Book review: ‘Your Money or Your Life’ by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez

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It’s impossible to read “Your Money or Your Life” without questioning whether spending so many hours at your job is worth the paycheck you’re getting.

The authors Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez make the case that many people are making a dying more than a living — earning money by trading time left on earth for something that can suck up joy and wonder, and even gut relationships. In an early chapter, you’ll spot a chart that lists ages and average remaining life expectancy in years and hours.

Yes, we need paychecks to pay our bills. But the authors argue that we may have made a bum deal — we aren’t making as much as we think we are per hour. You know, once we subtract the cost of clothes we buy to impress colleagues, the price we pay to commute and the expenses associated with decompressing, such as going to the movies or taking expensive trips.

They write: “The bottom line is that we think we work to pay the bills — but we spend more than we make on more than we need, which sends us back to work to get the money to spend to get more stuff — that sends us back to work again!”

Then things start to perk up.

In making the case that our money habits are part of the reason why we are trapped, Robin and Dominguez are inviting readers to dream of another reality more to our liking. All told, the 1992 classic, which was updated in 2018, offers readers a nine-step program designed to transform our relationship with money so that we can work on our own agenda as much as possible. You won’t read this book to learn how to get rich —  this isn’t that kind of guide. But it will inspire you to think about how to live with enough. For the writers, the steps led them to ditching the traditional work grind early.

[This is the Bankrate Book Club’s second book. The book club reads a personal finance book together every month and discusses it in the Money Masters group on Facebook. You can also follow along on Instagram for more announcements and group discussion.]   

A personal finance bestseller was born

Portions of “Your Money” originated from Dominguez’s audio tape course and workbook on how to achieve financial independence (as he did by age 31). Dominguez first teamed up with Robin in the 1970s and they worked together on producing financial education seminars and more. Twenty-seven years ago, they published “Your Money.” Dominguez died in 1997 and Robin most recently updated “Your Money” in 2018 — with an intro by Pete Adeney,  the famous financial independence blogger better known as Mr. Money Mustache. Now, the co-writers are considered by many as pioneers of the Financial Independence Retire Early (or FIRE) movement.

This latest edition includes updates to account for the modern world (like the existence of smartphones) as well as preserves the core principles that have endured the test of time for the most part. This book may be for you if you want to find motivation to care about money, purge your money-wasting habits, resist dead-end routines and reconnect with old dreams. “Your Money” may pair well with a career counseling session or two.

The chapters are long but breeze by in the 306-page book. There are anecdotes from people who successfully followed the program, quotes from philosophers and money-related prompts that will make you examine yourself, such as “talk about an early memory of money and how it affects you now” and “what have you always wanted to do that you haven’t done yet.”

Don’t be put off by the big asks outlined in the book’s beginning. Yes, the authors urge you to find out how much money you’ve made your entire life — cash included from your childhood years (you can visit Social Security’s website to get a ballpark figure, although the authors recommend getting a more exact answer). Without doing that kind of math, you can still take a lot away from reading “Your Money” as a personal finance novice.

The payoff for reading this book

Beyond those kinds of tasks, the uninitiated ought to find this book rather accessible. It’s philosophical as much as it outlines these kind of money tips. You will get reminders about living below your means, long-term investment strategies and avoiding spending money on things you won’t actually use. More interestingly, you will get prompts that make you daydream. For example, “Your Money” invites readers to: “ask yourself how you would spend your time if you could take a year off with pay.”

Readers will also get some funkier savings ideas, too, such as considering volunteering at World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms in exchange for a getaway where you don’t need to pay for food or lodging, or planting a garden to reduce the amount you spend on produce.

Too often, out-of-the-box lifestyles are ignored by traditional budgeting advice but not this tome. Heck, “Your Money” even points out in its pages that “not everyone can get their squiggly lives into the straight lines of a spreadsheet,” such as Justin, who trades household work in exchange for a room in an older woman’s home. It’s very easy to picture a hipster reading this book.

“Your Money” also makes the case for overspenders to curb mindless purchases (or as the authors call them “gazingus pins”) for an interesting reason — by inviting us to remember how many hours we had to work to buy something that we don’t actually use.  “Over time, you actually find yourself feeling better by not spending; not buying a gazingus pin now becomes a source of fulfillment because you yourself have determined that gazingus pins don’t bring you fulfillment,” they write.

At times, the text comes across as a bit too sanctimonious and could easily offend the reader who is living hand to mouth. Yet, “Your Money” repeatedly tells readers “no shame, no blame” throughout its pages — including if the exercises make you realize you spend more than you make.

While the book mentions that technology can help readers manage their money nowadays in passing, it doesn’t provide much detail. Nowadays, there are all kinds of apps that can automate areas of your finances or put a number on your gazingus pin — Ally Bank, for example, lets customers ask Amazon Alexa how many hours of work equals the item they want to buy. If you want an app to help you save money or pay down debt, you will need to look elsewhere for that kind of information.

Final takeaways: 4 out of 5 rating

After reading “Your Money,” you may feel like you need a job that doesn’t suck up so many of your hours. It’s an existential doosie. You may also never look at buying indulgences the same either — those gazingus pins may start looking more like cubicle farm traps.

The theme of the book that sticks with me the most is the reminder that life is short and our time is premium. “You are a business,” the authors write in the quick reference. “You are in the business of maximizing the return you get in happiness for every hour of life energy spent.”

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