Tax time is never pretty, and for me last year was uglier than usual. By the measures of economics and Revenue Canada, I didn't have a great 2013. But by the measures of sustainability and fulfillment, I had an awesome 2013. How could that be?
Coincidentally, a book I read recently has helped me make sense of that paradox. It's called Your Money or Your Life, and it explains how you don't need as much money as you might think to live a fulfilling, sustainable and financially secure life. That's especially relevant on the threshold of Black Friday and the coming Christmas shopping frenzy. Here's an overview.
If you work at a conventional job, do you know what price you are getting for your time? Time is the only asset any of us truly have; the authors refer to it as our 'life energy'.
The answer isn't as simple as you'd think. If you earn $1,000 for a 40 hour week, the quick answer is $25. But if you spend two hours a day getting ready for work, commuting and unwinding when you get home, your work week is really 50 hours.
And if you spend $300/week on costs directly related to working -- gas; a portion of car insurance, maintenance and other costs; coffee, snacks and lunches; clothes; day care - your $1000 income is really $700.
Suddenly $25/hour shrinks to $14/hour.
The bottom line: for many of us, making a living is like a treadmill: much of our time is spent earning money, and a lot of what we earn goes toward paying for expenses we wouldn't have if we weren't working. We also spend a lot on frivolous purchases that end up in a closet or storage, but nevertheless help bump retirement further into the future.
Of course, we live in a free society: people can choose to spend their life energy as they wish.
The problem is that our current system of unbridled consumerism is collectively unsustainable. It dates back to an earlier era, when it seemed to make sense to encourage citizens to buy stuff so factories could keep churning out more. But today, our continued dedication to that type of thinking is taking us to the brink of resource depletion, biodiversity collapse and catastrophic climate change. Maybe the definition of 'consume' -- to use up, waste, destroy and squander - summarizes it most succinctly.
In the process, we are no happier. It's well documented that spending beyond necessities and creature comforts nets us very little added fulfillment. In fact, we reach a point where our fulfillment maximizes, and having more stuff clutters our lives and actually makes us less happy.
Image courtesy Unitarian Universalist Association, www.uua.org
Perhaps worse, consumerism has led us to worship stuff: it seems the more we have, the better. The cost has been an erosion of our spirituality, our relationships and our sense of community.
Toward a better life
So here we are, living to work, accumulating stuff that doesn't make us happy and wrecking the planet in the process. Could there be a better way?
The authors of Your Money or Your Life suggest there is, and it's rooted in three straightforward steps:
First, determining our true hourly wage, with everything factored in. In other words, what we are trading an hour of our life energy for? For most of us, it's much less than we think.
Second, thinking of dollars in terms of the life energy (IE time) it took to earn them
Third, asking three questions when purchasing anything: i) is this worth the life energy it is costing me; ii) is it in line with my values and life purpose; and iii) how might this expenditure change if I didn't have to work for a living?
Most people who follow these simple steps soon discover they can live on much less. They turn away from consumerism, and lead happier, more focussed lives. They stop being human doings and once again become human beings. Some even discover financial independence.
Equally important, their impact on the planet is dramatically reduced. Win, win, win.
So if you're living a life of happiness, sustainability and financial security, you probably don't need to read Your Money or Your Life. But if you're not, it's a great read -- especially at this time of year when the temptation to shop is more intoxicating than ever.
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