"Your Money or Your Life" co-author Vicki Robin at her home in Langley, Wash., on Sept. 17.
"Your Money or Your Life" co-author Vicki Robin at her home in Langley, Wash., on Sept. 17. (David Ryder/for The Washington Post)

Opinion Why this 1992 personal finance book still has a cult following

When I told Vicki Robin I wanted to visit her at her home on Whidbey Island, in Puget Sound just north of Seattle, she told me it might be difficult: She could offer me only a foldout sofa. She was renting out her guest rooms below market rate, she said, to people who needed housing.

I laughed. The woman who once famously lived with her companion on about $1,000 per month didn’t want me or The Post — owned by Jeff Bezos, one of the richest people in the world — to pay for a hotel?

Before the hustle economy and the “Great Resignation,” there was Robin and her partner, Joe Dominguez. Their book “Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence,” published 30 years ago this fall, asked us to take control of our financial and work lives by eschewing mindless spending and instead concentrating on what matters, such as family, friends and hobbies.

The book is a thought-provoking mix of common-sense financial advice, philosophical exploration and scathing critique — of both consumer culture and the way we allow work to dominate our lives. It is an argument that, in many ways, foreshadowed our times.

Yet today, “Your Money or Your Life” — which still sells thousands of copies a year — is rarely mentioned in the context of our current labor moment. Instead, its legacy is mostly celebrated by the tech-bro-heavy, more apolitical FIRE movement — that’s Financial Independence, Retire Early. Adherents have embraced the frugal philosophy and desire for freedom, but not the book’s greater ambitions.

Robin appreciates her younger acolytes but is concerned that a vital piece of her message has been lost in translation. The FIRE iteration, she says, is often “absent any social or political critique.” But “Your Money or Your Life” was never supposed to be just a self-help guide to saving your own financial life. For Robin, the vision 30 years ago — and the one she still believes in today — was always about how to rescue us all.

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Robin, now 77, and Dominguez came out of 1960s alternative counterculture, embracing its critique of American consumerism as a personally and environmentally destructive force. Dominguez, a Wall Street analyst, calculated he would need to save $100,000 and invest it in government bonds to live modestly on the passive income it generated for the rest of his life. When he came up with that sum, he resigned.

The heart of “Your Money or Your Life” is a formula — devised by Dominguez, who died in 1997 — to seize control of our destinies by reexamining what work really costs us, spiritually and literally. How much do we spend commuting? How much do we spend on clothes for the office? How much do we spend on fancy vacations, or fancier cars, so we can tolerate our lives? Subtract that out, and you’ve calculated your real hourly wage, the true amount you are selling your days on Earth for. “We aren’t making a living, we’re making a dying,” wrote Dominguez and Robin.

If this sounds familiar, it should. During the pandemic, millions trapped in offices or in break-even, low-wage jobs came to similar conclusions.

“There’s a lot of blather about meaningful work and purpose in life,” Robin tells me. “It’s dangled out as a carrot, and I don’t know how many people actually get to do that.”

But the steps “Your Money or Your Life” recommends are different than the ones undertaken by most recent job hoppers. Instead of finding a better-paying position, the book argues for a different solution: to radically cut back. “Spending money is not an assertion of your freedom. It is the key to your next enslavement,” Robin tells me.

This kind of anti-materialism message was once common on the left. But as inequality soared, it fell into disfavor among many concerned with social justice. It’s a lot easier to preach giving up on conspicuous consumption when it’s an active choice, not a necessity.

Still, that didn’t mean the idea went away. There’s forever a strain in American thought that’s suspicious of our society’s avaricious tendencies. There are Puritans and Quakers, transcendentalists and Shakers, beatniks and practitioners of voluntary simplicity like Robin.

FIRE is another such movement. It emerged out of the foreclosure crisis and the stock market boom that followed. Robin is, to many in FIRE, an OG of the movement — they discovered “Your Money or Your Life,” and began discussing it on blogs and Reddit forums.

Many FIRE followers argue almost anyone can, with enough willpower, save and invest enough money to live without working full time. But it is a movement that reflects our more solipsistic, dog-eat-dog time. Few adherents express concern about our decaying government safety net. The issues it raises — say, health-care costs — are presented as a financial, not societal, problem to solve. It is, at its base, about looking out for yourself.

The United States, it is said, is a place where the luxuries are cheap but the necessities expensive. It’s not just a lack of gumption and an addiction to consumer goods that prevent Americans from gaining financial freedom; it’s also the enormous cost of basics such as health care, child care, housing and higher education, paired with a dismal minimum wage and worker protections. It’s instructive to discover what finally moved Robin away from extreme frugality and toward the modest but comfortable life she lives now. She was diagnosed with cancer — a disease that can not only kill you but, courtesy of the United States’ patchy, expensive health-care system, also inflict massive financial damage.

Robin began to spend royalties from “Your Money or Your Life,” which she had previously mostly been giving away, to fund her treatment. The book’s title took on a new meaning — it was, literally, her money or her life. As she first told me a decade ago, and again this month, “Nobility is one thing, but to die of frugality is another.”

Today, Robin considers FIRE followers to be fellow travelers, but she says more of them should address bigger economic and societal concerns. She tells me she would like to see tuition-free college and universal health care, as well as a lifetime basic income in return for a year or two of service. They are, she says, “things that should happen because of justice and environmental sustainability, but will also benefit the FIRE people in the FIRE movement,” adding, “A lot of people are stuck for their entire lives in jobs that do not agree with their souls because of college debt.” The Biden administration’s debt forgiveness plan doesn’t go far enough, in her view. “We need to look as a society at the system that says to succeed you need a college education, but you have to sell your future to get it.”

Robin’s still striving to change the world. She has written a book on eating locally sourced food. (She cooked me a yummy frittata made with onions, peppers, yellow squash and eggs from her property.) An indefatigable social innovator, she’s pushing a plan to encourage Whidbey Islanders to rent out unused bedrooms, to ease a worker shortage caused by high rents. There’s a podcast, too, called “What Could Possibly Go Right,” where she interviews thought leaders on what they think is going, yes, right in the world.

All of us, Robin tells me, deserve our “dignity,” something our society all too often strips away. And that message of dignity for all is what she hopes is her legacy. “I never saw it as a book that’s about giving up things,” she says about “Your Money or Your Life.” “I was selling outsmarting a system that’s trying to outsmart you.”

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