Updated on 09.19.14

An Interview With Vicki Robin

Trent Hamm

Author of "Your Money or Your Life"

ymoylVicki Robin is one of the authors of Your Money or Your Life, the personal finance book that, more than any other, influenced how I think about personal finance and how it relates to how people live their lives.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Vicki and ask her a few questions about Your Money or Your Life and other related endeavors. I hope you enjoy her answers!

If someone were to walk away from “Your Money or Your Life” with just one idea in their head, what would you like that idea to be?

If people walk away with one idea I would pick “money is life energy”. We live in a financial, economic and money system that to most of us is incomprehensible, out of our control and unfair – yet vital to our survival. Seeing money this way, we are stuck in the scramble to get some of that thing out there into our wallets so we can get what we want and need. In reaction to that, we develop ideas about what money means – prestige, power, bad, good, a tool of the devil, evidence of God’s blessings, helpful, harmful. our daily transactions with the pieces of paper and metal and plastic in our wallets are distorted by these unconscious – so doubly powerful – emotionally-charged ideas. Plus we live inside a collective delusion that more is always better (more stuff, money, prestige, power, love, etc.) – which drives us to stress, clutter and debt, never having questioned that assumption or discovered how much is enough for us. When you understand money as YOUR life energy, the hours of your life you invest to put dollars in your wallet, you translate it into something knowable… and limited: the hours of your life. This transforms spending because you see everything from a cup of coffee to a new car in terms of “does this merit the hours of my life invested to get it” rather than “I want it, I deserve it, everyone else has one, expense be damned i’ll put it on my credit card.”

What is the biggest change in the overall message of the book since it was first printed?

Our original emphasis was on using the steps of the program to retire early so you can liberate your life energy for your true purpose. The people who’ve done this using the 9-step program have gone on to stellar lives of service and creativity, unleashed from the need to make their dreams make money. Over the years I’ve seen that everyone gets something from doing the steps, even if they don’t retire early. The original title of the seminar was “Transforming your relationship with money and achieving financial independence” and i’ve come to see that there are two parts to this powerful whole systems approach: there’s transformation and there’s independence. The transformation of your thinking and behavior with money doesn’t necessarily lead to exiting paid employment. People change to less lucrative but more fulfilling jobs. People go to half time, take sabbaticals, change professions, move to less expensive areas, engage in barter and even stick with their jobs but do them more boldly. All of this comes from the transformation. For me, the first definition of “financial independence” we give in the book – FI thinking or liberating your mind from the thrall of the consumer culture – is the crucial step that leads wherever the individual chooses to go.

Since the book was first printed, society has changed quite a bit with the advent of the internet, the advent of globalization, and so on. How do you think the big changes in society over the last decade or two have affected the message of “Your Money or Your Life”?

The current economic meltdown only makes FI thinking and practices more important. The distortions in the larger system are becoming daily more apparent, and a proven pathway to a more balanced relationship with money, getting out of debt, having savings and putting values and people (not money) first is crucial. I hope people simply learn to steward all their resources well, to attend to what has true value, to view frugality as freedom, integrity and self-respect. This isn’t an “alternative way of life” – it is a sane way of life and the way humans have lived for millenia… and will again.

One common problem that people have is that their spending tends to closely match their income level – if they earn more, they spend more. This makes reaching the long-term goals of “Your Money or Your Life” very difficult. Do you have any thoughts on avoiding this trap?

Not to be coy, but doing the steps in Your Money or Your Life leads naturally to avoiding the trap of ratcheting up spending in tandem with rising income. In the fifth step people set up a charting system (we suggest posting it on your wall) to see visually the trends of income and expenses over time. When you confront the fact that you are spending more than you earn month in month out it induces a natural desire to save. One practice that can help is delaying impulse buying. Go ahead and want it – the jar of chocolate syrup, the flat screen TV – and then walk out of the store. if you still want it in a week, consider buying it. Another practice would be to ask, “What else could I spend these dollars on.” Often when we impulse buy just because we can, we fail to realize there is a trade off – that some other way of spending resources is sacrificed.

How exactly do you judge the influence of “Your Money or Your Life”? What have you looked for over the years to see that it (and the overall program) has had an impact?

Of course it’s hard to know. Overall book sales (somewhere around 3/4 million in English, and more with translation into 10 languages and with it being for a long time the most requested book in the US library system) is one measure. The fact that everywhere I go I meet people who say the same thing: “Thank you. This book changed my life.” Ranking on Amazon is some evidence of current sales. Upon the reissue shot up to nearly the top 100 and now hovers in the top 1000. Before the reissue it was normally in the top 2000 – and that’s 16 years after initial publication. You could measure the number of other books that cite Your Money or Your Life (according to Amazon it’s 150). I feel very satisfied to have had the privilege of participating in all of this. I feel humbled by it – perhaps it’s Joe’s (Joe Dominguez, author of Your Money or Your Life and architect of the program, who passed away in 1997) program and my way of explaining it, but every person who thanks me is simply acknowledging their own hard work.

The New Road Map Foundation is mentioned in the back of Your Money or Your Life, but I confess to being unfamiliar with what it does. Could you tell me a bit about the NRMF and how it might be useful to someone figuring out their financial and personal future?

Joe, I and others created New Road Map Foundation in 1984 as basket to take in money from our teaching and – without retaining any money for ourselves – give it away to organizations concerned with a sustainable future. The design was to give people practical tools and perspectives to transform and liberate themselves in three areas: money, relationships and health – and to financially support others supporting the sustainability shift. Joe died in 1997, I stepped down from leadership in 2006 and now a new team of people has created several resources to help people do and teach the program. You can find them at http://www.financialintegrity.org/. I am no longer associated with NRM.

What are you currently involved with?

I was diagnosed with cancer 5 years ago which prompted me to reevaluate how I spend my own life energy. I’m well now, and perhaps in part because I dance every week, I’m in a choir, I’ve started an improvizational theater team and I’ve moved to a small town on an island and love so many aspects of community life. One of my main projects has been Transition Whidbey, whose purpose is to ‘catalyze our community to work together towards greater self-sufficiency in food, energy and economics (and everything else) in light of the major climate and resource shifts. ” I think the transition/relocalization process is the FI program writ large as a community. You take stock (map local assets – from food production to businesses), measure flows (understand where food and energy and products come from and go so you can maximize well-being for everything spent), evaluate, adjust, seek well-being and joy and community over isolation and stress and maximizing income production, and then refine all of this over time with greater productivity and conservation and mutuality. It’s a crucial need for a changing world – and working together with others on something challenging and meaningful is the most fun game in town. Also, I just finished the tour for the reissue of YMOYL and enjoyed the speaking so much I hope to do more – some corporate, some non profit and some college campuses. Any takers?

Most of these questions came directly from Twitter followers of The Simple Dollar – thanks for your help!

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  1. Steven says:

    I started reading this book not too long ago and I can tell that the message contained within is a very powerful one. I like that it offers a different perspective about the cost of money in a person’s life. How exciting that you were able to interview the author!

  2. Jack says:

    Trent, thanks for posting this interview with Vicki! Her book was truly the catalyst that started my financial turnaround. I am considering checking the new version out from my local library as I hear that they have updated the investment chapter…which, as I recall, was a little bit dated.

  3. Frugal Dad says:

    Trent, thanks for sharing your chat with Vicki. Your Money or Your Life changed my life, and I am so grateful Vicki and Joe were able to document their philosophy before Joe passed away. The life energy concept is what flipped the switch for me.

  4. SJ says:

    That was a really nice read! Thanks for posting!

    I think the first two paragraphs hit the most with me, money as life energy. It also meshes well w/ other ideas, compounding/leveraging (Not investing your life energy directly to generate more..)

  5. IRG says:

    Great interview Trent. Thanks

    Totally agree that “money is life energy” is the big takeaway. But I take it a step further.

    It’s not just how you spend your money, but what you do to make it. And that’s where I and others are still struggling. It’s my life energy and no matter that you focus on the end result of your efforts, if you spend your days with people who make work a living hell, it’s just not worth it.

    It’s never the work, it’s the people and the politics. I’ve had the great fortune to work with wonderful people and the misfortune to work with the truly awful (sorry, it’s a judgment but that’s how it felt). The former are preferred, but they are the rare exception. Interestingly, almost all of the great bosses, managers left the corporate world (they could not take the way people were mistreated and the fact that they would have had to be less than fair to workers) and went off on their own. Sorry to say, but kind, compassionate people really don’t “fit” any longer in the work world.

    Real freedom isn’t just freedom from debt, it’s the freedom from having to work with people and organizations that drain your life energy to make enough to life sanely.

    If saving and shaving spending allows you to have freedom of choice in where, how you work, and with whom, that, to me, is the ultimate freedom and purpose of having and managing money. Personal freedom to be able to say “NO.”

    Vicki’s comment reminds me of the Thoreau quote:
    “The cost of something is measured by how much life you have to give for it.”

    When you start viewing all that you think about buying, and all that you have, it really helps you focus on what is and isn’t worth having.

    Less may not always be more. But more is definitely not always better.

    FYI: Saw some article recently that said the Simple Dollar was among the top five financial blogs. Glad to hear it. You’ve got great stuff.

  6. Simon says:

    Thanks for the great interview. Like you Trent this is singularly the most powerful book I have read to date as part of my financial transformation. Calculating my true hourly wage has been a real eye opener and has shown me that one isn’t necessarily better off with a high income if there are excessive costs associated with it. That’s very empowering in terms of the freedom it can bring to try new, different things.

  7. Valerie says:

    Thanks for posting about this book again – I need to locate and re-read it. Time for a little recharging!

  8. Keivn says:

    I read the original version of this book (obtained thru a used bookstore) about three years ago. I was facing some serious financial challenges at the time and the message Joe and Vicki passed on through the book absolutely floored me. I absolutely cannot understand why their approach hasn’t taken over financial management.

    Like any good book, even if you are familiar with it, it bears re-reading from time to time to refresh yourself on the ideas and bring you back to the basics. That Vicki has updated it gives even more reason for re-reading.

    Thanks to you for sharing this this interview, Vickie (and Joe, wherever your are) for developing and promoting this concept.

  9. J Brown says:

    Great idea on the interview. It is another method of getting this terrific book’s message heard. I will be looking forward to some more “10 Books that Changed my life” author interviews.

  10. KJ says:

    Vicki, thanks for giving an interview to Trent so that I got a chance to read your responses! Your book’s changed my life profoundly. : )

  11. Pennie says:

    Loved your discussion about YMOYL!

    This book set my life on a powerfully different course back when it first came out–I singularly give credit to Vicki and Joe for my ability to create a immensely rewarding and productive life, retiring from paid work “outwardly simple, inwardly rich” (and F13) in 2007 at 47 years old.

    The investment chapter had become a bit dated, so I was pleased to hear that an updated version of the book has recently been released!

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  12. Cheryl says:

    I read this book 10 years ago and the money=life energy struck a chord with me. Now, 10 years later, I am working part time (by choice), and have everyting I need with no debt. I am also looking forward to paying my last mortgage payment (this month!). Thank you Trent for the interview, and thank you Vicki for your words of wisdom.

  13. Robyn says:

    I too loved this book and the philosophy and tangible steps it provided. I’ve always had one issue with it though and I wonder if it could be addressed here – it’s been awhile, but it seems to me that when Joe began this project, he had been a Wall Street banker in the ’60s and was able to save up $100,000 to become financially independent following the steps outlined in the book. I got the impression he was a single person too at that time. These factors are big head starts for someone embarking on FI and could be a bit daunting to someone not coming from a high paying job already. I wonder how have others with average incomes been able to relate to this? Granted the steps are still applicable to anyone, but much easier for someone with a high salary.
    (My apologies if I have the circumstances incorrect).

  14. Roger says:

    Interesting interview, with plenty of good points discussed. Yet another reason for me to find ‘Your Money of Your Life’ and read it soon.

  15. Ken says:

    Hi Robyn,

    I thought I’d try to respond to your question.

    The most important lessons I learned from this book was to see the cost of material goods as my time (i.e money = time) and to align my expenses with my morals/desires/what’s important to me.

    That lesson can be learned by anyone no matter how much money they make. And that lesson will show you how little you actually need to spend to “get” the things that you really want.

    Although coming from a different philosophy, Jacob over at earlyretirementextreme.com is trying to accomplish the same thing, but by drastically reducing his expenses. The end goal is the same; the means is definitely more drastic.

    Another perspective is from Chris at chrisguillebeau.com. The Art of Nonconformity focuses “on three areas: Life, Work, and Travel.” I guess it doesn’t truly fit into my post, but I wanted to… Anyway, Chris has some very interesting ideas how to live your life in a different fashion that the standard cookie cutter life.

    In the end, it comes done to what you truly want and how you can accomplish that while minimizing the side distractions that all tend to get bogged down in.

    What do you truly want?

  16. Curt says:

    Interesting interview. I just got a copy of the new book and am excited to read.

  17. Stacey says:

    I read YMOYL in my early twenties and it also changed my life. I’m now in my late thirties and I work a part-time job I love, my husband stays home with our child and devotes a lot of time to political and community organiziing, our only debt is a small mortgage and we live simply and very happily – all choices we made based on the wisdom I gleaned from YMOYL. I was so happy to see this interview – thanks for sharing!

  18. Lou says:

    So where can we ” find them at…”???

    Please include this info in your next post!

    In my e-mail version, the next line was an ad for you-really-need-a-budget, which I don’t think is the site Vickie was talking about.

    Thanks for interviewing her. That book changed my life and is the reason sudden disability didn’t leave me homeless and helpless.

  19. conny says:

    this really rang with my own views of stuff for time ( instead of amount of money for time) I made my biggest mistake in this case during the 80:s…
    (and is still paying for it)

    Wisdom comes at a cost of the mistakes we made.

  20. Very cool interview. This book is what started it all for me. It not only got me interested in personal finance, but also got me more interested in making the most out of life in general.
    Great post!

  21. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    I fixed the link to the New Road Map Foundation. Thanks to those who pointed out the broken link!

  22. brooke says:

    thank you trent and thank you vicki!

  23. Omorinsola says:

    This book has been life changing for me and I am reading it for the second time!

    In December 2007 I had six weeks to decide if I would return to a job I HATED when I was lead to YMOYL. March 6 will mark one year that I quit my job. I have been working PT with full medical benfits since June 2008. I realize that God is my infinite supply, not a JOB (Just Over Broke)!

    Continued Blessings

  24. Weston says:

    By far one of the two or three most influential books I have ever read. For me there were two big take aways that I will always carry with me.

    1. Money = life energy that Vicki speaks about.

    2. The concept of determining what is “enough” for me, coupled with the idea that those who can not determine what is “enough” are condemning themselves to eternal poverty since they will always want more than they have

  25. Deborah says:

    I read YMOYL in 1996 when I was attending community college on the GI Bill. The take-away message for me was the idea of tracking monthly income, expenses, and the FI point at which expenses are met by non-wage sources. The chart on the back of my bathroom door now contains 13 years worth of monthly tracking. Most exciting is that every month – with occasional exceptions – I can see the income and expense lines getting further apart and the expense line getting ever closer to the FI line. That chart is a powerful way to keep my goal in mind on a daily basis. I recommend it!

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