Monday, September 5, 2011

Taking an 19th Century Approach Toward Modern Day Personal Finance -- Part III

As I conclude this three part essay regarding Thoreau’s views on economy, I will take a look at some of Thoreau’s thoughts upon shelter, homes, and possessions.

Thoreau states:

“As for a Shelter, I will not deny that this is now a necessity of life, though there are instances of men having done without it for long periods in colder countries than this.”

Here, Thoreau relates another interesting tale that proves his point illustrating the excess when it comes to the human need for shelter.

“Formerly, when how to get my living honestly, with freedom left for my proper pursuits, was a question which vexed me even more than it does now, for unfortunately I am becoming somewhat callous, I used to see a large box by the railroad, six feet long by three feet wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night, and it suggested to me that every man who was hard pushed might get such a one for a dollar, and, having bored a few auger holes in it, to admit the air at least, get into it when it rained and at night, and hook down the lid, and so have freedom in his love, and in his soul be free. This did not appear the worst, nor by any means a despicable alternative. You could sit up as late as you pleased, and, whenever you got up, go abroad without any landlord or house-lord dogging you for rent. Many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box who would not have frozen to death in such a box as this. I am far from jesting. Economy is a subject which admits of being treated with levity, but it cannot so be disposed of.”

While certainly an extreme example, and admitting the desire of most of us to remain free from the obligation of sleeping in a large wooden tool box with a few breathing holes cut into it, I think Thoreau’s point here regarding our overly exorbitant need for reasonable housing, is proven.

“And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him.”

Again, it is quite incredible the amount of truth that has recently rung true from the words of Thoreau as we watch the housing market continue to struggle. Like a personal finance guru, Thoreau seemed to be able to pinpoint what appeared as common sense issues to him, but issues that nonetheless have been clouded by the wants, desires, and need for immediate gratification of the modern man and woman. And as we see today, with a large portion of homeowners underwater on their mortgages, behind on their payments, facing foreclosure, or having their home sit for sale in a stagnant market, it is indeed not the homeowner that has the house, but unfortunately, the house that has got him.

“Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have.”

This is a costly lesson that many have learned as of late. The need of many people to keep up with what are now considered the norms of society has indeed left many of these people needlessly poor. By selecting homes that conformed better to their needs and taking time before committing themselves to a mortgage in excess of what they could afford, many homeowners could have avoided the pitfall that Thoreau has laid out so clearly. Although, I’m sure that in some ways, these same people are doing Thoreau proud. To see these homeowners walking away from underwater properties or homes that are entering foreclosure, I’m sure that Thoreau might have agreed they were doing the right thing. Such actions would likely have applied to Thoreau’s views upon civil disobedience. He probably would have supported these homeowners’ decisions to vacate the properties and forego the property taxes that have so sapped their energies, finances and placed such constraints upon their personal freedoms, leaving massive financial institutions and the government that allowed allowed for such an environment in the first place, left to deal with the mess instead.

“The cart before the horse is neither beautiful nor useful. Before we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects the walls must be stripped, and our lives must be stripped, and beautiful housekeeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation; now, a taste for the beautiful is most cultivated out of doors, where there is no home and no housekeeper.”

The things in our lives often act to conceal or to buffer our true intentions, wants, desires, and needs. I think Thoreau is right, we often begin accumulating what we feel are the necessities of life, following the example of others, before we even evaluate what it is we need to make us truly happy.

It reminds me of the time when my wife was preparing for our wedding. I left her in charge of registering for and selecting our wedding gifts. I later regretted the decision, finding that she had selected stores and gift items based upon what her friends had done for their weddings as well as what was popular as opposed to what we needed or would actually use.

When we received our gifts, it turned out that due to the exorbitant prices of the items at these trendy stores, we received far fewer gifts than we might have had we selected similar items at lower end stores. Not only this, but we ended up with items that her friends found useful in their lives, but that we rarely used. Essentially, she put the cart before the horse. She decided what we needed by looking at what others had selected before she actually considered what we needed or if these items would actually be of use.

“But lo! Men have become the tools of their tools.”

This quote probably rings most true in today’s world of omnipresent high tech gadgetry. Look at how dependant we are upon technology. Sure, in many ways, tools such as cell phones, the Internet, GPS units, ATMs, and similar gadgetry have made our lives easier, but many of us now center our lives around the ability to reach or have access to these forms of technology.

And what happens if or when we are left without them? We can’t find our way around town. We can’t check our email or chat nonsensically with friends and family. We can’t take ridiculous photos and videos to post upon the Internet. We can’t go through the check-out at the grocery store. Some of us can’t even earn a living without these instruments of social creation -- or destruction -- depending upon your outlook.

This quote of Thoreau’s however, relates to our lives in numerous other ways, moving beyond just the social networking tools and technology upon which we’ve become so dependant.

A large portion of us must work, often working exceptionally hard, to keep up with the payments upon our tools. In many cases, the tools of the modern man may also be considered toys, as most of them are not what many in lesser nations would consider needed for an existence based upon the basic necessities of life, such as food, clothing, shelter, etc. Items like vehicles, vacation homes, boats, movies, recreational vehicles, sporting equipment, cell phones, laptops, etc. are all things that are often part of our daily lives, but may be considered frivolous to the pursuit of life and the necessities needed to survive.

Consider if a majority of these expenses were removed from your life. How much less would you have to work or income would you need to earn in order to survive? And here, I’m not just talking about getting rid of the monthly movie budget or going without gourmet coffees for a couple of weeks. I’m talking about paring your life down to the bare minimum -- food, shelter, basic clothing, and a few cooking utensils. Let’s even take it a step further and say your are growing some of your own food, living off breads, soups, and low cost foods, living in a cheap, one-bedroom -- or better yet, studio apartment,-- and you only own several outfits of clothing and one or two pairs of shoes.

Of course, this example is taking it to the extreme in our modern day society, however, how much would such an existence truly cost? You might be surprised to find that without all the daily temptations such as cable, phone service, internet, gourmet foods, restaurant meals, car payments, gasoline, insurance, etc. there are relatively few expenses for which we must pay.

That being said, maybe it’s time to rethink our priorities, purchases, and daily life decisions regarding our possessions and the accumulation and retention of things. Maybe it’s finally time to consider Thoreau’s words a bit more carefully and begin to apply some of his ideas to our modern-day existence. Not only might such a life save money, but without the numerous trappings of technology and possessions, it could very well provide a happier, more carefree existence.


Walden and Civil Disobedience. Henry David Thoreau. Barnes and Noble Books. New York, 2003.

Walden and Civil Disobedience. Introduction, Notes, and For Further Reading Copyright 2003, Jonathan Levin.

Walden and Civil Disobedience. Note on Henry David Thoreau; The World of Henry David Thoreau, Walden and “Civil Disobedience”; Inspired by Walden; and Comments & Questions. Copyright 2003 by Barnes & Noble, Inc.

The author is not a licensed financial professional. The information provided in this article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal or financial advice. Any action taken by the reader due to the information provided in this article is solely at the reader’s discretion.

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