One Small Change: Do the Math

I’m so glad to have Esther Emery here today with a totally out-of-the-box and beautiful One Small Change to consider. I found Esther this year on the Internet, and I absolutely love her blog and the beautiful ways she chooses freedom and authenticity in her life. Please welcome her here today!

Photo by - Filip Ologeanu CreationSwap
Photo by – Filip Ologeanu CreationSwap

I am not the woman who is known for subtle gestures. My husband and I quit our jobs and moved onto three acres of near-wilderness in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. We made ourselves a yurt to live in. We are trying to grow our own food. We live without electricity. None of these are what you would call “a small change.”

But big changes are made of small changes. And the small change I have to share with you today works anywhere. It works in Manhattan as well as in the rural communities of Idaho.  It works in business attire as well as in muck boots.

It’s just a little math.

When I discovered this math fact I was in crisis: emotional crisis and financial crisis. I’m not going to try to tease out which came first, but I was depressed, in debt and confused about next steps. I wanted to figure out what money was in my life, and in my husband’s life. I wanted to know why it kept slipping through our fingers.

I found this book called Your Money or Your Life. And the book asked this question: What is money, really? Besides paper and metal, besides status and security, besides economic class and social identity and shame…what is money really?

The question blew my mind, but what really blew my mind was the answer.


Money is an expression of life energy, captured by work or craftsmanship, held in potential, ready to be exchanged for something that you don’t have time or skill or inclination to make.

Then I learned that the cost of many physical items can be roughly compared to the amount of carbon combustion energy required to make them. And that blew my mind even more.

At the time I had a newborn and a toddler and I wasn’t working at all. My husband was working for American Repertory Theatre, which was a really good job, as theatre jobs go. Following the directions in the book, we adjusted his rate of pay into real rate of pay, which means you pull out the cost of work-required clothes, work-required commute, work-required telecommunications devices. We came up with a real wage of 12.75 per hour.

And we started doing the math:


A candy bar…five minutes of my husband’s life.

A bottle of wine…fifty minutes of my husband’s life.

A nice dinner out…eight hours of my husband’s life.

A house in the suburbs…holy bananas, years and years and years of my husband’s life.

This little trick changed the whole equation for me. You see, I used to believe that simplification = suffering. But these days I think simplification = freedom.

Nobody wants to feel like they can’t have what they want. And sometimes it feels like that, doesn’t it? When you think about the environmental and social impact of your purchases, it just feels like you’re just being punished for the wrongs of the world, and all you want is to have what you want, and why shouldn’t you?

As long as the problem is set up like that, the big changes aren’t coming. We’ll just go on ahead and buy the things we want, because we want them. And I don’t blame us one bit for that…as long as simplification = suffering.

But what if it doesn’t?


What if you’re standing there at the checkout counter with your life in one hand and your stuff in the other? And you’re making a choice, and neither choice is wrong?

Your life. The hours of your life. Your choice. What do you want to do?

(You see what I mean? This changes things.)

When you’re doing the math, you notice when you’re buying stupid stuff. You notice when you’re shopping for security instead of joy. It gets easier to say, “I guess I don’t need that such-and-such after all.”

But also, it gets easier to support things you really care about. It gets easier to say, “Yes, I will give eight hours of my life energy (100$) to a kickstarter campaign for a better world. Yes, I will give an hour of my life energy (12$) to a friend.”

These days, when I open my wallet, I pull out this little math fact alongside my credit cards. It is the small change that has cracked the lie of scarcity in my life. I have let it work on me, gently, over time, and it has set me free to express myself more fully, in the small ways and also in the big ways. Maybe it can do the same for you.

Wouldn’t our high school math teachers be proud of us?

estheremerywriterEsther Emery used to direct stage plays in Southern California. But that was a long time ago. These days she is pretty much a runaway, living off grid in a yurt and tending to three acres of near wilderness in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. She writes about faith and rebellion and trying to live a totally free life at, and is also the author of the free, inspirational ebook Unleash Your Wild. Connect with her on Twitter @EstherEmery.

24 thoughts on “One Small Change: Do the Math

  1. A few years back, I was astounded by a very similar equation: Money = Time + Energy. And since then, I have taken some very similar steps to simplify my life, including ridding myself entirely of that strangling noose of debt. There is no suffering in simplification, not really, and you know I’m one of your biggest fans, Esther… this is powerful math and even more powerful story that is unfolding!

  2. I love it when I can read a post about money and say “brilliant!” instead of “ouch!” You are so generous with your wisdom, and that is priceless!

  3. Starting to churn this one around my head too. It’s been something I’ve thought about before. Thanks as always

  4. I’ve always thought of the time/money equation more from the other side. Like when I am working a job I don’t like I think of it in terms of the things that are important to me that the work will provide me. “This week of work will allow me to afford that week in Thailand this summer” or “This week of work will allow me to buy the plane ticket home for Christmas” and isn’t a week of work worth those things?

    1. Mmm hmm. I think that’s common, Lily. I think for me this small change shifted the question a bit away from “what can I get?” and towards “what am I giving up to get it?” I bet this book, Your Money or Your Life, that I described is a frequently cited reason for people quitting jobs they don’t like!

  5. When I got my first real job in high school, my dad had me calculate how many hours I’d had to work in order to afford a new book, sweater, or dinner with friends. It definitely opened my eyes! I don’t do the math all the time but when I’m weighing whether or not to move ahead with a purchase, I break down the cost and it never fails to tell me whether to move forward or hold off.

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