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:
CAR BAD, ME GOOD
…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.
Who sees the world in terms of comparative economic and social relationships?
Well communists, for a start. If you’ve ever read The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx you’ll know that’s their worldview. In other words, people on the far left of politics are falling into the same trap as evil capitalists like Mr Burns from The Simpsons. Both are assuming that the people with most stuff “win”. All they differ on is how to allocate the stuff.
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 have fallen 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 of course leaves us with the problem of choosing the right principles.
You are allowed to choose your own principles (and you should) but here are some that I think fit well with financial independence: freedom, environmentalism, minimalism, individualism, responsibility, friendship / community and a recognition of 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 | Dreamstime.com