iRobot. I continue to own the twenty shares because I believe that our future is going to be full of chorebots. If my speculations are correct, my shares will continue to grow in value gradually over time. If I guessed wrong, then at some future point, I will probably pull my hair and throw a tantrum about how I should have known to sell high.
Where did that eight hundred bucks come from???
Eight hundred bucks is a lot of pennies. Too many for my fairy jar! In the context of retirement savings, it isn’t much. If you visualize it as stacks of twenty-dollar bills, it ain’t nothing to sneeze at. Anyone would bend over to pick up eight hundred dollars off the sidewalk, am I right? This money came out of the economy. It came out of the weird mystical mojo that surrounds financial transactions like a shiny green aura. It’s like… money rain.
Now, the example of iRobot is unfair and not representative of the full experience of putting money into the stock market. I just like talking about it because it was my own special little decision, against the advice of the smartest person I knew, and I turned out to be right. I could also share about another stock I bought when it was at $2.20, and now it’s at $7, but again, only a fool cherry-picks the prettiest data and ignores the rest. Other examples would be that at time of writing, I am ahead $105.81 on my shares of Whole Foods Market and down $15.49 on Costco. (Those facts are related, and if you read the business press, you know why). It was a good day in the market, though, and I made like $240.
FOR DOING NOTHING.
I have to say, it aggravates the holy heck out of me sometimes. Now I can “”“earn””” (super-extra-sarcasm quotes) more in a day than I used to take home in a week, a week of commuting on the bus and standing on my feet all day and doing menial tasks for people who thought my name was Jennifer.
On the other hand: HEY, FREE MONEY!
Basically, as of right now, for every dollar I put into the market, I have gotten $1.50 back out.
If we’re visualizing this, there’s another stack of hundreds I should tell you about. That’s from dividends. Some, but not all, of my holdings pay a small percentage to shareholders. That’s our “share” of the profits. Dividends are directly deposited into a cash account in my brokerage account. When they add up to enough, once a year or so, I use the money to buy more shares of something. It’s like planting an orange tree that keeps growing oranges, selling a bushel of oranges, and then using the proceeds to buy an avocado tree. Right now I have $177 from dividends, which, in my area, is enough to buy TWO avocado trees!
The first time I realized how much money had been building up in my cash account from dividends over a few years, I was confused and I didn’t understand how it got there. Imagine, mystery money you didn’t even know was yours, just silently appearing in your account.
That’s the difference between saving and investing. When I save money, it just sits where I put it. I do still save money; that’s where my fairy money jar came from. Investing, though, is like putting pennies in a jar, and when you come back, they’re spilling over the sides and more keep bubbling up out of it. It’s a small way of contributing to the economy, putting your money to work to help build things and create jobs. It’s a way of building a better future, for Future You and for others, too.
Money is like a car, and it’s like a car in more than just the obvious ways. The first, most obvious way to compare money to automobiles would be to ask, if my life were a car, what kind would it be? I hate this question because I can’t make myself care about actual cars. You can test this out if you drive me anywhere. When we walk back out to the parking lot, I won’t remember what make or model you drive. Not only that, I won’t even remember what color your car is! I’ll probably remember whether it was a sedan, truck, or van, but other than that, I got nothing. I recognize vehicles by what kind of clutter is hanging around on the floor and seats. That’s another good life metaphor for ya. I travel quite a bit, but the majority of miles I cover do not happen in a car. If I’m not in a plane or on a bus, I’m walking. I say that money is like a car because all it does is help us to get from one place to another.
How can money help you get to where you want to go? That depends on where you want to go, and that raises the question of whether you want to go anywhere at all.
Not everyone does want to go anywhere. This is true in the actual as well as the abstract. Some people loathe traveling. Most people, it transpires, hate change of any sort. Some people are wired in such a way that they feel nostalgia for their old beater cars, even if the rustbucket completely broke down and died and the replacement is a much nicer ride. Gee, I miss having my transmission die and leave me stranded by the side of the road… *sigh* I loved that car…
In those cases, nostalgia comes from the experience of driving the car, of inhabiting it as a sort of auxiliary living room. We love the feeling, or at least the memory of the feeling. The music we played! The feelings of anticipation as we drove toward potential fun! The newfound independence and expanded social opportunities! The way we felt back when we were young, the potential was still mostly unrealized fantasy, and our friends still wanted to hang out. As we get older and more settled, we don’t even feel our relative prosperity. We just notice that once people get into their thirties or older, the invitations to hang out or go to a party or a concert seem to start dwindling. Earning more money, or even just going back to school, can involve a lot of real tradeoffs, mostly in our relationships.
If money is a car, where are we trying to go?
Money can get us to a place of further education. Sometimes that’s a goal in itself, in which case it raises some questions. Living on campus, actually or metaphorically, can be seen as an attempt to sidestep the need for financial transactions (or a vehicle). I remember marveling that I could go days at a time without even thinking about cash, because everything I needed was available on campus. Then the bills started coming due. Future Me (or, actually, Present-Day Me) realizes that the more money I have, the more books and tools and educational opportunities I can afford.
Money can get us into particular neighborhoods. The most significant thing I’ve noticed as I’ve climbed the socioeconomic ladder is that the more money I have, the safer the neighborhood I live in. We can actually have packages delivered while we’re out of town and find them still waiting for us by our front door! The side effect of this is that we rapidly adapt every time we have a lifestyle/neighborhood upgrade. Money removes annoyances more than it adds perks and pleasures. It’s sort of like how driving removes the need to wait at bus stops, although it still includes waiting at stoplights and experiencing every bump and pothole in the road.
Money can help us travel, just like owning a car and having plenty of gas money. Indeed, the more money you have, the farther you can go and the longer you can afford to stay. It turns out that two of the biggest obstacles to travel are being able to take the time off work and, if you have them, paying to have your pets boarded.
Money can fill our time. We can structure our free time around recreational shopping in the same way that we might aimlessly go out for a drive with no destination in mind. In this case, we may be living out the full quota of materialism without any of the benefits of greater earning power.
Money can turn into an identity, just like many people associate their car with their personality. This is another thing I’ve learned as I’ve become more financially prosperous. As far as I can tell, upper-middle-class people spend a great deal of their emotional energy thinking about money. I’ve sat in a hot tub at a five-star hotel listening to another guest rant about food stamps, because yay, that’s exactly what I love to do on vacation. I’ve been subjected to lectures about how I need to learn how to boss my cleaners and landscapers around properly, because otherwise they will “take advantage of me.” (I could have cleaned my own bathroom in less time than one of these conversations dragged on). I’ve been given more advice about which hotels, restaurants, stores, and salons are the best places to spend my money than I even know what to do with. The tenderness with which people list off the specifications of their beloved cars defies description.
Money is at its best when it solves problems. Having a car can solve a lot of problems, like how to carry a bunch of groceries when walking, riding a bike, or taking the bus just won’t cut it. (Having a car can also cause a lot of problems, such as how to pay for new tires or a new transmission when money is tight, two classic examples of how having money makes life easier). So many of our problems and our feelings that we lack options can be solved by the application of more money. “Can’t afford” adequate medical or dental care, educational opportunities, safe neighborhoods, reliable transportation, functional appliances, nutritious food, lifestyle upgrades in general. Being broke is tedious. Money can be like a magic wand or a power tool in its mystical ability to make problems go away.
Many of us associate money with negative traits like greed, or boring other people to death by insisting on such conversational topics as Good Help is So Hard to Find or I Shouldn’t Have to Pay Taxes. It’s helpful when we instead regard money as a means to an end. What is it that we specifically want? A teenager on a bike or a bus usually tends to see a car as FREEDOM made manifest, just something hugely better than the current situation. We don’t have to know exactly where we want to go or what we’ll do when we get there; we can simply focus on that increased power and sense of opportunity that more money can provide.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.