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.
The philosopher Diogenes was eating bread and lentils for supper. He was seen by the philosopher Aristippus, who lived comfortably by flattering the king.
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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30 thoughts on “Learn To Live On Lentils, and You Will Become Financially Free”
Great post, Chief Mom Officer! In the end, freedom is well worth the sacrifices we’ve made. It became a lot less harder to pursue financial freedom when we stopped looking at not eating out or buying a new car as something we couldn’t do, and instead looked at it as a bad decision we chose not to engage in. Then, the choice was ours versus something imposed on us, and the figurative lentils became a lot tastier! (In real life, we love lentils, by the way! So fast, easy, and delicious!).
It’s so true that changing your perspective is a powerful tool. You can look at living frugally and below your means as a big sacrifice, or spend your time wishing you had the things others have. OR you can forget about the sacrifice part, and instead look at the choices you’re making with how to spend your money and how those choices will allow you to reach your goals or live your dreams. Then “I can’t afford it” becomes “I want (goal) more than (stuff).” It’s a lot more fun to live that way instead of resenting all the “sacrifices” you’re making!
Love this! We have definitely figured this out, but I love the analogy. We are not big Facebook people either – so I could careless where people are eating out, how big their house is, or what car they drive. We keep it for the social part – but there is very little of that! So our pages stay static for a LONG time… Love the camping and corn pic 🙂
Yep, I keep Facebook to keep in touch with my brother and sister in law in Florida, and relatives and friends that have moved away. But that’s it, really. Glad you like the camping and corn picture, he had a fun time last year at the campsite and I bet this year he’s going to have an even better time!
I actually choose somewhere in the middle. No lentils but no king dependency either. I don’t view being mindful about expenditures today as sacrificing and don’t really want to sacrifice for tomorrow. Instead I just want to ensure I maximize what I do spend when I spend it for my overall happiness and we’ll being. The hard part is recognize what I buy that will sit in the closet versus what I’d enjoy every minute of.
I think that’s a great perspective to have. Although I do enjoy literal lentils occasionally, I also like eating an occasional steak. But I’d prefer that steak be cooked at home on my grill, instead of paying someone else a 50% plus markup to cook it for me (except on special occasions). If you want freedom from a job or company to fund your lifestyle, you need to make sure you’re spending in alignment with your values and setting aside enough funds to become free one day. Otherwise you get stuck in the earn to spend treadmill.
I find posting pics of food on Facebook kind of strange. Who cares? When I see posts about lots of vacations my first thought is did you fund your 401k first? I posted a picture of me sitting in a tesla last week. A friend asked me if it was mine and I replied I would never spend $165k on a car.
I also wonder that about my friends posting pictures of their new cars, fancy homes, multiple dinners out a week, and expensive vacations. In fact I specifically remember one friend of mine who went on a vacation to Disney/Universal in Florida with the entire extended family. Over a year later, I learned that they had been living on food assistance from the government and had taken out loans to go on that vacation. I just don’t understand that kind of thinking.
I love the correlation between this story and FI! I would much rather save and eat beans (I detest lentils!) than be gluttonous on someone else’s dime…it helps that I’m a vegetarian and beans are a main stage in my diet! 😜 Aristippus wealth was a house of cards…hollow and able to fold at any moment. I would much rather own what I have than owe what I have.
The good part is that they don’t need to be literal lentils-beans work great! 😀 I love that last line in your comment, about owning what you have instead of owing what you have. It’s so true. I know many people that “have” plenty of stuff and a high flying lifestyle, but own little of it.
I don’t get the bragging part. Like if someone has alot of money and wants to go on pricey trips and buy a big house etc that’s up to them. Why do they need to showcase all their purchases on fb? Didn’t the purchase or trip give enough joy? One of the reasons I’m on a long Facebook break is that I was sick & tired of all the bragging I see on there. It was like a competition or something. Live your life but stay humble as fortunes can change.
I’m so with you Holly, I don’t get it either. With some people I’m sure they don’t think of it as bragging, but it comes across that way. Others possibly have a subconscious need to show off, or maybe they want the “likes” and admiration that they think comes from the posts. Who knows?
We are trying a low spend month. This means no to little dinners out. Packing lunch for school. Not shopping on Amazon (the biggest budget killer). Will let you know how it goes. Great post!
Good luck triple D! I hope you have a successful month. Last month we had our road trip, and even though we had the savings for it and budgeted well, spending money like that always makes me want to do a spending fast for a while. Be sure to let me know how it goes!
Bring on the lentils! Awesome post, Liz! I was once serving the King, all about the external wealth but found the light and am pursuing the freedom path now. So. Much. Better.
Isn’t it a much better perspective to have? You’re working toward being subservient to no one, instead of working to pay for past mistakes/present consumption. Glad to hear you enjoyed the post!
Personal finance meets Philosophy, I love it! I’d say I’m somewhere in the middle, although I’d like to be living on lentils a little more. First, because I actually love eating lentils, but second (and more importantly), I don’t want to be stuck at my job indefinitely because I need the paycheck. It’s another way of looking at the difference between wealth and income. Building wealth allows you more working freedom, while displaying income can get you in financial trouble and make you depend on each paycheck. Thanks for the great post!
Love your perspective on wealth and income-it’s so true! When most people talk about the “rich” or “millionaires”, they always focus on the external factors (cars, houses, clothes, vacations, etc.) But people showing off their income, debt, and ability to pay monthly minimums has nothing to do with actual wealth. That’s sitting in your accounts, working for you even when you’re sleeping. Glad to hear you’re on “team lentil!” 😀
Nice philosophy! I know I’ve been trying to not serve the king for some time now. I think its amazing how some people get their priorities so twisted around with material possessions that they go blind to the opportunities that would set them financially free.
It’s so true! I see it all the time with my coworkers. They’re so busy earning to spend that they end up at retirement with nothing. They’ve been subservient their whole career with nothing to show for it.
I’ve heard bits and pieces of that story before, so thanks for presenting more context.
Although I could certainly do better in some areas (like bringing my lunch to work more often), I think we are striking a pretty good balance. And one of these days I’m going to actually try lentils!
There seem to be a lot of lentil fans here-you should definitely give them a try! But I’ll warn that if they’re undercooked they’re terrible. I like dal, myself (Indian lentils)-they’re usually well cooked and quite flavorful
I am definitely trying to learn to live off of lentils. It’s not a taste that I am use to so it’s definitely taking a little bit to get use to but in the end I know it will definitely be worth it. And more importantly once I am independent I can hopefully eat whatever I want 🙂
True-it’s as Dave Ramsey says, “live like no one else so you can live like no one else.” Most people don’t want to delay gratification and live simply in order to achieve financial freedom. Living on lentils is, in my opinion, a great metaphor for learning to live a more simple life in exchange for your freedom. Otherwise what you’re doing is trading your freedom for the immediate “fun” of buying stuff and spending money.
I love this parable! I’ve used it before in workshops. There are many times that people with more money, just don’t seem happy. There are statistics that above a certain level of riches, happiness declines. Maybe because we can’t get ‘enough’ and are always hungry for more…. ?
I have certainly found financial freedom, but also a freedom from wanting more and more. A freedom from comparing myself to others. A freedom to actually thrive on discomfort.
Those are the best kinds of freedom to have. Glad to find another fan of the story!
Great post. New to your site and enjoyed your interview with Hatton1 at WCI. Its great to find another fellow high earning female with little kids that I can share/ parallel my journey with. Hardest part for me is balancing between working during my peak earning years with the demands of young kids. I don’t regret one bit that I worked less in order to have them or be there for them, but sometimes its hard to negotiate these goals at the same time. I suppose it is all about the long term plan, and must remind myself not to be short sighted. Looking forward to reading more of your work. Cheers to the Chief Mom Officers of the world.
Thanks for stopping by Kay-glad you like my site! I love how I get to connect with so many amazing high earning moms here. And I’m so with you on the balance between different goals being one of the hardest things. I guess it’s true what they say – you can have it all, but not all at once.
I have always loved that parable. Many years ago I told that story to my children while I served a lentil based dinner. My then four year old looked at me and said, “Will you teach me how to flatter the king because I hate lentils!!”
Ha ha, that’s hilarious! Love kids, they’re so honest.