Whether you have a lot or a little money, that fact affects virtually every aspect of your life - from what you eat and where you live, to how you spend your leisure time. But according to author Ben Hewitt, money doesn't have to rule your life. After meeting a man who lives comfortably in a small Vermont town for less than $10,000 a year, Hewitt began a quest to understand how money works and what it takes to live a fulfilling life without much of it.
The result is Hewitt's new book, "Saved: How I Quit Worrying About Money and Became the Richest Guy in the World," which will be released June 11. U.S. News chatted with Hewitt to find out how money got so complicated, and why he doesn't worry about it now. His response has been edited.
What inspired you to write "Saved"?
It was a confluence of factors. One of the things that got me thinking a lot about money was my first book, "The Town That Food Saved," which is about this community in northern Vermont where a group of small-scale food producers are trying to create a healthy regionalized food system. In reporting that book, I stumbled across tensions around some of the plans these folks had. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that most of those tensions are related to money.
Another factor was my befriending this fellow, Erik Gillard, who lived on about $6,000 a year. I was fascinated by what that life might be like, not only why someone would do this, but what were the mechanics of it. How do you actually survive on that kind of money in 21st century America? As I started thinking about some of these issues, I realized that money is this incredibly dominant force that defines so much of who we are and what we do with our time. Very few people really understand how it works or where it comes from.
Why do you think we have such a complicated relationship with money?
It appears complicated if you hear terms like monetary policy or monetary system. Most people's eyes just glaze over. They don't really want to get into the minutia of how money really works. I don't think you have to really understand a whole lot to grasp the basics.
We've arrived at a place in our culture and in our society where pretty much every aspect of every facet of our well-being has become monetized. By necessity, we are bound to money. That's not necessarily a bad thing in all cases. I think money is a tremendous convenience in some ways. It's such an easy way to sort of absolve yourself of a debt. If I do something for somebody, they pay me for it, and they've absolved themselves. They're not beholden to me in any way whatsoever anymore. So there is this convenience factor to it.
What was your relationship to money before you met Erik and how has that changed?
I'm a writer. I've not really made a lot of money, but I've never gone without. I've lived a very comfortable, lower- to middle-class existence. I've never slept outside except by choice. I've never gone hungry. My needs have always been met, and yet at the same time I've passed an awful lot of my adult life worrying about money.
One thing that's really changed for me is I don't have that same sense of stress around money. I think part of it is my observation of how full a life someone can live on so little. Erik is definitely one of the most content and fulfilled people I've ever met and so recognizing that, I don't necessarily need to have as much as I might have assumed to assure my well-being.
I'm very privileged in the sense that I've been able to carve out a life for myself debt-free, and this is because I grew up in a community where overt displays of wealth are not held in high regard.
How about people who live in cities as opposed to rural areas?
I'm a real creature of the rural so it's a little hard for me to extrapolate what this means for people living in more urban environments. I know that urban environments present their own opportunities for a different embrace of this kind of wealth in the sense that there are a lot more opportunities to live off the underbelly of the system in a sense. The waste stream offers so much more for them than I can find out here just because there's just more of it.
What are some of the other tenets you explore in the book?
One of the things I'm really interested in is the extent to which money is entwined in our relationships, both to one another and also to the natural world. One of the things that happens when you are less reliant on money is that you come to a place where you're kind of forced to enter into a relationship with whatever the buyer of your needs is. Let's say I'm working on our house, and I need a table saw. If I don't rush out and buy that, then I put myself in a place of having to go to a neighbor and borrow it. I'm putting myself in a place of being in a relationship with that person.
Not that long ago in this country, there was a much greater sense of neighbor relying on neighbor. It used to be that your neighbors looked out for your kids, and now even that has been monetized. So many of the things that used to fall under the purview of communities and people have now been taken up by industry.
What do you think contributes to that?
We have a money system in an economy that is very dependent on growth. Part of that is simply because money is expected to be self-propagating and interest-bearing so it has to keep growing. Industry is always looking for new avenues to monetize, whether it's food, water, transportation. It's happening right now with social media. If you look at what's going on with companies collecting data, they're basically using most of these social media outlets as data mining services in order to try to sell stuff back to us. So in a way, it's sort of the monetization of our relationships.