I spent most of last week in and around Park City, Utah on a family vacation. I usually run in Portland, Oregon, where the elevation is about 230 feet (70 meters) above sea level. In Park City, the elevation is about 7000 feet (2134 meters) above sea level.
Among other things, the altitude adjustment makes for one tired runner. I felt like I had picked up a pack-a-day smoking habit just before setting out to run a 10k.
Aside from the only near-death experience I’ve ever had while trying to run a few miles, Utah was fun. I’m back home now before picking up the travel pace in about a week. Coming soon: NYC, South America, Saudi Arabia, and so on.
But First, Let’s Talk About Sufficiency
Ever since I published 279 Days, where I wrote briefly about how much money I make, I’ve had a number of good conversations about personal income with people from all kinds of backgrounds. As I said in the manifesto, the challenge with talking about money in specific terms is that it’s entirely relative. I have friends who earn more than a million dollars a year and friends who are currently unemployed, earning virtually nothing. The more important discussion, I think, is to consider what money can be used for.
Some people assume that choosing to be content with a limited income naturally limits my choices as well. The perception seems to be that I have given up more income to obtain a more simple life. In some cases, this is true – I’ve made more money in the past than I do now, and I regularly choose to pass on opportunities to increase my income so that I can focus on building my writing career. However, as true as that is, it’s not really the whole story.
To get the whole story, I have to say honestly that I don’t feel limited at all. Most of the time, I do what I want with very few limits.
I like the fact that I can take off on Southwest Airlines to see my family without counting vacation days and arranging time away from a job. (I still work every day no matter where I am, but since I like my work, that’s OK.)
At the end of the month, I’m embarking on my biggest trip of 2009. The journey will take me to four continents over a couple of weeks. I don’t have an unlimited budget, and there will likely be some airport-floor-sleeping somewhere along the way, but that’s part of the whole experience. If I didn’t want to go, I wouldn’t.
It’s not just the big things. Small things are important, too:
- I pay all of my bills the day they arrive.
- I visit the great Chipotle several times a week, where they know my name and start making my vegetarian burrito before I order.
- I usually exercise before dinner, but if I want to I can go for a run or to the gym at any time during the day
- I go to the coffee shop every afternoon and the Waffle Window every Sunday.
I could go on and on, and in my own personal notes, I have gone on and on to a very detailed level – because it’s important to know what sufficiency means.
What Sufficiency Means to Me
First, here a few definitions, courtesy of my good friend Dictionary.com.
1 – a sufficient number or amount
2 – adequate provision or supply, esp. of wealth
3 – adequate means to live in modest comfort
As I see it, sufficiency simply means enough. It means having everything you need and not lacking for anything.
Right now, that’s exactly how I feel – I’m not getting rich, but I really do have everything I need. It’s a pretty good feeling. I also know that there have been other times in life when I’ve had more money but felt less secure about it. This tells me while money is an important part of the answer, I also know that sufficiency is not all about money.
Give Me neither Poverty nor Riches
Is sufficiency all about giving up opportunities to have a higher income? No, not really. I think it’s all about making deliberate choices. Here is the difference as I see it:
Would I accept more money if it fell down from the sky? Yes, of course. Free money is good. However, would I walk very far to pick it up? No, probably not.
I haven’t taken any vows of poverty, and I believe that making money is generally a good thing. It’s just that I’m more interested in thinking about what happens with the money.
I also don’t have any illusions about poverty, even the relative kind of poverty we have in North America. I’ve been relatively poor before, and while I never truly lacked for anything, there were definitely some limitations on my choices.
Right now, being neither rich nor poor feels like a good place to be. I probably couldn’t go out and buy a castle, but I’m not limited in the life experiences I value. (I also believe that if I really wanted my own castle, I’d GTD it out and find a way to get one.)
Sufficiency, Scarcity, and Abundance
It’s important to think about sufficiency because if you don’t know what it looks like for you, you can easily fall into scarcity. The thing with scarcity is that you operate under the principle that resources are limited and that we can never truly have enough. We’d better work as hard as we can to ensure that we don’t lose out to someone else.
This is the default mode of operation for most of us. The challenge is to be self-aware and rise above it.
For me, the most important principle of personal finance is self-awareness. The values of frugality and generosity are also important to me, but I don’t think either can be consistently practiced without first being self-aware. Both frugality and generosity have to be related to a deeper value of clearly understanding how we think about money.
To become self-aware, it helps to know exactly what sufficiency looks like for you. How much money do you really need to a) meet your basic obligations, and b) do the things you want to do?
Once you have that amount, you have the walk-away number. That’s the number with which you can comfortably walk away from any commitment that is incompatible with who you are and what you really want. You can start to focus on building a life more than building a bank account. You learn to value experiences (things you do) more than possessions (things you own).
One of the best feelings in the world comes from the awareness that everything will be okay. If you have that feeling, you know exactly what I mean.
If you don’t have it, it’s not that difficult to get to it. It just involves a shift in thinking, a desire for change, and the courage to be different. Like a lot of unconventional choices, not everyone will relate. Some people won’t get it at all, others will get it but be unable to let go of deeply-held beliefs about scarcity, and a few will embrace sufficiency and experience a life of purposeful adventure.
I know which group I want to be in.
Zion National Park Image by Alaskan Dude