A lot of people describe big realizations about money in almost religious terms. For some, it’s an “awakening” or an epiphany. A light goes on, they realize the images on the cave wall are just shadows, and they wake up from the Matrix. All this imagery could lead you to believe that it takes a money epiphany, some big event or change that propels us into reexamining how we live our lives.
When I look at my own life I see a lot of interests that, in hindsight, have led me straight to this point. It’s almost like a lifelong project, and I don’t know if this blog is the culmination or just another step (at the moment it seems like the latter). Looking back it seems obvious that eventually I would run into things like Financial Independence and Alternative Lifestyles, even though at the time it felt a lot like one of those light switch moments described above. So I thought it would be interesting to run through some of what has led me to this point and we’re I see it taking me.
How The Other Half Lives
I think I can go back as far as almost a decade ago, in college. I had to read Jacob Riis’ How The Other Half Lives for a class. If you’re not familiar with the book it’s a study done on people living in Tenement housing (slums, basically) in New York in the late 19th Century. The book is short and sometimes difficult to read but combines three powerful mediums – interviews and personal stories, data and figures, and photographs into an insightful and relevant document. Needless to say late teens me (who was much more interested in the artistic qualities of photography and indifferent to the documentary power it possessed) I enjoyed the book but that’s about as far as it went. Now, almost a decade later, I seem to be thinking about this book several times a week.
Fast forward a couple years and I’m out of college and living at home for a while, trying to decide if I wanted to pursue graduate school and working in the meantime. I’m working on a documentary project about my home state and starting some other, smaller projects on the side – one of which is a visual study of property lines. You know how in the suburbs people’s yards meet in a line and the way the grass looks can tell you whether or not they take care of their yard?
These divides usually extend in between the houses. I was fascinated by the idea that here was a property line that was pretty well defined and represented ownership of separate pieces of land while at the same time referenced how these two private structures had this “shared’ space in between them. In the suburbs you might have a few feet in between houses – that land seems to be governed by a shared respect or understanding for one’s neighbor, even if the properties are obviously divided.
So I’m driving around working on these projects and really focusing on doing documentary photography and I’m listening to The Suburbs by Arcade Fire pretty much on repeat as I drive around, well, the suburbs. There’s a lot to The Suburbs, but for me it’s always been a reflection on things like getting older and missing your childhood, finding what your American Dream is and building it, and confronting the reality that while we all share these connections, the world can be an empty and lonely place if you let it. At the age where I’m really considering what my life is going to be like for the next 40 years and what I want to accomplish and leave behind, these ideas hit me hard.
A Taste Of Freedom
The next part is pretty familiar and I detailed a lot of it in some of the early posts on the blog. Basically I left my job to move to another state to “start over” with my girlfriend of 2 years. I didn’t have a job lined up and planned to spend the summer job hunting and living off what savings I’d built up, while enjoying my new city and being excited about having the time to finally get back into some of those earlier projects I’d been working on, which had fallen by the waist side as I’d earned more promotions and responsibilities at work.
At this point I’d been working 50-60 hours a week for a couple years and found I didn’t really have the time or the energy to get into my “real work”. This compounds after a while because not only do you have to motivate yourself to work on anything, you have to motivate yourself to dive in to a huge project that you left off months ago and by the time you get re acclimated and refreshed on it you’re going to have to put it aside and go back to work.
So despite difficulties in finding a job and the reality that my savings were falling fast, I embraced my new freedom and did the most “real work” I’d done since college. I came away from it knowing that this was work I really wanted to do with my life as well as the reassurance that my passion for the subject I’d spent 4 years of my life and $60,000 still burned despite being subdued for a couple years.
A Constructed Life
While going through some of that old work I stumbled upon some of those property line photographs, most of which I’d forgotten about. At the same time I was doing a lot of exploring my new city (one of the benefits of not working is you can do a lot of exploring on a Tuesday morning while everyone else is at work) and I stumbled upon a nearby city called Franklin.
There’s a lot of money in Franklin. And a lot of new construction. It’s like a group of planners (or SimCity experts) were given a huge amount of money and told to build a city. Almost all of it seems new – new office parks with pristine landscaping, new housing communities (suburbs!), and shopping centers. All structured in a way that echoed the American Dream – your house in the suburbs, close enough to amenities that it’s convenient but still far enough away to let you escape.
As you near your office you’ll pass restaurants where you might want to eat lunch and car dealerships that remind you that there’s always something more to strive for. The business parks have beautiful landscaping and fountains and walkways through wooded areas, the buildings are concrete and glass but in this space they don’t seem as threatening and constricting.
Everything is divided but closely knit. Housing developments bow around the mall and the stores and the restaurants, which line the main roads leading into the business parks. Everywhere you need to go is within reach, laid out with painstaking detail.
And so a general interest in the suburbs (and in case you’re wondering, yes I broke out the Arcade Fire CD while doing this exploring) exploded into a fascination with how structured it all felt. It was like someone tried to build the American Dream out of concrete and landscaping.
Returning To Work
After a few months and with next to no savings left I eventually went back to my first employer (who had locations in my new city). I was sad to end my sabbatical – it was a creative, productive, invigorating period of freedom and exploration – but refreshed to be able to regain my financial stability.
My time off wasn’t like a vacation, where you know it’s only one week and even on the vacation you’re on now you’re already looking ahead to the next one. Instead it was a fully immersive retreat – a real existence living a life I wanted, growing and exploring and learning and producing. My return to work is I guess where you could say I had my “epiphany” – all I knew is that the first time around I had saved up a decent amount of money and just bought myself four amazing months of personal freedom, and this is without really setting goals or doing a lot of planning or very much knowledge of personal finance.
With the goal of getting that freedom again, I dove into learning more about personal finance – budgeting, saving, investing, paying off debt. Nothing complicated. I just knew that I was making money again and that I wanted to be more thoughtful of what I did with it since I was going to have to go back to 50-60 hour workweeks and put a lot of that creative energy on hold.
I guess it’s pure luck that I stumbled upon the idea of Financial Independence – it was through a link to Mr. Money Mustache on the YNAB forums. Who knows, maybe my exploration into topics like consumerism and work and the American Dream would have led me there eventually. And I’d like to think that the events leading up to that moment are what allowed me to fully embrace the idea. Lots of people hear about FI and early retirement and they shake their heads – it’s not worth the “trade-off”, or they’re content enough to not need another way of doing things.
All I know is that while I haven’t done a lot more work on that suburbs project, a progression has continued. I’ve spent my time learning about subjects like economics, statistics, history, and, of course, finance. And it’s all starting to connect.
There’s an idea out there that your life is made up of 7 year increments (I learned about this from Brave New Life’s post here). The concept is based on it taking 7 years of your life to master something – like your job or a skill or whatever – and that after around 7-8 years you’ll get bored of what you’re currently doing and feel a need to replace it with something. If your first “adult life” starts when you’re 21 or 22, it comes to an end shortly before you hit 30. Part of me thinks this enhances the social stigma around turning 30 years old, even though in the grand scheme of things 30 is amazingly young.
But maybe it’s not necessarily the age, it’s that you’re nearing the end of one life – a life that you feel confident in, that you’ve honed and worked at and mastered – and you’re wondering if that’s all there is. If the rest is just boredom.
So the key seems to be starting a new life on top of the old one. You don’t throw away the last 7 years – you just build something new on top of them.
I’m at a place where I feel a lot of the last several years coming together into a cohesive mindset, and I believe this mindset will directly inform my next 7 years. It’d be interesting to look into whether these epiphanies people have (about money, religion, themselves, life) line up with the 7-year model. I certainly think there’s still a lot that’s left up to chance, but taking the time to reflect on your progress you might get a sneak peek into what your next life is going to be like.
For me, I’ve got a note to go dig out my copy of How The Other Half Lives. Yes, it’s one of the books I’ve kept despite trying to drastically reduce my physical footprint. For some reason I always figured I’d probably want to look at it again.