Freedom For Sale

I mentioned in my January Work Release post that my 30-day uber-frugal challenge fizzled quickly because I was already so frugal when I signed up for it. I characterized it as a challenge I didn’t need, as it turned out. There wasn’t much for me to change or adjust, so I wasn’t challenged. That doesn’t mean I didn’t learn anything though. I learned that even well-meaning personal finance bloggers are not necessarily interested in wellness; it’s still all about a goal purchase or a goal lifestyle, which means we all just swap consumer debt for something else to get or have.

Read enough personal finance blogs and you’ll find this out for yourself in no time. Everyone with good advice to give you (or sell you) wants to know what your goals and dreams might be, what’s standing between you and those dreams, where you want to be in five to ten years, and what you’re willing to do to get there. You’re not allowed to be interested in financial wellness for the sake of being well; you have to want something. And everyone wants to get out of debt because they want some thing(s) instead of debt.

At the beginning of the challenge I got the requisite homework questions referenced above. I didn’t have a goal. I was pressed for a better answer.

“Well then, why do you want to participate in this challenge?” I answered that I didn’t want to live in fear of losing a job ever again.

Then I was pressed for my long-term goals over five or ten years. I answered that I wanted to still be solvent in five or ten years. “No no no, what else do you want? Here, let me tell you mine. I want to build a house in the country and blah, blah, blah…”

Nope, not me. There are enough buildings in the world. I don’t need to add another. This is where program administrators realize I’m going to be impossible to motivate because I don’t want the American dream of upgrade until death. Goals are for people who want things. I want to want less things. I realize I’m in the minority here but since most Americans are living one or two pay periods away from homelessness at all times, I shouldn’t be in the minority.

Every financial blogger out there is all too eager to teach you how to reach those Get and Have goals. They are also all too eager to tell you what their own goals were/are and how they achieved them or are well on their way. The hook is the nursing of your fantasy – your goal or dream. The fantasy is the foundation for success. Without the fantasy there is nothing against which they can leverage your debt. Read the success stories for yourself sometime. The fantasies do not include wellness. Even when people want practical things financial wellness is never on the list.

Lots of people want to buy land and build a home, cabin, range, or farm upon it and live happily ever after. Lots of people want to retire early and travel the world. Lots of people want to set up funds for educating children or grandchildren. People want to be entrepreneurs and open their own businesses. People want to live better lives, which of course, means better stuff, like vacation homes, boats, RVs, and recreational vehicles. People want makeovers, be it plastic surgery or home improvements. We sincerely believe that we will be happier people if we can reach these goals and we think this is the equivalent of wellness. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. We cannot buy our way to wellness. Or happiness.

Financial planning does not include learning anything about financial wellness. Financial rescue or rehabilitation does not include financial wellness. Financial goals are not at all oriented to wellness, therefore the strategies to get us there are also not oriented to wellness. The idea is simply to get us liquid enough to spend money the way we want to spend it versus the way we have to spend it. This is not necessarily bad. It isn’t necessarily good either, because as we all know – the more we make, the more we spend, and the more unwell we remain.

We all say that if we could just get ahead we’d pay off everything and then save our money, live within our means, be satisfied with what we’ve got, and learn to stay out of debt. We think we really mean it when we say it but when we do get ahead, we don’t do this. We get a nicer couch. We remodel the bathroom. We start a home business. Have another baby. Go back to school. Start investing. Get married. Get divorced. We swap being in debt with being something else – better dressed, better living conditions, better educated, better employed, better partners, etc. And in a lot of cases we end up right back in debt again.

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I didn’t start blogging about occupational/financial wellness because I give a damn about money (or about helping anyone else make money). I start blogging about it after I met someone who changed the way I previously defined financial independence. I now think the term financial independence is a crock. When I ask average middle-class people to define the term I hear:

Not having/needing to work

Having enough to money to fulfill my dreams

Not having to pay bills

Being able to do work I love instead of work that pays the bills

Having a disposal income for travel, recreation, and luxury purchases

Yeah. I pretty much thought financial independence meant these same things. I don’t think so anymore, because I’ve realized that all of the scenarios on that list are completely dependent upon a) having or keeping enough money in the bank to facilitate the list until death, or b) sufficient steady and uninterrupted income to facilitate the list. By definition, that’s not independence.

About a year ago I met a woman who works even though she doesn’t have to work and she is/was completely unafraid of losing her job. She is completely unafraid of losing any job. She has no fear of being unemployed. She is not wealthy. She has never been wealthy. She grew up poor, put herself through college on scholarships and work-study, and started out in a low-paying entry level job. She does not have a wealthy spouse or parents or any wealthy relatives. No inheritance, no trust fund, no lottery winnings, or other financial windfalls. She simply did the work.

For over thirty years she earned a modest income. She birthed only the number of children she could support. She retired from a middle-income state job after paying into a state-sponsored retirement fund for those same thirty years. After retirement she still works a full-time job because she wants to work, not because she needs to work. Her spouse is also retired. They are healthy, active, and not ready to give up work because they don’t consider not working to be preferable. Imagine that.

My friend carries no consumer debt of any kind. Not because she paid it all off but because she never bought anything on credit. Ever. No mortgage, no loans, no outstanding balances. She has never used a credit card; she’s never even opened an account. Her credit is frozen (by choice). She pays cash for everything. She pays in full for everything, including large-ticket items like automobiles. Annual premiums for insurance are paid up front in lump sum, not installments. She doesn’t even own a debit card or ATM card.

She owns a modest home and drives a small, economical, non-luxury car. She enters into no contracts for services like cellular service, internet, or television. She owes no one anything. She gives to charity. Her lifestyle is moderate enough that she could live comfortably on her retirement benefits if required but working keeps her body and mind active and fit, so she opts for work as a wellness practice. What does she do with all the extra money? She saves it. It earns interest. If she gets sick or has an accident or needs to replace a water heater, she’s got the money.

This makes her far more independent than anyone I know. Even people who are considered wealthy have wealth that is dependent upon an income source, such as the stock market or business operations or property values, royalties, dividends and residuals. In terms of liquid assets and flexibility this lady is far more independent. She doesn’t have to worry about fluctuations in the market. No big deal if a business tanks, or a partnership fails, or the value of assets depreciates. Her financial independence is truly independent of those these things. There is no one out there who can sell me a program for this lady’s success. There is no one out there making the point that her livelihood cannot be taken away from her because her wealth will never be spun down to pay her debt or to maintain upkeep on a style of living.

She never got herself into debt and still enjoys all the comforts and conveniences of the modern world (minus the cards). She doesn’t have to work a job just to pay the bills because she refuses to have many bills. She doesn’t fear losing her job because the loss of it will cause no harm to her life. Why is this not the American dream? This is my new definition of financial independence and this is why I started blogging about money. No one is teaching Americans how to be free when it comes to money; all they are teaching us is easy, fast, better, pretty, shiny, and most of all, we deserve it. We deserve financial indebtedness and servitude for three-quarters of our lifetimes until we die in debt? I think we’ve been conned.

And resistance just happens to be back in style.

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