The Stoic Approach to Finances

Casey Hynes – Up Close and Personal Finance

The Stoic philosophy may be as old as the Coliseum, but it’s having a moment with millennials. Thanks largely to the influence of author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss and author Ryan Holiday, Stoicism’s 2,000-year-old wisdom shows up on Instagram, among other spots, inspiring people to reflect on their thoughts, habits, and impulses.

Stoic philosophy emerged in 300 B.C., and influenced leaders and philosophers such as Marcus Aurelius, René Descartes, and Sir Thomas More. Stoicism emphasizes mastery of our inner worlds and our response to external events and circumstances. It urges its followers to embrace a mindset that is less impulsive, more reflective, and encompasses a greater awareness of the brevity of life.

As a fan of both Ferriss and Holiday, I was inspired to explore Stoicism myself and began reading a collection of the philosopher Seneca’s letters to his student, Lucilius Junior. There’s so much to be gleaned from his work on many aspects of life, including upholding virtue as the supreme good and the fleeting nature of time, but Stoicism has also made me think differently about wealth and spending.

Although the conversation around minimalism and conscious consumerism has grown in recent years, we’re still being marketed to all the time, particularly online. You can try to curate your digital experience around positivity, lightness, and non-material satisfaction, but you’ll still be bombarded with ads for necklaces that help calm your anxiety and journals that will bring you closer to your personal truth.

We are urged to buy all the time, and it’s incredibly easy to give in. At some point we’ve all realized dropping $1,000 on a newer iPhone won’t yield the inner contentment and quiet we seek.  Still, we persist in shopping and consuming in ever more creative ways. The fixation on material goods morphs with the times, but it’s always there. If we’re not conscientious, we mistake material wealth for success, rarely acknowledging how fleeting it is.

Reading Seneca, I thought about spiritual corruption via materialism time and again. “Praise in him what can neither be given nor snatched away, what is peculiarly a man’s,” he writes in “Letter 41.” Character is the only thing that stands the test of time. It’s the only thing that distinguishes us, the only constant in an unpredictable world. Our integrity, our intellect, the unique role we play in our loved ones’ lives: these are the things that endure, but we often fail to prioritize them over outward signs of success. That’s why spending excessively leads to fleeting highs and perpetuates cycles of workaholism and debt—it never leads to lasting spiritual fulfillment.

I know because I’ve been there myself, working constantly not just to make ends meet and pay off debt (though those are substantial drivers for my workaholism) but to achieve some type of material success. If I can reach a certain income level, buy a certain brand without looking at the price, splurge like money doesn’t matter to me, some part of me believes I’ll achieve the level of respect and value from others for which I’m searching. But financial achievements feel hollow when they’re not accompanied by spiritual, emotional, or intellectual growth. When you’re always chasing external achievements, each of those areas becomes stunted.

Emphasizing the inner world may be the antidote to this. Yet, it is difficult to nurture your spirit when you’re working all the time and preoccupied with material status.

Looking to our modern times, many people have come to see author and home organization expert Marie Kondo as a kind of guru, perhaps even a philosopher. Kondo’s book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” inspired millions of people to toss old belongings that no longer serve them. Her insistence that you keep only items that “spark joy” has been revolutionary for many people, myself included. It’s a lifestyle that emphasizes mindfulness over materialism, and the recognition that objects do bring us pleasure—but not indiscriminately.

A couple of my girlfriends and I have begun using “spark joy” as a metric in several areas of our lives. It has become a measure for whether we should spend money on new items or opportunities. If something genuinely sparks joy, it’s probably worth the money. If we’re just buying for the sake of buying, or because it fills a non-urgent need, then we’re better off saving until something better comes along.

Kondo has her critics, including famous ones like Tim Gunn, but the value in her approach is that it forces us to deal emotionally with our possessions and why we accumulate them—a lesson of which the Stoics would have approved. It can also help us safeguard against peer or societal pressure to consume with reckless abandon, and the impulse to always be on trend with how the people around us are living.

If we’re not considered in our spending habits, we end up tens of thousands of dollars in debt and perpetually stressed just for the sake of fitting in. The value in both Stoicism and in Marie Kondo’s tidying up ethos is that they call on us to think before we spend, and to act in accordance with our own values, rather than from fear of being out of step with a society that consumes too eagerly as it is.