Cents and Sensibility

UPDATED 11/23/1992 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/23/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

AT 47, VICKI ROBIN'S IDEA OF A SPENDING spree is going to Wendy's for a baked potato or splurging on an ice-cream cone. And she has no reservations at all about committing the ultimate fashion faux pas—being seen in the same outfit two days in a row. Then there's her friend Joe Dominguez, a 54-year-old former Wall Street analyst. When he finds a good deal on slacks, he'll buy several pairs—and wear them for as long as they last.

The two of them might appear down if not out, but the fact is Vicki and Joe are doing just what they want—and loving every minute of it. More than 20 years ago they decided to quit the dreary cycle of working, spending and running up debt in the pursuit of happiness. They stopped working for pay and now live in Seattle on an average annual income of $7,500 each, mostly from investment earnings, devoting their time to nonprofit causes. In their new book, Your Money or Your Life (Viking), they urge others to get off the earn-and-spend treadmill too, and they offer a nine-step program for doing it. Explains Vicki: "If people spend time making money and buying things that don't bring fulfillment, they're wasting their lives."

Joe and Vicki's lives converged at a trailer park outside Mazatlán, Mexico. Dominguez had grown up poor in Harlem, delivering groceries at the age of 8 to supplement his mother's welfare check while his father was confined to a tuberculosis sanatorium. A gifted student, he left the City College of New York to work as a messenger at a Wall Street brokerage firm. He quickly became a stockbroker, only to see the firm fold when he was 25. After landing a new job, Joe decided never to be dependent on an employer again. Living frugally, he saved all he could, charted his income and expenses and focused on the day when his investment earnings would exceed his spending. Five years later, in 1969, the moment arrived. With $80,000 squirreled away, he quit his job and went to Mexico.

Vicki was from a well-to-do family on Long Island, N.Y. Smitten with acting, she moved to New York City after her graduation from Brown and worked as an extra on the soaps Love of Life and The Secret Storm. But within two years, disillusioned with a lifestyle she found "very competitive, very sleazy," she took $20,000 she
had inherited from her grandmother and hit the road. Meeting Joe, with whom her relationship has always been platonic, was serendipitous. "We were both seeking another way to live besides 9 to 5 until you die," she says.

Together with two other like-minded Americans, they rented a hacienda near Acapulco in 1970, where they read, talked and came up with a radical new notion: What if they could fashion lives that didn't revolve around making money? The Acapulco interlude "was a spiritual retreat where we found our orientation," says Joe. "It was service—serving God, the planet, however you understand it."

The next year, Joe, Vicki and another woman moved to Wisconsin, where they started a halfway house for drug-addicted teens. Six years later, they headed off to Alaska and did the same there. So it went throughout the '70s and early '80s, as the three of them, joined by others, traveled the country like circuit riders for virtue, working for whatever organizations needed their help. "It was great to have them come along," says Robert Gilman, director of the Context Institute, a Washington State environmental group. "They're energetic, competent, focused." But wherever they went, people were curious about how they managed financially. In 1980, Joe gave his first seminar about living better on less to raise funds for several nonprofit groups; within a few years, he was speaking to capacity crowds. In 1986, Joe and Vicki put together a cassette package they sold by direct mail and last year signed a book deal with Viking. Joe insisted on including a warning that readers will succeed only if they religiously follow the regimen prescribed, tracking expenses and income and cutting spending to the gritty essentials. "I want people to know this isn't a quick fix," he says.

Today, Joe and Vicki live and work in a 3,200-square-foot house in Seattle with three other singles. (Four of the group contributed savings to buy the house.) Profits from both the tapes and the book are distributed to various volunteer organizations through a foundation Vicki and Joe set up in 1984.

Settled more or less permanently now in Seattle, Vicki and Joe have, according to their old friend Gilman, found an alternate route to happiness. "You can see it in their humor and feel it in their hugs," he says. "Joe and Vicki are having a hell of a good time."

PAULA CHIN
JOAN DECLAIRE in Seattle

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