The Evolution Of How I Think About Money
I thought a lot about money this week. I think a lot about money every week, to be honest. Often not in a good way. I’m very paranoid about it. I tell myself it’s out of necessity, but that’s not true.
It’s really just a subconscious mechanism I use to motivate myself. To not lose sight of my goals. It’s efficient in that regard, but in no way is how I view money perfect. So I can’t give you “the ultimate way to think about money.” Because I haven’t found it.
What I can do is tell you how I thought about money at different stages of my life. Because there has been progress. Maybe you’ll recognize yourself. Maybe following my evolution of thinking can help speed up your own.
Let’s find out.
Age 0–12: What’s money?
Sure, I learned about pocket money, keeping a budget and that adults had to work to make money, but I never felt the need to know more. I always had everything I needed.
I don’t know how long this period should ideally last, but I know it’s precious. To shelter a child from all the turmoils of money — at least for a while — is a gift. It allows young kids to learn to navigate some of the other, complicated aspects of life without being burdened by one of the biggest ones.
Age 13–15: If you wait long enough, money might fall from the sky.
Around the time I became interested in gadgets, gadgets became expensive. I remember paying 1010 German Mark for the PS2 when it came out — Christmas money. Whatever I wanted, I could usually just hold out for my birthday, or Christmas, or Easter, and I’d have enough money to get it.
I had the chance to get a paper route, but didn’t. Why do hard, manual labor for $3/hr if you don’t have to? To see what it feels like. To motivate yourself to find a better way.
I wish I’d learned that lesson back then, but it’d take me a little longer.
Age 16: More education = more money.
In 2008 I got my first holiday job: Pulling staples out of shoe soles for 8 hours a day to replace their price tags. I had always known that a good education is the key to making money, but it was only then that lesson finally sunk in.
At some point you have to experience the consequences of even the most basic, widely known principles of money — or your ego will keep you from fully embracing them.
Age 18: Money = Happiness.
The height of hubris. Because school came easy to me, I spent most of my days fantasizing about how much money I’d make. And how I’d make it. And what I’d spend it on. But I didn’t do anything. I was a dreamer.
I think we all need this at some point. I haven’t met anyone who hasn’t gone through this phase. When you see someone in it, don’t patronize them. They have to hit the wall on their own.
Age 21: Money ≠ Happiness. Money = Painkiller.
After spending most of my first 4 semesters working myself to the bone for the money-focused college degree I’d picked, I finally caught a break during my US exchange. I had plenty of spare time, which I used for reading, working on my habits and learning from famous corporate dropouts, like Leo Babauta, James Altucher and Tim Ferriss.
I realized the race for prestigious consultant positions was a race to the bottom. Most of these people weren’t happy because their work lacked purpose. They were only compensated for hard, grueling work. And the damages paid were never enough.
Could there be a better way?
Age 23: Making money is hard.
Finally! Enough learning, time to do. Isn’t that what the Bachelor-Master-system is for? Taking a gap year to become a freelancer?
I quickly learned the self-employed world is even more competitive than the corporate one. You have to convince people to give you money, which is hard. Harder still, you have to find them first. But it’s a lot more fun than just doing what you’re told.
With my little translating website and my first cold acquired customer for $10, at least I was building momentum.
Age 24: Making money is easy.
The philosophy during my first year was this: Say yes to anything. It works. And it scales, too. People heard about me and they hired me. Soon, I had a decent number of clients for my new coaching business and a recurring gig with a local tax accountant.
When the people who hired me liked what I did, I just offered to do more of the same. Or do the same for people they knew. Find something, anything that works, and do more of that.
Age 24: Never trade time for money.
The tax gig was paid hourly. 15€. Whoever can buy your time for money won’t think much of you. After all, they can get you for a fixed exchange rate. And it’s just money. So if they have a lot of resources, they’ll throw as many at you as they need to.
There are a lot of things we pay for by the hour: parking, swimming, car rentals. Humans shouldn’t be one of them.
Everyone is more valuable than that. Everyone.
Age 24: Making money the right way is hard.
Some of the services the firm offered were in restructuring. Basically, they protected companies that were about to go bankrupt from going bankrupt. But isn’t that the whole point of capitalism?
I realized very few of the clients and employees shared my values. But who would? And what would they pay me for?
How you make your money is more important than how much you make. When you’re just starting out, the how is a luxury you can’t afford. But it’s also one you mustn’t forget.
Age 24: Money isn’t linear.
The same year I got a huge ghostwriting gig — which also sucks, btw. I made 35% of my annual income in 6 weeks.
Wait, that’s possible? We’re conditioned to pay in consistent increments and, because of the old job model, we believe money must also come in linearly. It doesn’t.
Earning in bulk is real. Once you open yourself to the idea, it expands your creativity around making money. A lot.
Age 24: Money isn’t fast.
One step I’m proud of is taking 10% of my monthly income to save in cash and 10% to invest in stocks from day one. The power of compounding interest is hard to see before you’ve missed it.
Time and money are friends. Never play one against the other. Move some of your money out of your erroneous reach and let it do its thing.
Age 24: Invest in yourself.
I wrestled with myself before buying a course about building an email list for $300. What a waste of time. I didn’t just learn, I finally took action. Now I never worry about the price of books, or seminars, or other educational material.
You either learn a new skill or do a new thing. Or both. If nothing else, you learn a new lesson about money. No losers here.
Age 25: Money doesn’t always make sense.
In 2016 I launched a daily book summary project with some affiliate promotion built in. 3 months in I wrote a guest post sharing the how, including my results and income so far. When it landed on Reddit, the response was: “This is BS. It’s not working. This won’t ever make money.”
Now the same project makes half of my income, even after I’ve reduced the effort I put into it by 95%.
Money doesn’t always make sense. When you think that’s what might be happening and can afford it, why not keep going until you find out?
Age 25: Making money without sacrificing your health is hard.
Once you learn that making money is easy, but that finding the right way is hard and that each next step could make or break your year, it’s hard to let go.
You’re so focused on next week, next month, next year that you forget you’ll live tomorrow, even if you stop working for the rest of the day.
Each time your health forces you to take a break from work, you learn to walk the line a bit better. Maybe one day I can dance on the rope.
Age 25: Give value for money.
When working with a very successful freelancer, I finally learned the alternative to hourly billing: charge for value. Unlike time, there’s no limit to the value you can bring to the table.
It might take an industry veteran 5 days what takes an amateur team 5 months. They both have the same hours in the day, but only one has 20 years of experience.
People ultimately pay for solutions, not your time. And those that don’t shouldn’t be your customers anyway.
Age 26: Buy back time with money.
Since starting my Master’s, I’ve outsourced a few tasks on Upwork and Fiverr. It’s not that I couldn’t have done them, it’s that my time is better spent elsewhere. Even if it’s getting an ice cream and taking a break to be more productive later.
Instead of selling the scarcest asset you have for one that’ll always come and go, why not make the trade the other way around?
Age 26: Money buys options.
Few people will leave the cinema if the movie’s bad. But the money’s gone either way, so how does it help if you throw your time down the hole too? I’ve recently abandoned bad books, skipped paid for events and generally said no more.
Trying to view money as giving you options, rather than obligations, helps obsess about it less, all while making better decisions.
Age 26: Money = Freedom.
This is how far I’ve come. Right now, for me money isn’t about achieving certain outcomes. It’s mostly about avoiding others. Like selling my time. Or doing work I don’t enjoy.
Great writers need the freedom to go to great lengths and then abandon all the results. That’s the kind of investigative journalism the subscription model once made possible. The kind of freedom the kind people at Medium try to reestablish once again.
To me, making money is about creating that freedom for myself. I might be too paranoid about it, but at least it’s in the right place in my heart.
You know how it is with money: Always hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
Huh. I guess I learned a new lesson today. Good. The evolution continues.