Updated on 09.15.14

Thoughts on Investing with Added Personal Value

Trent Hamm

A while back, I wrote about my best friend (besides my wife), John. John doesn’t spend money on frivolous things at all – he spends way less than he earns and is really careful with his money, saving up for the future. He lives in a very small apartment in a poor neighborhood, bicycles to work, and doesn’t engage in any expensive hobbies.

Until recently, he had been socking his money away in an ordinary savings account. He bought a few certificates of deposit along the way to increase his savings rate, but he was (and still is) pretty risk-averse. He had no interest in putting his money at risk.

Several months ago, he shocked me by announcing he had purchased twenty acres of undeveloped land within driving distance of Des Moines, a pretty serious investment. Given how risk-averse John was with his money, the purchase really surprised me – he never struck me as a real estate developer.

Recently, he invited my family down to the land to camp for the weekend – he had wanted to “clean it up” some before we checked it out.

We were really impressed.

It turns out that John spends many of his free evenings down on this patch of land, clearing away brush, building walking trails in the wooded area, and building a small camping area. He built a picnic table there and a fire ring and made nice piles out of the brush he had cut, perfect for small campfires.

The majority of the land is a large, fairly flat prairie, with a small creek on one edge of the land and woodlands covering perhaps a third of the land. As we hiked all over the land (with our kids in tow), John kept pointing out all of the things he had done to improve things. He had cut back poison vines here, cleared brush there, made a trail here, collected berries there, and so on.

It was obvious he was thoroughly enjoying the land.

I asked him about his long-term plans with it. He has a “ten year plan” for the land that involves starting with a large shed in which to store equipment, followed by everything he would need to put on the land for it to be wholly self-sustaining: a wind turbine or two, geothermal heating, a well, a large garden, and so on. He intends on paying for each piece with cash. Eventually, he intends to build a cabin of some sort, then a larger home after that, building as much of it himself as he can.

Even more notable, he intends to pay for every step along the way with cash.

It’s obviously going to be a good investment. A nice, self-sustainable home within driving distance of Des Moines and plenty of fairly cultivated woodlands all around will have some serious value in ten or fifteen years. If John chooses to live there forever, he’s got a great situation around himself. If he chooses to start the whole process again because he enjoys the work in his spare time, he can sell the whole thing and get started with a nice bankroll.

The real value, though, is that John is really enjoying the investment. Being outside and working on the land like this is his hobby. The cash he put into the land might return him a nice financial profit someday – or it might not. But it’s returning him a very large personal happiness return right now.

To me, that’s a great investment. I don’t care about whether he gets a 1% return or a 10% return on his money from this. What matters is that he’s enjoying that investment. It’s bringing joy into his life in a way that a chunk of money in the stock market could never do.

When Sarah and I drove away from there, we both couldn’t help but think of our dreams of owning a home in the country. While I don’t have the passion for building that John does, I certainly have a lot of passion for the natural beauty of living in an area like that, where the only houses in view are on the horizon.

The return you get from an investment isn’t always represented in dollars and cents. Sometimes an investment can return a lot more than that.

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  1. PJA says:

    Well said!

  2. Dan says:

    This is pretty much exactly what I want to do!

    Of course, I’m still in the dream/research phase as I’m still digging out from under….but when the last debt is paid off, this is what I’m saving for!

    My only hang ups I’ve been experiencing are these;

    1)some places I’ve looked require you to develop (build something permanent) on the land within a certain time frame (5-10 years)
    2)some of the places I’ve looked at are being ‘sucked’ up already by people like your friend John. I’m sweating under the gun to get the debt paid off so that I can ‘afford’ to buy the land. It’s so tempting to want to try to finance it now simply because it’s probably at the best price historically it will ever be.
    3)convincing my wife that this is a good direction to strive for

    Congrats to John. Trent, if you like nature even in the smallest, an investment like this pays infinite returns…especially for your children.

  3. Amy says:

    I obviously don’t know your friend — since I don’t *really* even know you! — but I’m really happy for him. He’s worked hard, he’s saved money, and he’s going to have something amazing to show for it. And he’s enjoying it, as you say. Bonus!

  4. What a fantastic way to look at investing – a great investment should be one that you enjoy, and whose returns aren’t necessarily measurable in dollars and cents!
    As a recently laid off, soon-to-be parent I am having to make some financial decisions right now that will certainly affect our short-term future, but also potentially our long-term financial stability. I stumbled onto your blog while looking for ideas to manage my finances better, and must say that I love it!

  5. et says:

    This sounds exactly like what my husband would like to do. Actually, we did something similar already, buying 2 10-acre plots of bare land & doing 95% of the work ourselves putting in citrus orchards on each; paid off the land loans as quickly as possible & everything else paid with cash. Next up, we are planning to relocate to a better area in a few years & I’m hoping we can buy a house near the city plus some acreage farther our for my husband to work on the way John has. He (the DH) is always happiest (when not hiking or skiing) if he’s, planning, constructing, or working in the dirt.

  6. J says:

    Will he also be authoring his manifesto? :)

    Hats off to your friend, though, he’s going about this is a calm and controlled manner and thinking things through instead of going for instant gratification. Good for him.

  7. Michael says:

    That sounds fantastic. Good for him.

  8. Brilliant article and very inspiring. I wish I had the handy skills, like John. I would agree that in terms of happiness and security, you are quite correct that this is a tremendous investment and it would be better if we all thought this way.

  9. Suzy says:

    Good Morning. I want to be John. What a refreshing start to my day. Thank you again Trent.

  10. fulanoche says:

    Bravo! He could probably turn it into a campground business, offering workshops, getaways, etc. for those who want to learn more about self-efficiency.
    With a bit of Tom Sawyer, he might get some things accomplished sooner than planned.
    BTW, I like your blog.

  11. Exactly!!!!

    While his plan isn’t what I would ever want, it shows that investments in our happiness are worth it… Whether it pays financial dividends in the end or not.

    Money is rather useless unless we’re using it for something… And, one would hope, something that makes you happy.

  12. StackingCash says:

    I wish I could do what your friend does. That lifestyle is pretty idyllic. But until something cataclysmic happens, I’ll probably remain a lazy city dweller.

  13. AnnJo says:

    I don’t think what John is doing can be called “investing” even though it has the potential to realize a return, but it is exactly the point of saving and investing – to be able to do what you want with your life without burdening others. Thank you for an upbeat story. Among the tales of foreclosures and bankruptcy, it’s nice to be reminded of what great opportunities are really out there!

  14. Kevin M says:

    Sounds awesome, I’ve been following a guy that did a similar thing in Maine on countryplans dot com. Built himself an earth-berm home with a couple friends on weekends/holidays.

    Seems like your friend John had a plan, stuck to it and is now reaping the benefits. If he would allow it, maybe some pictures he progresses?

  15. brad says:

    awesome post. third time ive read it today. left me daydreaming all morning at work.

    @ #10

    pictures would be amazing.

  16. This guy (John) is an inspiration. Not just because of what he did by buying the land, but because it seems he made a decision at some point in his life that no one would own him.

    Trent, you said that even before buying the land, he lived beneath his means, lives in a poor neighborhood, keeps his money in the bank. That’s the real story here, the purchase of the land is just an extension of his lifestyle.

    This is probably a guy who isn’t worried about losing his house in foreclosure, isn’t worried about which way the stock market is heading, isn’t worried about creditors and, since he’s cash rich and has no debt, he’s probably not terribly worried about losing his job either. Since he lives in a poor neighborhood, he obviously has little concern what people might think of him.

    Does he do seminars?

  17. Tolbert Ennis says:

    Maybe John’s approach should be the model we all follow. Perhaps we should all save money to buy land, hopefully in cash, and then pay for all improvements in cash. I like this so much more than the massive mortgage debt approach. I wonder if perhaps John could somehow move onto his land and live there now. Love his story. Wish it was what I had done. Hooray for John!

  18. tentaculistic says:

    Yeah, I’ve been looking at land lately for that reason. Mountain view land in Colorado, 10-30 acres, for ~$30,000. It just doesn’t seem to be in the cards for this point in my life though, there are other directions to take. But gosh, it’s a nice fantasy…

  19. This story could have been about my buddy, Noah. He is following the EXACT same path. He bought 10 acres of forested property on an island in Washington last year. Several times a year, we get a bunch of friends together and go camping for a long weekend and work on projects.

    To date, we’ve erected a storage awning, built a bunch of tent platforms, built a RAM pump from the creek to supply water to the camping site and, my favorite, built a wood fired hot tub that we fill up with the pump. And we’re only getting started!

    His investment in this project isn’t just bringing him joy, it’s bringing all of his friends joy too as we all get a kick out of traveling out there to help him develop it.

  20. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    I will request that John writes a guest post about his land and what he plans to do with it.

    With pictures.

  21. Ward says:

    This is pretty much what I did. My wife and I bought the land in late 2002 and we finished the house late last year, doing the majority of the labour ourselves. We did the whole project cash. The house was built to be highly energy efficient and we hope to add a solar electric system in the near future (not enough wind for a turbine). We started the gardens this spring. It’s great to be 100% debt free.

  22. Aaron says:

    He is living my dream!

    Tyler: Love the wood fired hot tub!

  23. PS says:

    If you build a house in a deserted area with no-one around, then aren’t you susceptible to robbers who can just break into your house and it would take for the security to reach there forever.

  24. Molly says:


    I’m jealous. Very very jealous.

  25. BirdDog says:

    Your friend John sounds like how I want to be in ten to 15 years. I have a piece of land back home that I work on when I get the chance. One of these days it will have a cabin on it, paid for in cash.

  26. mockum says:

    I bought 40 acres 25 miles outside of a Des Moines size town in ’97 and, except for bad weather, I’ve been out there one day nearly every weekend planting trees clearing brush etc. Getting out of the ‘burbs is good for the soul and is great excercise!

    One should not think, though, that the land will appreciate much in value even if it is close to population centers. Large parcels of land follow a different bizarre economics. Only if the parcel is subdividable will it appreciate much in value. Or, obviously, if significant improvements are made like building a house.

    Commenter PS is right about robbers. I haven’t even built a shed because I know people regularly come onto my property. I have had mature trees cut down and hauled off and gates stolen. Until the land is lived on, trespassing and theft is pretty common for rural property.

  27. Marsha says:

    Ask John to start a blog. I’d love to read about his progress!

  28. Brittany says:

    Amazing! I reiterate Molly’s post (#18).

    John doesn’t happen to have a younger, like-minded brother, does he?

  29. valletta says:

    “The return you get from an investment isn’t always represented in dollars and cents.”

    I would respectfully say a good investment is almost never represented in dollars and cents. It’s measured in happiness, in goodness spread to others. (Yes, we all want a nice return, etc. No argument there)

    You don’t take it with you.
    Money is a tool, a path, a way.
    I’ve known too many people who have died rich (in $) and bitter, angry, unhappy.
    Frugal is one thing (I am). But having a huge bank account on your death bed, while not doing things you would have enjoyed in life, is no virtue. (If you’ve done them AND have said account, all’s good :)

  30. Holly R says:

    Very inspirational. As someone who has lived in Des Moines my entire life, I must say that I’m extremely jealous but very happy for John! And you’re right–should he develop the land as he plans, it will be worth some serious cash in a few years.

  31. plonkee says:

    Wow. Not possible for me of course – that would probably never get planning permission in the UK. Just goes to show what you can do outside overcrowded countries.

  32. anne says:

    re: post #15-

    i can’t wait!!

  33. Valletta (22)–So very well said (well, written)!

    I’ve known enough people who fit the rich, angry, bitter, unhappy mold to know that it ain’t all about money! And yes, a lot of them postpone living right up to the grave!

    I sometimes think we like to believe it’s all about money, since putting a price on everything, including happiness, is so convenient. It’s a way of measuring ourselves against the bar, so to speak, and as a way to compare ourselves to others in an objective way.

    But it’s also worth mentioning that not all the bitter, unhappy types have money. Poor people are often in the same emotional state, it’s just that it seems to disturb our equilibrium to think that a person can have money and be unhappy in any way.

    You said it best, money is a tool. If you live like money is a destination, you’re probably bound for heartache. Notice that John in the post lives beneath his means, but uses his accumulation to acquire what he truly wants. Money and frugality are tools.

  34. David Galloway says:

    This seems to be a plan that a lot of us are thinking about or getting ready to implement, kind of a “New Roadmap” aka YMOYL.

    Hopefully I’ll get our land in the next five years then proceed down a similar path. I’d love to actually create a campground at a scenic place and work that into a sustainable income.

  35. Lenore says:

    Sounds like John has the skills, drive and desire to make this work for him. My brother, on the other hand, had no business buying rural acreage here in Southern Illinois. The land is an hour’s drive from where he lives, and he’s very busy working full time and raising kids. He doesn’t really have talent or energy to clear brush or make improvements, so I fear the investment will ultimtely be a failure. It’s easy to dream about a country escape, but I think he has regrets and would most like to escape his decision.

  36. Becky says:

    I shared John’s story with my brand new husband, of 1 month and 4 days, at lunch this afternoon. I love it and I too was inspired like so many of the others who posted here.

    My husband is a cash man. Everything. Cash. And, I love him for it! He just wonders why I had to read a story about “John” to get on the cash boat.

  37. Nate says:

    This is very true. Now, let’s hope John’s plans can become a reality. Let’s hope government allows him to build himself a shed on his own land, and then gives him permission to build his own cabin and larger home, and then permission to occupy it. And then, hopefully, he continues to have a revenue stream in order to pay the constantly increasing tax placed upon this beautifully groomed piece of property (since it will increase do to his desire and effort to better his surroundings). Let us hope… for if he fails to do such, everything John has worked hard for… put his time, energy and talents into… will be taken from him by force. Gone. Is this freedom? Do we live in a free society? Is this a free country? Or, because of our apathy and ignorance, are we all becoming subjects of a tyrannical government; sheep before ravaging wolves? I would submit that government is no longer protecting our rights, but has become the primary violator of them, under the guise of “protecting” us.

    Surely this is the reason George Washington warned us against the dangers of too much government when he said, “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”

    Unfortunately, this scenario has been playing out for a lot longer than the current “administration”, and will continue until we start to recognize the threat to our liberty, get educated, stand up and do something. Freedom is meant to be enjoyed, so it’s difficult to blame people for not being interested in carrying the torch of liberty at the expense of a little free time. But, everyone will be interested when freedom is gone completely… and it’s too late to do anything about it.

    “When they took the 4th Amendment, I didn’t say anything because I don’t deal drugs.
    When they took the 6th Amendment, I didn’t say anything because I’m innocent.
    When they took the 2nd Amendment, I didn’t say anything because I don’t own a gun.
    Now they have taken the 1st Amendment, and I can’t say anything.”
    (Modified slightly from the original quote by Lyle Myhr.)

    One of my favorite quotes by Mark Twain is this: “In the beginning of change, the patriot is a scarce man, and brave, and hated and scorned. When his cause succeeds, the timid join him, for it costs nothing to be a patriot.”

    On a positive note, however (sorry, I don’t mean to be so doom and gloom, but these are the facts), John’s enjoyment is exactly what the Founders were referring to when they spoke of “the pursuit of happiness” being one of our rights, granted by God, emphasized in The Declaration of Independence. And if property rights were indeed granted by our Creator, then Government cannot take them away, for such rights are inalienable. They cannot even be given away.

    Thanks for sharing! That was a good read, and very similar, if not exactly what we plan to do. Now, if I’d have only woken up a decade ago.

  38. LC says:

    Does everyone need his or her own personal campground, when there are so many nice state parks? At least in California, there are so many nice public facilities. Often, you don’t even notice the other campers, and prices are very affordable. I cannot bring myself to do something like John has done knowing that it would never compete price-wise with what is already available. Sure, it is nice to blow some money on some fun once in a while — I thought that what nice hotels were for?

  39. Liane says:

    This is terrific. I am looking forward to a guest post from John. He sounds like a very well-grounded guy who knows what he wants and appreciates what it can take to get there. Hope he writes soon!

  40. Melinda (Aussie-Girl) says:

    Well done John!
    Love the cash idea only!

    Big to differ about the chunk of money in stock though, Trent.
    Just taken my FIRST ever sale/profit on the Aussie stockmarket of a very basic but clear couple of hundred $.

    I’m over the Moon!

    It’s taken me a couple years of interesting research! I’ve had & continue to have so much fun & I spend the time/money when it’s available without depleting emergency funds.
    Plus, it’s good for the mathematical side of my brain which desperately needs re-training………

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