Why I Choose to Not Be Rich


map of sri lanka
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By Paul Fowler

In its
Money Mic series, LearnVest hands over the podium to people with controversial views about money. Today, one man explains why embracing a non-rich lifestyle suits him best.

Around 10 years ago, when I was 20, I traveled to Sri Lanka. It was a trip I'd dreamt about for years -- and a country that, for some inexplicable reason, had always fascinated me. I had just graduated from Cardiff University in Wales, and it was my first time setting foot outside Europe, where I'd grown up.

map of sri lanka

The vacation was everything I'd wanted it to be, and it ignited one of the biggest passions in my life: travel. But it wasn't just the country's spectacular tourist spots that left a lasting impact -- one brief encounter actually changed the way I look at life.

One afternoon, while in the outskirts of Sri Lanka's capital city, Colombo, I took a walk with my friend's grandfather through the fields near his house. We came across two of his friends, who invited me into their home -- a mud hut with no electricity -- for a meal of curried chicken and rice.

I savored the food for its flavor, but I felt a sense of guilt, too. These people didn't have to be so generous to me, a stranger, but here they were, offering me what little they had. I explained this to them in an attempt to express my deep appreciation. "It's nothing," one of them said as he held my hand. "We have more than enough."

A Significant and Symbolic Gesture

My friend's grandfather later explained that Sri Lanka is a country rich in natural resources, so people generally have enough to eat. And because of the Buddhist values inherent in the culture, many feel completely satisfied owning very few material possessions. The experience altered me profoundly.

Although I wouldn't sign up to live in similar circumstances -- I've grown accustomed to certain luxuries, like smartphones and running water -- my perspective on what it means to live well is different. Since then, I've adopted the belief that the less you have in terms of possessions, the more you're able to find what really drives you. Since my trip to Sri Lanka 10 years ago, I've lived in London; Buenos Aires; Bogota, Colombia; and Berlin -- and I've traveled extensively in South America, Europe and Asia.

Of course, I didn't always think like this.

Of course, I didn't always think like this. Growing up, I received a very different message from my dad, a software engineer, who constantly regretted not having more money. And, for a while, I adopted a similar outlook: More money was worth striving for -- it was the key to lasting happiness and an important benchmark for success.

I remember sitting with him one morning when I was around 14, reading the paper. There was an article about my school, which was one of the worst in town. I could see how disappointed he was -- not just in the school, but also in himself. He told me as much, saying he was sad he couldn't send me to a more prestigious school.

I also noticed his discomfort when we'd visit friends of my mom. They were doctors, and their houses reflected their sizable wages. My dad never felt at ease -- and never invited them to our house. It was, he thought, too small and underwhelming.

What I See for My Financial Future

Do I ever wish I had more money? Sure. I work hard, and it's natural to want to see just reward for the work that you do. But the truth is that I believe this bootstrapping phase of my current job will only make it more rewarding when things work out for us -- I thrive on the excitement and challenges you face in the startup world.

Of course, there have been times when managing my financial situation has been difficult. One day in Argentina, I remember walking by an empanada shop -- the cheapest food you can get -- and realizing that, with the change in my pocket, I couldn't even afford one. I had to ask myself: Was I really living how I wanted to?

And even now that my $1,000 monthly paycheck is totally sufficient (it's also the most I've ever made in my life), I occasionally wonder what it would be like to have more money. It scares me that I haven't made any contributions to my retirement. And I'd love to be able to buy more luxuries, like a good stereo system, and better Christmas gifts for family and friends.

But I don't want the material items enough to make money more of a priority in my life. For me, money signifies the beginning of attachment -- and attachments would stop me from living the lifestyle I love. I'm afraid these things might prevent me from leaving Berlin when my next adventure calls. It might seem illogical, but there's something about the challenge of a shoestring budget that captivates me.

Dad Helps Out Sometimes

When things have gotten really tough, my dad -- who's been really supportive of my commitment to this lifestyle -- has helped me out by sending $100 here and there, for which I'm incredibly grateful, especially since it's always been my choice to live how I do.

I actually think my choices have positively influenced my dad's own outlook on life. He's started to slow down, choosing to work less and spend more time with his grandchildren.

Is this life sustainable? I think so. Even when I start a family one day, I know that my attitude toward money won't change, especially since my girlfriend feels the same way that I do. Unlike my dad, it's not my goal to give my (future) kids the fanciest education. I want to travel with them, and give them a decent, comfortable upbringing, just like I had.

Appreciate What You Have

But, most of all, I'd like to teach them what I learned in Sri Lanka: If you appreciate what you've got, then you have everything you need.

In reality, my siblings and I had a very comfortable lifestyle. My family had two cars, we went on holiday every year, and we lived in a nice area of town. Looking back, my dad's desire to want more prevented him from taking stock of what he actually had -- a loving wife and kids, a spacious house, a job he enjoyed -- and appreciating it.

If it weren't for my life-changing trip to Sri Lanka, I might have followed in Dad's footsteps-and become obsessed with chasing the happiness that'd surely accompany a bigger paycheck.

In fact, just a year ago, I was offered a job that paid more than I've ever made in my life. But although I was tempted, I turned it down, opting instead to work for a lesser-paying but more exciting startup that also affords me time to travel, as well as the flexibility to work abroad and pursue my own happiness.

Why I Love Living the Non-Rich Lifestyle

For the last nine months, I've been living in Berlin, working as a marketing manager for a travel-focused startup and earning around $1,000 a month. The money isn't much by any account, but it allows me to be social, eat well and cover my $400 rent. It's the most I've ever earned. In Bogota, where I lived for three years, I made around $800 a month, and it was even less in Buenos Aires -- about $400.

You could argue that, with more money, I'd be able to travel more -- but it wouldn't be the same kind of lifestyle that I've come to love. Because more than just journeying around the world, I enjoy the challenge of being in a completely new environment -- with minimal financial resources.

What I've come to learn is I don't want experiences that money (or at least a lot of money) can buy. I don't want my connection to people in Colombia, for example, to be a commodity -- a brief sojourn into privileged areas of Bogota where I only meet people who are trained to show the best of the country.

I'd much rather sink into the culture of a country and find my way through it by making a living there. I want to earn my place. With more money, I might miss out on such rich, life-changing experiences.

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That will all change the minute that fellow and his wife have children. Children need health care, education, shelter, clothes. They want toys and video games and to play sports. Sorry but nobody can live on love alone. And of course, there's retirement. Even though Scotland has socialized medicine, you still need funds to live on for food, shelter, etc. And everything keeps getting progressively more expensive. Cheap gas is temporary. As more people are born into this world (8 billion presently) more people will be fighting for food and clean, potable water. And despite having birth control available, many people (for various reasons like religion) REFUSE to use it. And good luck trying to get the Rich to share --- the answer is NO. So save up your money for a rainy day. That day is coming.

March 29 2015 at 12:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Any thing our children need they have better then I and my Wife had growin up thats why we give all we can too our two wonderfull sons Love you all Dad

March 27 2015 at 1:15 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


March 19 2015 at 2:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Why do you waste a full page of a kid that has not grown up enough to know that there is more to life than just getting by today. Tomorrow his kids and his lazy ass while have to be taken care of by the hard working people.

July 17 2014 at 7:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Enjoy the life you want as long as you don't go back to the governemnt when you get old to take care of you.

July 17 2014 at 7:16 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

One of the most difficult aspects of a Western lifestyle is when you don't want what everyone thinks you should want.... when you don't value what they value. You lose a lot of friends because you lack shared interests. They often demean what you feel is important, while you devalue what they consider important. Moreover, most employers want nothing to do with workers who don't have their eyes on the prize, which is money & position. They do not understand the mindset. Other cultures will accept you, your own will not.... unless you have so much money that everyone knows you can indulge yourself in whatever you want.

July 17 2014 at 11:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to legacykwst's comment

Most people don't care what you want, as long as you don't want what they worked for…like free healthcare, food stamps, government subsidized housing, and especially if it's because of choices that you made.

July 17 2014 at 5:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ted_wilson7's comment

Beautifully put, of course he could call Dad for some money but he expects money when Dad dies.

July 17 2014 at 7:44 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down

Take what you need..........................not what you want.

As you age, you will be Happy !

Learn to work at something useful to others.

Thanks, Mom !

July 17 2014 at 9:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The only problem is when you want to work, and hiring managers just see that you didn't cutthroat your way to more money more problems. You work hard at what you do do, but never saw the need to live beyond your means, seems to be seen as failure. Which is silly. If you navigate life, and are content, one would think that is the perfect life. Higher-ups just seem to like drama.

July 17 2014 at 5:32 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

All of the idiots on this blog calling this guy a mooch are stupid D-bags... Society took a turn for stupid about a 80 years ago when families stopped living together and everyone was convinced to go out and pay their own way through life. Working together as a team gets more done than working as individuals, and that also applies in living life... In my household, we have a grandma, two kids, and me and the wife.. I have never had to pay a low income day care worker to teach my kids about life along with 20 other kids. The hours between 3pm and 7pm have given me the time to talk with my kids about drugs, why good grades are important, why reputation is important, etc... If I was off working to pay my own way through life instead of splitting bills with the mother in law, my kids would grow up clueless.. When people give me the business for living with my mother in law, I tell them I am going to pay it all back by letting my kids live with me.... To a lot of you losers, I am probably a mooch too... But, the way I see it, I am getting a helping hand to save and invest money, and in 10 years I will do the same for my kids and their children. If any of you ever took the time to study the rich, this is exactly the way they live. If me and my wife would have continued living paycheck to paycheck on our own, my kids would never have been given a $1000 violin or be able to take weekly violin lessons from a Julliard trained violinist. I would never have been able to buy a motorcycle to save money on gas in the summer time. I would never have been able to send my kids to camps. I would never have been able to buy my kids ATVs. I would not be putting away thousands and thousands of dollars in the bank account to buy stocks with at the right time. By living with my mother in law, we have gone from working class barely getting by to having hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank and live the life of the wealthy... All because my mother in law decided to open up her heart and tell society to get lost. Everyone from my sister in law, to uncles in law, and my mother in laws friends tried to push their values on her and tell her to throw us out and make us suffer on our own... But, she decided that she loved my wife and our kids and wanted to give us a chance to improve our lives.. A mother's love trumped every a-hole's opinion on being hateful and now we are set. My wife went from a waitress to a CPA accountant. My day trading went from a lousy $30,000 to over a half million and I don't even have to day trade anymore. I can just collect dividends now. We could move out and pay our own way through life, but we are a happy family now. My mother in law loves having her daughter and her grandkids in her everyday life. We are surrounded by angry people who live by a-hole societal rules like paying your own way through life, but we are all happy and wealthy. This house we live in was purchased for $40,000 so we have no rent just insurance and taxes.

July 16 2014 at 7:51 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Mooching off dad, wow.

July 16 2014 at 6:59 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply