Tuan and I recently facilitated a SimplyFI community meet-up here in Abu Dhabi. Getting together with other people in various stages of their financial independence journey was refreshing, and I think we all learned from each other while we were together for just a couple of hours. For me, it was particularly poignant to remember how far I have come over the past year in starting this blog, my coaching business, and our soon to come podcast. Reflecting on milestones is important, and I wouldn't have noticed had I not been reminded by one of my neighbors of how Choose Your Own Finance was just an idea in January 2023.
The Benefits of Community
This meet-up got me thinking of the utility of community in our lives. There are so many different ways we benefit from relationships.
Happiness and Health
The Harvard study, a longitudinal study of 268 Harvard sophomores that began in 1938 and is still going today shows us that the key to happiness is relationships. "Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes."
Humans are fundamentally social creatures. It's well established that chronic loneliness kills. We need other people for our physical, emotional, and intellectual health. Having strong relationships is highly protective of physical health throughout life. But it's not just our happiness and our bodies that need community, it's our minds too.
Learning and Growth
As a teacher and self professed life-long-learner, I'm particularly interested in how relationships affect learning. From earliest infancy throughout life, learning takes place within the context of relationships. If you have ever talked with a student who doesn't get along with their teacher, whether you were that student, their classmate, their parent, or even their teacher, you'll be aware that significantly less learning takes place when there is not a positive relationship between teacher and student. Learning cannot take place without a sense of safety and security. We cannot feel safe without positive relationships with those around us. We learn through relationships.
Without community, we cannot grow.
As a middle school pastoral leader, one of my jobs was to bring kids back into our community when they were exhibiting anti-social behaviors. The best way to prevent anti-social behavior is to cultivate connection within a warm and inclusive community. Kids who feel connected get on well with others. Kids who feel disconnected fight back against the community they don't feel they belong to. You see this dynamic play out all across the world. While disconnection creates trauma, positive connections have the power to help us heal.
Community as an Expat
If you're an expat like me. You're likely separated from your extended family by many timezones. You are probably unsure of exactly how long you will stay in your current location, and equally unsure how long any given friend you make will continue to live near you. The uncertainty of being an expat can make building community even more fragile.
I have lived in Abu Dhabi for 15 years now. I have worked in 7 different jobs, and lived in 9 different apartments across the emirate. I have made many close friendships and seen many people I love move away.
Early on in my tenure as an expat, I asked John Henzell how he handled the loss of so many friendships. It kind of felt to me like it wasn't worth it to make new friends if they would just leave me. He shrugged his shoulders and said, well, it makes room for new friends. John is an expert in building community. He continually creates opportunities to connect with new people around common interests. For us it was hiking and trivia nights.
Over time I've come to realize that friendships are dynamic, they ebb and flow and come and go. It's not a failure of a relationship just because it's temporary. In fact, all relationships are temporary on some level, because life is a temporary state. How much more precious is a flower bud because it is transient, than the permanent state of a fake plastic flower?
It is the temporary and changing nature of relationships that make them so beautiful and valuable. If we could fix them permanently, we would stop growing and living ourselves.
Keeping in Touch
As you get older, even if you're not an expat, you inevitably experience the impermanence of relationships. From shifting friend groups in your teens, to leaving your hometown for university or work, and then perhaps shifting your focus to raising children and building your friendships around playdates. Everyone experiences various relationships growing and waning in their lives. As time passes you necessarily realize that you can't keep in touch with everyone who you have called friend. That's okay. Although it is important to keep some people close, you don't need many close relationships. Time will sort out the ones that stick, and sometimes old relationships will come around to be new again.
How to Build Community
While we know that close personal relationships are good for us, the good news is that weak ties are also highly beneficial. Not every relationship needs to be long lived and close. Having many small, more superficial relationships is also good for our wellbeing. We need both types of relationships.
The following is a list of ideas of how you can start to build more connections within your community right now.
Just saying hello can lead to a boost in your happiness over time. You will begin to recognize your neighbors, the barista at your favorite cafe, the receptionist in your building, the cashier at the baqala. Having these very loose and often nameless ties can really boost your happiness, with almost no effort.
When there are people you regularly interact with, just learning their names can make a big difference in your happiness and theirs. My daughter recently started KG1 at the school were I worked 2 years ago. When I pick her up the security guards say hello to me by name because they remember me from 2 years ago. This makes me feel seen and safe. They know my daughter by name because I took the time to learn their names when I worked there. These little gestures of mutual respect create a stronger and safer community over time.
It doesn't have to be a big thing.
"Do you want to site with us?"
"Hey neighbor, would you like to take a walk with me in the morning?"
"I'm going to the playground with my kid, do you want to come?"
"I'm grabbing a coffee, care to join?"
Not everyone will accept, but just asking builds trust. Just asking builds your capacity to handle the possibility of (very small) rejections. Like everything in life, it gets easier to connect with people the more you try.
Last week I received an invitation to a neighbor's 5th birthday. His mom had met my child playing with her nanny. This personal invite from the mother made me get over my shyness and show up. I am so glad that I did. I think I had a better time than my child getting to know the family and sharing stories of life in Abu Dhabi. I hope that we will be able to connect more in the future, but it's also okay if it never happens again. It was already worth it.
Talk about your Interests
Do you like board games? Hiking? Ultimate frisbee? Camping? Talking about personal finance? The way you find other people who will do these things with you is to talk about it, with everyone. Eventually someone will say, "oh yeah, I love ___!" This is how you make connections with people who have the same interests. Sometimes people will connect you with their other friends who like the same things as you. It's networking, but for hobbies.
Building a Friend-Family
If you don't have many close connections with people around you, you can build them. In Hawaii there is the concept of Ohana, which is similar to the Maori concept of Whanau (pronounced fanow). Both of these encompass the community you live around and depend on. While traditionally these would have been family groups, they also include adopted family. What I call my friend-family. As expats we have the opportunity to surround ourselves with people we choose to cultivate relationships with. It takes an investment of time, but it's worth it.
Parenting and the Friend-Family
Raising one or more children as an expat can be particularly isolating. It is so important to build close connections with other families who are going through similar stages as you. You need support as parents, and your kids need to have multiple trusted adults in their lives. Building out a group of other parents you can depend on for playdates and friendships is essential. But it's also important to be flexible in allowing newer relationships in, as inevitably, some of your friend-family will leave.
Leveraging Community for Financial Freedom
Science has well established that community is good for your health, longevity, and happiness. We've looked into some ways to build both weak and strong ties within your community. But what does community have to do with personal finance?
First of all, people learn best in community. So as you are beginning your FI journey, having a group of people to bounce ideas off of, and ask questions is powerful. We learn from each other's experiences. Whether this is an online community like the SimplyFI facebook group, or talking with friends in real life (maybe at our next meet-up?), our community provides support and collective knowledge.
Positive Peer Pressure
In December 2020, I was at a Christmas party when some of my friends mentioned that they had just taken the Sinopharm vaccine that had only just become available earlier that month. As a science teacher, I am very pro-vaccine and had been awaiting the release of the first Covid Vaccines. Yet, I hadn't booked an appointment nearly a month after it had become available. Hearing our friends experience of taking the vaccine earlier that week was the push I needed to book my own appointment. Even though I wanted to get the shot, I needed a little positive peer pressure to actually make it happen.
When we're doing something new like investing for the first time, having people around you who have done it before and can talk with you about it makes taking the initiative easier.
This past week at our meet-up, a couple well on their way to FI/RE mentioned how hard it was for them in their friend group at times because they are significantly more frugal than their friends. While they do enjoy going out, they just don't want to participate in expensive dinners as often as their friends. This imbalance creates some tension that I well know from my own similar experiences with friends who didn't understand my frugality.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying expensive dinners and holidays. Just as there is nothing wrong with preferring dinners at home and camping trips. They're simply different lifestyle preferences based on different values. If you are surrounded by people who have very different values than you, you will often find yourself conflicted. Do you go along with the group? Or stick to what's important to you? As ever, it's important to find a balance that works for you, so that you can enjoy your friendships while also staying aligned with your values.
It's hard to go against the flow of your friend group, so having other people in your life that are also on the FI/RE journey can give you a sense of solidarity. No, you're not being antisocial, you just have different goals for your time and money than what many others do. It's okay to be different, and it's easier when you can relate to others with more similar values.
Invest in Your Community
Start small. Choose one easy way of building community to work on and get started. Say hi, reach out to ask questions, invite someone to do something. Say yes. Small changes implemented daily compound into huge differences over time. Before you know it you'll be happier, healthier, and feel a greater sense of security as your network of weak and strong ties increases.
How do you plan to start investing in your community? You will find that the dividends pay richly for years to come.