Over the last decade—and especially the last few years—I’ve noticed an emerging evolution in my relationship with money toward what I describe as the “money middle way.”
I’ve received some questions about my relationship with money, so I figured I’d finally cover this part of my journey.
Each phase below includes an overview of some milestones and highlights to bring it to life.
Let’s dive in.
Post Contents: Click a link here to jump to a section below
- Phase 1: A Non-Existent Relationship with Money
- Phase 2: An Aversion Relationship with Money
- Phase 3: A Healthy Relationship with Money
The Money Middle Way: My Evolving Relationship from “Money Pay” to “Metapay”
Phase 1: A Non-Existent Relationship with Money
This first phase covers the vast majority of my adult life to date (sad, but true). Maybe that’s why so many (now obvious) mistakes were made along the way!
From 2007-2018 I worked in the marketing & advertising industry. It’s hard to believe that as recently as a couple years ago I was the Marketing Director of a global apparel brand. It simultaneously feels like yesterday and a lifetime ago.
My relationship with money evolved fairly expectedly during this time. I was bad with money when I got my first job and blew a good chunk of each paycheck. Then, I grew up a little bit, got married, took new jobs, and started getting better with money over time. I’ve never been primarily motivated by money. For whatever reason (personality type, nature, nurture, some combination?), I’m wired to care more about doing high quality work than I am to care about money. My primary aim was smart, hard work—I moved up the corporate ladder as a byproduct of smart, hard work, and made more money as a byproduct of moving up the ladder. Nothing too out of the ordinary from 2007-2015.
In 2015, I started working insane work hours. I’ve always had a bit of a workaholic nature at various marketing jobs, but this went to a new level even by my standards. This isn’t the ebb and flow of some crazy weeks here and there. We’re talking 60, 70, and 80-hour weeks. Consistently. For months. This is when I experienced some lifestyle inflation—also known as “lifestyle creep” or “comfort creep.” I was working so hard that I felt I “deserved” to reward myself. So, in mid-2015, I did one of the most predictable things you can do. I bought a sports car! It feels so obvious and oblivious when I reflect on it now, but hey, it happened so I need to own it as part of my journey. As expected, it was fun for awhile and then the “hedonic treadmill” (or “hedonic adaptation”) kicked in which returned me to baseline happiness. Not even a sports car could save me from what came next because…
You can’t buy your way to purpose and meaning.
In November 2015, “total work” of crazy hours and lack of purpose led to cognitive dissonance and an existential crisis. My existential crisis planted the seeds for everything I’m doing now. On Christmas Eve 2015, I emailed my dad: “Just bought the domain Sloww.co. Not sure what I want to do with it yet, but I’ve been inspired reading about downshifting, minimalism, simple living, and the slow movement.” Until then, I didn’t realize any of these concepts existed (except maybe minimalism). I saw them as my way out of the busyness that was killing me, and I was shocked more people weren’t aware there was another path.
In early 2016, I was promoted to Marketing Director. Funny how that works. All my insane work “paid off.” Unfortunately, it only paid me in money, and not purpose. So, most of my free time throughout 2016 was spent in deep exploration of my life purpose. Despite the awakening of my existential crisis and my progress on finding purpose, I was still working way too much. And, guess what? The story of lifestyle inflation continued…
In early 2017, we bought a McMansion in the suburbs. Similar to the car purchase, this seems so ridiculous looking back on it. I had discovered minimalism, voluntary simplicity, and simple living over a year earlier. So, how does any of this make any sense? It highlights an important insight:
The journey is not linear. I didn’t just learn about something one day and immediately apply it the next. The seeds planted in late 2015 still needed time to grow and develop. It was a learning and application process that evolved—and continues to emerge—over time.
A few months later in mid-2017, I discovered FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early). Again, funny how that works. Looking back on it, it’s like the universe sends me signals after my missteps (often too subtle to spot in the moment, but easier to see in retrospect). I spent six weeks studying everything that existed online about FIRE at that time. For the remainder of 2017 and all of 2018, my wife and I started applying some of the FIRE principles. They actually work. Comparing our 2017 annual spending to 2018, we cut our yearly household spending by 30% once we started spending more intentionally. Did you know that the majority of your money is spent on just three things: housing, transportation, and food?
This is what I consider to be the beginning of my relationship with money and the end of Phase 1.
What my existential crisis did to spark purpose, FIRE did to spark my relationship with money.
Phase 2: An Aversion Relationship with Money
After discovering FIRE, I became much more aware of money. You may be thinking, “So, everything is all good from here, right? You apply FIRE principles with a high-paying job and stick it out until you reach financial independence and retire early. Right?!”
Ha! For better or worse, I couldn’t rationalize my way into it. I found so little purpose in what I was doing that no amount of money could have kept me doing it (remember: money has never been my primary motivation, and a newfound awareness of money didn’t change that). Another effect of my existential crisis was that it also heightened my awareness of time. None of us know how much time we’ll get. Long story short, I prioritized time and purpose over money.
In mid-2018, I made the big decision to quit my well-paying job at the height of my career to become a corporate dropout and go all-in on entrepreneurship. We had been actively managing our finances for a few years at this point (started in 2014) and had enough saved up to give me some “entrepreneurial runway.” So…
I bought some time now over financial freedom later. I opted for “financial indefiniteness” over financial independence. I put time and purpose above money.
I should note that I have no interest in the RE (Retire Early) portion of FIRE. Instead, I want to blur the line between work and play forever, so it’s one and the same and simply “life” or the “art of living”:
- “A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play, his labour and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself he always seems to be doing both.” — L. P. Jacks
Because I have no interest in retiring early, that also means FI (Financial Independence) doesn’t matter as much. Instead of building up a large net worth to retire early, you can build up passive income to cover expenses (and then some). More on this later.
In early 2019, we sold the McMansion! We are renting indefinitely now (and it’s been great so far). We even did the opposite of “geographic arbitrage” and moved from the Midwest to California for my wife’s job (which has also been great).
But, here’s where the story takes another twist.
For the first year and a half of full-time work on Sloww, I had an aversion to making money from it. This aversion was likely caused by the combination of multiple factors:
- Feeling like making money would be “unethical” in some way
- Feeling like monetizing would “cheapen” the content in some way
- Likely wanting to distance myself from the marketing and advertising industry
- Suffering from some imposter syndrome in my newfound life/work
- Feeling like if I gave everything away for free then no one could really criticize anything
I’m sure there were other factors too. It seems to be fairly common when people attempt to create ethical businesses (which I’ve lately heard referred to by many names like “conscious capitalism,” “enlightened entrepreneurship,” “spiritual business,” etc).
I snapped out of this thinking when I read Tao Te Ching. The following isn’t even a quote from Lao Tzu. Instead, it’s a note from the translator:
- “Aversion is the flip side of greed, the same desire from a different direction.” — Stephen Mitchell (paraphrasing Vicki Chang)
All this time I thought I was “rising above” money. I thought I was eliminating a desire, when in reality it was the same desire from a different direction.
Similarly, Naval Ravikant’s “How to Get Rich” states:
- “Understand that ethical wealth creation is possible. If you secretly despise wealth, it will elude you.“
- “Some great founders realize their philanthropic visions by running a business.”
In early 2020, I launched my first paid product—the Premium Membership. And, a paid eBook and online course are on the way. Right now, I’m simply trying to strike the balance between accessibility (making content affordable to many) and sustainability (enough to keep Sloww going).
This brings us to Phase 3.
Phase 3: A Healthy Relationship with Money (The Money Middle Way)
As you can tell by now, it’s taken me awhile to find the “middle way” with money. I now view money as a necessary byproduct of an ethical value exchange.
First, what is the middle way? There are a couple ways to think about it:
- The Buddha’s “middle way” to describe the character of the Noble Eightfold Path—the middle way of moderation between extremes.
- The “golden mean” or “golden middle way” which comes from the Greek Delphic Maxim “nothing to excess”—the middle between extremes of excess and deficiency.
Next, here are three aha moments that I’ve had regarding the money middle way.
Virtually no one at any net worth level feels like they ever have enough. I recall seeing some research that showed people—at all income levels—believe they need 2-3x their current net worth to feel secure. But, more isn’t always more when it comes to money.
Naval Ravikant, who apparently has a net worth in the tens of millions, says:
- “When you’re finally wealthy, you’ll realize it wasn’t what you were seeking in the first place.”
Jim Carrey, who apparently has a net worth in the hundreds of millions, says:
- “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”
Or, take Mo Gawdat, an ex-Google executive who bought two vintage Rolls-Royce cars online just because he could:
- “Once you get your basic needs met more money doesn’t make you happier. There is nothing that you can do to achieve happiness by buying it.“
He’s right, and there’s research to support it. It turns out there may be a limit to money’s impact on emotional well-being (happiness).
Examples like these are abundant, yet many of us have to live and learn the hard way (like I did).
What’s going on here?
- “If you say that money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time. You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is, to go on doing things you don’t like doing.” — Alan Watts
- “If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough.” — David Foster Wallace, This is Water
I particularly resonate with this description of “enough” by Vicki Robin (who is credited with unofficially founding the FIRE movement long before it was ever called FIRE):
- “The new roadmap says that there is something called ‘enough’ … ‘enough’ is this vibrant, vital place … an awareness about the flow of money and stuff in your life, in light of your true happiness and your sense of purpose and values, and that your ‘enough point’ (having enough) is having everything you want and need, to have a life you love and full self-expression, with nothing in excess. It’s not minimalism. It’s not less is more (because sometimes more is more), but it’s that sweet spot, it’s the Goldilocks point. Enough for me is one of the absolute fulcrums between the old roadmap for money and the new roadmap for money … Once people start to pay attention to the flow of money and stuff in their lives in this way, their consumption drops by about 20-25% naturally because that’s the amount of unconsciousness that you have in your spending. So, when you become conscious, that falls away and many people say they don’t even know what they used to spend their money on.” — Vicki Robin
As I mentioned earlier, her 20-25% holds up based on my personal experience (we cut our spending 30%).
The definition of “enough” will be different from person to person, so truly think about what enough looks like to you.
Moving Beyond FIRE
Vicki Robin has also shared some powerful words about what the FIRE movement often misses:
- “FI has simply been the freedom to pursue a higher purpose – to grow spiritually, to learn, to create and to serve.”
- “Look past the numbers (money) to the meaning of life.”
- “You designed a work life. Now design a life work.“
A leading FIRE blogger, the Mad Fientist, also wrote about his own aha moment about what FIRE can miss—Hierarchy of Financial Needs (and the Meaning of Life):
- “Financial independence isn’t life, it’s just a tool you can use to help you live a life that’s most meaningful to you. It’s a means to an end, not the end itself.”
While true, this does not mean pursuing the means at all costs:
- “Let’s say that you are a businessperson and after two years of intense stress and strain you finally manage to come out with a product or service that sells well and makes money. Success? In conventional terms, yes. In reality, you spent two years polluting your body as well as the earth with negative energy, made yourself and those around you miserable, and affected many others you never even met. The unconscious assumption behind all such action is that success is a future event, and that the end justifies the means. But the end and the means are one. And if the means did not contribute to human happiness, neither will the end. The outcome, which is inseparable from the actions that led to it, is already contaminated by those actions and so will create further unhappiness. This is karmic action, which is the unconscious perpetuation of unhappiness.” — Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
Always keep money in perspective. It’s a tool—a means to an end. But, don’t lose yourself in the means.
Money as a Natural Byproduct—Moving Beyond “Money Pay” to “Metapay”
I love how Maria Popova of Brain Pickings describes her own philosophy as personal development before business development. Business development is simply a byproduct.
I recently wrote a premium post which details exactly how to do this: 🔒 How to Meaningfully Make Money from Your Life Purpose (+ Infographics)
Abraham Maslow also talks about money being a byproduct when you are intrinsically motivated first and foremost:
- A large proportion of self-actualizing people have probably fused work and play anyway, i.e., they love their work. Of them, one could say, they get paid for what they would do as a hobby anyway, for doing work that is intrinsically satisfying.
- “Of course money is welcome, and in certain amounts is needed. But it is certainly not the finality, the end, the ultimate goal … Self-actualizing work or B-work (work at the level of being), being its own intrinsic reward, transforms the money or paycheck into a byproduct, an epiphenomenon.“
Maslow even goes a step further to talk about transcending “money pay” to higher forms of “metapay”:
- “What is crucially important is the fact itself that there are many kinds of pay other than money pay, that money as such steadily recedes in importance with increasing affluence and with increasing maturity of character, while higher forms of pay and metapay steadily increase in importance.”
What could some of these forms of metapay look like?
- “Not only money but also higher-need gratifications and metaneed gratifications, e.g., friendly co-workers, good surroundings, a secure future, challenge, growth, idealistic satisfactions, responsibility, freedom, an important product, compassion for others, helping mankind, helping the country, a chance to put one’s own ideas into effect, a company of which one can be proud, a good school system, even good fishing, beautiful mountains to climb, etc.”
Aim for purpose first, and then monetize it as a byproduct. Part of a healthy relationship with money means moving beyond money. Not in the sense of reverting back to aversion, but accepting money for its role and transcending (but including) it in higher level ways of “getting paid.”
My relationship with money hasn’t been a linear journey. Perhaps you can relate?
To sum it up:
- Phase 1: A Non-Existent Relationship with Money (making money, but lacking purpose)
- Phase 2: An Aversion Relationship with Money (living purposefully, but not making money)
- Phase 3: A Healthy Relationship with Money (the middle way of purpose + byproducts of money & metapay)
It’s taken years, but I finally feel like I’m in a healthy relationship with money: not lifestyle inflation, not aversion … the middle way. The middle way still isn’t a straight line. There will be ups and downs. But, the idea is to stay away from extreme ups and extreme downs.
If you are truly doing what you love, what you are made for, and what the world needs and wants, the beauty is that you are living purposefully and can make money as a byproduct—while also transcending money by getting “metapaid” in so many other ways.
What are your thoughts? What’s your current relationship with money? Do you see any similarities or differences in your own money journey?
Please let me know in the comments.
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