Review: The New Good Life

Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance or other book of interest. Also available is a complete list of the hundreds of book reviews that have appeared on The Simple Dollar over the years.

The New Good LifeI really enjoy it when an established author from another field writes a personal finance book because they often bring new perspectives to the table. Established personal finance writers tend to know their stuff, but they often also tend to just recycle things from book to book (not always, but sometimes).

John Robbins is a writer that typically focuses on health and food issues, authoring such titles as Food Revolution and Healthy at 100. Much like personal finance, health writing relies heavily on introspection and action from the reader; if the reader doesn’t take action, the book isn’t particularly useful.

The New Good Life focuses heavily on the idea of moving from conspicuous consumption to careful consumption, which is largely the same idea of many health books. The idea in both cases is to focus on what you’re consuming (buying or eating) with more care and forethought and with a few simple principles backing them up.

Rags and Riches
The book opens with Robbins recounting his life, which started out privileged but eventually included some trips into poverty and back out again. It’s very biographical, with a few pretty painful twists along the way (including losing a healthy chunk of his family’s money in a Madoff-operated pyramid scheme). The theme here is that money is fleeting. It’s the other things in life – values, morals, family – that remain constant.

Getting to Know Your Money Type
The idea of “money types” is something that pops up from time to time in personal finance books. They all follow along the same lines: different people look at money in different ways. Some see it as a resource, others see it as a gateway to pleasure, while others see it as a tool for power.

Four Steps to Financial Freedom
The steps are pretty straightforward and I agree with each of them. Know your net worth. Know your real hourly wage. Know where your money is going. Know the value of your life (which amounts to translating your real hourly wage into how many hours of work it takes to buy certain items). It’s essentially the philosophy from Your Money or Your Life wrapped up into a single chapter.

Wherever You LIve Is Your Temple – If You Treat It Like One
After the opening chapters, the book gets down to some nuts and bolts of personal finance, starting with home ownership (and rental). The biggest idea presented in the chapter is an impassioned argument for simply buying a smaller home. People have a tendency to think that they need much more square footage than they actually do, then when they move in, they find themselves motivated to fill all of that space with stuff that they don’t need. In other words, the costs eat you at both ends. If you can avoid that right off the bat, you’ll save money on both ends. There’s also an underlying environmental theme (a smaller house costs less in resources) that appears in other chapters.

Life Is Too Short for Traffic
Here, Robbins argues that it’s worthwhile to try to minimize the number of cars you own. Carpooling, car sharing, bicycling, using the metro system – all of these tactics can keep you from the huge expense of owning a car. Trimming down from three to two cars or two to one car or down to no cars at all can drastically improve your financial state with (depending on your lifestyle) little impact on your way of living. Again, there’s an environmental undertone here floating beneath the sensible financial numbers.

Eating Better, Spending Less
Robbins’ other writings come through here, as he is also a health/diet writer. His argument here is that you should use basic ingredients for your meals and try to focus on known healthy ingredients, like quinoa and sunflower seeds, as parts of your meal. The more you prepare food from scratch, particularly when you use healthy foods as part of the meal, the lower your food costs will be and the lower your health costs over the long term will be. After all, if you can eat a bunch of healthier meals at $6 a pop versus unhealthy meals at $4 a pop (with both being tasty), over the long run you’ll save money with the healthy meals due to avoided health care costs.

Kids: the Biggest Financial Decision of Your Life
Yes, children are expensive. However, a lot of the expenses of children are an outgrowth of the choices you make as a parent. If you are constantly hiring a babysitter so that you can go out every weekend, the costs will add up. If you’re hiring child care at a rate that approaches what you’re bringing home, you’re experiencing a net loss (because of the other things you can do if you stay home with a child). If you’re having multiple children, cloth diapers are a savings. If you’re buying clothes, try out consignment shops. The cost does not have to be bone-crunching and most children’s stuff can easily be re-used (see that environmental theme sneaking in again?).

Safe, Clean, and Natural
This chapter focuses almost entirely on economical and environmentally friendly methods for cleaning various items. Most of them boil down to using baking soda, vinegar, or peroxide for home cleaning purposes. Truly, you can take care of almost any home cleaning task using some combination of those three items.

The Economics of Happiness
The book closes with a lengthy argument that money doesn’t correlate with happiness. Instead, happiness has far more to do with what you value, the communities you’re involved in, the friendships you have, and so on. Money does not bring happiness.

Is The New Good Life Worth Reading?
The immediate comparison I have to make with this book is with Your Money or Your Life. Both books have a similar money philosophy and both books have a strong nod toward the environment.

What distinguishes the two, though? In my eyes, Your Money or Your Life is a more demanding book. It puts an imperative on you, the reader, to really re-evaluate your life, ask yourself what’s important, and make some hard choices. It truly encourages you to live a completely different life.

The New Good Life is more gentle. It seems to focus more on adaptations to the type of life that many people live today. It takes the philosophies in Your Money or Your Life and softens them.

Which is more valuable? I find Your Money or Your Life to be more inspirational and more useful in a “reboot your life” sense. If you’re looking for littler changes, The New Good Life is more fitting.

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