I am wearing a sweater. It was made in Italy, from some of the fuzziest sheepies on the planet. New it cost more than $100; I know because it had the original tags on it when I bought it, never worn. I got it for $3 at a thrift store, because it was irresistibly tasty to the ubiquitous keratin loving Tineidae moths — like some of my other woolens, it has a few holes. That doesn’t mean it isn’t soft and warm. Last night my friend Elana got a cute little Smartwool top for $6 that would have cost $60 across the parking lot at Neptune’s: another 90% discount courtesy of the insect world. This is a repeatable exercise. How do these things lose virtually all of their monetary value, while retaining so much of their sweatery goodness? The answer I think, is that we have imbued many material things with powers beyond their physical existence. A merino sweater is not just a way to stay warm and dry while riding your bike uphill. It is also a way to signal to the other hairless apes that you are of a certain class, or even ideological bent. Our things have become a means of communication, a way of transmitting information. These are some very expensive bits and bytes.
I realize that this isn’t news. We’ve been doing this kind of thing with shells and feathers for almost as long as we’ve been human. I only bring it up because recently, I’ve found that the information these artifacts transmit to me has been turned on its head. Having a thing only implies wealth if you have to pay for the thing ahead of time. In a debt based economy, having a thing means you have promised your future labors to the Rumpelstiltskin thing-brokers far away in their tall sky scrapers. Today, to have a thing more often implies a kind of indentured servitude. A poverty of time and flexibility. And what other kind of poverty is there, really? What other kind of wealth besides the freedom to choose how you spend your few remaining days on Earth?
Wealth and cash flow are too often confused. I remember hearing the story of Glen Pizzolorusso, a mortgage banker who was making $75k-$100k a month and spending all of it and more. This is a novel kind of high money flux poverty. I prefer to think of wealth — monetary wealth anyway — in units of time instead of dollars. The unfortunate BMW driver above was losing several future days of his life every month, even assuming he could continue “earning” that kind of money indefinitely, which of course it turned out he could not. When the trap door fell out from under him, his accumulated debt inflated to represent a much greater span of time. He was in effect making a career out of throwing nickels under steamrollers, instead of picking them up.
At the other end of the spectrum, and apparently far less newsworthy, is a friend of mine from college who worked as a Perl programmer for a hedge fund in Pasadena. He lived like an unusually frugal student. Every couple of years, he’d try to take some time off to go play outside. Every couple of years, they’d give him a raise instead. After about a decade of this, he finally quit. They asked him how much it would cost to keep him around, and were confused by his response. No amount of money could make him stay. He had accumulated enough to live his preferred nomadic lifestyle indefinitely. Additional money had no further utility. Now he lives out of a pickup truck and climbs trees in British Columbia, collecting and photographing lichen and fungi. As long as he is content with this way of life, his temporal wealth is bounded only by his lifespan.
All this to say, there is only one way to become rich: you must spend less than you make. There are two strategies you can employ in this goal: making more, or spending less. If you think of wealth in terms of free time and future flexibility, then these approaches are almost entirely interchangeable.
What do you want to want?
Would you rather spend two weeks on a cruise to Hawai’i, or a year bike touring in Latin America? They both cost the same amount. One lets you learn another language, ensures that you are in fantastic physical condition, and gives you memories and cultural exposure that will last the rest of your life.
We often prioritize making more money, and are willing to rearrange our lives in the service of that goal. We will move across the country, leaving friends and family behind. We will commute three hours round trip. We will buy fancy clothes and cars, fancy phones and MBAs, all to impress our business associates. We seem less willing in the US to adapt ourselves to spending less and enjoying it, but it’s a cultivatable skill. To do so you have to tune out much of the world. You have to inoculate yourself against our consumptive norms. You have to be able to conspire with yourself and others to enjoy cheap and free things. An enormous component of enjoyment is social, and not an intrinsic property of the activity or possession in question. We enjoy what others enjoy because we are a tribe-forming animal. Pleasure, like misery, loves company. This evolutionary tendency has been exploited by the people who want to sell us things, but we can also make use of it, and cultivate social networks around that which is free. We can have potlucks and picnics instead of going out to eat. We can play folk music at home and read library books together instead of going out to $10 movies and $50 concerts. We can hike and bike and camp and lounge at the beach or riverside, rather than going shopping or golfing or on weekend wine-tasting excursions. We have broad latitude to choose what we enjoy, to decide what it is we want to want. We don’t have to listen to the Big Lie that spending more, beyond meeting your basic needs, improves your quality of life.