Scared Of Retirement? Practicing Poverty Might Help

Running out of money is an anxiety that keeps even well-prepared potential retirees in jobs that they hate and keeps many fresh retirees in a state of perpetual dread. The ‘what-ifs’ and ‘buts’ of living on savings or a fixed income keeps untold thousands from making the leap to retirement and realizing their dreams. While our most precious asset, time, keeps slipping away, we fret and agonize about our well-considered plans and worry about when enough is really enough. 

Financial anxiety has been a concern since the beginning of recorded history. Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca talked about the crippling effects of economic uncertainty from Rome as far back as the 1stCentury CE. He pointed out, and more recent studies have confirmed that our financial fear seems to be overblown and relatively removed from the reality of most of our actual economic situations. Even today, workers who have planned well and accumulated more cash than they can realistically spend in a lifetime can’t get past the nagging dread of moving from the stage of accumulating assets to living off of them. 

Seneca, one of the most influential men of his time, realized that most fears have crippling effects upon us and devised a way to help overcome them. One of his techniques, what is now known as “negative visualization,” is to imagine worst-case scenarios and realize that, although undesirable, we would find ways to persevere. This technique blunts our fears and robs them of their power. When it came to financial worries, he took it a step further and physically practiced living with diminished resources, what stoic scholars today call “practicing poverty.” 

In Seneca’s words: 

“Appoint certain days on which to give up everything and make yourself at home with next to nothing. Start cultivating a relationship with poverty. For no one is worthy of god unless he has paid no heed to riches. I am not, mind you, against your possessing them, but I want to ensure that you possess them without tremors; and this you will only achieve in one way, by convincing yourself that you can live a happy life even without them, and by always regarding them as being on the point of vanishing.”

I had never heard of Seneca’s technique ten years ago before I retired and moved to Mexico. But, I managed to stumble upon it by accident. I had just stopped working, and I hadn’t begun receiving my pension. I had locked most of my savings into accounts that I couldn’t access, so I had cash flow problems. I wasn’t poor, but financially I was in a bind I had not experienced since my early twenties. 

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I was living with my ex-wife in an out of season rental on the beach in southern Mexico. It sounds exotic, and it was, but we were living in paradise for far less than we would have to pay to rent a non-descript apartment off of a noisy freeway in Dallas. We would get by on rice, tortillas, and maybe a little fish or octopus that we bought from our fishermen neighbors because there were few other options. Entertainment was walking on the empty beaches, reading books, and swimming. 

We were in a place where, even if we wanted to spend a lot of money, we couldn’t do it. This situation forced me from a consumerist mindset into an essentialist one. We needed shelter, food and water, and something to entertain ourselves, but that was it. We were spending an amount that was meager by our previous standards, but with a changed mindset, it was enough. I realized that, even though we weren’t spending money, life was good anyway.

Make no mistake; experimenting with poverty is not the same thing as living in poverty. Anyone could say with justification that I was a poverty dilettante or pretender. That a person with resources and hope can never know the hopelessness of the truly impoverished. I don’t seek to minimize the plight of people who are indeed in poverty. However, I count among my friends some very poor and some wealthy people. My poor friends have more to teach us about resilience and what is necessary for a contented life than those on the upper side of comfortable. 

There has been another unexpected outcome of my experiment. Knowing that I can get by with less has enabled me the confidence to enjoy the fruits of my investments without the fear of running dry. Conversely, it has also made me realize that making frivolous purchases doesn’t make me happy or improve my life. Yes, you may get a small rush of endorphins when you buy yourself a treat, but when the newness wears off, your level of happiness returns to normal.

Practicing poverty is an exercise to demonstrate how worrying about money for superfluous consumption is a waste of life. It is a way of showing yourself that what you fear may not be the thing you should be worried about. Practicing poverty helps me realize that no matter how bad things became, I could thrive on but a fraction of what I had become accustomed to by using wits and my newfound borderless life. That knowledge has made all the difference.

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