30 comments

Mr. Money Mustache vs. No Impact Man

The Triple M Family enjoyed a rather enlightening movie night tonight. These days, we tend to watch all our movies together, and we usually let the kid make the viewing choice, using the nicely organized browsing system on Netflix. Fortunately for us parents, our boy has graduated from the Pixar movies we’ve all seen a dozen times, on to science and nature documentaries, which all of us enjoy.

Today, however, we picked out a documentary called No Impact Man, which my son thought would be interesting because from the synopsis he determined that they were “like a super Money Mustache family”. If you’ve never heard of the movie, check it out at http://noimpactproject.org/movie/.

In a nutshell, the movie captures one year in the life of a real family. The guy, a writer named Colin Beaven, designs an ambitious experiment for the family to follow, involving advancing stages of minimalist living. They start by cutting out fossil-fuel-powered travel and long-distance-shipped food. They figure out ways to produce virtually zero trash and not buy anything other than food for a year. And they go further over time, eventually shutting off even the electricity to their apartment.

The part that was interesting to me was not the exact lifestyle changes they made, because I have already adopted most of them to some extent. It was the enlightening Mustachian Journey that they went through together – from an initial feeling of shock and deprivation, gradually through to realizing that many of the changes they made were better for them, regardless of the cost or impact on the planet.

Their starting point was quite amusing. The wife, business writer Michelle Conlin, came into the project as a reality television addict who also liked to buy pairs of $950 designer boots and several Starbucks products per day. Despite being only 40 years old, she was dangerously unhealthy due to poor eating and even diagnosed as pre-diabetic. “Mommy doesn’t like nature” was one of the things she told her daughter early on in the movie. From my current perspective, it seemed like a desperate and tragic life, seeing these people crammed into a tiny apartment room watching reality TV shows on a gigantic television. But that’s actually a normal life in this country!

Colin himself didn’t have to make as many changes to become No Impact Man. He seemed to just dump the high-consumption lifestyle with no regrets, and most of his job was in managing the objections and complaints from the outside world.

An interesting part of the movie involves the considerable attention that they got, right from the start of the project. Their story was written up in the New York Times during the year of filming, which triggered invitations to appear on a long line of major TV  shows including the Colbert Report. All of this attention triggered some incredibly violent rage from various complainypants critics who felt that making any lifestyle changes is a horrible idea and that people who try it should be punished.

I could really relate to this, even just being Mr. Money Mustache who has never appeared on a TV show. I have seen some mind-bogglingly Fucktarded attacks that folks attempted to post into the comments section of this blog. I blocked them, of course, but I’m collecting them for an eventual article (or poem or hip-hop track or something).  The same thing happened to No Impact man on a larger scale, and it really is bizarre because the dude is just trying to help us all out! There’s no need to attack people like this – if you don’t like his ideas, don’t buy his book, and your problem is solved!

The real lesson, however, came as the movie went on. Michele became dramatically more Mustachian over time, and learned to love riding her bike, even with their toddler daughter in the back. They learned to cook at home for the first time, and started spending more time with friends and meeting new people outside once they gave up the daily time-waste of television. They became better parents. They became happier, and noticeably healthier as well. After the one-year experiment ended, they ended up keeping most of the new lifestyle (including foregoing air conditioning), despite the fact that many of the elements were considered hardships initially.

I must admit that the lifestyle in my own household is far from No Impact. We have a large 4-bathroom house, we use electricity freely, we eat food from all over the world, and we take car and even jet vacations. Mr. Money Mustache’s whole deal is that even by just paying a tiny bit of attention to the details, I find that you can have the whole middle-class lifestyle with well under a third of the standard US level of consumption. I still have an enormous stainless steel double-door fridge with blinking lights and an ice maker. But I bought it used for $500 and it fits easily within my 299 kWh monthly electricity use figure – electricity that is 100% wind-generated.  I still have a nice reliable imported car, but it gets over 40 MPG and more importantly I still have a couple gallons left in the 10-gallon tank that I last filled in early August. We still have everything we want/need and more, but it all adds up to only 25% of what most of our wealthy neighbors are spending per year. We are not heroes – in fact, we still suck and are consuming too much – but I think we’re reasonable role models to start with because it takes very little thinking and lifestyle re-engineering to get to this point, even while the savings in both Earth and Cash are enormous.

The most significant difference between NIM and MMM was that the documentary made no mention of the financial benefits of their experiment. After digging through their blog, I eventually found a passage stating that before the project, they were spending 100% of both of their salaries, and after finishing the project and going back to a “normal” lifestyle, they were suddenly spending only one salary and saving* 100% of the second one. So even without specific effort, they found themselves growing a Money Mustache. But I was surprised that the movie didn’t promote this aspect, since from my own perspective (and perhaps yours too as an MMM reader), it is one of the most obvious benefits of adopting a lower-consumption lifestyle.

Regardless of our different approaches, I am proud of No Impact Man, who continues to work in the field of Spreading The Good Word to this day. It seems to be a fun new dream job that he’s created for himself, a model for all of us in our post-real-career days.

 

*I was pleased to note that he actually referred to it as “Stashing” their second salary.

  • ermine November 1, 2011, 6:58 am

    Holy crap, do you have an error in there or what do you use your 300kWh/month on? I use 120-kWh p.m. as a high-side estimate, if my Efergy power usage meter shows > 4kWh for a day I start looking for why!

    Reply
    • MMM November 2, 2011, 1:06 pm

      Haha.. thanks Ermine for implicitly throwing down that Electricity Badass Challenge. I agree that we use lots of power, and I know you read my description of where it all goes, because you commented on that article back in May as well: http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2011/05/10/ill-show-you-my-electricity-bill-if-you-show-me-yours/.

      The biggest difference between our use might be that I have a gigantic house and I’m a bit of a lighting enthusiast – so I use halogen lights in key areas of the kitchen so I can feel like I’m on a luxurious cooking show when I’m in there. I also use a dishwasher three times per week, which uses 0.9kwH per load. Also, since both Mrs. M. and I work on our computers quite a bit at home, there is a lot of electronic equipment that is on all day. A wireless router and cable modem are on 24/7. And don’t forget my shop for woodworking.

      Having said all this, it is still interesting that we were STILL less than 1/3 of the US average last year, and this year is running considerably lower than last since I officially became Mr. Money Mustache and became even more hesitant to use the electric clothes dryer. I’m also going to swap all the halogens for the new warm-white LEDs, which finally have almost as bright and direct a light. But not when they are at the current price of $20 per bulb! (I did buy one last year for the most frequently used kitchen fixture and it is performing well while using 80% less power than the halogen it replaced).

      I could definitely drop our power use down to your level if it was a priority – but at a savings of $15 per month at my electric rate, and with the money going towards building the local wind industry anyway, I haven’t seen a great benefit to doing so. Maybe I’m missing something?

      Reply
  • Carolina on My Mind November 1, 2011, 8:01 am

    I remember starting that NYT article about No Impact Man with great enthusiasm, because I love that kind of stuff. By the end of the article I’d concluded that his whole project was nothing more than a massive publicity stunt designed to sell books, and I haven’t bothered to revisit No Impact Man since then. But I’m glad to hear that the documentary left you with a more favorable impression; I’m going to check it out. Thanks!

    Reply
  • Debbie M November 1, 2011, 8:41 am

    I haven’t seen the movie. Your description reminds me of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”: Like many other college students, I quite liked that album when I heard it. But I didn’t like the movie at all, I think because the pictures in my head were much less disturbing than what they showed in the movie.

    Similarly, I’ve read and quite enjoyed No Impact Man’s blog, book, and even the two lectures I attended, but the TV watching and paycheck-to-paycheck mentality you describe never hit me.

    My clear impression is that he did not start out looking for media attention. He wanted to change the world and decided to start with changing himself. He had the goal of, by the end of one year, making no negative impact on the environment, and he lives in New York City! Impossible, I thought. What will he try? I wondered. How close could he possibly get?

    He got a lot closer than I ever expected.

    And the book is a fun read, too. Like in the month when he decides not to throw anything away, the first thing he does the first morning is get a tissue to blow his nose. The second thing he does is get a disposable diaper to change the baby. It becomes blindingly obvious that this is not going to be so easy after all! And they would try to order a slice of pizza and ask them to put it on their own plate that they had brought. Oh, the odd looks! And lack of success! It’s like when someone puts your purchase in a bag before you get a chance to stop them and you say, “Oh, I don’t need that bag,” and they take your purchase out and wad up the bag and throw it away. Doh!

    I found the journey fascinating.

    You can take the journey yourself, and they even have little group things you can participate in, but I haven’t tried it. I’m still only making a few tiny changes. I bring my own storage containers to restaurants for my leftovers. I’m saving glass jars (the wide-mouth kind are best, like from peanut butter and salsa) for bulk buying and to store some of the things I cook. I’m learning to make more things myself like chocolate syrup (from bulk cocoa and bulk sugar) and vanilla extract (from packages of vanilla beans and one big bottle of vodka).

    Like Mr. Money Mustache, I still love my car (I fill the tank just about every month, though), and I love my air conditioning and my refrigerator. Like even No Impact Man, I love my washing machine, too. I’m not into gardening or composting either. And after lots of calculations, I’ve decided I’d rather have shade trees than solar panels on my roof (which don’t work well if there’s any shade at all). Still, it’s a good book to re-read periodically and remind myself about some of the important things in life.

    Reply
    • Geek November 1, 2011, 10:36 am

      “I think because the pictures in my head were much less disturbing than what they showed in the movie.”

      I found the movie pretty tame compared to the pictures in my head…. hmmm.

      Reply
      • Debbie M November 2, 2011, 7:36 am

        Yikes!

        Reply
  • BioRed November 1, 2011, 9:46 am

    My husband and I actually watched this movie Sunday night, so I am very excited to see your post today!

    I agree with you on the lack of mention as to the financial benefits of many of their “no impact” choices. Though I suppose subtracting consumerism and convenience from your life would have an obvious effect on a family’s bottom line, breaking down some of the numbers would help gain the interest of people more interested in frugality than saving the planet.

    My main complaint with the movie was that they talked a lot about the effect of the choices on the family happiness and such, but not so much about keeping up the choices. Did they really go most of the year without toilet paper? Really? How sustainable was washing their cloths the way they showed really?

    I found it very interesting when Michelle was talking about her surprise at the distain and downright hate that people threw their way. But it makes sense. We’ve been steeped, as a society that over consumption and consumerism is almost synonymous with being a good American. To challenge that consumption based life we’ve been raised to lead in this country strikes a chord deep within people, I’m not even sure they themselves could articulate.

    Overall thought, I really admire people who can make such an undertaking, rooted in reflection and introspection, and not just maintain the “norm”. The “norm” will slowly drain your wallet, your energy, and your very life away.

    Reply
    • Josh September 16, 2014, 1:44 pm

      Sustainability of washing toilet cloths instead of buying toilet paper, and cloth diapers, and even cloth napkins and “paper” towels is pretty good. We’ve been doing it in my house for a while. The only times we get disposable paper products is when we get takeout.

      Reply
  • Frugal Vegan Mom November 1, 2011, 10:12 am

    Ha you know you’ve done well as a parent when your kid chooses to watch No Impact Man! Way to go MMM family.

    Reply
  • Anna November 1, 2011, 10:21 am

    One of the things that I really enjoy seeing is when people realize that being frugal, environmentally conscious, and/or simplifying their lives actually makes their lives more enjoyable. I really liked that aspect of the movie (I watched it a long time ago, so my memory is foggy, but I think they showed that…).

    I really think that reducing our consumeristic ways is the key to frugality, simplicity, and not being a dick to the environment.

    Reply
  • Mr. Frugal Toque November 1, 2011, 10:31 am

    This sounds like an excellent movie to watch.

    I do find it odd that they are still spending one person’s salary and only saving 100% of the other salary. Assuming they have roughly equal salaries, this means that their new lifestyle is at 50% spending level of the old lifestyle.

    Really?

    They went from $950 designer boots and luxury coffees to a Mustachian lifestyle and only cut down by 50%?

    Still, I bet it was very uplifting to leave behind all the needless shopping trips and turn them into healthy bicycle rides and what not.

    Good for them.

    Reply
  • Foo Bar November 1, 2011, 10:41 am

    Don’t they live in NYC? I suspect the rent is the primary contributor.

    Reply
  • Dan November 1, 2011, 11:23 am

    I think maybe you should clarify that you’re not really 100% wind generated. When the wind isn’t blowing, your power is coming from other sources (because most power companies don’t have energy retention systems to save up wind power for nonwind time use) – regardless of what you tell your energy company to bill you / what tier to put you in.

    Reply
    • Foo Bar November 1, 2011, 11:34 am

      As long as he’s generating energy equivalent to (or greater than) his total usage, he’s effectively 100% wind, even if he’s grid-tied and feeding excess back into the big pool of energy during the windy parts and withdrawing it later when it’s still.

      Put another way, if everyone else who uses electricity held their use constant, and MMM puts 299kWh of energy into the grid from his personal windmill farm, the utility will have to reduce some other energy harvesting efforts by 299kWh to come back to meeting demand. Hopefully they would do that mostly by burning less fossil fuel.

      I suspect what MMM is actually doing is paying a premium for wind energy from the utility, but that’s just displacing the windmill farm to a different spot on the planet. Same physics.

      Reply
      • MMM November 1, 2011, 6:12 pm

        Foo Bar is right – the electric grid is not just my house and a single windmill. It’s a huge zoo that behaves as a nice statistical average as different wind farms raise and lower their production, users raise and lower their consumption, and baseline powerplants make up the rest.

        From a climate and economic perspective, the more wind and solar we have, the better. Renewable energy currently costs slightly more than coal power, but surprisingly even with today’s technology, the price premium is not all that much. Since most US households use about four times more power than they need to anyway, we could all double our price-per-kWh, and still halve our bill, all while decommissioning virtually all of the ridiculous coal power plants.

        And the price has been dropping – partly because of the support that governments have given the technology in the form of feed-in tariffs. The renewable energy stuff we have RIGHT NOW is fantastic and ready to go. It will continue to advance over time and over time the technical issues will continue to get ironed out. But the more we invest, the more the industry will grow and innovate in response to our spending.

        I had to delete a bunch of Dan’s comments because they were going off on a pseudo-rational-but-really-pro-dirty-energy rant straight out of Fox News (sorry Dan! I know you didn’t intend this, but those guys give exactly the same argument you were making, and the scientists disagree).

        Let’s be clear here. I can buy, unsubsidized, right now, a complete solar electric system for my house, including storage batteries to get me through night periods if I’m really crazy, and get all my electricity off-the-grid for not much more than I pay for electricity right now, after accounting for the opportunity cost of tying up my cash in the panels, inverter, charge controller, and batteries. (http://www.ecobusinesslinks.com/solar_panels.htm)

        Even better, I can grid-tie my system and forego the batteries and the charge controller, which helps the utility even more because it produces peak power when the grid needs it and I tend to use less, then I draw back power for night-time use like running the lights and dishwasher. This is even cheaper.

        Anyone who doesn’t think we should subsidize the shit out of alternative energy, right now, taking the money directly from oil and military subsidies, needs to go back to study some more electrical engineering and economics.

        Reply
        • Dan November 1, 2011, 7:41 pm

          Interesting, thanks for the viewpoints MMM. No worries on deleting my posts; it’s your blog. But I totally look forward to more posts on your position as stated above – about how you feel it’s a no brainer from an economic perspective to put solar panels on residential houses. Definitely an interesting topic. Currently I don’t see how solar is competitive but it’s always possible I’m wrong!

          Reply
          • Dan November 1, 2011, 7:46 pm

            PPS I am hardcore pro science, pro logic, pro economics, and anti political BS / Fox News / etc. So I totally want to see the scientists that say that solar is a viable, economic answer to global pollution etc. My research has the economists making a solid case against things like solar and wind panel proliferation and subsidies at the current efficiency levels. I’d love any links etc that you have that covers this.

            Reply
            • MMM November 1, 2011, 8:14 pm

              Good! I really need to get my “Mr. Money Mustache vs. Peak Oil” article done. The problem is it takes much more research to make sense of the competing claims. But for this debate, you should read what the Economist Magazine has said about renewable energy over the years. Wind power is incredibly cheap, and the benefits to the US industrial and technological base by building turbines and towers here are incredible.

              When you read criticisms of wind and solar power, it usually comes from places like the CATO institute, who are ideologically opposed to interfering with the free market even in the short term, and who secretly don’t give a shit about climate change or social equality. What’s good for pure short-term capitalism is not always what’s good for Earth or Humanity, even according to Mr. Money Mustache, lifelong fan of money and investment.

              Reply
              • Josh September 5, 2012, 5:01 am

                I’ve read a lot of your articles but not all, so I’m not sure if you’ve gotten around to writing the one mentioned in the post above, and I’m not sure you read posts to old articles like this, but I’ll give you two phenomenal resources for learning about energy, both by Caltech-trained physicists with attitudes toward energy consumption like yours toward money.

                The first is the Do The Math blog — http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math

                The second is the book Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air — http://www.withouthotair.com

                I predict you’ll love both sources. I’d describe them, but you’re just a click away.

          • Dan November 1, 2011, 8:14 pm

            PPPS honest question- if you’re already 100% renewable energy, why would you lift a finger or spend a dime on home solar? You just swap a windmill at a distance for panels in proximity?

            Reply
            • MMM November 1, 2011, 9:21 pm

              Exactly, that’s why I have NOT hooked myself up with panels! I am happy to have my money go instead to help support the growing wind industry. If the alternative were coal, I would switch to solar even if it had significantly higher cost, as a way of supporting that industry instead.

              Reply
  • Marcia @Frugal Healthy Simple November 1, 2011, 11:28 am

    Sounds like an excellent movie. I’d read the NYT article, and I must add that movie to my Netflix list.

    My 5 year old still likes Pixar movies, but he has watched a few food documentaries with me.

    Reply
  • Matt November 1, 2011, 3:40 pm

    Great recommendation (I’ve added it to our Netflix instant queue). Another documentary you might like is Garbage Warrior. You can get the disc on Netflix or watch the full documentary on Youtube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrMJwIedrWU

    The Garbage Warrior uses many of the ideas discussed on this blog by using earth packed tires to build thermal mass in the walls of his buildings. He also uses old glass and plastic bottles as insulation as nearly free ways to make homes from “garbage”. These guys are pioneers and should be recognized as such.

    Reply
  • Dd November 1, 2011, 8:35 pm

    As someone who lived 4 years without water, electricity, gas (and tiny amounts of food) due to war, it is interesting what I found – living without electricity, heat, and even much food is not terrible and it is easy to get used to – but living without running water was terrible. Having to spend hours each day to score couple of gallons of water was bad. Hauling rainwater to the bathtub and saving water used to wash hands to be used to flush the toilet was annoying (another discovery – body odor lasts only couple of days – after a week without shower, you no longer stink :)

    Losing all these modern amenities does have some positives – you spend more time with the family and tons of time just thinking or reading.

    Reply
  • Kristian Hansen November 2, 2011, 4:22 am

    Along the same lines as the No Impact Man is the No Money Man – Mark Boyle, who lived on a co-op in Britain for a year and did not spend a penny.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/green-living-blog/2009/oct/28/live-without-money

    His personal philosophy was quite similar to that of the NMM. If we take ourselves out of the materialistic society we live in for a moment we can figure out what is necessary versus frivolous.

    The environment. Its worth talking about.

    Reply
  • jason@ solar panels November 4, 2011, 1:32 pm

    A future in film review awaits you sir! I’ve never seen the film but now I want to (so thanks for the link) and it’s also made me look even more at how we can cut out earth footprint.

    Best of luck to you all

    Reply
  • Pablo November 5, 2011, 9:33 am

    Thanks for sharing this video. I am going to head straight to the library to borrow a copy of it! I like inspirational documentaries.

    Reply
  • Carrie October 15, 2013, 8:35 pm

    Hi
    FYI ,

    It looks like this movie is no longer on Netflix somehow. I just looked for it.

    Carrie

    Reply
  • Rollie October 29, 2014, 6:54 pm

    I’m fascinated by the haters & trolls. Both here in the relative shelter of this blog and out there in the (shudder) wider society, where No Impact Man got a taste of it. I mean the thing is, I love to point out the forgotten side of any story myself, especially if it’s MY side. (There’s always more than one side.) And I also tend to root for underdogs etc. But there’s this particular species of objection, that really takes the hostility up a notch but you can’t see why, and it’s puzzling. If you see that, you know there’s something personal on the line that’s hidden.

    “There’s no need to attack people like this – if you don’t like his ideas, don’t buy his book, and your problem is solved!”

    You would tend to think that, sure. Why attack disproportionately? UNLESS, like I said, they have something personal vested in it. I think probably all NIM’s haters (or MMM’s for that matter) know deep down that “he’s right, my lifestyle is fucked up.” Which means they’re in the wrong and they know it. They CAN’T DEAL with the cognitive dissonance, so they go on the offensive to “defend” the comfy rut where they’re already sitting. You can’t just “not buy the book” because you’ve already heard the idea that puts the shame in your game. You can’t un-hear it so you have to try to ANNIHILATE it.

    You don’t need to go to all that trouble for something that doesn’t threaten you. But you do, if it does. Thus their strenuous protests in favor of the status quo are the loudest possible proclamations in favor of a change.

    Fascinating (use Spock voice here)

    Reply

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