An Interview With Vicki Robin

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 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!

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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