There are innumerable personal finance books stocking the shelves of bookstores coast to coast. I’m sure they all have useful bits of information in them.
However, I’ve always felt that one of my favorite books contains enough nuggets of financial wisdom to displace them all. If push comes to shove, I can follow the principles laid out in its text and believe that my money will be just fine.
That book is Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.
The following nine quotes demonstrate that Thoreau was ahead of his time when it comes to simple living, financial planning, and thinking about your career:
“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
Your earn money with your time and energy, and you never get it back. So when you pay money for an item, you’re actually exchanging a portion of your life.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember this simple concept, which is why I find it helpful to revisit Thoreau’s timeless wisdom on this topic. This is an idea he comes back to again and again, probably because it’s so hard for us to get it through our heads.
“As with our colleges, so with a hundred ‘modern improvements’ there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance… our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.”
Not all technological advances actually improve the life of an average person. This one seems particularly pertinent with the rise of smartphones, which offer wonderful advantages but also suck up our time and money.
How many of us have reflected on our day before going to bed, wishing we hadn’t spent those three hours going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole? While our gadgets can vastly improve our lives, they can help you waste your life, too. You don’t want to find yourself killing time on your phone that you could be spending with your family or investing in a money-making side hustle.
And while it’s easy to get sucked into the costly habit of updating your smartphone every time a “new-and-improved” model comes out, remember that more often than not, the latest iteration of a device may not provide much, if any, extra value to you, depending on how you use it.
“I intend to build me a house which will surpass any on the main street in Concord in grandeur and luxury, as soon as it pleases me as much and will cost me no more than my present one.”
Thoreau realized early on that less is more when it comes to housing. A smaller living space means less taxes to pay, fewer rooms to clean and heat, and less stress overall. We could all benefit from considering this quote when we’re bombarded with advertising telling us to buy as much house as we can afford.
“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”
This is another timeless quote that stands on its own in terms of its power and simplicity. Reining in your desire to be a typical consumer can lead to far greater riches in the long run.
Happiness doesn’t come from buying a pressure cooker during Prime Day on Amazon.com. It comes from being able to appreciate the things you have that really matter to you.
“Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.”
This might be my favorite quote in the book. There’s nothing I enjoy more than looking at old pictures of my Dad and making fun of his short shorts, perm, lapels, and pretty much anything else related to his style. But, I’m sure my kids will do the same to me (at least I never wore any Ed Hardy).
Why waste our money on fancy clothes and trends of the moment? Style is subjective and fleeting. If you wear things that are comfortable and affordable, you’ll be fine.
“All news… is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.”
A curious bias against old women who enjoy hot beverages aside, this quote speaks volumes about how little value Thoreau placed on keeping up with the latest news. His philosophy can apply equally well to stock market news.
If you’re constantly listening to the Jim Cramers of the world and chasing the latest investment trends, you’re just going to reduce your overall returns. Better to make a plan early on and stay the course.
“God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages.”
Nothing about enjoying the present moment requires spending money. All of us can take more moments out of our day, no matter how stressful and hectic they are, to appreciate the simple beauties all around us.
I find it helpful to take micro breaks when I’m working. When I notice I’m becoming overwhelmed or angsty, I look out the window and try to find something to appreciate. Often it’s just the blue sky. That’s enough to make me stop, however briefly, and remember that it’s sort of a miracle that any of us are here at all. We exist on a spinning rock flying around a ball of fire, for crying out loud! It’s a little easier not to get bogged down in expense reports when you keep in mind the sheer amazingness of our existence.
“I would not have anyone adopt my mode of living on any account… I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s.”
This speaks to me, as a person who has fallen prey to gurus, experts, and other such people who purport to know it all. I like being reminded that, ultimately, I am in control and I need to decide what kind of life to live. You can choose the career you want, and it doesn’t have to be the same as your parents or your friends.
This quote applies equally well to saving, spending, and investing. Everyone is going to have different income levels, spending habits, and risk tolerances. Trying to employ the same investing strategy as a hedge fund is probably not going to be a good idea. It’s important to do your own research and customize your life so that you’re spending and investing in a way that makes the most sense for your unique situation.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
I couldn’t leave out the granddaddy quote of them all. There’s a reason this passage has gained such a foothold in our modern culture. It is a pure distillation of why it’s important to slow down, challenge yourself, and figure out what is important to you.
You can sleepwalk through life whether you have $10 to your name or $10 million. I think we can all do a better job of taking the time to sit with our thoughts, block out the noise, and figure out why we want to save so much money to begin with. What are we living for? If you don’t have a goal in mind and values that you stand for, you’re less likely to succeed on your journey, whatever that may be.
The amazing thing about Walden is that it manages to present all these tidbits of financial wisdom in an entertaining style that is part memoir, part self-help manual, and part philosophy. You can even learn how to grow beans if you want!
The book has something for everyone, but it’s an especially good read for those who want to learn about becoming self-sufficient, developing wise spending habits, and getting up the courage to step out of the consumerist rat race.