Basic Finance, Philosophical Musings

Memento Mori

You’re a badass Roman general, riding your horse back to the capital on a nice brick road. You just defeated some Germanic tribesman in the Black Forest. They were wild, you were disciplined. ‘Nuff said. As your Legion passes under an aqueduct, some adoring citizens shower you with compliments. Iron swords, roads, running water…you bask in glory. Does life get better than this?, you ponder. And then your snot-nosed little squire whispers, “Memento mori,” in your ear.

This is mostly a true story. During celebratory battle parades in ancient Rome, the honored generals were often accompanied by a slave (not cool) whose sole role was to whisper, “Look behind. Remember thou art mortal. Remember you must die!” That last part–remember you must die–translates to memento mori.

However, the point of ‘memento mori’ isn’t to cause fear or to be morbid. It’s not a downer. It’s motivation, and inspiration, and a gentle, true reminder of what’s coming. It was a big part of Roman Stoicism. And nowadays, it’s a deep tattoo idea, bro, and some people like carrying a small ‘memento mori’ coin (a literal memento) in their pocket.

Whether you come to the Best Interest for financial advice or for a random dude’s random thoughts, a little ‘memento mori’ goes a long way.

Et tu, reader?

What can you do? For me, the first answer is just ponder. Think about death. Consider it seriously, and live life with realistic expectations. As Ray Dalio suggests in his recent book Principles, one principle leading to success in life is hyperrealism.

In Dalio’s opinion, having realistic views of the world sets the stage for our ability to succeed within it. I’ve used the metaphor before about the kid in high school who absolutely could not sing or dance, but thought he’d be the next Michael Jackson. While dreams are important, this high school kid is, perhaps, being unrealistic. It only sets the stage for failure, let downs, frustration, etc.

Dalio looks at life like a great machine (machina, if anyone’s here for more Latin, less philosophy). And just like any machine (think of your car), there are rules that govern it and cause-effect relationships that describe it. There’s gravity and friction and air resistance. If you touch this pedal, you go faster. If you turn that dial, the radio gets loud. Understanding this machine realistically is key for happiness and success.

If you view your Honda Civic like a Lamborghini, you’ll try to drag race and be disappointed. If you view your Civic like a Ford F-250, you’ll try to tow a camper and effectively break your car. Viewing the machine in unrealistic terms leads to bad outcomes.

The realistic view of life is: it can be great, it can be tough, but one day it’ll be 100% over. There’s no point in excluding this fact from your realistic worldview. To push death aside, or to live in constant fear of it, is a form of the Honda/Lamborghini complex. Or as the Romans realized: beat up all the Germanic tribesmen you want; memento mori is still there.

Financial mementos

Are you viewing your bank account like a Lamborghini, when it’s actually a Honda Civic? It’s important to be realistic in your finances, but that’s not to only thing that memento mori makes me consider.

I often discuss ideas like saving, budgeting, and investing. You know, topics predicated on having a pulse. So, one of the first things that ‘memento mori’ makes me think of is balance. It’s good to save, and invest, and budget, but only insofar as you plan on enjoying the journey at some point. Set financial goals for yourself, but make sure you like what you’re doing day-to-day.

And then there are some fairly tangible actions you can from with the reminder of death.

For example, owning life insurance is a great idea if there are others (spouses, children) who depend on you for their resources. A little premium can go a long way. To ignore to possibility of death can be downright irresponsible.

Similarly, you might need a will. A will is a legal document that establishes what happens to your assets when you pass away. With all the saving you’re doing, you might have a lot of assets to disperse. Perhaps you’re giving something to your family, to your neighbor, or to the local food kitchen. A will establishes how that occurs.

Social thoughts

The data around death can be a little sobering. But again, my take on it is: it’s unavoidable! To quote the great Ellis ‘Red’ Redding from Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption, “Either get busy living, or get busy dying.” The people in your life are wonderful, but finite. So, get busy living before it’s too late.

If I take a random assortment of 30 people from age 25 to 55, there’s roughly a 7% chance that one of them will die this year, and about a 50% chance that at least one will die in the next 10 years. If I extend that age range from 25 to 85, there’s a 40% chance one will pass away this year, and greater than 90% chance that one will die in the next 5 years.

Personally, I can think of 30 people pretty quickly. Family, friends, co-workers, college buddies, people from sports groups and book clubs. And the more people you know the “worse” it gets i.e. the more likely someone you know might die.

What to do? No friends = no mourning, right?! Probably not the optimal solution. Not all ideas are worth pursuing.

To each their own, but I want to face these odds head on. I want to celebrate the good things in life, and to enjoy the people around me. I want to share knowledge and recruit boat-builders, with the hopes that other people benefit. One of my goals is to plant trees, even those that might not shade me; it feels like the right thing to do.

Blogus postem memento mori

Just like a summary is part of a blog post, death is a part of life. Do not cry when I am gone, for I will return next Friday with some spicy new thoughts. Until then, carpe diem! And memento mori!

Thanks for reading the Best Interest.

-Jesse

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About Jesse Cramer

I’m Jesse. I’m an engineer, a new owner of an old home, and an avid reader/writer. I hope you enjoy my thoughts, numerical breakdowns, and general musings. If you’d like to comment, ask a question, or simply say hi, leave me a message here, on Twitter (@BestInterest_JC) or on Reddit (u/BestInterestDotBlog). Many of my posts have been directly influenced by my readers. It’s the most fun part of writing this blog. And as always, thanks for reading the Best Interest. Jesse
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2 thoughts on “Memento Mori

  1. Ancient Chinese Proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

    Contemporary American Proverb says, “Trees are on sale at your local nursery in late Fall.”

    1. The Zen philospher, Basho: “A flute with no holes is not a flute. And a donut with no hole is a danish.”

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