Three years ago today I was on an airplane heading to Glasgow. I needed a vacation. Life wasn’t flowing the way I’d expected. Of course, the economic turmoil was hitting everyone. There were doubts about whether we’d make it through. My main stocks (AMSC, DNDN) were doing well, yet appeared to be stalled despite progress in the companies. I was frustrated from delaying dreams; yet I knew that just a little more and I could launch into some of my grander plans. Maybe it was best to step out of my routine, step aside for a while, let things improve, and then step back in. I decided to commemorate a success. Ten years earlier I bicycled across America. Something simpler and shorter and outside my normal routine would be to walk across a smaller country. I did. A vacation changed a life. A book was born. I remembered how to live and dream.
Originally, today’s post was going to be about upgrades and our emotional attachment to brands, things, and external ideals. Apple’s iOS7 continued my disillusionment with Apple. I continue to prefer their solutions to the Windows operating system, but to me it seems that as Apple has grown they’ve begun to acquire some of the less appealing traits of their competition. The two are growing into each other. I’m interested in investigating a third solution, at least for my business computer. I liken the selection to the political party choices. Both have defenders, but their arguments for choosing them are usually based on a contrast with the other, not an appeal to what I might find interesting or useful. The emotional responses and defenses of a brand were as vociferous as if I’d made a claim against liberal Democratic Buddhism or conservative Republican Christianity. I’m a customer of a company. I am dissatisfied with my service. That is not a fault or flaw of the customer, and is an opportunity for a company to offer an improvement. I am a citizen of a representative democracy, i.e. a republic. I am dissatisfied with what the parties offer. If they want to represent me, then it is their opportunity is to address my interests; not a cause for them to convince me that I am wrong.
I wrote Dream. Invest. Live. because I see personal finance as personal. Standard formulas only apply to standardized people. People aren’t stereotypes. People aren’t identical copies with identical situations and identical luck. Life is primary. Living your own life is the only reason for being here. The reason you are here is to be you. No one else can do that. Our society tries to provide some capacity to allow for individual freedom, but it uses an abstraction called money as a way to manage our resources. To live your life, you have to pay your bills. Conventional wisdom focuses so much on money and bills that it only tangentially acknowledges the uniqueness of each person’s lifestyle. Dreams provide a goal. Those passions define a life. Investing is merely the step we’ve decided is necessary to manage everyone as they try to attain the life they prefer.
Walking across Scotland became a three week meditation on what I wanted. Before I started I felt a great dissatisfaction despite living in reasonable comfort. I had enough for the bills, but not for the improvements. I was almost living my dream, but that lifestyle remained out of reach regardless of my efforts.
Within the world of investing, particularly investing in the speculative stocks I am drawn to, it is easy for a portfolio to swing through more than enough to pay for a trip to Scotland. The optimist in me hoped my portfolio would grow by more than the cost of the trip by the time I got back. That didn’t happen. The trip stayed on the credit card and my optimism had another three years appended to its patience.
Now, my net worth is one-twentieth of what it was. More than two years of searching for jobs have been unsuccessful. Over a year of trying to sell my house has been unsuccessful. Finding a way to appease my mortgage company has been unsuccessful. Yet I am optimistic. I frequently write about my sources of optimism as portfolio, job prospects, business prospects (some of which are akin to jobs as this point), housing prospects, and an open door for windfalls and serendipity. Yet, my greatest source of optimism is the firmest foundation I can imagine. I know what I want to do with my life. I know how I want to live it. I know how little that takes. That lifestyle is so basic, simple, powerful, and wonderful that advertisements look embarrassingly silly. Do they really think I’m going to get that excited about mouthwash? Or feel shame that I am not using a manly skin cream? What is a manly skin cream? I don’t even use shaving cream. Haven’t people heard of soap and water?
It is a gross understatement to say that my money is tight. I agree with friends when they celebrate the fact that I can pay all of my bills except the mortgage, but the opposite perspective on that is the need to double my income. Every day I am more in debt by about as much as I earn, and if I don’t make that much money soon I’ll lose my house. The responsible part of me cringes every time I realize that and I realize that several times a day. I realize that every time I check my email for good news, or refresh my portfolio screen for good news, or guardedly answer the phone or open the mail box not knowing if it will be good news or bad. And I am amazed at the quiet crowds of people in far worse conditions. (One in seven Americans are living in poverty. Will we finally do something when it becomes two in seven? How about three in seven?)
The Scots are stereotypically tight with money. I said above that individuals aren’t stereotypes. But with that imagery in mind it was easier for me to yet again consider frugality and simplicity while I walked. There was a moment the morning I walked away from Fenwick
when I tired of the complaining and arguing and railing against the misfortunes and injustices of the world and just for that moment felt joy. It hit me pure and without embellishment. Joy was there – always. Better shoes, a better jacket, a better smartphone, a lack of worry about how I was going to pay for the trip and if I was ever going to get ahead were all betterments that I wanted as if I would find joy at the other end of them. But joy was there regardless of stuff or our abstraction of money. The gap between dreaming and living doesn’t have to be a great chasm of investing and working and worrying. The chasm can shrink to a blink if the essence of the dream is part of the essence of every day life.
That last bit of philosophy resides within me now. Daily it patiently watches the battles that separate me from it. While I know joy is simply being pleased with the present, it is hard to remember while responsibly reviewing my failed obligations whether they are mortgage payments, house repairs, or assurances to find time with friends.
Yes, this blog is about personal finance. Yes the book is called Dream. Invest. Live. The least significant words are Finance and Invest. The most important are Personal, Dream., Live. Thank you, Scotland, for reminding me how to personally live my dream.
Oh yeah, and getting emotional about a brand – well, at least for some folks, that’s life.