Memento Mori: Carpe Diem’s Older Brother

The gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment may be our last.

Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now.

We will never be here again.

Homer, The Iliad

Personal finance is much more than numbers and equations (if only it was that simple). It is also about behaviour and psychology. Habits, perspectives and your own thought processes. 

After all, we are only human. 

As such, there is a lot one can learn from philosophy to apply to personal finance and investing. 

Memento Mori translates to “remember you must die”.

The phrase was used by the Stoic philosophers of antiquity to remind themselves of their mortality. Whilst you may think it is morbid or depressing to think about your own death, I would argue it is quite the opposite. 

Death is the universal truth that binds all living things. Whether you are the Pope, a peasant, a poet or a pigeon, you cannot escape it. We are all doomed, as Homer would say. 

The Stoics did not constantly remind themselves of their own mortality to get some twisted kick out of it. They kept the thought of death at the forefront of their minds so they may truly live

Ryan Holiday highlights that they “used Memento Mori to invigorate life, and to create priority and meaning. They treated each day as a gift, and reminded themselves constantly to not waste any time in the day on the trivial and vain”. 

Those who have near death experiences or are diagnosed with life threatening illnesses often lead much better lives after being confronted with their own mortality. They understand nothing is guaranteed in life and are therefore grateful for the opportunities each new day brings. 

As Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher, said, “every man has two lives and the second one starts when he realises he only has one”.  Contemplating your own mortality allows you to get on with your ‘second life’ sooner rather than later. 

Without facing your mortality, you are liable to drift through life crippled by inertia. You may find yourself working in an unfulfilling job for 30 years or not cutting out toxic people or habits which bring you no joy.

You may obsess over accumulating money, only to find you cannot take it with you. You’ll also be in danger of missing out on the small day to day pleasures, which is a big part of why one should practice this Stoic thought experiment. 

The below table shows my life in weeks, at the time of writing I’m 29 years old, I find it is a great way to help visualise a life:

(If you are interested, this is a Google Chrome extension that fills out automatically each week).

Mortality should be viewed as a gift. You cannot appreciate light without first knowing darkness.

The scarcity of your existence should hone your senses to enjoy every possible moment, from a great adventure to a chat with friends and family, all the way down to a nice of cup of tea. Awareness brings clarity, which allows you to be present and intentional.

So, how does this relate to personal finance? 

Well, it helps you ensure that you are being intentional with your time and your money. We only have a finite amount of both, so it is best not to waste either. 

Plan that dream holiday, switch jobs, enjoy life. Your money is simply a tool that allows you to do whatever it is you find fulfilling.

Don’t chase money and status, it won’t save you at the end of it all. 

Check out my post on a great book by Paul Armson, which goes into more detail on how to manage and use your money throughout your life (I highly recommend giving the book a read, it is short and impactful).

Steve Jobs, arguably the man who has shaped our modern society more than anyone else, used Memento Mori as a tool: 

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Steve Jobs

I challenge you to take five to ten minutes to sit quietly and reflect on your own mortality. 

Afterwards, think about what and who is important to you and then ask yourself if your current lifestyle is aligned with this. 

How do you spend your time? 

Where does your money go? 

Who are you surrounded by? 

This exercise should provide you with clarity and help you be more intentional moving forwards.

Hopefully it will also make you realise you shouldn’t take life too seriously, after all, you are just a monkey with a plan – as Naval would say.

Have fun, enjoy yourself and those around you. Money is just a tool, not the end goal. The goal should be a life well lived. Practise gratitude and remember, Memento Mori

Thanks for reading.

Tom Redmayne

Financial Planner-in-waiting

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