Three friends have sent GoFundMe appeals in the last month. Each situation is dire, and expenses astronomical. I’ve contributed, but the scale of the problem of aging Boomers in an unraveling health care system, is far far beyond my capacity to respond.
Being a “solutionary” – by temperament, habit and probably epigenetics – my mind is like a high speed centrifuge or search engine – trying to suck ideas out of the ethers, the internet or my hard drive.
In this hunt, I came upon an unpublished article from the before times, perhaps 2018. I’m sharing it because it might spark something in your, or you may have heard of something along these lines. Please comment and let’s develop some collective intelligence.
Being a millionaire, one of 56,000,000 in the world, crept up on me. I only noticed it during a recent interview, one of many since the new edition of Your Money or Your Life came out this spring. A reporter from Der Zeit, a German weekly newspaper, perched on my sofa, asking questions, scribbling notes and more than once commenting on how nice my house and yard and view are.
You can live in a house comfortably, shuffling from bed to kitchen to desk without really noticing the overall effect of everything you’ve collected – paintings, furniture, rugs, dining table, plants. Then a reporter comes to talk about revaluing wealth, and the entirety of your home is part of her story.
As the reporter marveled at my house, I started to marvel as well. How did someone who has taken home very few paychecks plus a small $20K inheritance in the last 50 years end up with a 2,000 square foot house with a view in a seaside village?
After she left, I did the math.
My wealth came to me the old-fashioned way: I saved and saved and saved. For the first 10 years after publication of Your Money or Your Life, the earnings were donated to a wide range of social change organizations. Since then, whenever I got a big check, I stored that money in durable goods: this house, a car, a camper—and cancer treatment (which kept my body durable). The house, I turned into a triplex; that rental income adds to my savings. I’ve lived most of my life like a pensioner: passive income from safe investments plus Social Security. This habit of saving money has made me the classic millionaire next door, but I’ve also—more importantly—invested in non-monetary wealth.
I call money “national wealth” and this other, “natural wealth.”
The distinction is crucial to revaluing wealth, and to the collective attitude adjustment of a country afflicted with wealth inequality and addiction to Wall Street. To state the obvious, amassing dollars for the sake of amassing dollars is not building the right kinds of wealth.
Here’s how building natural wealth works on a personal level.
By saving money, I’ve liberated time. This “time wealth” has afforded me great expanses for thinking and doing: visiting friends, volunteering, writing, self-inquiry, travel, and so on. I’ve often said, “I buy my freedom with my frugality.” Whatever well of wisdom I’ve plumbed, I’ve earned it through these expanses of time.
With this time, I’ve also developed a wealth of skills. Whatever we can do for ourselves, do for others or even do for money, is wealth. I still own my handyman and survival skills books, but nowadays anyone can go on YouTube and learn anything, from gardening to running an online business. In one three-year stint in rural Wisconsin and another in the desert outside Florence, Arizona, in the 1970s I chalked up these skills: gardening, putting food up, butchering, engine repair, building, plumbing, attaching anything to anything with screws, nails, and glues—and even making wine out of flowers, fruits, and vegetables.
I’ve also had the time to build close friendships that are like family to me. They see me through hard times, celebrate wins, challenge my assumptions, show up with food when I’m bedridden and will bury me in a shroud in the cemetery up the hill when I die. While the Gallup Sharecare Well-Being Index shows Americans have fewer supportive friends now than a few years ago, I’ve invested time in building friendships through small kindnesses and regular check-ins.
I’ve also invested in my community, not out of duty but gratitude. Soon after I moved here I sought a way to say thank you to this little two-street town that welcomed me. I priced shoes at the thrift store. Then I helped facilitate community meetings. A few naturally funny people and I formed a comedy troupe and performed in my garage for friends. Every month—and sometimes more often—there’s a fundraiser for a cause. As my life has shuttled through dances and events and fundraisers and performances and parties and projects here, I’ve gained a visceral sense of a strong social safety net that runs in parallel to government services. It is here for me, and I am part of it, and this is a quiet yet breathtaking “asset.”
In economic terms, I have amassed social capital. That Gallup Index includes 5 elements of well-being: meaningful work, financial security, loving friends, social support, and good health. Social capital affects all five.
Community is the ultimate unit of wealth: real people in real places solving real problems together—with love.
Am I a frugality saint? Hardly. I became known for frugality in the 1990s when Your Money or Your Life had its first heyday – and got stuck living up to others’ expectations. It took several years to shed this hyper-frugality and relax back into a balanced relationship with money. I’ve also been a luddite investor. I could have capitalized on the tripling of the Dow since the crash of 2008, but instead I’ve invested with modest return in local pet, flower and farming businesses. Not only that, but around 62 I stumbled into a bag lady fear – that I would outlive my money. After months of gnashing my teeth, I confessed to a friend who said, “If your money disappears, we’ll probably all be in the same boat and we’ll figure it out together.” The natural wealth of community anchored in my mind, heart and soul.
I well know my many privileges that strangely help me to shift some dependency from money to community: white, educated, single, no children, cleverness in non-monetary problem solving, and enough income that I am able to save. I am not suggesting everyone can do this, but many more certainly can and that might cascade in unpredictable ways.
My sweet life, too, is part of the larger world. Sea level rise is an issue in a seaside village. A military base here is building up fighter jet pilot and warfare training to the detriment of everything we’ve worked on: farms, tourism, sanctuary, and more. Even the small population (65,000) is deeply polarized with internet trolls at their worst. Because of the military expansion, and AirBnbs replacing rentals, and wealthy people buying second homes, we have scant affordable housing and are losing artists, young families, and blue-collar workers.
All the forms of wealth I’ve built up over a long and satisfying life do not insulate me from our collective challenges. But they buy me the time to work on the gnarly big stuff.
Such beautiful and excellent insight
I am 41 and I live in a 900 square ft home in a mid-sized midwestern town with my husband and 9 year old son. We will have our home paid off in about 3 years. We recently added about $6,000 of debt to our household to purchase a fuel efficient car for my hoof trimming business, which requires driving as much as 2 hours one way to clients. I also own two horses, who live at a friend’s farm. They were the reason I learned to do hoof trimming and then decided to do it professionally this year. I enjoy the work SO MUCH!
For the previous 5 years I was not formally employed and generated very little income. My husband was a corporate pilot and, due to his unpredictable schedule and frequent absence, a large proportion of the household and childcare responsibilities fell on me. Managing a job at the same time just didn’t seem possible or worth the stress.
The year after my son was born, my husband opened a micro brewery in our town. He has been running it part time with the help of a partner and excellent staff for the last 8 years, but the combination of running a business and working a job as a corporate pilot has always been a strain on our family. Finally we came to a breaking point this fall and he decided to leave his job and regular salary to run the brewery full time. So now we are a household of entrepreneurs looking at a lot less certainty in our future income. But, on a day to day quality of life level, our lives are already much better.
This brewery is a very special place to a lot of people in our community. There are no TVs, a vinyl turntable provides warm music and we have always had wonderfully welcoming and friendly staff. The values of community, conversation and connection are woven into the culture and we have many loyal customers/friends who would not be in our lives if not for the brewery.
Despite all the wonderful things going on in our life, I have a lot of fears related to our financial situation. We have not been contributing to our retirement accounts at the rate that is conventionally recommended. Sometimes I worry about this. But I also feel a lot of resistance to blindly putting money into stocks and bonds that benefit entities I know nothing about.
And, sometimes I compare our material wealth to friends and acquaintances around the same age as me … especially the ones with larger newer houses, nicer cars, investment properties, acreages in the country … and I feel like we must be doing something wrong. No doubt some of the discrepancy can be explained by my years spent out of the work force.
The way I have quelled my financial fears and doubts about our choices is to appreciate the amount of social capital we have built … both through the brewery and now my hoof trimming business, we have a huge network of friends who know and care about us. This asset can’t be lost in a market crash or a natural disaster.
Is this getting at the ideas you are describing in your 2018 article?
thank you so much for your story. You traded some national wealth for natural wealth. So many rich details about choices and precarity and the risk of getting off the golden tit of serving corporations. I love the description of your brewery! what a wonderful center for your community.