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having enough for what you need to have
by jack bradley

I have a friend named Sammy who wants to visit Australia. Actually, Sammy wants to a lot of things, he’s a very ambitious sort. He’s frequently discussing his desire to get a new or better job (he calls himself “under-employed”) or to move to a bigger city where there are more opportunities. He has one of those quick, sharp minds that seem to do well when they have the stimulus of a busy environment and to develop bad habits when they are left stranded without that stimulus. He also wants to do more traveling, for many of the same reasons.

“I want to go to Australia,” he told me just the other day after listening to me extol the virtues of summertime in Sydney.

“So...what's stopping you?” I asked him. “Just come.”

“Nah,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

“So you don’t want to come to Australia?” I asked.

“Of course I do!” he said. “But I just can’t right now.”

“I don’t believe you,” I said, “And I want you to listen carefully to me…”

A few years ago, I was the Director of a business in Atlanta. The gentleman who owned that business was named Tony, and he was probably the most "live in the moment" guy I've ever known. His happiness was important to him, and he made sure that it existed as a priority in his life. (This also made him a lot of fun to work with, but that’s not really the point of this story.) Tony and I became good friends as well as good co-workers.

As far as I know, the business was his only source of income. It was a small business, with just Tony and I working there. I was involved enough to know that the money we made was not a fortune by anyone’s standards, yet Tony seemed pleased with the lifestyle he led. He lived in a modest condo in the city, dressed well, and generally seemed to get along just fine.

Now, here’s the surprising thing...Tony took (and as far as I know, he still takes) a trip somewhere internationally almost every year. It nearly always is a place of great history, or a place of renowned beauty, or one steeped in spirituality. I’ve never known him to do anything as frivolous as a theme park or a resort style vacation. It just wouldn’t be “him.” Last year he sent me a hand painted watercolour postcard of a mosque in Istanbul, which he had painted himself at sunset as he sat on the other side of the Bosphorus River, gazing at it (he is an accomplished painter). He buys art for himself, paintings, and sculptures...whatever takes his fancy at almost the exact moment he sees it. He eats out when he's asked (no matter where the place is or how much it costs)...I'm sure you get the idea. He’s not a spendthrift or a cheapskate, and I’ve known him to show generosity that seemed far beyond his apparent means. I couldn't figure out exactly how he did it, but it really wasn't my business.

Then one day a few years ago he asked me and my (then) partner to travel with him to Peru and visit Macchu Picchu for a few days, then maybe have a look at Lima, Cuzco, and the surrounding countryside before returning home. Not a long trip, but an expensive one by my standards. I’d never even left the United States before, so a trip to South America seemed very exotic and exciting. I’d dreamed of going to see the ruins of Macchu Picchu my entire life. As I considered the trip, my excitement got the better of my manners, and I blurted out something that I would probably have regretted, had we not been such good friends.

"Tony," I said. "How do you do it? More importantly, why do you do it? I know that you aren't making a fortune with this business (he really did start it out of a love for what he was doing), yet you seem to be able to afford anything you want. These trips are expensive, and don’t seem very practical. Shouldn't you be saving for your retirement?"

We were standing in an art gallery when I asked this. He smiled, and then said this: "Jack," he said. "Let me ask you a question. Is there any painting in this gallery that you are absolutely in love with right now? One that you really want?" (He knew there were several. A love of art was one of the many interests that we shared.)

"Yes, you know that there are," I said.

"Why don't you buy them? Or even just one of them, today?" he asked.

"Because I can't afford them right now," I said. "I'm saving up for one of them, and you know that my house needs a new central air system. It’s expensive."

Tony looked at me with something very deep in his eyes, and said. "What I know is that you don't choose to afford them. It's not about 'can' or 'can't' afford it. Now, listen to me," he continued. "How much is that painting that you want?"

"It's about $500.00," I said. (It was a 15 year old framed and matted postcard that had the most amazing forest landscape painted on it, right across the faded words about some family on a camping trip. It haunted me, even when it was out of sight. It embodied one of the reasons I was an art aficionado. Sometimes something beautiful and strange gets its hooks in your mind and won't let go. You can’t ever shake it loose.)

"So," Tony said. "What would happen if your car broke down tomorrow and you had to pay $500.00 to get it fixed? Would you be able to afford it?"

"Sure, I guess I’d have to," I said slowly, thinking about it. "I need transportation to get to and from work. I suppose I’d have to find a way."

"Right." he said. "You'd find a way. You'd choose to afford it. You wouldn't say 'can't'."

”But-…” I started to say. He just put up a finger as if to say “Stop, and think about it,” and then he turned back to the painting he had been admiring when the conversation had started.

I stood there, frustrated and not knowing why. He left me thinking about that for a long while. I eventually got my head around his point, and realized it wasn’t about just buying whatever you wanted or liked. It also wasn’t about letting your budget run wild and hoping that things would work out. It was about priorities. It was about living those priorities in such a way that you served yourself, and not your surroundings. It was about balance in your life. It was about value.

My partner and I went to Macchu Picchu with Tony that year, and had the most amazing time. We chose to afford it, and I’m glad we did. It’s not a place that many folks get to see in person, and I’m fortunate to have had two days there in the mountains with the ruins of that amazing city, not to mention time in Cuzco, Lima, and Aquas Calientes. I was also fortunate to have traveled with Tony to do it. He's a very interesting man, and I’ve been fortunate to have him as a friend.

And I bought that postcard painting.

Oh, and as for Sammy…I heard from him today. He’s planning his trip to Australia.


Born the son of a circus monkey, Jack had to overcome the stigma of having an address south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Struggling against all odds, he finally got his HS diploma from some guy on the corner, and proceeded to attend NC State University, where his records are now the "running joke" in the admissions office. In February of 2000, he moved to Sydney, Australia, to pursue a writing career full-time. Jack currently has a husband but no wife, no children, and a dog with great fashion sense.

more about jack bradley


fond, fond memories
by jack bradley
topic: general
published: 10.20.00

culture shock, take two
big-ass arachnophobia? she'll be right, mate.
by jack bradley
topic: general
published: 3.23.01


roger striffler
2.22.02 @ 8:24a

I couldn't agree more. Priorities seem to shift very subtly over time. It's always fortunate when someone or something makes you step back and re-examine yours, and see if your life is in line with what you think is important.

If you want an eye-opening look at life out of balance on a cultural level, check out "Koyaanisqatsi", a film scored by Philip Glass. It'll really make you think.

russ carr
2.22.02 @ 11:14a

Or watch Simpsons episode "Hello Gutter, Hello Fadder" in which Koyaanisqatsi is parodied. It takes less time.

Jack, I fully agree with Sammy's assessment of life. It's the peace of mind that allows you to say, "The cup is not half full or half empty...the cup is as full as it needs to be -- and it will remain that full." Which is why we're buying a new house.

heather millen
2.22.02 @ 1:31p

Thank you. Right now I'm planning a move I always dreamed of, and maybe its not smart. But its what I want. And it was nice to hear this amid all the "your crazy's". Maybe I am. Crazy and happy.

mike julianelle
2.22.02 @ 2:49p

Crazy and happy like a fox!
I agree though, especially with all my bitching about not doing anything, this column is a breath of fresh advice.

matt morin
2.22.02 @ 4:22p

I sometimes worry about spending money on stuff I want, but don't need. And I find that once I go ahead and spend the money, I don't miss it, and end up with a lot of enjoyment from whatever it is I spent the money on in the first place.

Tony has a great theory to live by.

tracey kelley
2.25.02 @ 8:57a

Before I started my business, we spent 3K on a 25-day trip to Ireland and England.

6 months later, my business was wrought with start-up debt - debt that could have been eliminated by having that 3K in the bank.

But do I regret the trip? Never. Not one single minute. And I'd do it again tomorrow.

adam kraemer
2.25.02 @ 9:56a

I disagree. I am in the 10-year process of repaying thousands of dollars in debt that I've racked up over the course of my life, and wishing that I'd been less impulsive when it came to spending when I was younger. Because you never know when you're going to buy the painting and have your car break down the next day.

tracey kelley
2.25.02 @ 10:16a

Oh, I've done that, too. It really sucks.

I am frivolous by nature, but actually not much of a day-to-day shopper. I spend money on BIG things: trips, gifts, flowers for the garden, that type of thing.

adam kraemer
2.25.02 @ 10:18a

I'd just like to no longer be $60,000+ in debt. And I'd like to travel back in time and smack myself around a bit. Sometimes it's important to know that you really can't afford something, no matter how much you like it.

tracey kelley
2.25.02 @ 10:20a

That's more than I've made in 3 years. Holy shit.

adam kraemer
2.25.02 @ 10:24a

Well, to be fair, most of that is owed for grad school.

Only about $10,000 of it is credit cards.

juli mccarthy
2.25.02 @ 10:26a

ACK! Cut those credit cards UP!! And stop reading those cheery little "you've been pre-approved" letters. Those people are NOT your friends!!

tracey kelley
2.25.02 @ 10:29a

Well, kudos to you for actually paying back school debt. That's a little different.

adam kraemer
2.25.02 @ 10:35a

Oh, I did cut the cards up, are you kidding me? I believe I mentioned above that I'm in the 10-year process of paying everything off. I'm actually enrolled in one of those credit repayment plans. I'm impulsive; I'm not stupid.

michelle von euw
2.25.02 @ 12:34p

Adam, I hear you. My first reaction was the same as yours -- I "did what I wanted" for one summer, and then spent three years paying off the credit card debt that accumulated during that time. Was the working 16 hour days, living on a budget, cutting down on going out, not seeing plays, or visiting friends or family for three years worth that one summer of fun? Honestly? No. But I did learn a lot about fiscal matters, and met my husband at my second job, so I guess that was good.

roger striffler
2.25.02 @ 4:51p

I used to want a lot of things that frankly, don't hold the same appeal now - high performance cars, for example. These days I'm happy that the ol' Jeep runs well. I think that over time you start to refine your priorities. I've spent a lot of money on things that now seems frivolous, but thankfully, have also spent it on some really fantastic stuff, like travelling, and my dogs.

roger striffler
2.25.02 @ 4:52p

BTW, Jack - I know this is your not too subtle way of reminding me that I've been threatening to visit you for over a year...

jack bradley
2.25.02 @ 5:04p

In all fairness, Roger...this was me being subtle.

This column wasn't about being reckless or impulsive. It was about making decisions that feed your heart and mind, even if you have to go against your most conservative urges. I wasn't advocating putting yourself $60,000 in debt just to buy impulse items, but rather to not spend your life missing out on things that serve your soul just to make sure you have an emergency car-payment saved up.

Jumping in puddles isn't always a good idea, but sometimes its worth doing, in spite of the sniffles you're going to get later.

jack bradley
2.25.02 @ 5:47p

In all fairness, Roger...this was me being subtle.

This column wasn't about being reckless or impulsive. It was about making decisions that feed your heart and mind, even if you have to go against your most conservative urges. I wasn't advocating putting yourself $60,000 in debt just to buy impulse items, but rather to not spend your life missing out on things that serve your soul just to make sure you have an emergency car-payment saved up.

Jumping in puddles isn't always a good idea, but sometimes its worth doing, in spite of the sniffles you're going to get later.

shirley denatale
2.25.02 @ 6:32p

I think your firend Tony had it figured out. When I was young( er) I wanted everything and got nothing because I thought I didn't really deserve it. Now if I really know that I want something, I get it right then, don't even go home to think about it, because then it will be gone when you go back. Things I have to think about, I usually decide I really don't want enough to sacrifice anything for.

scott gaines
3.1.02 @ 10:47a

This piece sort of sums up life for me. You can't win, you can't break even, and you can't get out of the game. So don't sweat everything. Don't put yourself in debtors prison, but as the character once said in Risky Business, sometimes you gotta say, what the fuck. Just go. Do. Enjoy.

Jump in the puddle. You know you want to.

mary fortuna
3.13.02 @ 9:59a

When it comes to buying art, I think of my friend Dennis, who has managed to build an amazing collection of high quality contemporary art over the years, on a very modest income. If he finds something he really wants and doesn't have the cash on hand to buy it outright, he makes a downpayment and adds the cost to his running "art bill." As Dennis says, "I pay the mortgage, the electricity, the gas and the phone bills every month. This is no less necessary to me than any of those expenses." Of course, Dennis couldn't afford ME any other way....

juli mccarthy
3.13.02 @ 3:52p

Dennis hasn't figured out my secret for acquiring great art: sleep with the artist; or at the very least let the artist crash on your sofa.

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