Review: Getting a Life

Each Friday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book.

getting a lifeI’ve been looking forward to reading this book for a while. Getting a Life is a pseudo-sequel to Your Money or Your Life, which I absolutely loved and have referred to countless times on The Simple Dollar. Although it’s written by different people, it’s endorsed by the authors of Your Money or Your Life and they wrote the introduction to this book.

So what’s different about Getting a Life? Rather than setting forward a conceptual plan, as Your Money or Your Life does, this book focuses on how people have applied the plan in their lives. Most of the people discussed – including the two authors, Jacqueline Blix and David Heitmiller – are people who defined the 1980s definition of “yuppie” in that they fit perfectly the luxury consumer-oriented upper middle class of today.

Does this book provide any revelations? It did, but not necessarily in the direct way that I expected. Let’s go through the book and see…

Digging Into Getting a Life

The book opens with an introduction by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, the authors of Your Money or Your Life, that offers an interesting argument for why thriftiness became “uncool” during the last half of the twentieth century, and most of it boils down to time famine and affluenza – in other words, a desperate sense of not having enough time and the desire to buy stuff to fill that hole. I basically agree with this argument, as I was basically a consumer spending addict not all that long ago and I still definitely feel that my life suffers from a time famine as I sit here at 4:30 AM writing this review.

1 – The Way We Were
The book opens with David and Jacque telling their stories of a life of overspending, coming from two completely different perspectives. Jacque started off in an upper middle class home with a father that held a white collar job, enjoying all of the trappings of that life and coming to expect such material lavishness. David, on the other hand, started off rather poor in a small town and held strong “back to earth” environmental principles, but eventually abandoned them after the death of his first wife. Reading the stories, I identified a lot with David, as much of the story sounded like the first few years of my professional life.

2 – Psychology of the Good Life
Of course, that lifestyle has some psychological downsides, and this chapter addresses those. Both Jacque and David found themselves with various negative feelings in relation to their lifestyle, from Jacque’s therapy to David’s continual need to keep finding bigger and better thrills. Over time, these aspects added up to a general malaise in their life, an overall sense that all of the material goals that they were chasing weren’t really filling any hole in their life.

3 – Seeds of Change
For both of them, the seeds of change were planted by watching friends and relatives pass away at a young age, requiring them to come face to face with their mortality. They also both realized that in order to maintain their lifestyle, they would both have to work until near the very end of their expected lives, leaving them no retirement to enjoy together. More specifically, Jacque began to really investigate aspects of consumer culture as part of her new job in academia and the conclusions of those investigations left her rather unnerved. This eventually led them both to discover, first, The Tightwad Gazette, and then Your Money or Your Life. This chapter, like the others, tells many stories beyond just that of Jacque and David, but they all had a common thread – somewhere in all of their lives, something had happened that had planted a seed of change, something I’ve really been digging into as of late.

4 – Before You Take the First Step
This chapter is basically a reader’s guide for how to approach Your Money or Your Life based on how a lot of others have read it before. The suggestions mostly revolve around reading it and trying things out that make sense to you first and not just blindly following the order given in the book, and also doing it together if you’re in a couple-based situation. I agree strongly with the latter and have been hinting at my wife to read the book with me sometime soon, although she’s already on board with most of the ideas presented.

5 – Stepping Through the Steps
This portion of the book is eighty eight pages in length, easily the longest chapter in the book. The length is largely due to the fact that it cut-and-pastes most of the highlights of Your Money or Your Life right into this chapter. In fact, if you wanted to just read that book in a nutshell, the highlighted sections of this chapter would do that for you. This chapter deals mostly with how different people have worked through the nine steps presented in Your Money or Your Life, offering tons of examples of what things look like for real people. If you are interested in the plan but really wish you could find others interested in following it, too, this chapter might really be a help.

6 – Your Money or Your Child’s Life
I found this to be the most enjoyable chapter in the book, mostly because I’m quite drawn lately to issues of personal finance dealing with children, as I have two of them at home with the oldest just starting to become aware of money and of the pervasiveness of consumer culture. The conclusion here is pretty clear, and had crossed my mind before: the principles of Your Money or Your Life are quite applicable to parenting. In fact, many of the changes I’ve made in my own life (and in the lives of the people in the chapter) were triggered by children – it is incredible to consider the sheer impact that a child can have on every aspect of your life.

7 – Who Am I Now?
Getting a Life really taps into an interesting underlying issue here, looking at how individuals define themselves. For many people in the United States, our job is the definition of who we are – and that is often a complete misrepresentation of who we actually are. Shouldn’t we define ourselves by our passion and where we’re moving with our long term goals? Lately, in non-professional conversations, I’ve come to refer to myself as a freelance writer, nodding to both this site, to MSN, and to a few other places. I’m not quite there yet to make it my livelihood, but it’s what I’m passionate about. Even though it’s not my primary employment (and that’s why I find myself writing at 4:30 AM), it is an employment and it is something I’m incredibly passionate about.

8 – Your Money and Your Health
This is perhaps the biggest leap in the book. Here, the argument is that getting your financial and personal life in order is incredibly valuable for your health, as it vastly reduces your stress and often improves the quality of the food you eat and the exercise that you get. While I agree with this in principle, I don’t think that living a simpler life is a direct route to better health. Better health is a series of choices that a person makes, often quite independent of other factors such as voluntary simplicity. I would agree that choosing a simpler life is one of those health-affirming choices, but I think it’s a bit overstated here.

9 – Simplifying Life
This is perhaps the most practical portion of the book, offering a huge number of very specific suggestions on how to live a simpler life. Some of these overlap with the suggestions from Your Money or Your Life, but many do not. What I found particularly interesting is that not all of the advice is strictly cheaper in terms of raw dollars and cents, but they all do lead towards a simpler existence. A few of the suggestions hint at other concerns as well, such as pointing towards organic products and hints of fair trade products and a blanket avoidance of “convenience foods.”

10 – The Way We Are
As the book begins to wind down, this tenth chapter gives an excellent picture of the impact of frugality on the financial lives of couples, even giving a balance sheet for their monthly and annual expenses. What these people have discovered – and show as clearly as can be shown in a book – is that frugality opens the door to countless opportunties in life. If you’re able to not spend much, then you’re not required to chase a high-salary job that stresses you out. Instead, you can chase other goals, ones that are more in line with your passions and talents.

11 – Getting and Having a Life
The book closes with a point that many people overlook when evaluating such major changes in life. Even though this plan offers a lot of benefits, it’s often still not very easy, and that’s because we’re human. We make mistakes, we tend to overanalyze at times and underanalyze at others, and we often trick ourselves into thinking we’re doing the right thing when we’re not. The key is to let it go – just try to live your life in the best way you understand, don’t worry about the small mistakes unless they become endemic, and practice making good decisions until they become natural to you.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

If you thought the pieces of Your Money or Your Life that talked about elements of the plan in the lives of others were incredibly powerful, Getting a Life is a must-read. While it wasn’t the amazing experience that the original book was, I found Getting a Life to be quite enjoyable on its own. Perhaps it’s because I enjoy reading about how others apply ideas in their own lives – and I enjoy writing about it too – but parts of this book really hit home for me.

On the other hand, if the real-life examples in Your Money or Your Life weren’t very powerful to you, you can skip Getting a Life. This book really does consist almost exclusively of discussions of how real people implemented Dominguez and Robin’s book, and if that sounds unappealing to you, this book is going to be a waste of time.

If you’ve never read either book, unquestionably read Your Money or Your Life first. While I found some pieces of this book to be quite powerful, it’s really only powerful in the sense that I was able to see how others had used Your Money or Your Life in their own lives. For that alone, I’m glad I read it, but the power wouldn’t have been there without reading the original first, thinking about it, and attempting to act on it.

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