The razor’s edge: Lessons in true wealth

Our friends have a profound effect on our personal finance habits. Some friends can lead us to spending and to debt. Others offer insight into the virtues of thrift. For me, my friend Sparky has been the latter. Through his example, I learned that frugality can help me achieve my goals.

“Develop a plan that is so amazing, so glowing, that you are willing to walk blurry-eyed to work every day to make the money necessary to reach the light.” — Sparky's advice to GRS readers in 2006

After my friend Sparky graduated from college, he drifted. He couldn't hold a steady job, and he didn't stay in one place for long. He traveled to Mexico. He moved to New England. He lived in various cities in Oregon and Washington.

“I don't know how you can do it,” he told me once when he saw our new house. “You have a home and a wife and the same job you had five years ago. I'd hate that.” He lived as a First World nomad.

Choosing Freedom

I visited Sparky once in early 1996. I stayed overnight at his apartment in Eugene while I played in a nearby chess tournament. I was amazed by his Spartan lifestyle. He had no television. He had few books and little furniture. Most of what he owned had been purchased second-hand. His refrigerator was almost completely empty. (In my memory, it contained only two items: a carton of milk and a bottle of ketchup.) Sparky's only indulgence seemed to be a collection of bootleg U2 CDs.

“How can you live like this?” I asked him. “Where's all of your Stuff?”

Sparky smiled at me. “I don't need a lot of Stuff, J.D. The Stuff is not important. To be honest, I don't know why you have so much Stuff. How do you live like that?”

I didn't know what he meant at the time. To me, life was all about the Stuff. I had hundreds of CDs and thousands of books. I had a TV, a stereo, a house, and a car. I wanted more. Sparky had none of these, but he had something I did not. Sparky had freedom. His frugal lifestyle allowed him to save and invest. I marveled at how he squirreled away his money. I didn't understand how he managed it. I made at least twice what he did, but he had money in the bank and I had none. Instead, I had $20,000 in debt and was taking on more every day.

For some reason, I could not see the connection between Sparky's thrifty lifestyle and his financial success. I could not see the connection between my own profligate ways and my mounting debt. I was blind.

The Razor's Edge

During the summer of 1997, Sparky and I went for a hike. As we walked, we talked. He told me about his plans and his goals. He was living in a small town in northern Washington, working two full-time jobs, a part-time job, and getting free rent in exchange for housesitting with an elderly homeowner. “I've only had five or six days off in the past eight months,” he said.

“That seems crazy,” I said. “Why are you working so hard?”

“I want to travel around the world,” he said. “You know that I don't have a lot of Stuff. There's a reason for that. Material possessions tie a person down to one place. I can't travel if I have a house and a car and all of that other Stuff.”

He told me about the trip he had planned. He had a one-way ticket to Thailand. From there, he hoped to travel to India and then Israel, but he didn't have any sort of agenda. “I'm just going to go,” he said. “I'm going to travel as long as my money holds out.”

“You sound like Larry Darrell,” I said, referring to The Razor's Edge, W. Somerset Maugham's 1944 book about a young American disenchanted with the way of the West. “Larry lives like a pauper, but is able to loaf around Europe and India while searching for enlightenment. It's a great book. You should read it.”

“Maybe I will,” he said. And then he added, “Do you want to come with me?” Of course I did, but I couldn't. I was in debt. I had no savings. I couldn't afford to drop out of Real Life for five months. How would I pay for all of my Stuff?

Sparky went on his trip. He backpacked across the world alone, and he loved it. He sent me postcards from stops along the way: from Thailand and India, from Nepal and Israel and Jordan and Egypt. He was gone for five months. Because he was not burdened by Stuff, he returned to a financial position similar to the one he had left. He didn't have a mortgage or other debt. His savings and investments were still intact. He had lived for five months without an income, it's true, but he'd spent exactly what he budgeted, and he'd had the experience of a lifetime.

Quiet Wealth

When Sparky got back, he settled down to a more normal way of life. He got a real job. He even bought a house. Still he continued to pinch his pennies, spending only on the things that really mattered to him. Eventually, I began to see the connection between his lifestyle and his quiet wealth.

When I started Get Rich Slowly, Sparky was enthusiastic. He talked to me about my newfound appreciation for personal finance. He shared his favorite books, his favorite tips, and his favorite mutual funds. A few of our conversations even became fodder for GRS stories:

  • Money blueprints: What our parents taught us about money
  • An entrepreneurial leap of faith
  • A brief conversation about money

Whereas I had once viewed Sparky's ascetic lifestyle as a little strange, I began to understand it as a means to an end. Perhaps I couldn't be as frugal as he was, but I could still learn from some of his lessons. We had some great conversations about money and about goals and about the future. I looked forward to learning more from him.

That's not going to happen.

The Last Lesson

Sparky died unexpectedly last week. We had been close friends for 25 years, and he was an important part of my life. He challenged me. He believed in me more than I believe in myself. I cannot say that Sparky was without fault. Like anyone, he had his quirks. But on the whole, he was a positive influence in my life, and when it came to money, he was a shining example of how to live right. I'll never have the chance to learn from him again.

Please, my friends, always remember that true wealth has nothing to do with money. True wealth is built from friends and family, from experiences and relationships — it is derived from a life filled with meaning. Without these things, money means nothing. Do me a favor this week, and spend some time with the people you love.

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Sakoro
Sakoro
11 years ago

So sorry to hear about Sparky’s passing. We will be thinking about you this week.

Dan
Dan
6 years ago
Reply to  Sakoro

Sparky is looking down on us right now and telling us what an absolute ball he is having, even the Angels have been rocked by him apparently! He sends a simple message to us all…”Just Live it…Wherever you are!!”. Gotta love him 😉 x

Jen
Jen
11 years ago

I’m so sorry. For some reason, it’s especially sad when a good friend dies. My sympathy goes out to you as you mourn your friend.

Fabulously Broke
Fabulously Broke
11 years ago

I’m also sorry that he passed away. But it sounds like he lived his life to the fullest!

As for his Spartan lifestyle, it’s what BF and I would like to aspire to, so my goal is to fit everything into 2 suitcases and 2 carry ons. We don’t want to travel, but we want less stuff in general, and we’re not buying any furniture except for a table and chairs when we move..

sarai
sarai
11 years ago

I am sorry for your loss.

M.E.
M.E.
11 years ago

I am sorry to hear about your friend. But that was a nice post about him. The Razor’s Edge was a book my Dad gave to me when I was in college and subsequently lent to my boyfriend who while backpacking in Europe got robbed of everything but the book! (He’d fallen asleep with it at the train station). He said that that book helped him find his way back to Siena where I was staying with my Dad at the time. Short of it, that book means a lot to me and I’m glad that it means a lot… Read more »

Jem
Jem
11 years ago

My heart sank when I read that Sparky had passed. He sounds like he was a great friend and I have no doubt he will be missed by all who knew him.

I can’t say I aspire to live exactly as he did, but I do hope to fill as much time as I can with happiness and meaning, just as he did.

Mike P
Mike P
11 years ago

Very sorry to hear about your friend. You’ll be in my thoughts this week.

Drizzt
Drizzt
11 years ago

my condolences to you and sparky’s family. Very inspiring story and one that seems to aligned closely to what i realise this few months about possessions and attachment.

Money Minder
Money Minder
11 years ago

I’m Sorry to for your loss.

Sparky sounds amazing. I have only been reading your blog for a few months – I would like to read some of Sparky’s guest posts.

Brou
Brou
11 years ago

New reader and love what you do. Sorry for your loss. My family’s prayers are with you and yours.

Emma
Emma
11 years ago

I’m terribly sorry to hear of your friend Sparky’s passing. What an incredibly inspirational and amazing person – he really lived, didn’t he? I am not surprised he was so dear to you.

Take care of yourself, won’t you?

Emma.

Four Pillars
Four Pillars
11 years ago

I’m very sorry you lost your friend – this post was a great way to remember him and help show his example.

Mike

Nienke
Nienke
11 years ago

I wish you all the strength, as well to his relatives and friends.

With the eye on the financial part of your blog, I think your story underlines how true happiness can only be found in other people and experiences, and not in stuff. Very inspiring!

Deanokat
Deanokat
11 years ago

I am sorry for your loss. My thoughts and prayers go out to you and Sparky’s family. Thanks for the great post. What a nice tribute to your friend. Peace.

Britt
Britt
11 years ago

J.D. sorry to hear about your friend. We all appreciate your openness and honesty in your blog, and like you say, true wealth is built on solid relationships.

Cammy
Cammy
11 years ago

It’s very difficult to lose a friend. My thoughts are with you… How wonderful that he lived his life to the fullest and that you are able to share his lessons with us. I’m grateful for that.

Kevin
Kevin
11 years ago

JD:

Marvelous post. Well written, engaging and poignant. My condolences; thanks for sharing.

Laura
Laura
11 years ago

J.D.,

I’m so sorry to hear about Sparky’s passing. I know there is nothing that anyone can say to make it better for you, but please know you will be in my prayers. Thank you for all YOU do and for this reminder.

Gypsie
Gypsie
11 years ago

I am very sorry for the loss of your friend. although I have my share of material possessions, I still have plans to see the rest of the world (only 18 countries down and whole lot more to go)!

Dawn
Dawn
11 years ago

Oh my goodness… I read this post so enthusiastically and am now so sad to hear of Sparky’s passing. I AM SO SORRY! I know you are devastated and I hope you can find some peace & comfort as you go thru the next several weeks dealing w/your loss. I want you to know that YOU GOT TO ME. And Sparky got thru to me! I have a fantasy of living in a mobile home traveling around w/out a care in the world “someday.” My husband thinks I’m nuts but I am going to do this w/ or w/o him… Read more »

Celina
Celina
11 years ago

Thank you for sharing your friend with us. Taking the time to grieve is an important way to honor one’s loved ones.

Beatrice
Beatrice
11 years ago

Thank you for a beautifully written and thought provoking piece. I’m sorry for your loss. I hope you find some comfort in the fact that his life will inspire others.

GFE--gluten free easily
GFE--gluten free easily
11 years ago

What a lovely tribute to your friend, Sparky. Even though he’s no longer here to advise and consult with, I am sure that his memory will still keep inspiring you in the future. It’s certainly inspiring to me. People often ask what one’s greatest fear is … mine is always not living life to its fullest. Sparky certainly did that. My sincere condolences to you, J.D. Thanks so much for sharing his story with us.

Shirley

maria
maria
11 years ago

I am so sorry for your loss. My thoughts and prayers are with you as you continue this journey without your friend.

jolyn
jolyn
11 years ago

So sorry for your loss. It sounds like Sparky lived without regrets. That is a powerful lesson to have as a friend.

SwampCat
SwampCat
11 years ago

My condolences. One who impacts our lives so deeply will continue to live on through us.

Paul Williams @ Crackerjack Greenback
Paul Williams @ Crackerjack Greenback
11 years ago

J.D., I’m sorry to hear you lost your friend. It sounds like he taught you a lot, and you had a close relationship.

I wish more people realized, like Sparky, that true wealth and happiness has nothing to do with your net worth. It’s why I write so much about contentment. It really is the key to finding joy in life.

Lisa Miller
Lisa Miller
11 years ago

Have you considered writing a book about him? While you have the opportunity (going to his memorial), see if you can gather more information about him from the attendees of the services-as in a ‘memories’ type of notebook, as here;
http://www.memories-are-forever.org/
As you collect the stories, you’ll be getting contact information from the people who cared for your friend.

Good luck, take good care,

Lisa

Brent Riggs
Brent Riggs
11 years ago

There is rarely a week that goes by that I’m not teaching my readers that LIFE IS ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS….

Money is simply a way to facilitate relationships through giving, helping and blessing others.

The ONLY thing you can take with you to your deathbed, and to the next life is RELATIONSHIPS.

My daughter is probably going to DIE this month (I have seven kids, she has Leukemia) and my relationship with her will be the only thing that remains.

I talk about her story on our family blog: http://www.riggsfamilyblog.com

Ian
Ian
11 years ago

J.D., this was an excellent post. Thank you so much for writing it and sharing your friend. I’ll be sure to contact my loved ones this week.

We’ll miss you this week. Best of luck.

Russ
Russ
11 years ago

I’m sorry for your loss. I appreciate your blog and your willingness to share.

Mike
Mike
11 years ago

Condolences on Sparky’s passing, J.D.

Sheila
Sheila
11 years ago

“True wealth is built from friends and family, from experiences and relationships – it is derived from a life filled with meaning.” Thank you for those inspiring words, JD. Please accept my deepest sympathies on the loss of your beloved friend. He sounds like a person who had no regrets and lived life to the fullest.

Studenomics
Studenomics
11 years ago

I’m sorry to hear about your friend. I hope he receives the perfect goodbye that he deserves.

mo
mo
11 years ago

Thanks for sharing the story of your friendship. I will hope for peace for all of Sparky’s friends and family.

Schizohedron
Schizohedron
11 years ago

My deep condolences at the passing of such an inspiring friend. Thanks for sharing him and his wisdom with us. Your loss is thus ours.

sarah
sarah
11 years ago

I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing this.

John Bardos
John Bardos
11 years ago

That was a great post! I think we can all learn a lot from Sparky. From my own personal experience, I found that the best way to break attachments to material things is to move to a foreign country. You soon realize that you can get by on whatever can fit in a couple of bags. Everything else is extraneous and is probably interfering with really experiencing life. It takes far more self-discipline and mental courage to abstain from consumerism and choose your own path, then it does to blindly follow all your neighbors to the shopping mall. Sparky was… Read more »

Jan
Jan
11 years ago

I’m sorry you lost your friend. He sounds like a wonderful person.

Reminds me of that other very insightful frugal person, Joe Dominguez, who died at 59 of cancer (lymphoma).

Finance isn’t the only key element for a pleasant future, health is too.

Jen
Jen
11 years ago

I am so sorry to hear about the loss of your friend. I honestly believe that most of the good I produce is a direct result of the amazing friends I have made.

If it’s any consolation, I’ve been letting negativity ruin my efforts lately, and Sparky’s story completely inspired me to fight through it and remember what’s important as I read it just now.

I never met him, but both he (and you) will be in my thoughts.

Thank you for sharing this.

Michele
Michele
11 years ago

Wow, I’m so sorry for your loss. This is a beautiful message. If only everyone would realize life isn’t about the money…

Laura O.
Laura O.
11 years ago

I am very sorry for your loss, J.D. Your post was quite moving. Take care.

Amy
Amy
11 years ago

Oh, I’m saddened to hear that you lost a good friend. I hope you take the time you need to let your heart grieve and recover from the death. I feel that you will keep your friend’s memory alive through your efforts to live frugally and share that lifestyle with others. Thank you for reminding everyone that amounts of money accumulated is paltry compared to the wealth that good friendships and relationships offer! It’s easy to loose sight of that fundamental truth when you live in a stuff-centric culture. I am sending you and your wife many thoughts and prayers… Read more »

Johnny
Johnny
11 years ago

I’m sorry to hear that Sparky passed away. It sounds like he lived a life full of friendships and wonderful experiences.

Ro
Ro
11 years ago

So sorry about the loss of your friend.

SimplyForties
SimplyForties
11 years ago

What a lovely tribute to an important person in your life. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

Carla
Carla
11 years ago

JD, I am very sorry for your loss. Thank you for reminding us what is most important.

@Brent Riggs #29 – I’m very sorry to hear about your daughter. My heart goes out to you.

QuickBooks Guy
QuickBooks Guy
11 years ago

I truly am happy that he did fulfill what he was supposed to do, which was to reach out to you and everyone who heard his desire for happiness. I, for one, will continue to question if I need so much “stuff,” and that’s the greatest gift he gave me today by reading his story, for which I’m thankful for.

Scott NJ DAD
Scott NJ DAD
11 years ago

An excellent post, about an important topic, stuff or really consumerism. Here is the skinny in a nutshell. While we can detect even the slightest differences in human beings, we all recognize the inherent sameness between people. Few of us become chiefs, our senators, rock stars or any other real singularity. So we crave to differentiate ourselves from others. Whether that be by tattoos, behavior or possessions. For many people the easiest way is by accumulating things, buying things. Its fast/instantaneous and aside from the cash, it doesn’t take work (say like the lifetime of risky training to become an… Read more »

Isabelle
Isabelle
11 years ago

Thank you for sharing this story with me. None of us know when our time will be up – how great to know that we have lived, until that day, exactly how we wanted to. Sparky seems to have done just that.

Hats off to him.

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