Your money or your life. What about both?
The Wall Street Journal recently published an essay called In Praise of a Nomadic Life, by Andrew Blackman. It’s a story about a particular couple, a 40-ish man and woman who decided to live on the road, mostly in Europe so far, driving around in an old Toyota, staying in hotels, and living on about $100 a day. They both write freelance to cover their costs (Andrew wrote the piece that I read); she also teaches photography. They’ve been at it for a couple of years.
The essay is published in the WSJ category “wealth management” and when I noticed this, it got me thinking about how people plan for their lives, and for wellness. It’s not really a wealth management article. In terms of a managing money, Andrew writes: “Our plan is to earn more and start saving.” For now they live comfortably, spending a little more per month than they did when living in London, and covering costs as they go (an example follows with the image).
Financial planning is really not this couple’s thing. I mean, they seem to be doing fine, feeling safe and secure, and having fun, but they’re not thinking about the future. The whole point of their travel adventure is to not have to think about the future. He writes about how he used to pin his happiness on future events, and how life as a nomad has allowed him to live in the present and enjoy what he has. “At the risk of sounding like a slogan posted on Facebook, I would say that for the first time in my life, I am living in the present rather than dreaming about the future.”
I’m curious about how and why this approach works for them because it doesn’t usually work for me. Sometimes I use cash-in-my-pocket budgeting as a mental exercise that can lead to thrifty decision making. It can be useful. It’s attached in my mind to romantic ideas about simple living. But honestly? It gets tiring. There’s decision fatigue in general, and the ways that poverty taxes the brain specifically. I’m so grateful that the exercise is optional, that I’m not stuck counting dollars all the time.
I think the trade-off approach works best with a long-term planning perspective. Rather than spending money and then belt-tightening to offset the things you got or did, it works in the reverse: choose something you want in the future, and make adjustments now that will help you get there. I find that having a goal in mind makes present-moment compromises feel much better. This is how we saved for the Cricket adventure. Here’s another example —
Chris and I didn’t get tickets this year in Burning Man’s main sale. At first I was really disappointed and I focused on other ways that we could get in, like working for a camp. But we’ve been talking about building a home, and as soon as I made a mental connection between using the resources we would have spent on Burning Man towards the house, I could let go of my perceived need to go to Burning Man. I’d rather use the money towards (some of) a hydronic radiant floor heating system, and I’d rather spend the time tromping around potential lots.
This idea about perceived value isn’t all about money, either. On our Cricket travels, I sometimes felt worn down by making all sorts of choices in each new place: where to buy groceries, where to get wi-fi, where to get good beer, where to sleep, where to make friends. While a general expertise may be cultivated (such as, in the art of finding campsites) the individual decisions didn’t seem to ever add up to anything lasting. The next day, you start over again. I almost always wanted to stay longer in places so that I could build on what I’d done the day before. I like it when parts of my life run on routine; this frees up some decision-making energy for other, more interesting, present-moment activities. I feel unenlightened writing this, but I’m happiest when my “now” is connected to a future that I’m excited about creating.
p.s. If you’re curious, there are people writing about how to blend financial savvy with forms of happiness that aren’t reliant on stuff. Mr. Money Mustache is the best, in my opinion.