How to Get Rich, Live on $30/Week for Groceries, and Have Whatever You Want
I think it’s known to our tribe here we’ve got a piece of land west of the Rocky Mountains, a derelict lettuce farm now covered in sage. We got it from a cat named Baker. Baker snagged it from this other joe. According to local legend, that guy, whose name I can’t remember, shot his dog after the shaggy tramp spooked his horse on some far off mesa, forcing the man to cross the valley, one long side to the other, in cowboy boots. But the real interesting owner, the one I think of most, came before him. After World War II, this guy got paranoid and put all his cash into gold. Then he buried the loot in a god-honest treasure chest. This is a fact. The valley attests to it. After that, he forgot where it was and hired a backhoe and a backhoe operator to pothole the place until the spade struck wood. At that point he sent the driver home and dug up the chest himself. I like that story because I think I might find that chest sometime, since no one ever saw him recover it, and because it’s a good illustration of the elusive power of wealth. I mean, this guy owned land where the deer and the antelope actually played, he grew lettuce like Peter Rabbit’s Mr. McGregor, and the feeling of impending doom got so bad he hid everything he had in an actual freaking chest in the ground.
Here’s the point, if the story has a point: I think everybody wrestles with the emotional experience of wealth and poverty and attaches it to local things, money, couches, dinners out, etc. Then people—I’m thinking of young guys especially—try to solve the money and the stuff issue without addressing the underlying experience.
An example: At 22, I lived on a grocery budget of $30/week,* (which is twice what our friend Rachel lived on; check out “When I Met Kevin”), plus eggs from a slew of chickens in the backyard. Two of the chickens were jungle fowl. Jungle fowl are tiny and can fly—they’re very much like wild chucker, camouflaged, wily—so our food supply was impacted by the periodic absence of those two birds. We built the coop and most of the furniture in the house—two coffee tables, two desks, a dresser (the dresser was a set of shelves, the drawers were cardboard apple boxes), end tables, all kinds of other stuff—out of scrap wood we bought at a wood recycling lot for $5. All that time, I had a deep experience of wealth, though I worked at a public middle school and got paid like a busker. Later on, when I’d worked a normal job, the situation changed. In a period of maybe three years, while my actual pay increased, my experience of wealth vanished. If I looked at my cash, I had more than some of my friends, much less than others, but certainly more than my former self. Still, I felt, somehow, precarious. Unwealthy, though it wasn’t clear what that meant.
Then this happened: last year, I was driving home, listening to marketing maven Seth Godin talk about his life, when he let this insight drop: “Money is a story. After you have enough to buy yourself rice and beans, you can tell yourself whatever story you want.”
I stopped the interview (it was the Tim Ferriss podcast). Money is a story. There’s a certain low hurdle you have to clear: basic sustentation, which, it’s true, isn’t actually easy to clear, but it’s possible.** After that, everything is relative.
What does it mean for money to be a story? A couple things.
First, it means money is incredibly abstract. That’s obvious but important. Money works because it means different things to different people. I mean this literally. Find a $5 bill, or do an image search for one, and look at it. What does it signify for you? $5 is a latte for one person, a big tip for another, or, in my case, a truck bed full of scrap wood. For some people, it means an abstract experience of plenty/want, depending on what percentage of their estate it represents. Money doesn’t mean anything except what we make it mean. Y’oughta pause a sec and let that sink in.
Money. Doesn’t mean anything. Except for what we make it mean.
We’ll come back to this, but I recommend treating this line as a mantra, something to meditate on. It’s a trick that turns less money into more joy, and is, more importantly, part of the process by which we become disinterested in money as a category in itself, which is the bigger goal.
Second, money is how we measure our lives. For example, let’s say it’s true, as You Need A Budget founder, Jesse Mecham, explained on our podcast, that a pretty normal person has $300 in their bank account. That can be a few different stories. For the sake of example, let’s say our man is 26 and a barista.
He could tell this story: In my teens, I didn’t manage to save any money. I lived with my parents. I lived with them after college again. Now, after six months of working as a barista, I actually have savings. I am amazing. I am growing.
Or this one: I got a college degree. I was supposed to have access to superfluous amounts of money, tons of it, zero after zero after zero after zero. And I only have $300. That’s not even my rent. I’m failing. I’m failing in my career. I’m working as a freaking barista, like an animated millennial stereotype, and I can’t have any of the things I want (which are clothes, nice beers, a better bike, whatever).
Or one more: After high school, I wanted to make art. I made it from reclaimed palettes and crayons. But then I wanted to make different art—I wanted to paint. Paints are expensive. For almost a decade, I haven’t been able to, and now, I have money available and can take a step in the direction of a dream. What a gift.
See what’s happening here? We’re not talking about financial strategies. We’re not talking about budgeting, investing, all that, though those are good skills to develop. We’re talking about the fact that the amount of money we have has nothing to do with how we feel we are doing and how much we feel we can do.
We are, all of us, stories. We have a calling. We’re meant to grow in that calling. We have a little knowledge of God. We’re meant to grow in that knowledge. We have a little mastery. We are made to rule. That’s huge, because, for most people, myself included, the only measurement I maintain of mastery is money. More money is more mastery. My internal progress is visible in my car and clothes and slush cash. It should be clear that’s a trap.
Mastery is a matter of skill. As men, we’re growing into those skills that define masculinity. On the one hand, we’re meant to grow in manual competency. This doesn’t mean we know how to fix everything, build anything. But we are meant to rule our stuff, to fix a leaking sink, to repair or refinish our table, to own and understand a few tools. On the other hand, we’re meant to grow in the soulful sense. To become patient. To stay present in hard conversations. To become compassionate. To become longsuffering. To become joyful. All of these things are skills. Take joy. Joy corresponds to loving, knowledgeable engagement with the world. Some people seem happy by nature, but that’s not a shortcut. The perkiest person has to develop joy as a skill. We learn to enjoy a great view by studying great views, reading great nature writers and spending time with people who already have an artistic eye. We have to learn to anchor our hearts in the realities of the kingdom that produce joy.
Back to money.
Money is filled with other people’s work. It feels good because it feels like mastery. If you’ve got lots of cash, you can hire other people to do anything—fix your car, write your resume, make your breakfast. But you can use other people’s work for other things, too. The guy who can’t pursue a woman’s heart can buy a nice dinner, buy gifts, outsource the production of joy to people who enjoy what they do. But that dude doesn’t hold a candle to the hero in a country song who takes his girl to the river in the evening, watches the water, maybe sings. The country hero has a romantic soul, and he wins every time. This applies basically everywhere. Think of two people: one guy is an incredible runner. He’s done it enough to really love it. The other has really nice running gear. Or these two: one guy is a great cook. He’s put in the time, worked through four or five cookbooks over some years, built some basic skills. The other can afford to eat out whenever he wants. Who would you rather be? Let’s go on: One guy has really nice jeans. The other guy is a skilled carpenter. One drives a really nice car. The other can hear the voice of God like a bud in his ear. Which one do you aspire to?
It’s a fascinating problem, but we’re inspired by competence, skill, and character, even as we incline to comfort, ease, and security. The one calls to us, the other engulfs us like mire.
Of course, there is a time to outsource, to buy things that add joy to experience. Dates are great with a bottle of wine. Bro time is usually improved by tobacco. But if I need those props to enjoy those relationships, I’ve got a real problem. The skill, turns out, is knowing when to spend and being able to.
So I’ve taken all this as a challenge recently. Here’s how.
We use our work, time, and sometimes money to support our priorities.
This is tricky, because people are notoriously bad prioritizers; we have no idea what’s valuable. So I set aside some time with God in the morning to think about it, journal about it, until I had a list of things I aspired to. A selection of things like these:
To have a great life with God
To be growing in relationship with Em
To be building better habits as a writer
To be able to fix my stuff, car, house; make my own furniture
To love regular family life
To want the outdoors more than convenience
It’s a varied list, but all things I sort of do, and all things I want mastery in.
Then I looked at the shortcuts money allows. I don’t always choose the joy of the woods, because it’s not as accessible as the joy of a beer in town. I don’t always choose time with God, because it doesn’t seem as accessible as basically anything. Family joy? It’s great, but it’s easier if I take that family walk by a coffee shop and caffeinate myself. Dates are easier with sugar, wine, food other people make.
Then, like a real noob, I tried to cut all the props at once—buy nothing, ever. I don’t recommend that. Training your soul is like any kind of physical training: it hurts. When I train for a race, I build a plan that starts easy and gets hard, has rest days, scales to my needs. Training your soul is like that. So I scaled and said, Every other time I meet up with a guy for a beer/coffee, I’m going to invite him for a trail run, then some coffee at my house (coffee after training increases your body’s ability to use glucose, which is most usable after training anyway. So. Cookies and coffee are the best for you and best for recovery just after that run). Every other time I go somewhere to try to write (usually caffeinating myself like an addict),
I’m going to do things that affect my writer’s soul, like read great writers or adopt short writing projects I think are possible without stimulants. What about dates? I said, I’m going to talk with Em, see if she’s on board. Then we’re gonna cut our date budget in half (it’s not big to begin with). Every other week, we’ll do something free—walk together, plan and make a killer dinner out of our usual groceries, bust out the cribbage board, take our bikes to a park we like, etc. The result is we began building actual wealth—joy, rootedness, enjoyment.
It’d be a disservice to understate how hard this is. The world knows we’re valuable. We have money to spend. It works really hard to reinforce our desire to express mastery in things and to have them quickly, the more the better. So it’s an aggressive move, to take the lead with your own heart. It’s hard. But the results are exceptional. When we align our desires—what we want to do, where, when—with our aspirations, who we want to be, we line up with the ancient paths Jesus has used for our flourishing, and we become deeply wealthy.
*Not actually that hard, if you have access to Costco or WinCo or whatever. Most of the world does it. They do it by prioritizing ingredients that are super accessible (bioavailable) and nutrient rich. Legumes, certain kinds of real (not enriched or refined or bleached or anything) grains. They get flavor by using cooking techniques, not fancy sauces. Put a bunch of canned tomatoes and garlic in a crock pot overnight, and the result will blow your mind. The heat will break amino acids into pieces small enough to register on your taste buds, which only receive very small molecules. Most Mexican dishes are cheap meat cuts and beans and rice cooked very slowly for a very long time, plus seasonal veggies so no one gets scurvy. Most Ethiopian dishes use lentils—just lentils—and spices and slow-cooking techniques for magnificent results. I like this topic but it’s beside the point here, so I’ll stop with one budget trick: Take all things that are luxury and allow only 20 percent of whatever you spend on that. The other 80 percent has to go for bulk items, preferably canned and dry goods in the form of lentils, quinoa, tomatoes, beans, eggs, nuts/nut butters, grains if you’re into grains. That can be cornmeal for polenta and corn cakes, oats for everything, nutrient-rich breads, what have you. You’ll find you actually have leftovers from the 80 percent that, at the end of every month, you can use to splurge your heart out.
**A little point here. When talking to millennials, you’ve got to acknowledge a couple realities. First, we’re one of the first generations where our culture told us, nay, decreed, that we should take on debt in the form of education. I could go wild on this point, but you can look at trends across time, and it’s true that pre-1980, most folks bought educations they could afford with cash they had. Second, most millennials entered the job market after 2008. I recommend reading on it, because the financial crash of 2008 exerts such enduring influence, but it’s generally acknowledged that millennials would experience 15 years relative wage loss following 2008, which means that, as a generation, we’re not earning as much as other generations when they were our age, relative to purchasing power. That’s visible in two statistics: the amount of debt we carry and the number of us living below the poverty line. I digress, but still, before talking about how easy wealth is, you’ve got to acknowledge that certain elements are hard.
***Tossing a bone here to the footnote readers. In case the principle here is exciting but there’s a more fundamental need, namely, structuring your cash, I’ve got a couple recommends. Why put them here? Folks that read footnotes go get recommended books. Thus, putting recommends anywhere else is a tactical error. So. If you need practical advice and have time for one book, read Ramit Sethi’s I Will Teach You To Be Rich. Why not Dave Ramsey? He’s fine, very wise and helpful, but reading Dave Ramsey is like talking to an elder at a Presbyterian church. Many of those men are outstanding chaps, but…those sport coats. Ramit Sethi talks about all the same stuff—budgeting, account types, investing—but in a better voice for young men. Have time to read TWO books? Don’t read two books. Unless you’re an unusual specimen, more info = less action almost all the time.