4 things I learned from reading ‘Your Money or Your Life’ that everyone can do

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Forgive me, readers. I know all about the microsavings apps, the budgeting features your bank may offer and the steady supply of mind tricks designed to get you to always pay yourself first —  as someone who has reported on ways to save money since 2008. While I’ve made considerable progress on regularly saving over the years, I still like to spend on impromptu whimsical purchases — on repeat.

There are the pineapple-themed shoes from an Instagram ad, a “salty” necklace from Morton Salt’s jewelry line and my lightning bolt earrings from Etsy that I’ve recently purchased. The list could go on and will. At times, I might buy something extra to feel in control, despite feeling everything but (and yes, that’s a personal finance party foul). More often, it’s a bit more literary — lightning bolt earrings pair nicely when speaking on an industry panel dominated by older men, while a salty necklace can work wonders for the ego when encountering an old flame or a business journalist gathering.

So when I recently picked up “Your Money or Your Life” by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez for Bankrate’s book club in December, I felt apprehensive of what kind of condemnation the book would cast on me and my indulgences. The money advice scene can be savage —  if coffee habits are why more of us aren’t millionaires, then what would experts say about my regular fanciful purchases?

That fear is also precisely why I felt compelled to read the bestselling book first published in 1992 (and most recently updated in 2018) — with bourbon on standby, of course. Now that I have finished “Your Money,” I can say I was wrong. This book isn’t about making us feel bad for all the ways we’re financially sabotaging our lives; it’s about getting us to daydream about the bigger picture in a world with few “job charmings.” By forcing us to question whether everything is worth it —  our jobs, what we buy and how we spend our time — the authors are trying to help us live with enough to maximize our happiness.

Here are four soul-searching lessons that struck me the most while reading “Your Money.”

1. Reexamine your paycheck

There is no world in which I’m going to try to track down every cent I’ve made in my lifetime as the book suggests — it would include the quarters my mom gave me for sorting my family’s socks as a young girl. However, another one of the authors’ ideas really intrigues me: calculate what we really earn per hour. They make the case that we’re making less than we think once we subtract what we’re paying for just so we do our jobs, including decompression activities.

For me, it means subtracting expenses like paying for my cell phone and covering my maltipoo’s babysitting bill when I travel for office visits and conferences — as I work remotely. Others likely have it worse, whether it’s the daily commuting, worrying about work-appropriate clothes or even bigger costs like childcare.

Prepare yourself though: your real hourly wage could be shocking. In Mark H.’s case, he realized he spent almost half of what he made on the job. So he switched to part-time work that paid less and —  drum roll —  he saved money, according to the authors.

By challenging us to do the math, the authors invite the reader to question whether what we do for work is worth what we’re getting.

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2. Reexamine what you buy and why

I was worried about what the pages would say about spending, but the advice was easy to digest.

Robin and Dominguez suggest that we ought to seek enough — not more, not less. Here, “Your Money” offers an essential reminder: avoid buying stuff that we won’t actually use or enjoy. If you think you’ve heard that before, you have. But the authors back it up with a compelling argument: you are buying that thing (or “gazingus pin” as they call them) in exchange for working more hours. “Over time, seeing the number of hours of your life spent in order to reward yourself with yet another gazingus pin might make it less of a treasure and more of a booby prize,” they write.

They even put a twist in the way they define frugality.  “Waste lies not in the number of possessions but in the failure to enjoy them,” they write. “Your success at being frugal is measured not by your penny-pinching but by your degree of enjoyment of the material world.” Which, yeah, sounds lovely.

The text doesn’t dig into systemic issues, but it also doesn’t shame readers either. Instead,  it makes you audit yourself, such as by asking “What’s the last item you actually wore out?” (Feel free to share what that item is for you here. Mine was socks).

3. Pursue preventive care (and other less common savings strategies)

There is a list of unusual savings techniques in “Your Money.” You could, as the authors illustrate, volunteer at World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms in exchange for a getaway where you don’t need to pay for lodging. You could also audit yourself for meaningless activities  (think power lunches or cocktail parties that you don’t actually care about) and eliminate them. You could also ask for a discount at any store, including the local hardware store, before buying something.

The authors also made the case to spend time on wellness, such as making preventative appointments at the dentist and the gym.  “Prevention is key,”  they write. “Take full advantage of the benefits of your health insurance, including preventive visits and screenings, life coaching, mental health screenings, and health club memberships, if they offer that.”

4. Rediscover unfulfilled dreams

Not only will you get repeat lessons on savings strategies, but you will get schooled on happiness and existentialism.

“Did you dream of writing a great book, but now write marketing copy for money? That book is still there,” they write. “Did you dream of being a healer, but now work for an HMO, with back-to-back 15 minute appointments? That dream of selfless service is still there. It might take radical change to reclaim it, but it’s not gone.”

The exercises suggested throughout the book are fun to ponder. Two of my favorites: “What have you always wanted to do that you haven’t done yet?” (me: live storytelling) and “Ask yourself how you would spend your time if you could take a year off with pay?” (me: selectively freelance, something with dogs and podcasting).

In reading “Your Money,” you may feel like you’re enrolled in a career counseling course.

Bottom line

The part of “Your Money” that struck me the most was its reminder to account for your time. Always.

“These hours are all you’ve got,” they write. “There is nothing in your life that is more valuable than your time, the moments you have left. Separating work from wages means all moments in your life matter, and reclaiming more moments to spend as you will, not as you must, is a worthy goal indeed.”

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