One of my favorite stories of all time is that of the philosopher Diogenes. It’s brief, but powerful if you think of the financial message behind it.
Said Aristippus, ‘If you would learn to be subservient to the king you would not have to live on lentils.’ Said Diogenes, ‘Learn to live on lentils and you will not have to be subservient to the king.’
So what does the story of two ancient Greek philosophers teach us about how to live life and manage money to achieve financial independence?
Let’s take a deeper dive into the story.
Who Are You Subservient To?
Aristippus apparently lives well due to his relationship with the king. When I picture him in my mind, I see someone who looks to be well off. He’s likely overweight, with expensive clothes, possibly dripping with jewels and other outward trappings of wealth. He can live comfortably, but only because he’s a servant of the king.
And what’s wrong with that? Well, nothing, unless you disagree with the king on something. Then you need to bite your tongue, because you can’t disagree with him for fear of losing your livelihood.
Or lets say the king tires of you. He used to appreciate you, going out of his way to reward you. But now you’re not the shiny, young, handsome person you once were. Perhaps you’ve gotten older, maybe a bit plumper. There are others around the king who are new, smart, hard working, and cost less in upkeep. Might the king turn away from you, casting you out? Then what would you do?
Or, what if you get tired of being under the king all the time, and want to go out and forge your own path? Well, you can’t. After all, you’re only wealthy because the king decrees it to be so. If you decide to go out and do something on your own, the king will turn away from you – and take everything you’ve “earned” away.
The same is true of those that are dependent upon their job, living paycheck to paycheck, spending everything they earn (and then some). They need to bite their tongue at work for fear of making waves. They can’t go out and forge their own path. They can’t start their own business, or change careers, or fight for what they believe in. They need to stay a quiet, good, subservient worker. As long as they’re on the “earn to spend” treadmill, their company may as well be the king.
The company can also cast you out at any time, for any reason. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re indispensable at work. Even if you work hard, there are always people younger than you, harder working than you – who cost less in terms of their paycheck. When the company needs to cut costs, you’re on the chopping block. And if you’ve been living paycheck to paycheck, when that paycheck stops coming you’re in big trouble.
A Different Path – Living on Lentils
Diogenes choose a different path. Instead of being a good, quiet, subservient subject to the king, he learned to “live on lentils”. To me, this is a metaphor around living simply and well below your means.
- Instead of buying the nicest, best, most expensive SUV you can afford, you buy a used car that has plenty of room and is reliable – for a fraction of the cost.
- While your co-workers move every few years as their income goes up, you stay in the same home and pay off the mortgage.
- Rather than buying lunch like everyone else, you bring yours from home and bank the savings.
- You see everyone on your Facebook feed eating out all the time, but you and your family make delicious food at home.
- Those expensive vacations your friends and coworkers take several times a year? You have just as much fun with less expensive alternatives.
- Expensive hobbies? Nope, you prefer to read at home with a good library book, go on a free hike, go camping, garden, and other low-cost fun
If you can “learn to live on lentils”, living simply and well below your means, you will eventually find yourself not needing to be subservient to anyone. You will be in charge of your own life, your own destiny. You’ll be in command of how to spend your time. If you disagree with something at work, you can speak out without fear of repercussion. When it’s time for the company to cut expenses, you might volunteer to engineer your layoff, as the Financial Samurai suggests, instead of keeping your head down and praying you’re not on the chopping block.
If you can learn to appreciate the simple things in life, then those things will make you happy. It doesn’t need to be literal lentils, water, and bread like in the story. But it might be less expensive homes, cars, wine, hobbies, and food. Happiness in simplicity comes with a side benefit of freedom.
External “Wealth” versus Freedom
So what’s more important to you? Do you want to be seen externally as a successful person – with the car, home, clothes, and hobbies to “prove” just how much status you have to the outside world? You’ll have the external look of wealth, but your bank accounts will be empty and your net worth in the red. And you need to be prepared to be subservient to the “king” for your entire career. Then when you retire, you’ll be subservient to the government, subject to its whims around your health care, social security, and how the administration at the time you retire wants to help support the elderly.
Or do you want to live a simpler, happy life, finding contentment in the things you have rather than always looking for more? If you do this, you can build wealth almost without thinking about it. Live below your means and one day you’ll find that you’re no longer subservient to anyone. The company can do whatever it wants to, as can the government, but because you’re financially independent it doesn’t matter to you anymore. You may not have the external trappings of wealth, but you’ll have the bank account – and freedom – of a truly wealthy person.
You’ll be in charge of how you spend your money and your time, and become free. All from learning to “live on lentils”.
What path are you on? Let me know in the comments.
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