What you are about to read is pretty graphic. I’m sure it’s hard to read. At times, it was hard to write. It’s not an easy thing, to torture a metaphor to death. I was almost at the point of walking away from this article when I heard John 3:16 ringing in my memory: “For Kitty so loved the world, that she gave her only favorite movie, that whosoever believeth in her should not go broke, but have eternal cash.”
If you have not seen The Shawshank Redemption, I have two questions and one command. The first question: are you some kind of Alexandreey Dumbass? The second question: how did you get from 1997 to the present without watching cable television during daylight hours? The command: go watch The Shawshank Redemption. Only after you’ve done so are you allowed to return here and continue on. One hundred and forty-two minutes of narration by Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman) is the necessary prep work you need to open your heart and expand your mind.
Are you ready?
Allow us to introduce you to your situation.
This is you. Your name is Andy Dufresne.
You’re making this unhappy face because you just realized something truly awful: your are destined to spend the rest of your life stuck inside a prison for a crime you did not commit.
Shawshank State Penitentiary
This is Shawshank. It’s a prison, and it’s where you live right now.
The operative theory behind prisons is denial of choice. You can’t eat what you want. You can’t sleep when you want. You can’t travel where you like. You can’t capriciously pursue whatever ideas and activities interest you. And you cannot leave—even if you really really want to.
This is what makes prison such a severe punishment. Our lives are defined by our choices. When you deprive someone of choices, you force them to waste their limited time on this earth doing shit they don’t want to do. All the minutes passed inside of prison will be less meaningful than those that would be spent at liberty. Prison sucks out your total lifetime happiness by stripping away years worth of opportunities to pursue whatever it is that makes life worth living for you.
Does that sound… familiar?
If steak is your favorite meal, why didn’t you eat it for dinner last night? If you’re tired, why didn’t you turn your alarm off this morning and go back to sleep? If you’ve always wanted to scale the heights of Machu Picchu, why don’t you book your flight to Peru right now? If you realized you want to become a doctor, why haven’t you enrolled in medical school?
Your answer is almost certainly a variation of “I can’t.”
You can’t because you live inside a prison. Your prison is deficit.
Each month, you need to pay out money to survive and live a modest, normal life. You need money to buy water, shelter, food, clothing, transportation, education, and leisure. Let’s say that these humble needs can be met with $1,000 a month. Unless you were born into extraordinary circumstances, no one hands you $1,000 a month—meaning it’s incumbent upon you to go out and collect it, every single month. That means that you start each month with a big portion of your time already committed to just gathering enough resources not to fall behind the next month. You’re bailing water for hours upon hours in order to keep afloat.
This is why deficit is a prison. It locks each day into a routine that you didn’t choose, and prevents you from pursuing a life lived to its fullest potential for happiness. And the more hours you need to spend to appease that deficit, the less free you are.
Let me introduce you to some of the fine folks you’ll meet on the inside.
These are The Sisters. They represent your debts.
The Sisters aren’t what got you into prison, and defeating them won’t get you out again. Nonetheless, they make every day so goddamn miserable that you can’t possibly contemplate escape as long as they’re waiting for you around every corner, ready to wreck you afresh.
Debts are the worst part of being stuck inside of the cycle of deficit. They kick you when you’re down. They steal the small amount of extra resources you’re able to accumulate. They follow you, harass you, and work together to gang up against you.
They’re the first problem you should tackle inside the prison of deficit because they’re so fucking awful. The problem is that debts are big and bad. You need back up to fight them.
Captain Byron Hadley
Meet Byron Hadley, the Captain of the Guard. He is your job.
He’s a powerful ally. He has access to all the resources you’ll ever need. And if you ask him to, he will beat your debts so badly they’ll never walk again. But he doesn’t do so for free.
Full-time employment, with good pay and benefits, is still the easiest way to eliminate debts. They provide a steady stream of income without the uncertainty of entrepreneurship or the exhaustion of constant hustling. But just wanting one doesn’t make one appear, and the drawbacks can be as strong as the benefits. They gobble up half of your waking day—more, if you need to commute or work long hours. You have to spend lots of time working to make your company richer, which often saps the energy you need to do the same for yourself. You have to answer to bosses you might not respect, and work closely with people you might not like, in order to complete projects you might not give a flying fuck about. So yes, your job can help you pay off your debts—on its own horrible terms.
The Captain of the Guard is also a fickle man; you need him more than he needs you, and he can drop support for you whenever he chooses.
We live in an era where employers are markedly more powerful than employees. The high unemployment rate following the Great Recession made work scarcer, leading employees to settle for lower pay, longer hours, and rougher treatment. Although the worst of the recession seems to be behind us, the consequences linger. Labor unions are weak. Wages have stagnated. Benefits are less robust. Toxic so-called “right to work” laws have invaded over half of all states. Employees en masse have all the ferocity and independence of a thoroughly-beaten dog.
The pendulum will swing back eventually, but it hasn’t yet. Your employer is many magnitudes more powerful than you are.
The most important thing to remember is that your boss is not your friend, and your job is not your life. Work may help you beat the shit out of debt, but don’t forget that work can just as easily beat the shit out of you. Work can fuck you up in ways that debt never could. If you’ve ever worked in a toxic workplace, or had your benefits contested, or faced workplace harassment, or been laid off with no warning at the worst possible time, you know exactly how emotionally exhausting and financially impairing work can be.
In summary: you can use your job to help you fight your debts, but ultimately he’s an unreliable ally. He has his own goals, and any time they conflict with your own, his will win out. He’s a cruel and capricious fellow, but if you play your cards right, you can manipulate him to your own ends.
Warden Samuel Norton
Both your job and your debts are serious problems that can fill each day with small exhausting challenges. But you must never forget who your true enemy is. Upon the chessboard of soapstone and alabaster you have meticulously carved during your free time in prison, he is the single most powerful piece.
“I believe in two things: discipline and the Bible. Here you’ll receive both. Put your trust in the Lord; your ass belongs to me. Welcome to Shawshank.”
Meet Warden Samuel Norton. He represents our entire financial system.
This round-glasses-having motherfucker is a smug dissembler utterly at ease with horse-choking levels of hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance. He thinks of his prisoners as animals and uses them as a source of slave labor. He is completely comfortable using any illegal or reprehensible tactic so long as it personally enriches him. His unquestioned totalitarian control is a kind of self-perpetuating power that threatens to keep you locked away in Shawshank for all time, regardless of whether you deserve to be there or not.
He’s a crooked jerky jockey and he drives a crooked hoss.
Now, when I say “the financial system,” I want to note that I’m really not talking about a monolithic force. Contrary to popular opinion, it isn’t something that’s crafted by shady cabals of politicians and banks and economists, swirling their port inside velvet-draped wealth cocoons.
Rather, the system is a collective. It’s the sum of its parts. I’m a part of the system, and you are too. Our vote is our money, and the way that we spend it influences the system. Its flexible framework is built on the constant push-and-pull of the purchasing decisions we all make every day. Those purchasing decisions are influenced by a ton of things: small things, like your personal psychology and preferences; big things, like financial laws and social pressures; enormous things, like culture and history itself.
American workers work more than ever before. We are among a minority of developed countries that don’t mandate a maximum allowable work week, paid parental leave, paid sick days, or mandated annual leave. 85% of men and 66% of women work more than forty hours per week; 81% of salaried workers spend time working for free off-the-clock. American workers work more hours than Japanese, British, Canadian, Australian, and German workers.
Consider this excellent point from G. E. Miller at 20 Something Finance:
“Using data by the U.S. BLS, the average productivity per American worker has increased 400% since 1950. One way to look at that is that it should only take one-quarter the work hours, or 11 hours per week, to afford the same standard of living as a worker in 1950 (or our standard of living should be 4 times higher). Is that the case? Obviously not. Someone is profiting, it’s just not the average American worker.”
So what keeps the system in power? Simple. It’s your deficit.
If you don’t have enough money to buy a house, you have to spend more money in the long run to take out a loan. This takes away an opportunity to enrich yourself and gives that opportunity to your bank instead. In this way, your deficit helps your bank. It helps your job and your creditors too. After all, how many of us would continue to work unpaid overtime if we didn’t need to? How many of us would buy things on credit if we didn’t need to?
I know more than a few people whose job barely outpaces the cost of not having a job. What they spend in childcare and commuting alone is often enough to gobble their paychecks whole. Naturally, there are a host of services designed to make life “easier” by charging money to outsource the daily tasks of living: cooking, cleaning, driving, drinking, shopping, running errands, going to the grocery store, keeping yourself entertained, keeping yourself beautiful, keeping yourself calm, keeping yourself sane…
This is the truly insidious nature of the system. It gluts itself on your hard work, shares the bare minimum of the profits back with you, then bombards you with products and services aimed to strip you of whatever’s left.
You are the Warden’s dirt-cheap labor. Your deficit is the source of his authority, and he uses that authority to create more deficit in others. He is a shamelessness pit of greed that can never be sated. No amount of money or power will ever be enough for him. He wants his employees poor and his customers rich. He wants to keep you locked away inside the cycle of deficit for the rest of your natural life.
But you don’t have to worry about the Warden. His judgment cometh, and that right soon.
You’re Andy fucking Dufresne. And you know there’s a way out.
The Rock Hammer
You have exactly one tool. It seems laughably small and weak compared to the guns and guards and dogs and barbed wire that the Warden has at his disposal. But that one tool is all you need to escape from Shawshank forever.
It’s a rock hammer. And the rock hammer is your discretionary funds.
Let’s say you earn $1,000 each month, and $800 goes toward the stuff you need to live. The $200 you have left is open to discretionary spending—and it is the most powerful tool you will ever own. You can use this tool to tunnel your way to freedom. It might take you nineteen years to do it, but you will be free.
Of course, the rock hammer is contraband. Every single business on the planet wants to confiscate it from you. The more discretionary money you have, the harder companies will work to try to get it from you. You’ll be tempted in ways that are scientifically devised to work against you. Marketers and salespeople and influencers are the thugs hired to collect it from you. “Hey, you’ve had a long day… you’ve worked hard… you’ve earned this…”
Here’s the thing: you need your discretionary money more than anyone else, because you need it to escape. Each of those dollars is a tiny tool, and they are the only tools you will ever have to achieve financial freedom. That $200 represents your power—your power to get out of the rat race, to retire early, to work for yourself, to travel, to live your life on your own terms.
This is the most fundamental lesson we can possibly impart to you. The ultimate secret of money.
In personal finance, money isn’t the end game. Freedom is.
Imagine a reality in which more money came in every month than when out.
What would your life be like if you didn’t owe anyone any money? How would it feel to not have rent or a mortgage to pay every month? What if you even had passive income streams that filled your accounts each month automatically? What if your cost of living became so low that a full-time job was not a necessity but an option?
That would mean you have a surplus. And that is what it means to truly escape from the system.
I want to square with you: this is an extremely difficult goal. Few people reach it in their lifetimes. It may even be functionally impossible for some; after all, not everyone’s cell faces the wall of the prison. But it’s the prize on which we encourage you to keep your eyes. Even if you fall short of attaining a fully-automated money-making Rube Goldberg machine of financial safety, fantastic things will happen for you along your journey toward a surplus.
You will spend less money. You will buy less crap. You will be better prepared for emergencies. You will be debt-free. As you take these steps toward total escape, more and more options will open up to you.
The immediate benefits of your escape are obvious: you’re living life on your own terms. You get to spend your precious few days on this planet doing exactly whatever it is you want to do. But there’s a side benefit as well.
The more prisoners escape, the weaker the system becomes. Remember, it’s the prisoners that give the Warden his power. If enough people escape from the cycle of deficit, the system will be forced to respond. Perhaps it would change. Perhaps even for the better.
“Mexico. Little place right on the Pacific. You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific? They say it has no memory. That’s where I’d like to finish out my life, Red. A warm place with no memory. Open a little hotel right on the beach. Buy some worthless old boat and fix it up like new. Take my guests out charter fishing… You know, a place like that, I’d need a man who can get things.”
Zihuatanejo has everything that someone like you could want. Clear skies. Warm nights. A fresh start. Meaningful work done at your own pace. A space for the people closest to you. Zihuatanejo is the rest of your life lived exactly the way you want to live it.
Zihuatanejo isn’t endless luxury. It isn’t a mansion and a fleet of fast cars. It isn’t champagne with every meal. It isn’t servants and admirers. And it isn’t Rita Hayworth on your arm. It’s a humble, wholesome dream that comes from a spiritual understanding of the things that make you truly, deeply happy.
Everyone has a Zihuatanejo. You may not know where it is or what it looks like, but you have a lot of time to think about it. Perhaps it’s moving to another country, or opening a small business, or fixing up old cars, or doing charitable work full-time, or painting every day, or sitting on your goddamn ass and doing nothing but drinking goddamn umbrella drinks.
Whatever it is, you need to keep it in your mind at all times. When you’re tempted to spend your discretionary dollars on things that don’t substantially contribute to your overall happiness, remember your Zihuatanejo. With enough strikes of the rock hammer, you can crawl through a river of shit and come out clean on the other side.
You… headed for the Pacific…