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Seven Zen Principles to Guide Your Money and Your Life

This article was written by in Best Of, Personal Finance. 14 comments.


A few years ago, I visited the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Japanese gardens are designed precisely to appear natural, resulting in an interesting collision between nature and man. There is a set of principles or aesthetics that guide the creation of Japanese gardens, including the dry gardens commonly called “Zen gardens.”

The basis for these modern Japanese aesthetics has existed for thousands of years and is rooted in Buddhist writings and teachings. However, the full concept of aesthetics relating to these ancient ideas has been discussed only within the past two centuries, as the the traditional Japanese concepts have been infused with the Western idea of art and aesthetics.

These same Japanese aesthetics, the attributes that define a Japanese garden, can be further stretched by the Western mind to relate to other areas of thought. If you are particularly interested in personal finances, as we are here at Consumerism Commentary, you might attempt to apply these concepts to attitudes and behaviors surrounding interaction with money.

Here are seven aesthetics rooted in Japanese culture that can be drawn upon to make us think about the way we live with and deal with money, from personal expenses to investing.

kanso 簡素

Keep your finances simple. The extreme limit of necessity would be to have no other financial accounts but one checking account for paying your bills. Simplifying at this level may beyond the limit of practicality even if still possible. But there is no reason I should continue to have savings accounts at seven different banks, even if seven is an odd number, compliant with other aesthetics.

In addition to utilize as few banks as possible, simplify your investment accounts. Keep your investments in one account in one index fund or target retirement fund that matches your risk profile. This also makes it much easier to evaluate your asset allocation to ensure your investments on the whole match your tolerance for risk.

There is rarely a need to have more than one credit card for your personal matters. Zero is an even better number.

Simplicity in all financial matters is an attainable goal.

seijaku 静寂

Managers of actively managed mutual funds earn their pay by buying and selling investments frequently. Index funds take the opposite approach by matching a stock index, adding or removing stocks only when the index does, which is rarely. Index funds embody this concept of stillness. Unnecessary activity, like stock trading, makes the stock broker rich while you’re adding risk and decreasing your chance of beating an index fund’s performance.

Keeping your wealth still and motionless allows time to have a chance to cultivate it. The effect of compound interest increases when you let it work for decades.

If you’ve simplified your finances down to a small number of accounts, you can further keep your money motionless by removing the necessity of transferring funds from one place to another. The 0% balance transfer game or otherwise moving your credit card balances from one card to another is in direct conflict with this aesthetic.

datsuzoku 脱俗

Break free from your possessions. We buy things because they reflect who we are or who we want to be, but no thing can be a true reflection of a self. Not only do material possessions drain you of funds that could be spent on necessities, but you will have less money for sharing with others within and outside of your family.

Break free from conventional thought and following the bandwagon. You are free to be your own person and find your own path. You should never feel trapped in a job or a career. Even a steady bi-weekly paycheck is a pattern that could be broken without fear. With creativity, draw income to you through something unexpected.

Don’t confine yourself to your budget. The ultimate way to grow wealth is to spend less than you earn, so as long as that continues, you can break free from your budget and enjoy flexibility without too much worry.

koko 考古

Focus on the bare essentials. Add something to your life only if it has a functional purpose and fills a need. This concept is a nod to frugality and sparsity. For example, do you need three televisions, one for each large room in your house? Do you even need one television when you can find entertainment, including comedy, nature, and drama — possibly even crime-focused drama — for free, by sitting in a park and watching other people interact? Wouldn’t it be more fulfilling to visit a National Park than to sit on your couch and watch a documentary about it?

Decide what in your life is not essential and eliminate it. If something does not add value more than or equal to its expense, consider it a candidate for elimination. I think immediately of the interest that you pay on a credit card balance. Once you pay interest, you’ve paid more than the value of whatever you’ve purchased with the credit card. If you decide a $1,000 television brings $1,000 worth of value into your life, then it may be worthwhile. But if you put that on a credit card and pay the balance and interest over time, the new question is whether that $1,000 television added $2,000 worth of value into your life.

shizen 自然

You should represent yourself to the world truthfully and without pretense. There is no need to purchase expensive cars and houses when necessity allows for lesser purchases. Don’t concern yourself with “keeping up with the Joneses.” Without the need to show the world you have more money than you really have, you will lose the desire to buy more than you can afford. As a result, the chances of falling into the trap of debt from unnecessary spending will diminish.

My thoughts on this are drawn to people with public-facing careers. Real estate agents, for example, often want to project an aura of success. If clients believe that the agent is rich, the clients will then believe that they are successful agents. The natural conclusion is that these agents are successful because they represent clients fairly and offer quality houses. The same is true for lawyers whose business is representing clients in court trials. Lavish spending projects an image of wealth, which indicates to prospective customers a history of successful court appearances.

This is all show and all pretense. Anyone can look wealthy or successful thanks to the availability of credit. You can’t see what lurks beneath someone else’s surface.

Do not cover up all that is natural. Do not hide money or money-related problems from your partner or spouse. Finances should be part of a communication that is open and honest, not hidden beneath layers of creative stories.

fukinsei 不均整

Create a budget, a monthly spending plan that outlines your limits for expenses in a variety of categories that make sense for you. A budget by definition starts out the same each month but will look different by the month’s final day. Life’s asymmetry is natural, and your budget should reflect this asymmetry while maintaining balance. You spend more for gifts as the December holidays approach, so you might budget more for gifts in November and December than you might in June or July. In order for this asymmetry to be balanced, an increase in one category at one time should correspond with a decrease either in another category or at another time.

This flexibility is essential for creating a workable budget. A budget should free you, not trap you.

Balanced asymmetry appears elsewhere. “Work/life balance” is a relatively new concept that is based on this idea. When my employer talks about “work/life balance,” they are not trying to imply that we should spend an equal amount of hours in our life between our career and everything else we do. It is an asymmetrical approach to living a more fulfilled life.

yugen 幽玄

Whenever your personal financial issues are public rather than private, choose subtlety over directness. Do not brag about your successes. There is no need for you to have your latest business acquisition or marriage listed in your college’s alumni magazine. If you give charitably to an organization, you do not need to publicly list your name or the amount of money you donated.

In the business world, there is a movement towards personal branding. It is good for your career to find ways make yourself stand out among your colleagues or among a sea of job applicants. While I would agree that it’s important to protect your identity, particularly online, from anything that might damage your reputation, the best way to stand out is to be the best rather than to declare you are the best.

Let others declare it for you.

A guide, not a rule

While it would be great if all of the above could apply to our interactions with money all the time, I like to look at these aesthetic concepts as a guide. Just considering these ideas and allowing yourself to think about money in a different way can be enlightening. Perhaps you can strive to achieve several of these concepts in your own life, or perhaps you can appreciate this way of living even if you choose to relate with money in a different manner.

Simplifying my finances is one way I can start applying this approach to my life. As I mentioned above, I currently use seven accounts for my savings. Many of these I open so I can review them for Consumerism Commentary, but even the purely personal bank accounts number too many. Do you or would you apply any of these aesthetics to your finances?

Disclaimer: I am not an expert in Japanese philosophy or, for that matter, in personal finance. I drew the above concepts of Japanese aesthetics from a variety of sources.

Photo credits: semihundido, laRuth, DieselDemon, 田中十洋

Updated April 26, 2010 and originally published October 26, 2009. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar SteveDH

Simplicity huh? Let me see: Bank accounts 1, Investment accounts 4, Credit Cards 4, (two store cards kept because of discounts) Budget categories 6 (Taxes, Insurance, Out-of-pocket medical expenses, Services & Utilities, Food, & General Spending) “Stuff”? Not too much – Who are the Joneses anyway? Life balance? As Cheech (or Chong, I forget) would have said, “Work …we don’t need no stinking work”.

Enjoying retirement

Great article, but I have to admit that simplifying my life got easier as my age and priorities changed. The earlier you can start the better though.

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avatar Lulu

While I, like many others, have too many accounts still I have simplified my finances tremendously over what they used to be in the past.

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avatar TJ Smith

Beautiful post. When I woke up to my spending issues last year, the first thing that became obvious was the need to simplify. I heard someone just the other day characterize the economic downturn as a cue to slow down and simplify our lives.

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avatar Kelly

Lovely post.
I need to simplify all the areas of my life. This is a good reminder to do that in life and with our finances.
7 savings accounts? Definitely time to simplify that!

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avatar Financial Samurai

Good stuff Flexo. You should have told me you were coming over to my house, because the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco is where the Financial Samurai resides!

If you come back, I’ll show you a couple new terms and some secret areas the public does not see.

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avatar Austin

Way to dive into personal finance in a unique way.

I live in Japan and didn't even think about comparing zen gardens and pf!

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avatar Stephen Davis

Very interesting. My life improved greatly when I put into effect the simple principle of have the necessities and paying cash for everything. I have the best of everything but none the less, only what I need and use.

Thanks for putting this out there for people.

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avatar Stephen Davis

Very interesting. My life improved greatly when I put into effect the simple principle of have the necessities and paying cash for everything. I have the best of everything but none the less, only what I need and use.

Thanks for putting this out there for people.

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avatar Anonymous

I think it’s worth noting that the very first principle is keep your finances simple. That one alone is worth adhering to. The Japanese believe in beauty in simplicity and so do I.

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avatar alfomun

I think it's worth noting that the very first principle is keep your finances simple. That one alone is worth adhering to. The Japanese believe in beauty in simplicity and so do I.

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avatar Financial Samurai

Flexo, I’m just rummaging through some old posts and cleaning up my e-mail subscriptions and glad I found this one again. Will highlight in a next Katana wrap!

Best, Sam

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,490 (Platinum)

Thanks, Sam!

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avatar Stephen Garstin

This is an awesome list. It mirrors my own blog post from awhile ago ( http://aikihomestead.blogspot.com/2009/08/aiki-finances-accounting-on-thumbnail.html ) but does so with a Japanese twist that I love. I’m jealous I didn’t get to write it!

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avatar Barb Friedberg

I agree with almost every one of these topics. I particularly like the simple idea of maintaining 1 index fund. In fact, Vanguard has an all world ex us equity fund. I guess you probably would need to balance that with a us index fund and a bond fund. But anyhow, less is definitely more. For my family, 1 TV is not good! I get way to much value having TVs in several rooms:) Other than that, I am even feeling serence reading this article :)

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