Do you own your possessions or do they own you?

Handsome man washing car with a sponge and foam

Meet Justin and Jessica.

They’ve been together for just over a year. Justin is the one wearing the ill-fitting T shirt and cargo shorts. Jessica is the immaculately groomed one in metallic grey. 

Jessica is expensive to run and a little above Justin’s paygrade. Perhaps that’s why he’s so devoted to her? Justin thinks he’s got lucky but I’m not so sure about that.

In case you hadn’t yet realised, Justin is the bitch in this relationship.

Look at Justin’s posture.  In the TV series Game of Thrones, they use the phrase “bend the knee” to denote subservience and obedience to someone of higher status.  Well, Justin has bent the knee to a car. And, as if that weren’t enough, he’s bent the back as well.  That’s not good.

Stuff comes at a cost: the time it takes you to earn the money for the stuff. If Justin is paying a lease of £300 per month and earns £15 after tax, then it takes him 20 hours of work every month just to keep Jessica on the drive. And that’s before petrol, car tax, repairs, insurance and all the other expenses that go with cars.

Every time you buy stuff, you extend your time in The Prison Camp.  So every time someone buys *SHINY NEW THING* they are prioritising the thing…certainly before their freedom and perhaps before their own good.


Let’s switch TV shows and consider The Walking Dead from which I invite you to consider the character Daryl.

Daryl lives a low cost and self-reliant life.  Daryl travels light and is not big on possessions (other than his crossbow which comes in handy in the aftermath of the Zombie Apocalypse). 

Because his needs are simple, Daryl was never forced to get an office job. He never had to check in to The Prison Camp.

Back to Justin washing the car.  If you take a walk around your local suburb on a Sunday morning you will see people dutifully washing their car.  I invite you to consider the possibility that this might (I put it no stronger than that) indicate someone who is prioritising their car above themselves.

Actions speak louder than words. If Justin has to work for years longer in a job he doesn’t like, isn’t he prioritising the car above himself?  If Justin is one of those people that “doesn’t have time” for exercise, isn’t he prioritising the car above himself?

The Escape Artist likes to consider both sides of the argument so I will also add the case for the defence.

Washing your car at the weekend costs nothing. It gets you outdoors in the sunshine (should any sunshine appear during a British summer). And if you are an office worker and/or introvert, you probably spend too much time in your own head and could do with some calming, meditative activities that involve a teeny-weeny bit of manual labour.

Cleaning your own car is better than driving your car to a commercial car wash and paying to have your car washed whilst your own muscles waste away. Remember the principle of Muscle Over Motor.

And some people just love cars. They appreciate the beauty of the design and the skill of the engineering…and that’s OK. We respect individual free choice around here.

So no, I’m not saying:


…like Krog the Kaveman.  It’s a bit more nuanced than that.

But I am saying that you should build your life around principles and not around stuff.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey talks about the importance of “identifying your centre”.  He asks: What’s do you put at the centre of your own life?  What drives you and your decisions? Who or what do you put first?

The Seven Habits is one of those books that everyone should read. And not just once. It’s one of those classics that you get more from, every time you read it. In it, Covey lays out a number of alternative priorities that people put at the centre of their lives:

  • Spouse centered
  • Family centered
  • Money centered
  • Work centered
  • Possession centered
  • Pleasure centered
  • Friend centered
  • Enemy centered
  • Church centered
  • Self centered

Here’s how Stephen Covey sums up someone with a center based on possessions:

Security: Your security is based on your reputation, your social status or the tangible things that your possess. You tend to compare what you have to what others have.

Guidance: You make your decisions based on what will protect, increase or better display your possessions.

Wisdom: You see the world in terms of comparative economic and social relationships.

Power: You function within the limits of what you can buy or the social prominence you can achieve.

Lots of people, brainwashed by advertising, the media and politicians, assume that the people with most stuff “win”.  This is bullshit. I hope that you can see that putting possessions at the centre of your life is not very healthy in The Western World in 2019. Taken to extremes, you’d end up broke and a hoarder. Remember Gollum from The Lord of The Rings who made The Ring the centre of his universe?

Some of the other potential centers listed above seem better than possessions…at least at at first glance. For example, I would guess a lot of people think of themselves as family-centred. And who could argue against that? Well, Stephen Covey for one and me for another.

Imagine a child abused by a family relative. In that scenario, a family-based center (where the unity of the family is prioritised over everything else) is clearly not the solution. Isn’t that an extreme example? Yes of course, but sometimes bad things happen to good people.

As I explained in Don’t Be A Nice Guy, Be a Good Guy you need boundaries and be willing to walk away when someone (anyone) asks (or tries to force) you to do something that violates your principles.

Stephen Covey makes the interesting point that its not always obvious to you what your own center is. People have blindspots and self-awareness can be tricky. You may pride yourself on your non-materialist principles and yet still covet thy neighbours handbag. The best way to find out your priorities is to look at your bank account and your calendar: what you spend your money and time on.

Let’s look at some of those alternative centres that might be relevant to people interested in financial independence.

What about being money-centred? Speaking as someone that worked in finance, always wanted to be rich (or at least financially free) and now writes a blog about money, this is a trap that I could easily fall into. But the funny thing is that I don’t actually think that much about (my own) money any more.

One of the great paradoxes of financial independence is that it involves an upfront period of thinking about money so that you can eventually get to a place where you don’t have to think about it. The point is to get to a place where you are financially secure and don’t have to worry: not to make money the centre of your life.

What about being work-centred? Well, that could certainly be a useful attitude in terms of getting pay rises as you progress in your career. But there’s more to life than work…so where do you draw the line?

When I was a junior accountant, I remember working until midnight one night when we were up against a deadline.  Nothing particularly strange about that. What did strike me as odd was the manager there from a different team at that time who didn’t even have a deadline…they just had nothing better in their life to do on a school night.

Hard work is super-important to this FI lark. But it can’t be your everything. And one of the tricks you need to learn as you approach financial independence is building an identity that isn’t reliant upon your job.


Covey suggests that instead we need to put principles first.  Which leaves us with the problem of choosing the right principles.

You are allowed to choose your own principles but here are some that I think fit well with financial independence: freedom, environmentalism, minimalism, individualism, responsibility, family / friendship / community and recognising the benefits of hard work (just not all the time!).

If that all sounds a bit airy-fairy then let me finish with the TL; DR version:

If you are buying shit and having to work to pay off debt, you don’t own your possessions, they own you.

This may be inevitable to some degree: I got a mortgage to buy a house, like anyone else.  Just think about the trade-offs you are making.

Image credit: ID 119579983 © Ljiljana Turinski |

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  1. Never understand why cars get such a bad rap. They are commodities that depreciate just like everything else you can buy. So exactly the same argument applied to cars applies to shoes, clothes, new kitchens, going to the latest mega star concert, sports gear etc etc.

    And… maybe…. houses too. You might want to chat to the Millennial Revolution guys about the wonders of renting rather than mortgaging. In the UK, housing has a been a one way bet for a long time but elsewhere in the world less so. I do wonder if the UK is about to reach its tipping point in the housing market both in terms of prices and rights for tenants. This could mean that in future getting a large mortgage will also become, with hindsight, a dumbass thing to do.

  2. KeninNZ · · Reply

    Nice post EA. I share this FI status with one or two pals – we’re all classic ‘millionaires next door’. Ordinary houses, ordinary cars, ordinary everything in our houses but the wonderful freedom of being able to choose when to work. My personal choices 20 years ago have meant that for most of the last 15 years I’ve been able to be pretty much a stay at home Dad. A priceless purchase.

  3. dickrog · · Reply

    Cars get a bad rap for 2 reasons. 1. apart from housing they’re one of the most expensive things you can buy and one of the only things that people commonly get loans for. People don’t often get loans so they can buy “shoes, clothes, new kitchens, going to the latest mega star concert, sports gear etc etc”.

    2. It’s very easy to calculate how much “shoes” cost. With motor vehicles, there are a lot of costs that people don’t really factor in. I could try explain it here, but MMM does a much better job than I ever could.

    Houses, Cars and Food are the typical biggest 3 expenses in most peoples budgets. In my opinion, food is the one that gets overlooked the most.

    1. Perhaps I am unusual. Over the years I have definitely spent far more on home improvements than I have spent on cars.

      Cars do not really do it for me but I do need one. I buy new cars and keep them for a very long time – my mini (fantastic headroom) is 15 years old. I do not think that the hidden costs – servicing, petrol, insurance new tyres, cleaning etc – are that difficult to estimate!

      The key message here is about taking loans to buy stuff. I have a simple rule. NEVER! I apply it equally to cars as to other stuff. I am pretty certain that, outside of this community, lots of people take loans for things like shoes, clothes etc. People like their credit cards!

    2. Besides that cars also deservedly get a bad rap because in America 40,000 people die from them every year, more than 100 a day. It’s the public health crisis no one wants to talk about because America worships car culture.

      And they get a bad rap because they are the 2nd leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions (in the US again). If you ask most people they say “climate change is real and scary!”, but they have 2 huge gas guzzling SUVs in their family and are supposedly “climate voters”. That’s why cars get a bad rap, they’re deadly and polluting.

      1. Dave – 100% agree with you.

        In the UK the “massive endemic” increase in knife crime is daily headline news. More people die every week from car accidents than in a year from knife crime but it is not deemed newsworthy.

        I agree climate change is real and scary and unfortunately I think it will get worse not better. We are all hypocrites here from Dame Emma flying first class across the globe to take part in an extinction rebellion protest to my daughter not turning lights off around the house. We both own cars too – I am not planing on getting rid of mine any time soon – You?

        1. No I’m not getting rid of mine, I can’t. I need it to drive to see my Mother and take care of her. If I didn’t have that responsibility I could actually go without a car as I bike to work and mostly everywhere else.

  4. the rise and rise of people driving around in brand new luxury cars is quite a phenomenon.
    We were recruiting a nanny 2 years ago and in one interview the applicant said that she wanted to get a brand new Audi A1. When asked about her salary expectations she wanted minimum wage.
    Go figure that our – luxury car on the minimum wage.

    Around that time I bought a new car for work (I have a car allowance but was dirving around in a 10 year old banger). After finally giving in to pressure from HR I bought a 3 year old car for about £7k. I’ve since received £10k in car allowance so it’s “paid off”.
    In sales, driving a car you can’t afford is how you fake it till you make it – but what are you trying to make?

  5. Poixekar · · Reply

    seems like a lot of what your saying is going down well in the Indian market. Car sales have been slowing down for the last year or so. But more importantly, i think its the attitude that people have towards stuff. More of a question of everyone living way beyond their means and trying to use financing to pay for today with their tomorrow. Thanks again for another succinct article.

  6. i see that car as an old metaphor for a pretty girl who liked to go on spendy outings. i felt lucky to have her for a little while as she was out of my league. many years later i think “she ain’t pretty she just looks that way.” it’s also a song by the northern pikes from canada.

  7. Denise · · Reply

    Excellent article, as always, but “ bitch”?? Really? I know you’re not a sexist to$$er, Barney, but the more we normalise this kind of language, the greater the incremental damage – drip, drip effect – on how women are talked about.

  8. Cars are the ultimate in consumerist bullshit. People get themselves into huge debt based on a series of lies. Its a fantasy from the adverts to biased magazine reviews to mpg figures to reliability linked to branding.

    I do own a German peasant’s pram. But, I also do know it’s worse than something from Korea. But, people still think it’s impressive and expensive. All because of the thee pointed swastika on the front. When I interview people for jobs, I ask then what car they would like, if people say BMW I don’t offer them the position. BMW make the worst cars (JDPower 2019), why would I want to employ someone who is stupid enough to think the worst is the best?

  9. I agree with not worshiping expensive possessions such as the prestige car. I have chosen modest but good cars that have facilitated and not conflicted with seeking financial independence.

  10. I bought myself for £10 000 net in 2008, a second hand car made in 2002.
    VW Golf III 1.9TD that fumes 5.5L/km at 120km/h, giving me a driving range of >900km on a full diesel tank.
    I bought her in 2008 with 72 000 km on the dashboard, she now has 166 000 km in 2019.
    After the first month of use, my purchase price tag for the vehicle was £10 000 per month.
    After the second month, this figure dropped to £5000 per month.
    Today, in 2019, 132 months further, I am at a fixed purchase price of £75 per month for the cheap to maintain lady.
    Let’s hope I can drive her till 350 000 km, which was what my previous VW Golf II achieved, before being turned in.
    By then I probably will have dropped the purchase price to a £10 per month fixed purchase fee, given my yearly mileage.
    Can your bitch beat that, Barney ?

    1. I have a purchase cost of £79 per month and a total cost of £237 per month (purchase, petrol, services, insurance and tax) after buying my car new over fourteen years ago.

      1. Really sensible way of putting a value on your car. Maybe even better is £ per use. That would reflect that your new car purchase 14 years ago was even better value especially when compared to some other of the “cheaper” one use only purchases we all make.

  11. John of Hampton · · Reply

    There is something bizarre about the hold cars have over people, and that is why they get (and deserve) the bad rap. I recently met someone who told me about his debt problem, and was wondering what to do (I suggested a side hustle). Then I saw his car – two-years old and bought brand new (with a loan) at a cost of £21000. It was parked next to my second-hand car, bought with cash for £7000, and which replaced a car I had had for 8 years. I met my friend again last week, and he casually mentioned that now he “needs” a new car, and is fretting that he can’t afford a hybrid. I didn’t dare ask how his debts were going…

  12. […] TEA on being spending beyond your means and keeping up with the Jones’ (17) […]

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