Our world of capitalism is geared toward constant consumption. More is better! From the first day on the job, everyone seems to chase the same: MORE. Yet, I want to challenge you to think about a question that no-one has probably ever asked. What is enough? (I sincerely hope you come up with a better answer than Jordan Belfort’s – the ‘Wolf of Wall Street – “more”.)
In this three-part series I shine light on three people I admire for their frugality despite their wealth. I discuss their lives, fortunes, spending behaviors, and their philosophies on life. At the end, I provide some food for thought and maybe even help you find happiness in your life. I hope these articles will trigger you to think about what income or sum of money is enough for you to live a happy life. (Link to Part One and Part Two)
President José Mujica rocking his capris and sandals during a press conference.
Part 1 of this series featured an inspirational story about one of the world’s most successful investors, where part 2 shed light on an iconic athlete. In this third and final post I highlight the interesting tale of José Mujica. José who? My question exactly when I first heard about South America’s favorite grandpa. After some research (or rather, search) I found that he has had quite an interesting life, including:
- 13 years in prison
- Presidency of Uruguay
- Leader of the legalization campaign in Uruguay
- Proud owner of a three-legged dog
As impressive as the above list might sound, the reason I decided to write about this illustrious man is because of his simple lifestyle. Before taking office as Uruguay’s political leader all he owned was a 1987 VW Beetle (see picture below). During his 5-year presidency he’s donated 90% of his salary to charity. What moved him to live such a frugal life? How does he gain respect as a prime minister? What’s the dog’s name?
Enter José Mujica
José was born to two European immigrants in 1935. He worked on his parent’s farm and had a short-lived cycling career between the age of 13-17. As he grew older and political turmoil soared in the country José joined the Tupamaros – a guerrilla group akin to the Cuban Revolution guerilla. He partook in a number of successful military campaigns but would ultimately be arrested and put in prison. He spent 13 years behind bars, escaping four times during his incarceration. When democracy was restored in Uruguay in 1985 José was released from prison and joined the populist political party. He made his way to Senator, to Minister of Agriculture, and eventually won the presidential run in 2010.
José – the love baby of Nelson Mandela and Simón Bolívar
His 13 years in prison has earned José the nickname “Nelson Mandela of South America”. Although there are some similarities between the two, I think the comparison runs a little awry. Both men served time in prison protecting their ideals. Yet, I believe Nelson Mandela fought a more suppressing regime while addressing a problem that went beyond the borders of South Africa. Nonetheless, being called the Nelson Mandela of South America is not a bad rep and probably gets him some likes on Facebook.
His time fighting for the Tupamaros movement in the 1960’s and 70’s have led some to compare José with Simón Bolívar – South America’s liberator from Spanish rule. Again, I think juxtaposing José and Simón is like comparing apples to bigger apples, but one thing they have in common is their devotion to ‘power to the people’. The Tupamaros (MLN-T) started as a political movement, but quickly turned to arms after the then-president of Uruguay brutally suppressed a labor uproar. MLN-T robbed banks to provide money to the poor, gaining popularity among the people. According to some, Robin Hood-like actions such as these liken him to Simón.
A farmer president
Fast forward to 2010. Before taking the oath as 40th president of Uruguay he filed his mandatory annual personal wealth declaration. All he listed was his 23-year old 1987 VW Beetle, valued at US$1,800 at the time (offers of over $1m have been made for the car. He has refused to sell the car, but promised to donate the money to charity if he changed his mind). His humble lifestyle is further reflected by his decision to refuse use of the lavish presidential palace or its staff. Rather, he prefers to live on his wife’s farm in the outskirts of Montevideo, along with their three-legged dow Manuela (see below). Every day, he would commute between his farm and parliament, often wearing shorts and work boots.
Manuela in front with some neighborhood dog (unsuccessfully) trying to steal his thunder
Most badass president, like, ever
Presidents of countries make less than presidents of companies. The US president makes US$400k annually, where his Uruguayan counterpart takes home US$144k. José decided that was more than he needed so he donated 90% of his salary to charity. A reporter once asked what he thinks about people calling him ‘the poorest president in the world’. His response, “I’m called the poorest president, but I don’t feel poor. Poor people are those who only work to try to keep an expensive lifestyle, and always want more.” I couldn’t agree more with this statement. So many people are in this lifelong rat race of more, more, more. Once they make that one promotion, or get that one pay raise, they think they have reached what they strived for. However, all they did is enter a new level of income which they feel they need to escape from. Happiness is only achieved when the next promotion is reached, completing the vicious circles that can only really stop at one point: Bill Gates. José chooses not to be a part of this rat race by establishing a standard of living that makes him happy.
During his time in office one of the most memorable campaigns José ran was the legalization of marihuana in Uruguay. Though stating he does not support the use of cannabis, he believes the government should protect its people from criminal drug cartels. Uruguayans can now grow their own plants and the government has instituted certain ‘smoke rooms’ where people can legally dance with Mary J. During a speech at the UN General Assembly (check out this link if you have 45 minutes to spare) he urged people to return to a more simple life; a life founded on human relationships, love, friendship, adventure, solidarity, and family, instead of a life depend on fluctuations in the economy. While being occupied with making the country the most economically and socially stable in the region, he also legalized gay marriage while he was at it. In one presidential term, Mujica has turned this small South American nation into one of the world’s most liberal states. Not bad for a capri-wearing farmer.
Quote to live by
After his presidency Muji turned to farming and has enjoyed a quiet life in the country. To me, he is another great example of the credo ‘live below your means’. In his own words, “true freedom is to consume little”. I don’t profess to donate as much as 90% of your salary to charity or start wearing shorts to work – although, how cool would that be? I would, however, like to make you think about what you really need to live the life you want. I believe the easiest way to get rich is not to increase your wealth, but to decrease your greed.
I hope this three part series has inspired you to think about your relation to (financial) needs and how constitutes a happy life for you. I’d love to hear your thoughts, suggestions, ideas, stories, or anecdotes. Feel free to share below this post 🙂