“Your Money or Your Life”, by Robin, Dominguez, and Tilford

Your Money or Your Life, by Vicki Robin, Joe Dominguez, and Monique Tilford, was recommended to me by The Simple Dollar author Trent Hamm. Not personally, that is, more recommended to everyone in this blog post of his. He said that, although the author’s politics might not be your cup of tea, the book was guaranteed to make you reconsider your conception of money and its place in your life.

I came to Your Money or Your Life (“YMOYL”) somewhat already-initiated. My parents had taught me thrift; I was fortunate enough to have a positive relationship with employment; my earlier reading of The Simple Dollar had given me a philosophical context for frugality. YMOYL took me further again, its nine-step system, while necessarily limited, serving to add to and extend my own ideas. I can’t give the nine steps a full treatment here but I will summarise them, then expand upon some I liked most.

Your Money or Your Life’s nine steps

I’m paraphrasing…

  1. Itemise total lifetime earnings and present-day assets and liabilities.
  2. Compute your real hourly wage; keep track of every cent of income and expenditure.
  3. Monthly, categorise and tabulate all income and expenses, then convert “dollars spent” to their equivalent number of “hours of life energy”.
  4. For each category of expenditure, ask three questions:
    • Did you receive fulfillment and value in proportion to the life energy spent?
    • Was the expenditure aligned with your values and purpose?
    • How might the expenditure change if you didn’t have to work for a living?
  5. Plot total monthly income and expenses on a graph and look at it frequently.
  6. Minimise spending.
  7. Maximise income (but not necessarily just by working more!)
  8. Each month, calculate how much monthly income your accumulated capital could supply if invested in a fixed-interest investment.
  9. Get on to long-term income-producing investments.

Learning to recognize “enough”

The foundation of these nine steps, is a perhaps quaint concept – that of “enough”. YMOYL’s authors describe how we begin by spending money on basic needs: food, warmth, shelter. And then comes buying nice amenities: a toy, a scarf, or a bike. But then comes a point where one moves past amenities and perhaps nice luxuries, into the realm of excess: the newest tablet, yet another handbag, the golf set. Beyond some point (the authors argue) not only do the returns on these purchase diminish, they become negative. Beyond this point, spending more money decreases one’s overall life satisfaction. This point is “enough”.


The ‘Fulfillment Curve’, courtesy of Trent Hamm in this post.

Learning to live on “enough” is – and I like this – not necessarily living a Walden-esque life of privation and scarcity. Rather, “It’s appreciating and fully enjoying what money brings into your life and yet never purchasing anything that isn’t needed and wanted.” It’s buying the things that you value, that enhance your life…and nothing more.

The authors start here, proposing that most people spend more than enough and have more enough and that this is a worse situation than spending and having enough. So what do you do?

What you don’t measure, you can’t manage

First, you got to start tracking money’s flow into and out of your life. What you don’t measure, you can’t manage: if you don’t know what you’re spending every cent on, you can’t know which expenses are excessive. YMOYL, being pre-modern, suggests doing this with dead trees: we, on the other hand, have the benefit of handy apps just for this purpose( on Android, I use Moneywise). With apps like these you can easily note each expenditure as it happens, or simply recall them at the day’s end. The authors insist too that you create categories based upon how you spend your money, trying to create natural groupings. I myself have: food (with a few subcategories), going out, services, shopping, transport (a few subcategories here), gifts, recreation, and rent and household.

The benefit of tracking is two-fold (not manifold, although I do love that word). Firstly, it creates a pile of data that is necessary to begin reflecting on and learning from how you use your money. Think about how valuable this is: you can begin to see exactly where your money goes, as well as get a sense of how much you spend in an average month. How much do you spend on groceries, on shopping, on entertainment?

Secondly, the practice of logging expenses improves your mindfulness in the moment as you spend money. It makes it harder to spend money unthinkingly, because every time you lay down dosh you make a note of it. This forces your awareness on to the cost, providing a moment to question the value of that outlay to you.

Ah data! I love you.

So, tracking your expenses is the bomb. I do it, and if that’s not convincing enough, so did Gandhi. Aight.

The Three Questions

As I foreshadowed earlier – being the technically-brilliant writer that I am – the primary advantage of tracking is that it allows you to reflect on how you’ve spent your money. Each month, you look at your expenditure in each category and reflect on a few things. The authors have their own suggested questions. In any case, the monthly pile of data should provide pause for thought, and it can be surprising to see how certain categories have stacked up. I find that interstate transport can be a rather large proportion of my monthly expenses, which is possibly what comes from living in Canberra (oh the expensive flights!) and having an interstate partner (oh the costly fares!). You might decide to reduce your spending in an area that isn’t as important to you, or perhaps even to spend more on a certain area if it seems to be neglected.

I do, in fact, quite like the questions mooted by YMOYL. The first basically asks – was it worth it? Was it worth $58.50 to see a movie with your friend, have popcorn and a drink, and then catch a cab home? Was the $15 for your archery lesson well-spent? Is seeing “South Pacific” on opening night worth $100 to you? Note that this can be used to encourage or discourage spending: you may end up deciding that $58.50 is worth spending to spend hours in the company of a much-missed friend. The authors simply want us to judge whether or not it was worth it – not to give up spending!

The second question arises from the fact that the authors are good ol’ hippies, albeit with a strong interest in the finance sector, and they think one’s spending should be at least in alignment with one’s values. The question here is – is this spending consistent with the person I want to be? I’d rather be a person who spends money to have a few friends round for dinner and Dominion than gives $20 to Hollywood to produce another sexist and superficial action film. Whatever your values, whoever you want to be, it pays to see whether your wallet agrees.

Go forth and prosper

This is but a sniff of what Your Money or Your Life has to say. I’m resisting a temptation to expand more on how Vicki Robin, Joe Dominguez, and Monique Tilford write about life energy, or financial independence, or other calculations. If this post has got you interested, then more paragraphs wouldn’t meet your need – only the book itself would. (But be warned – while the content is great, it is surrounded by lots of fluff…skip pages unashamedly.)

I sometimes think that my almost-hobby-level interest in personal finance and thrift is weird, given my broader interest in campaigning and social justice. In fact, they go hand in hand. I care about money because how we spend our money has a vast influence on the shape of the world and the shape of our own lives. The more in control we are of that, the more decidedly we choose the world our spending creates, and the life that it creates for each of us.


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