Around 10 years ago, when I was 20, I traveled to Sri Lanka. It was a trip I'd dreamt about for years — and a country that, for some inexplicable reason, had always fascinated me. I had just graduated from Cardiff University in Wales, and it was my first time setting foot outside Europe, where I'd grown up.
The vacation was everything I'd wanted it to be, and it ignited one of the biggest passions in my life: travel. But it wasn't just the country's spectacular tourist spots that left a lasting impact — one brief encounter actually changed the way I look at life.
One afternoon, while in the outskirts of Sri Lanka's capital city, Colombo, I took a walk with my friend's grandfather through the fields near his house. We came across two of his friends, who invited me into their home — a mud hut with no electricity — and cooked a meal of slow-cooked curried chicken and rice.
I savored the food for its flavor, but I felt a sense of guilt, too. These people didn't have to be so generous to me, a stranger, but here they were, offering me what little they had. I explained this to them in an attempt to express my deep appreciation.
One of them held my hand and said, "It's nothing. We have more than enough."
My friend's grandfather later explained that Sri Lanka is a country rich in natural resources, so people generally have enough to eat. And because of the Buddhist values inherent in the culture, many feel completely satisfied owning very few material possessions.
The whole experience altered me profoundly.
Although I wouldn't sign up to live in similar circumstances — I've grown accustomed to certain luxuries, like smartphones and running water — my perspective on what it means to live well is different. Since then, I've adopted the belief that the less you have in terms of possessions, the more you're able to find what really drives you.
Of course, I didn't always think like this.
My money mantra: like father, not like son
Growing up, I received a very different message from my dad, a software engineer, who constantly regretted not having more money. And, for a while, I adopted a similar outlook: More money was worth striving for — it was the key to lasting happiness and an important benchmark for success.
I remember sitting with him one morning when I was around 14, reading the paper. There was an article about my school, which was one of the worst in town. I could see how disappointed he was — not just in the school, but also in himself. He told me as much, saying he was sad he couldn't send me to a more prestigious school.
I also noticed his discomfort when we'd visit friends of my mom. They were doctors, and their houses reflected their sizable wages. My dad never felt at ease — and never invited them to our house. It was, he thought, too small and underwhelming.
In reality, my siblings and I had a very comfortable lifestyle. My family had two cars, we went on holiday every year, and we lived in a nice area of town. Looking back, my dad's desire to want more prevented him from taking stock of what he actually had — a loving wife and kids, a spacious house, a job he enjoyed — and appreciating it.
If it weren't for my life-changing trip to Sri Lanka, I might have followed in Dad's footsteps — and become obsessed with chasing the happiness that'd surely accompany a bigger paycheck.
In fact, just a year ago, I was offered a job that paid more than I've ever made in my life. But although I was tempted, I turned it down, opting instead to work for a lesser-paying but more exciting startup that also affords me time to travel, as well as the flexibility to work abroad and pursue my own happiness.
Why I love living the non-rich lifestyle
Since my trip to Sri Lanka 10 years ago, I've lived in London, Buenos Aires, Bogota, and Berlin — and I've traveled extensively in South America, Europe, and Asia.
For the last nine months, I've been living in Berlin, working as a marketing manager for a travel-focused startup and earning around $1,000 a month. The money isn't much by any account, but it allows me to be social, eat well, and cover my $400 rent. It's actually the most I've ever earned. In Bogota, where I lived for three years, I made around $800 a month, and it was even less in Buenos Aires — about $400.
You could argue that, with more money, I'd actually be able to travel more, but it wouldn't be the same kind of lifestyle that I've come to love. Because more than just journeying around the world, I enjoy the challenge of being in a completely new environment — with minimal financial resources.
What I've come to learn is I don't want experiences that money (or at least a lot of money) can buy. I don't want my connection to people in Colombia, for example, to be a commodity — a brief sojourn into privileged areas of Bogota where I only meet people who are trained to show the best of the country.
I'd much rather sink into the culture of a country and find my way through it by making a living there. I want to earn my place. With more money, I might miss out on such rich, life-changing experiences.
What I see for my financial future
Do I ever wish I had more money? Sure. I work hard, and it's natural to want to see just reward for the work that you do. But the truth is that I believe this bootstrapping phase of my current job will only make it more rewarding when things work out for us — I thrive on the excitement and challenges you face in the startup world.
Of course, there have been times when managing my financial situation has been difficult. One day in Argentina, I remember walking by an empanada shop — the cheapest food you can get — and realizing that, with the change in my pocket, I couldn't even afford one. I had to ask myself: Was I really living how I wanted to?
And even now that my $1,000 paycheck is totally sufficient, I occasionally wonder what it would be like to have more money. It scares me that I haven't made any contributions to my future retirement. And I'd love to be able to buy more luxuries, like a good stereo system, and better Christmas gifts for family and friends.
But I don't want the material items enough to make money more of a priority in my life. For me, money signifies the beginning of attachment — and attachments are what would stop me from living the lifestyle I love. I'm afraid these things might prevent me from leaving Berlin when my next adventure calls. It might seem illogical, but there's something about the challenge of a shoestring budget that captivates me.
When things have gotten really tough, my dad — who's been really supportive of my commitment to this lifestyle — has helped me out by sending $100 here and there, for which I'm incredibly grateful, especially since it's always been my choice to live how I do.
I actually think my choices have positively influenced my dad's own outlook on life. He's started to slow down, choosing to work less and spend more time with his grandchildren.
Is this life sustainable?
I think so. Even when I start a family one day, I know that my attitude toward money won't change, especially since my girlfriend feels the same way that I do. Unlike my dad, it's not my goal to give my (future) kids the fanciest education. I want to travel with them, and give them a decent, comfortable upbringing, just like I had.
But, most of all, I'd like to teach them what I learned in Sri Lanka: If you appreciate what you've got, then you have everything you need.
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