More Than Money
Issue #27

Lifestyles of the Rich and Simple

Table of Contents

“Shift, Shed, and Share the Surplus”

In 1969, as I was spending my first small inheritance of $20,000, I had the good fortune of meeting Joe Dominguez (now deceased), who would later become my friend, mentor, and co-author of Your Money or Your Life. Not only did he help me invest, rather than spend, that boon, he taught me everything he knew about thrift from having grown up on welfare. I took to the frugality challenge with gusto; I have loved meeting my needs amply on very little throughput of money or stuff. It has increased my creativity, my sociability and generosity (living and sharing with others), my honesty about my real needs, and my contact with the marrow of life. And, as I've learned about the link between overconsumption and ecological collapse, this care with money has eased my soul as well. Through work, thrift, and another small inheritance, I now have an income of $1,000 a month from conservative investments-and rarely spend that much. Okay, I admit it. I am a bit of a frugality show-off. I love telling people how little it takes me to look good, feel good, and even be good.

One key to this "high joy to stuff ratio" is what Joe and I came to call The Fulfillment Curve. The Fulfillment Curve (see illustration) shows the relationship between the experience of fulfillment (vertical axis) and the amount of money we spend-usually for more stuff (horizontal axis). When we were babies, more stuff did indeed mean more fulfillment. We were fed, warmed, and sheltered. When we were uncomfortable, when we cried, something came from the outside to take care of us. Our needs were filled. At the same time, we learned a powerful lesson: Look outside yourself and you will be fulfilled.

We then went from bare necessities (food, clothing, shelter) to some amenities (toys, a wardrobe, a bicycle) and the positive relationship between money and fulfillment got even more embedded. Remember your excitement when you got your baseball mitt or Barbie doll? We got an allowance to learn the value of money. We could select and purchase happiness ourselves! And so it went, year after year. Eventually, we slipped beyond amenities to outright luxuries-and hardly registered the change. Our first car may have been a Wow! for months, but the fourth (probably newer and more expensive) quickly became transportation and another bill to pay. And so it went, with each new acquisition being a thrill, but a more expensive thrill-and the "high" wore off quicker.

Eventually, one day we find ourselves with the best that money can buy, but with less happiness than when we got our first bicycle at age seven. A process-buying stuff-that worked for survival, comforts, and some luxuries, now seems to lead directly to more responsibilities, more worries, more commitments, more to lose if robbed, more taxes and accountants and financial managers and therapists and . . .

Whether our money comes from employment or inheritance, we all hit fulfillment ceilings in terms of cars, houses, vacations, clothes, conferences, workshops, et cetera, and never recognize when the formula of money = fulfillment not only stopped working, but started to work against us.

The point, it seems, is the peak of that Fulfillment Curve: Enough. Enough for our survival. Enough comforts. And even enough for true "luxuries." Enough is appreciating and fully enjoying what money brings into our lives. It's not buying what doesn't add to quality of life. Enough is dynamic-a daily mindfulness of our deep purposes and what we need materially to achieve them. For me, enough has proven to be under $10,000 a year, but that's not a target for anyone else. Each of us must weigh purchase against purpose, again and again.

The irony, of course, is that a new gusher of money opened up in my life once The New Road Map Foundation started doing public education about the nine-step program in Your Money or Your Life. It was a pop quiz from the Universe: Is $1,000 a month really enough? Here are thousands more dollars. Indeed, hundreds of thousands. We found that we truly wanted for nothing, and our greatest pleasure was to dedicate this money to bringing forth the most beautiful world we could imagine. I'd done what I call Shift, Shed, and Share the Surplus. I had shifted my thinking about the relationship between money and happiness. I had shed so much excess baggage and accumulation (mentally and materially) and, through knowing how much was enough, I had created a vast domain called surplus that I could spend on making life better for everyone.

After more than 30 years of living simply and giving away a million dollars to more than 800 organizations, here's my short statement of what simplicity means: It refers to a quality of relationship with self, money, things, people and the Earth. It's a quality of attentiveness, responsiveness, directness, honesty, and respect. It is unmediated living that includes both pleasure and service. It is the confluence where sustainability (enough for all) and spirituality (wholeness and oneness) meet. And it is a gift!

by Vicki Robin

Vicki Robin is a writer, activist, and networker. Her book, Your Money or Your Life, has sold 750,000 copies in seven languages and will soon be released in Chinese. She is president of the New Road Map Foundation.