ASH AMBIRGE

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Listen: Do What You Crave Without the Guilt. Travel to Italy. Enroll in That Workshop. Make Your Art Every Afternoon. And Hurl Yourself Into the Unknown—For This Is The Best ROI That Money Can Buy.

In: WTF Am I Doing With My Life?

My almost-mother-in-law gets really fucking nervous when I travel—especially when I bomb off to South America for a month by myself to drink ALL THE WINE and celebrate ALL THE BOOK DEALS.

But she doesn't get worried in the typical way a mother might; not the way my own mother would have been worried, which would have sounded something like: “Oh Jesus Mary and Joseph, Ashley, you think they won't kidnap you and rape you and leave you for dead? What makes you so special, girl?” And then she'd realize she sounded like an ignorant xenophobic conservative (the worst fate), and she'd soften, for a moment, before following up with a joke: “I mean, can you imagine me, on a plane? What will I offer for ransom: a crate full of homegrown tomatoes?”

(As an aside, I'm pretty sure my mom would have offered the kidnappers tomatoes, sliced thick in between a hunk of Italian bread, along with a splash of olive oil, salt and pepper. You could have shown up at our front doorstep to maim us, and my mother would still offer you food.)

My mother-in-law, on the other hand, isn't worried about those types of things. She's a hip-swaying, sharp-shooting boss of a woman who's worked alongside the first female president of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla, and doesn't get intimidated by any thing or any one—especially men. Her concerns are not for my safety (she knows I'm of the same brass-nails breed), but rather, my future. “Are you sure it's wise to go on another trip,” she'll say gently, sipping her white wine, “when you could be saving that money?”

Out of respect, I do not offer her an alternative scenario: what if there was plenty of money to do both? Saying that out loud feels pompous and braggy and oh-so-American of me. But I also prefer to fly under the radar when it comes to my personal finances. I am, in many ways, quiet about my good fortune: this wild-child success I have built with my own two hands is not something most people in my “real” life know about, or understand. Modesty is a requirement of harmony—especially when your goal is to integrate into the cultures and relationships you explore.

But the heart of her concern remains the same: lack is something to be feared.

As someone who lacked a lot, growing up in the trailer park, I don't share that same fear the way one might assume I would. It might be tempting to imagine that someone like me would do anything, at all costs, never to return to that destiny, but that's not actually the case: I lived a good life, growing up, despite the absence of money. Money is not a prerequisite for love, nor happiness. That said, I am interested in the utility of money.

Money is a useful tool, straight up. It's no different than a rake or a shovel or a pitch fork. You can accomplish more when you have the right tools at your disposal. But the question becomes: what do you hope to accomplish? 

Most people are of the mindset that money in and of itself is the accomplishment—and that's why you should save it, or invest it, or use it to make more money. More is more is more is more, with the end goal being, um, MORE (with a layer of security icing on top). And surely there's some truth to that: having money in the bank makes you feel invincible. But there is a hidden cost to hanging on to every cent you earn.

Counterintuitively, it's the cost of your own competence.

I prefer to invest a sizable portion of my own earnings back into myself—not the bank, or the stock market, or with Aunt Wilma's farm—because unlike most investments, I come with a guaranteed ROI. I know that every dollar I invest in for myself—through travel, through learning, through experiences—will fortify my skill set as a human being and help me in ways that go far beyond money. That said, the upside is that those same skill sets will also help me earn far more money over the long-term than I could any other way: one-dimensional humans are limited, no matter what industry they're in.

I suppose you could say, then, I'm a fan of diversification—but one of the investments in your portfolio needs to be you. Investing in yourself is betting on yourself, and who better to bet on? The success I have earned, over the years, is not strictly a function of performing steps A, B and C correctly: it's a function of understanding people, and understanding myself, and understanding the world around me and how I fit into it. That simply can't happen in a vacuum, though. That can't happen if you're scared to interact; to hurl yourself out there, into the unknown, and see what happens. That can't happen if you're clinging to money and safety and comfort and the drama of fear.

I spend money on experiences because it gives me an ROI that no other investment can: It gives me, me.

And it makes me far more powerful than simple money on its face ever could.

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