This Kind of Wealth Really Can Solve Our Problems
A life devoted to frugality taught me about “natural wealth” and the value of investing in community.
Being wealthy crept up on me. I only noticed it during a recent interview, one of many since the new edition of Your Money or Your Life came out this spring. A reporter from Die Zeit, a German weekly newspaper, perched on my sofa asking questions, scribbling notes, and more than once commenting on how nice my house and yard and view are.
You can live in a house comfortably, shuffling from bed to kitchen to desk without really noticing the overall effect of everything you’ve collected—paintings, furniture, rugs, dining table, plants. Then a reporter comes to talk about revaluing wealth, and the entirety of your home is part of her story.
As the reporter marveled at my house, I started to marvel as well. How did someone who has taken home very few paychecks plus a small inheritance in the last 50 years end up with a 2,000-square-foot house with a view in a seaside village?
After she left, I did the math.
My wealth came to me the old-fashioned way: I saved and saved and saved. For the first 10 years after the publication of Your Money or Your Life, I donated the earnings to a wide range of social change organizations. Since then, whenever I got a big check, I stored that money in durable goods: this house, a car, a camper—and cancer treatment (which kept my body durable). The house I turned into a triplex; that rental income adds to my savings. I’ve lived most of my life like a pensioner: passive income from safe investments plus Social Security.
Am I a frugality saint? Hardly. I became well-known in the frugality movement in the 1990s when Your Money or Your Life first published. It took several years to shed my extreme frugality and relax into a balanced relationship with money. Then there was the panic in my early 60s that I would outlive my money. A friend advised me: “If your money disappears, we’ll probably all be in the same boat, and we’ll figure it out together.” The natural wealth of community anchored my mind, heart, and soul.
While my frugality habit has made me the classic millionaire next door, I’ve also—more importantly—invested in nonmonetary wealth.
I call money “national wealth” and this other “natural wealth.” The distinction is crucial to revaluing wealth, and necessary for the attitude adjustment of a country afflicted with wealth inequality and addiction to Wall Street. To state the obvious, amassing dollars for the sake of amassing dollars is not building the right kinds of wealth.
Here’s how building natural wealth works on a personal level.
By saving money, I’ve liberated time. This “time wealth” has afforded me great expanses for thinking and doing: visiting friends, volunteering, writing, self-inquiry, travel, and so on. I’ve often said, “I buy my freedom with my frugality.” Whatever well of wisdom I’ve plumbed, I’ve earned it through these expanses of time.
With this time, I’ve also developed a wealth of skills. Whatever we can do for ourselves, do for others, or even do for money is wealth. I still own my handyman and survival skills books, but nowadays anyone can go on YouTube and learn anything, from gardening to running an online business. In one three-year stint in rural Wisconsin and another in the desert outside Florence, Arizona, in the 1970s I chalked up these skills: gardening, putting up food, butchering, engine repair, building, plumbing, attaching anything to anything with screws, nails, and glue—and even making wine out of flowers, fruits, and vegetables.
I’ve also had the time to build close friendships that are like family to me. They see me through hard times, celebrate wins, challenge my assumptions, show up with food when I’m bedridden, and they will bury me in a shroud in the cemetery up the hill when I die. While the Gallup Sharecare Well-Being Index shows Americans have fewer supportive friends now than a few years ago, I’ve invested time in building friendships through small kindnesses and regular check-ins.
Community is the ultimate unit of wealth: real people in real places solving real problems together.
I’ve also invested in my community, not out of duty but gratitude. Soon after I moved here, I sought a way to say thank you to this little two-street town that welcomed me. I priced shoes at the thrift store. Then I helped facilitate community meetings. A few naturally funny people and I formed a comedy troupe and performed in my garage for friends. As my life has shuttled through dances and events and fundraisers and performances and parties and projects here, I’ve gained a visceral sense of a strong social safety net that runs in parallel to government services. It is here for me, and I am part of it, and this is a quiet yet breathtaking “asset.”
In economic terms, I have amassed social capital. Community is the ultimate unit of wealth: real people in real places solving real problems together—with love.
I know my sweet life is part of the larger, troubled world. Sea level rise is an issue in a seaside village. A military base here is building up fighter jet pilot and warfare training to the detriment of everything we’ve worked on: farms, tourism, sanctuary, and more. Even the relatively small population (65,000) is deeply polarized with internet trolls at their worst. Because of the military expansion, and Airbnbs replacing rentals, and people buying second homes, we have scant affordable housing and are losing artists, young families, and blue-collar workers.
All the forms of wealth I’ve built over a long and satisfying life do not insulate me from our collective challenges. But they buy me the time to work on the gnarly big stuff.
We all care so very much. We all want to help in these challenging times, be it writing a letter to the editor or attending a march or gathering with groups to stop something destructive or start something important. Take heart. People from all income brackets are buying back their lives and bringing forward a diversity of natural wealth that can solve our problems.