The Economics of My Life

When answering the question “What do you do?”, I seem to pique people’s curiosity.

They’re curious about how I make time for work, travel, writing, and adventure. They’re curious about how, exactly, I make money. And more than anything else, they want to know why I chose this fairly alternative life path.

The first two questions are straightforward, and I share my answers below. The third question, however, has required a lot more contemplation. It wasn’t until I discovered an obscure essay by the famed economist John Maynard Keynes that I found an answer worth sharing.

How I Make Money

Let’s start by putting the facts on the table.

In 2013, at age 30, I earned more money than ever before in my life: roughly $40,000.

The two years before that, it was closer to $25,000. And from 2005 (age 22, my first post-college year) to 2010 (age 27), I reported annual incomes around $10,000-$15,000.

For the past few years my money has mostly come from running international trips, writing retreats, and leadership programs through my company Unschool Adventures. I’ve earned a small monthly income (equivalent to a very cheap rent payment) from my self-published 2012 book, Better Than College, almost entirely via paperback and Kindle sales. Conference speaking gigs, working at Not Back to School Camp, private education coaching, and the occasional crowdfunding campaign surplus round out the total. Prior to 2010, my income mostly came from seasonal jobs in outdoor education.

I don’t take, and haven’t taken, any money from my family since graduating college (outside of modest birthday gifts and their contributions to my crowdfunding campaigns). I don’t have a trust fund. Upon graduating college in 2004 I had $10,000 to my name and no student loan debt. My dad paid for college and gifted me a used Toyota 4Runner and a new Macbook Pro. Beyond that starting line, I’ve paid my own way.

How I Spend Money

My normal monthly expenses including food, gas, independently purchased health insurance (high deductible / catastrophic-only), car insurance, renter’s insurance, cell phone, and a slush fund for books, clothes, entertainment, etc., run around $875/month, or $10,000 per year.

That number doesn’t include rent. The biggest way I’ve saved money in my life is by paying low or no rent. The kind of work I enjoy—immersive summer camp, outdoor education, and travel programs—provides housing (and food) on the job.

In 2011, for example, I spent two months running a program in South America ($0 rent), a month traveling in India (very cheap accommodations), five months renting a room in South Lake Tahoe ($500/month), a month working at Not Back to School Camp ($0 rent), a month running a Writing Retreat ($0 rent), a combined month of road-tripping / visiting people / camping ($0 rent), and a combined month of visiting family ($0 rent).

For many years following college, I went straight from an outdoor education job in the spring, to a summer camp job to another outdoor education job in the fall, to traveling in the winter, leading to zero annual rent. The past few years I’ve been more picky about having my own space, so I do spend more on rent, but it’s still modest ($400-$600/month).

Other big expenses in my life include travel that’s not part of Unschool Adventures (including trips to Guatemala, Argentina, India, Europe, and road trips / backpacking within the U.S.), car maintenance (my 4Runner has 230k miles; I’m aiming for 300k and beyond!), and self-employment taxes.

How I Make and Spend Time

How I make time for my work, travel, writing, and adventure should be clear now: I keep my expenses significantly below my income, and I focus on creating work that can provide me with a sizable income in a short period of time (like running a big Unschool Adventures trip). This leaves me with a wealth of time and a modest amount of money with which to enjoy it.

Time Wealth
“Time Wealth”, an illustration for my new book by Shona Warwick-Smith

I love my work, and I spend a lot of my time doing it. When I’m running a program or staffing at Not Back to School Camp, I’m in a fully immersive, 14-hour-a-day environment that often puts me in a state of flow. Between such programs I spend an average of 4-6 hours a day writing, reading stuff related to my work, and doing behind-the-scenes tasks for Unschool Adventures.

I don’t cleanly separate my “work” and “leisure” time; my 4-6 daily productive hours are mixed into the rest of my life. When I need to focus, I go to coffee shops or co-working centers.

My favorite hobbies don’t cost much money. These include trail running, exploring cities on foot, watching movies and shows online, swimming, reading, frisbee, and slacklining.

More than anything else, I dedicate big chunks of my week and year to my family and friends who are scattered across the country. In this regard I feel more wealthy than many of my peers. If I’m visiting a different parts of the country, I make it a priority to get in touch with friends who live there, and I spend a few weeks each year visiting my west coast (dad’s side) and east coast (mom’s side) families.

The 4-6 total weeks that I spend with friends and family each year aren’t out of financial need or imposition; on the contrary, these people and I often feel that we don’t get enough time together. Staying connected to the people I care about really matters to me, and it’s a big reason why I prioritize work that doesn’t lock me into a single location for 50 weeks of the year with only brief weekends as escape hatches. Leading a seasonal, on-the-road-style existence has allowed me to cultivate the relationships that I believe will matter most in the future.

Why I Chose (and Continue to Choose) This Lifestyle

The following explanation is bit roundabout, and it feels like a college analytical essay at times. But stick with it, and I promise it will pay off!

A recent episode of Econtalk introduced me to a little-known 1930 essay by the famed economist John Maynard Keynes, entitled Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (free PDF / BrainPickings summary).

In the essay, Keynes begins by describing the incredible economic growth of the industrial revolution, and he predicts that by the year 2030, the world would be eight times better off.

That was a pretty darn good guess—the economist Deirdre McCloskey estimates that since 1800, the average person in the world has moved from earning $3/day to $30/day (in inflation-adjusted dollars), and for people in advanced countries like Norway, it’s closer to $135/day. All of us—including the poor—are amazingly rich by historical standards.

Keynes then asks: how will these wealthy people of the future spend their time? (All emphases below are mine.)

Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.

The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance.* But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.

In other words: Those who make use of their newfound leisure time to improve their lives, instead of focusing forevermore on making money, will be the ones who truly take advantage of humanity’s collective prosperity.

Keynes continues:

Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society.

In other words: This is not an easy challenge! Too much free time holds a mirror up to our souls, and too often, we don’t like what we see. It’s much easier to exist in the routine striving for money and achievement.


To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes today in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing! For these are, so to speak, our advance guard-those who are spying out the promised land for the rest of us and pitching their camp there. For they have most of them failed disastrously, so it seems to me—those who have an independent income but no associations or duties or ties—to solve the problem which has been set them.

Here Keynes is saying: Look at all the rich people of the world—those with the most free time to spend—and see how miserable many are! If they are any example, then adapting to this prosperous future will be more difficult than anticipated.

Finally, Keynes writes that “everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented”—perhaps about 3 hours a day of work. He’s making the same argument that that Voltaire made when he said that “work spares us from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.” In Keynes’ future, material needs will largely be fulfilled, but we’ll still have to tackle boredom and vice.

(Okay, you survived the most academic part of the post. Congratulations!)

The reason this essay resonated so much with me was because: I see myself as living the life of affluence that Keynes predicted in 1930.

Most of my economic needs have been practically removed in the sense that, compared to the average American of 1880 who spent 80 percent of his income on food, housing, and clothing, I, the average American of today, spend less than a third. I still need to work to live, but I do work that’s largely meaningful to me, and I typically spend only about 15 hours a week completing the really important tasks. The rest of my time I spend pursuing my hobbies, traveling, adventuring, and staying connected with friends and family.

Why can I afford to do this when so many others need to work 40, 60, or 80 hours a week? This is a complicated question and I certainly don’t imagine that, because I was born on third base, I’ve hit a home run. Yes, I’m white and male and healthy and didn’t lose the IQ lottery. Yes, I have supportive family, a college degree, and some healthy amount of luck. But I also know many people in my same demographic who don’t see themselves as capable of leading a similar lifestyle.

Why is this? What’s the secret to this leading this low-income, high-experience lifestyle?

I’ve come to believe that the secret lies in having nothing to prove.

Here’s how Keynes describes this idea:

Now it is true that the needs of human beings may seem to be insatiable. But they fall into two classes—those needs which are absolute in the sense that we feel them whatever the situation of our fellow human beings may be, and those which are relative in the sense that we feel them only if their satisfaction lifts us above, makes us feel superior to, our fellows. Needs of the second class, those which satisfy the desire for superiority, may indeed be insatiable; for the higher the general level, the higher still are they.

The first class of needs—“absolute” or material needs like clean air, water, food, shelter, transportation, and clothing—are those that have been rendered widely accessible in modern societies like ours.

The second class of needs—like having fancy clothing, nice cars, and bigger houses than our peers—are rooted in the “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality. These are the needs that are forever relative, and therefore, forever insatiable. Ultimately, they’re about having something to prove to others.

My theory is: by focusing on the first class of needs—by taking advantage of the incredible cheapness of water, food, housing, and transportation—and ignoring the second class, I can create a high-quality lifestyle with a lower-than-average income.

By choosing to have nothing to prove to others—by purposefully not keeping up with the Joneses—I conserve the resources necessary to focus on finding meaningful work, building relationships, and otherwise working my way up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

No parents slave away at a job with the hope that their children will slave away at the same job; they do so to enable their children to lead a life of higher pursuits. The same goes for economies as a whole. I chose—and continue to choose—my lifestyle to acknowledge, appreciate, and fully utilize the economic foundation that the generations before me have created.

Anxieties and Final Thoughts

Is the low-income, high-experience lifestyle an easy one to choose? No. (Keeping up with the Joneses is a powerful force that’s probably biologically rooted.) Does it create anxiety and fear? Yes, unquestionably.

Am I afraid that, by not earning as much as my adult peers, that I’m not adequately preparing for the future? That I’m not building an economic foundation on which to start a family, own a house, retire, or prepare for some unknowable terrible event? Yes.

Even though I have savings and an emergency account and a good credit score and a Roth IRA—even though I know I’m doing most things “right”—I’m afraid because I’m not doing what most of the world counsels me to do.

This is an ever-present anxiety that I’ve learned to just deal with. I don’t think it will ever disappear. But as long as I can handle this anxiety—and I’ve handled it well for a decade now—then the rational part of my brain can continue assuring me that I’m doing okay.

This is the same part of my brain that tells me that experiences and relationships are the true commodities of life, and I’m enjoying a ton of them. It’s the same part of my brain that tells me that keeping up with the Joneses is, fundamentally, a really dumb game to play. And it tells me that the past 200+ years of economic prosperity that we now enjoy is a true miracle that should be appreciated in the here-and-now, not forever deferred to the future.

I don’t want to be the person who, as Keynes described, “does not love his cat, but his cat’s kittens; nor, in truth, the kittens, but only the kittens’ kittens, and so on forward forever to the end of cat-dom.” I want to spend the precious minutes and hours of my life doing the really fun and important stuff that makes life worth living. And while I always want to pay my own way, I don’t think that necessarily requires earning as much money as everyone else does.

These are the economics of my life. What are yours?


* I disagree with Keynes’ denigration of the “money-makers” who he assumes will “carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance.” These are the same people, I imagine, he targets when he writes:

The love of money as a possession—as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life—will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.

Keynes loses me here, because without people who love making money (even if only for “possession”), I don’t think his imagined utopian future (i.e., the actual present) would exist. People who earn tons of money are the ones who pay most of our taxes, fund most social services, and contribute the most to charities and foundations. I believe that the ongoing global transition to more market-based, money-oriented societies has been a net benefit for most peoples.

My all-time favorite response to the idea that money (or the love of money) is the root of all evil is found in the character Francisco d’Anconia’s money speech from the book Atlas Shrugged.

Top photo: On a trail run in Arches National Park, May 2014. Taken by Julie McPherson. 

Thank you to Julie McPherson and Charles Boles for providing feedback on drafts of this post.



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