“You all laugh at me because I’m different, I laugh at you because you’re all the same.” — John Davis
Financial advice abounds everywhere we look. It is not difficult to discover. And yet, the statistics paint an ugly picture that it may not be working so well. The average American family still holds $6,700 in credit card debt and 76% live paycheck-to-paycheck (just to name a few).
Unfortunately, most people think more money is the answer. And while there may be some truth to this solution, most of us would readily admit that our most basic needs (food, shelter, and clothing) are financially covered. It appears then that most of our financial troubles are not based in need, but in cultural expectations—that because we live in a society based almost entirely on consumption and the promotion of it, we have too subtly bought into the lies and built our lives upon them far more than we realize.
Perhaps, then, the pathway to financial freedom requires a bolder, more countercultural approach. One that intentionally begins to question the messages we believe and looks elsewhere for answers. To that end, consider this list of 8 Bold, Countercultural Decisions to Find Financial Freedom.
Each of them questions culturally-accepted norms. Before you begin, know that we believe and practice each item on this list. We have found wonderful freedom in them. And whenever appropriate, I’ll share the story of how we arrived at each decision.
Eight Countercultural Decisions to Find Financial Freedom
1. Purchase based on necessity, not possibility. Especially in large purchases, consider necessity over possibility. When we bought our first home, we went to the local bank for pre-approval. They approved us for a loan up to $135,000. And… we immediately started looking at houses up to $135,000. We based our search entirely on possibility. There was no consideration given to our actual needs. When we found a new, higher-paying job, we were pre-approved for a $300,000 loan and… we immediately started looking for homes in that range. Our purchase became a heavy burden in payments, maintenance, and upkeep. During that season of life, we discovered minimalism. Our desire for physical possessions changed dramatically. As a result, when we moved into a new home two years ago, we determined our ideal house based on necessity, not opportunity. Our payments are smaller. Our upkeep is easier. Our lives are more freed to pursue other passions. We have never regretted the decision. And I actively encourage others at every opportunity to purchase based on need, not possibility.
2. Never carry a car payment. One financial decision that has had a profound impact on our financial well-being was our wise decision to always pay cash for our vehicles. Subsequently, we have never had a car payment—ever. I bought my first car from my parents with money I had earned working at a local carwash. And all future car purchases were based on the most reliable car (or mini-van) we could afford with cash already in the bank. We have never owned a brand-new car or one that turned heads in traffic, but we’ve also never felt stress or regret over a car purchase. And if you ask me, that’s a pretty fair trade.
3. In dual-income households, don’t spend the lesser income. One of the most valuable pieces of financial advice we ever received came early in our marriage when both my wife and I were working. My boss encouraged us to live entirely on my income and save every penny my wife earned. We did just that. Her earnings became our first down payment on a home. But more importantly, it prevented lifestyle creep from setting in. And when our first child was born, becoming a one-income family was an easy transition.
4. Avoid alcohol. Countercultural? For sure. Financially-beneficial? Absolutely. Even-possible? Definitely. I inherited the lifestyle from my grandparents. Both sets refused the consumption of alcohol for different reasons (some personal, some religious). But regardless of their reasoning, the pattern continued with my parents, myself, and my siblings. While financial concerns were never a chief motivator, the decision has resulted in significant, personal financial benefits for us. Americans spend $50 billion each year on alcohol—despite the fact that 34% of Americans don’t drink. This is a significant expense for many families. Removing it completely returns a significant amount of discretionary income. And adding other unhealthy behaviors to this decision results in even greater returns.
5. Never retire. I learned it from my grandfather. He is 92 years old and still works full-time (40+ hours/week). I learned from him the value of work and the importance of seeing work as contribution. This view of work changes everything. Work is no longer something to avoid or retire out of as soon as possible. Instead, work becomes joy. Now, just to be clear, it is still wise to plan financially for the future and old age. The truth remains that our physical bodies break down and some types of work become difficult (or impossible in some cases) to continue. I would never argue against the importance of transition in life or saving for it. But getting set in a mindset that only looks forward to retirement without the possibility of embracing work during it is one that should be adjusted. And ought to impact our financial decisions today.
6. Pay with cash. Every study reports the same finding: We spend more when we pay with plastic than when we pay with cash. And one of the most commonly offered pieces of advice for those trying to stick within a budget is to pay with cash rather than credit. Yet the strategy remains rarely used. While we have only used the strategy off and on over the years, we have found great personal benefit each time. Not only does it help us stay within a budget, but it also helps us keep a tighter record of where the money is going. And greater intentionality in tracking expenses is advantageous regardless of your income level.
7. Give away (at least) 10%. There are numerous religious traditions that teach the importance of giving away 10% of income. Personally, it is a financial philosophy that we have put into practice during times of both little and plenty. Certainly, the gifts benefit the receiver. But more than that, the gifts benefit the giver. Generosity is an important step towards contentment. It brings the fulfillment and joy and meaning to life that is often sought in financial purchases and personal gain. It reminds us of how much we already have and how much we have to offer others. And while it seems entirely counter-intuitive, one of the most important steps we have taken to financial freedom is to embrace the practice of giving some away.
8. Put the spender in charge of family finances. While this may or may not suit your family’s unique dynamics, it has been entirely helpful for mine. I hold a college degree in Banking and Finance and Accounting was one of my favorite classes in high school (seriously, thanks Mr. Fink). I understand budgets, spreadsheets, assets, and liabilities. But my wife is a bigger spender than me. And one of the most helpful actions we took as a family was to put her in charge of the finances rather than me. Because our bank account levels were always small, she became far more careful with her purchases… and worked hard to keep me in line too.
Again, I don’t offer this list as an exact prescription for each reader. Each and every family situation is entirely unique. What has worked for us may not work for you. But if financial freedom has eluded you, earning more money may not be the answer. It may require a bolder, more countercultural decision instead.