Time, Money and Agency

Are you old enough to remember the Whole Earth Catalog? It was an amazingly romantic document. You could entertain yourself for days fantasizing about all the things you could learn to do (many of which you had never heard of) and how utterly self-sufficient you could become.

Another book that came out about that time was Living Poor with Style, by Ernest Callenbach. Would anyone buy that book nowadays? Yet, it was a masterpiece of rethinking consumerism, with the proposition that less stuff and more self-sufficiency was the way to happiness. It’s hard to believe that these books were part of the same baby boom generation that survives now.  We went a totally opposite way—tons more stuff and almost no self-sufficiency. Building a brick oven has morphed into turning on a microwave. Not only do we not cook, but even cooking shows have become competitions, not instructions. Do any of us believe we could actually make, ourselves, what we see on Cake Boss or Iron Chef?

We baby boomers have somehow come to the conclusion that we’d rather work long hours with no vacations so we can pay someone else to, well, handle our lives. Right now I’m reading Michael Pollan’s book Cooked, where he argues that our lack of being able to make things narrows our lives—we spend our time in increasingly narrow and isolating specialties (for which we may be paid quite well), but without the agency—the ability, control, and perspective that comes from being able to accomplish something fundamental, particularly in a creative way. We also lose the cooperation and connection that shared meals, purchasing raw materials from growers, and perhaps even cooperating with neighbors to share skills and tools, used to bring. And our children? Well, if we’re lucky they’re quite proficient at scoring high on the SAT.

For many things, if you want to learn how to do a craft, you won’t even be able to find a local teacher. The Craftsy platform has made a serious go of it by promising video instruction, the ability to contact a live teacher, and a chat room to share creations and discuss with “classmates”. Not at all the same thing as sitting with my aunt and sewing my finger with the machine, but about as good as it gets nowadays when mom, dad,  and grandmother may have never learned the basics.

And why is this? Because none of us have any TIME anymore. Callenbach argued that, given enough time, you could save money by re-soling your own shoes. That’s too far for even a do-it-yourselfer like me, but I have discovered over the years that I can do practically anything a handyman can do if I watch enough Youtube videos (the modern alternative to hands-on instruction). And the issue of time makes me laugh—we all seem to have enough time to cruise Facebook, forward cute kitten videos, keep up with Game of Thrones, and keep the computer gaming industry going strong. And then there’s shopping…

If you spend your time, you will save your money, usually.  I have my doubts about sewing clothing, since so much cheap stuff is available, and some hobbies (knitting being another) encourage some of us to hoard wonderful stuff rather than actually use it. Still, what you actually take care in making is often far, far better than what you can buy already finished. But what I am arguing is not so much saving money (although I like that), but the satisfaction and control over your life—the POWER—that being able to make things and understand methods delivers. Making things can slow down consumption—besides the time invested, one fine thing can be much more satisfying than a lot of purchased crap.

Give yourself the gift of pride, power, and uniqueness. Do it yourself. Really, it beats scrolling through Facebook from your cubicle (or corner office).

About the author

Danielle L. Schultz, CFP®, CDFA

Danielle L. Schultz, the principal financial planner of Haven Financial Solutions, is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ (CFP®), a NAPFA-registered Financial Advisor, and a Registered Investment Advisor in the State of Illinois. She studied financial planning at Northwestern University’s Certified Financial Planner™ certification program. She also holds a Series 65 license (Registered Investment Advisor Representative) and a CCPS (Certified College Planning Specialist).

She writes a regular column for Better Investing magazine and is currently working on a revision of their mutual funds handbook. In addition to academic training and professional experience, Ms. Schultz has personally managed Social Security, Medicare, retirement and long-term care issues; college funding concerns; and cash flow and transition planning in self-employment and divorce situations. Her social work background gives her an innovative perspective on financial planning issues; for her, financial planning is not only about money, but also a key component in a satisfying and well-lived life.

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