I can’t believe it…
One of the founders of the financial independence movement, Vicki Robin, joined me for an episode of the Financial Independence Podcast!
Vicki and her partner Joe Dominguez wrote the book, Your Money or Your Life – a New York Times Best Seller that many people consider to be the bible of financial independence (the FI-ble?).
Your Money or Your Life is actually what inspired me to create the FI Laboratory many years ago.
Vicki has been a driving force in the FI community since the 1960s and has a wealth of knowledge and inspiring stories to share so hope you enjoy the interview!
- The story behind Your Money or Your Life
- How Joe was able to retire at the age of 31 in 1969 with $70,000 in the bank
- Why Vicki’s quest to change the world didn’t succeed (yet)
- How a stage-3 cancer diagnosis changed her plans
- What’s going to be different in the new version of Your Money or Your Life
- What she believes are the most important steps in the Your Money or Your Life program
- How the book’s investment advice has changed and what she is current investing in
- Your Money or Your Life
- Vicki Robin Web/Twitter
- Blessing the Hands that Feed Us
- Transition Network
- Transition Town Totnes
- The Your Money or Your Life Course
- Audio version of Your Money or Your Life
- Leave a review for the Financial Independence Podcast on iTunes (thanks!)
I can’t believe it, but Vicki Robin, the author of Your Money or Your Life is joining me on today’s show.
As you probably know, Vicki and her co-author, Joe Dominguez, wrote one of the most important and most referenced books on financial independence. And she’s done so much over the years to further the message of financial independence.
So it’s an incredible honor to get her on the show. I really can’t wait to hear 1) how the book came about in the first place and how this whole idea of financial independence emerged, and 2) I want to find out what’s changed.
Vicki and Joe had been talking about financial independence way back in the ‘60s and had seminars in the ‘80s and wrote the book and published it in the ‘90s. A lot of years had gone by. And I am really interested in hearing how people’s receptibility to financial independence has changed and also if there’s anything in the book that now just doesn’t apply and if there’s anything new that she’s learned over the years that she now plans to add to the next version.
So, without further delay—I can’t believe I’m saying this—Vicki Robin, welcome to the Financial Independence Podcast. Thank you so much for being here.
Vicki Robin: It’s my pleasure.
Mad Fientist: I know you’re currently in the process of updating Your Money or Your Life, so I really appreciate you taking the time out of that to talk with me. And also, before we start, I just wanted to say a big thank you from the whole community. I know Your Money or Your Life is like the bible of the FI community. It’s everything. It’s the book that everyone references and things. So, just thank you from all of us for your contributions.
Vicki Robin: Well, you’re so welcome. It’s actually been such a surprise to discover you all. Until I took on this update of Your Money or Your Life, I actually had no idea there was a big community out there. I presumed that people would say, “Oh, how are people responding to your book?” I say, “I’ll have a little recording in every book. I don’t know what’s happening out there.”
And to stumble on this community and to realize—as Christie said, she said, “You guys, you and Joe are like the Adam and Eve,” and I feel like […] Adam died and Eve stumbled off to this little island in the Pacific northwest to tend her garden and wandered out to this whole crowd of people who seem to think highly of the work that Joe and I did which is just so moving. It’s really moving that it’s had that effect.
Mad Fientist: Oh, yeah, definitely. That’s really cool that you sort of just stumbled upon this online resurgence. And we’ll definitely touch on that. I want to talk to you more about that.
But I want to go back to the beginning if that’s alright. I am not going to touch too much on the nine steps on the book or anything like that because most of my audience has read it—and if they haven’t, they will be soon, I’m sure.
So, I want to just go back and figure out how it all came about. Obviously, this all started back in the ‘60s. So if you wouldn’t mind just taking us back to when you met Joe and how you came around to this idea.
Vicki Robin: Well, you do have to start with Joe. And you have to go back to 1950 when he was 12 years old. He was in like PS38 or some ghetto high school or junior high school, I guess, in Spanish Harlem in New York City, having grown up on welfare cheese with his father having TB and being in a TB sanitorium and his mother not being able to speak English and him running the family from the time he was like 2.
Mad Fientist: Wow!
Vicki Robin: So, he is like a total survivalist and uber smart. IQ testing, really, really smart, but who knew back then?
And he had to write this little essay about “what do you want to be by the time you’re 30,” and he said financially independent. He had no idea what that meant, but it was like a guiding light.
I don’t have to do his whole story, but actually by the time he was—just like days before he turned 31, he declared financial independence. He had amassed about—and you’re going to find this amazing—$70,000. But at that time, interest rates and treasury bonds (which were the smart money went if you wanted to be financially independent) were some place around 7%. And in the next 10 years, they peaked at 15% when I actually got onboard with a lot of my investing. And of course, the dollar was worth a third of what it is now.
So, he had an adequate income for life at a very, very minimal lifestyle. But having grown up in poverty, he knew how to do that.
His goal really was freedom. But it wasn’t just freedom like getting out. He also trained as an altar boy. He had that classic Catholic moment where “Do I go into sin? Or do I go into being a priest?” So he had a deeply religious sense, and he wanted to get back to that.
Anyway, that’s Joe. And actually, my story is very different. I grew up where both my parents were professionals. I grew up fairly privileged. I went to an Ivy League university. I graduated at the top of my high school class. I actually graduated cum laude from an Ivy League university. And I had no interest in it at all. I knew there was something more to life.
I didn’t know what it was, but I spend my junior year, I wangled away—it was not a common thing to do, but I wangled away to spend my junior year in Europe, study in Spain and travel extensively and live in a pittance. I learned how to live on oranges and bread and travel everywhere.
So, for me, I learned my frugal habits early on. For me, frugality meant freedom. Frugality meant freedom to roam, to experience. I’m somebody who learns about life by being in it, by being close to it and having sort of edgy experiences where I have to solve a problem—I have to solve for it in order for me to survive.
And so I met Joe actually in—well, we were both traveling. And I had enough money barely to survive for who knew how long. So his methodology, and of course his quest for freedom and spiritual evolution, matched mine perfectly. And so we teamed up.
It was very common back then. All you had to do was say, “Oh, I went on the road in 1969,” and everybody knows what you were up to.
And so, we actually went on this spiritual quest: “What is true? What makes life worth living?”—really, the questions that are embedded in Your Money or Your Life. People see it as a money management system, but it’s really a consciousness system. It’s actually asking you to reflect on what is concrete in terms of what is really valuable.
And so, we went on that quest, and we found answers for ourselves. And eventually, what we found was people didn’t want the spiritual teachings. What they wanted to know is why we didn’t have to work. And so out of that was born this seminar that we taught for about a decade before Your Money or Your Life came to being.
We first taught it in our living room. And then, we taught it in the basement of a church. And since we were sort of resolutely financially independent—you know, we were financially independent not only as a money reality, but as a stand in the world that you don’t need all these stuff to be happy, there’s something greater than consumerism, we really wanted to change minds and hearts. So, we would give away all the money from our seminars.
We would find an organization we wanted to support. We would produce the seminar in order to give them all the money… which also blew people’s minds. Over the course of many years, we gave away a million dollars and 800 small grants to organizations.
Mad Fientist: Wow!
Vicki Robin: They didn’t have to prove a track record. They were often very small start-ups. And what we would assess was the integrity of the person and the team that was doing this project, what their goals were and how clearly they lived their truth.
And so, we just give away money, $500 or $5000. Our biggest one was $25,000. And that one was to publicize the film, Affluenza, which I’m not sure you know about.
Mad Fientist: I don’t.
Vicki Robin: It was my generation’s version of the minimalist really. And it was about consumerism and this disease of affluenza, basically being addicted to affluence. It’s a great film. I’ll send you a link because somebody’s put it up on YouTube.
Mad Fientist: Oh, perfect! I’ll link to it in the shownotes.
Vicki Robin: It’s fabulous! It’s fabulous. And you know, a lot of our one-liners are the ones that the minimalists use now. It’s like every generation discovers this because it’s so obvious, it’s so hidden in plain sight, that you don’t have to over-consume in order to be happy.
And it’s very America, every generation—the simplicity movement, the arts and crafts movement, of course, the transcendentalists. This is like completely embedded in the American character, this whole idea of minimalism at the material level, so that you could liberate your Spirit for something that’s greater than stuff.
So, anyway, we produce these seminars. We could take the whole podcast telling the story.
Mad Fientist: I’ll try real quick just to give everybody a sort of like time scale. I believe you met Joe in the late 1960s. And just to give everyone an idea of how much $70,000—1969 dollars—when Joe retired. That’s roughly about $476,000 in 2017 dollars. So that gives people a better idea because $70,000 sounds very low, but obviously that was quite a while ago.
So, all of these seminars, they’re taking place in the early 1980s, is that right?
Vicki Robin: Yeah, in the early 1980’s. Our first one was in 1980. And from 1980 to 1984, we produced many seminars throughout the western United States. The first one was like four people, and the last one we did was 400. People just packed into these seminars.
Then we actually transformed that into a tape course. We sold that. There was another 10,000 tape courses that have sold.
And finally, the media discovered us. There was an article and a magazine about us in this program. An agent in New York sitting in a bath tub read this article, and she said, “This is it!” She convinced us to write a book.
Mad Fientist: Wow! And then, the first version of the book was published 1992, is that correct? You were the main driver behind the writing of the book, is that right?
Vicki Robin: Yeah! So, a bit about my story is that, number one, I’m very social, I’m verbal, I’m articulate, and I like being out and about and among people.
And so I went to a conference in 1989 in LA. It was the first public hearing in the United States on this idea of sustainable development which has now been completely corporatized. But back then, it was revolutionary. It was really how are we going to resolve economic expansion and environmental integrity.
There was a World Commission on Environmental Development that traveled throughout the 1980s, early ‘80s, through the world, asking this question, holding hearings. But the United States wouldn’t have a hearing because this is not—as George Bush Sr. said, “The way Americans consume is not up for discussion. This is not up for discussion.” After 9/11, Jr. said, “Go out and buy a tie. That’s how we’re going to deal with this.”
So, this was the first US hearing. And so all of the commissioners who traveled the world, all these people were there. And all the heads of major environmental organizations were there. And I was like this little pipsqueak in the back row.
And every single one of them would come up to the stage, and they would do their spiel, and then they would basically say, “The driver of all of these that we’re talking about is the level and pattern of consumption in North America.” And then, they would shrug like, “We can’t do anything about this.”
I’m sitting back there, and I’m going like, “We’ve been teaching this program for nine years now.” We’ve surveyed people who did the program. And we found out that, on average, people who actually did the program for six months, their expenses would go down some place between 20% and 25%. And almost to the person, they said their quality of life had gone up.
Many people said, “I don’t know what I used to buy. I don’t know where that extra 25% used to go. Or even if I do, my freedom to live the life I love is more important than whatever that stuff was.”
So, I’m sitting back there, and I’m thinking, “We have the solution to the biggest problem on the planet. It just has to be… everybody has to do it.”
And I got on fire! I mean, I was like a race horse that took the bit in the mouth, and didn’t care if it died before the finish line. It was like, “I’m doing this.”
So, I brought that passion back to Joe and the community of people who had formed around us. And that’s what made us willing to listen to this agent and write the book.
So, basically, Joe, he said he had a writer’s block. I don’t know what it was, but I wrote the book. We would sit together, we would talk about each chapter, and then I would write it.
And then, he refused to go on the road and do any publicity. And I was like panting, “Let me go!” because I really thought we were going to get everybody.
And at the end of that conference in 1989, Noel Brown who was the head of the United Nations Environment Program gave this eloquent, beautiful, African accented English, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a decade to turn this around. This is the turnaround decade.” And I thought, “Yup! We’re going to do this. By 2000, we’re going to have this thing nailed. We’re going to lower consumption in North America by 20% to 25%. And we’ll be living within the environmental means.” And all we had to do was get everybody.
And within weeks of publication, our publicist got us on Oprah. Oprah held up the book. This was back in the day before she was popular. She held up the book, and she said, “This is a great book. It’s going to change your life.” And the next day, it was a New York Times Bestseller.
Mad Fientist: Wow!
Vicki Robin: And so, that began the mercurial rise of this book. It was, I don’t know, an idea that time has come. It was the right people. It was maybe our idealism and our purity or our attempt at purity (we weren’t pure). It brought an integrity to the work that made it shine. I had no idea.Or maybe it was just truth being spoken into a society of lies. I had no idea what happened.
But it was a New York Times Bestseller. And then, it was five weeks on the Business Week Bestseller List. The year Joe died in 1997, it was one of the top 10 business books in the United States.
And we were a bunch of people who lived in the woods! But we had this huge heart for the work and this huge mission.
So, that’s what started happening. I was on Oprah again. Joe, he used to do anything but the morning shows, the big ones. And I did probably 2000 media interviews in that decade.
And he was diagnosed with cancer soon after the book was published. And he died in 1997, the first weeks of 1997. And I was still shot out of canon, basically, really, until 2000 which is when we set our goal like, “The world is going to be changed!” It felt like clap your hands together, and go on and do something else.
All the indicators were that even though, tangibly, you could say a million people had read the book, was in a dozen languages (when it came out in Spain, I traveled to Spain, and it became an instant bestseller in Spain; same with Taiwan), even all of that, even the best Humpty Dumpty efforts—the savings rate in the United States was down, opportunity was too consumed, had multiplied out of control—I went into a sense of despair. I mean, I had repeated myself for the cause I can’t tell you how many times. I was bored with it. I’m stuck. I’m an avatar for something, and everybody projects on me that I’m—
And I don’t have any space. Why do I get to be financially independent? When do I get to travel and screw up again? When do I get to find out what else is in me? When do I get to be free?
Mad Fientist: So now, we’re in the last ‘90s when you’re feeling this.
Before we move forward, I just wanted to see what you thought like—obviously, as you’re preaching this message for so many years, you must have seen some different changes and sentiment, like the receptibility of people. Were you able to correlate that with anything going on like economic booms and busts or anything like that? Has it been just pretty much is a steady acceptance of the message, but then not as much implementation potentially sometimes as opposed to others?
Vicki Robin: Yeah, that’s a great question. What I would say is that, really, the message went down like butter because it’s common sense. We weren’t preaching environmentalism. We weren’t preaching spiritual transformation. We weren’t preaching anything. We were just trusting that if people paid attention to the flow of money and stuff in their lives in light of their lives and what really made them happy, that the transformational process would happen.
I have a great faith in individuals that, if you free your mind and your time from doing things—you know, as Will Rogers said, “buying things that you don’t need to impress people that you don’t like”—if you free yourself from that insane process that only surge the industrial growth economy, then you will find, within you, that something that is yours to do.
And I trusted that if we could liberate people to be themselves in their world, to give their gifts, that things would change.
And I also bought into a change theory that basically, it says, “If you can get 5% of the population to think in a new way,” then that idea is anchored. And that 5% goes out and influences the next 15%, and you have 20% of the population who believe the same thing, and that idea is going to spread. So, we had utter faith that all we had to do was find the 5%.
We tallied up one time. Between all the morning shows, and then People Magazine and New York Times and blah-blah-blah, we’d reach half the country. We were like systematic. We were going to do this!
But the theory didn’t work because there are system conditions that are resistant, deeply resistant, to individuals waking up.
But that said, in my travels, I couldn’t find anybody who wasn’t frugal. In all my radio interviews, I knew I hit the mark when the interviewer would say, “You know, actually, this is exactly how I live.” And then they’d tell me about some bargain they had.
This idea of frugality is deeply American. It just needs to be framed not in a punitive way, but offering somebody an opportunity to free themselves up from keeping up with the Joneses.
So, I didn’t find that the idea gained more reception. There was a lot! This was Clinton years. This was like the go-go nineties. This idea was counter-cultural. We had people pooh-pooh us about our investment things because they were getting 40% on their money—of course, they lost it. But we weren’t around to watch that.
Yeah! So, I would say that we were speaking to the 20% of the population who already knew it. I used to say, “I’m making the world safe for frugality. I’m standing up here. I’m healthy. I don’t like bad. I’m well-dressed. And I live on about $7000 or $8000 a year.” So, you’re free to own this part of yourself that loves a bargain, that doesn’t love getting into debt for things that really don’t make any difference.
I was able to affirm a segment of the population to surface themselves and sort of have bragging rights with other people.
Mad Fientist: So, what systemic things do you think stopped it from expanding beyond that 20%?
Vicki Robin: Well, what’s driving consumerism!
Basically, early on in the industrial growth economy, we were actually liberating people from hard labor. You’d go from cooking on a woodstove to cooking on an electric stove. And you’ve got electricity that comes right into your house. You’d go from carrying water to having a spigot in your house where you can have water. And then, you go to having hot water.
I mean, we have to realize that we came out, you know, United States was in a tremendous depression. And also, before the Industrial Revolution, most stuff happened through human laborer.
So, this liberating people with things they really, really needed to free up their time like hot water, hot-ready water in the house, that habituated people to that sort of “more is better” mentality.
And after a while, the company—the manufacturing company that produce all these products—discovered that in order for them to survive, they needed to increase their markets.
Mad Fientist: Yeah. I’m reminded of a Henry Ford quote I think it was. When he decided to introduce the 40-hour work week, he’s like, people need time to consume all of these stuff that we’re making. Currently, they’re working too much and don’t have enough time to consume everything that we’re producing.
Vicki Robin: Bingo! Bingo, bingo, bingo.
So basically, it was like in the 1950s when advertising started to come to its own, there was like one major spokesperson for the advertising industry who said, “We have to convince people to want what they don’t need. That’s how we expand our markets.”
Export, at that time, it was like a bigger deal. The United States was still quite insular. So, basically, the advertising industry was born in order to convince people to want what they don’t need and service to corporate profit. And that’s very, very, very deep in us.
They say that 75% of the American economy is consumption. I don’t know if that number is still true. That’s the number I repeated in the 1990s. But basically, to question people, to question the whole activity of consumerism is not anti-American, it’s deeply American—it’s just anti-corporatism.
And I used to say to audiences, I said like, “Look, this is nuts. You don’t eat a high fat diet and overeat in sugar and salt and fat and all those stuff in order to keep your neighbor who’s a heart surgeon employed. You don’t do that. That’s nuts!”
Well, that’s what’s happening when you fill your garage with more cars and toys and stuff that you don’t need. We’ve lost a basic sanity.
And you know, now we can take a look at the corporate environment. In the United States politics, you were immune basically—the dark money and the PAC’s and the super PAC’s and Citizens United. I mean, this has been so enshrined that—in the Reagan year, it was the Laffer curve and the trickle-down economy. People were sold that idea. “Well, if the rich gets richer, then it’s going to rain money on us all.”
The population has been so confused by, fundamentally, this huge experiment and propaganda, dirtying our minds with ideas that, rationally, don’t make any sense. The mind is confused.
We failed to notice that “the rich getting rich” hasn’t done squat for the rest of us. But that story still persists. And it persists in service to the people who have the money and have the ability to own politicians and media.
Now, we’re sort of into my leftie politics. But it’s like you’re at one end of the river, and you notice that—this is a terrible image, but this is the story that I used to tell. You see all these dead babies floating by or little kids just struggling. And so everybody jumps in to save the little kids who are struggling, they’d fish them out. But my question was: “Who’s tossing these kids in the river? Let’s go upstream however hard the path is and find out who’s doing that.”
I don’t think I have it nailed. I think there’s probably forces I don’t understand, but surely, there are.
Mad Fientist: So, do you think the solution is to go upstream or is it to convince so many people downstream—or not “convince” them, but show them how good life could be within this other way of life, have them discover that, and then reach some critical mass where, obviously, the people upstream have to take notice?
Do you have any thoughts on that?
Vicki Robin: Well, here are my thoughts on that. And now it’s great that I’m talking to you because I’m so heartened by encountering this FI community.
The downstream actions, it is what our theory was in the ‘90s. If we changed enough these people, if we save enough these people, there’ll be an awakening. Teach the little babies to swim, right?
And then, I had this come to Jesus moment where I was at the meeting in the late ‘90s with these global leaders and realized, “This is way bigger than I knew.”
And so, just after Joe died, I gathered all of the authors and activists who are the “for simplicity and frugality” of that time of my generation into a group. I raised money so that we could meet. And we formed something called the Simplicity Forum.
And the idea was, “Is there a way to, together, we can challenge, we can form common cause and challenge these big ideas—write op-eds in the newspapers, not be like individuals who can be picked off one by one, but be a force? Can we be a force? Can we be a political force?”
And we met as long as the money lasted, then we stopped meeting. It was a great period of time.
But what I see now is that you all are naturally collaborative because the environment is naturally collaborative. You all hyperlink to one another. You […] another’s stuff. You understand how to do this…
Which we didn’t understand back then—we didn’t have the tools, we didn’t have the Internet. Can you imagine? I mean, we just had books and we had writing an op-ed for one of the three main newspapers. Really, it was a very different environment.
So, there’s an environment now where there can be a spread strategy for financial common sense, freedom, happiness and service, purpose, service to the whole. There’s a better opportunity for this to spread.
And that’s one of the reasons not only that I like y’all, but one of the reasons I’m excited to convene with you all is to talk about how do we be a collective force in the collective conversation, not just be a sidelight for a small number of people who wake up.
I don’t know how. I don’t know how you do it. I don’t know if it’s an either/or. I don’t know if we have to have people all along the river and have people fish out the little kids and have people who change the laws and religious leaders who awaken people’s conscience.
You know, one of our biggest allies right now is the Pope. […] is all about the toxicity of consumerism.
So, in a way, it’s coordinating or noticing or hyperlinking—or whatever we do. It’s having people all along the river with this different message.
And it may be that we have to work deeply political—we probably do because we’re in the United States, and in Europe. I mean, we’re on this edge of this hyper-nationalist impulse which is very dangerous. And so, there’s an element to this of just biting the bullet and being political, taking stands, speaking truth to power, getting yourself meetings with the governors and the senators and the President, getting yourself meetings with people. I think all of it is currently necessary.
And that’s just my politics. That’s not financial independence. I’m fine with people just getting on their sailboat and sailing, fishing through your sailboat. I mean, I’m fine with whatever floats your boat, whatever is really truly yours to do and brings you great joy. I trust that in people.
But for me, I am now focused on the systemic forces.
Mad Fientist: I can’t wait to talk to you more about this when we meet up in the UK in August. I’m really, really excited to meet you. I’m sure there’s going to be lots of really good conversations.
I’d like to just jump back again to the late ‘90s. Joe has just passed away, and you’ve been delivering this message for quite a while, and you’re feeling that you might have hit a critical mass at this point possibly. So what happened after that?
Vicki Robin: As I say, I was like the Energizer bunny. Joe died, and I kept going. And it was really in that period of time between 1997, ’98, ’99 and 2000 when I was going to these international meetings, just starting to do organizing. I was going upstream. I was trying to find the upstream places.
So, as I say in the year 2000, some place around there, I started to despair. And given my personality, I just did more. You know how I like […] you do more of the same, to think, “Oh, well…”
I convened a group of thought leaders in the United States who had developed strategies like Your Money or Your Life that had influenced hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, with this change of consciousness and change of practice. That’s what I saw Your Money or Your Life is. And we were going to find the leader long enough. We were going to form common cause and find that leader.
And out of that group came quite a number of initiatives, including a training program that’s gone around the world that is called Awakening the Dreamer & Changing the Dream.
I developed something called Conversation Cafés which because part of what we saw was needed was not just a person standing up on the stage and broadcasting ideas to people out there who would adopt the ideas, but what we needed was a conversation among everybody like: “Is this working for you?”
People needed to talk to each other, not listen to us.
And so, I developed this process called Conversation Cafes. It’s a very simple process and a great set of processes and agreements that actually can shift the conversation—we used to say “shift from small talk to big talk.” And it’s a combination of very classic dialogue processes, but designed for people who didn’t know each other in public spaces like cafes to be able to have substance of conversation about the things that matter most.
So, I developed that one in 2001. And I started the Simplicity Forum. And out of that came something called Take Back Your Time which has been a fabulous initiative to raise awareness about how we have traded—we have gone from more money instead of more time that the promise of the Industrial Revolution was that it would liberate human time, but we got convinced to spend more and more time on the job to have more and more money. And so it’s trying to raise awareness. It’s like a time activism. It’s very interesting.
And then, in 2004, just almost exactly seven years after Joe died, I was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer. So I had my own wall that I hit.
Mad Fientist: Yeah, that’s something I wanted to dive into a little bit more if you don’t mind. You’ve been talking about these ideas. And all of these ideas get to the core of what you want as a human and what you want your life to be. You’ve been living this life for decades. But I would imagine that a stage III cancer diagnosis would then even force you to look more into those big ideas. Was that the case?
Vicki Robin: No, actually. What it did is force me to face my own care of living in a world that’s coming apart. A lot of my activism was trying to build a big enough bubble of sanity around me, convince enough people around me to wake up, so that I could feel safe in this world.
I was completely disconnected from self-care. So I was completely subsumed in my mission and purpose, which would seem noble—and it was deeply noble and satisfying—but there was a little human being inside me that was not getting fed at all.
When you become somebody who’s like a public figure and all the […] people project everything on to you, you can lose the sense of anything fresh or new.
I sort of went back down to the very spring of my life where my life was bubbling out to find out: “Who am I now?” I asked the question: “What else in my body wants to live that hasn’t had a chance to live in this body?”
And so I resigned from world-changing. I really did.
I moved to this village. I live in another island. I painted, I sang in the choir. It was the first time I really just “This is my life! This is my life.” This is Vicki gets financially independent.
I was like the littler picture. All my friends, all my old friends were still into like “bigger picture,” “change the world.” And I’m like, “I just like this little picture.”
Anyway, I lived in this town of a thousand people. And a couple of years later, I got on to the relocalization movement. I used to call that Your Money or Your Life at the Level of Community. It’s like tracking and evaluating the flow of resources through a community, a town, an island, a city. What does it take us collectively to survive?
In an era of diminishing resources and climate destruction, et cetera, I think we’re going to be thrown on our own more. People are going to have to become resourceful again.
And so what does it take to be resourceful in a real community?
I live in an island. We have a little bridge 45 miles to the north, and we have a ferry to the south. You cut those off—and I live in an earthquake zone, those could get cut off. These 70,000 people (or 65,000 people) who live on this island, this is it! It’s a perfect thought experiment about what does it take really to survive. This island is my go-bag. This island is my emergency kit.
And so, I got deeply interested in that. And I organized (with some friends) one of the early transition town groups. I don’t know if you’ve heard of “transition towns,” but it’s an approach to community organizing in light of the possibility of less fossil fuel energy in the fuel, and also the possibility that there would be greater joy, fun, connection, things that make life worth living if we take our eye off of the fossil fuel growth economy and put our eye on what is life here. It comes out of the UK.
And so, we organized a group and did a lot of potlucks and working groups. We did a lot of work. And basically, I’m still doing that work here on the island. I’m still paying attention to what’s it going to take for us to be self-sufficient.
And out of that, I came to understand that even though it’s a semi-rural island, even though in the middle of the island, we have some of the best farmland actually, the deepest, deepest topsoil—best farmland in the United States—and we have our prairie, even though all of that, we import 95% of our food.
Mad Fientist: And you could only survive for two weeks in August or something like that if you had to feed everyone?
Vicki Robin: That was like my “Oh, my God!” moment. And when I have an “Oh, my God!” moment, I get busy on that one. I don’t go into denial, I go into action.
So, at that point, I undertook with no interest in changing the world, just my own curiosity of “Could I eat within 10 miles of my home? What would that look like? Could I survive?”
So, I did a month-long experiment, and learned deeply about the abundance of what’s around me and the deep flaws in the industrial food system. And I learned some of what we need to do here, some of the big missing pieces in our food economy that we need to grow.
I have worked with different groups and friends in the years since to build up our local food system. It’s not like you snap your fingers, and it happens, because it’s a real community and not everybody agrees with you. You can’t just be a dictator. Work with real people with diverse interests.
Mad Fientist: And this all lead to your other book, Blessing the Hands That Feed Us, all these experiments, and all these thinking about sustainable living?
Vicki Robin: Totally, yes! So, I wrote a book about my experiment in my 10-mile diet called Blessing the Hands That Feed Us. It has not been a market success like Your Money or Your Life. But Your Money or Your Life is I’m asking people to wake up and smell the roses. And in this one, I’m asking people to do something pretty hard which is to wean yourself increasingly from the grocery store as your source of food. So, it’s asking people to wean themselves from convenience.
I am very interested in working with people and communities now who are doing some aspect of this kind of localization work—building up local food economies, building up local manufacturing, doing planning processes where you take a look at what are our natural resources here. And I guess that is what I encourage other people to do.
So, I’m in the middle of this. And then, I heard a lecture where I realized—somebody, one of my old colleagues, talking about some vision for a sane economy. I thought, “Buddy, we tried that. I don’t know that we’re going to get everybody to do anything different.”
I was so disturbed that there wasn’t anything new in the horizon that could change that dominant story of money. I realized, “Oops, maybe I have more to do on this money realm.”
And so, I convened a group at that conference around this question of: “Should I update Your Money or Your Life? Is there another conception of money and consumption that can guide us forward?”
Half the conference showed up for that session. And everybody, from the oldest person to the youngest person, was in fear about their financial future. I thought, “That is nuts!”
And I especially had a failing. I didn’t really know the debt that young people are into. They have been convinced to go into debt for educations that will never make them enough money to pay off the debt.
Mad Fientist: That’s crazy, absolutely crazy.
Vicki Robin: Yeah! And I thought, “What kind of society bags its old people to poverty and treats its young people as the next profit center, the next tulip crazy.” This is not okay.
So, that’s where the energy came for doing what I call The Millennial Makeover, partnering with some millennials to understand what’s the circumstance that people are fledging into now, how are they making it, and how can the Your Money or Your Life program, the classic program, be relevant to people now, people in their 30’s and down.
And that’s what I’m in the middle of. I’m working with some great millennials. I’m actually deeply energized. And that’s when I found you guys! Oh, my God! The world is full of people who think this way. It’s full of people who think this way. How exciting!
So, I feel like I’m doing this not in a vacuum, but in a context of millennials really. There are some people who are older than that, but people who are figuring out that we can complain all we want about the condition that the billionaires have left the world. But you know what? We’re going to actually live in this world, and we’re going to figure out how one lives in this world and makes a beautiful life in this world.
Mad Fientist: That’s fantastic! And yeah, it’s great that you’re back into it all. I’m excited to see what you come up with.
I don’t know how far along in the process you are for the new version of Your Money or Your Life, but is there anything that you know has changed? Is there any advice that hasn’t held up? Obviously, step #9 is investing, and that changes quite a bit. And even the core steps that you think haven’t held up? Or is there anything that you know you want to add for this new version that wasn’t in the original?
Vicki Robin: Hmmm… that’s a great question, really great question.
What I noticed after years of people doing this program and communicating with me is that the core of the program really is steps #2, #3 and #4. It’s really realizing that money is—in your experience, money is simply the life energy, the hours you trade for it. And so personalizing that definition of money is the transformational heart of this program.
And so, from that realization, from doing the calculation for the real hourly wage, it transforms your sense of consumption from being the prize for a hard work week to being something that’s going to send you into another hard work week. So people become natural savers.
I’m not dinking with the 9-step program, per se, but the emphasis is on a different [soul level]. It is basically that transformational core.
And then the putting your expenses into categories rather than—it’s sort of like a zero budgeting process where rather than sitting down around the kitchen table and deciding how to spend your income, it’s basically an experiential process of buying something and asking yourself, “Is this worth the life energy?”
It’s a process of being conscious in your relationship with the material world. And I think that is another transformative step. You take your expenses, and you put them into categories. And you tell yourself the truth about yourself. “Yeah, I have a drug habit.” It’s like, “I don’t know if it’s in the food category, but a third of my money is going to my drug habit.”
But you discover that. You stop telling yourself lies by actually concretely thinking about where each of these expenses fits in a pattern that is your life. It’s not a budget book pattern. It’s patterns derived from your life.
And then, for each of those steps, you ask yourself those core questions:
“Does it make me happy?”
“Is it in service to anything that I think is important?”
“Would I be spending this money this way if I didn’t have to work for a living?”
That piece, if I could just deliver that piece in all its glory, I trust that the rest of it works out.
So, the whole thrust for financial independence, I’m redefining that.
And yes, there are going to be people like you guys who figured it and you become FI and there’s a fascination with how to do it when you do it through a job or through investing.
Anyway, all of that is for a rarified group of people who actually want to commit to that. But I think the majority of people that I will reach are the people who are willing to undertake this consciousness process.
And you’ll not be surprised that in the chapter on financial independence, I spend quite a bit of time talking about what I call your ARK, to build your ARK that will float your boat for the rest of your life.
There are basically four pillars of wealth. One of which involves money. But the other three, I call it an ARK:
A is for your abilities. These are the things you can do for yourself, so you take it out of the economy and have it in the do-it-yourself economy. But they’re also skills that you can sell or trade if need be.
So basically, building those skills, whether it’s website design or whatever those
skills are, coaching people on success, investing in those skills that will both make your life happier, less expensive and valuable to others sufficiently with it that’s tradable or can bring you money, that’s a big part of it.
I want to live among empowered people, people who can do stuff, who are competent, who don’t just flap their arms when anything goes wrong, trying to figure out the person I should call to fix it for me.
So your abilities are part of your kit. It’s part of your financial independence.
And then, the R is for your relationships. Loneliness is epidemic. And loneliness is expensive because there’s a range of things that you will go and do that costs you money—from your yoga workshop, from your therapy to your bar tab. It’s expensive to be lonely.
And so I think consciously building and repairing your close relationships, the people who will take care of you over time—
I just went through a hip replacement surgery, and I had probably 20 friends take care of me. They’ll come in, cook a meal, put my laundry in the washer.
And I call that “community is currency,” that relational field.
So, your relationships are the intimate people who will show up for you in times of need—a friend in need is a friend indeed. Otherwise, you’re going to have to use every kind of insurance to survive because you’re going to have old age insurance and you’re going to have your chicken scare insurance. You turn to the insurance industry to assure yourself of things that people used to provide for one another.
And also, in the United States—and I don’t know if it’s in Europe now—we’re losing our social safety nets. You lose all your social safety net.
And then, the K is the hard C in community. I wish it worked better, but it doesn’t. So it’s like the ARK.
And community is different from relationships. Your relationships are the intimate people who show up for you. Your community is: “What is the social safety net? Can I grow food? Is there water?” It’s your place on Earth. What grows here? What is the climate like? Are there community organizations where people tend to one another?
It’s choosing and building and participating in a real place in the planet. I think that’s important.
And then, S is for your stuff. Is it durable? Are you transforming things that are flows like “I’m going to upgrade my computer every two years?” to things that are your stock pile, things that will last longer than you will? They can be put in your grave with you like the ancients did with their gold?
So basically, that’s a piece I want to draw people’s attention to. Becoming a competent, connected human is a piece of your security, and it’s maybe their piece of security than your final S which is your savings.
And then, from that, I go to, “Okay, fine. We saved your money somehow or another. Now, where do I put it?” I go to Joe’s strategy of treasury bonds, why that worked brilliantly back then, may work brilliantly again. We don’t know. Right now, it’s so conservative that most people won’t do it. But here’s what the traditional was.
I go through my choices which are diversity. I invest in local businesses. I invest in solar companies. I’m a values investor where I’m putting my money—basically, I’m getting 5% of my money free and clear—and a lot more because I built two little apartments on the ground floor of my house, and so I have rental income. And eventually, I’ll trade one of those apartments for somebody to take care of me because I’m 72 and I think about this now.
So basically, I’m a values-based investor. I talk about those choices.
I talk about the index funds, all the varieties of people who are using index funds; and then some people who are using real estate and some people who are active investors.
So, I’m just saying there’s a range of choices. But I want people to have a basic foundation. And then, from that basic foundation, you build.
And I’m also redefining financial independence really as having choice in your life about where you put your life energy. I don’t think “set for life” works anymore. I’m not sure it ever worked.
Mad Fientist: Were you guys the ones that popularized that term or created it even?
Vicki Robin: Well, I mean, financial independence was la-la land. That was like the really rich people. But I think we were probably the ones who popularized the idea, that this is available to anybody and everybody who was willing to pay attention.
Yes, somehow or another, yeah. The original seminar was called Transforming Your Relationship with Money & Achieving Financial Independence. Financial independence was such a big hook like, “What are you talking about?” That was an amazing promise, and it really caught people’s attention.
And of course, it’s what we have done. We’ve done a pittance, but we were free! We were free. We’re free to explore the world in the way we chose to do it, and I’m still there.
That’s really my great joy. I can place my attention onto what matters the most right now to me.
Mad Fientist: That’s fantastic! And I’m so glad that it’s on the next version of Your Money or Your Life. I know that I’m the only thing that’s standing in the way of that new version, and I don’t want to take up too much of your time. We’ve already gone over an hour, and I could talk to you for many more hours. But I know that you have work to do.
So, I usually end every interview with just asking: “What’s one piece of advice you would give to somebody pursuing financial independence?” which seems like a ridiculous question to ask you. But since I’ve done that in 33 other episodes…
Vicki Robin: Exactly!
Well, I was just talking to a friend this morning about that one piece of advice thing because everybody asks it. I just went to this lecture on climate change and these slides about “We’re just about over the cliff! And here’s the terrible thing that’s going to happen. Big picture! We have to get millions of people in the street, blah-blah-blah… and then organize.” Well, that’s one thing somebody can do more of.
So basically, here’s what I think. I think the human mind can’t stand being in the presence of something really big like changing their lives, like really rethinking their lives in light of what they deeply, in their hearts, know to be true.
So, to get off of that uncomfortable space, they want to do one thing. They want to get advice for one thing they can do because one thing you can do is something you can wake up in the morning and do.
My experience is if I give people one thing they can do, then they’re off the hook, and they don’t do it… just the one thing.
However, given that you asked the question, and I have answered this before, I would say the one thing you can do is track all the money that comes into and out of your life for one month and see what happens.
Mad Fientist: Yeah, that’s a fantastic exercise. Shocking, I’m sure, to pretty much everyone that does it.
Vicki Robin: I think it will be. And I think there are easier ways to do it, but that miniscule attention—
You know, Joe used to say it’s a meditation practice. In meditation, they say watch your breath. When you go off your breath, come back and watch your breath. Well, watching your pennies is like a spiritual practice for living in a very material world. Every time, bring yourself back to that practice in the month that you’re going to practice it (which I’m sure everybody listening is going to do)…
Mad Fientist: That’s right.
Vicki Robin: You will have momentary experiences of what do I think I’m buying when I’m buying this ice cream bar.
“What do I think I’m buying here? Is it making me happy?”
Mad Fientist: Yeah, I hope everyone does it. And don’t wait until the first of the month because that’s just an excuse to put it off. Just start whatever day this gets released. Hopefully, it gets released soon.
Vicki Robin: Thank you.
Mad Fientist: And then, yeah, prove everyone wrong and do it. And then, comment and tell us what crazy things you found out about your spending that you probably didn’t know.
And I’m actually analyzing my own spending again just because what makes you happy changes so much, and you just have to constantly be making sure that that spending is aligned with it.
And I’m coming from the opposite end of the spectrum. I’m a bit too frugal, and a bit too crazy. So I’m trying to find ways to make sure that the highest percentage of my spending is going to happiness as possible, even if that means I have to increase it a little bit.
I could pay $500 and I live 30 miles outside of town, but if I pay $800 a month, and all $800 of that is contributing to my happiness because I’m able to walk places and spend time in the park and see friends more often and all that sort of stuff, I’m coming at it from that angle, not where I can cut back, but just to make sure that the maximum amount of my spending is going towards happiness as possible. I think that’s a great exercise to do no matter where you are in the journey to financial independence.
Vicki Robin: I love it! I had to do that after my cancer. I actually lived by myself (not in a group home, sharing expenses and everything). When I had to live by myself, my monthly expenses tripled.
I had, what I called, cash register mind. My mind was always working like, “Oh, my God! I just bought that thing. I have to figure out how to save that.” I mean, I would’ve bought something that was for my little apartment that I had all by myself, and then my mind would go like, “You have to want three more things that are equal in price to that thing you bought, and not buy them. And that’s how you’re going to…”
Mad Fientist: Oh, man!
Vicki Robin: I was nuts! I was just insane. And I had to break the back of that enough, so that I could maneuver in a world as it is, not in the world as it was.
So, I get it. I get it, yeah. In the exercise, some of you will figure out that are you self-denying, self-punishing, hyper-frugaling, you’re so proud of yourself for not spending money that you’re a bore and you’re insufferable to everybody.
So, I want to say thank you so much for your kindness and your interest. I’m so looking forward to being with you guys really.
Mad Fientist: I’m so excited too. And yeah, I think you’re really going to enjoy it. I don’t know if you have any sort of expectations what it’s like, but I’ve gone to a couple of the Chautauqua’s in the past years and they’re just phenomenal. You meet just the most amazing people with incredible stories.
I know I personally learned so much from everyone I talked to at these things. And you just form these really tight bonds. So I’m so excited for you to experience it for yourself.
Vicki Robin: Totally! I’m there. In just a few short months, I’m there with you.
Mad Fientist: So, if anyone wants to find out more about you and get in touch—obviously, Your Money or Your Life, I’ll link to that in the shownotes—VickiRobin.com, is that a good place for people to go?
Vicki Robin: It is! My online presence is really like a vacant lot with weeds. But it will get fixed soon.
But yeah, you can go to VickiRobin.com or you can go to YourMoneyorYourLife.org. There are resources there that you can learn a little bit more about. The 2008 version of Your Money or Your Life is still quite available. I get a course through the Shift Network. You can buy that course through the Shift Network.
There’s an audio version of the 2008 Your Money or Your Life which is actually not me reading the book, but me talking you through the steps. And some people just love that because it’s very personable, and it’s very connected. “I bet you feel this, but here’s the idea. This is why you’re going to do it differently.” So, it’s Grandma Vicki taking you through the program. And that’s distributed through Sounds True. I can really recommend that.
Mad Fientist: Cool! I will link to all of those great things in the shownotes. And also, I’ll link to the Chautauqua page because I think—well, as of now when I’m speaking this—there are a couple of spots still open. Whether or not there will be when this gets published is another story, but I’ll link to it anyway just in case anyone is wanting to join us in Stratford-Upon-Avon which should be fantastic.
So yeah, Vicki, thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time out especially when you’re in the middle of updating such a classic book. I really appreciate your time. I can’t wait to meet you soon.
Vicki Robin: Yeah! Well, I knew I would find it inspiring… and I have. So I’m juiced for the journey. I probably got about three hours of writing right now.
Mad Fientist: Well, thank you again. I’ll speak to you soon.
Vicki Robin: Okie-dokie! Take care.
Mad Fientist: Bye!
Vicki Robin: Bye bye.
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