- Part One: Stuff
- Part Two: Money and Investing
- Part Three: A Change in Thinking
- Part Four: Solutions
At work, we talk. We complain about money. We don’t make a lot. We aren’t financially wealthy. We worry about transportation and rent and hey, do I have enough left over for groceries? Every moment is a choice, we know. We could grind out 60, 70, even 80 hours at the factory. We’ll make a little more, but it’ll be peanuts compared to those who started with an advantage. And many of us don’t hate those with an advantage, we all occasionally get one in this or that situation, but we also know deeply that the adage of working hard now to reap major benefits in the future, well, it’s not a universal truth, and it’s not working for all of us.
Many have poured the majority of their short time on this planet into working. Many of us have also injured ourselves doing so, or had a car break down driving to and from the place that allows us to barely afford the thing that is now bankrupting us because the transmission wanted to quit. Sometimes, a family member dies from a perfectly treatable illness they didn’t have the money or health insurance to take care of, and we are there to foot the bill, or the funeral expense, or the family gathering with catering that will break the bank. To be frank, many of us have listened to those who screech the hard work ethic and still found ourselves picking lint out of our wallets shortly after payday.
We’re veering into depressing territory, but that’s not the aim of this writing. There is a pathway toward something better. Buddhist monks have been doing it for ages, and in a non-esoteric way that doesn’t require twenty years of meditation in a cave, I’m going to tell you how I was able to find peace and an opening toward wealth.
Before I do that, let me dispel some Medium-esque tropes. This piece will not pretend that wealth is in a vacuum. Life is always there to present you with something that may crush you, the weight of debt or illness or isolation ready to overwhelm even the strong among us. This is not a strategy for becoming a millionaire, or for having lots of stuff, or even for finding happiness. However, it’s not a guide for choosing to drop out of society, the economy, or the workplace. This piece will act as a guide for clearing the brush of a path that leads to contentedness.
I am a minimalist. Before you roll your eyes and troll the front page for yet another hyper-feminist or oppression narrative piece, let me explain. We are talking about owning less stuff and choosing to do less. You needn’t call yourself a minimalist or subscribe to the movement to derive benefit from it.
Step One: Stuff
What does one need to survive? Are we simply trying to survive? No, but it’s a good starting point. Pull out some paper. What do you need to survive? I know I need…
- Food and clean water
- Shelter and maybe a bed
- Hygiene (shower, toothbrush, toothpaste)
- A job to pay for the above
Let’s break it down. We probably want to be reasonably clean, so how much clothing do we need?
Assuming you live in a place with all four seasons…
I will be recommending some cheap and some expensive clothing. Certain items you can get away with, like t-shirts and hats. For pants, jackets, and footwear you tend to want something durable and comfortable. Sometimes that’ll run you a little more.
Headgear: You’ll want a winter hat, that’s for sure. I have a couple beanies I wear most of the year because my hair is unruly. You can get by with one decent hat, but feel free to have two or three. Do not waste money on fitted baseball caps with stickers and tags on them. You can opt for all that when you’re wicked financially wealthy.
Jacket: You’ll definitely want a winter jacket. Also get a lighter jacket to go over shirts in the fall or nippy nights. L.L. Bean runs a little expensive but it will last you, and you want a jacket that will last. You do not need more than one or two jackets. If you’re super broke or frugal, a Dickies work jacket will see you through the cold days.
Tops: T-shirts, long-sleeve shirts, tank tops, whatever. If you have a good jacket you don’t need sweaters, flannels, or crew shirts. Opt for simple. I stick with seven v-neck t-shirts, one for each week day, and a tank top for workouts. If I get too hot, I go shirtless. If I get too cold I put on a jacket. It’s really that simple. Maybe you wear shirts for two or three days before throwing them in the basket. If so, you can buy less, but I find it’s good to have a couple extras for messes and emergencies. Get a dress outfit for interviews and special occasions; unfortunately men should have a pair of oxfords and good oxfords are expensive.
Bottoms: Pants can be worn for two or three days before needing a wash; some people wear jeans for ages before washing them. You can get by with three pairs of pants. You need a pair of shorts for hot weather, but they’re super convenient anyway. For most of a one-week vacation in Cancun I wore one pair of shorts and a tank top. I hand-washed the shorts and they were fine. For long pants, jeans are really all you need. You may want a pair of chino’s or dress pants if your workplace requires it. With bottoms, opt for quality.
Undergarments: bra’s, underwear, and socks can be bought in bulk at Uniqlo. The company is a rare option that offers good quality and fit for low cost. If you need something sexy, get a single piece of lingerie; it’s expensive and it won’t be on for long anyway. You can get by with seven bra’s, seven underwear, and seven pairs of socks, but getting ten of each is safe. Going barefoot in your house saves on dirtying up socks.
Footwear: Shoes are important. You’ve got two options: cheap sneakers, because there are some cheap sneakers that work, or investing in something that will last years. That’s where boots come in. Any shoe that be re-cobbled or have the leather upper replaced are shoes that can be with you for a decade or more. Shoes are tough because there are all kinds of situations that work best with specific shoes. I have tested many shoes and walked for thousands of miles in order to find a shoe I can stick with, and I have a couple recommendations.
For sneakers, I recommend Reebok Classics. They’re light, they’re cheap, they’re stylish, and they’re simple. I got mine for $55. I put over 3000 miles on a pair of Nike Air Force One’s, but I never loved the look or the hip-hop connotation attached to it.Tom’s can be stylish but they will fall apart, they don’t help local markets, and they’re too expensive for what you get. Converse are cheap and durable, but they kill your feet; don’t buy ’em. Sneakers will get beat up and for me I had to become okay with wearing beat-up shoes, otherwise I would spend too much on footwear.
For boots, I don’t like to admit it, but my Timberland’s lasted for three years. They did eventually start to hurt my feet and they cannot be re-cobbled, but three years is a long time to have a pair of footwear. They’re also not the lightest thing to strap to your feet, but boots are a great option for casual wear, hiking, climbing, and more. You can abuse them and they’ll still protect your feet.
Good dress shoes are expensive, period. Men should have a pair of oxfords. Typically you’d want a black pair for funerals and a brown pair for parties, events, and interviews. It’s awful to see someone wear an otherwise good dress outfit with sneakers; I attended a funeral not long ago where I saw a black dress outfit with red Jordan’s. Do not be that person. Women have lots of options but seriously, opt for one good pair of dress shoes and call it a day. If you rarely need a dress outfit you can probably rent one.
Some minimalists opt for a single pair of running shoes for everything. If you can do that, I salute you.
Accessories: Forget accessories. For dress outfits you need a decent belt, but that’s it. Don’t bother with watches or expensive jewelry; there’s plenty of cheap jewelry that looks good when paired well. I don’t wear jewelry and it’s oddly freeing not to care about it, but if you must, get a few select pieces and move on.
What if you live in a place with one or two seasons and consistent yearly weather? Well, you just saved yourself some money.
Let’s say you woke up naked in your apartment and found all of your closets empty. After finding out what the hell happened, you would want to figure out what a new wardrobe is going to cost you. For just the casual clothes…
- Seven (Uniqlo) t-shirts: $91
- Three pairs of (Uniqlo) jeans: $120
- Ten pairs of (Uniqlo) underwear: $80
- Four pairs of Uniqlo bras: $80
- One pair of Reebok Classics: $75
- Total: $431 + shipping and tax
That’s what it would cost if you bought all of that at full price and had zero clothing. Pretty expensive, huh? Of course, I wouldn’t recommend that you buy all of this at one time or even at that price.
I’ve been financially poor my entire life, so I bought my clothing a bit at a time, often during sales or at thrift shops. If you wait for sales you can often get something for 25–50% off. If you buy from a thrift shop you can pay about a fifth of the above. If you take care of clothing people gift you or give away, you can get away like a bandit and barely spend anything. Seriously though, don’t skimp on shoes.
I assume you want to eat healthy food. It might seem impossible as a poor person to do so, but it’s not. We can essentially categorize food into a few groups:
- Nuts, seeds
Vegetables are somewhat cheap, fruit is somewhat expensive. A cheap and efficient option is buying spinach and kale in bags and plastic boxes or from CSA. The CSA route is probably cheapest, but you don’t choose what you get and I’m guilty of not taking advantage of this as much as I should.
Meat can be expensive. An efficient option is to buy big tubes of high fat ground beef, but we’re looking for healthy, not gross. You can get ground beef, turkey, chicken, and lamb in a one pound package. Meat is great for calories and protein, but I found that eating so much of it made me feel heavy and sometimes sick. Maybe 5% of my caloric intake is from meat products, so I supplement with whey. More on that later.
Nuts and seeds are expensive. They’re a fantastic “cold” option; plenty of calories and good fats. They require no preparation or refrigerated storage and you can eat them wherever. Trail mix is sometimes a healthy option. I probably buy these once a month.
As for junk food, it’s freeing to simply not have it in the house and to not buy it. Do not buy candy or soda or chips. Junk food is cheap now and expensive later.
Remember I said you needn’t drop out of the economy? You needn’t be a monk. I do occasionally splurge and go to Trapper’s sushi. I don’t go often, which makes it even more of a treat.
Most supplements are junk so don’t waste your money. I’ve studied fitness and a little bit of nutrition and was at one time working on a health coach certification. I’ve talked to a lot of people who try to level or flatten the health world; they think the same supplements and dietary choices and caloric consumption and workouts can be the same for whatever goals they have.
This is simply weird. If you’re a bodybuilder, you’re going to require more time in the gym, more rest time, more calories, more supplements, and very specific workouts. For most of us, we only need…
- Three simple workouts a week, spanning 15–30 minutes
- Vitamin D-3 5000 IU ($20)
- Fish Oil ($50)
- Vitamin B-12 if you eat little or no meat ($8)
- Whey protein or weight gainer if you eat little to no meat
That’s it. The COQ10 and the Ginseng pills and Ginkgo-whatever powder are unnecessary, and they’re killing your wallet. Whey protein and weight gainer are expensive, but if you don’t eat meat you’re saving money on that. Fish oil is expensive, but honestly it’s a financial hit I’m willing to take. D-3 is cheap and absolutely worth it as most of us don’t get enough sunlight.
You don’t even need weights. You can get into pretty good shape with push-ups, pull-ups, dips, planks, sprints, sitting less, and, ya know, walking around occasionally. Oh look, you just saved money on a gym membership. So what’s the damage? Let’s illustrate with a simple diet plan.
Weekly Meal Plan
- Two baby spinach boxes: $10
- One bag of frozen fruit: $6
- Apple juice: $5
- 36 eggs a week (two 18-egg cartons): $8
- Trail mix: $8
- Ground beef: $20 [Non-meat eater? Get rid of this expense]
- Weight gainer: $12 (1/3 of container) [Meat eater? Get rid of this expense]
- Supplements: Around $10 a week
- Total: around $58 for meat eater, $50 for non-meat eater. Cheaper if you use coupons, take advantage of sales, and go to the local food bank. A Costco membership can be expensive, but if you shop there exclusively, you can save a lot in the long-term.
With that plan you get anywhere from 1500–2000 calories.
Having a hard time affording food? Apply for EBT (food stamps). If you’re averse to taking benefits from the government, please engage me in the comments. It’s wild to see poor people feel bad about taking a measly $200 a month from the wealthiest country on the planet, a country that uses your labor to function but often doesn’t represent your interests. There is a very big difference between being the pejorative “welfare queen” and accepting some help while working and trying to better yourself. Trust me, we as a country can afford it.
We buy a lot of stuff we don’t need. I’m not here to make you feel bad about your stuff. Keep your stuff if it makes you happy. But also, do a sweep through your house, apartment, dorm, barracks rooms, trailer, or tent, and if you find things that don’t make you happy or serve a useful function, get rid of them. Sell or donate them. After that, we can look at things you should own.
Most of what I own… – Hygiene bag with shaver, deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste, comb. No cologne, save your money. Don’t buy tampons, pads, etc. Use a diva cup. – Smartphone I’ve had for a few years, laptop I got with student loans, used Kindle a friend gifted me – A winter jacket, a light jacket, a dress outfit, seven v-neck t-shirts, three pairs of pants, one pair of shorts, underwear, socks, sneakers and boots – Backpack, bike, thermos, mug, bowl, spoon, fork, utility knife
You’ll probably need a phone of some sort. You can get a good cheap one for $45 and unlimited talk and text (no data) for $14 a month.
Arguably you’ll want a laptop, but if you live near a library you can save the money and use their computers and internet for free. It’s also a fantastic place to do this thing of yore called book reading. If you want or need a laptop, you can get a cheap one that doesn’t care at all about your privacy. Don’t get a Chromebook, but do get a laptop with Windows, wipe the drive, and install Linux. If you’re a student taking advantage of financial aid, you can get a good cheap laptop from Notebooks for Students.
You’re free to have a kitchen full of utensils you rarely use, thirty forks and spoons, and way too many plates. I keep one bowl and a couple utensils. I eat, I clean up, and voila, no dirty sink full of dishes. If I prepare a meal, same thing. I clean the pot or pan or skillet, dry it, and put it back.
Some will denigrate you for being frugal. Some conflate frugality with being dirty, a cheapskate, or trendy. Perhaps more important than anything else I write here, stop caring what they think about your life. Nearly just as important, never stop trying to be a better person. Too many try not to give a damn what others think, and pair this with unethical behavior. Study ethics. Try to be kind. Live the golden rule… so long as you’re not a sadomasochist.
My mom owned a house. She eventually moved out of that house and decided to rent it out. The tenants were fine for a few months; then they stopped paying rent. They didn’t care what my mother or my family thought of them, but they also didn’t care to act ethically, to be decent people, or to live by the golden rule. They were, as I saw it, bereft of moral education. Don’t be those people.
The type of shelter you need and want will change significantly depending on a number of factors. If you have kids, you’ll probably want them to have their own bedrooms and to go to public schools. Some parents have opted to live in van with their kids, and if you can make that work, I doubly salute you. If you’re going to do this, or live in a remote area with no public schools nearby, you’ll want to consistently further your own education and home-school your children. An educated mind makes for a better teacher.
The majority of us will not pursue that route. Even with three or more kids, you can get by with a small home. A smaller home motivates you to get outside more. You shouldn’t feel terribly stifled in your home, but if you’ve been following this piece and you don’t own a lot of junk, you don’t need a big space. A house has traditionally been a place for shelter, for rest and relaxation, a place to make food and sleep and spend time with family.
But you don’t want to spend most of your time in your house. We can argue over this point, but rather than focus on what you should want, let’s look at what you should not want. The more land you buy, the bigger your house is, the more you pay in mortgage, in taxes, in heating and cooling, and eventually, in maintenance and repair. Do you really need that game room? Do you really want to be cooped up inside on a warm summer day? No one is saying you should throw yourself outside in the rain (though I love a good rain romp), but be mindful of what you’re doing when the sun is shining and you’re sitting on your couch… if you own one (I don’t).
Apartments kind of suck. They’re really hit or miss, and most places don’t have a renters bill of rights dictating reasonable rent cost. Perhaps most importantly, you don’t own an apartment. If you live there for 60 years, you will not own a single square inch of that place. When you leave an apartment, you will often be charged even if you kept the place in great shape. In a small town in Washington State, a small one bedroom apartment cost us $1400 a month after utilities. It was insane, and it’s a mistake we’ll never make again.
RV or Trailer
If you are nowhere near being able to afford a mortgage, I hear you. Some people I’ve talked to seem turned off by RV and trailer life, probably for cultural reasons regarding wealth. It’s really not that different from living in a small apartment though, and I would argue it’s a far better option.
In an apartment or house, you have a bathroom with a shower and sink, a kitchen with a sink, a cupboard, and a fridge, a living room, and bedrooms. A bathroom is a private space and it’s hard to argue against having one. However, the other rooms are malleable. Some places have an open floor plan where the kitchen is connected to the living room. Blah blah. What’s important is what you want out of a living space, not some rigid standard about what a living space has to have.
A bedroom should be for sex and sleep. For a room you should be spending so little time in, does it need to be that big? If you don’t have kids and live only by yourself or with your partner, can’t you have a bed anywhere? In some RV’s, for example, there’s a fold-out bed in the “living room”. Do you even need a bed? In my early 20’s I moved around from state to state for a bit, sleeping on floors, couches, cots, small beds, big beds, etc. A decent cot with a thick sleeping bag or mattress topper works for me, and it’s cheap. My favorite setup, though, is a good mattress on a wood floor.
You can sometimes get RV’s for a few thousand dollars, and once you own it, you own it. The issue is being able to buy a small piece of land, where that land is located, and if you want sewage and electricity. Let’s do some simple math.
Let’s say an apartment costs you $1100 a month. In ten years, rent and utilities alone will cost you $132,000. Let’s say you buy an RV for $4000 and a piece of land priced at $60,000. You pay $500 toward it monthly. In the same amount of time, you will have paid $64,000. That’s a difference of $68,000, and that difference only climbs, because after ten years you will have paid off your piece of land completely. The major kicker is having to pay or deal with sewage and electricity. I can’t blame anyone for wanting those utilities so I won’t argue either way.
If you’re in college, you can find plenty of cheap rooms to rent. It’ll still hurt your wallet since you’ll probably be working part-time. I’ve decided to live in an apartment on-campus, and I volunteer on political campaigns that aim to reduce student debt in the hope that me and others will not be crushed by debt for choosing to become the next generation of thought leaders and experts.
Step Two: Money and Investing
What do I do with all that extra money?
Well, I didn’t really write this for people who find themselves with a whole lot of extra money. It’s true, if you live this way you will find yourself with more money than you did before, but there are tons of variables that can royally fuck that up. The ideas that will be expressed further are aimed at reducing your need for money and material and activity, but this does not mean that money isn’t important or useful.
My most useful tip? Keep a little in your savings and put the rest of it in index funds. For this I recommend Betterment, but there are other good options. Investing a sizable portion of your income will produce compound interest. Basically, your money will work to make you more money. Crazy! With enough invested, your money will make more money than you could if you actively worked.
Let’s move away from material needs and look at a crucial piece of the puzzle: building a mindset for contentedness.
Step Three: A Change in Thinking
The Liberation of Non-Clinging
We have plenty of words to describe things that people want: lust, desire, clinging. We often inappropriately use the word need in place of want. For the sake of Buddhist literature, we will use the terminology clinging and non-clinging.
Trapped in the Future
We are often thinking of the future; this is where clinging resides. We are not financially well off enough, and so we wonder how we’ll acquire more money. We do this for romance and lust, material, and vanity.
Insecurity makes me feel that people don’t like me. It makes me fearful that when my clothing starts to show any signs of wear and tear that I need to buy new clothes so people don’t think I’m a bum.
Ego leads many of us to Instagram, though we’ll all deny we have an account for reasons of vanity and swear we’re all traveling photojournalists.
Lust leads us to Tinder where we can treat people like square sex objects to be accepted or rejected, used and tossed aside if a single blemish appears too soon. Thank god people can’t see how many rejection-swipes they’ve accrued lest we find ourselves swiping for hours with our right hand and soothing our wounds with a double of Johnny Black in the left.
Trapped in the Past
Clinging also resides in the past, and we spend much time there as well. If we often think about how people aren’t drooling over us, we often bicker with our souls about past failed relationships and embarrassing rejections.
Part Four: Solutions
Buddhism prescribes living in the present. Mindfulness, they call it. Mindfulness can be trained with meditation and by taking to heart some of the principles in the literature. If you find this to be woowoo, then I’ll put it to you in plain English.
You need to strike a balance between what your wants and needs.
It helped me a lot to think of it as a spectrum. If I could afford to have five kids I’d probably go for it. The simple truth is that I’m not willing to invest that much time, money, and commitment into that many little people in a system that doesn’t represent our interests much of the time. My tax dollars go to illegal land wars, our president is unfit to lead a country, people are still dying because they can’t afford healthcare, and people are still drowning in college debt. It took me a while to be okay with settling for two kids, but it’s not about me. It’s about being reasonable. If you had five kids out of wedlock, it’s hard to then complain that you’re still poor. This is just one of many uncomfortable conversations we need to have with ourselves in order to find peace.
Politics is a great example of balance-finding. There are so many great things about modern life, you could spend your entire life watching Netflix so long as you could afford food, water, and internet.
There are so many problems in modern life, you could give up any semblance of personal time and invest every waking moment in political causes. You could, for example, sleep four hours a night, and from the moment you wake up put all of your energy into working on prison reform. Maybe at the end of your life you are looked upon as a paragon of virtue, but it wouldn’t be hard to imagine that you had spent a lot of time being miserable. Or, all of your effort could be in vain. We simply can’t know.
Many people are heavy consumers. Arguably, this is the conservative argument for why so many are poor. Many spend an inappropriate amount of time consuming, not working, not studying, not closing sales or building businesses. With all of their collective doubt and insecurity, they bask in the glow of the marvels of modern life. They then see all the problems and become overwhelmed.
When you’re poor, everything is an effort. It’s hard to attend protests when you work 8–12 hours a day, have a partner and children to take of, and bills. When you’re poor, it’s hard to think about anything outside of survival and the occasional quotidian fun of low-income life. So, many poor people give up on the issues, and when asked they level the playing field by saying that everything is fucked either way. I’ve met too many people from poor backgrounds who have a let-it-all-burn mentality.
Even when people want to care about something, it requires educating oneself to understand the issue thoroughly enough that you can help in a meaningful way. All of this demotivates people who aren’t financially wealthy, and choosing ignorance is easier than obsessing over all of this extra effort and strife.
Finding a balance is difficult, and different for everyone. Some will view my material recommendations as far too minimal. Some are willing to spend a little more on goods or services because their mental health would suffer if they didn’t. Tibetan monks have been finding bliss with almost no possessions for a long time, but not many are Tibetan monks.
In short, you want to learn from the past. You want to occasionally plan for the future. But you do not want to spend most of your time living in these ephemeral worlds.
The path out is living in the present. I will not get into all the esoterica surrounding this idea, but I will recommend a meditation app that manages to make it easy for the layperson. Headspace is arguably more accessible for people who have never meditated, but it’s fairly expensive. The Waking Up app is fairly expensive too, but if you email support and tell them you can’t afford it, they will give it to you for free.
I ask that you try the app. If you enjoy it but can’t afford the monthly membership, at least go to samharris.org and donate what you can through his website. I have followed his work for years and as far as I can tell for someone who has never met the man, he is a fantastic human being. If you want to support his wife and read something that is relevant to mindfulness, you can buy her new book.
You can train yourself to tip the scale of this balance in either direction. By having less material, you could potentially work less hours and focus on starting a business. In this case you would’ve decided something like, stuff 15%, business 50%. You can see now that living this way does not mean you become a forest hermit or drop out of society. You can shoulder quite a bit of responsibility.
A large part of this training will be meditation, reading good psychology literature, and learning to do more with less. There is a Mt. Rainier-sized mountain of reading and a lifetime of training to be done but like with many fields of study, reading the fundamental texts will help tremendously. Below is a list of some recommended reading:
- The Way of the Superior Man by David Deida (for sex and relationships, for both men and women)
- The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson (for a modern layman take on well-being and presence)
- Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening by Joseph Goldstein
- Waking Up by Sam Harris
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
You can get free books on LibGen or from your local library.