The People You Allow Inside Your Quarantine Will Change You

Before I moved in with her, I knew Vicki Robin only as the local author of the personal-finance bestseller Your Money or Your Life, the matriarch of the financial independence community, and a 75-year-old woman who rented rooms in her home on Whidbey Island.

When I needed a temporary place, she quoted me 1/3 of my Capitol Hill rent, with the understanding that I’d help her out with a few things around the house, like the garden. I moved in Feb. 2, 2020 B.C. (Before Covid.)

Vicki hoped to get some writing done and thought having a writer in the house would help. I needed to save up first, last, and deposit for a new place, and hoped being around the Queen of Frugality would nudge me in the thriftier direction in order to meet that goal.  

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I’m an impulsive spender. One day I came home from an unplanned shopping trip with a passenger seat full of bags, excited to show my roommate what I got, until I remembered who my roommate was. Then I started plotting how to sneak it all in the house. 

Vicki is an extreme saver. Her long-time partner Joe, who grew up in poverty, helped shape her world view. They traveled for years in a home-made camper, through California and Mexico, and appeared on Oprah together to talk about their uber-thrifty life choices.

Joe passed away, but his lessons also lived there in the house, in Vicki’s rants (requested by me) about spending, in her proclaiming, “I buy my freedom with my frugality every day.” When I really got her going, she told me I was wasting my life energy, talent, and skills so that I could upload more money into the corporations.

Vicki’s other passion is preventing the collapse of modern society, which she’s been expecting for about 30 years, she jokes. At dinner one night, she started a sentence with, “If society persists…” I cackled and began a habit of saying I would do things, such as grocery shopping, “if society persists.” I’d overhear her on calls with a group called Positive Deep Adaptation, talking about food chain collapse, a topic that inspired her book Blessing the Hands that Feed Us.

We passed each other as she went out to ecstatic dance class and I hopped into my car to drive to my part-time job in the city, having these intense conversations in between.

But then, in March, we became two birds in a cage.

Vicki went into crisis mode, expanding her garden. I took over as kitchen duties. Suddenly we were living out one possible version of the thing she’d been half-expecting half her life.

I lost most of my work and spent the days mustering up more opportunities. Vicki, though, was able to focus on others, on helping. That’s the kind of freedom her frugality has bought.

Our intense conversations happened more often, more intensely, sharing news the other had just read a second ago. Together, we obsessed. At night, I soothed us with ridiculously ornate recipes. (Don’t tell her, but I paid for a New York Times Cooking subscription.)

We fell into what Vicki called accidental-quarantine-housemate love.

Living with Vicki felt like living with the person in charge of fixing it all. She has a stronger sense of responsibility for helping others than anyone I’ve ever met. Her kitchen rants were so passionate that I convinced her to start doing a daily Facebook Live. Those turned into recorded Zoom interviews, published in YouTube, with the people she calls her “old sustainability buddies.” Those turned into a podcast series, What Could Possibly Go Right? This is what she calls her elder work, service to coming generations. I see how her frugality enables her to point her power toward something more than figuring out how to pay her credit card bill.

“That’s all Joe,” she’d said. “He taught me to live only at the level of utility.”

During the time I was there, she also decided to start writing a book she’d been meaning to write for years.

The end of the world makes me want to live on the level of self-soothing, all ice cream and rosé and visits from Amazon Santa. When I asked her how much I should spend to furnish my new place, she said ten dollars. “Like, a used mattress?” I said, “You want me to get a used mattress???”

She said I shouldn’t hold her up as a model. I want to be more Vicki-ish, but I’ll never be full-on Vicki.

On my last night, I made Vicki pad thai and we recorded my podcast, Can We Talk About Money? Every monthly episode, we’re supposed to calculate our net worth. Vicki just said, “More than I’ll ever need.”

I asked her if she might ease up on the frugality. What else might she possibly need, she asked. I don’t know, I responded, a hot tub? She cocked her head to the side, pursed out her lips.  

She ordered the hot tub that week. Recently, she texted me that every night she floats and praises life, thanks it for the alchemy of our cohabitation. I told her she has to call it the Paulette Perhach Memorial Hot Tub.

When I looked for a new place, whereas before I would have certainly gotten a studio by myself to feel “grown up,” I instead got another roommate situation. I restrained myself from getting the fanciest comforter, found a free dresser, and a used $15 desk, (bought a new mattress.)

Now, when I pick up something that someone has discarded or check the free section on Craigslist, I say to whoever is around, “I buy my freedom with my frugality every day.” That’s Vicki. The new Vicki-ish part of me, anyway.

Who’s Influencing Your Quarantine?

Our social lives have shrunk. When people say you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, right now that might be literally five people, or less.

Now, I’m living in an incredible house with roommates who have fast become friends. They’re healthy eaters, and that’s been a wonderful influence on me. I’m eating mostly plant-based and work out more. I jokingly call them my new best friends, because we hang out with each other and pretty much only with each other.

I have two local besties in my germ group, too. One is my rock. While I’m the firecracker, she’s the smoldering embers. The other is my accountabilibuddy. We’re making 2021 goals and working on our businesses, a sign, I feel, of hope for the future.

I have an incredible new client I’m ghostwriting a book for. I get the live show as she talks out all her thoughts on success. I try to be my best for her, and she’s pushed me to step up my game, not just as her writer, but as a business owner myself.

Quarantine is a cocoon for us all. Did you know caterpillars pretty much just go liquid in there? Our lives have been liquified. We’re rebuilding how we’ll come out of this. Who are you choosing to go with you?

Vicki called tonight. I’m going to go spend a weekend writing with her and hanging out in my hot tub.


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