I hope that everybody's New Year is off to a great start after a blessed and relaxing holiday season. This year I received an unexpected gift from a surprising source. Let me tell you about it.
This year, I enjoyed a wonderful holiday with my family up in Squaw Valley. It was priceless to see my twin daughters and my college-aged son together with their loved ones as we watched my very first grandson open his Christmas gifts. The fellas hit the slopes, my daughters caught up with each other, and I spent some time wandering around the Lake Tahoe locale that served as the home of the 1960 Winter Olympiad.
I'll admit I'm not much of a skier and if given the choice, you'll find me at the base of the mountain curled up in the ski lodge drinking a hot chocolate and taking in the local scenery.
As I was hanging out, I found myself talking with another woman about my age, another non-skier, who was reading a book by an author who I recognized from the mid 1990's when I co-authored Buffettology and we were both in different places on the New York Times Best Sellers list.
She was reading a book titled Peace and Plenty, by Sarah Ban Breathnach, whose book Simple Abundance rocketed into a cultural phenomenon and the author became a mainstay on Oprah. Peace and Plenty was published in 2010, but the woman told me she re-read it before the start of each New Year to ensure she never forgot life's most important lessons. After picking up my own copy at the local Barnes & Noble, I totally concur.
Until Simple Abundance exploded off the bookshelves in 1995, Sarah Ban Breathnach had soldiered as a freelance writer who seemed to be one step away from publishing success but something always upended her efforts at the last minute. Yet when success came, it was like a tsunami that transformed her life, but not all for the best. For her, being a literary darling liberated her worst inner demons; her life was far from simple and the abundance was only temporary.
Sarah cashed large huge checks from her publisher and wrote several other best-sellers but a roughly decade later, her money was gone. The luxurious New York apartment, her English writing space that once served as a chapel for Sir Isaac Newton, her staff, and all of the merit badges that outlined the perfect life of a best-selling author were wiped away and she was forced to move into the spare room of her sister's Los Angeles apartment.
For Sarah, a series of bad investments, bad life choices, and a terrible husband became a financial drag on her life. Within a short time, she found herself hounded by a series of debt collectors and overwhelmed by financial obligations that she could not afford. She was flat busted and broke.
Most of us would have been too embarrassed to have blown it all but what Sarah does is both heroic and brave. She bares her soul and takes us through how her breakout success set the stage for the implosion which was about to come. She began to realize that her relationship with money -- something that many women of our age sadly have -- can become cancerous when our ship finally sails in.
Most important, Peace and Plenty tells us to soldier on during life's heartbreaks because the rain will stop and the sun will come out again. We have all gone through some terrible times in our lives -- a divorce, a long layoff or the death or serious illness of a loved one. We can see and even feel that walls collapsing on the lives that we have so carefully build since leaving college. We've cried in our cups and lamented to friends that "life was not supposed to turn out this way" because nobody saw the headlights of the Great Recession approaching until it ran us over.
As her financial life reached its nadir, Sarah Ban Breathnach learned to enjoy what really matters. For her, contentment has no price tag but finding thrift is one of life's timeless gifts. She offers a flashlight to those who have fallen on unexpected hard times and says that if she can make it back after falling from some dizzying heights, you can do it too. She concludes that living within your means is wonderful but if you can live below your means, well, that's even better.
She's right on target. I think to all of those foreclosed mega-mansions that may never find a buyer in these unstable times but reflect that Warren Buffett still lives in the same home he bought over a half century ago. He drives a dependable car and still has the same friends he had in high school. His only extravagance is his private jet.
We always rue choices not taken. I should have purchased Apple stock when it was basically valueless in the mid 1990's or I wish I would have been able to see the future of social media from the vantage point of my laptop. However, we do have a chance and the choice -- every day -- to make the right decisions to make sure that our emotional lives are aligned with our financial lives. That is my gift to you as we begin this New Year.
As for Sarah Ban Breathnach's Peace and Plenty, I'll add it to my annual booklist too.
So here is my question for you. How has the Great Recession changed your buying habits? Now -- be honest -- once things get better, will you return to your old spending behaviors? Let me know at Mary@marybuffett.com.