6 Lessons Surfing, Survival School & Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Taught Me about Saving

Personal Finance Piggy bank



Number one rule of Wall Street. Nobody, I don’t care if you’re Warren Buffet or if you’re Jimmy Buffet, nobody knows if a stock is gonna go up, down, sideways or in fucking circles, least of all stock brokers – Mark Hanna  from Wolf of Wall Street

For eight years I had an entire shelf-space devoted to heap of personal finance books I never bothered to read. That is until I recently took a one day speed-reading course at Columbia University (which actually did work) and read them all in rapid succession only to discover the same underlying principles life had already taught me. Fortunately, you see, most lessons that stick come not from books but personal experience. Unfortunately, not all experiences are pleasant, or easy…

My school of life has been one of extremes. It’s taken me to soaring heights and crushing depths. The following are 6 guiding principles; lessons acquired through a seemingly random accumulation of A-monetary experience which I’ve since applied to personal finance to once and for all, cut through the minutia and learn how to:

  1. Choose and open the right retirement accounts
  2. Slash my monthly expenses without trying
  3. Feel fully confident (not utterly clueless) about managing all aspects of my own finances
  4. Open and sustain multiple trading accounts
  5. Learn to optimize my portfolio (and what that means)
  6. Set up automatic savings systems
  7. Failure-proof myself against overspending
  8. Never worry about being ripped off
  9. Automate my taxes, filings, receipts, bill payments, and more…

We’ll jump in in just a moment, but first a word on what this post is intended to provide and what it is not. Apart from a highly consolidated list of only those tools and resources I’ve found to be most effective (see “bonus” at the bottom of post) I do not intend to provide prescriptive plans of action that aim to determine your financial future. This is nothing to do with being reluctant to provide financial advice, in fact I’m quite willing to openly share my personal experience and opinions where useful. I claim no expertise but do enjoy the subject. But more to the point, this is for the simple reason that: any advice I would give pertaining to financial practices would be vastly inferior, useless in fact, to the necessity of first learning the basic financial principals AND how they apply to YOU – something only you can figure out, hopefully with some help, by reading about my process…

Surviving CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome): It’s All About Resource Allocation

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAdrenally fatigued and utterly exhausted. When energy is a scarcity and your plate is fully loaded, you have no choice but to aim with precision accuracy so that every bit of expended effort counts toward getting things done! – After recovering from Lyme Disease and a near three-year stint spent trying to live, work, and heal myself from bed, I was back on my feet in my mid-late twenties but severely debilitated and adrenally destroyed. That New Year of 2010, in my weakened state, I made just two resolutions that would change my life:

Resolution 1) I would learn and do everything in my power to increase my available energy as my primary resource. Following this path resulted in curing myself of life-long insomnia, dramatically reducing stress and anxiety, learning NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) and resetting targeted neuro-feedback loops to alter my “innate” stress response. I also adopted the practice and pursuit of mindfulness and established a regular meditation routine I still uphold each day.

Resolution 2) I would apply the mindfulness training to all aspects of my life that ordinarily and otherwise “drain the battery” so that I could do more with the energy I was working so hard to build up. Put in other words, I needed to both increase my energetic resources and become more efficient with the way I was using them. To gain full mileage from an old car you can’t only fill the tank, you have to also stop the leak and tune the engine to use less fuel.

The same principles can and must be applied to how we handle money in order to ensure ongoing success for short-term personal saving as well as long-term value investing. This brings us to the first lesson…

Lesson #1- Increase Your Existing Resources

This is the classical approach and the first thing that comes to mind when we think about increasing our net worth. Earning more money. But take warning. Those who tend only to income (tangible) and neglect human behavior (psychological), all too often suffer the fatal threat of increasingly demanding lifestyle requirements that will eventually overtake a static max income. Therefore, a more accurate determinant of wealth would be based not off income alone but the Law of Proportional Values (LPV) which introduces the second part of the equation of fixed and variable expenses and prompts us to focus on cash-flow over income.

A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone – Henry David Thoreau

Lesson #2- Become More Efficient with the Resources you Already Have

What’s even more liberating than an increase in salary is a reduction in spending. Why? Because the later is truly under your control while the former must be bestowed upon you from an external sources such as costumers, clients, or an employer. When it comes to mastering your finances and taking control of your future, nothing will serve you better than learning to master yourself.

Why be a slave to somebody else when you can be your own master?

Thriving Survival School: Discover What’s Important – Delete What is Not 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOver the summer of 2013 I participated in a 7-day tactical field course based on primitive living skills, in an effort to reconnect with nature and re-calibrate my values. My unit of 8 set afoot in the wild armed each with a knife and not much else. We went days without eating. Hiked several marathons over changing elevations, faced wild temperature fluctuations, and terrain ranging in appearance from moonscape to mountain top. We slept in shit (literally), no sleeping bags or tents. We baked in the sun and froze when it snowed! We soaked when it rained and went hungry… well, all the time. – Yet, underlying these relatively intense feelings of discomfort, ordinarily circumvented in our uberly adjustable lives,  was a prevalent feeling of inexplicable and profound joy. And with this feeling came a calming conviction that we can all be okay in any and all circumstances. If we train ourselves to relax under the tension of discomfort instead of resisting it, our underlying values that remind us what really matters, reveal themselves – and I assure you – they have little to do with most of what we commonly consider in all our creature comforts.

The process of full-immersion, survival, and emergence from fear is what some call “forging mental toughness” – Joseph Campbell calls it “the hero’s journey” –   I call it, the practice of relaxation under tension. The ultimate goal of which is always to be fully present to the circumstances of your life without being dominated by them. This, I believe, is accomplished through the pathway of acceptance and resilience, not resistance.

Lesson #3 – Reduce Your Requirements for Consumption  

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEvery personal finance book you will ever read talks about the importance of cutting out certain comforts for the sake of saving. This in much the same way that every diet book ever written speaks about cutting out calories and foods to avoid. Where both fall short and fail to deliver their desired outcome is not in wrong or bad advice but incomplete information which fails to mention to you, the reader, the necessity of establishing for yourself, what really matters. For what difference does it make how many calories are going in or out if you don’t first know what your body really needs?  Only by making that personal journey, trial and discovery, can you come to know what YOU should cut out, and what you should indulge.  

Lesson #4 Invest in Yourself & Learn Your True Values

Take a trip, meditate, do a life-detox, clean out your closet, throw away old junk, donate those old T-shirts, and clear your mental inbox. Do whatever it takes. Invest in learning what is important to you by confronting your fear of losing what you think is important. What may rise to the surface of your awareness as the result of such a practice will surprise you. Let it. – Revelation of one’s true values will always lead to both intrinsic and extrinsic reward.

Surfing The Waves of Life: Simplify, Appreciate, and Revel the Ride! 

My days were more exciting when I was penniless  – Alexander Supertramp

Ben Ahrens Traveling SurferMy days as a traveling surfer taught me many great lessons. The greatest among them, that you never know what the next tide will bring. One day might be epic with phenomenal winds while others go flat with a bleak horizon. (sound like today’s markets?) The storm-rider’s manifesto teaches us to simplify, travel light, stay nimble and mindful – appreciate the whole trip and embrace the ultimate ride. By shifting our values to process over outcome we not only experience more joy with less expense but we free our minds from the turmoil that would otherwise result from resisting the natural ebb and flow of all our liquid assets.

Lesson #5 – When Seas are Rough, Enjoy the Ride!

Ben Ahrens Surfing“The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun”. – Christopher McCandles

And finally…

Lesson #6 – Focus on Quality over Quantity

EspressoI used to love drinking lots of coffee (albeit, my adrenals disagreed). I loved the smell. I loved the taste, I loved the act of consuming it. Still do. When Starbucks came out with “the Trenta” (31 fluid oz container of caffeine!) I was ecstatic! – “I’ll take two!!” – Apart from the fact that sleeping was made impossible, my values in taste have since changed. I still Love my coffee, even more now, I would argue. But i drink 1/2 cup per day. Rather than disperse my love for the liquidy-black beverage over 30+ ounces, I pour all my attention into producing 3 ounces each morning. I select the finest beans, I ensure the perfect roast and proper water temperature (176 degrees F). I make the grinds by hand and marvel over the steeping process like a kid with a chemistry set. In the end I wind up with a fine Italian espresso which I enjoy in its entirety. It costs me less the 12 cents per cup and the precious few sips I derive from that half cup are more than enough to leave me feeling fully satisfied.

I was going to write about the quality of experience of riding waves but I just thought about coffee… which I love. 

The Bottom Line:

The world of finance with all its flashing tickers, “expert” advisers and fancy terminology can seem like a daunting place. You may feel like you have to keep learning more before you gain a good handle on your own finances. Some knowledge is useful. Most isn’t. Until you define what is important to you and how much you’ll need to get there, do not proceed one step further along a blind quest for consumption, or you might risk defaulting into a life spent chasing the undefined and elusive number simply known as “more.” – All the while less would suffice and lead you to greatness in all walks of life.

Bonus: Tools & Resources 

  • mint – automatically tracks your cash-flow in real time, set’s budget limits, offers personal tips on saving
  • billguard – catalogs all expenses in one easy place, lists vendors, and flags suspicious charges
  • vanguard – provides lowest expense-ratios retirement and non-retirement investment accounts and top-notch free support – extremely helpful for everything ranging from getting started with a retirement account to advice on placing effective stop-limit day trades
  • The Investment Answer – a one sitting read that will fill you in on any and all necessary practices, principles and terminology for beginning investors
  • I Will Teach You to be Rich – says it like it is. If you’re getting started or feel unsure about bank accounts, card types, etc. this is a good jump-off point. Just read the book, and follow the steps.
  • The Phyiscs of Wall Street – if you wanna geek out on economic theory
  • Buffet – Biography of the master



  1. TheRiz says:

    What a friggin’ kick ass post. Where are you in that “traveling surfer” picture?

    I really, really want to partake in one of those survival courses. A certain joy comes from such a genuinely raw challenge.

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