Ten Money Questions for Joani Blank
Joani Blank is the founder of Good Vibrations, the ground breaking sex toy store that she opened thirty years ago in the Bay Area. Today, she’s busy being passionate about her cohousing community and socially sustainable issues. Joani has a few radical ideas about money which includes giving away half (yes, half!) of her income almost every year. Read what she has to say about money, memories and making a living below.
1. Did selling vibrators and other sex stuff for a living end up being a lucrative pursuit?
Making vibrators and books about sex available to folks who wanted to enhance their sexual lives became my “life work” in the mid ‘seventies, but I’d hardly say that I ever did it for a living. Interesting, isn’t it that in our culture we conflate “earning money” with “making a living.” Perhaps if we said “making a life” instead we’d look at the work we do as being just one piece–and not necessarily a very big piece—of our identity and the expression of our values. I am extremely fortunate to have had the luxury of being able to further my personal values in the work that I did “for a living.” And I’m acutely aware that many, if not most, other workers, even many business owners, do not have that option.
2. At seventy, do you consider yourself to be retired?
Hardly. My father never retired; doing work he loved… he was a laboratory scientist in a medical field… until he was over 90, and “going to the lab” occasionally for several years after that. I am following in his footsteps, though I’ve neither been a worker at Good Vibrations nor done any regular work for a salary for many years now. But I’m doing it in a different way. I never really differentiated my work life and my non-work life from one another, so the fact that I no longer get a pay check seems completely unremarkable to me.
3. What is your most significant memory about money?
I’m offering you three for the price of one.
1. For much of my childhood, I didn’t have an allowance like many of my friends. Instead, there was always a bowl full of change on our kitchen counter from which my sister and I were welcome to take money for bus fare, treats, comic books, little toys, whatever. It was assumed that we would spend it reasonably and responsibly, and that the two of us would share what was there, but no accounting was expected or done.
2. My mother always said, “If you really want something, it is not expensive.” At the same time, she and my father lived very frugally, quite a bit below their already modest means. Instead of confusing me, these apparently conflicting messages led me to believe that my parents had everything they really wanted, not that they were depriving themselves in any way.
3. In the last 30 or more years of his long life (he lived to be 98) my father invited me and my sister to know as much as we wanted to know about his financial affairs, and the trusts of which we would be beneficiaries after our parents’ death. He also offered to gift me and my sister with up to twenty thousand dollars each every year for many years, partly to reduce the eventual value of his estate, but more because he was quite sure that he would live until we were both in our sixties, and he thought that we could make much better use of our “inheritance” when we were in our forties and fifties than after his and my mother’s deaths. And in my case he was right. Having that cushion in the early years of Good Vibrations and Down There Press, meant that it didn’t matter that the publishing and store profits were only few thousand dollars a year.
4. What is your worst habit around finances?
Record-keeping around money. I could never be bothered to balance my checkbooks, and I consider it an excellent investment of my not-so-hard-earned dollars, to pay a bookkeeper to do it and other money tasks on a monthly basis.
My other bad habit is being quite judgmental about the way others spend their money. When I notice people spending gobs of money on luxuries, I feel acutely uncomfortable, and don’t want to be around them. And I grumble under my breath that some people have way too much money. I also look askance at a friend or acquaintance who never goes out to lunch or dinner with her co-workers because she “can’t afford it,” then shows up the next day eager to have those same co-workers check out the great piece of jewelry she just bought.
5. You live in a cohousing community in downtown Oakland, CA. If more people lived this way, what impact would it have on the environment?
Living in a cohousing community is both environmentally and socially sustainable. The environmental impact is not hard to observe, and eventually to measure: clustering housing and preserving open space, green building, less car usage, sharing facilities and “stuff.” The social sustainability maybe be harder to measure, but it is equally, if not more, important. We tend to one another’s kids, check in on an ill or elderly neighbor, prepare common meals, work together more or less cheerfully on workdays. What’s especially valuable, however, is that the longer we live here the more we learn to put our individual wants, needs and desires a bit off to the side when it benefits the whole community for us to do so.
6. How does your support of greater economic fairness play out in your day-to-day life?
Years ago I initiated the conversion of Good Vibrations into a worker cooperative in which every worker, regardless of her or his level of pay, position of authority or longevity, owns an equal share of the company. When the coop started there were 13 worker-owners, and that number grew to over 100 in about 12 years.
For many years I’ve loaned money to friends starting socially and environmentally responsible businesses, needing money to pay for medical care, to go back to school, or to stay in cohousing communities. I’ve also made some bridge loans to cohousing groups. In almost all cases, I make these loans at low interest rates, and almost always to individuals and groups who probably could not readily get a loan from a bank or credit union.
Finally, for the last several years I’ve been increasing my giving every year until now almost every year I donate 50% of my income to non-profit organizations, mostly social change (in contrast to direct services) non-profits.
7. What did your parents teach you about money?
I don’t recall any explicit verbal messages about money, but I do remember feeling from a very early age that it isn’t fair that some people have a lot and others have very little, and I’m sure that reflected my parents’ convictions on the subject.
8. What financial lessons have you been able to teach your young grandchildren?
Unfortunately, I have never lived near my daughter since she’s been a mom. But I’m hoping that the values she has about money, which she got by example from me and her dad (whose values were very similar to mine), will seep down to my grandkids, also by example.
9. As a committed Unitarian-Universalist, how does money play a role in your spirituality?
It’s kinda the other way around. I didn’t become a UU until I was over 40. Identifying as a Jewish humanist, I thought that spirituality of any stripe was not for me. However, in the last 15 years, I’ve ever so gradually come to attach the words “spiritual practice” to anything I do with some regularity that helps me feel connected to everything that is, to the universe. Of course, I am not mindful of that connection every time I earn or spend, receive or give, money, but taken as a whole, the way I deal with money is closely aligned with my values, and therefore has meaning for me well beyond the day to day financial transactions I experience.
10. If you could buy one thing right now what would it be?
There’s no “thing” I want that costs money. As far as things go, I’d love to have a lot fewer of them, to live a lot more simply. But if I were to acquire a lot more money than I currently have, including what’s invested for the retirement I plan never to have, I’d do three things with it. First, I’d give half of it away. Then I’d buy a big fat long term care and health care insurance policy so my daughter and grandchildren never have to dip into their own financial resources to support me in any way. Finally, I’d hire a full time administrative assistant (for my life, not my business). Or maybe two of them… so I could spend time learning new things, having bright ideas and spending more time with other human beings, especially friends and family.
More about Joani Blank
Joani Blank is the founder of Good Vibrations in San Francisco (now also in Berkeley, CA and Brookline, MA and on the internet as www.goodvibes.com) the first sex toy store “especially but not exclusively” for women, which opened in 1977. She also authored or edited nine sexual self-help books which were published by Good Vibration’s sister company Down There Press. She lives in a cohousing community in Oakland CA with her little poodle companion, Bapu.
Read other Queercents interviews in the Ten Money Questions archive.