Skip to main content

The Last $Monday: Dumpster Dived FIRE

The cursed year 2020 is finally ending! Let us warm our cold, tired bodies beside this dumpster fire and, before it goes out, dive in to salvage the embers that will spark new joys in 2021. For example, this is the last $Monday post I am going to write for "Money Money 2020," but it won't be the last time I write about money at all. I am simply going to change my focus to clarify that money is a means, not an end--and that personal finance isn't the only means to achieve our ends. During the 2010s, many of us were briefly interested in the FIRE movement (Financial Independence, Retire Early) and ultimately discarded it as neither practical nor joyful for most people, because it only works if you can score yourself a six-figure income as a young adult (unrealistic for most Americans) and if your big life goals can wait until you're middle-aged (in other words, if you're willing to risk running out of time before running out of money). 

There are components of FIRE that can serve anyone, even the poors and the debt-burdened bourgeoisie (planning ahead, prioritizing needs and wants, living simply, reducing waste, working hard, investing wisely). But these practices alone won't make us rich, and getting rich alone won't grant us health or happiness.

In fact, one of the lessons I am taking from the 2020 dumpster fire is that private wealth is not the only way, or even the best way, for individuals to achieve life satisfaction. It is lovely to have one's needs met and not have to worry about money every day. But no one should need to compile millions of dollars in private assets to feel able to retire with their basic needs met. Learning to enjoy a lower cost of living is easier than hoarding riches that must be constantly managed to cover a complicated, expensive life.

The pieces I'm taking with me out of the FIRE movement are practices that can help people achieve their dreams regardless of whether they ever get rich. The ability to plan ahead, delay gratification, and trust in a long-term strategy is a skill set that virtually anyone needs to be able to do anything of worth. Poverty can create barriers to developing those skills when people are denied opportunities to make safe investments of time and patience and achieve successful results. But wealth can also rob rich people of those skills by letting their brains and constitutions atrophy with the assumption that they can just pay for whatever they want on demand. It can rot a formerly intelligent, well-loved, healthy, attractive, successful person so thoroughly that they die a miserable and lonely death at a young age. Yikes! 

Fortunately, you don't need to get personally rich and then start to work on accomplishing whatever it is you want to do with your one wild and precious life. If you add collaboration to the skill of long-term strategizing--gathering an emotionally invested team of people and a borrowed toolbox of resources such as good old "OPM" (Other People's Money)--or identify clever ways to avoid costs, you can achieve a big goal without waiting to get rich first. In the non-profit world, we value the skill of grant writing, and we understand that volunteering benefits the givers of time and talent as well as the community at large.

Prioritizing needs and wants isn't just a way to save money either. It's a way to maximize your enjoyment of life. Pruning away your annoyances, low-value work, unhealthy relationships, draining commitments, and self-sabotaging habits aren't just ways to save money, they are ways to spend more of your life on what is actually important and fulfilling to you. Yes, you can save money by working on your impulse control issues. But money is not the most important thing you'll save. It is possible to regain lost wealth, but you can never earn back lost time. If you blow your 20s on... blow, or whatever, you can't ever get those years back. Figure out what you truly want out of your life as early as possible--family? true friendship? adventure? contributions in your field of study? creative freedom?--and you'll get to enjoy more of it, for longer.

Developing a taste for simple pleasures and reducing waste are also quality-of-life issues, not just personal finance issues. It might be fun to splurge sometimes, but it isn't fun to be high-maintenance and messy. As The Olds are known to say, "Everything in moderation, including moderation!" There is a very big, roomy, welcoming, happy place in between taking a vow of poverty and requiring a staff to follow you around and clean up your vomit. During quarantine, many people discovered alternatives to bar-hopping and casual restaurant gluttony that they've ended up enjoying so much that they might never go back to their old habits, even when they can. People have rediscovered nature walks, picnics, cooking and baking, guilt-free rest, new or reinvigorated hobbies, and spending deeper quality time with fewer loved ones. Those who push through the initial discomfort of change and the disappointment of losing a familiar comfort sometimes find something they end up liking even better on the other side.

The ability to work hard is a solid life skill, but working hard at something you hate just for a paycheck sucks. It sucks the soul right out of your body. Again, how many years of your life are you willing to sell for what amount of money? Having a job that makes you feel good about what you do is important to your health and lifelong happiness, and that is tough to put a price tag on. Are you willing to give up your reproductive years, your marriage, the last years of your parents' lives, your children's childhoods, your own physical and mental health? Could any amount of money compensate you for years of miserable drudgery in service of a master you don't respect? If you have any choice at all (and most of us have more choices than we are comfortable admitting to ourselves), don't choose the highest salary if it's not worth the human cost. Yoke those hunched shoulders to the weight of your own dreams. Don't just "pay yourself first," work for yourself first.


In 2021, I'm going to continue making good financial decisions for myself and my family, and I'm not going to make my bank account my top priority. Through my work, which pays a living wage and not much more, I will continue to work on a team that advocates for economic justice and basic human rights, promoting the idea that our whole society and everyone in it would be better off if every person enjoyed guaranteed rights to clean water, clean air, nutritious food, adequate shelter, reasonable safety, personal freedom that does not impinge upon others', health care, and anything else necessary for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. No one should be forced to toil in inhumane conditions, for masters and missions they don't believe in, under the threat of losing their life or liberty to the punishing machine of late-stage capitalism.

My hope is that personal finance becomes less important in the 2020s as we learn to take better care of one another and to value the essential work that keeps us going, no matter how much it pays. I believe that a strong safety net supports personal initiative because it gives people respect, self-esteem, and the freedom to work according to their own values, not just the value placed on their productivity by a soulless marketplace. I want to witness the evolution from a mindless growth economy to a mindful culture that serves quality of life over quantity of profit. I sure hope we can all take away some valuable lessons from this terrible year.

By the sacred light of this dying dumpster fire, may it be so.


Popular posts from this blog

35 Great Things About Turning 35

The prime of life starts at 35! It's the best-kept secret from younger people, but your 35th birthday is a major cause for celebration. For mine, I have made my own listicle of 35 reasons why experts agree that 35 is the best age to be: You get to say, "I'm 35." The number 35 carries so much more gravitas than 30, but you're only a few years older. At 34, I've started fudging my age--by adding a year. People automatically take me seriously, and if they don't, at least they tell me I look young for my age. (Eye roll, hair toss, "whatever.")    35-year-olds DGAF. Inner chill reaches new heights at 35. Despite its #2 status on this list, it's the #1 response I hear about what's best about hitting 35. My gorgeous friend Nerlie was beautiful and resilient and wise beyond her years in high school, but now, at age 35, she gets to fully enjoy being herself on her own terms. She writes,  "I've survived so much that I don't

TBT: The Magic of Essential Oils

Oh essential oils, beloved friend of loopy-goopy women of my own demographic marketing cohort, along with magic crystals, mystic doulas, organic pesticides, multi-level-marketed leggings, anything labeled as "herbal supplements," and alternatives to vaccination. The essential oil craze is something that has a basis in scientifically verifiable reality but has been endowed with magical, holy, pseudo-scientific properties for marketing purposes. I bought into it wholeheartedly before I learned that not all that crunches is harmless. All too often, legitimate fears based in reality (of toxic chemicals, unnecessary medical interventions, pharmaceutical side effects, etc.) are stoked to induce women like me to jump from the frying pan and into the fire of an "alternative" that may be at least as harmful as what it is supposedly protecting me and my family from. I still use certain essential oils for cleaning and other purposes, and I think everything I've stated in t

Pocket of Joy: Renovating to Love, Not to List

My mom and I have watched Love It or List It for years, and it's no surprise to us that most families choose to stay in their own, customized home rather than move into a new, blank box. The qualities that make a house a home are not the same qualities that make a marketable real estate property. Houses sell better when they are whitewashed into sterile, blank boxes where a new homeowner can come in and add their own personalized color and texture. If you're rich like the people on LIOLI , you can custom build a personalized home from scratch or personalize a market-fresh house in a short time, but even so, it's easier to stay in an already-customized house than to start over.  For regular people who aren't rich, turning a house into a home takes even more creativity, hard work, and time. But working class people certainly can create beloved homes. I've seen dream homes created from the tiniest of tiny houses in the humblest of neighborhoods, in trailer parks, in a

$Monday: Bog Witch Style on a Budget

Autumn in a pandemic is the perfect time to tap into your inner bog witch with wild hair, cozy clothes, forest rituals, creepy cats, fire, books of spells, and Dark Cottagecore home decor mood boards on Pinterest . You don't have to live in a literal swamp. The word "bog" comes from a Gaelic term for "soft," and it sounds nearly identical to Slavic words for gods or divinity with Proto-Slavic roots that refer to earthly fortune. Bog witches burrow into the true goodness of life nestled beneath all the hustle and polish and show of making a living. They focus on soft wealth and spiritual power. The vibe is slow, earthy, comfy, moody, sneakily seductive, maybe sticky, wise rather than smart, preferring old things to new, charming rather than impressive. It's about harmonizing with the natural environment, blending, melting, enveloping, and sinking into earthy, downward energy. Bog witchery vibes with hygge, friluftsliv , and the indigenous earth wisdom of whe

A Lightbulb Moment

All the lights are on! This weekend, my dad finished installing our kitchen cabinets as well as three pendant lights that hang above them. Hallelujah, let there be light! Now we can finally see what we're doing, giving us a boost of productivity by providing both visual access and a more pleasant work environment--which will soon become a warm, welcoming place to cook and eat and converse! This bright, warm light is a great metaphor for something else I've realized over the course my month-long home renovation staycation--which, though hard and busy, has been a clean break from my nonprofit work, my novel-writing creative work, and most of my social life too. I had an "aha" moment about illuminating the kitchen that my family has designed and built ourselves with a set of clear, warm lights that my husband and I chose together, as well as the fact that we are no longer living in other people's stuff. We're approaching 40 now, and we've finally been able t

No Cook Summer Snacks

We've been living without a kitchen for over a month now while we renovate, and while I miss baking and cooking, it's also a little bit nice to not have to cook. My family doesn't have a daily takeout budget (or else we'd be paying someone else to renovate our kitchen, obviously), so we've relied on my parents to share their kitchen and home-cooked meals with us in addition to setting up a makeshift pantry in our living room filled with foods that don't need to be cooked. During a hot summer, even when we have a fully functioning kitchen, it's nice to have some things on hand that don't need to be cooked with a stove or oven--or even a grill outside on scorching days. Whether or not you have a lovely kitchen that works, anyone can stay a little cooler and enjoy a little more time to relax this summer by stocking up on no-cook snacks such as... in-season fruits and veggies that can be enjoyed raw hummus, salsa, liquid nacho cheese (no judgment), or any ot

Pocket of Joy: Heirloom Tomatoes

Among the joys of homegrown veggies and fruits, heirloom tomatoes rise the highest above their grocery store cousins. Nothing cultivated to survive mass production and shipping to supermarkets can compare to the flavor of a homegrown heirloom tomato. Heirlooms come in a startling variety of shapes, sizes, and colors with great variation in flavor and texture as well. The bright, shiny, red, smooth, uniform-looking tomatoes that show up in grocery stores have been hybridized to enhance production and durability at the expense of flavor. There isn't anything wrong with eating grocery store tomatoes in terms of health, but once you taste the sweet, brilliant complexity of an heirloom tomato, you understand right away how different and special they are. If you can't or don't wish to grow heirloom tomatoes yourself, and if you don't have green-thumbed and generous family or friends willing to invite you over for grilled bruschetta this summer (oh, the tragedy!), you can usua

Pocket of Joy: Old Books

Old books! You can judge them by their shabby chic covers, because they function as objets d'art and objects of desire on a shelf no matter what stories they tell inside. Books with leather bindings, books embossed and edged in gold, books with plates and illustrations and fancy lettering inside, books that give off the subtle scent of an aged library, books with fraying ribbon markers and tactile spines. Old books are charming, comforting, and, when they aren't first edition antiques, they are usually cheap. The stories told inside of old books can also be wonderful and so thick and rich that you can revisit them again and again, each time discovering something new or forgotten, as fans of Jane Austen and George Eliot know well. Those were stories built to last the ages. An old book can be a roundly multi-sensory experience. I once picked up an old maiden volume by Anthony Trollope that had never been read--and I know, because I had to rustle up an antique book knife to cut ap

Pocket of Joy: Hot Gourd Summer

The corn has grown past "knee high by the Fourth of July," and so have the sunflowers. The delicious bean plants keep trying to climb up their tall sisters' stalks, though the cute, fuzzy creatures of the neighborhood keep trimming them down. And in one very green corner of the garden, the zombie trash gourds have returned! Last year, they volunteered to take over my compost and apple wood stick piles, and this year, they popped out of the front yard garden (after I spread compost there) to say: it's time for another hot gourd summer! The Fourth of July fireworks are all used up and done; it is now legal to look forward to Halloween. Pumpkin spice girls and bog witches, rejoice with me! And pray to every curly shoot and warty bump that by the time these decorative gooseneck gourds ripen, my witchy kitchen will be finished and ready to display them on rustic cherry open shelves against shady green walls. Until then, it's a joy to let the gourd plants' broad gre

Check Out My...

Pantry! We slapped in some fun and easy, removable wallpaper and dug around in the garage until we found this functional beauty, a commercial-grade speed rack abandoned by a former roommate long ago.  The wallpaper is also pretty old, leftover from a project in my parents' former house. Weirdly, I just saw it featured in a bookcase in an episode of Love It or List It . As seen on TV! While we renovate, we've been going through lots of old stuff in the garage, attic, and shed to donate, throw away, or, occasionally, use in the new kitchen. I've unearthed some VERY interesting and exciting treasures from deep inside the garden shed, which I hope to show off soon.  Things are getting very bog witchy around here indeed!