I’m not talking about the carefully organized commercialized adventure vacations that have become so popular. I’m talking about true, gritty adventure vacations. This is on my mind since I’ve been planning an alpine climbing vacation for this summer. For me personally, a bit of adventure is absolutely needed to keep me sane. Rock climbing, ice climbing, skiing, mountain biking, mountaineering, winter camping, backpacking, or scuba diving. These are all things I love to do and if I go too long without some type of adventure, I start getting grumpy. Of course everyone is different and many people don’t like these particular activities, but I think everyone could use some adventure now and then. For many, it’s travel, especially when it’s more local vs touristy. For others, it’s something else. But whatever your personal view of adventure is, I hope you are able to take the time to do it. It adds some zest to your life!
Let’s me explain why I think adventure vacations have a lot to teach us about the often non-intuitive nature of human happiness, along with some personal finance analogies, using alpine climbing as an example. First off, let me explain what alpine climbing is. Here is the Wikipedia definition:
Alpine style refers to mountaineering in a self-sufficient manner, thereby carrying all of one’s food, shelter, equipment, etc. as one climbs, as opposed to expedition style (or siege style) mountaineering which involves setting up a fixed line of stocked camps on the mountain which can be accessed at one’s leisure.
Generally, we’re talking higher elevation climbing where there is snow and ice but there are often areas of rock as well (i.e. mixed climbing). Also, these are either very long car to car day climbs or trips over many days in remote areas. Since I’m going to do a 3 day, 2 night alpine climb, I’ll use that as my example.
The Non-intuitive Luxury of Minimalism
In climbing, it’s critically important to be conscious about every item you commit to carry with you. Too much stuff will weigh you down and make your climb more difficult or even impossible to achieve given the high degree of physical challenge involved. You gain a frame of reference as a minimalist quickly when every ounce matters. I have spreadsheet that lists every item I plan to bring by weight and type and I think hard about ways to minimize what I carry or the weight of each item I do need to bring.
At the same time, there are several things that are essential and need to be taken. You need food and water. You certainly need gear to keep you safe on the planned terrain. This includes things like clothes and sleeping bags but also the right technical gear like a rope, helmet, ice screws, rock protection, harness, ice tools, crampons, etc. At the same time, these items add up quickly so you need to plan carefully and take the minimum amount for your trip. Take the lightest sleeping bag that will work, using all the clothes you bring to add the warmth you need. Take the right rock or ice protective gear for the route, but no more than you expect to need. Take only the food you think you need. Take the minimal shelter you can get away with for the route.
This starts to become an uncomfortable exercise. You know you won’t be as comfortable sleeping in a bivy sack compared to a nice tent. You may want one or two extra ice screws on the route to feel more comfortable from a safety perspective. You may run short on food and be hungry if you don’t take enough, especially if you have to wait out the weather in camp during the climb. You may be a cold if you don’t pack enough warm clothes. You feel like you should take a more and can easily rationalize taking a bit extra in each area to feel more comfortable. It really starts to add up though!
After hours of climbing a steep mountain with all your gear, your perspective dramatically changes. You start thinking of all the stuff you brought, that you wish you had left at home. And anything you carry the whole trip, that wasn’t critical, or worse yet doesn’t even get used, feels like a colossal waste of effort.
Most climbers (and backpackers) when they first start the hobby, carry way too much, and as they gain experience, they keep trimming back their list of “needs”. After a while, the experienced climber’s pack looks quite different from that of a novice.
In the end, true luxury on an adventure trip comes from a lighter pack filled with fewer high quality items and a minimal level of traditional “comfort”. This makes the whole experience better. You move more quickly and with less effort through the mountains. You enjoy the experience more. You are actually safer by being able to move quickly through difficult terrain.
Your intuitive feeling to bring more gear for contingencies or comfort, is actually wrong and leads to difficultly and misery on the trip.
So is there an analogy to personal finance?
The key equation in personal finance in order to eventually achieve financial independence is to save a large portion of what you make. But your feelings drive you towards spending more to be happier in the moment. That spending is the weight you carry. All the things you buy and money you spend is a big financial rock tied around you as you try to climb the mountain of financial independence.
Spending seems nice at the time but later on, when you’re halfway up the mountain, your perspective shifts and you start thinking of all the financial things you wish you hadn’t committed to carrying. And often you see financial climbers high above you on the mountain with smaller packs, moving quickly towards the financial freedom summit.
High investment fees are an additional rock you have to carry. The “comfort” of professional money management for your investments is actually a heavy weight pulling against your progress. Keep in mind that a 1% investment fee, which seems small, is actually 25% of your gains if you assume a 4% real return! This is a very heavy weight.
The importance of a good partner
In climbing, a good partner is critical. You need someone you trust and work well with. Together, you protect each other in dangerous terrain, and work together to solve problems like route finding. You also share in the burden of carrying the team gear you need like a stove, fuel, shelter, and protective equipment. Being able to split this effort makes a big difference.
A good partnership (typically marriage) is also extremely helpful in personal finance. As a team, you can share in some of biggest expense items like housing and transportation. If both partners have an income, while big expenses are shared, it can really boost your savings and accelerate your joint progress to financial independence. You also share in the burden of various time and financial commitments which ranges from household chores, finances, childcare, etc. As an example, my wife and I travel periodically on 2-3 week trips and both of us emphatically agree that being a single parent is harder!
Even if only one member of the team is earning money, the other partner can really help in other areas like those listed above. You can reduce expenses by in-sourcing if at least one of you has more time available. The big one is daycare but there are many others. Cooking at home is healthier and cheaper, but it takes more time. Maintaining your house, yard, car, and other items can also be in-sourced to a large extent, saving significant money. Ideally, as an IBFree reader, you’re very deliberate about (and tend towards minimizing) commitments to focus on what really makes you happy, but there will always be some ongoing maintenance that needs to be done for the elements you consciously add into your life.
Looking at the data, married couples, based on US government data in the age bracket of 55-64, have about 4 times the net worth compared to singles. This is certainly convoluted by other factors, such as the fact that the marriage rate for highly educated and higher income individuals is a little higher but the main factor is the partnership. The loss in wealth (for both individuals) both immediately and many years after divorce is also clear.
Non-intuitive Elements of Happiness
Climbing is a strange activity. It’s physically miserable for much of the time. The physical challenge inevitably becomes less and less fun over long hours. For example, the many-hour hike to the car from camp after a climb always feels endless and everyone just wishes they could teleport to their car or home at that point.
In additional to the discomfort from exertion, the list of unpleasant conditions is pretty long: For much of the time its too cold or too hot. You usually have too much sun exposure, especially at higher elevations. You suffer from dehydration, headaches from altitude, mental fatigue from being on really steep terrain for a long time, minor injuries, etc.
At the same time, it’s such an unusual and challenging environment, that it’s extremely engaging. I find it easy to stop thinking about work or responsibilities at home on a trip like this. You really live in the moment, which experts conclude is a key factor for those rare and valuable times of “flow” as described by the oft-cited work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
An adventure trip like this also takes advantage of the strange workings of the human mind to provide enhanced happiness. Let me explain.
Happiness research has identified that we need to think about human happiness in two buckets. Bucket one is happiness of the moment. This type of happiness is what you get when someone asks you how happy you are right now. This is a fickle type of happiness. It is useful, especially if you collect snapshots of current happiness over time like some new smart phone apps are doing. However, it has some major flaws as well. One of these is that your mind has a very hard time with duration. Whether a pleasant or unpleasant event is short or long makes much less difference than you would expect. It’s also easily influenced by your current mood. As an example, asking people how many dates they had lately, followed by a question of how happy they are with their life. Compared to the control data of just the happiness question (i.e. no preceding question on dating), there was a dramatic increase in cited happiness for those who were dating a lot and a significant decrease for those that had few or zero recent dates.
This is why the second type of happiness is important to understand. This is the happiness level you think of when you reflect more holistically about your life or a larger experience. Kids are a great example. Moment to moment, much of the parenting experience is not much fun. However, there is a deep satisfaction with raising kids that most parents feel when they mentally integrate all the aspects of parenting (maybe partly because the mind forgets the negatives?). This memory-based happiness can be described as your overall happiness level with your life.
For an adventure trip like this, much of the misery, especially the long duration misery of multi-hour exhausting climbing, is lessened in your memories. But the peak experiences of that difficult section of terrain, the gorgeous campsite high on a mountain, the view from the summit, and the adrenaline-enhanced bonds formed with your climbing partner become strong neural memory connections in your brain. As you are looking through photos of your trip, or telling the story to your friends or family, you remember the amazing positive aspects of the trip.
Conversely, it’s very common to think to yourself at some point during such a trip that you wish you hadn’t done it and just want to be home. I often end a trip thinking it might be the last one I do for quite a while and maybe forever. But my mind changes quickly as the weaker neural memories of the long misery portions fade and the positive memories remain relatively strong. In the end, your memory and satisfaction with the adventure becomes even better than it really was! It’s an interesting way to use the advantages and disadvantages of your mind to make yourself happier.
I add this aside on psychology and happiness, because happiness is the ultimate goal of this blog and for much of what we pursue in life. Here I am talking about the second definition which is overall satisfaction with your life, not the more hedonistic momentary type of happiness. Achieving financial independence is just a critical milestone in this journey. I believe overall life happiness is much more difficult to achieve when too much of your life is driven by money concerns.
As smart IBFree readers, you can probably see additional parallels to this happiness section with the journey to financial independence. The years of budgeting and saving, especially early on, are those long, sometimes unpleasant slogs on the mountain. But trust me; your future self will not mind those sacrifices. Don’t just take my word for it. When people are asked later in life, almost no one regrets saving early in life, but plenty of people regret not doing so. The memory of any “sacrifices” that come with saving will fade…..it’s simply how our minds work. But the deep sense of peace and satisfaction that comes with financial freedom will be with you every day, improving your overall happiness with life once you achieve it.
So I encourage you to take on the adventure of early financial independence. It will be challenging and difficult at times. But at some point in the adventure you will find that both the journey and the final state of freedom will make you happier. It’s worth it.