Imagine Being Owned By No One?

Way back on July 30th 2009, Trent Hamm of The Simple Dollar ran a post John?s ?Campground? – Some Thoughts on Investing with Added Personal Value. Rarely in my life have I been so intrigued at the life and philosophy of a person I don?t even know, but John is a virtual revolutionary against the backdrop of the world as we know it in the 21st century. Not a throw back mind you, but a man or ordinary means charting his own course in a world that?s going in the opposite direction.

Trent has many interesting observations about his best friend, all well worth reading on his site, but my take on him veers in a somewhat different direction. What ever anyone?s observations of him, John is a compelling person, and there is much to be learned from his story.

Imagine Being Owned By No One?
Imagine Being Owned By No One?

The basics about John

John is a ?single male in his early thirties and he works in quality control in a technical industry, earning a pretty solid income?. He also enjoys the work that he does.

He?s a committed saver?in 2007, he saved 53% of his income. Remember, he?s in his early 30s, single and works in a technical industry, not exactly the profile of a prolific saver in our day and time.

He grew up ?below the federal poverty level? (his own words from a related article on The Simple Dollar).

He owns a modest car he paid cash for.

He has no intention of ever retiring.

He lives in a very small apartment in a poor neighborhood, and bicycles to work.

He?s risk adverse and keeps his money in savings accounts, nothing fancier.

He recently purchased 20 acres of undeveloped land (the main subject of the article) in suburban Des Moines, Iowa, presumably for cash.

His intention for the land is to build on it gradually, paying cash for any improvements, and doing most of the work himself.

His ?vision? for the land is to turn it into a self-sustaining homestead.

The conclusion of The Simple Dollar article

Trent?s basic take on the land purchase by his friend was that it would (and is) providing a return on John?s money that can?t be measured by money alone.

He summarizes his conclusions?

?The real value, though, is that John is really enjoying the investment? To me, that?s a great investment. I don?t care about whether he gets a 1% return or a 10% return on his money from this. What matters is that he?s enjoying that investment. It?s bringing joy into his life in a way that a chunk of money in the stock market could never do? The return you get from an investment isn?t always represented in dollars and cents. Sometimes an investment can return a lot more than that.?

My take: John is owned by no one

Trent?s interpretation of John?s land purchase is at the center of the article, and his point is well taken. But as two people can look at the same thing and come away with different interpretations, I took something from the story that goes in a completely different direction: John is owned by no one.

Consider the following about John:

  • He?s cash rich
  • He has no debt
  • He lives beneath his means, living on only about half of his income
  • He has few possessions, and therefore he has little to worry about or lose
  • He has no speculative investments, such as stocks, to lose sleep over
  • He enjoys the work he does
  • Though he aspires to nothing, he?s moving forward at an impressive clip

Put it all together and what does it spell? I-N-D-E-P-E-N-D-E-N-C-E!

John probably isn?t worried about losing his job. Able to live on so little, with no debt and plenty of cash to back him up, the loss of his job would be little more than a bump in the road for him compared to what it would be for most of us. Sure, he?d eventually have to work at something in order to avoid depleting his savings completely, but the impact of the income disruption would be minor and temporary. He probably could live for months on an unemployment check alone, and return to work when ever he?s ready. No nagging major expenses are there to tug at his mind and his emotions.

Can we dare to speculate that he enjoys his work in large part because the survival aspect associated with employment doesn?t exist in his world? How productive and creative could we all be if our survival didn?t depend almost exclusively on our paychecks? Could the promise of retirement represent our rebellion against our dependence on our paychecks? Or by extension, on our employers?

No wonder he doesn?t plan on retiring. With few of the financial stresses most of us attach to work, there?s nothing to run away from. He?s free to focus on being productive, contributing to society and enjoying fellowship with his coworkers.

And this is an outstanding time to interject that John isn?t an entrepreneur with generous sources of passive income affording him the simple life of his choice. He?s a working man like so many, with a relatively ordinary job, and what passive income he does have is from low, single digit returns on his savings. This is hardly the stuff of get rich quick stories.

John is only in his early 30s, yet he?s attained a level of independence that most people dream of achieving only through retirement much later in life. Is it possible that we might have it all wrong, banking so heavily as we do these days on liberation through retirement? Do we perhaps aspire to the wrong thing? After all, in most respects, John is living now the life we hope to have one day. Could that life be closer and more attainable than we dare to think?

It seems that the ?secret? to John?s success is found mostly in good habits, in decisions he made early in life about how he wants to live. Most of us, early in life, dream of the things we?d like to have, then spend the rest of our lives figuring out how we can attain financial independence without having to give any of it up. Logically, that?s a strategy prone to both failure and wishful thinking.

Can anyone live like that?

I?m not entirely certain that anyone can live the life that John does, not completely, but that isn?t the point. Anyone can incorporate elements of John?s lifestyle and money management skills into his or her life, and in my opinion, achieve substantial improvements in their quality of life. After all, nothing John does is anything but basic.

It can be argued that John has no family to support, and as a result, no house with it?s attendant mortgage payment and repairs, but that doesn?t make his lifestyle and money management habits irrelevant to our lives.

We can choose?

  • To live beneath our means
  • Greater savings over greater spending
  • To forego debt when we don?t have the money to buy something
  • To devote more of our investments to more stable vehicles that will eliminate the stress of market swings and collapses
  • To live a life with fewer possessions
  • To live in a more modest home and drive a more modest car
  • To either enjoy the work we do or to shift into a career we can enjoy
  • To decide not to worry what others think about us or what we are or aren?t doing

Each of these are choices we can make, and even more significant, to live by.

John, it seems, spends his time living in the moment, rather than planning a high priced exit strategy from his current life. Good things are coming out of it, including financial independence, reduced stress and an absence of obstacles that might stop him from doing the things he wants to do in his life.

I?ve known a few people who live a life similar to John?s, and they all have one thing in common: they already have what the rest of us work for and aspire to.

And no one owns them.

Do you know anyone like John? Are there any stories you could add to this one? Is this a life worth imitating, at least in part?

( Photo by kaylan02 )

4 Responses to Imagine Being Owned By No One?

  1. I dream about being owned by no one and I hope one day to make it a reality.

    I also work in the tech industry and it is rewarding and exciting. But, being on call 24×7 is not my idea of the perfect life.

  2. Bret – I’ve known others in the tech field being in the same position with the 24/7 thing. Job security, but no life! A good friend of mine once said that in every career field, no matter how glamorous, prosperous or exciting it seems on the surface, there’s always a payback–something about it that’s totally undesireable. That seems to be a universal truth.

    What I liked about the person in the post above is that he seems to be an ordinary person but one who has a purpose staked out for himself that’s moving him toward a future full of options. Most of us do the opposite and box ourselves in in exchange for job security and a higher paycheck. This guy is looking beyond the moment to prepare for what ever he decides to drift toward. He’s a quiet model for the rest of us.

  3. Great post Kevin, John should teach a course in financial independence at the ripe ole age of 30 something. That is great, John is a real visionary, I wonder if his parents or some mentor were instrumental in guiding him towards frugal principals. Never-the-less this is a inspiring story!

  4. Absolutely Jim! Unfortunately, we often look at more traditional success stories for inspiration, when the best examples might be close by in life. I’ve known people like John, and it always seems it’s all about adjusting your attitude and adopting good money habits. Of course, it also means letting go of a bunch of stuff we consider to be “normal”, and that’s where the formuly usually breaks down.

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