Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Words of Wisdom

A year or two ago, a friend compiled a book of advice for his son's 18th birthday and asked me to contribute. Here is what I wrote:

When I was young, I was given three pieces of economic advice that gave me the freedom to live the life I wanted, as a writer.

1. Never pay interest.

That means paying off the credit card every month. That means buying a car with cash. That means no mortgage and no student loans. Is it possible? Not always, but it's worth striving for. If you can't afford it, you probably don't need it. There is no such thing as "shopping therapy." Buying things only makes you a slave to things.

In the Old Norse literature I study, there's a set of maxims called Havamál, or "Words of the High One," supposedly spoken by Odin himself more than a thousand years ago. It says (in the translation by Paul Taylor and W.H. Auden):

A kind word need not cost much,
The price of praise can be cheap:
With half a loaf and an empty cup
I found myself a friend.


2. Never have monthly bills that must be paid.

Again, pay cash or don't buy it. But some things are unavoidable: the phone bill, the electric bill, the internet, and you have to live somewhere, so there will be either rent or a mortgage payment. My husband and I were lucky enough to be able to build a house out in the countryside (where the rules are more lax) and pay for it as we went. It was small and, at first, quite rustic (no electricity!). But as Havamál says,

A small hut of one's own is better,
A man is master at home:
A couple of goats and a corded roof
Still are better than begging.


We passed on the goats and got Icelandic horses—which is quite an unnecessary expense, but at least not one we need to pay monthly, and they make us happy.

3. Keep enough cash in the bank to cover one year’s necessary expenses.

That includes food, taxes, utilities, a mortgage if you have one (we didn't), insurance of various kinds and, for us, hay and shoeing and vet bills for the horses. It also means making up a yearly budget and sticking to it.

If you follow these three precepts, and have a little luck, you are free. If you have a job, you know they need you more than you need them. You can quit at any time and take a whole year to find a new job without ending up on the street.

If you don’t have a job and don’t want one (both my husband and I have been freelance writers now for over 15 years), you know how much money you need to make each year to replenish the bank account.

Once you've done that, you can relax—travel, ride the horses, write something that won't sell. It's up to you.

Too many people get caught up in the money economy. They buy things they can't afford and then are stuck working in a job they hate in order to pay for them—and they usually end up paying twice as much, in the end, counting the interest and loan fees.

Money is not nearly as valuable as your time and your freedom. Says Havamál,

Once he has won wealth enough,
A man should not crave for more…


And:

The generous and bold have the best lives.

For more on my latest book, The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, see the related posts on this blog (click here) or my page at Macmillan.com.

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and may earn a commission if you click through and purchase the books mentioned here.

Illustrations by Gerhard Munthe from an 1899 edition of Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla.

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