How practicing poverty like a Stoic changed my fears about money

The fear of running out of money leaves many well-prepared future retirees in occupations they despise and even new retirees in a constant state of dread. Thousands of people are deterred from retiring and fulfilling their goals because of the “what ifs” and “buts” of surviving on savings or a fixed income. As our most valuable commodity, time, continues to elude us, we panic and agonize about our well-thought-out strategies, unsure when enough is really enough.

Since the beginning of documented history, financial anxiety has been a source of concern. From as early as the first century CE, Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca discussed the crushing consequences of economic instability in Rome. He noted, and more recent studies have confirmed, that our financial apprehension appears to be exaggerated and disconnected from the facts of most of our actual economic circumstances. Still, now, employees who have saved wisely and amassed more money than they can invest in a lifetime are plagued by the fear of transitioning from wealth accumulation to asset consumption.

Seneca, one of the most powerful men of his day, recognized that most fears paralyze us and invented a method to help us conquer them. One of his methods, now known as “negative visualization,” is to visualize the worst-case situations and remember that we will find a way to survive despite how unpleasant they are. This method weakens our fears and takes away their strength. When it came to money problems, he went a step further and physically practiced living on a limited budget, a phenomenon that stoic academics now refer to as “practicing poverty.”

In the words of Seneca:

Set aside specific days to give up everything and make yourself at home with very little. Begin to develop a relationship with poverty. And no one is worthy of God unless he has ignored wealth. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have them; I only want to make sure you don’t have any tremors when you do. And the best way to do that is to convince yourself that you can live a peaceful life without them, and to still think of them as being on the verge of disappearing.”

A few years ago before joining a big tech company, I had never learned of Seneca’s strategy. However, it was by chance that I came across it. I had just started working and had yet to receive my company stock grants. I had cash flow issues because I had locked much of my money into accounts that I couldn’t reach. I wasn’t bad, but I was in a financial bind I hadn’t encountered before.

Make no mistake: attempting to live in poverty is not the same as living in poverty. Anyone might legitimately accuse me of being a poor dilettante or pretender. That an individual with wealth and hope will never understand the despair of the truly poor. I’m not trying to diminish the suffering of those who are really poor. However, among my friends are both the very poor and the very rich. My poor friends have more to teach us about persistence and what it takes to live a happy life than those who live in luxury.

My experiment yielded yet another surprising result. Knowing that I can live on less has given me the courage to enjoy the fruits of my labors without fear of running out of money. On the other hand, it has taught me that making impulsive purchases does not make me happy or change my life. When you buy yourself a treat, you may get a slight rush of endorphins, but the happiness returns to normal once the novelty wears off.

Practicing poverty is a demonstration of how wasting time thinking about money for unnecessary consumption is a waste of time. It’s a way of demonstrating to yourself that the thing you’re afraid of may not be the one you should be concerned about. Practicing poverty teaches me that, no matter how bad things got, I could survive on a fraction of what I was used to by relying on my wits and my newfound borderlessness. The understanding has made a huge difference.

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