Saturday, March 5, 2016

Joe Omundson

money, part 1

Hiking the PCT shifted my perspectives on money. I had a lot of thoughts, feelings, and ideas about the way we exist in this system of currency, wealth, debt, and poverty. I expect it will be something I explore more deeply with this blog.

 Before I start talking about those ideas, though, I feel a need to be transparent about my own financial situation. When I tell people I haven’t worked in almost two years, and it is apparent that I’m still enjoying my life and not worried about money, I think many people assume that I am able to exist in this lifestyle because I am privileged and have a lot of extra money. It’s an understandable assumption, and it has some amount of truth to it.

 Technically, most of what I am doing is not out of reach for anybody who is willing to make the same sacrifices I have. I’m able to get by without using as much money as I used to, because I’ve learned to lower my requirements and needs. I could get by comfortably on $10,000/year, which I could make with a part-time minimum-wage job, but only because I’m willing to give up sleeping indoors, showering regularly, having a kitchen, being able to entertain guests, and all the other conveniences that people are looking for when they pay to live in a building. Many of these luxuries seem like needs to most Americans, and if they are trying to live a “normal” life and fit in with society, then they are necessary indeed. But they are not necessary for survival, and as I’ve found to be true in my case, they are not always connected to quality of life. Of course, preferences and needs vary, and some people have obligations that are not easy to work around. This lifestyle is not a good option for people who love to own and collect things, or whose happiness is directly tied to being surrounded in luxury. I feel sorry for those people that they have to work so hard to earn enough money to make their desires possible.

 I do come from privilege, and that’s part of what enables me to exist this way. Part of the reason I’m able to stay (mostly) sane and happy living in a car is because the traveling I've done has redefined my requirements, but a big part of it is also because I had a pretty stable childhood. I developed some relatively healthy coping mechanisms in situations where I felt stressed or pressured. My parents usually had enough money, and even when things were tight, I was never exposed to the fear of what would happen if we ran out. It’s easy for me to trust that if money runs out, or my car breaks down, or I get into a hairy situation, everything is going to work out OK. I don’t live in constant anxiety of something going wrong, and when something does go wrong I am pretty good at keeping my cool, finding a good solution, and not letting it get to me. I see mishaps as random events rather than taking them personally. This is a huge privilege. Many people don’t have the same tendency to feel stable in unsure circumstances. They never formed deep trusting connections with people, allowing them to have a certain baseline level of faith in humanity. They often perceive neutral environments as hostile. For these people, thinking about living in a car might induce panic. It’s not as simple as “save up and go do it”, there’s a major emotional element of anxiety that would need to be dealt with somehow. It's ironic because a lot of the aspects of "stable" living are some of the most toxic (constantly being indoors and seated, being subject to advertisements, comparing yourself to other people), yet it feels so hard to start down the path that actually leads to better health.

 Financially, things have worked out for me pretty smoothly in my life. After high school I went to Europe for 9 months, which cost several thousands dollars, and my dad paid for that. When I got back I went to Oregon State University for 4 years and got my degree in engineering physics. Because I got married after my freshman year and the government considered us a separate family unit, my “expected family contribution” dropped to 0, and I was only making a small income as a pizza delivery driver, which meant that we received grants which paid for almost all of my tuition for the rest of my education. My parents didn’t pay my rent or tuition or anything like that. I graduated with $10k in student loans. I worked fairly steadily at the pizza job to pay rent and groceries, but it was manageable.

 The engineering school had a strong internship program. If accepted, you were guaranteed two 6-month paid engineering internships in an industry relevant to your field. This was a big boost to graduating engineers. I interned at SolarWorld for both of my internships, and though I interviewed for 4 positions and was declined for all of them, it was through this program that I learned of a position at Synopsys, where I was hired and worked as a testing engineer for about 3 years. At first I was a contract worker, paid hourly at $25/hour; after several months of this I was hired on as a salaried employee at $70k/year. Sadly, I didn’t have a very good grip on how I was spending my money, and I didn’t save up nearly as much during this time as I could have.

 I had a good job at a young age and a strong career potential. All of this came to me easily, by going to school for the thing I felt most capable of. Not everyone has that good fortune. For some people, getting into college at all is a huge struggle. Others, who are in fact harder workers than I am, also went to school for their most capable field, but had no route to a high paying job from there. Many people would still say “yeah but you got through college in 4 years, worked hard, you earned it!” and I would say: not really. I simply wasn’t a passionate or hard-working student. I got lucky. I paid attention in lectures and rarely missed class, yes, but often my grade was based on test scores, and I’ve always had an easy time doing well on tests. I pretty much coasted through it and as a result I landed $70k/year. That is privilege. Because of my background, I was expected to succeed, and I never met with much resistance.

 Then, my life went through “the transition” --  in the span of about a year, my wife and I separated, then divorced, and I quit my job to hike the PCT. When we split, my ex kept the dog and most of our belongings; it was what worked best for both of us. I’d been planning on doing the PCT for a couple years, and in the last year I did make more of an effort to save money. I think when I left that job, I had paid off my student loan debt down to about $4k, I had a Kia which I’d bought new for $18k and was completely paid off, I had over $21k in a 401k retirement plan, and maybe $7-10k in the bank on top of that. So, I had a decent amount of money, depending on who you ask.

 In the time since the transition, I’ve sold the Kia for $11k and bought my current car for $3k. I’ve put close to another $3k into it for repairs and upgrades. I cashed out my retirement plan, which gave me about $16-17k after taxes. I paid off the rest of my student loans. I loaned a friend $2700. I’ve paid 6 months of rent ($240/month) for my music room. I was given a gift of $2k. I have about $3000 left in the bank, and no debt at all.

 So, if I’m doing the math right, that means I was “worth” a little over $30k two years ago, and I’ve spent close to $30k since then. What have I gotten for my $30k (and erasing my retirement savings)? I spent 6.5 months on the PCT, and 4.5 months driving around the country. That’s almost a year of travel. I got this sweet little car which lets me travel or stay in the city for cheap. I guess that’s about it in terms of measurable results. Was it worth it? Oh, definitely. These 2 years have been the most amazing of my life so far. I gained so much more through these experiences than I could ever explain. If the goal of obtaining money is to provide the opportunity to live a happy, free life, full of opportunity for growth and exploration, then the lessons learned from travel are worth a lot more to me than a sum of money. I was changed fundamentally in such a way that I can achieve my goals much more efficiently, because I have a stronger sense of what they are and because my maintenance requirements are lower than before. I am more confident now, and I made connections with many incredible people I never would have met otherwise. I learned how to do away with much of the material bullshit that drags people down and makes their lives miserable. Is my life "better"? Not necessarily. But it's more truly me, now, at least.

I just kind of wanted to put the numbers out there plainly. That is how money has worked out for me. I have been in a privileged position to be able to enter this lifestyle confidently and I do not deny that. But I hope you can also see that it doesn’t take exorbitant amounts of money to do what I’ve done. Most people who are jealous of my travels probably have the financial ability to save $10k and take several months off work. It's usually other things (emotional commitments, fear etc.) that prevent people from trying a crazy lifestyle change.

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