By Donella Meadows
–December 23, 1993–
There’s a subversive little book on the best-seller list, a how-to book with the normal upbeat, chatty, you-can-do-it, here-are-the-stories-of-folks-who-did, how-to tone. If everyone followed this book’s advice, economic life as we know it would be transformed. The nation would be swept by an almost unacceptable wave of happiness. And the world would go a long way toward being saved.
The book is Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. On the surface it’s about money management. How to get out of debt, how to control spending binges, how to get the job you want. That sort of thing.
Not far under the surface the book is about taking control not of your money, but of your time. It’s about buying yourself out of indentured servitude — seeing your life energy as your ultimate and most precious resource and allocating that resource not to what someone is willing to pay you for, or to what someone is trying to sell you, but to your own deepest values.
That’s why this book is not only profound, but subversive.
“FI” is the goal to which Your Money or Your Life leads — financial intelligence, financial integrity, and financial independence. You get there by taking nine steps. I’m not going to tell you all the steps because, stripped of the book’s soft lead-ins, funny explanations, and encouraging stories, they would sound scary. True freedom can be terrifying, unless you get used to it slowly, one step at a time.
But here’s a hint. Step Nine takes you to the point of having enough capital invested to be sure of an independent income for the rest of your life. You don’t have to go on working, but you can, if you love your work. You can give the money, which you no longer need, away. Or you can give your time away to the causes you love best. You can play with your children or paint pictures or travel around the world. By the time you get to Step Nine, you’ll know what you want to do with your time and money.
And you won’t need millions of dollars socked away to get there, because financial independence does not have to come from having more; it can come from needing less.
Joe Dominguez left Wall Street thirty years ago, at the age of 31. He has been practicing what he preaches in this book ever since. Vicki Robin was one of his first “students” twenty years ago. Neither of them intended to teach financial management or to write a book about their financially independent lives — they were too busy living those lives. But people they met as they volunteered for various community projects kept asking how they had so much time to give. They explained. People wanted to know more. Finally Dominguez and Robin packaged the explanation into a little course, and then a set of tapes, and now this book.
Over 30,000 people have taken the tape course so far, and over 200,000 have bought the book. Dominguez and Robin don’t know how many have worked through all or any of the nine steps. But they hear all the time from folks who have. Vicki Robin says you don’t have to go all the way — doing any of the steps is a wake-up exercise that can move you toward control over your own life.
I can vouch for that, being on Step Two at the moment. Step Two gets you in the habit of keeping track of every penny — yes, every single red cent — you spend. “How many people have the discipline to do that?” I asked Vicki Robin. She said that if she could, anyone could. She used to be as far from orderly about money as anyone could be, she told me, until she got set up so that orderliness came easy. Carrying around a small notebook with an attached pen did it for her. Setting up a nifty spread-sheet with 72 categories and a graphics program to plot my monthly progress is doing it for me. To each her own way of getting systematic.
What I am finding, as I become aware in detail of the money that flows through my life, is that I spend too little on real fun and too much on “gazingus pins.” Gazingus pins in FI parlance are those little things you can’t resist buying, though you are likely to take them home and never look at them again. Tools, earrings, salt shakers, magazine subscriptions, gadgets, whatever — we all have our gazingus pins. Yours is whatever you have a 20-year (or 200-year in the case of me and knitting yarn) supply of. When you see that you’re spending not just your money, but your life on gazingus pins, you just quietly, effortlessly stop doing it.
Dominguez and Robin ask, “How can you soar like an eagle, if you spend like a turkey?” And that’s only Step Two!
I spend a lot of my (unpaid) time going around the world, talking about the environmental and social disintegration that comes from too many people consuming too much stuff and getting too little satisfaction from it. The poor countries need to get control of population growth, I say. And the rich countries need to get control of the mad consumption that comes from trying to fill empty lives with unnecessary things at enormous cost.
But how do you DO that? I am asked. How do you control consumption?
Now I’ve got an answer. Start by reading Your Money or Your Life, and then fill your life not with things, but with life.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993