What is a good life? What is it to act with intention on the life you want for yourself? What matters? What doesn’t? When are you thriving? Are you contributing to thriving around you – in your family, community, and the world?
My whole life I have been gnawing on questions like this. And perhaps I have become so accustomed to acting on my answers without any fanfare that I didn’t stop to think it might be useful to anyone else. I don’t know how you are navigating these changing times. I will be transparent here. If it is useful to you, then I am honored. Everyone must come up with their own solutions, and I worry that this will seem self-righteous (which would offend me). So I qualify – again – your answers are yours. Great. Do that. I am not a better or worse person for my choices. I was triggered to write this post by something Vinay Gupta wrote about what he called the “Precariat” or people living on the edge of the capitalistic system. And then by Venkatesh Rao on Ribbon Farm writing about leaving the middle class. So here is my story.
Deep history. I grew up in the country on some acreage my father took a lot of risk in buying. Our money, tied up in land, with four kids on an assistant professor salary was tough. We took to growing our own food, planted an orchard, and avoided any more loans. When my parents did spend money, they bought as high a quality as they could afford. As intellectuals, my parents were considered upper middle class. As income earners, I wouldn’t think so. That said, my home – which my Dad built himself – looked like something in Metropolitan Home. Always ready for a photo. Immaculate. Designed. Elegant.
I never thought too much about the strange dissonance of living in such elegance while never having new clothes and using the dozen toys we had. (My kids have more toys under their bed than I remember having in my entire childhood, but more on that later.) So I guess I have always straddled the middle class by having certain things be high quality, and the rest be either forgone, DIY, or budget. This is what Venkat and others are calling Trading Up.
Early Independence. I started running my own financial life at 13. When my parents divorced that year, they decided the child support checks would go directly to me. I put it in the bank. When I started my sophomore year at 17, I used the money – not only to pay for college myself – but to get an apartment near campus. I was, for the most part, a saver, and I continued the Trading Up approach. It was almost a game to see how long I could make it last. Money was independence. And I was going to make sure I had independence. Then the child support stopped when I turned 18, and I had to shift to earning a living and using my savings.
Anti-Capitalism. By 21, I was in love with a much older man. A theater director. He wasn’t quite a marxist, and said simply that he was anti-capitalist. Consider it personal tutoring in the pitfalls and consequences of capitalism. The world was unveiled for me, as a new narrative about the system and poverty wove into my thinking. I was losing any desire to be rich as I saw that the rich of the past made their money off the poor people’s labor. After eight years of this sort of thinking, I was tired of being in a head space of theory. I needed to see for myself. I left the art world for international finance – the belly of the beast. [If only they had known that I was, at the same time, getting published in a marxist literary journal!]
The Beast. Within a few months, I could see that the income ladder was a drug. The more you got, the more addicted you were to having it and dependent on it. It was never enough. There were so many wonderful and good hearted people around me, who were totally addicted to this drug – money. I decided not to play the game that way. It was 1999. I got married. We were cash poor, house rich on the North side of Chicago. I was making $800 car payments, which would have been enough money to live on each month in the 90s for me when I was in college for a decade. I married a man who had bought a house at 28 and started fixing it up. He was a hoarder too, but he hoarded stuff where I had hoarded money itself. We went to garage sales every weekend and the flea markets too. Most of our disposable income went toward “investments” in goods. I had the feeling that I could have anything I wanted, if I waited for it to show up. Not because we had a lot of money, but because the pricing in this backyard economy was so reasonable. The 1900 square foot house underwent renovations DIY style, while it also began to fill with stuff. We were way ahead of most of our peers in our “adult-like” activities – having kids, house, car. But they had money to have a nightlife. We didn’t. Were we middle class then? I don’t know. Probably, but not in the usual ways. What else would you call it?
Cashing Out. In 2003, we decided to sell. Our second child was born in ’02, and we wanted to be closer to family, get out of the money pit of the house, and real estate was peeking. (If you need help with drywall, wood floors, cabinet installation, siding, painting, etc, I can probably be useful.) We sold for well over twice what we had bought for. It was like finally getting one big check for all the hours over years laboring on the house. We bought a 4000 square foot monster of a house near where my family lived. It needed no work. There was plenty of room for stuff. And 3.5 bathrooms to clean. There were things I loved about it: the dental work, the two story bay window, the master bath. Upper middle class luxury down to the wood trim. We bought it with cash – no mortgage. We paid off any debt. We bought mid-century modern furniture and a home theater. We had landed. We intentionally stepped off the ladder. We hardly needed to make any money at all. 20K would have cleared our living expenses. I ramped up my business (writing and design work), and we focused on our two kids.
Integrity and Guilt. A few things happened in quick order. I was online and began meeting social entrepreneurs. I was writing, for work, about child survival issues in Africa. And my environmental awareness kicked up a notch. I got training as a neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) coach thanks to my core client. My marriage had been struggling for years at this point and finally collapsed. I had a crisis of integrity. Yes, I had felt like everything I had been doing was intentional and aiming toward a good life, but my perspective had been narrow. I went through a massive overhaul toward a much deeper level of integrity. And along with it suffered a great deal of guilt.
The guilt was accompanied by a lot of gratitude, so I never would have spoken of it as guilt at the time. I was grateful for what life had given me. But underneath that was a guilt over the privilege I felt.
I walked away from the house and my marriage. Did I really want another pinball machine when we had 8 arcade games already? Could I raise my children in a house where their own bedroom was the size of entire homes for millions of people in the world? Could I really have my house be the largest part of my carbon footprint? No. I can make it seem clean in hindsight, but it was messy at the time. Lots of learning. Lots of beating myself up over my choices and their outcomes. Lots of feeling that it was all a wicked mess. And the guilt masked as pride at my frugality, haunted me, driving me toward ever greater frugality.
I rented a small apartment. Took only what I needed from my past life. And switched gears in my work and lifestyle. Since 2005, I have lived off 15-25k a year, supplemented in 2010 by the finalizing of my divorce and cashing out of the house. At first my ex just took care of the kids while I worked on my business and paid child support (which fully supported him). My kids now have nearly every video game console made since Atari came out. And most of the games. A near endless supply of movies and music. Every toy they can dream of (just not when it comes out, they have to wait until it shows up at a garage sale). They have such a state of abundance it is hard to come up with things they want or need. They cycle through things in order not to be crowded out of their giant bedrooms.
After 2 years, I decreased his dependence on me, and he started selling all the stuff he had been hoarding all those years. He now seems to make a decent living as a seller on ebay. He lives in the backyard economy. And I have been living in the gift economy. And I feel guilty of that too.
Appearances. The outward appearance of my lifestyle seems vastly richer than my actual living. Trading Up again. I fly to NYC, San Francisco, New York, and Boston regularly – as in about one a month. And sometimes I fly to other places around the world and country. It looks pretty jet-setting. Few would realize that most of this is paid for by clients or other people and that I can travel at far less expense than the usual middle class person. I stay with friends instead of hotels. I avoid taking taxis. I am humble enough to graciously allow others to buy my meals (and then try to treat someone else so I can keep the karmic flow going). I rarely attend an event that I have to pay for. I ask my network to pitch in to help me financially when I need it and can see value for them. I buy organic, fair trade, lifestyle products, but I may hardly eat for several days. I get frustrated when someone in my network asks for my financial support, and I can’t give it when I want to because there is no such thing as “spare” for me now. I can go days without spending money, and I gawk at the goods for sale wondering how anyone else can be buying all this stuff. Or why they would.
I have learned how to stretch resources out. I know how to live a very frugal life - and live it well. I could write a book on how to move to a town and set up a home in 30 days on $150. I could give classes on finding serenity when you don’t know how next month’s few bills will be paid and you have cut everything out that you could.
But I have become so good at it and stopped chasing money so long ago, that I am now at the opposite end of the spectrum. I don’t seem to remember what abundance feels like. I would feel guilty for having it anyway. I don’t feel like I am thriving. I feel like I don’t catalyze abundance in the network around me either, as I use the spare resources I have learned so well to ferret out. I worry that I lessen the resources available to others doing important work.
I don’t think thriving is just about getting beyond the middle class defaults and money-drug-ladder addiction. I don’t think it is about being so frugal that you wither away into nothing. I think thriving is about making more out of less for more people. Life enabling more life. But maybe someone else has a better idea of how to answer it. I need new answers, of that I am sure. I Traded Up a lot. I still need to be mindful not to “Act Dead” too.
Questions. What I wonder now is how I can be responsible with the gifts I have been given? I have talents that are valuable in the world which others would pay to have access to. And I have denied myself and these people those talents for some misbegotten sense that I was acting with integrity by living so frugally and with what I looked at as high standards. I have a great deal of disdain for sales. Even of my own work, even when I think it is very valuable.
I wonder what it would look like to use what I have and earn what I can and be responsible to myself, my family, and my network with what that brings me.
Any suggestions? Some rebalancing would be really useful, before I start selling my furniture in the name of some grand notion of the boot-strapped entrepreneur.