I have a problem with money. I spend too little of it on the things that I actually care about.
My relationship with money is something that I inherited from my parents and my family.
Both my parents were refugees of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s, a Communist uprising and genocide wherein the Cambodians decimated a quarter of their people with systematic murders. It was a terrible time in Cambodian’s history, and for Cambodia’s history. In their attempt to create a Communist agrarian society, they also eliminated anyone who would pose a threat to the new order: professionals, intellectuals, artists, musicians, and even anyone who knew a foreign language. During these terrible years, money was probably the last thing on people's minds, far below food and safety. My dad would tell me stories about how he would live on just a single cup of rice a day, and he would be lucky if he could catch a wild rat or a frog to eat.
We grew up very modestly. My parents would buy everything secondhand, we lived in a small home, shared vehicles with my uncles and aunts whenever we can, and packed the car to the brim whenever we carpooled. These were the typical unspoken rules of money for us:
• buy to function, not to flaunt
• never buy full priced
• thrift is an expression of self-discipline
I have fond memories of going to garage sales or the flea market every Saturday morning with my parents to buy secondhand toys for 25 cents.
I’ve carried this thrifty mentality for a long time, especially through my twenties when I was earning a measly graduate stipend for seven years. Everything was a zero sum game when it came to money. With a scarcity mindset, I saw everything as an opportunity cost. I grew up with friends who would (half-jokingly) compare everything to how many McNuggets you can buy (when it was 6 nuggets for $1 on the Dollar Menu). A new can of tennis balls? That’s 18 McNuggets!
The reason why I’m reflecting on my relationship with money now is because I noticed that my frugality is getting in the way of my own happiness. Unfortunately, the things that I love doing are expensive, and I’ve stopped doing them because I felt the pain of spending.
Thrift is a virtue in my family and culture, but how do I reconcile thrift as a virtue with thrift as an impediment to full self-expression?
So recently, I've committed to spending money to do the things that I love, and as a compromise, I will be as frugal as possible for everything that is not a priority.
My new relationship with money takes into account all the mistakes I’ve made in being too frugal.
For example, one thing that I love is climbing. My identity is tied to it. I think of myself as a climber. Climbing is to Wes as squirrel is to dog. I love how it makes me feel. I love how it brings me closer to people. Every time I go out, I learn something new, either about myself, the craft, or the place I’m climbing in.
In the past four years, I’ve been doing a lot less climbing. Partially because of time scarcity when I got my first ever real big-boy job and wanted to do a good job. But lately, as I’ve been carving out more time for myself, I notice it’s a financial scarcity that's my main excuse. I live in San Francisco now, an expensive city, with no car. Renting a car to get out of the city would cost $130/day with Zipcar. I feel the “pain” of spending that used to feel “free” to me when I just used to own (and live out of) my car.
I also have a distinct memory of when my ex (while we were on vacation in Oregon) asked if we could go skiing, and I rebuffed, saying that it would be over $250 per person just for a day of skiing because we didn’t have our gear.
In retrospect, we should have gone. It wasn’t worth not making memories. I don't remember what we did instead, but I definitely would have remembered the day skiing.
I've learned my lessons, and it feels empowering knowing that I can actually live, not stifled by scarcity.
Some rules that I live by now:
- Let yourself use money to manifest the number one thing you love.
- Don’t let money get in the way of making memories. Memories pay dividends, too (h/t Cissy), and you can reminisce for more years if you get the experience younger.
- Die with zero. Don’t accumulate money for the sake of having more. Don't save too much ;)
I've stack ranked all the things that are important to me and make me happy. Those things are 1) adventuring outside, and 2) being inspired by really good food.
Recently I’ve re-committed to my love for climbing and being outside. If it means that I pay $150/day in transportation to climb outside in Yosemite or Tahoe, or drop $1000 on new gear, then it’s totally worth it.
Enough reflection. This is the part where I say I'm privileged to have a problem where the solution is to spend more money :)