When I told Vicki Robin that I wanted to visit her at her home on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, just north of Seattle, she told me it might be difficult: she couldn’t offer me than a sofa bed. She was renting out her bed and breakfast rooms below market price, she said, to people in need of accommodation.
I laughed. The woman who once lived with her boyfriend on about $1,000 a month didn’t want me or the Washington Post – owned by Jeff Bezos, one of the richest people in the world – to pay for a hotel?
Before the economic turmoil and the “big resignation”, there was Robin and his partner, Joe Dominguez.
Their book Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence, published 30 years ago this fall, asked us to take control of our financial and professional lives by avoiding foolish spending and instead focusing on things like family, friends and hobbies.
The book is a thought-provoking mix of common-sense financial advice, philosophical exploration, and scathing critique — both of consumer culture and how we allow work to dominate our lives. This is an argument that in many ways foreshadowed our times.
Yet today, “Your Money or Your Life” – which still sells thousands of copies a year – is rarely mentioned in the context of our current working moment. Instead, his legacy is mostly celebrated by the tech-bro-heavy and more apolitical FIRE movement — it’s financial independence, early retirement. Adherents embraced the frugal philosophy and desire for freedom, but not the book’s greatest ambitions.
Robin appreciates his young sidekicks, but worries that a vital part of his message has been lost in translation. The FIRE iteration, she says, is often “absent of any social or political critique.”
But “Your Money or Your Life” was never meant to be simply a self-help guide to saving your own financial life. For Robin, the vision of 30 years ago – and the one she still believes in today – has always been how to save us all.
Robin, now 77, and Dominguez hail from the alternative counterculture of the 1960s, embracing its critique of American consumerism as a personal and environmental destructive force. Dominguez, a Wall Street analyst, calculated that he would have to save $100,000 and invest it in government bonds to live modestly on the passive income he generated for the rest of his life. When he came up with this sum, he resigned.
The heart of “Your Money or Your Life” is a formula – dreamed up by Dominguez, who died in 1997 – for taking control of our destinies by re-examining what work really costs us, spiritually and literally. How much do we spend to move? How much do we spend on clothes for the office? How much do we spend on luxury vacations or more luxurious cars so that we can tolerate our lives? Subtract that and you’ve calculated your actual hourly wage, the true amount you’re selling your days on earth for.
“We don’t make a living, we die,” wrote Dominguez and Robin.
If this sounds familiar, it should be. During the pandemic, millions of people trapped in offices or profitable, low-wage jobs have come to similar conclusions.
“There’s a lot of talk about meaningful work and purpose in life,” Robin tells me. “It hangs like a carrot, and I don’t know how many people can actually do it.”
But the steps recommended by “Your Money or Your Life” are different from those taken by the most recent job seekers. Instead of finding a better-paying position, the book argues for a different solution: drastically cut back. “Spending money is not an assertion of your freedom. It’s the key to your next enslavement,” Robin tells me.
This kind of anti-materialist message was once common on the left. But as inequality soared, it fell out of favor among many social justice-minded people. It is much easier to preach the abandonment of conspicuous consumption when it is an active choice and not a necessity.
Still, that didn’t mean the idea was gone. There is still a tension in American thinking that distrusts the avaricious tendencies in our society. There are Puritans and Quakers, Transcendentalists and Shakers, Beatniks and practitioners of willful simplicity, like Robin.
FIRE is another such move. It emerged from the foreclosure crisis and subsequent stock market boom. Robin is, to many in FIRE, an OG of the movement – they discovered “Your Money or Your Life” and started discussing it on blogs and Reddit forums.
Many FIRE followers claim that almost anyone can, with enough willpower, save and invest enough money to live without working full time. But it’s a movement that reflects our more solipsistic, dog-eat-dog times. Few adherents worry about the deterioration of our government safety net. The issues it raises – for example, health care costs – are presented as a financial, not a societal problem to be solved. It’s all about taking care of yourself.
The United States, it is said, is a place where luxuries are cheap but necessities are expensive. It’s not just a lack of common sense and an addiction to consumer goods that keep Americans from financial freedom; it is also the enormous cost of basics such as health care, child care, housing and higher education, coupled with a dismal minimum wage and worker protections.
It is instructive to discover what ultimately led Robin away from extreme frugality and towards the modest but comfortable life she now leads. She was diagnosed with cancer – a disease that can not only kill you, but, thanks to the unequal and expensive healthcare system in the United States, also inflict massive financial damage.
Robin began spending “Your Money or Your Life” royalties, which she had previously mostly given away, to fund her treatment. The title of the book took on a new meaning – it was, literally, his money or his life. As she first told me ten years ago, and again this month, “Nobility is one thing, but dying of frugality is another.”
Today, Robin sees FIRE followers as fellow travelers, but she says more of them should address larger economic and societal concerns. She tells me she would like to see a tuition-free college and universal health care, plus a basic income for life in exchange for a year or two of service.
These are, she says, “things that should happen because of justice and environmental sustainability, but will also benefit FIRE people in the FIRE movement. A lot of people are stuck their whole lives in jobs that don’t disagree with their soul because of college debt.”
The Biden administration’s debt cancellation plan doesn’t go far enough, she says. “As a society we have to look at the system that says to be successful you need a college education, but you have to sell your future to get it.”
Robin is always striving to change the world. She wrote a book about eating local foods. A tireless social innovator, she pushes a plan to encourage Whidbey Islanders to rent unused rooms, to alleviate a labor shortage caused by high rents. There’s also a podcast called “What Could Possible Go Right,” where she interviews thought leaders about what they think is happening, yes, in the world.
We all, Robin told me, deserve our “dignity,” something our society too often deprives us of. And this message of dignity for all is what she hopes to be her legacy.
“I never saw it as a book about letting go of things,” she says of “Your Money or Your Life.” “I was selling a system that tries to outsmart you.”
Olen is a contributor to the Opinion Section of The Washington Post and author of “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.”
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