Betting the Farm

I grew up on a farm just outside of Mancos, a small town in Southwestern Colorado. And by small, I mean the no stoplight, twenty-five kids in my graduating class, I actually went cow-tipping, kind of small.

Like most teenagers I grew up with, I wasn’t equipped with the wiring that lets you appreciate just how beautiful it was. So had you asked me why my parents moved there from Los Angeles before I was born, I’m sure that I would have logically deduced that’s where the car broke down. But if you asked me that question now, I’d tell you that the story behind how my parents ended up in that little ranching community has taught me some of the most powerful lessons I’ve ever learned about life and money. 

Having been born and raised on the farm, I never got to experience my parents’ prior life first hand, but over the last several decades I’ve been able to paint a pretty good picture. My mom grew up in California and after high school moved to New York City for a job as a flight attendant. This always perplexes me, having only known the version of her that would probably benefit from a Xanax when we convince her to take the occasional trip.

However shocking the thought of my mom living in New York City is, it pales in comparison to my dad’s almost endless supply of stories. Many of them are so entertaining and out of character that I’ve seriously considered writing a book, but I’ll give you the CliffsNotes version…

The now mild mannered seventy-nine year old apparently had quite the life back in the day. He owned multiple Porsches, dated a playboy playmate (a fact begrudgingly confirmed by my mother), played the trombone in the symphony, had his own plane and during graduate school convinced BMW into giving him four motorcycles so he and his friends could be the first ever to drive from the Canadian border to South America (one of the many things I wouldn’t believe were it not for the newspaper articles).  

After they got married, he quickly became one of the top aerospace engineers in the country and designed numerous parts for NASA and the Apollo missions. They started a family and a few years later built a massive home overlooking the ocean in the Palos Verdes neighborhood of LA. I’ve never been there, but based on the reaction I get when I tell people who have, I gather it’s not exactly Compton.

And then out of the blue, in their mid-thirties and seemingly having it all, they said they were tired of the rat race, decided to sell everything and use it for the down-payment on a hundred acres and a run-down house in the middle of nowhere: Mancos, Colorado. They became farmers and a few years later yours truly came along (yes, that’s me in the picture sporting the red sweater vest helping my mom out with a cattle drive).

I vividly remember being in elementary school and my mom showing me photos of their toys, like the airplane and Porsches, and wondering who in their right mind would walk away from all of those things and money? Who trades their mansion for a hundred year old place where you wake up to frozen water in the toilet if you didn’t build a big enough fire the night before? My siblings grew up riding around in a convertible, while I was stuck on a stack of phone books steering the beat up Ford truck through the fields while everyone loaded it with hay bales. How did I get the short end of the stick?

As the years have gone by, I still sometimes think about what life might have been like had they not made the choice that they did; but this time I look back with gratitude for the example of courage and wisdom they set for me. Although I once questioned their path in life, I now realize how truly invaluable it was to have parents who were always around.

While I have been able to see the wisdom in their decision for some time now, I have only recently come to see the deeper financial lesson. It’s easy to see the benefit of putting your family and quality of life above your paycheck, but most people frame these types of decisions as having to choose between good financial sense and throwing caution to the wind. Quite the opposite actually.

Without their smart choices with money, my parents would have likely never been able to consider making that leap, and I can almost guarantee you they couldn’t have maintained the independent lifestyle they have for all of these years had it not been for their frugality. Even though at one time they had plenty of toys, my parents have never taken out a loan for anything other than a house their entire life. How many people do you know who would love to make a drastic life change like my parents did forty years ago, but can’t because they’ve slapped on their own proverbial golden handcuffs?

It’s easy even for me to get caught up in the trap of thinking the nicer car, house, dinner or whatever it might be will make me happier, but at what cost? All it takes is a trip back to the ranch to be reminded of what’s really important in life: freedom, family and following your heart.