When I told Vicki Robin that I wanted to visit her at her home on Whidbey Island, in Puget Sound north of Seattle, she told me it might be hard: She could only offer me a folding sofa. She said she was renting out her guest rooms at below-market rates for people who needed housing.
I laughed. The woman who once famously lived with her boyfriend on about $1,000 a month didn’t want me or the Washington Post — owned by Jeff Bezos, one of the richest people in the world — to pay for a hotel?
Before the hustle and bustle of the economy and the “Great Resignation,” there was Robin and her partner, Joe Dominguez.
Their book, Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transform Your Relationship with Money and Achieve Financial Independence, published 30 years ago this fall, asked us to take control of our financial and work lives by avoiding reckless spending and instead focusing on what matters, like family, friends, and hobbies.
The book is a thought-provoking blend of commonsense financial advice, philosophical exploration and vitriol—both of consumer culture, and the way we allow work to control our lives. It is an argument that foreshadowed our era in many ways.
However, “your money or your life” – which still sells thousands of copies a year – is rarely mentioned in the context of our current business moment. Instead, her legacy is mostly celebrated by the higher-tech and more political FIRE movement – and that is financial independence, retiring early. The followers of the book embraced the frugal philosophy and desire for freedom, but they did not embrace the book’s larger ambitions.
Robin appreciates her younger helpers, but worries that a vital part of her message will be lost in translation. She says FIRE’s repetition is often “absent from any social or political criticism”.
But “your money or your life” wasn’t supposed to be just a self-help guide to saving your financial life. For Robin, the vision 30 years ago—and the vision she still believes in today—was about how to save us all.
Robin, 77, and Dominguez emerged from the alternative counterculture of the 1960s, embracing its critique of American consumption as a destructive force on a personal and environmental level. Dominguez, a Wall Street analyst, believes he would need to save $100,000 and invest it in government bonds to live modestly on the passive income he made for the rest of his life. When he came up with that amount, he quit.
Inverting Your Money or Your Life is a formula—created by Dominguez, who died in 1997—to take control of our destinies by re-examining what work really costs us, spiritually and physically. How much do we spend on commuting? How much do we spend on office clothes? How much do we spend on luxury vacations, or on luxury cars, so that we can afford our lives? Subtract that, and you’ve calculated your real hourly wage, the real amount for which you sell your days on Earth.
“We don’t earn a living, we earn a death,” Dominguez and Robin wrote.
If this sounds familiar, it should be. During the pandemic, the millions trapped in offices or in low-paying jobs have come to similar conclusions.
“There is a lot of gossip about purposeful work and purpose in life,” Robin tells me. “It’s hanging like a carrot, and I don’t know how many people can do that.”
But the “your money or your life” recommended steps differ from those taken by the latest runners in action. Rather than finding a better-paying job, the book discusses a different solution: drastically cut expenses. “Spending money is not an affirmation of your freedom,” Robin tells me. “It’s the key to your next enslavement.”
This type of anti-materialistic message was once popular on the left. But as the level of inequality rose, it became unpopular among the many concerned with social justice. It is much easier to preach to abandon conspicuous consumption when it is an active choice, rather than a necessity.
However, this does not mean that the idea went too far. There is a constant pressure in American thought that doubts our society’s greedy tendencies. There are Puritans, Quakers, Transcendentals, Shakers, Beatniks, and practitioners of voluntary simplicity, such as Robin.
FIRE is another such movement. He emerged from the foreclosure crisis and the stock market boom that followed. For many at FIRE, Robin is the OG of the movement – they discovered “Your Money or Your Life” and started discussing it on blogs and Reddit forums.
Many FIRE followers argue that almost anyone can, with sufficient willpower, save and invest enough money to live without working full time. But it’s a movement that reflects our most attracted, dog-eating time. Few followers express concern about the government’s deteriorating safety net. The issues they raise – eg, health care costs – are presented as a financial, not a societal, problem that must be resolved. Basically, it’s all about taking care of yourself.
The United States is said to be a place where luxuries are cheap but necessities are very expensive. It is not just a lack of savvy and an addiction to consumer goods that prevents Americans from gaining financial freedom; It’s also the enormous cost of basics like health care, child care, housing, and higher education, combined with minimum wages and worker protections.
It is instructive to discover what finally pushed Robin away from extreme frugality to the modest but comfortable life she is now living. She was diagnosed with cancer – a disease that can not only kill you, but, thanks to the incomplete and expensive health care system in the United States, also caused huge financial damage.
Robin began spending royalties from her “money or life”, which she had often given up previously, to fund her treatment. The title of the book took on a new meaning – it was, literally, her money or her life. As she first told me a decade ago, and again this month, “Nobility is one thing, but dying from thrift is another.”
Today, Robin considers FIRE followers to be fellow travellers, but says more of them must address larger economic and social concerns. She told me she’d like to see free college and universal health care, plus a basic lifetime income for a year or two of service.
They are, she says, “things that should happen because of fairness and environmental sustainability, but they will also benefit the FIRE people in the FIRE movement. Many people are stuck their whole lives in jobs that are not compatible with their lives because of their college debt.”
In her view, the Biden administration’s debt relief plan is not enough. “We need to look as a society to the system that says to succeed you need a college education, but you have to sell your future to get it.”
Robin is still striving to change the world. I’ve written a book about eating locally sourced food. A tireless social innovator, she is pushing a plan to encourage Whidbey Islanders to rent out unused bedrooms, to ease a labor shortage caused by rising rents. There’s also a podcast called What Can Go Right, where she interviews thought leaders about what they think is happening, yes, in the world.
Robin told me that we all deserve our “dignity,” something our society often strips of its place. And the message of dignity for all is what she hopes her legacy will be.
“I’ve never seen it as a book about letting things go,” she says of Your Money or Your Life. “I was selling a superior intelligence system trying to beat you.”
Olin is a contributor to the Washington Post Opinion Department and author of Pound Volich: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.