This post is partially inspired by fellow personal finance blogger, and early retirement seeker, Mr. 1500, who recently discussed his exasperated attempts to instill a little financial fortitude in his younger sister.
I’ve come to strongly believe that you cannot change others, for better or worse. So what I have decided to do is become the change I wish to see in others through action.
I find that people have to want to change themselves, and without experiencing some kind of epiphany will likely remain the way they are for the rest of their lives. Trying too hard to change people will often drive them further away from you, and closer to whatever it is you’re trying to get them to avoid. This is because people naturally get defensive when others – especially those closest to them – question their decisions or lifestyle. If you’re trying to effect change in someone you become an external force which inevitably puts the other party in a position to internalize their feelings and emotions.
I realized this many years ago when dealing with my own mother. My mom was never emotionally stable, but after my father left our family when my three sisters and I were all very young my mother became even more unstable. For perspective, I was eight when my father left and my mother was still pregnant with my youngest sister. She was a mild drug user even before this event, but become engrossed in drug use as hopelessness and depression sunk in.
Obviously, she was in no condition to take care of four young children and this fact became quite evident very quickly on. She would often leave the house for weeks at a time and it was during these times I became quite talented at shoveling neighbors’ snow and cutting their grass to provide a small income which would provide enough money to buy a little food here and there.
As our neighborhood on the east side of Detroit continued to deteriorate, it seemed like it was the physical manifestation of my mother’s mental condition. The more she turned to increasingly dangerous drugs, the more our physical space seemed to rot away.
I suppose it was because of these experiences in my life that I really developed the foundation of mental toughness necessary to persevere through difficult times. Exposure to the nasty side of life can make a concept like seeking early retirement seem downright easy.
Luckily, it was only after a few years of living through this proverbial hell that my mother gave up legal rights to us four children to her sister and brother-in-law, making my aunt and uncle our legal guardians and permanent parents. For me, this was like winning the lottery. No more wondering if my mother was going to pawn off prized possessions for drug money. I didn’t have to worry about food or living in poverty. It was a huge change, and set the rest of my life up until this moment in motion.
Anyway, the reason I’m opening up about this is because even after losing her four children my mother never changed. She continued to deteriorate until she eventually died of a drug overdose/suicide back in 2003.
But I did have one last conversation with her, and it’s this conversation that absolutely convinced me that people have to want to change themselves. I saw my mom the Christmas before she died, and although we hadn’t been close after she gave up legal guardianship, I did occasionally have very short talks with her. Most of our discussions involved me trying to figure out why she couldn’t be normal, and her rebuffs at the notion.
It was during one of these brief conversations that I finally asked her if she ever thought about changing before it was too late. I opined that the road she was on surely led only to destruction, and she couldn’t go on forever. At this point, she was in her early 40s but she looked much, much older due to decades of hard drug use. I asked her point blank: “You can’t make it much longer like this. Don’t you want to change?”
Her answer was most enlightening.
She basically advised me that it was I that was crazy, and that she enjoyed living the way she did. For her, having a regular 9-5 and all of the pain that normal life comes with was no way to live. She informed me that she never planned on changing because she couldn’t imagine living a life without constant drugs, partying and escaping. To her, I was a sucker. And it was in this moment that I realized she was truly lost. Although I really knew deep inside she was never going to change, I suppose one holds out a little hope for the unlikely. But hearing her speak with such disdain about a life without chemically modifying her brain cemented whatever subconscious revelations I already had about her ultimate fate. And, of course, it was only months after this conversation that she died.
My mother is not everyone, I realize this. Everyone is different. However, I believe my experience with her is a microcosm of relationships around the world. I think most people have interpersonal relationships with others – be it loved ones, friends or co-workers – they wish they could change, shape or improve in a manner they think would better that other person. But therein lies the problem: people often live a certain way because they want to. And questioning the manner in which they decide to live can often come across as preaching or belittling, because the person attempting to change often thinks they’re right and the other person is wrong. But the decisions people make are their own; we live in a world of free will.
My mother chose to use drugs, even knowing there was another choice: to not use drugs and keep her children. Much the same as the aforementioned blogger’s sister makes seemingly poor financial decisions: living in a luxury apartment and taking cross-country trips without care of cost are choices she makes. She could easily choose to save money and rent a room with someone else, or pick up a book on personal finance. But she doesn’t. She chooses to live the way she does because, to her, that’s the sane way to live. Suffering through delayed gratification for an unpromised future doesn’t make sense for some people. They’d rather choose to live in the now and let the financial side of those decisions work themselves out, or not.
I lived a life of poor financial decisions all the way through college and into my mid-20s. I racked up college debt to the tune of over $30,000 before ultimately leaving college due to having an unclear idea on what exactly I wanted to do with my life while simultaneously dealing with the death of my mother during my junior year. I blew an inheritance of over $60,000 by living a middle-class life without the middle-class income to support it. I often found myself with less than $50 in my checking account, and once had to return cans for the 10-cent recycle refund just to afford a movie ticket. I rented a one-bedroom apartment while in college even though I should have stayed home with my parents.
Why did I make poor decisions? Because I could. I didn’t want to save money; that would be boring and a waste of time. I didn’t make a lot of money, so how could I possibly have enough to save? I inherited money, but why save it when I could go out and make myself feel better by buying a Corvette? I continued to make poor decisions all the way through most of my 20s, until all of the sudden I didn’t.
I wanted change. I wanted more out of my life; more control, more freedom, more time. And I realized that if I didn’t take the time to change my ways then I would be stuck where I was forever: in a place of helplessness, negative net worth and no control.
Did people along the way try to change me? Sure enough. My aunt advised me it was a horrible idea to move out of the house when I was 19 to go rent a one bedroom apartment when I couldn’t even afford college. My aunt basically forbade me to buy a Corvette when I was 21 years old. I was told many times that I wasn’t making good long-term choices with capital.
And who did I listen to? Myself, many years later.
I took control of my life. I moved halfway across the United States to get a fresh start, avoid state income taxes to maximize free capital and make it easier to get by without a car. I read books on personal finance and investing. I decided to start living well below my means to build a positive net worth, and eventually a six-figure portfolio. I ate ramen noodles every day for lunch for a year straight to save money on food. I sold my car, moved to a cheaper apartment on the bus line and worked hard every single day at my day job until I eventually got promoted to a higher-paying department.
And best of all I started this blog in early 2011 to not only chronicle the possibilities of early retirement on an average income, but also to be the change I wanted to see in others. I realized years ago that while I can’t change others, I can change myself. And by doing so I become an inspiration for others who want to change themselves. Folks, you don’t stumble upon a blog about early retirement, investing and financial independence unless you want to.
I don’t preach the benefits of living frugally, early retirement or financial independence to others because that isn’t the way to effect change in the world. I believe you make the world a better place through leading by example. By living my life in a way that’s most beneficial to my mental and physical health, as well as wealth, I hope others see that and want to live their life in a similar manner. Although I have seen the light and I think chasing financial freedom is a phenomenal way to improve one’s life, I don’t necessarily believe this is a noble goal for everyone. So I don’t push what I believe on others, but I do hope to be the person interested parties contact if they want true change in their life.
We can’t change others, but together we can become the change we wish to see.
How about you? What do you think about changing people?
Thanks for reading.
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