First, two disclaimers:
• I’m not in any position to tell anyone how they “should” approach retirement, or any other aspect of their financial affairs. Everyone comes from different circumstances, and there are reasons why finance is a sensitive subject. As always on this blog, and in my book, I’m merely sharing my own ideas and my own journey, and hope you will find at least some of it helpful in crafting the unique work of art that is your own life.
• Even though I have my ideals that I’m aiming for, it doesn’t mean I’m there right now or will ever get there (though it is my aim). I always endeavor to be transparent about any gaps that exist between my ideals and my actual practice (be it in finances or in any other realm), but I’m mentioning this to you right now just in case it’s not clear.
OK! Disclaimers done.
In my book, I mention that at some point awhile back (actually wow, it was 20-plus years ago now; how time flies), I realized that my money that I had invested in a retirement account was out there in the world doing stuff that I might not approve of.
This realization hit me way before I had even heard of permaculture or regenerative living (living our lives in a way such that we give to people, other species, and ecosystems more than we take). So I wasn’t really sure what to do with it. It did stick with me though, and formed the seed for my current mind-set around income, retirement, and money in general.
For some years now I have been seeing as deeply problematic the whole idea of stockpiling a bunch of assets (in any form, be it money or otherwise) for the purpose of “retiring” or any other form of old-age security. I see this paradigm as problematic for many reasons:
1) Reliance on stocks (here I mean not stock-market stocks, but the permaculture definition of “stocks”: an amassed pile of assets — think of a squirrel’s acorn stash) rather than flows (“our daily bread,” so to speak) fosters insecurity. Stocks by themselves are more brittle than flows. Also, with stocks, the goalpost tends to keep moving. So, if I amass a million, my mind is going to start urging me to work on the second million “just for an extra cushion; just to be safe.” Also, amassed assets are more likely to make a person a target. And cost money and energy to protect.
2) I see “amassing” as a fear-based reflex, based on the idea (created by the industrial-consumer society we birthed in the USA) that “no one will take care of me in my old age”; “old people have no value”; “I won’t be able to engage in economically productive work once I reach age XX.” Rather than amassing personal stashes of assets, we’d do better to go directly to the root of the issue. For example, devise a regenerative career path that extends right up until we die. Could be teaching, tending sheep, grandchild-minding, business mentorship, herbal medicine consultation “wise witch lady”, shaman, master carpenter teacher, seed-bank tender, librarian/archivist, storyteller, musician, what have you. Traditional societies have always had economic roles for everyone from young children to the eldest elders. If we want to take a lot of the fear out of modern living, we need to retrofit this resilience into our society. My personal ideal is to develop an entirely flow-based path for myself, with maybe just enough stockpiled assets for an emergency house repair fund, though I am not at my ideal yet.
3) Stocks are more likely than flows to disrupt ecosystems (both social and biological; neighborhoods and rainforests). This is because chunks of money or other amassed assets always need a place to “park,” and they will exert a distortive influence one way or another. For example, my neighborhood is full of houses that people from other states have bought as their fourth and fifth houses, AirBnB investment properties etc. Meanwhile low-wage workers struggle to find a place to live in the dwindling stock of affordable rental properties.
4) The work that people are doing to anass that pile of money for retirement “so they can quit working” tends not to be work they’d really want in their hearts to be doing. This tradeoff comes at a heavy opportunity cost not only for individuals but for our collective wellbeing, as much creative energy gets dissipated rather than applied to building the beautiful abundant world we really want.
In a nutshell, my current ideal is to earn the minimum viable income to meet my needs, and be able to work for the rest of my life. And have just a small emergency fund. I don’t know exactly what that means. Income-wise my ideal right now is a steady, consistent $13,000 per year. (My target would be higher, but I am fortunate, through other people’s past hard work, not mine, to own my house free and clear, and have no student-loan debt.) Stockpile-wise, maybe 5k.
I’ve touched on various aspects of finance on this blog and will dig up some links to those posts for you. They include links to some of my favorite articles by other regenerative/permie thinkers as well.
• “Flowing Towards Abundance” (Toby Hemenway, resilience.org; originally published on tobyhemenway.com). In permaculture design class when we learned about “stocks and flows,” I immediately realized why no amount of stockpiled money makes people feel secure. It’s the flow, the knowingness of nature’s flow, that brings real security. Article by the acclaimed author of Gaia’s Garden gives an excellent overview of stocks and flows.
• Storing Food “in the Belly of My Brother” (post on my blog January 7, 2021). “In the grand scheme of history, it hasn’t been that long that human beings have had ways to store wealth. The relatively recent innovations of refrigeration, banks, and other vessels for storing surplus have made life easier in a tangible way. After all, what would we modern industrialized humans do if refrigeration didn’t exist? We’d have to grocery shop every day. And if there were no banks or other investment vehicles, where and how would we store our money? A cushion of surplus tides us over in lean times. But the dark side of storage is hoarding, and hoarding actually fuels scarcity. …”
• “Calculating Your Income Profile” (a post I made in October 2020). It’s eye-opening to see where your income, and your net worth, stand in relation to 1) other people in rich industrialized nations; and 2) even more mind-blowing, the world! I see extreme wealth disparity as a major source of damage to ecosystems and cultures.
• “Legacy for Future Generations” (a post I made about 3 months ago where I talk about some of my investment choices).
• “Becoming a Local Investor” (series of four posts I wrote when I was brainstorming places I’d feel comfortable (=ethical) storing money, that would give some kind of good return be it monetary or social or both.