By Vicki Robin
Nearly two decades ago, in the proverbial basement of a church and sweating out a 102-degree fever, Joe Dominguez first presented “Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence” as a seminar to several dozen people. Then, as now, the impulse was to help people strip money of its mystery and misery — and to help worthy causes with the proceeds. A decade, numerous seminars and 10,000 attendees after that night, an enterprising agent found us and sold us on writing a book. It is now almost 10 years and hundred of thousands copies later, with foreign editions available in numerous countries. Joe is gone, having died of lymphoma in January of 1997. My day-to-day life has changed from rarely watching television to appearing frequently in the media as a spokesperson for frugal, sustainable lifestyles. Indeed, much is different; yet, in important ways, much has also remained the same.
The body of this new edition is virtually untouched. Readers of the original book need not buy this one. The nine-step program for financial integrity, intelligence and independence set forth here is the very same one Joe followed in the 1960’s to extricate himself from the shackles of wage slavery. We haven’t found a tenth step or found fault with any of the nine. Because of this I decided to resist the temptation to update the statistics in the book to reflect conditions in 1999. It would only initiate a fruitless uphill battle to keep up with current conditions for a book that has become a classic and teaches a timeless approach to money. The program works in times of inflation and disinflation, in times of bull as well as bear markets, in times of recession and times of economic growth. The statistics cited reflect conditions in the early 1990’s, but the financial clarity, integrity and freedom embedded in the program reflect perennial wisdom about money.
The publication of Your Money Or Your Life, though, precipitated a lot of change for us as well as for our readers and in the culture. For us, this book was a watershed event. Both Joe and I had chosen to live very simply — not because we were itching for hair shirts but because we were fascinated with meeting our needs creatively through our own skills and wits. We wanted to understand the fit between our lives and the rest of the natural world. We valued having the time for a rich inner life as well as being of service to others. We wanted life to have meaning, depth and purpose — and not much clutter. Publishing the book was the natural next step in our service, not a bid for our allotted 15 minutes of fame.
Since those early seminar days we have worked as a team with the whole staff of our all-volunteer non-profit organization, the New Road Map Foundation. For the book, my role was publicity; Joe’s was using the sixth sense he’d developed as a stock analyst on Wall Street to watch for trends in how Americans were thinking about money so we could speak in interviews to people’s real experiences. Other teammates whizzed through correspondence, wrote the three Study Guides for groups now available (see Resources at the end of the book) and built a Speakers’ Bureau of over 60 people who are dedicated to increasing the effectiveness of the nine-step program. It was a grand adventure, a big challenge and deeply rewarding for all of us.
As the decade unfolded we came to understand the central role of consumerism in the whole range of seemingly isolated global problems. Scratch the surface of almost any environmental or social justice issue, as well as many psychological ones, and you’ll find a distorted relationship with money and stuff exacerbating if not driving the problem. The fact that the nine-step program helps people lower their expenses by, on average, 20 percent without feeling pinched suggested to us that we were serving both individuals and the larger world as well. Intelligent buying increases personal satisfaction and decreases human impact on the biosphere.
We have watched a whole movement grow up in America around the themes advanced in this book. It reflects a widespread, deep rethinking of the material interpretation of the American Dream. Many other books have been published that complement the ideas in Your Money Or Your Life, including Getting A Life by Jacqueline Blix and David Heitmiller, a companion volume to this book that gives more stories and analysis of how people are using this program to transform their relationship with money.
People often refer to the movement as “voluntary simplicity,” which Duane Elgin, one of its early proponents, says is a way of life that is “outwardly simple and inwardly rich”. You can think of the nine-step program set forth in this book as a core curriculum for simplifying. By facing down financial fears and facing up to financial foibles, thousands of readers have used this program to get out of debt, develop savings and find that place of balance called “enough.” For those unfamiliar with the term, the “voluntary” piece reminds us that we are authors of our own lives, no matter how crushed we might feel by the machinery of “modern times.” Indeed, for life to be meaningful or moral we must be able to own our actions. “Simplicity” guides us to the heart of the matter — whatever that may be for us. In rescuing the essential from the clutches of the irrelevant, simplicity is a warrior word. In reminding us of how beautiful and free an unadorned existence can be, simplicity is a gentle call to be just plain us. Choosing to simplify, often difficult in a consumer culture, means readying oneself for a life that is truer to one’s gifts, passions and sense of purpose. You will find in the text that we have used the term “frugality” to describe this elegant fit between our real needs and how we enjoyably and ethically fill those needs. Whatever you call it (and it has been called “sustainable living” and “downshifting” as well as the “new frugality” and “voluntary simplicity”), it’s alive and well in America and is spreading around the world.
As the movement has grown, it has begun to develop the full spectrum of practices and practitioners that movements tend to spawn. A strong environmental ethic links lifestyle to one’s impact on the biosphere. A religious response draws on those teachings by Jesus and other masters about the hazard putting money and materialism before God and the stewardship of creation. An urban and suburban perspective focuses on getting rid of clutter and gaining control over time. A more rural interpretation of the ethic encompasses everything from intentional communities and eco-villages to traditional small-town thrift. The growing number of telecommuters is part of the shift, as is the Community Supported Agriculture movement (small farms where consumers buy an annual membership, sharing with the producer the bounty and risk of growing organic vegetables). Sociologists are studying the movement, futurists are measuring its strength (it is very robust), policy makers are looking at how to re-structure taxes, subsidies and laws to temper the squandering of precious natural resources and, predictably, marketing and public relations people are busy peddling products “to simplify your life.” Cars, computers and clothes are all touted as ways to simplify and express your authentic self. Rare is the person these days who doesn’t respond — deeply or superficially — to the promise of honesty, ease and balance that is at the core of this movement.
This shift has arrived none too soon. Americans need to transform the way they think about, spend and save money — if only for their own security. The savings rate in the United States has dropped from just below 5 percent when the book was first published to below zero at the time of this writing. The sirens of consumerism have put us into a deep sleep. The apparent deep pockets of Uncle Credit Card allow us to indulge in living far beyond our means. According to a 1997 Public Agenda report, nearly 40% of Baby Boomers have less than $10,000 saved for retirement. The old norm of increasing savings in the good times to offset the inevitable fallow years has been reversed. Overspending increased during the economic expansion of the 90’s. It was this head-in-the-sand attitude about savings that most concerned Joe in the years before he died in 1997. Drenched for decades in information about the national and global economic ups and downs, he found Americans myopic about the long cycles of the markets and economy.
The fact that Joe was living with an illness that was almost certainly fatal didn’t alter his focus on service to everything from global ecological survival to the needs of those dear to him. Keeping current on economic and financial trends, he was able to tailor our communications about Your Money Or Your Life to the challenges faced by ordinary Americans who were trying to make ends meet. In hosting, with grace and wit, a steady flow of friends, colleagues and reporters in our home, he was able to cajole, reassure, annoy or inspire — whatever was needed. He was a courageous truth teller and a patient listener. He never stopped being Joe. In fact, he told very few people he was ill, wanting to be seen as himself, not a disease. He was fully alive to the last. Two days before he died, concerned that grief might immobilize those who loved him, he wrote: “Joe Dominguez has been given a clean bill of death. Put your attention on the living and the things that need to be done.” Then he was gone.
Those of us who worked with him (some for decades) at the New Road Map Foundation have “put our attention on the living and the things that need to be done” and, at the same time, have allowed ourselves to grieve and be transformed. This process has opened us in new ways to the pain of the world. We feel as never before the plight of hungry, lonely children and of refugees. We feel the losses of health, livelihood and life itself that people everywhere suffer. We feel the helplessness of native cultures that are being cracked open to extract their resources and of ecosystems that can no longer withstand encroaching human populations starving for land. We strain our minds to understand why living systems — exquisite in their design, mysterious in their origin and destiny — are being constrained by human systems that produce poverty, loneliness and dis-ease for so many creatures, human and non-human alike. And we see human creativity and compassion continually restoring life’s design. Moved by both these inner and outer processes, we are seeking deeper ways to serve in these times. We invite you to join us in the journey:
CREATE A CLEAR, SECURE FINANCIAL LIFE FOR YOURSELF.
This is where it all begins. Whether you are just sick to death of robbing Peter to pay Paul, brimming with love for all of creation or ready to take on the system, use this book to develop a respectful, clear relationship with the material world. Give the program a fair try. Do the steps. Use the Your Money Or Your Life Study Guide for Groups with friends, colleagues or interested strangers if you are so inclined. Read the book through before starting the steps. See if it resonates. You don’t have to start with Step 1; many people begin with Step 2 (in Money Ain’t What It Used to Be — and Never Was) and don’t do Step 1 until much later. Some people find that the questions in Step 4 (in Chapter 4, How Much is Enough?) are their first entry point, with the commitment to doing all the steps coming later. Do not, however, skip to Steps 6 — 9 before giving Steps 1-5 at least 6 months of honest work. Step 6 (The America Dream — on a Shoestring), without the rest, could seem like just one more list of penny-pincher hints and tips. Step 9 in the last chapter might look like simply investment advice, and strange advice at that, without understanding the mechanics of the whole program. Wherever you begin, however, I encourage you to do all the steps. They work together in miraculous ways, reinforcing the insights and the gains. And, if you are one of the many who gets just a few ideas that work for you and then sets the book aside, I honor your choice as well. Many people have used this book to develop the head of steam needed to quit a job or sell a house or take off on an adventure. The great thing is that the book will always be there for the time when you want to do more than scratch the surface of your relationship with money. It can take you as deep and as far as you want to go.
CONNECT WITH OTHERS.
I’ve come to believe that the consumer culture is like a virus — it enters where the bonds of community have been broken. Needs are perceived as reasons to consume rather than connect with others. Money becomes the glue holding together a society that has lost its integrity. Assumptions of solidarity, equity and cooperation are becoming as quaint as the horse and buggy. Material downshifting, then, can make room for “upshifting” connectedness. Frugality isn’t the end goal, it’s the means. One by-product of simplifying is having the time to engage in the arts of caring — communication, meals together, touch, having good parties, remembering birthdays, clearing up misunderstandings, empathy, patience, and on and on — and this is the biggest antidote to overspending. So consciously building nourishing relationships, possibly even through study groups for Your Money Or Your Life, is a way to unwind the ropes that entangle you in debt, insecurity, job boredom and fear of the economy.
What do you want for your life? What do you want not just for your future but THE future? The more specific your dreams the more alluring they become. The further out in time you dream, the more likely it is that you’ll get outrageous and set your heart on something really beautiful. Forget “I can’t.” Forget past failures. Don’t let others discourage you — ask for their support and their suggestions (everyone loves to put in their two cents). Truly, the more you bond with your dreams, the more likely it is that you will clear up your relationship with money. The lower you set your sights, the more you’ll settle for life’s table scraps instead of the feast.
DEEPEN YOUR LIFE.
Dreaming big throws your arms open wide to the possible. Deepening sends your roots down into the soil of the real. Ask the big questions: What do I hold sacred? What is my purpose? Who am I really? How can I know God (or whatever you call the source of life)? What do the events of my life tell me about my direction? When have I felt the most whole? In the quiet of meditation, in the midst of laughing, in the difficulty of study, in the sorrow of loss or the joy of new love — know that you are becoming more of a human being and less of a consumer.
Sustainable consumption — living today as if there will be many tomorrows and many creatures who need the living systems present now — is essential. We are in a critical moment for the earth. Personal change is the foundation. But it’s not the whole picture. Ultimately we will need to restructure the way we go about our collective lives if our earth is to remain a hospitable home. There are so many ways to redirect society’s choices. Through civic organizations or outrageous activism. Through party politics or policy development. Through media savvy to broadcast your message. Talking to other people about your passions, fears, hopes and dreams. Send letters to the editor or letters to your friends. Engage in nonviolent demonstrations against abuses to Life. Learn and teach mediation and conflict resolution skills. There is a form of activism to suit every temperament and cause.
I find the times we live in very exciting. If millions of Americans use Your Money Or Your Life to transform their relationship with money, I think we have a shot at changing the mindset that is draining life out of people and the planet. A better future won’t happen magically, though. Humanity has made it through previous tight spots because many individuals took responsibility for the conditions around them and did something. I hope Your Money Or Your Life helps you have a better life, and I hope you help life have a better chance of continuing to unfold in all its glory.