Thursday, October 29, 2015

The case against acorns

In February of 2010 my dear friend and onetime partner Norm died. When we first got together in 1958 his stated goal was to have $100,000 in the bank by the time he was 30. He worked very hard and though we never discussed personal finances, I am sure he made it. 

In March of 2011 I took a month-long trip to England, France, and Italy. In 2012 I took a 15-day riverboat tour from Budapest to Amsterdam, then stopping over in New York for several days before returning to Chicago. In 2013 I took a ship from Rome to Istanbul; the year after that the same ship (coincidentally) from Venice to Athens. 

Bragging? No...utter disbelief. That I have done these things--things that so many other people can only dream about, as I could have only dreamt about were it not for Norm's generosity--leaves me lightheaded in contemplation. And all these wonderful adventures were possible only because Norm did not spend his hard-earned money on himself when he could and should have. 

I am deeply indebted to him in death as I was in life. So do I feel guilty for spending money he worked so hard for? How could I not, to a degree. But I did with his money what I wish he would have done for himself. I think he would have appreciated the irony in that.

And therein lies the theme and message of this blog: you truly can't take it with you. I could have...and many might say should have...invested the money Norm was kind enough to leave me. But to what end? I have no family to support, and even if I did have a family, I'm well beyond the age of having to support them. I have finally learned to live within my income and therefore didn't really need the money, though I am of course delighted to have it. 

I fully realize that everyone's needs are different. We all have financial obligations, which vary greatly from person to person. And I am certainly not advocating just blowing every penny we have on our own personal pleasures. We tend to work hard all our lives, putting money aside for...what, exactly? Like squirrels collecting acorns, we keep stashing it away. But once we have accumulated enough to assure ourselves a reasonable and sustainable level of comfort, we keep going. "For the kids," is perhaps the most common reason given if asked. A noble thought, but once "the kids" are no longer kids, the obligation to support them largely vanishes--they need to stand on their own two feet and make their own way. Leaving them something when you die is fine. But too often "something" is, realistically, everything you have. Pampering children is one thing; pampering adults is something quite different, not to mention largely unnecessary.

Norm, for example, left a sizable amount of money to his brother, who has done quite well for himself throughout life and does not need it, and to two nephews whom he never saw and who, from all accounts, were also doing quite well for themselves. I do hope they will use that money as I am using it, to fulfill dreams. I'm sure Norm, too, had dreams, but he was too busy storing acorns to act on them.
I think a major problem in the acorn-gathering/money-stashing philosophy is that we are seldom aware of how much is enough. The majority of us, of course, have no idea of exactly when we will die. It would also be safe to say that the vast majority of people are unaware of their true financial condition. They do not budget, they do not plan, they have no real idea of where their money goes. They just keep gathering those acorns.

I'm not addressing this to those whose circumstances prevent much acorn-gathering. But there are still a very great number who can, but who are so concerned for saving for the future comfort of others they neglect their own comfort now.

I am, as I'm sure you've noticed if you've followed these blogs, excruciatingly aware of the passage of time, and that time is not limitless for any of us. If we don't take the opportunities presented to us, they may well be lost forever. One of my strongest memories of my 2011 trip was of sitting in the Piazza San Marco in Venice on a beautiful, sunny day, having a drink while listening to a small orchestra playing not 50 feet from me. I made a mental toast to Norm, wishing he was there with me, and knowing that he should have been there instead of me.

So please, please don’t spend all your time running around gathering acorns. Take some time to sit in the sun and enjoy them.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (, which is also available as an audiobook (


Kage Alan said...

I can't help but wonder after reading this if Norm's dream was for you to take those trips. Sometimes the dreams we have are the fulfillment of others.

Just a thought.

Puzz TM said...

You know, I find it overwhelmingly kind of you first to have accepted Norm's gift, and then to have used it to see places in Europe. Wherever he is now, he's definitely smiling upon us.
Opportunities are true gifts, and gifts lead to true opportunities. And it puzzles me the fact that people rarely see it this way...

GirlFromNippon said...

Dear Dorien-san,

I am, in fact, spending most of my time gathering acorns - enough to go live in Norway where my Norwegian grandpa lives in. But...alas, here in Japan, we do not get to save much since we have to pay quite a lot of taxes and an incredible amount of money for all sorts of bills, etc.

But I promise I will take your advice and try to take some time to sit in the sun and enjoy myself from time to time. And...then when I had a chance, I would just grab it and...see how it goes from there ! :)

Dorien-san, I know that ( like my dad ) you probably do not believe in heaven and hell, but please allow me to wish just this one time that you will be up there in heaven, reunited with your family and your beloved Norm-san.

Your friend from Japan,

Chie Minato