If there is one myth that needs to be busted, it is that one must live a minimalist, ascetic lifestyle in order to be an environmentalist. You know what I mean: the stereotypical vegan naturalist who only travels by bicycle, makes her own clothes from handpicked wild cotton, and washes and re-uses her Saran wrap. If you are an environmentalist and you want to live like that, go for it. It's your life and your choice. Fill your boots.
But I am here to say you don't have to live meagerly and miserly just because you care about the environment. You also don't need a high paying job with a high profile company, nor do you need to invent the next big revolutionary green technology. In fact, you can make a very decent living and achieve a comfortable degree of wealth while working in the environmental area and living a low impact lifestyle. I know because... well, I know people who have done it.
The Big Reveal: how to achieve financial wealth while being an environmentalist
The answer is simple: learn how to properly manage your personal finances. That's it. The catch is: it's simple, but it's not easy. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.
I say this because I have met many many people working in the environmental / sustainability field who know a lot about climate change, water conservation, and other environmental matters, but who have little or no understanding of sound personal financial management. Some practitioners have multiple degrees in science, engineering, law, and even business management, but their personal finances are in disarray.
Because personal financial management is not part of the curriculum for many students, you will often have to teach yourself. That is what I did. There are many websites and books dedicated to personal financial management, but personally I recommend starting with David Chilton's The Wealthy Barber*. It was one of the most influential and memorable books I read when I was doing my graduate studies in environmental science back in the 1990s.
It wasn't required reading for any of my courses, and none of my professors or fellow students mentioned it. I read it because I happened to see it in a bookstore and it looked interesting. I saw the title and wondered how in the world could a barber be wealthy? Well, as it turns out, by understanding some basic personal financial management principles, such as:
- What it means to "pay yourself first"
- Managing your spending and paying off your loans and debts
- When and how to buy a home and how mortgages work
- What a (registered) retirement savings plan is
- When and why you should have a will and life insurance
- When and how to save and when and how to invest
Personal financial management is not so much about how much you earn as it is what you do with your money after you earn it. In his book The Wealthy Barber Returns (2011), Chilton sets out following seven money lessons:
- Live within your means. Learn to distinguish your desires for instant gratification from basic human needs like food, shelter and clothing.
- Pay yourself first. Set aside 10 to 15 per cent of your pre-retirement gross earnings in forced savings.
- Control spending. Spend wisely. Avoid impulse buying.
- Limit borrowing. Aim to be debt-free by retirement.
- Invest prudently. Have realistic expectations about investing. Don't try to predict winners or time the market.
- Be happy while saving. Cherish what you have while you save for the future.
- Take a long-term view. Pay down debt now, especially if you're vulnerable to rising interest rate, and maximize your Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP) contributions.
These lessons apply to everyone, including environmental practitioners and environmentalists. In fact when you think about it, the lessons are totally consistent and compatible with the values that environmentalists hold dear: conserve, save, nurture, don't waste. And the younger you are when you learn and apply these principles the better off you will be in the long run. You will waste less money, you will have a comfortable lifestyle and be you will be better prepared for life's "oh no" moments and for your retirement.
So, if you are an environmentalist who wants to live an ascetic lifestyle, help yourself. No one will stop you. But if you are an environmentalist who wants to live and retire comfortably, learn how to manage your personal finances. You won't get rich immediately, but it will pay off in the long run.
© 2016 Mel Wilson, all rights reserved
*I read the 1989 paperback edition with a label that proudly stated "Over 150,000 copies in print". It has since sold over a 1.5 million copies. I don't know David Chilton and he doesn't know me, so this isn't some type of subversive advertisement for his Wealthy Barber books. Really.
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