Is Ben Hewitt’s new book a manifesto disguised as a memoir, or a memoir disguised as a manifesto? The title, Saved: How I Quit Worrying About Money and Became the Richest Guy in the World, suggests a personal journey. Skip ahead to the book’s conclusion, a five-page “Conscious Economy Manifesto,” and you’ll get wind of a more didactic bent.
Like fellow Vermonter Bill McKibben, Hewitt has a tendency to disarm readers with folksy personal anecdotes before blindsiding them with social critique. The question he poses in Saved is a worthy and urgent one: Can Americans stop defining their “net worth” in dollars? Using the tools of memoir, Hewitt makes a laudable effort to answer that question without preaching to the choir. Whether he succeeds in reaching his broad target audience is the question.
Saved is the story of three people. One of them is Hewitt, the Cabot farmer and journalist who gained national notice with The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food, an examination of Hardwick’s role in the burgeoning locavore movement.
In Saved, we learn that Hewitt doesn’t make much money from his dual occupations; breaking an American taboo, he tells us exactly how much. His mortgage is paid off, and his family lives frugally and sustainably, but this doesn’t stop him from worrying “over the belief that I should be accumulating monetary wealth in preparation for an unknown future. Why?” he continues. “Because it’s what I’ve been told I must do; it’s what we all have been told we must do.”
An alternative arrives in the form of the book’s second lead character: Erik Gillard, a young Plainfield environmental activist and wilderness guide. When Hewitt introduces us to Gillard, the latter earns $10K a year and lives in a 96-square-foot cabin sans plumbing and electricity. Unlike his comparatively affluent friend Hewitt, Gillard spends zero time fretting about money, preferring to enjoy the pleasures of his simple life. When he frets, it’s about the fate of the planet.
Our third central character is the book’s reader — or the type of person Hewitt appears to posit as his target reader. This reader is a more conventional sort than the author or his friend — so conventional, in fact, that Hewitt goes out of his way to make statements such as, “I think it’s important for you to know that Erik is not a kook.” Later, he acknowledges that his treatment of Gillard as an exemplar may strike the reader as “rather far-fetched and generally unlikely.”
In short, the assumed reader is something of an antagonist. When Hewitt writes, “Erik Gillard’s self-imposed frugality might serve as a fable,” he’s portraying Gillard not just as a model to emulate, but as a fable in the other sense, too. The average American reader, he suggests, may have trouble seeing a happy poor person as anything but a strange fiction.
I’d venture to guess that in Vermont, where “transition town” and “tiny house” are terms heard daily, most people count a few such “fables” in their social circle. But, while Gillard’s lifestyle might not raise so many eyebrows around here, Hewitt’s main point stands.
That point is that even those who reject the ideals of American capitalism — such as the author — may not be able to jettison the fears that drive it. It’s one thing to denounce big banks, another to stay sanguine as your retirement accounts plummet. For Hewitt as for so many other Americans, he writes, “The year 2008 was … a period of tremendous fear.” For Gillard, it was just another year.
So how does Hewitt learn from Gillard to stop worrying about money and love his precarious financial state? I’m not spoiling much by revealing that, in brief, Hewitt learns to avoid consumer debt (which he already did); to embrace networks of mutual dependence — that is, to barter tools and labor, to request and offer help — and to be at peace with his inability to amass significant savings for the future. He reaches these conclusions through interactions with Gillard and a long look at the history of American currency, which teaches him that money is just a fiction we all made up. Yes, even gold.
In the “unconscious economy,” Hewitt argues, we accept this fiction without question. We make it the centerpiece of our lives — the very definition of “security.” In the “conscious economy” that he proposes, we learn to separate the “worth” of an object, occupation or social relationship from its imaginary dollar value.
In the process, we gain the only true security, the “deeper well of prosperity” from which Gillard draws. “It’s hard to care so much about money when you have found alternative ways to secure at least some of the basic essentials of human survival,” Hewitt writes persuasively. “When, to put it simply, you aren’t scared.”
If all this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The roots of the frugality movement go back to the Stoics, who argued that contentment lies in accepting and even embracing life’s hardships, rather than in hoarding good stuff we can’t use or take to the afterlife. It’s a compelling message that runs contrary to innumerable trends in contemporary American life, starting with the gospels of growth and “positive thinking.”
As a reader receptive to that message, I found myself frequently wondering why I was so frustrated with this book. We all have our personal issues with money — as Hewitt demonstrates — and my reaction owes something to mine. But the frustration has a more objective cause, too. In his eagerness to convince his readers that Erik Gillard is not a kook or a folktale, Hewitt shows a tendency to talk down to us and to hand-wave away potential objections to his thesis.
Sure, it’s easy to depict our consumer desires as vapid. (Hewitt is especially fixated on Siri as an emblem of everything wrong with our culture.) It’s equally easy to dismiss social media as “little more than the monetization of our relationships.” But it’s not so easy to wish away concerns about, say, how a poor person is going to pay for health care.
We’ve all heard the stats: For more and more Americans, medical costs factor into personal bankruptcy. In the single passage he devotes to this topic, Hewitt acknowledges that health care is “fantastically expensive,” and a prime reason why so many Americans cling to stressful, unfulfilling jobs. Then he quotes the stats on diabetes and other lifestyle-related ailments, which lead him to conclude that this sorry situation poses little threat to those who practice healthy living in a local food system:
While it is true that I cannot protect my family from every single health crisis, it is true that by making informed decisions about how we eat and otherwise care for ourselves, we can absolve ourselves of much of the risk associated with the contemporary American lifestyle. We place tremendous importance on the quality of the food we consume, and on ensuring that our lives remain as stress free and full of beauty as possible. These factors, as much as anything else, provide our “health insurance.”
It’s a fine sentiment to have, and no one can deny the benefits of a wholesome lifestyle. But tell this to any organic-eating, clean-living family that has endured an unexpected health emergency and found itself deep in the debt hole. Until we change the conditions that make health care such an extraordinary expense, this particular financial fear won’t be easily dispelled.
Granted, Hewitt makes sure to acknowledge that what works for his household or Gillard’s may not work for yours. His aim is not to berate those who lack his particular “freedom to reframe my relationship to money and wealth” — only to make them consider alternatives.
Yet there are times when an air of condescension infiltrates the narrative. Perhaps it’s simply because Hewitt’s style, while deft and lucid, can be precious. A soundbite such as, “We feel iPhone poor because we are, in fact, I-poor” is unlikely to sway a reader for whom a smartphone is not a status symbol but a tool. And readers may feel as if they’ve been transported back to a schoolyard lecture on sharing when Hewitt informs them, “Surprise, surprise — it actually feels good to take responsibility, not only for ourselves, but for one another.”
The thing is, it’s not such a surprise. We already talk plenty in Vermont about community spirit and mutual interdependence; what we do not talk enough about is how to practice those values in the context of the larger, “unconscious” economy. Hewitt shows us how a woodsman/activist and a writer/farmer might do so. But can an urban software engineer achieve a happy distance from money fears? This book, which repeatedly expresses disdain for the sphere in which that engineer makes a living, has no answer.
With any luck, readers will hammer out their own answers as they meditate on Hewitt’s manifesto. For all the limits of his highly personal approach, he’s done us a favor by cogently posing the right questions. Saved may not save you from financial anxiety. But it will force you to ask yourself what kind of future you’re squirreling away that dough for — and whether you might be better off investing in the here and now. m
"Saved: How I Quit Worrying About Money and Became the Richest Guy in the World," Rodale Books, 224 pages. $24.99. Hewitt will discuss the book on Thursday, July 11, at 7 p.m. at Phoenix Books Burlington. phoenixbooks.biz
The original print version of this article was headlined "Wealthy Living"