What is money for? An evening with Vicki Robin

What is money for? An evening with Vicki Robin

Your Money or Your LifeWhen I was a boy, my heroes were athletes and astronauts. I dreamed of playing pro football one day. Or, better yet, walking on the moon.

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”.

Interlude
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.

In short:

  • 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?

Vicki RobinIn 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:

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.)

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WantNot
WantNot

What a heart-warming post, J.D.! I’m not really part of the FI/RE crowd, but I am impressed that there is such a strongly bonded network among you all. Vicki Robin has been an inspiration to so many—just as you have. What an insightful revelation she gave about you being “relational”—-that desire for connection may also account to the unique and personally warm nature of your writing: it always seems that you are talking directly to your reader—-well, especially this one! With this post you’ve just reminded me how important it is to spend time with people who can give us… Read more »

Zigggy
Zigggy

Videotape your next conversation with someone like Vicki. Boom, there’s your youtube channel 🙂

Nirav Patel
Nirav Patel

Hi JD, I have long been a follower of yours and appreciate that you mentioned the Matrix. I have long thought of the Matrix as an allegory for modern capitalism with its sometimes strange and wicked overlords and enforcers (the pale twins in the second one). I also want to retire early to escape because I have never known a world where work was about doing something meaningful. It has always been about doing something so another guy higher in the food chain gets rich. I look forward to the day when I am independent enough and have the energy… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo

Wow, she seems awesome! And I appreciate her strong analytical powers. I would say though, I’m okay with self-interest. Because it’s up to each individual to decide how they contribute, and to whom, and for what. I love my family, you love a cause, she loves stray kitties, he loves golf—only each person can decide for themselves who or what they love, or else we’re doomed, and love is worthless. As long as we’re free to choose, freedom is worth something. What freedom is for, is up to each person. Otherwise, it’s not freedom. Right? We have to accept that… Read more »

Alexander Stewart
Alexander Stewart

Another awesome post JD, thank you! I wholeheartedly agree with Vicki. I am the kind of person that needs to be engaged with others and actively contributing towards a worthwhile objective, otherwise I don’t feel fulfilled. The idea of “retiring” from work and sitting around doing nothing (or pursuing purely hedonistic interests) doesn’t sound so great to me (well, maybe for a few weeks!). I’d get bored and unhappy pretty darn quick. I think the key is taking a detailed personal inventory and finding something (or a few things!) that you are really passionate about. Then go for it. It… Read more »

OtherSG
OtherSG

Both the Talk and the dinner sound wonderful! YMOYL had an enormous impact on me, so on the one hand I’d love to meet VR (as a PNWer, it’s possible), but on the other hand… what have I done since reading (and re-readingX2) YMOYL since 1996? In 2014, I achieved my dream of first-time house ownership (okay, borrowing from the bank until it’s mine). In some ways ideas from YMOYL helped make that happen, but now that I’m here I’m realizing, ‘How do I retire early with a mortgage and a house I want to fix up/remodel?’. Those things don’t… Read more »

S.G.
S.G.

I’ve been around a long time, I just used to go by a different name.

Garrett
Garrett

”but now that I’m here I’m realizing, ‘How do I retire early with a mortgage and a house I want to fix up/remodel?’. Those things don’t fit in a FIRE world”

Have you read any of MrMoneyMustache’s articles? He’s vehemently disagree with your assessment. But that’s also because carpentry/fixing up houses is his idea of fun. He’s fully FIRE, with a fully paid off house.

S.G.
S.G.

What format were you thinking for your channel? It seems like videoed coaching sessions is right up your alley. Kinda like Dave Ramsey’s channel but longer form.

Jennifer
Jennifer

Rather than a YouTube channel, what about a podcast? You can easily do that without worrying about film quality and the person you converse with can be anywhere.

I’d listen.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo

Me too, much more so than watch a video.

I listen to podcasts and audio magazines while working out, doing chores, driving, etc.

Staring at a screen… I need a bigger offer. Kal Penn’s new show on Amazon keeps my attention. The rubber episode was great!

JoDi
JoDi

This is exactly what I was going to suggest! I listen to podcasts all the time and would listen to a podcast by JD in a heartbeat. It would be so much easier to produce, but YouTube videos are probably better for monetization. I wouldn’t really watch them though – I would turn one on and listen while I work, but I’d be unlikely to sit down and watch one. I listen to tons of podcasts because I can listen while doing other things, but I only follow 2 YouTubers and watch the 1 or 2 videos each one posts… Read more »

Carolyn
Carolyn

Great suggestion! So many of us catch those while commuting. I know I do. Last impressionable one was Freakinomic’s “Should America Be Run By Trader Joe’s?” Hysterical and thought provoking!

CD
CD

Thank you JD. You were the one who got me started on the path of FI way back in 2006-2007 and I was FI in less than 10 years. Btw I am based out of India so it is indeed possible anywhere in the world.
All thanks to you and Trent Hamm to get me introduced to this movement.

fay
fay

Hi I’m new to this ‘so wonderful, I don’t think I’m gonna make it to the FIRE world’. I’m glad you brought GRS back as I would never have come across it. Recent convert (2018). I’m trying to get into the FI world however it seems impossible for someone just starting new. However I’m giving it a go. I’ve reduced my credit card spending by a third. The third that I’m looking to cut will go further into my savings. I just need to look at investing my savings in the UK (United Kingdom). I agree with VJ, that people… Read more »

Angelica
Angelica

Great post, although I know plenty of dedicated people who contribute mightily to their communities while working full-time as well. We are exhausted, and yes, we might do it 3/4 time if we were financially independent, but I want to be clear working and contributing/making a difference are not exclusive.

And if I missed that part it’s because I’m pre-coffee. 🙂

S.G.
S.G.

That’s an interesting point. I didn’t interpret the comment that way. I think the point was just about people who don’t have the commitment of full time work using that extra time well and how FIRE is often so self-centric.

I think people with FT jobs who still manage to volunteer would get an extra gold star.

v
v

Loved reading about your experience. So happy for you you got to meet one of your heroes! Her advice for you sounds sage!

katherine
katherine

Love this!! I agree with Angelica, plenty of us workers contribute to our communities everyday. They are not mutually exclusive. They are however, very rewarding.

olga
olga

That sentence at the end “you are a relationship guy, not informational” was such a great “bingo” for me. I identify it as “I am an introvert” sort of thing. I used to teach yoga as a side-kick a lot, and I loved it, but starting every class was extremely difficult and scary. It’d take me a number of minutes of shaky voice and profuse sweating prior getting into the flow (which, luckily, would always happen). Same was going to giving monthly presentations at the various university labs I worked in for 20 years. In the end, despite taking extra… Read more »

Sebastien Aguilar
Sebastien Aguilar

I wish I could have attended as well! I agree 100% with Vicki. In the majority of the FI conversations “People are using FIRE as a way to escape something,” “not as a way to pursue something bigger.” Most people are pursuing FIRE because they’re not finding meaning in their work and see freedom as a way to happiness. And I 100% agree. That’s how it went for me. The problem is that we’re so focused on FIRE that we forget to speak about what really matters: working towards a happy and fulfilling life. I believe people have forgotten how… Read more »

Louisa
Louisa

JD, Vicki is one of my heroes, too! I read YMOYL back around 1997. She named and identified practices I was happily already doing, but didn’t have a label for. It took me a few years, but I am gratefully FI and love it. I do work when I feel like it (training, coaching, writing). And one of my forms of community service is travel, because of the way my husband and I travel. We go out of our way to have conversations with locals, are curious and friendly, invite them over to our temporary place (hotel or airbnb), work… Read more »

David Pickering
David Pickering

JD,
Thanks for taking up this quest to help all of us by sharing your passion for financial independence.

Dorf
Dorf

Hi J.D., I wanted to go to this talk, but, interestingly, they had a sliding scale for the price of admission, dependent on income, and my ticket would have cost $75. My expectation of price for these kind of talks is $10-15. It really put into perspective for me how cheaply I am able to enjoy so many things, and how for others it represents a bigger bite of disposable income It remained a mental exercise, though, because I couldn’t bring myself to spend it! Even knowing another one of my heroes was there-you-well, I wish I had gone, but… Read more »

Paula Pant
Paula Pant

My unsolicited two cents (and feel free to ignore me):

Forget about the Youtube channel. You’re an amazing writer, and you love the practice and craft of writing. Stick with that. The best ‘strategy’ is to do the thing you do best, and don’t worry about the rest. Develop one platform well, not two or three platforms half-heartedly. If you need inspiration, read Essentialism by Greg McKeown.

tim clare
tim clare

I resonate with Vicki’s message and have never been comfortable with the FIRE acronym, especially what it means to ‘Retire”. Maybe we could start a FISH movement… Financially Independent / Serve Humanity; after all, meaning and happiness are bundled up in using our talents to help others. FISH is about expanding our lives and doing it on our terms, in a way that sparks joy. I’m sure many FIREys already feel this way but the message conveyed to the broader community can become confusing.

Brandon Weaver
Brandon Weaver

Hi to you as well JD! What a nice treat to read the article and see our brief interlude shared:-)

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