A penny saved is a penny earned.

A penny saved is a penny earned.


I have been thinking about money more than usual lately, largely because I am approaching retirement in another five or six years and I wonder how we will handle the loss of income from my job.  I have earned laughably little income each year of my long working life and so my estimated social security checks will be very modest once I begin drawing them.  Would I have more diligently pursued raises and strived for more lucrative employment had I known earlier that my social security benefit would be based on my two highest of 35 years of earnings?

My situation is the result of conscious choices made over my lifetime of working.  Much of the work of my life — cooking, cleaning house, grocery shopping, yard maintenance, laundry, child care and other traditionally women’s work — does not count toward the social security calculations.  I know in my heart that this work is not worthless, but it is obviously not valued by the bean counters in government.  My natural affinities are for liberal arts — literature, painting, writing, photography — and not the high demand and high paying jobs in engineering, technology, medicine, science. I deemed it important to feel happy in my work.  Because I had my first cancer at a young age (32), I chose to work part-time while my daughter was at home with us so that I could enjoy time with her and being a Mom.  I don’t regret that decision.  And now that I am an empty nester, I still want a more balanced life and have chosen not to return to fulltime work.

Soon it will be time to pay the piper.

I’ve decided not to feel regrets for my earlier decisions and to feel grateful that I know how to live richly on little money.  Library books are free and I am perfectly content to read for pleasure and edification.  My watercolor supplies are relatively cheap and my 10-year-old digital SLR is still able to capture interesting photos.  I live in a city that is walkable and located close to mountains and water.  I don’t drive much, and my old used car has already given me twice the use I projected when I bought it.  I prefer my own cooking from scratch to more expensive restaurant meals. My special treat is a modestly priced Americano coffee drink!  I am educated and curious and enjoy taking advantage of the city’s free cultural offerings. I can wear jeans and tee shirts to work.  I was raised to be thrifty and frugal and have always been able to live on less than what I make without feeling deprived.  How fortunate I am that my modest expectations will fit my modest means!

I was reminded of how wealthy I really am when I read Ben Hewitt’s Saved:  How I Quit Worrying about Money and Became the Richest Guy in the World.  He puzzles over the almost universal and widespread assumption that wealth and security are defined by one’s bank account and monetary investments.  He talks about how corporations and advertising and the media work to create a sense of anxiety and make people feel underprivileged so that they strive to buy more and accumulate more to feel better off.  He says, “Why have I allowed myself to worry so much?  I have never gone hungry, or spent a night unsheltered from the elements.  I have never even been at risk of these things.  Most of my worry, I have come to realize, has emerged from a place of uncertainty and fear.  Not over the present, mind you, or even the medium-term future, but over the belief that I should be accumulating monetary wealth in preparation for an unknown future.  Why?  Because it’s what I’ve been told I must do; it’s what we all have been told we must do.”

I have to remind myself that the advice of retirement gurus, whose magazine columns are supported by advertisers only if the message is somehow tied to selling their products, is based on the assumption that I want a standard of living during my retirement that is much higher than the one I’ve lived my whole life so far.  I don’t drive new cars, eat out daily or weekly, spend lavishly on vacations, etc.  So perhaps those projections which infer the inadequacy of my retirement savings are a false fit for me.  Perhaps I have enough to be comfortable.

Is the goal of accumulating money really a wise way to live?  Hewitt finds his wealth in the things that matter to him:  an abundance of freedom, community, choice, good health, happiness, resourcefulness.

Where are you on the continuum of rags to riches?

Dirt Poor to Filthy Rich




















getting by









filthy rich





“Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Wrapped pennies

“However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names.  It is not so bad as you are.  It looks poorest when you are richest.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

“For I don’t care too much for money
Cause money can’t buy me love.”
— John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Can’t Buy Me Love”

When you are struggling with paying yet another bill and trying to save for your next car or retirement, it is easy to forget that money does not buy happiness.  When you do stop to think about what is important in life, it’s the intangibles like love, satisfying work, or communication that most improve the quality of your life.  And these “necessaries of the soul”  can accrue to even the poorer among us.

Here are a few of my favorite things that can be had for no money.  What would be on your list?

  • walking barefoot on a sandy beach where the waves lap the shore
  • a hot shower
  • listening to the gleeful giggles of children
  • getting lost in a good library book
  • finding a hand-written letter in the mailbox
  • spooning in bed
  • the smell of freshly baked bread
  • an unexpected snow day
  • a comfortable rocking chair
  • cradling a baby in your lap
  • beach combing for pretty shells
  • the scent of lilacs
  • birdwatching
  • tree watching
  • cloud watching
  • loving and supporting my family




” . . . the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden

At day's end: watch, keys, and pocket change on the mantle

I rather like the way Thoreau values his time more than money.  His definition of wealth is how much free time is left after his basic needs have been met.  And one way to maximize his personal time is to pare his material needs to the bare minimum:  “I make myself rich by making my wants few.”

I am comfortable living a frugal life most of the time.  My parents set the example of living within one’s means, raising nine kids on a small farm.  I never saw them use a credit card.  Thoreau’s way of life seems especially appropriate for weathering today’s tough economic times.

“Security to me is not what we have, but what we can do without.”
— quote from Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression by Studs Terkel

“Cannot people realize how large an income is thrift?”
— Cicero

Living life content with small means can be liberating — you’re free from the stress of burdensome debt, high maintenance costs, and the dissatisfactions of needing the latest thing advertised on T.V.  You can craft of your life a symphony, in the words of William Henry Channing:

“To live life with small means;
To seek elegance rather than luxury,
and refinement rather than fashion;
To be worthy, not respectable,
and wealthy, not rich;
To study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly;
To listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart;
To bear all cheerfully,
Do all bravely,
Await occasions, hurry never.
In a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common.
This is to be my symphony.”