Thursday, 30 May 2019

Minimalist Management of Money and Resources

I enjoy articles and videos explaining different aspects of minimalism — especially daily life, the organisation of homes and clothing, and the management of money.

Recently I've been exploring what's online about minimalism and money management. The main focus is usually either amassing wealth (so as to retire early or travel, or live from the heart not as a wage slave) or escaping from accumulated personal debt. Though this input is very interesting and informative, it doesn't really speak to my condition or relate to my circumstances. So I thought I'd add my own two-penn'orth to the discussion, as I've thought this through very carefully over several decades.

I was very blessed to come under the influence, in my twenties, of a Christian teacher who went methodically through the New Testament identifying the principles of life and faith practice it offers. One of the strands he pulled clear was the management of money — that the teaching of Jesus (and indeed you see this in the Old Testament too) included advice to be clear of debt. Matthew's version of the Lord's Prayer gives not "forgive our trespasses" but "forgive our debts as we forgive those indebted to us". A society without debt is substantially more free for both service and creativity than a society whose people are shackled by owing massive amounts of money. My teacher said the purpose of avoiding debts was not to amass personal wealth (see here) but to create the necessary freedom that makes a person available to extent the reach of Christ, build the kingdom and spread the gospel. That was what I wanted to do with my life, so I heeded his advice, and made it my aim to get out of debt. The only debt I had was our house mortgage, and by this means and that I found ways to wriggle free. By the time I reached my early forties I was entirely debt free. 

That's a good start, but if all my time had been sold for money to live on, I still would not have been free to work for the gospel. So I looked into ways and means to live my life as I chose without relying on State handouts or working for other people. I also discovered that money doesn't exist, as such — modern currency is what's called "fiat money", nothing but figures on a balance sheet; and like most notional reality it is somewhat frail. So I realised that it would be better to travel from the unreal to the real. Bricks and mortar are real, and so is land. Therefore when I was given the precious gift of half my father's modest estate (50% of his little cottage and small savings), and the also precious gift of a substantial sum of money from my mother downsizing as she grew old, I made sure to invest these in a house with a big garden, which I let to tenants. Before I received these precious gifts, I used the space I had, even though it meant bunching up tight at home, to let rooms to lodgers in my house. The sources of income these created set me free to work for the gospel as a writer and preacher and teacher. Income from writing Christian books is not very much, even for those writers who do well, but of course it is also very helpful.

By these means I defended my time from erosion and invested the unreal into the real. The practice of minimalism has been very helpful to me in doing this, because the accumulation, storage and maintenance of possessions is very expensive of time, money, energy and attention. Living with almost no possessions sets the energies of my mind and heart free for what I came here to do (propagate the gospel).

Another aspect of what I have found online about minimalist financial practice is the absence of attention to ethics. The minimalists I've found giving financial advice speak of investment in stocks and shares and corporate bonds etc, but what does that imply? I wanted to be sure no resources of mine were invested into damaging the created order or financing war or enslaving workers into misery — absolutely sure. This is another reason I invested what I had into a house with a big garden. We (me and my husband) personally manage our tenancies. If anything goes wrong we are right there. We make sure our tenants' homes are kept in tip-top condition. If they have trouble paying their rent, we wait. We go in person to collect it so we can unobtrusively keep an eye on the houses (I have one and my husband has one), rather than subjecting our tenants to a six-monthly inspection. I can say, hand on heart, that my resources have not contributed to the horrors of war or the miseries of the slave trade, because apart from the investment into a property to let I have almost no money for my bank to invest in anything. This is important to me. If I did have funds to invest, insufficient to buy more land or houses, I'd put them in the Triodos bank (that's what I did when I had some money but not enough to buy a house). Practicing frugality to get out of debt and create wealth is shrewd, but considering the ethics of investment is important.

Part of ethical consideration, for me, is earning directly. Employment by a corporation or investment in composite finance obscures from view the involvement in goodness-knows-what one may have inadvertently taken on by association. I love to earn money by providing something an individual actually wants and needs and being paid for it by them — not managing to successfully market something nobody really wants in order to part them from their hard-earned cash, and not growing money by investments that take advantage of others and make them suffer, out of sight and out of mind. Whether it is officiating at a funeral, or writing a book, or (as my family does) letter-cutting a grave stone or painting and gilding a statue, someone has come looking for our work and requested it because we do a good job, and they pay a fair price (excellent work for low market price with a little taken off, usually) for exactly what they wanted and no more. And if anyone linked with me professionally requires me to do something unethical, I immediately disconnect and do no further work for them.

Another aspect that has surprised me about typical minimalist advice and example regarding resources, is the strong emphasis on individualism. There's a lot about nomadic lifestyle, living in cars/vans/RVs, making the most of small apartments and living in tiny houses. Now, I love tiny houses — I think they are delightful and ingenious and a lot of fun. They are very aesthetically pleasing to me — but at the same time, if one is serious about minimalism, really serious, it seems to me there is a superior option: sharing.

If you have a tiny house with one heater and one cooker and one solar panel and one light, it fulfils the needs of one, maybe two people. Plus the surface area compared to the internal space is big — even with insulation it must lose a lot of the heat generated. But if you have a normal house populated by a larger group of people all living as minimalists, you can still have one heater, one cooker, one solar panel and one light, and it fulfils the needs of perhaps five people. Sharing maximises potential like no other thing you can do. One set of utensils, one car (if any), one water filter, one furnace, one television, one plot of land to put your home on. If minimalism is the means/objective you're seeking, sharing is your friend. It surprises me that in general minimalists do not mention this, because sharing is a minimalist super-power.

For me, the three best pieces of advice for managing finance and personal resources are Gandhi's, Thoreau's and John Wesley's.

Gandhi said:
Without properly kept accounts it is impossible to maintain truth in its pristine purity.

This accords with something my daughter Hebe said, elegantly expressed in a haiku:
Money shows the truth —
the truth of where the heart flows.
Look at what it chose.

Careful and thorough accounting reveals to us our true direction of travel — this is why it's important to know the exact location of our financial investments; giving one's resources into the hands of financial experts to invest in their arcane world and oneself merely harvesting the interest yielded is not minimalism, it's long-range participation in very dark complexity. The purpose of investment for a minimalist should not be the creation and maximisation of the unreal (money) but of freedom and peace and goodness (the real). Minimalism needs to know what it's investing in, which is where Thoreau comes in.

Thoreau said:
Keep your accounts on a thumbnail.

The mind's ability to keep track of multiple strands is limited. The more you own, the more complex your activities and involvement, the less carefully and scrupulously you can manage your life. Ambitious schedules, accumulation of belongings, a heavy load of commitment of any kind, provide the ground in which carelessness cheerfully sprouts. The purpose of minimalism is to give us the space and freedom we need to live mindfully and responsibly. Thoreau's advice to keep your accounts on a thumbnail is sage indeed; simplicity is inherently effective and promotes accountability (to God) and responsibility.

John Wesley said:
Earn all you can
Save all you can
Give all you can.

It's important to realise the word "save" here means "spare" not "hoard". That is to say, by "save all you can" he means, "be as frugal as you can", not "amass all you can".

This is about the maximising of your personal potential with a view to living as a channel of love. It implies a belief in community and a generous investment of oneself into the cause of kindness and compassion. Again, it is about turning the unreal into the real — using your personal time, talent and energy to earn money (unreal) which you then direct into the purposes of love and wellbeing and goodness (real).

Gandhi's advice promotes honesty, transparency and integrity. Thoreau's advice makes it workable. Wesley's advice promotes the wellbeing of human society.

These three principles offer all you need to put together effective and efficient minimalist financial management. 


Jen Liminal Luminous said...

ooof, this is very challenging Pen, on so many levels. Thank you for writing and sharing that.

I am a flat owner, and I do my best to be a good landlord, always repairing anything the moment I hear about it going wrong and not the cheapest possible option either, but I am far away and so I use an agency. I also find the whole thing incredibly stressful and I think I will have to sell because I worry about it all the bloody time.

But I have no pension...after being self employed and moving jobs a lot and and and....I find all of these things overwhelm and I just don't know where to start with doing the right thing.

When I feel like that I think of your story of hanging out laundry and Jesus just literally taking the first thing which comes to hand and dealing with that. THat is the best that I can do....

Keep on writing the challenging things Pen

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Jen. I agree that being a landlord is stressful, but so is all of life. It is worth bearing in mind three things — firstly that there is (so far as I know) no other investment of assets that returns such a good income while simultaneously increasing capital investment (even though a substantial proportion must be set aside for maintenance); secondly that bricks and mortar are not in general so fragile as other investments (apart from political revolution, you can be confident a building will remain yours for some kind of use); thirdly that land and houses are real and money is not, and moving from the unreal to the real consolidates the security and stability of your position. Like you, I have no pension, and I do not trust our political establishment to guarantee me a state pension. Times change. If all else fails, you can either live in your flat and sell the house which has been your home (thus avoiding capital gains tax), or use either building for some other purpose.
I believe you are married. I too find interaction with people draining and responsibilities overwhelming, and being married is very helpful here. Together, my husband and I make a good team. One of his immensely valuable contributions to our teamwork is that (most of the time) he collects the rents. Our tenants are good people, but I try to minimise personal interactions with the associated stress. Perhaps in a similar way you and your husband could pass the responsibility back and forth between you, and so alleviate the anxiety they create? This is another example of sharing as a minimalist super-power!
I also recommend tackling the anxiety itself. I have found Natasha Campbell McBride's GAPS principles, and David Perlmutter's dietary advice, immensely helpful in offering an escape route from crippling anxiety. xx

Anonymous said...

Hello Pen, oooh this is interesting. I can relate to wanting a real grasp on what's tangible -like the stability of a home and garden in which to live a simple life, and I agree the concept of money is such an arbitrary thing. It's one of those cultural concepts we grow up with. I remember the un-nerving time when it dawned on me that there is a choice to be made about most things and most 'rules' are someone else's. As you point out, they aren't always benevolent or kind. Naively, I hadn't considered banks investing money in atrocity before :(
I always think if we have a little room to grow, forage, and somewhere dry to sleep, there is hope for the day if/when things go pear shape - and this seems increasingly likely in our troubled world, don't you think?
Like Jen, I'm unable to live entirely as I would like at the moment but it is within our grasp to do what we can and to have a game plan which lines up with all that we were intended for. I love the links to the Bible - it really has been embedded here all along. Have a peaceful day, Deb x

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Deb — About what you say here: "I'm unable to live entirely as I would like at the moment but it is within our grasp to do what we can" — this is something we come across again and again in our household; that we can do only partially what we long to do fully. I have come to believe in the direction of travel, letting the destination take care of itself. I love what Thich Nhat Hanh says, "We are already what we want to become." That the desire and vision are in our hearts is the seed, and where the seed is the plant will be, taking care of itself and bringing in turn its own harvest.
For me, one of the great benefits of minimalism is that there are fewer events and objects and responsibilities to claim my attention. In general it's perhaps easier to get one thing right than fifteen! Some while ago I developed the practice of attempting less in order to achieve more, and I find this works very well for me. x

Bean said...

I think your approach is a very honest approach to a minimalist life style. I have watched a lot a number of minimalist You Tubers, and now feel a bit skeptical of most of them. Yes they live with very little, but the items they do own are trendy and expensive and they may not actually promote the products in their video, but they have all the links below for a person to click on to purchase the items, this seems a contradiction. They have purchased a lot of stuff in the past, and then decided to get rid of it all, this seems wasteful and not a good use of resources. Hopefully most of the items they rid themselves of were donated, recycled, sold, or given to family and friends.

You approach of living within your means, making ethical, considered decisions about how money is used and earned is the ultimate minimalist way of life. Any you seem to have always "traveled lightly" throughout your life with consideration for others and the environment all along the way.

Thank you for sharing you wisdom,


Jen Liminal Luminous said...

My beloved husband is indeed much better at dealing with anxiety than I am and he does now do all the liaison with my agency, which helps a lot. I will look at the anxiety resources you suggested, even a lot of therapy has still left me a very anxious person. HEading into London 3 days a week is not helping with that!

I read a while ago about deciding how you would like to live your life and then thinking of tiny actions you can do to head that way and forget about the end result.That helps!

Pen Wilcock said...


Thank you, Bean — that's so kind and encouraging. I think for some of the minimalist vloggers and bloggers, their online work is part of how they earn their living, so an element of presentation or performance comes into it to make it appealing and attractive, which is understandable. Having been heavily influenced by St Francis since I was 15 and the Tao since I was 19, the way of hiddenness and littleness has been my abiding choice. Part of my discipline of simplicity involves maintaining boundaries, and part of my faith practice is avoiding self-promotion. Anything I write, I offer and then I stand back, leaving it to God's grace to prosper and bless it — or not! I'm not entirely sure if that's just lazy and a cop-out, or if it has genuine integrity, but it's the way I've chosen to take.

Pen Wilcock said...

Sorry Jen — not ignoring you; cross-posted! The resources I recommended are for a dietary rather than cognitive path. You'll have to see what you think, but they come with my hearty recommendation. x

Rebecca said...

Sharing our house with my father the past 3 years has been gratifying. After an estate sale he moved here with familiar furniture for his room and clothes. Otherwise, the three of us now live comfortably and joyfully, doing life together.☺️

Pen Wilcock said...

I should imagine that takes away a lot of worry, too. When a very elderly person lives alone, it's hard not to feel uneasy about how they are. I'm so glad it's working out well for you all.

Rebecca said...

Yes, that too...😄

Jen Liminal Luminous said...

yes, I got that Pen... I am utterly convinced diet has a major role to play and I'm glad to hear that you feel yours is helping you a great deal...I think I need to take it a little step at a time, otherwise I freak out. Right now, rather than saying I can't eat xyz, I say I can, but only after I have eaten a piece of fruit or snack on some vegetables. I'm hoping I will get to the right place!

Pen Wilcock said...

Good plan, that's just what we did! Put the good stuff in first and gradually edge the junk out to the margins!