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Rational Simplicity:
Setting Course to a Simpler Life

Author:   Tim Covell
Publisher:   iUniverse (2005)
ISBN:   0-595-34214-0     (paperback, 87 pages)

Initially, I was tempted to say that Tim Covell's Rational Simplicity is sort of the poor man's version of Your Money or Your Life. It's certainly much shorter (and designed as such by the author), and navigates a lot of the same YMOYL landscape. But there's a simple beauty to Rational Simplicity that many other financial authors would do well to learn: Good books don't have to be 300 pages long. Say what you need to say, let it stand on its own merits, and go on about your business. Don't forcefeed endless minutiae and details.

Honestly, a reader could plow through Rational Simplicity in one sitting. (You could probably throw in the author's website, too.) I'm of the opinion that there aren't enough financial books like this one out there, and I applaud Covell for his accomplishment. How many hundred-pages-or-less books have you found that really measured up — had something really inspiring and noteworthy to say? Personally, I cannot recall more than a few.

Covell writes about his own money saga, as well as the changes he made in his life in order to step entirely off of the work-and-spend treadmill. He does this with the sincerity and pointedness which can only flow from life experience. Covell isn't much for literary padding or academic nuance; he provides just enough deliberation to get the point across and effectively pull you along his mind's track. (No thirty-page chapters here about the environmental toxicity of Bubble Yum.)

I suppose if I had kept working I could have had a mansion with a grand view and a garage with a Hummer, a Mercedes, and a Corvette. But I know I am going to die. I know I have an uncertain number of days left to pursue my dreams. Rather than trading my time for more and fancier material goods, I choose to have all my time free to do what interests me.

While I do understand its appeal, I'm not one who runs headlong with the "downshifting" camp. Or, at least, not yet. But passages like the one above are enough to make me thankful I've toned down my spending — as Covell, not surprisingly, suggests doing — if only to the point that time off from work can be taken at my discretion, and without it delivering a fatal body-blow to my monthly finances. There is certainly more to life than on-clock productivity, performance bonuses, and trying to remember whether your checking account has enough in it to cover that last bill you mailed.

At age 42 I retired. I do not have a pension and I have never earned more than $25 an hour. I am not a millionaire. I have enough money to live comfortably. I do not use an alarm clock. I go to bed when I am tired. I wake when I am rested. I do not commute, dress up for work, or worry about pleasing the boss.

So how did he manage this feat? He didn't buy new cars every four years, for one thing. He bought used cars — reliable ones — and he bought them with cash. He controlled his spending, measured his progress toward specific goals, and let the dog-eat-dog world motivate him to work harder at working less. Oh — and there was real estate. (Isn't there always?)

"The suggestions in this book," Covell writes, "allow you to have more time to achieve your goals and find happiness." With that in mind, the path outlined in Rational Simplicity looks like this:

  • Separate wants from needs.

  • Think of money as time.

  • Break the advertising chain.

  • Avoid consumer debt.

  • Know your net worth.

  • Understand the magic of compound interest.

  • Set goals.

  • Choose a path to simplicity.

  • Pursue your dream.

    Nothing too astounding there — not, at least, until you consider the sum of those items, and see what they added up to for Covell. The following passage wraps up Chapter 4, "Break the Advertising Chain."

    Advertising permeates our lives. Is is one of the most powerful forces in our society. Buy by realizing advertisers have no stake in your happiness, you can begin to break the advertising chain. You can lessen your exposure, for example, by turning off the TV, skipping the Sunday newspaper ads and staying out of the malls. And when you encounter advertising, you can think for yourself and work to rationally disconnect the advertiser's desired link between consumer goods and happiness. You can try to substitute solutions to attain the goal suggested by the advertiser by other means, and you can use your dream as a carrot to help you ignore the advertising. Remember, consumer goods will not make you happy, but freeing up time to pursue your goals will.

    I was particularly engaged by Covell's Epilogue, where he spends time discussing his financial pathway through life and his experiences in real estate. For him, real estate functioned as a "super-charged savings plan."

    With each house I remodeled, I learned a new skill. I figured the people I paid to work, as nice as they were, were not brain surgeons. Each of their skills was learnable. From a start of painting walls, I learned to lay laminate floors. Later, I added ceramic tile. Along with the tile, I learned to replace toilets and to do some basic plumbing. On another house, I read books about electricity and learned to wire lights and outlets. I picked up some drywall skills and learned how to replace windows. Through a combination of reading, watching, asking questions and figuring things out myself, I learned many skills.

    On each remodel, I worked fast. I would take a one week vacation from work, sandwiched between two weekends, totaling nine days. Sometimes I was very lucky. My record time between buying a house and collecting the funds from the sale was 27 days. The longest was four months.

    He documents fifteen "Lessons Learned" in his years of real-estate investing and renovation. As I read through these lessons, I found myself nodding in enthusiastic agreement: Knowledge of these things would benefit average homebuyers as well as novice investors.

    If you can get around a few typographical errors and such (the author of The Overspent American was Juliet Schor, not Elizabeth Shur), then Rational Simplicity is a worthy addition to your financial reading list. If you read and enjoyed The Overspent American or Your Money or Your Life, then you will likely appreciate Rational Simplicity as an extension of what those books' suggested lifestyle changes can accomplish. Covell's book, if nothing else, ought to give you serious pause when you consider just how much of your life you have dedicated to your job and to the pursuit of material goods.

    There is no grander truth than life itself, and Covell has placed his out there for all of us to learn from. While retirement at 42 may not be in all of our futures, there is no reason that "positive realignment" cannot be.

    Michael | May 13, 2005

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