The Pleasures of Financial Minimalism

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Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Even when it’s involuntary

A lot of people are finding out that things we thought we could not live without are losing importance. And things we often back-burnered now seem really important. There is a big shifting of priorities going on right now and I’m starting to think about how to carry them forward into whatever the next life looks like.

Pocket money

A friend and I were talking on the phone about spending money. Not a typical conversation for us and not a commiseration about not having enough. Instead we were discussing the changed role of cash right now. I told her I had been carrying the same $24 in my wallet for three weeks and she said she took $300 out of an ATM when this thing started and she hasn’t touched it.

Cash has had an evolving role for several years now, driven by the app and online economy. Now, with fears of germs and small mom and pop businesses that relied on cash closing, keeping a few bucks on your person makes less sense. Who could have predicted that? But I think it is the beginning of a new financial minimalism, a different way to look at money and necessity.

One of the reasons my friend and I haven’t spent our cash is because restaurants and bars are closed. I always prefer to tip in cash and my friends in the industry definitely prefer it. So I always tried to at least carry tip money around. But there is a lot more going on here.

First, for a lot of us work has either ended or turned into a little here and a little there. There is just not a lot of cash flowing. The things we do spend on are essentials, and even if you are wealthy, it can’t buy you out of this crisis. We are all exposed, even those moguls hiding on their mega yachts- someone has to drive and maintain those things.

Food and cooking

I’m not an example of a classic American grocery shopper in that I rarely buy pre-prepared foods. But now, with time to cook, the things we are running out of are staples like flour and yeast. Apparently a lot of people had a secret hankering to learn how to bake bread, even the complex starter or sourdough recipes. Recipe sites are seeing a renaissance. When you cook fresh foods from scratch you see grocery bills falling because this stuff is much cheaper than the packaged and frozen options.

Transportation and the environment

Driving is another big change, moneywise. Oil markets are not just crashing because the Saudis and the Russians can’t agree on how to fix prices. Look out the window- people are not driving. It’s a lot quieter and the air is cleaner. Skies are clearer. We may even be able to see the stars at night.

In fact, I suspect that the role of cars may be finally changing. A lot of people sent home to work will not go back to the office when they can. They have had a taste of no commute life and their employers may realize they don’t need to provide real estate for them. This has huge financial reverberations. Honey, do we really need a second car? Want to give yourself a big raise? Ditch a vehicle.

Oakland, CA closed 74 miles of roads to cars to make social distancing easier. I wonder if they will all open again or if people start getting used to walking and biking? Electric bikes are already growing in popularity, another factor in oil prices and reducing pollution and urban noise. They are silent. A high end electric bike goes for around $3000 right now and prices are dropping rapidly. Even if you are equipping a family of four, you’re not even close to that Audi wagon or mommy/daddy van.

Travel, business, and remote workstyles

The travel industry is going through an enormous and cataclysmic change that has yet to show its long term effects. For airlines and hotels, the absence of business travel has been devastating and I suspect a lot of CFOs are realizing how unnecessary it was to fly bodies around for meetings when you have Zoom or Hangouts. This is financial minimalism for businesses and they really don’t have a choice anymore. It is going to become a best practice.

Growing acceptance of freelancers

I’m a freelance business and marketing writer. Remote is normal for me and my clients are often on the other side of the planet. They don’t care and neither do I. Remote is normal for me and I’m optimized for it. That optimization helps me make a case for using me instead of a full time hire. The same business minimalism that may limit corporate travel should make using me and other freelancers more desirable. Less commitment and lower overhead.

Family unity

Families have no choice but to isolate together right now or not see each other. Once we get past the craziness of having the kids around, figuring out how to school them, and setting ground rules for work and play, families may realize this is a good thing. And with nursing homes becoming dangerous places, finding a way to keep older relatives at home may become more of a norm. We will see on that one.

Faced with stern realities, the mind grows clearer

The real minimalism is mental, clearing out of preconceptions about needs and wants. Daily death tolls and following the curve is sobering and a lot of nonsense we thought was important is getting reconsidered. Will this continue? I’m really not certain but certainty was one of the first victims of this pandemic.

Most Westerners are unused to dealing with uncertainty. We resist it and the abundance of control freaks is a symptom. The omnipresence of death makes everything uncertain, except of course, death. Buddhism says the cause of death is birth, the only verifiable cause in the long run. A new financial minimalism may be the precursor to a new spiritual minimalism, one that puts less value on money and things, and more on the essential day to day quality of life.

Optimistic? Maybe, but…

You cannot materially and drastically change the lives of an entire civilization overnight without some long term and unpredictable consequences. While social scientists and pandemic researchers may have had an inkling of the effects, that was speculation. Now the experiment is thrust upon us and we will be studying the effects of it for many years, if not lifetimes.

May you live in interesting times…not a lot of choice these days. Stay healthy and safe.

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