The most recent thing that’s happened is that I typed the title you see above, in a hostel, at a desk in a communal area beside a window, in sight of others, and alarm bells went off in my head. I felt a strong pull to delete the last five words of the title, so that no one would see what I was writing about and judge me.
It was easy to think up an excuse, “no need to be specific yet, I’ll just put a working title on it.” Something vague that doesn’t name names, name sums.
But as you’ll see, I’ve already done plenty of that over the years. Then, against my own biases, I started to believe that only the wealthy have something to lose when they’re honest about money. I didn’t want to believe this, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It became harder to argue against it.
This post is just a question in response to a common question:
“Why talk openly about money?”
In 2013 I inherited about a quarter of a million American dollars, no strings attached. Then a few things happened.
I end a long relationship.
A resignation letter gets drafted in my head while walking to work on a Wednesday morning in Calgary, Canada. On the Friday I hand it in. It says thanks for all the opportunities, but I’m quitting to travel. The letter doesn’t say that in the last months I often closed my frosted glass office door to take off my heels and blazer and lay on the carpet, miserable. My salary is $75,000 USD—before tax, but also before bonus.
I am twenty six with no debt, property, car, children, pets, boyfriend or job.
I’m now richer than most of my peers, to the extent that I know, which isn’t a great extent. This makes me uncomfortable. I host an expensive party—in Calgary’s petroleum industry, it’s called a buyout—to appease the vague, pervasive feeling of guilt that defines my waking hours. But my coworkers pay for far more of the bill than I want them to.
I often sit alone in a coffee shop called Purple Perk. There I confide in a woman who is very comfortable with eye contact and persuading strangers that they can achieve financial freedom. She almost succeeds in getting me to join a pyramid scheme.
Though not at all mechanically inclined nor able to drive manual nor aware of what it’s like to own a car requiring maintenance, I almost buy a late-80’s Toyota Land Cruiser. I want to signal that I am an independent woman.
I tell two gainfully employed friends what I inherited. In the tiny silences between our spoken sentences I wonder if I’m supposed to give them gifts now. How many thousands is polite?
I tell my parents that I’m leaving Calgary to go travelling alone. They are very supportive. I mean emotionally instead of financially, though both happen. My Dad drives from Vancouver to Calgary and back with the art and clothes I want to store in their garage, and I don’t even give him gas money. That’s financial support.
But mostly I’m spending my work savings and the money I inherited. All the zeros are blended together in the same accounts.
I qualify for premium banking accounts that waive fees. I am given access to my parent’s financial advisor, open doors that we don’t call nepotism. Branded documents educate me about mutual funds, global diversification, investment strategies. There are track records, graphs, acronyms, appointments, office towers, writing down my plans. I feel powerful.
My personality test results predict that I will listen to my financial advisor’s advice. I write my goals on a piece of paper for him to review. I will get travel out of my system, then resume salaried, white-collar work, perhaps attend graduate school, buy a house.
I leave Canada with a big backpack on my back and a little backpack on my front and fourteen identical pairs of underwear from the Real Canadian Superstore.
I go to the USA. In Moab, Utah, I pay to be driven around in an ATV by a man who lives in a trailer, loves fly fishing and doesn’t have a passport. I fetishize his different class background. We become too close too fast. I never tell him that I consider giving him all of the inheritance so he can open whatever petroleum-powered-dirt-road-vehicle-rental-business he wants to in Moab. He has big dreams like this, I do not.
I ask him to travel with me in the Philippines. He applies for a passport.
In one of the Philippine’s southern archipelagos I spend several days maxing out my daily ATM limits to stockpile enough cash to buy us a fishing boat. We live on it for sixteen days, playing house. I experience what it feels like to be able to transport myself without relying on others.
We give the boat away to a man with a sob story.
When people ask, I say I travel on my work savings because this is what I tell myself. I want everyone to believe that I have earned my freedom. I want to be inspiring like the travel bloggers who inspired me.
Conveniently I don’t monitor how fast or slow (probably fast) my work savings are disappearing. And I’m still years away from recognizing how significantly a gargantuan safety net affects my decision making.
I start bicycle travelling, with Ilona, in Central Asia. I start with cheap, humble equipment that makes me feel proud. One of my favourite things about Ilona is that she wears these baggy-ass pants she found in an abandoned building in China. I want to be frugal like that, and look like it.
Now that I’m bike travelling, I expect people to give me things for free because I’m doing something difficult and special. I want authentic experiences and see these as somewhat antithetical to transactions involving money.
One morning in Tajikistan we cycle away from sad looking children who we’d danced with the night before in their traditional Pamir wooden house. Their mom had cooked for us and sewed our clothes (sewed poorly, but it doesn’t fucking matter). Because they’d invited us in without discussing payment we assume this Tajik hospitality, that we’ve heard so much about and experienced so much of already, is for free. We stand firm even when the kids ask for payment in the morning on behalf of their mom.
I don’t regret this much at the time. That comes later.
I start bike travelling alone, in Uzbekistan, heading west towards Europe.
I meet a very charismatic man with very high-quality photographs of helpless-looking children that he has helped according to his definition of help. He wants to do more helping of helpless-looking children like this.
In the absence of my own opinions about what help means I’m available to latch onto anyone with strength in their own convictions. We talk about him, his dreams, his ideas. He’s unaware that I’m part of a particular strain of the 1%, until I tell him I’m going to pay for more of his projects. I make self-congratulatory website pages about “Service Projects,” including a photo of Auntie Lee, the woman who endowed me. I commit to giving 10% of the money I inherited.
The announcement photo he posts of my sponsorship on his Facebook page gets more than 1,000 likes. My Facebook photos usually get twenty or thirty likes. This difference affects me.
I start doing what I committed to doing. Periodically I send my parents money and then they get in their car in Canada and drive to the nearest Western Union, to transfer the charismatic man the same amount. This is how it goes because I’m bicycle travelling in one country, and he is helping helpless children in another country. I don’t even remember exactly where I was when he was in Kyrgyzstan at an orphanage. Western Union is everywhere, though I can’t be bothered to plan my cycling around finding a branch myself.
I tell myself that I will bike travel only until I reach Europe. Then I will pay for a graduate degree in something that will signal that I am qualified and committed to making the world a better place. That I am a good person. That my privilege is balanced out. Presumably, then, I will do this work once qualified and committed to doing so.
I see a photo of one of the orphanage boys I am “helping,” rendered in black and white with vignetted corners for effect. I cry a lot. I have an emotional experience that validates my privilege. But I usually spend my days feeling guilty and trying to ignore this.
In the Republic of Georgia I meet Evan, on Tinder. We get too close, too fast. I lean over my second or third beer in Tbilisi, Georgia, and tell him “I’m really rich.” This comes out differently, without the usual tempering with guilty or regretful tones. I know he wants to like me, that he already does.
I start to read about how problematic orphanages can be, years before this article comes out. I feel queasy and say nothing.
The money continues flowing to help the helpless, via my parents, via Western Union. In a favela somewhere in Brazil, I fund the construction of a garden carved quickly and haphazardIy into a jungly hill. There’s no geotechnical assessment, which doesn’t sit well with my geoscience training. I feel queasy again. I say nothing again.
I back out of the rest of my commitment to the charismatic man. He’d told me once, “think of it not as your money, but as money you’re safeguarding for a good cause.” It’s like I’m applying this advice against him.
I’m afraid to tell him why I’m really stopping. I’m afraid he’ll out argue me. I’m more afraid I’ll offend him, and this fear outweighs the need for more important discussions about what doing good means. I don’t have a coherent view about what helping is, but I’m starting to learn what it isn’t.
I’m in Kyrgyzstan again, cycling again. I do not visit the orphanage where the money went to support the boy whose photo made me cry. Instead I fill my time with Evan. We decide to be in a relationship. We cycle for a while, and then buy a donkey only to give it away four days later (incidentally, to an orphanage).
We decide to bike travel for a little while longer and then “work in development,” because our lives are too selfish as they are. When we talk about working in development, it’s mainly through the lens of what kind of lifestyle this would involve.
I visit Canada. I bike travel alone in Ontario, often staying with Warmshowers hosts. I go dumpster diving for the thrill of it and plant seeds too close together at a permaculture farm. I am not up front about how I support myself. A man gives me ten dollars to support my travels and I only say no once before accepting it.
I make an appointment with my financial advisor and go to the tall office building without the heels and the blazers that I would have worn by default in years past. I tell him I’m going to invest by myself from now on, because his firm can’t offer me “socially responsible investing” (SRI) options.
He is quiet, then shows me the printout he’s prepared for our meeting, showing all the money that the money has made so far. I sign the forms and they transfer the lot back to me.
I extensively research SRI. Because if the inheritance is doing good things, I am good. I decide I want the ones that offer returns on capital, as opposed to the ones where you get no interest on the capital you lend.
But I don’t invest in anything because part of me thinks making money on money is evil. I ponder whether or not “the socialists” will make me distribute the inheritance if I joined a socialist organization or political party. I try to justify my aversion to them asking me to do that.
While I am in Canada, Evan is bike travelling in India. In the Himalaya he gets a phone call requesting his contribution to a large engineering job in Kenya. He sees it as a way to attain my net worth, so that he has “something to bring to the table” of our relationship. He’s uncomfortable that my zeros are bigger than his, and hasn’t worked through how this might conflict with his feminism.
He asks me—would I rather continue cycling in Asia, or Africa? I decide that we’ll do our last little bit of bike travel in Africa, before working in development. I book a ticket from North America to Kenya.
We meet in Nairobi with our bicycles. We decide we’ll bike travel for six months and then “help the Kenyans.” Before we even cycle out of Nairobi we’ve abandoned this idea, over an Ethiopian dinner. All we want to do is bike travel. The thought of giving it up makes us miserable.
I’m also becoming aware that there are problems with my ideas about helping others, and where they come from. I’m becoming aware of the idea of unintended harm from good intentions, and the precedent of a white person descending on an African country to help on their terms.
This means that I can’t rely on those actions like I used to in order to release the pressure valve of my guilt, which is getting worse the longer I bike travel, the luckier and more privileged I realize I am.
Evan’s engineering work is mostly remote so we start bike travelling in East Africa. One day cycling in Kenya, where Barack Obama’s father is from, we see a poster celebrating “DONALD TRUMP: AMERICA’S RICHEST PRESIDENT.” The posters are not ironic.
Because the inheritance isn’t tied up in a house or a business or a yacht or a charity or a start up, and because I am living frugally compared to how I used to, and am not planning on breeding, all the zeros feel acutely available.
Every person with a problem is someone I could help but don’t. Every cause is a cause I could support but say no to. And every person working in the development industry is a person I could be but choose not to be.
I spend a lot of my time around people from very different socio-economic backgrounds than mine. I avoid telling them I am very wealthy when they ask. My reasons for this are racist. If they’re white I’m worried they’ll judge me and if they’re black I worry they’ll rob me or ask me for something.
My ability to make friends with people of different socio-economic backgrounds is severely hampered, because I tend to see them solely through the lens of their financial situation, which inevitably I interpret as financial hardship. These people I’m getting to know seem one dimensional through my mental filters. I avoid many topics in conversation.
I analyze conversations in repetitive ways, “are they asking me for help?” “Should I help?” By now I’m aware I have a saviour complex and that I’m not giving people respect and dignity, not treating others how I’d like to be treated if they were visitors in my country. But realizing this and changing it are two different things.
I avoid reading about things that I don’t know how to change or that don’t appear changeable. I stop reading about Effective Altruism and 80,000 Hours because they lay out clear ways to have positive impact, ways that I’m not following. Reading journalism about anything that seems important is difficult, because I give myself a hard time for not learning more or doing something about anything and therefore everything I read about.
I start trying to rationalize my freedom by picking the first cause I’ve heard of—climate change—and trying to contribute towards its solution in a way that seems like it could work within my lifestyle and education: science journalism. I write a few long (are you surprised?!) and mediocre articles. Not because I’d be mediocre at it forever, but because it’s a craft to learn over years.
On principle I don’t seek any payment for these articles, so that it feels like volunteering (not that they’re worth payment). I do not enjoy this at all—the science journalism part. The not getting paid part is something to cling to.
I decide to donate the equivalent of one month of my expenses each year to charities recommended by GiveWell. The warm glow from this contribution lasts about half an hour after I click the “Donate” Button each February. Then I fall back into my guilt, my searching for something external to make how I live feel acceptable.
I definitely do not watch Into The Wild, though I sing along to the soundtrack. My mind tries to find fault with Christopher McCandless, who donated all his money to Oxfam and went feral in the Alaskan wilderness. Fuck that guy. Just kidding…
I read about Resource Generation, a group of millennials who’ve inherited and have donated large chunks of it to social justice issues, and try to find fault with them.
I visit my favourite travel blogger’s About Me pages, where they’re explicit that “no, they don’t have a trust fund or an inheritance, that they work to fund their own travels.” I try to find fault with them, too.
My work savings have long run out, so I begrudgingly start to tell half truths about how I can continue to travel. And the longer I travel, the more I am asked.
I learn what phrasing to use to get the response I want. I say “well I used to have work savings, which I used, then I inherited some money,” instead of “I live on an inheritance,” or “my lifestyle is cheap enough that I can do this for pretty much as long as I want.”
Putting what I love to do—bike travel—aside in the future for some worthy endeavour is still central to my idea of what makes my current life morally acceptable.
As I’m asked more often and I’m a little more honest about it, I get more responses from people. In these I search for clues about how good or bad of a person they think I am, and therefore I must be. I learn there is no correlation between how rich or poor someone appears to be, the colour of their skin, their religion, their nationality, and how likely they’ll be to say one or a mix of the following:
“Must be nice,”
“Oh, you’re lucky,”
“Give me something,”
“Good for you,”
“Do what makes you happy,”
“You just made different choices,”
“Your life is inspiring!”
I start to have a problem with the expression “do what makes you happy.” It feels pretty hollow on its own, when you already have a big slice of the pie. And yet, this is pretty much all I do.
I learn the list of things I can’t say to people from a similar class and privilege level as me. Because these similarities will be ignored and a division will be driven between us based on me inheriting a shitload of cash in my twenties, and them not.
For example, I cannot say “you say you want to do what I do. Well, you could have enough cash available to do it if you sold your house, your timeshare and your car.”
I really see myself in them. I remind myself that I would not have quit my job with “only” $30,000 USD in work savings. This was too scary, too reckless, even after I read the travel blogs about the work you could do while travelling, and the people who had quit their jobs to travel with far less.
Evan finishes the engineering job. Now his net worth is similar to mine. He feels worthy, we joke about how problematic it is that he only now feels worthy.
He says something no one else has. He says despite the fact that he earned through work, he’s just as privileged as I am. That any distinction between us is meaningless if you consider it from a broad perspective. I don’t believe that he says this only because he’s in love with me, but I do believe that it’s more his place to say it than mine.
The other thing I never say to anyone, ever, is “I’d rather have Auntie Lee back.” Sometimes people say this to me, “but you’d rather have your aunt back, right?” They’re trying to be compassionate, to acknowledge that the wealth came from death, and I appreciate their kind words.
But it’s irrelevant. Everyone knows someone who has lost someone, or has lost someone directly. Most people don’t get enriched by the tragedy.
And I don’t know that I’d wish her back if I could. It would depend on the terms and conditions of the life she was forced back into, for what, for my pleasure, my second chance? Her life was complicated, it had joys but also darkness. And just because she endowed me doesn’t mean that I prioritized her in life, in the one chance I had. She was a wonderful person that I took for granted.
When I feel in the mood to self loathe I read about Julia Wise and Jeff Kaufman who donate half their earnings to charity every year. This is what I binge on, when I have 3G on my SIM card, cross legged on a bed in Sosi Lodge in Lilongwe, Malawi on days off from riding.
Even more effective is reading Peter Singer essays. These compel people with affluence and privilege to direct resources towards the bottom billion (and sentient animals—I was recently told that Singer is called “the pig hugger”). The idea is to bring about the most happiness in the most people, until donating any more would bring significant suffering to oneself. These kind of ideas are called utilitarian, or “deep pragmatism,” or by their critics “becoming happiness pumps,” or “communist.”
Because I am sympathetic with these arguments, as humorously summarized by Philosophy Bro, reading these things while not doing them is effective self punishment that doesn’t change my actions.
Simple calculations reveal that we can afford to bicycle travel for decades, because we don’t spend a lot relative to what we have. This is the first time I let myself think about this option. Up until now I’ve paid for my current choices by borrowing moral credit against a theoretical future good act. But what if this later act never happens?
The idea of bike travelling for as long as we want is extremely appealing. It’s also at odds with the values I’m developing.
I still think making money on money is potentially evil as I execute my plan to invest in a “socially responsible” manner (with returns). This makes the process pretty anticlimactic. I buy CoPower bonds and divest of fossil fuel holdings to the extent that it’s convenient to do so. It doesn’t change how I feel about my life. I start calling myself a capitalist in a cynical way.
I tell the Zimbabwean investigative journalist who is cooking beside me in the communal hostel kitchen in Harare, Zimbabwe that I live off inheritance. She says “wow, so you’re really lucky.” I decide it will take a lot of practice to hear this from people that I am in fact far, far luckier than, until I can fully face them when they say it.
Brendan Leonard, one of my favourite bloggers, writes an article sympathetic to Trustafarians who pursue a life outdoors, like I am. He writes in The Great Dirtbag Pissing Contest:
As long as people are having fun, I don’t care how they achieved the means to do what they do. If you can spend any time outdoors, you’re lucky, whether you’re driving an $80,000 van or a beat-up old Honda Civic.
His blog post is my first time I’ve heard that there’s a slang word for me and my type.
A Trustafarian, I read online, is a mix of Trust-funder and Rastafarian. There is much said about us. Mostly that it’s easy for us to hold fringe opinions and live unconventionally because we don’t have skin in the game, we don’t have to worry about the things that most people have to worry about.
We are entitled and annoying and out of touch, and hide our privileges whenever possible beneath our tatty clothes and dreadlocks, “trying to look poor and interesting.”
I email Brendan Leonard and tell him I’ve read one of his books, because I want him to reply to me and I know he is busy and suspect he receives emails from oodles of randoms with blogs. I tell him I have a gift for him. In his book Make It Till You Make It, which is excellent and not just for writers, one of his pieces of advice is to “make gifts for people.”
My gift for him is a response to his Trustafarian blog post. He reads it and replies, suggesting that an article about this truth of my life might be of broader interest. Maybe I can publish this story. Somehow, amazingly, he starts helping me. So in Zambia I rewrite what I’d sent him.
In the article I ask for acceptance from the outdoor community for looking like a dirtbag and pursuing activities that a dirtbag may pursue, like living on a bicycle, but without being a dirtbag at all (what’s a dirtbag? read this).
I write that inheriting money has taught me some things about myself that I do not like. In the absence of the risk of a bad grade or being fired or not making rent, it’s been really difficult to motivate myself. That I’m less generous as well as lazier than the stories I told myself, about myself.
I write to my theoretical outdoor community audience that bike travel doesn’t feel special or difficult anymore, not in any meaningful sense of those words. That I finally realized that it was just another privilege to have the choice to do what I do. That it brings me no moral comfort that this is how I direct my time, money and resources, despite the fact that it makes me happy, and that I derive purpose from it, and that it’s low carbon and eye opening and authentic and intentional and mostly plant based and ya da ya da ya da..
Brendan gives me so much of his time. He sends my article to people who say nice things. They also warn me that I may be eaten alive in the comment section if it is published in an online magazine.
I am bursting with bravado. I convince myself that I don’t care about trolls, and that I can take valid criticisms of how I live my life in stride, and learn from them.
To practice I decide to refer to myself as a Trustafarian in person for the first time. I am on a road in Zimbabwe cycling towards four men who are standing beside their car taking photos of jade-coloured tea plantations. One of them looks like a Rastafarian. So I think, well, now’s a good a time as any.
One of the four, not the Rastafarian, asks what everyone asks, every day: how do you afford to bike travel for so long? I force myself to look at him and say, simply, “I’m a Trustafarian.”
He looks askance at his Rastafarian friend and his other friends and then back at me. He really scoffs, it’s not my imagination or my insecurities. He says “well, none of us have a trust fund.”
Brendan gives me the advice that if I want the article to get published, I need to write it in a way that won’t attract so many negative comments from readers. By now he’s relayed this advice from a few people.
I feel guilty—and confused—that the supposedly unapologetic, dog-eat-dog world of freelance writing is being not only receptive but also kind to me. This feels like almost a surreal level of privilege, to have an “in” and people caring about my feelings because I have a first-hand story to tell about being really rich.
Brendan gives me tips about which magazine will pay better, for an article about wealth, and I just gawk at my laptop screen.
What they are really warning me about finally hits me while I’m sitting at a picnic table at a campground in Swaziland. Brendan and his people are trying to protect me from the vast amounts of other humans that will think there is something very bad about my life unless I frame it carefully.
I am shaken, mad and sad, self-righteous and ashamed. I back out of it entirely, because I can, because I don’t have to make rent, because I’m a Trustafarian with no skin in the game.
I tell myself I’m backing out because I want to write this story exactly how I want to write it, but the truth is I’m afraid.
For many months I avoid all the versions of this story. The one I wrote over a year ago, the one I wrote in response to Brendan Leonard’s blog post, all the versions that arose from my communication with him, the half-written versions that came after it when I felt brave for a few hours. I tell myself I’ll publish this story on my blog, and I do not.
We cycle in southern Africa. I think about my life.
It occurs to me that seeking validation from anyone or anything external hasn’t worked, and that it probably won’t work. I realize I have to seek acceptance from myself, my most hostile critic.
I think about the past years. It seems that the more I’ve accepted my life the more curious I’ve become, the more outward looking. With more acceptance I’ve been better at learning what is real, not what is comfortable. That I’ve always lived selfishly, I just didn’t see it that way.
It seems that some of my relationships have improved, as has my ability to make decisions with more accurate information.
Acceptance of why I can do what I do has helped me get to know diverse people for the multi-faceted individuals that each of them are. We have had better conversations, learned more about each other’s realities. They have stayed the course with me through difficult, awkward silences.
I think about all my guilt, and how selfish it’s often been. That if getting rid of my guilt is the goal, then the means I choose to accomplish this end will have their problems.
My guilt had a face in mind, and it wasn’t the face of a person with far fewer privileges than me. It was the face of a person like me, who judged me for not contributing to the work force or participating in the rat race.
I know this because it’s been, unfortunately, easier to be honest about my wealth when speaking to an individual with so very little, than it has been to blog about it. This despite the fact that this blog only reaches people who are English literate, have an internet connection fast enough to load the page on their device, and have the time to read this long, long story about my privilege instead of doing the work the need to do to survive. But you’re my in-group, and I care way more about what you think of me. Same goes for my fellow travellers I meet at the hostels.
As I reflect, I also try to apply some mindfulness principles, probably further checking the boxes of a stereotypical Trustafarian. I practice seeing what’s happening in the present moment, without immediately judging it.
Because regardless of how good or bad or whatever I think my life is, I’m already living on a bicycle. It’s paid for by someone else’s life work, and further subsidized by the economics in Global South that drive food and accommodation prices down in relation to stronger currencies.
I keep pursuing honesty. I practice at the campgrounds, in the hostels, on the road, at the shops and family dinners that we participate it while travelling through South Africa, where Evan is from.
I answer the same questions from different types of people. Sometimes I obscure or tell a half truth, and I rarely get specific with numbers. But I try to move myself in that direction.
We reach Cape Town and start cycling towards Morocco. I tell all the people who receive my email newsletters that I live off inheritance and that this is the reason I can continue to bike travel. Many of them already know, and others don’t. I’m proud of myself because it’s hard to tell them.
I wonder about the relationship between self acceptance and the acceptance of others. I wonder if being open about something is itself a sign of self acceptance, or if it nudges the process along.
Six months after closing the door that Brendan held open for me to publish my story of Trustafarian-ism somewhere bigger than my blog, I stop avoiding my drafts.
I write what you’re reading.
When Evan asks what I’m typing, I skirt the question because I’m trying to ignore the consequences that might mushroom from my words going out on the internet, forever. They’ll be ample time for worrying or being excited about that later. I tell myself I’ll send him a draft soon, and I do. He reads it on his phone, in our tent, while I lay in silence.
I can’t bring myself to leave the laptop open when I go to the kitchen to make a coffee. It’s too much, I am afraid of someone walking by while I’m not there and seeing it. I know one day I’ll laugh at the irony and procrastination in this, given that it’s a draft of a public blog post.
But while I’m writing for hours and hours the title is there, with named names and named sums. It’s visible for anyone who walks by on the hostel’s creaky floors to see this particular truth about me, if they want to see.