How do you make a living?

What does it take to make a living?

When I was employed (God help me) I kept coming up with desperate schemes to quit my job and keep my family financially afloat.  But no matter what ideas I considered, people would tell me “there’s no money in it” or “you can’t make a living doing that”.

I’m glad I never pursued any of those schemes. Not because those warnings were true, but because I would now be stuck devoting all my time to something I didn’t really care enough about.

But in terms of the money, I’m wondering what exactly those people had in mind when they said you can’t make a living from whatever straws I happened to be grasping at: farming snails or running a microbrewery (or maybe both; snails love beer after all).

The whole time, I was preoccupied with the thought of income-replacement; not exactly the same thing as making a living.  I knew I was earning enough to live, but I had no idea how much was actually required – the minimum income needed to sustain my family.

Friend dtcwee put me onto a bit of free software that now allows me to keep track of all our income and expenses.  It’s been a bit of work, but the effort is paying off.  It’s only been seven weeks since I started, and it will take at least a quarter to be more confident in our progress, but at present we are still living within our means despite having lost what was, all things considered, a reasonably good salary.

In terms of our weekly expenditure, I am happy to report that at present my family is spending much less than the average in our state, without any significant compromises in our standard of living.  According to my calculations, we could live for 2.5 years on the average yearly expenditure of a South Australian household, or 3.7 years on the average yearly expenditure of Australian couples with children under 5.

This knowledge is empowering.  Knowing exactly how much money we need to live means we can afford to be much more picky about the kinds of work we will do to pay the bills.  The bigger the bills, the more limited our choices.

Most of us have been raised to think the opposite – that having a high-paying job gives us options and choice.  We rarely think that our expensive lifestyles limit our choices when it comes to employment and work-life balance.

Objectively, we are living a more frugal lifestyle. But subjectively we don’t really notice it.  We derive more value from not working hateful jobs than from being able to buy lots of things we don’t really want or need.

 

The end of employment and a new path

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Lately I’ve been considering the prospect of never being employed again. I don’t mean never working – I’m working more than I ever did as an employee.  But there’s a reasonable likelihood that I will never again need to don the clothes, the attitude, the soul-crushing alienation and the corresponding facade of a white-collar employee who sacrifices his freedom for the sake of a steady income.

The term ‘wage-slave’ is dramatic but fitting.  We live in an era where the average wage is far more than enough to meet one’s daily needs in terms of food and clothing, but nowhere near enough to afford the equally basic need of shelter – a piece of land and a roof over one’s head, a place to raise a family and explore the many and varied means of enriching one’s life.

In my city the median house price reportedly reached $400,000 this year, with the median household income (2011) at $57,356.  $57,000 can buy a hell of a lot of food, clothing, electricity, water, and transport.  But even if you spend the first few years of working life at home, sponging off your parents, at best you’ll only come out of it with a healthy deposit for your imminent mortgage.

The idea of going to live far from the city in some kind of self-sufficient paradise is equal parts dream and nightmare depending on how I’m feeling at any given moment.  But in principle we shouldn’t have to flee the city, or rather, flee the boundaries of costly real estate, in order to meet the basic need of shelter.

More importantly, self-sufficient isolation would undermine other basic needs: friendship, family, and society (in the broadest sense).  I could much more easily achieve self-sufficiency by abandoning my wife and child and learning to eat tree bark, but most people understand that making those kinds of sacrifices defeats the purpose of trying to meet our basic needs in the first place.

My wife and I currently live with our child in a small 1 bedroom apartment, close to family and friends.  As much as we would love to own a small acreage in the hills, it has become abundantly clear that achieving such a goal requires the sacrifice of too much personal integrity – effectively embracing the ‘wage-slave’ existence for however many years it takes to pay off a mortgage debt.  It would mean harming life in the present for the sake of an untested future goal, a goal that might never be what we hope, or might come too late, or might be rejected for some yet unforeseen circumstance.

Instead, we’ve decided to take the path that arises out of enjoyment of our present circumstances which are, after all, pretty good in a global context.  Since we can’t predict the future but have enough at present, we should focus on what we do have rather than what we hope to one day achieve or possess.

Abandoning employment – meaningless work according to the small-minded conventions of our present era – I’m intent on following instead the ideals that have always made greater sense to me, even if those ideals mean temporary sacrifices or more diligent choices.  Diligence and the sacrifice of unnecessary things never hurt anyone, and most of it we won’t even notice.  What we get in return is a life that is open and responsive to the development of a new path and new directions; a life that is increasingly free from the limitations of dry convention.

It’s exciting to think that I may never again need to lock myself into a compromised career path, never again pretend to be interested in the banalities of ‘making a living’ within the increasingly narrow band of jobs for which my experience and qualifications happen to be not so much suitable as least unsuitable.

The true significance hasn’t yet sunk in; I find it hard to fully appreciate what I’m doing, perhaps because our society doesn’t yet recognise or have the right terms for what I’m doing, which suggests to me that I really am on the right path.

Tiny-house movement

At least one Canberran is cutting back on the terrifying burden of mortgage debt by building himself a tiny, trailer-mounted house:

“The typical tiny house is built on a trailer – to get around legal and planning constraints – putting the maximum width at 2.5 metres,” he said.

“Usually people have a loft with a bed to maximise the available space.

“Most people have a mini kitchenette, and the contentious bit, that everybody is horrified by, is quite often a tiny house will have a composting toilet because you can’t easily hook the house up to sewerage.”

Mr Clapham said his solution to that problem would be a separate, very Australian, outhouse.

You can see more tiny house related material here and here. Personally I would like to have a much bigger house, but either way it’s going to be unconventional…

Update:

dtcwee is not overly impressed, noting that the Canberran’s exotic life choice is dependent on the good-will of wealthy boomer parents.

quoth dtcwee – “Ah the 1970s, when people dumb enough to overlook the effect of construction on resale value could still afford property. The ’80s called. They want their granny flats back.”

 

The nature of wealth

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Back in my bioethics days I spent a bit of time reading Thomas Aquinas on a variety of subjects, just to see what wisdom the ‘Angelic Doctor’ could bring to bear on aspects of contemporary life.  One insight that made a great deal of sense to me was his adoption of Aristotle’s distinction between natural and artificial wealth:

It is impossible for man’s happiness to consist in wealth. For wealth is twofold, as the Philosopher says (Polit. i, 3), viz. natural and artificial. Natural wealth is that which serves man as a remedy for his natural wants: such as food, drink, clothing, cars, dwellings, and such like, while artificial wealth is that which is not a direct help to nature, as money, but is invented by the art of man, for the convenience of exchange, and as a measure of things salable.

Now it is evident that man’s happiness cannot consist in natural wealth. For wealth of this kind is sought for the sake of something else, viz. as a support of human nature: consequently it cannot be man’s last end, rather is it ordained to man as to its end. Wherefore in the order of nature, all such things are below man, and made for him, according to Psalm 8:8: “Thou hast subjected all things under his feet.”

And as to artificial wealth, it is not sought save for the sake of natural wealth; since man would not seek it except because, by its means, he procures for himself the necessaries of life. Consequently much less can it be considered in the light of the last end. Therefore it is impossible for happiness, which is the last end of man, to consist in wealth.

This brief excerpt contains a number of important points.  Firstly, wealth is not the source of our happiness, but it is ‘a support of human nature’.  We need natural wealth in order to flourish and pursue the higher things in life.

Secondly, money and other forms of wealth that do not directly meet natural needs are to be considered ‘artificial wealth’.  Of themselves they hold no value.  In the words of Alanis Obomsawim, an indigenous Canadian:

When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.

The only value in artificial wealth is that we can use it to obtain natural wealth.  Hence artificial wealth such as money is a step removed from human life, an abstraction from the diversity of real things we need in order to live and to flourish.

Money has been around for a long time, but I wonder if our  ancestors were ever so preoccupied with it as we are today?  Money doesn’t behave in the same way as natural wealth.  Because we have no direct capacity to make use of it, it exists without natural order or function.  We can, therefore, obsess about it, pursue it, covet it and accrue it in ways that would not make sense for natural wealth.  As my grandfather says: “you can only sleep in one bed.”

I’ll be writing more on this topic, as I think our current way of life exaggerates the role of artificial wealth in our lives, with repercussions for our broader understanding of life and our pursuit of genuine flourishing.

 

 

Home-brewed beer

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All credit to my good friend J for getting me started on brewing, lending us gear, and I would say “teaching me everything I know” but that’s what they call damning with faint praise. J is currently on what appears to be a beer-research sabbatical in North America, from whence he reports on a bewildering array of brews the likes of which the impoverished Aussie beer-consumer could only imagine.

Today I brewed my third all grain beer on the front porch of my unit, with several visitors coming to watch, drink home-roasted coffee, and reflect in equal measures on the sheer excitement of producing something of value for oneself, and the comparatively dismal state of typical working life à la the previous post’s satirical take on bullshit jobs, wage slavery, and consumerism.

The first two brews were done with a small group of us sharing the work and the product.  It’s a good group activity but I’ve realised I need to go it alone in my own time if I’m ever to achieve a stockpile of delicious beer.

Having a stockpile is important. Not only does it offer a sense of material security to know that you have a pantry full of coffee beans, beer, tomato sauce, and so on, but it also allows a kind of natural rhythm to emerge in the balance of work and enjoyment, process and product.  We’re so used to commercial models in which output must be consistent, constant, and always striving for new markets and new thresholds. But when you are producing for your own consumption you discover the pleasant and comforting reality of ‘enough’.

When I’m roasting coffee, I only have to put in half an hour of work to give me enough coffee for up to two weeks.  Half an hour of roasting is fun.  To do it every day would be tedious.  To be commercially viable I would have to invest in an expensive piece of equipment that takes away all the mystery, the human element, and hence the fun.  To make it ‘professional’ would ruin the process, break up the rhythm, and take time away from other things.

I think brewing will turn out to have its own rhythm.  It’s a longer process, requiring about 5-6 hours and a minimum of 4 weeks from brewing to drinking, but it also provides a greater yield, with about 22 litres of beer from each brew.  As with the home-roasted coffee, the home-brewed all grain beer is very high quality relative to commercial products, but at a significantly lower cost.

Coopers Pale Ale – the primary local beer – retails for $42.95 per carton (9 litres).

Prancing Pony Pale Ale – a good local craft beer – retails from $75.99 per carton (7.9 litres)

Both are good beers, but I’d rather drink my home-brewed Golden Ale than the Coopers Pale.  The monetary cost of the home-brewed Golden Ale is about $30 for 22 litres.

Obviously it costs more in terms of time and effort, but in line with my goal of ‘a richer life on a lower income’, home-brewed all grain beer is far more rewarding, productive and enjoyable than buying beer with money earned in a pointless, existentially demeaning job.  Spending time and effort in a valued, productive enterprise doesn’t feel like a ‘cost’ after all.

“I’m confused. Does he have three houses or one?”

At risk of explaining satire, the following is the ‘Early Retirement Extreme‘ parallel universe take on how internet commenters might respond to a depiction of a typical working life. My personal favourite: “Well, the main problem I think is that he does not have any kind of shop at home, so he has to go to that office to be able to feed himself.”

Forum post: “I just read an article about a guy that has 5 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms in his house. Apparently he makes $40,000 a year, but then he has to go to a big office and spend 8 or 9 hours a day filling out forms and going to meetings all week long. He does that all year around. Apparently, he’s been doing it for 20 years or so. I admit it sounds a bit crazy, but it also seems intriguing.”

I’m not sure I could do it. It’s like .. I mean, it’s 8 hours a day! How long do you have to do this for?

I think he said twenty years. So when he’s done can he go back to his family?

By Jove, that’s like a prison sentence.

I don’t see how it is possible to do that and work in his own shop as well. How does he have time to take care of his home. What about friends?

There’s more: http://earlyretirementextreme.com/how-blog-comments-look-in-a-parallel-universe.html

 

Canaries in the coal-mine

I’ve discussed this idea with my melancholic relatives and friends, and was hence pleasantly surprised to see the ‘canaries’ theme appear on the blog of ‘Early Retirement Extreme‘.

Jacob at Early Retirement Extreme draws on the MBTI theory in his observation that:

NFs are like the canaries in the coal mine. Whenever they are not happy, things are bound to change. Therefore NTs should not only solve the present personal finance problems but try to predict and plan for the future that the present will transform itself into given the interhuman tension. If history is any guide things will look much different fifty years from now just like they looked quite different 50 years ago.

In comments a reader asks “what are the NFs not happy about right now?”

As a melancholic/INFP unhappiness is pretty much my stock-in-trade, so here goes:

Melancholics are idealists, and as such the most dissatisfying thing about our present socio-economic conventions (at least in Australia) is the growth of a mundane economic mindset which leaves little space for ideals.

Melancholics are motivated by ideals – we are not motivated by ambition, material wealth, popularity, or ‘what everyone else is doing’.  So it is demoralising for us to find that merely existing in society on a basically equitable level requires a life dedicated to the dull, self-serving materialism of the masses.

In practical terms, pursuing a basic ideal like ‘independence’ seems impossible unless we first obtain some form of hateful employment that pays far more money than we need to simply survive, but not enough to achieve meaningful independence.

Most of the melancholics I know are liberal arts majors (like me) who pursued their degrees under the influence of our idealistic temperaments and without much consideration to future employment.  There’s nothing to complain about in that, but now we find post-graduation that all the traditional avenues of employment for people like us are being squeezed.

Thirty years ago I probably would have gone on to do teaching.  Teaching can be viewed in an idealistic light, but nearly every teacher or former teacher I have spoken to has warned against it.  ‘Teaching’ itself is not the problem, it’s all the associated crap that goes on under the auspices of a seemingly dysfunctional education system.

Academia is likewise being squeezed under new models and domineering management structures that are turning universities into big business.  If we were to inquire about the nature of the ideal university, it would surely begin with wise and exemplary scholars in their various specialised disciplines.  Yet in the modern university the scholars are increasingly reduced to low-tier employees and service-providers, forced to play along with the narrow mercenary attitudes of non-idealistic managers.

The conventional avenues for aspiring idealists are approaching their end.  We’ve arrived at a point in which excelling at these supposedly ‘idealistic’ pursuits requires a non-idealistic frame of mind.  In other words, there’s no room for idealists anymore.

I’m sure this has happened many times in the past; it’s no doubt cyclical. But the important thing for melancholic idealists is to be able to recognise what part of the cycle we are in.  Concepts like ERE are vital and necessary as idealists begin to search for a way of life that is not entirely soul-destroying.  Money is always going to be an important part of life, but our relationship with money needn’t proceed according to social and economic conventions that crush, demoralise, and dismay us.

Recognising ourselves as canaries in the coal mine (or as dtcwee put it: the thin end of the wedge; or tip of the spear) affirms our sense that there is something deeply amiss in the way of life society would have us embrace.  There is something deeply offensive in donning the corporate guise with all its accompanying shallowness, politics, and insincere rhetoric.  There is something incredibly ugly about a society whose labour and institutions are increasingly stripped of any higher considerations than the self-interested and anxious pursuit of material wealth.

Why should I subordinate myself to a feckless and banal corporate structure, a management hierarchy comprised of people whose motives and ethics are at worst malicious and at best only benignly self-interested? Why should I submit myself to shallow conventions of language and an incorrigible corporate facade that exists seemingly just for the sake of preserving a coercive deception that this dysfunctional organisation is one big happy family?

If I have to sacrifice something, I would rather it be material wealth than personal integrity.

 

The Kid Handicap

Over at ‘Jumping to Conclusions’ friend dtcwee has an interesting post taking issue with the ‘children are expensive’ narrative.

Yours truly is tired of the assumption that his wealth is due to being child-free. Although children imply expense, they do not as such prevent saving. And yet, the sheer weight behind the ‘children are expensive’ narrative stifles me.
[…]
The sticker shock of AUD$400,000 per middle-class child has to be spread across 24 years. Adjusting for inflation at 2.7%, that’s about $230 per week; the cost of two smoking habits. For a single working parent, it would be tight but do-able. For a couple with one and a half incomes, a breeze.

http://dtcwee.blogspot.com.au/2014/11/the-kid-handicap.html

As a parent seeking to enjoy a richer life despite a drastically reduced income, it helps to read incisive critiques of prevailing narratives that depict having children as potentially financially ruinous.

Anywhere but there

It’s unusual to not value money; it’s definitely counter-cultural, and those of us who aren’t greatly moved by the thought of cold hard cash tend to feel foolish and apologetic, as though not valuing money is a shameful secret.

When I was young I told our elderly neighbour I didn’t really need money. She thought that was hilarious, and years later I was in full agreement, having discovered the limiting realities of not-being-rich.

The need to make money and to make as much as you can while you still can, verges on secular dogma.  It’s the heart of our contemporary faith in the power of money; what Christians used to call ‘Mammon’ before the ‘prosperity gospel’ movement began telling people that God wanted us to be wealthy.

I put up with an awful farce of a job for two years because it would have been irresponsible and unreasonable to turn down relatively well-paid employment.  No matter how bad it got, I had to stick with it because turning down ‘good money’ for no good reason is anathema in this society.

It only occurred to me near the end of my employment that I wasn’t really suited to this religion of money.  I find money quite boring.  I’m not strongly motivated by it, and I resent the fact that those of us who are motivated by ideals rather than paychecks have been so marginalised that we end up thinking we are the problem.

I used to wish I could be more ‘business-minded’ so I could get along better in life, but my experience with business has shown me that it’s not any particular skill-set I’m lacking – there are plenty of people riding the coat-tails of big business without the distinction of any outstanding set of skills.  It’s not something I’m lacking, it’s something I have. What I have is an unwillingness to further compromise myself in order to get along.  I don’t love money enough to sacrifice my integrity for it, doing the kinds of bullshit jobs for which my studies in philosophy, history, politics, and my experience in bioethics ‘qualify’ me.  As the author of the ‘bullshit jobs’ essay, anthropologist David Graeber writes:

“There is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist?”

I wonder how many people realise that their jobs should not exist, or that substantial portions of their daily work serve no purpose and are of no real benefit to anyone?  It’s demoralising and demeaning to find oneself in such a position; but why do we endure it?

Part of the answer is cultural: we’ve been conditioned to think that we must have a career, be heading somewhere, be earning as much as we reasonably can for our age and station.  At the same time we can’t even imagine that there might be alternatives – alternatives that won’t see us worn ragged in some vain attempt at total self-sufficiency, or regretting our poverty at an advanced age when it is far too late to do anything about it.

The ‘all or nothing’ mentality is compounded by the cost of basic necessities, in particular the land that one might need in order to eke out an existence.  In Australia the cost of land anywhere in or near the major cities is prohibitive.  House prices have dramatically increased relative to wages, and most people opt for the established convention of seeking a substantial income to service an even more substantial mortgage.

The thought of leaving the major cities is tempting, but though the land may be cheaper, the cost in terms of family and friends makes the price even higher.  And there’s something a little perverse in sacrificing one’s most meaningful relationships to save money; that’s not the kind of victory I’m interested in.

I lost my job a few months ago, and have since been seriously examining and working towards the prospect of never again ending up in another ‘bullshit job’.  Looking back, I can see that my greatest weakness has been the ‘all or nothing’ mentality.  For example, I had previously ruled out the prospect of ‘making a living’ as a freelance writer, because I knew I couldn’t replace my previous income from the kind of writing I do.  In my mind it had to be a comparable income, or it wouldn’t be viable.

This attitude kept me from making even the simplest effort to calculate my family’s cost of living – our annual expenses on a weekly basis.  I had no idea how much money my wife and I needed to make in order to survive.

I’ve since discovered that what we need is a lot less than what I was making in my former job, because of a characteristic that has turned out to be our greatest strength in this new adventure: our lifestyle is not expensive.  We are willing to make sacrifices, but the fact is that we don’t even miss the things that others would regard as ‘sacrifices’.  Our ideals and our interests are heavily weighted toward knowledge and skills that we can acquire and develop on our own.  Our lives would undoubtedly be boring to most of the people trapped in the ‘rat race’ of consumer culture; and that is their handicap and our great advantage.

We poor, marginalised and alienated idealists need to stop apologising for our ‘useless’ degrees, interests and ideals.  We need to drop the false ‘all or nothing’ dichotomy that pushes us towards soul-crushing employment in typically inane ‘bullshit jobs’.  We need to take some solace in the words of Pierre Ryckmans:

The successful man adapts himself to the world. The loser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the loser.

In retrospect I’m glad I didn’t quit that BS job, because it took an experience of such ineptitude and banality to clarify and sharpen my vision of where I want to be, starting with “anywhere but there”.

 

Home-roasted coffee

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I’ve bean busy…

With due credit to my brother and his wife for getting me started on this project…

I’ve been roasting my own coffee beans for almost a year now.  The procedure is very simple, and achieves the ideal of a high-quality product at far below the market cost.  I can spend 30-45mins roasting beans once every week or two weeks, and enjoy the satisfaction, the freedom, and the existential high of producing my own great-tasting coffee.

Instead of spending as much as $36/kg on fresh, good quality beans, I order green beans online for about $15/kg, including postage.  I roast the beans outdoors in small batches, in a pair of $12-15 popcorn machines.  There are plenty of other ways to roast coffee, and lots of ways to modify the ‘poppers’ for greater control and consistency, but I’m happy thus far with this entry-level approach, and you can read more about it here:

http://www.sweetmarias.com/airpop/airpopmethod.php

In practical terms I’m yet to find a downside to roasting my own coffee at home.  It has become my favourite example of pushing back a little against a purely consumerist lifestyle, and producing something of value for one’s own benefit.

It’s likewise an example of my broader theme of ‘richer on a lower income’, as my family moves slowly toward an improved quality of life on a much reduced income.

How many other things could we produce – not for the sake of self-sufficiency, but for the sake of enjoying higher quality products without having to spend more hours in a meaningless job just to pay for them?  How much autonomy could we regain by having in our own skills and possessions the ability to produce rather than merely consume?  How much more fulfilling is a life spent cultivating the knowledge and sufficiency that past generations took for granted, and which we have all but abandoned?

This tiny step of making (and then drinking) my own coffee is pure inspiration.  It symbolises knowledge, freedom, power, wealth, and principle.  It points the way to a better life in which we can break the ruling conventions of 9-5 jobs and supermarket trolleys.

This isn’t about self-sufficiency in the most literal and demanding sense, nor are we about to dig a bomb-shelter, stockpile weapons, or form a fringe religious cult (coffee-cult, maybe).  It fundamentally is not about making life more difficult, onerous, or weird.  Rather, it’s about the kinds of improvements that would be common-sense if so many of us weren’t alienated and estranged by the demands of mainstream employment, and a culture increasingly dependent on a false dichotomy of career and consumption.