I occasionally review financial books that are sent to me or that I pick up myself. This book is different from most that I review. The author, Adam Shephard, sent me an electronic copy of his latest book, One Year Lived, recently to get some free publicity for it. He also authorized me to give it away to all of you for a limited time only. See the links at the bottom if you'd like your free copy. Be aware I'll deactivate these links on 4/24/13 and after that you'll have to buy your own copy.
Shephard's First Book
You may know Adam from his previous book, Scratch Beginnings. This book is widely considered a bit of a response to Barbara Ehrenreich's liberal book Nickel and Dimed in which she hypothesized that the poor in America are really subsidizing the rich, not vice versa, and that the American Dream is essentially dead. Adam, upon graduating from college, left his home town with a tarp, a gym bag, $25, and the clothes on his back and traveled to a brand new town with the goal to go from homelessness to a regular member of society. He defined this as acquiring a job, a furnished apartment, a working automobile, and $2500 in the bank within one year. He wanted to do all this without using his existing contacts or college degree. He quit his job and moved home after 10 months, but had $5300 in the bank and a pick-up truck and was living in a furnished apartment.
A Year Off (On?)
One Year Lived is the documentation of another year in Adam's life in which he demonstrates some important lessons he learned, and as well as some that he has yet to learn. Unfortunately, because the book is the documentation of a period of his life, you cannot criticize the book without criticizing him, so I'll try to be gentle with my limited criticisms.
Through frugal living (which he's obviously good at, having mastered homelessness for his previous book), he saved up enough money to go see the world for a year. He says this about the beginning of the adventure:
“This life is serious: I want the wife, I want the babies, I want the business success, and I understand the work that is required ’til the wee hours to get them. But I didn’t want to leave any experience unlived before that happened. I felt as if I was a few memories short, as if there was still time for me to go out there and get missing for a little while. Bust out [the bucket list I made in college], sell my car, store my crap, stuff a backpack, buy a small mountain of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and hop on a plane. Just this once.”
Adventure Can Be Affordable
He discusses the financial aspect of the adventure on numerous occasions. This is what he figured at the beginning:
“Even if I had another fifty years or so left on this planet, depending upon a stroke of luck here or there and what those chaps in lab coats come up with, I was still far short on money. I made the determination, right then and there: two years to save and one year to be on the road.”
There are some important lessons for blog readers there. First, that it's possible, even on a low salary, to save a very high percentage of your money if you're truly motivated. Second, that you can have an awful lot of adventure for very little money if you manage it well. Third, money isn't everything. It's only good for what you can exchange it for. I generally agree with Adam (as do psychological studies) that purchasing experiences rather than stuff leads to far more happiness.
Adam's valuable perspective on money is revealed in the book:
Everybody tells you that the BMW 6 Series is the car to have. Awesome. Everybody tells you that every year you delay grad school takes money out of your pocket. Fine. Everybody tells you that you should be buying a house. Whatever. Everybody wants to tell you how to be a millionaire, and the idea is a sexy one, but maybe we spend so much time chasing shiny things that we forget that happiness also shows itself among those experiences that you can’t hold in your hand. I gave up a lot to take this trip, and I’m glad I did. I would love a pool in my backyard and pretty plants on the front porch and a new model in my driveway, but before I try to get those things, give me an experience I can’t adequately explain with words.
Moving forward, this trip has sharpened my awareness of my own mortality. At some point, I’m going to get brain cancer. Or multiple sclerosis. Or fibromyalgia. Or pneumonia. Or gout. Or have a stroke. No doubt there is something ill and debilitating brewing discreetly in my body right now. I don’t know what a pulmonary embolism is, but apparently it can strike you down without warning, young or old. There are drunk drivers and malpracticing doctors and crazy men entering movie theaters with assault weapons.
12 Months, 10 Destinations
I connected immediately with the book when I saw the front cover, because I recognized it as Lake Atitlan, a little chunk of paradise where I spent a month as a resident working in a tiny hospital in a small Mayan village that had been decimated by mud slides. The first stop on Adam's adventure, Antigua (in Guatemala) was humorous because he didn't quite realize before buying the flight that it wasn't the same as Antigua, the beach resort island in the Caribbean (which he visited later in the book.) He carefully documents the rest of his adventures including volunteering with children, fighting bulls, and growing a mullet as he travels throughout Latin America, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific.
We Don't Just Care About Money
I occasionally get criticism on the blog via email or comments that essentially boils down to “All you care about is money.” The defense being, of course, that this blog isn't about my family, vacations, pasttimes or adventures. It's a blog by a doc, for docs and similar professionals, about personal finance and investing. So of course the main subject discussed on it is money. That's what it is about and that's what readers come here to read and learn about. The casual critic need not assume that money is the primary motivator or factor in the my life or that of my regular readers. All that said, it's important to strike a balance. Adam's philosophy of “Seize The Day” and “Eat Drink And Be Merry” must be balanced with at least a little responsible planning for the future. He may not die of terminal fibromyalgia at a young age and wake up one day and realize that being penniless at 70 isn't nearly as easy as it is in your 20s. No big deal at this point; Adam is very clear in his book that he just wanted some adventure before he settled down. Besides, his net worth upon returning from his grand adventure ($0) is far higher than that of most doctors at his age.
The criticism I have of Adam's book and philosophy is his misconception that adventure somehow stops when you get a job, a spouse, and some children. First, what is a bucket list really? It's a list of those things that you think will bring you the most fulfillment and happiness in life. There are many reasons people dedicate much time and effort to a career, and they're not all financial. It also becomes obvious as we age that immediate family relationships probably have more potential for bringing you true happiness than anything else in your life.
Second, why is it so hard to have some decent adventures while holding down a demanding job and caring for a family? I admit that many people slow way, way down upon getting married or especially having their first child. But there's no one forcing them to do so. In the first few years of her life my oldest daughter traveled to more countries than Adam did in his “year of adventure.” You can still go do fun things even after you're married. I spent last weekend trekking through the world's longest slot canyon, Buckskin Gulch, while my wife watched the kids. (She spent the prior weekend in Vegas with friends, so don't feel too badly for her.) Besides, there are plenty of adventures you can have even with your kids. My children now think it is routine for the boat to break down 50 miles from help on Lake Powell.
Want A Free Book?
Upon returning home, Adam concluded this:
America is the greatest country in the world, but the core reason we’ve fallen behind in a few places is because we chase certainty and shun nonconformity. Our aversion to risk increases every day. Fear takes over. This is a world that favors those who challenge conventional thinking rather than those who fall in line, and getting out into the world challenges us to think in different ways. It’s fascinating the perspective we can gain when we step out of our cushy bubbles of comfort, even just a little bit.
So, enjoy Adam's book. Most professionals I meet, especially the type that reads blogs like this one, could probably stand to do a little more living now and a little less planning for the future. You can't take it with you when you go. Make your bucket list, and start ticking it off. But don't feel badly if the items on your list are seeing your child's soccer game on Saturday, helping Mrs. Smith finally get her hypertension under control, or helping thousands of children safely undergo needed surgery over the course of your career.
These links will be active until Wednesday, April 24th. If you're reading this after that, you'll have to pony up for your own copy at Amazon.
What do you think? How have you struck a work-life balance? Do you feel like your career ruined your 20s? Do you prefer spending on experiences or stuff? Sound off in the comments section!