Backpacking Lite: The Secret To Real Wealth

October 17, 2012

Financial Planning, Planning, Wealth

Last week I was asked why, as a financial planner, I am writing about everything from happiness and parenting to dying and character development. The clue is in the subtitle of the blog, “Financial, economic and wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word.” The origin of the word “wealth” is the old English word “wela” meaning welfare or well-being. As recently as a century ago the word was generally understood to mean a person’s all round well-being, including health, family, work and spiritual life. It is only recently that most people have come to define it strictly in financial terms.

However, formal definitions change quicker than our intuitive understanding of meanings. Most of us have met individuals whom we would regard as ‘wealthy’, although they didn’t have the proverbial “pot to pee in”. I recently met one such person who was an outdoor adventure guide, doing exactly what he wanted to do in life. He spent his winters in Colorado, alpine climbing and teaching skiing, and his summers in California, climbing and guiding outdoor adventure trips. He was an autodidact, who had amassed an enormous wealth of knowledge from reading and talking to his clients although, as far as I could tell, he lived out of the back of a minivan. I can also recall talking to a middle school teacher last year who considered he was doing the best job in the world, despite the low pay in a small private school without the advantage of California state benefits.

Similarly, we have all known individuals who own considerable financial assets but are miserable as people. Fearful that they will lose their wealth or have it stolen from them, they are naturally suspicious of all their relationships as well as fearful that they will not ‘have enough’. With no inner compass to guide them they always compare themselves to ‘others’ who have ‘more’, which just fans their feelings of insecurity and worthlessness. Few would describe these people as wealthy. Possibly then, the age-old definition of wealth in terms of a rich and satisfying life, is not as dormant as modern dictionaries would suggest.

In our firm’s financial planning or life planning process, one of the questions we always ask is “If you had as much money and resources as you could possibly want, what would change in your life? What would you give your time to?” The answer to these questions will reveal what wealth means to you. For example, it could mean power, love, security, happiness, control, independence, or countless other values. The answer could be a positive or negative value but it is usually different for everyone.

For what it’s worth, my experience is that financial assets alone don’t make a meaningful  difference in the lives of most individuals. It’s not that financial assets don’t have the potential to significantly change the direction, texture and impact of someone’s life for the better. They definitely do. The problem is that this takes work, just the same amount of work as it would to change that person’s life without these assets. There is a big difference between being rich and living richly. If someone is not living richly without financial assets they will not know how to live richly with financial assets. The secret to living richly is to ditch all the superfluous baggage that is holding you back from fulfilling your potential with or without money. Only after this work is done can you begin to integrate your resources and your values and thereby unlock the awesome latent power of your net worth.


“For many men, the acquisition of wealth does not end their troubles, it only changes them.” Lucius Annaeus Seneca

“Surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community.” Andrew Carnegie

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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17 Comments on “Backpacking Lite: The Secret To Real Wealth”

  1. Raunak Says:

    What a wonderful post Malcolm. I wish more people shed that extra baggage. I love the distinction between being rich and living richly. I felt more rich when I earned a tenth of what I make now. I was a king then, now I am a slave to money.

    “wela” in hindi slang means “idle/free/unoccupied”. I guess being that is true wealth!


  2. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    Thank you for this comment and the interesting linguistic information. I understand the sentiment behind the term ‘money slave’ but doesn’t it just mean that, for a period of time, you have simply put a higher value on accumulating financial assets over other values such as, for example, extra leisure time? For most people work is a disutility, that is to say, they would not do it without money. In that weak sense I suppose we are all money slaves.


  3. paulineos Says:

    Speaking as one who has been deliberately shedding baggage for several years now, I thoroughly agree with you, Malcolm. I’m wealthy and enjoying it, despite a tighter budget!


  4. nzumel Says:

    I always complain when we have too much client work, but without it, I would get bored. Conversely, I wouldn’t give up all the free time I have between clients for a higher paying “wage slave” job, either. I guess that means my balance is close to right.

    But I am lucky. I make enough at what I do to pay the mortgage and eat and have health insurance. And to put something aside so that I can eat and have a house and insurance after (if?) I retire, as well. For that, I’m grateful.


  5. Madoqua Says:

    This post has a lot of wisdom and truth. I read a post elsewhere recently on the things that dying people wished they could change about their life if they were given the chance. None said they wanted to have more money! Interesting, isn’t it?
    Thank you for following my blog and leading me to yours!


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Your welcome and thank you for the feedback. I remember once talking to someone who insisted that he needed a very large sum of money to make him happy. Thirty minutes later I realized that the real reason he wanted the money was that he hated his job and the figure he had given me was simply the amount he thought he would need to be able to give up work. Subsequently he found a more satisfactory job that could incorporate a number of his interests and he was no longer fixated on the very large sum. Why does everyone think money is the panacea for all their problems?


  6. Dr. Michael Edelstein Says:

    Malcolm, I love your post!

    Michael R. Edelstein


  7. lifeoutofthebox Says:

    That was a wonderful article. It is truly rare to have a financial advisor give this beautiful perspective. I had no idea that the root of the word wealth was not based on money but based on well being. Thanks for sharing Malcolm.


  8. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it. This is one of my favorite posts.


  9. evanstang Says:

    “If someone is not living richly without financial assets they will not know how to live richly with financial assets” – well-said:)


  10. recreation travel Says:

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  11. nicciattfield Says:

    I love this post. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to live well, rather than live rich. If I had more feedom, I would go into the wilderness more. It’s interesting to know that the definition of wealth has changed. I wonder why?


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Nicci, thank you. That’s a great question and I’m not sure I have good answers. Has our culture really become that much more materialistic than it was in the past? Maybe the decline in religious faith and specifically, belief in an afterlife, is a factor? Maybe it’s just the fact that we have grown the cake so that everyone, even the poorest, have far more material resources than in the past?


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