FI On A Green Table

Rationalobserver, Cliff Palace, CC BY-SA 4.0

It is possible these days to stay perpetually distracted, which may be why some people talk about the need to “be present”. I like this idea of being present and focusing on my wife and kids when we are together. It’s unfortunate how easy it is for me to get distracted with trivial things and not give the people I love my full attention. Another area where some of us are lacking presence is in our personal finances. Even after consuming financial advice books, seminars, and radio programs some people continue to live in a financial illusion. So a different perspective might be helpful, and Mesa Verde seems like a good place to start. Much of my youth was spent in the Southwestern United States and I was fascinated by the history of the Anasazi people, also called the Ancestral Puebloans. They lived in the area now known as the four corners region of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. Mesa Verde in Southwestern Colorado was home to a large number of Ancestral Puebloans for approximately 700 years, from about AD 600 to 1300. According to the National Parks Service, sometime during the late 1190s, after primarily living on the mesa top for 600 years, many Ancestral Pueblo people began living in pueblos they built beneath the overhanging cliffs. The structures ranged in size from one-room storage units to villages of more than 150 rooms. While still farming the mesa tops, they continued to reside in the alcoves, repairing, remodeling, and constructing new rooms for nearly a century. By the late 1270s, the population began migrating south into present-day New Mexico and Arizona. By 1300, the Ancestral Puebloan occupation of Mesa Verde ended.

Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to visit Mesa Verde when I was a kid, but Mrs. R and I took our children to see it once. It’s a rare treasure that in my mind rivals the pyramids of Egypt, and far too many Americans take it for granted. Seeing the structures built into the side of the cliffs by these ancient people is an amazing spectacle. If you allow yourself to imagine the men, women, boys, and girls who once lived there, your mind will start to be transformed. They were human beings just like us, with the same physical, emotional, and spiritual make up; people who raised children, worked to survive, built homes, created products, and were members of a family and community. Mesa Verde is massive and it takes some time to explore. One thing that stood out to me as we looked at the many museum exhibits and archaeological dig sites, is the technological progress the people achieved. The Ancestral Puebloans raised their standard of living over the many years that they lived in the Mesa Verde region. They went from living in log covered pits on the mesa tops to building elaborate communities with adobe kivas and dwellings. The environment was often harsh; survival required hard work and was sometimes difficult to achieve. But, I think these ancient people were probably happier than most people are today.  

When you visit Mesa Verde you can drive to the top of a mesa, look back across the valley and see an entire cliff dwelling down below; similar to being on a balcony. You can also hike to some of the cliff dwellings and are allowed to climb down ladders into a few of the rooms. Walking through the dwellings you feel the temperature change, hear echoes, smell the dirt and you start to imagine what your life would have been like if you were born an Ancestral Puebloan. I like to think of it as being able to view Mesa Verde from two perspectives, at a distance overlooking the entire system and also living inside of it. Mesa Verde is literally ancient history with which you probably share no personal experiences, removing emotion and allowing the mind to investigate, analyze, and imagine possibilities. This is the kind of perspective many of us need to gain when thinking about our finances. We need to stand across the valley and look at the whole system; the entire society. Then we need to explore our individual situation like we are walking through the rooms of a Mesa Verde dwelling. Sometimes we need to temporarily separate from our personal experiences and emotions in order to perform an honest analysis of how we view money in society and in our own life. This is what Mrs. R and I call Step 1: Wake up!

When I explored Mesa Verde with my family we asked each other questions and analyzed what we saw. We asked questions like, why did the Ancestral Puebloans choose this area to live? How did they access and store water and food while living on the side of a cliff? Was it necessary to sometimes live away from the cliff dwellings while hunting or farming? What was an Ancestral Puebloan child’s life like compared to a kid’s experience today? These kinds of questions can be fun and open up conversations about different approaches to living. A similar analysis of your financial choices is beneficial, but be aware that you may need to guard against your emotional biases preventing you from considering different approaches to money. If you’re unsure how to get the right perspective, you can start by playing the same game we did at Mesa Verde and ask questions about your life. Why do you live where you do? How do you acquire and store food and other necessities? Is it the most efficient and cost effective way? Could you live in a different location while working? Are there different experiences you wish your children could have?

Mrs. R and I have achieved success in our personal finances primarily by transforming our thinking. There are lots of best practices and schools of thought on optimizing finances, and at various points during our marriage we have followed step-by-step advice offered by several authors. Some of it was good advice and some of it wasn’t necessarily right for our situation. The most valuable thing we have learned is a process for developing a mindset that has allowed us to keep moving forward toward financial freedom. What we want to do is help you develop your own mindset that can transform your financial life. You have to develop a process you can use throughout your life to help you keep driving forward to financial independence. Too often people follow a step-by-step personal finance formula, achieve a specific goal, and then fall back into financial disarray. For many people, personal finance is like a yo-yo diet. They get tired of feeling the stress from their burdensome debt and for a period of time they get on a restrictive budget. Then after paying off the debt, they return to their old habits and eventually get back into debt.  

I have a friend who shared with me that several years ago he and his wife were struggling with debt and they decided to take a personal finance course being taught at their church. They followed the steps they learned in the course, and in about eighteen months they were able to eliminate all of their debt except for the mortgage. But, what he told me next has stuck with me. He said the program didn’t work. They were back in debt and had the same emotional struggles with money that they had before attending the course. It made me sad to hear my friend sound so defeated, and it’s one of the reasons we started this blog. Shortly after we got married, Mrs. R and I followed that same get out of debt program and it was very helpful to us.  We’ve recommended it to several friends and family members who were struggling with debt. I know for a fact that the author encourages people to keep going beyond simply eliminating debt, and to keep driving toward financial independence. This has made us realize that two different people can follow the same financial advice and have very different outcomes.

Hopefully we’re able to help a few readers wake up and not be like my friend riding the financial yo-yo. So when you start to struggle with emotional money decisions think of Mesa Verde. Get back on the balcony to look at the whole system and your specific place in it. Then think about how you are choosing to live within the system and why you are doing it that way. Mrs. R and I talk a lot about choices, and hopefully that theme shows up on this blog. We want to challenge you to imagine new possibilities, and we may offer some simple how-tos and strategies, but this blog is not a step-by-step guide. One of the nice aspects of the “FI” (financial independence) community of blogs and podcasts is they allow you to go beyond the mass marketed one-size fits all approach. A good professional financial advisor will tell you that the answer to most financial questions is, “it depends”. So do your own research or speak with a professional advisor to identify the right strategies for your situation, and remember that reaching “FI” will be easier to achieve when you take step-by-step strategies and combine them with a transformed mindset.