In Oliver Stone’s iconic movie, Wall Street, Charlie Sheen plays a young hotshot in the stock market. At one point he shares a secret dream with his girl friend:
“I think if I can make a bundle of cash before I’m thirty and get out of this racket, I’ll be able to ride my motorcycle across China.”
Charlie Sheen’s character assumes that “a bundle of cash” is the only thing holding him back from his dream. But in reality, money is probably the easiest part of his equation.
In one of my favorite books called Vagabonding, the author Rolf Potts comments about this same movie scene:
“After all, Charlie Sheen or anyone could work for eight months as a toilet cleaner and have enough money to ride a motorcycle across China.”
This Wall Street hotshot and many of us miscalculate the real cost of our dreams. The real obstacle isn’t always money.
Instead, most of us lack options, flexibility, time, and the courage to move against the tide of our own society.
Ironically, the soul-sucking job that is supposed to buy Charlie Sheen’s dream is really the heavy ball and chain that keeps him from it.
My Escape to a Life of More Options
I first realized the power of more life options in 2009 at 29 years old. That year, in the depth of the Great Recession and real estate meltdown, I set out with my wife on a four-month odyssey. During this mini-retirement, we traveled through Spain, Peru, Patagonia, the tip of South America, and back up to Buenos Aires, Argentina.
We didn’t ride a motorcycle, although that would’ve been fun! Our preferred methods of transport were buses, taxis, and our own feet.
When we took this trip we were financially in good shape, but we had not yet reached full financial independence. And although we made good income leading up to this trip, we both could have made much more in other job opportunities.
What made this trip possible (and others since then – like our 17-month family trip to Ecuador in 2017-2018) were:
- Flexible sources of income (originally entrepreneurial jobs and eventually rental income)
- Low personal financial overhead (no personal debt except a small home mortgage)
- Simple (but still very comfortable) lifestyle
- Strong relationships with people at home to hold down the ship
This 2009 trip demonstrated to us what I think Charlie Sheen’s character could have learned:
The best experiences in life come from deliberate choices, simple ways of living, and close relationships, not just from “bundles of cash.”
Our 2009 trip opened our eyes to another world of possibilities. We decided to pursue a life of options instead of maximum wealth (although wealth was certainly still a goal).
Luckily, there were many unorthodox role models from the past and present to study. One of my favorites was Henry David Thoreau.
The Patron Saint of Simplicity
Henry David Thoreau is really the patron saint of choosing options over money. He has three quotes from the classic book Walden (or Life in the Woods) that distill the idea beautifully.
“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”
“Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessity of the soul.”
“I have in mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross [junk], but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters [shackles].”
[The bracketed comments are mine, because do you really know what “dross” or “fetters” are? I didn’t:)]
Thoreau called people with lots of stuff “impoverished.” He noticed it was these people who were shackled forever to jobs and cycles of production and consumption.
Now, I don’t suggest we all become hermits or anti-materialistic philosophers like Thoreau. But I do suggest that we notice the impact of our choices with money, stuff, and our jobs.
The mantra “more, more, more” has real costs. And pushing your dreams off until “someday” could push them off forever.
On the other hand, it is possible to make choices now that prioritize more options over more money.
More Options or More Money?
The message from Thoreau’s wisdom is to reconsider what really makes you happy. Then make daily choices that prioritize around your short-term and long-term happiness.
But the critical life choices aren’t always clear or easy. There are no guide books to tell you whether path A or path B is the right one. And you won’t always be supported by your employer, colleagues, or friends if you make the unpopular choice.
For example, as an employee you may be confronted with the choice to take a promotion and raise of $10,000. Or as a real estate entrepreneur, you may have an opportunity to do an extra real estate deal that earns another $20,000.
Is it right or wrong to say yes to these increases in money? Of course, it depends on where you are on your financial path.
Early in my career and wealth building journey, I often made the choice to take more money. And it was probably the right decision at the time.
But what did I trade for that money? And would that choice still make sense in the future?
It helped me to start playing a new game.
The New Game
“By switching to a new game … time becomes the only possession and everyone is equally rich in it by biological inheritance. Money, of course, is still needed to survive, but time is what you need to live.”
Ed Buryn, Vagabonding in Europe and North Africa
Time, that most precious of commodities, is constantly ticking away. You can always make more money. But your time is gone forever.
So, the new game puts time at the top of your priorities where it belongs.
I began playing this new game came in 2007 after reading The 4-Hour Workweek. 2007 also happened to be the busiest real estate year of my life when we bought dozens of new properties. It turns out that we made too many choices for money and not enough for life options.
After getting out of balance, my business partner and I decided to borrow another idea from The 4-Hour Workweek. We began simultaneously measuring our business and financial choices against three important currencies:
For example, our real estate business chose not to syndicate deals, take on outside investors, and make a lot more money. These “normal” real estate choices and their increased business complexity would rob us of too much personal time and mobility.
We also consciously built the structure of our landlording business to be lean and mobile. We decided against employees, an office, and overhead. Instead, we worked from home, created a paperless office, and outsourced work to contractors and other third parties.
And personally, my wife and I chose to drive embarrassing old cars and live-in fixer-upper houses. We also lived simply in other areas of our lives. The result was that we needed less money to support our lifestyle.
All of these choices meant less money for us. But as a result, our bank accounts of time and mobility began to overflow!
The Choice of Freedom
I don’t pretend that my choices are the same ones you should make. Life is too complex for simple cookie cutter formulas.
I share my own choices (and the results) simply to illustrate that making alternative choices is possible.
And my main point is that if you want to live an uncommonly amazing life full of options, you MUST make equally uncommon choices.
So, now it’s your turn.
More money? Or more options?
Which will you choose?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!
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