What is money for? An evening with Vicki Robin
As an adult, my heroes are more mundane. They're the people who make personal finance accessible to average people. Long-time readers know that billionaire investor Warren Buffett is one of my heroes. So too is Dave Ramsey, who has helped countless people — including me — get out of debt.
But perhaps my biggest hero is an unassuming 73-year-old woman in cat-eye glasses who lives on Whidbey Island in Washington's Puget Sound.
In 1992, Vicki Robin (and her partner, Joe Dominguez) published Your Money or Your Life, a book designed to help readers transform their relationship with money. In 2004, the book transformed my relationship with money. It rocked my world. It inspired me to seek financial independence, which the book defines as “no longer having to work for money”.
Fast-forward fifteen years.
Today, in 2019, I'm awe-struck to actually be exchanging email with Vicki Robin, discussing the past, present, and future of financial independence. And this week, when she came to Portland, I not only got to hear her speak in person, but also got to treat her to dinner.
Your Money or Your Life
Last night, Douglas Tsoi, founder of the Portland Underground Graduate School and the School of Financial Freedom, hosted a talk from Vicki Robin. A few dozen money nerds — including some GRS readers (Hi, Scott! Hi, Brandon!) — gathered to hear Robin's thoughts about financial independence.
For the sake of clarity, I've taken some liberties in what follows. I haven't changed any of Robin's ideas, but I've shifted some topics and quotes in order to create a smoother, more coherent flow for the blog. I've treated Robin's Q&A responses, for instance, as if they're part of the main talk. A real journalist would be mortified. I am not a real journalist.
Some folks in the audience were unfamiliar with Your Money or Your Life, so Robin started by briefly recapping the book's message.
The goal of Your Money or Your Life, Robin says, is to transform your relationship with money in order to liberate your most precious resource, time. The book's nine-step program is meant to help readers track the flow of money and stuff in their lives, guided by both self-interest (“does it work for me?”) and higher values (“does it work for the world?”).
It's natural that we act in our own self-interest. If we aren't right with ourselves, it's tough be of service to others. But Robin worries that too many people get stuck in the self-interest side of things and never move beyond that, never see how achieving financial independence gives them the freedom to leave a lasting, positive impression on the world.
Like me, she wants people to “live on purpose”.
After Robin's talk, a GRS reader named Brandon introduced himself to me. “Thanks for the work you do,” he said. “Especially what you share about mission and purpose.”
“Has that been useful for you?” I asked. “I feel it's important, but sometimes I feel like I'm writing into a vacuum. I don't know if it actually helps anybody.”
“Yes, absolutely,” Brandon said. “My wife and I have both done your personal mission statement exercise. It's helped to give our lives direction. It's very useful.”
A Story of Money
“In the western world, we live in a story of money,” Robin says. “On a personal level, this usually means that more is better. Whatever you have, a little bit more is better.” Our society is built around this narrative, which is pushed on us from all sides. (Even minimalism turns out to be about having more: “I have more less.”)
We're all living this story together.
While the definition of financial independence in Your Money or Your Life is “no longer having to work for money”, Robin stresses that being FI isn't about not working. Financial independence doesn't mean leaving your job. It doesn't mean seeking a life of idleness. Financial independence is about being independent from consumer culture, from the default ideology of the western world.
“There's an ongoing campaign to convince people that they need more than they have. We've been persuaded we need more stuff. We're constantly bombarded by messages of more.”
Robin isn't immune to these messages. She recently considered buying a laptop case for when she travels.
“A useful question for me when I'm in the presence of something I must have is: Who wins if I buy this? Do I win? Or does somebody else win? Maybe I win a teeny bit by getting a computer case, but the company that sells it is the real winner.”
She smiled. “Besides, I'd probably just misplace the new case in my office. I'd be better off wrapping my computer in a towel!”
A New Story
Your Money or Your Life is meant to help readers see the world through different eyes. It's meant to help people escape Plato's Cave, to free themselves from the Matrix. When you reject the standard narrative, you're able to define what's valuable to you, what is enough for you.
“Moderating your consumption is resisting the dominant narrative,” Robin says. “It's a sort of independence, a sort of freedom. It's opting out of the idea that growth is good.”
When Robin and Dominguez wrote Your Money or Your Life, their aim was to help readers “liberate their life energy” so that they could use that energy to pursue what brings them (and the world around them) value.
“If everyone could do what they're called to do, the world would be a better place,” Robin says.
Robin thinks it's time for society to create a new shared narrative. She believes it's time to set aside the story of money, to adopt a story that works toward the common good, not just the individual good.
How do we do this? She's been thinking about this for years (and it's the subject of her next book). Her advice reminds me of Action Girl's guide to living, which I shared in 2006 when Get Rich Slowly was a baby blog.
- Find others who are doing work of value. Work with them.
- Help them bring forth something the makes life better for everybody.
- Allow them to help you.
Financial independence isn't an ultimate purpose. It's a means to an end. It allows us to put ourselves in a position to contribute to society, to take care of others (children, elders, whomever).
What Is Money For?
In 1989, when they started writing the book, Robin and Dominguez had been teaching their financial freedom workshop for ten years. They'd seen that, on average, attendees were able to decrease their spending between 20% and 25%. What's more, folks were happier. And they were consuming less.
When they decided to write Your Money or Your Life, they had two objectives.
- They wanted to liberate people to be of service.
- They wanted to liberate the planet from consumerism.
When Robin updated the book 25 years later, she felt discouraged. Instead of a reduction in consumerism, it seemed like the world had “gone further down the path of degradation”. Her goal with her revisions was to reach a new generation of readers.
As she worked on the new edition, she was pleased and humbled to discover that — unbeknownst to her — she'd helped inspire an entire movement: the FIRE movement. (FIRE is a clumsy acronym for Financial Independence and Early Retirement.)
But she was saddened to see that many of the folks pursuing financial independence were motivated purely by self-interest. They had no desire to be of service. They weren't pursuing a higher aim.
“People are using FIRE as a way to escape something,” Robin says, “not as a way to pursue something bigger.” She wishes more folks would use financial independence as a platform to pursue large goals, to change their communities — and the world.
“What is freedom for?” she asked the audience last night. “What is FIRE for? Once money is no longer your story, what is your story? Who am I? What makes my life worth living? Who are my people?”
Life After Work
Robin says we don't talk about these ideas as a society. We don't talk about what a post-work “story” would look like. “If money is our religion,” Robin says, “then our jobs are the central rituals. Work is what we do from the time we're born until the time we die.”
She believes we're all meant for more than work. We want to apply our life energy to things that we think are valuable.
“We are born to contribute,” she says. We're born to be useful, to be a meaningful part of our communities. “To say that work is only to get income is to befuddle the mind. I've left paid employment but I haven't left work.”
Now, she works on improving herself and on improving society. “I work for the benefit of all every moment of my life.”
Robin spent some time talking about the difference between work and play. She says: “I aspire, as I do my work in the world, to do it with a spirit of play. To do it with a spirit of curiosity. To not make anybody an enemy. I think that's something to aspire to.” I agree whole-heartedly!
Robin's talk — and the Q&A that followed — was dense with information. I've only summarized the main points. For my own reference (and the reference of those who attended), here are are two interesting concepts that she referred to in passing:
- Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, a 1930 essay from economist John Maynard Keynes, in which he posits a fifteen-hour work week.
- Manfred Max-Neef's taxonomy of fundamental human needs, which is a matrix of “existential needs” and “axiological needs”. (I've never heard of this before but want to take a deep dive into it. It looks interesting.)
Robin concluded her talk by sharing some of the new ideas she's been exploring over the past few years. “What if we could have financial independence for everyone?” she asked. What would that look like? Is it even possible?
She's still hashing out these ideas as she writes her next book.
Dinner with Vicki Robin
As much as I enjoyed Robin's talk last night, I enjoyed taking her to Thai food on Monday even more.
Sometimes when we meet our heroes, we're disappointed. I was not disappointed. I was impressed with Robin's quick mind. I also liked how she'd ask questions without hesitation, trying to dig deeper into my motives and meaning.
For example, I shared how I struggle when I'm put in a position of authority. I don't like being treated like a money expert because I don't feel like a money expert. As a result, I'm reluctant to speak in front of large audiences. And I'm dragging my feet when it comes to setting up the Get Rich Slowly channel on YouTube.
On the other hand, I love meeting people one on one. I enjoy talking with readers about their financial situations, asking questions about their choices, trying to find solutions to their problems.
After listening for a few moments, Robin cut to the core: “You're preferred mode is relational,” she said, “not informational.”
It was a simple statement, but it made a big impression on me. She's right. (My therapist once told me I'm a “relationship guy”.) I need to consider this when choosing how to proceed with projects. Maybe I'm struggling with the YouTube channel because I don't want to be a talking head. Maybe instead I need to film myself in conversation with others.
“Maybe you should let people pay you to do coaching calls,” Robin suggested. “And you might want to consider doing more partnerships. You should work with Douglas Tsoi on his School of Financial Freedom.” I think she's right.
Anyhow, the past couple of days have made me feel like a boy again. But instead of dreaming about my heroes, I actually got to meet and talk with one. Isn't life crazy? (And I have high hopes that I'll get to meet and talk with Vicki Robin again in the not-so-distant future.)