362 comments

Are You Giving the Shaft to your Future Self?

mustache_sawUnfortunately for me, one of the concepts I find most annoying to read about happens to be one of those the mainstream financial media likes to write about the most: The hard times that have befallen Hardworking Americans*, and how it is entirely the fault of the system in which we are all stuck.

Depending on the day, this same underlying story comes dressed up in different clothes:

 

  • The middle class wages have stagnated (while the rich keep earning more) so life has become too tough for us.
  • The cost of living in ExpensiveVille* has grown so high that people can barely scrape by on $150,000 per year.
  • Education has become so costly that students must take out $200,000 loans, which then burden them until at least age 50.
  • Americans are headed for a retirement crisis. Most people are still broke by age 50, which means they will have to work until at least 80 (because of course it would be impossible to live on only Social Security benefits).
  • The 1991 recession and subsequent economic upheaval hit Martha hard. After 30 years of rising wages as an executive in a typewriter company,  she found herself without a job and competing with other CEOs for jobs at the local K-Mart.
  • Bill and Jenny worked diligently at their jobs as well as caring for their two kids. But when the 2008 credit crisis hit, they lost one income even while the value of their Las Vegas house was cut in half, leaving them with a mortgage that was $100,000 underwater. Foreclosure was inevitable.

 

The dangerous thing about all these stories is that they sound so plausible. Income inequality has indeed been growing, as have house prices in expensive cities.  We do indeed suck at saving, and executives do sometimes end up falling far down the pay scale in the event of job loss. But there is one thing the journalists never say, and that most of us don’t like to admit:

In almost every tale of financial woe, the real villain is the victim’s Past Self.

These people had been giving themselves the shaft for years or decades without realizing it, and it was this shafting that allowed The System to get them down later on. So what the newspaper describes as a medical bankruptcy could in fact be a Caribbean vacation bankruptcy** “victim” who happened to have the bad luck of getting sick when almost out of money. A foreclosure caused by the recession could very well be more attributable to commuting 25 miles to that job for the preceding 10 years in a GMC Tahoe. 

In fact, if you’ve ever blown a dollar on frivolous spending, and years later find yourself a dollar short due to the arrival of hard times, it’s not the hard times that broke you. It was that dollar blown long ago. Because a dollar is not an ephemeral phenomenon like today’s weather, it is a permanent accessory that sticks with you for life if you allow it to do so.

All this may sound harsh, it’s really just an expansion of one of my favorite concepts in personal finance: the idea of a present, past and future self.

You’re Borrowing from Yourself

Every financial transaction you make today is not so much a deal with a mortgage company, car dealer or department store. It’s a deal with your future self. After all, when the 20-year-old version of you borrowed $32,000 to buy that fully loaded Honda Accord, who ended up having to pay it back? The past self got the new car with no responsibility, and her successor in the present holds the result: a debt hangover and a car that’s now worth only a tiny fraction of the new price. Past You gave Present You the shaft.

But it goes further than just money. While your life as a baby has everything to do with the random luck of genetic composition and what sort of parents you were handed, you quickly get the opportunity to start influencing things yourself. By the time you get to my age, almost all of the features of your daily life, both the jewels and the turds, gifts and shaftings, are things deposited on the Conveyor Belt of Time by earlier versions of you. You have your Past Self to thank for all of this. But until you acknowledge that, you can never become the generous benefactor that your Future Self deserves.

The Tragic Comedy of Rich Country Recessions

Every ten years or so, our furiously strong economy takes a very short breather.  Instead of setting a new all-time record for economic output every quarter, sometimes it only matches its previous all-time record. This is called a “sluggish” economy and we usually fire the president over it. Sometimes it even goes down a percentage point or two. This is called a “Severe Recession”. Millions of us lose our homes and we fume about how irresponsible the bankers and politicians were for lending us so much money before taking away our jobs. What they are missing, of course, is how ridiculously vulnerable we all made ourselves back when the times were still good.

Now is the Time to Stop the Shafting

Suppose you’ve just graduated into this booming economy and scored yourself a great job. Sure, you have some student loans, but they are easily dwarfed by your new Big City Salary. Do you celebrate by buying a car, a house, adopting a couple of dogs, getting married and immediately having several kids like everybody else does?

Holy Shit No!!!

A new graduate with outstanding student loans is like a person riding a unicycle in November, just before the start of an icy winter. Balance is tricky, but it can be done. The pavement is dry now, but you know that ice is coming. So do you jack up the seat of the unicycle another 20 feet and balance a few fire-juggling elephants atop a broomstick which extends from your hat? Do you open a can of grease with your other hand and squeeze some onto the tire of the unicycle, and then start pedaling through town to go see if you can find a half pipe to bust out a few frontsides? Again, “Holy Shit No” would be wise advice to your future self.

You slow down the unicycle, set your feet on the ground, and adopt a stable stance. Then you gently set down and free the elephants, find yourself some winter boots, a coat, gloves, hat, food and shelter. With continued preparation and ingenuity, you can be out making snow angels and watching the winter moons, instead of having your frozen and crushed body blackening in the shadow of the elephant corpses, being nibbled away by raccoons until the eventual maggot infestation when the spring thaw comes.

The strange part to me is that while most people would consider this lesson in Unicycle Strategy to be self-evident, when it comes to money they are right there at the elephant shop adding the broomsticks and grease to their shopping cart. So let’s set this gruesome metaphor aside and consider a more reasonable financial strategy. Something that will prove to be a gift to your future self rather than a crushing lifelong hindrance.

Getting Started 

When you move out of Mom and Dad’s house, your first job is to set your eye on the prize. You want a fulfilling, happy life with plenty of challenge and reward, but hopefully a minimal amount of tiresome bullshit (TB). As it turns out, the amount of TB you must endure is inversely proportional to the amount of control you can gain over your own life. And control is something you build through a combination of skills, a wise yet optimistic attitude, time, and of course money.  Thus, everything you do should be done with an eye on building those four factors.

Buying a Car brings you no skills, wisdom, free time, or money. Nothing except a hole in your wallet. So you do it with an eye on efficiency and minimizing cost. Spend no more than four months of your net monthly savings, with an upper limit of $12,000 until you are at least a millionaire. Then make that machine last at least ten more years.

Choosing a Place to Live is not about kitchen countertop surfaces or closet arrangements. It’s about putting you in the center of where you want your life to be. You can always decorate and optimize, but you cannot teleport. So location is everything, even if it means downsizing or renting instead of buying. Living in the right place gives you back time, energy, and friends.

Your Job is a convenient source of income, but it is not your lifeline or your identity. Never be afraid to shop around for a new one, switch careers entirely, or dabble in your own businesses which may very well grow to be more lucrative than your main job.

Kids and/or Large Animals are not just things you pop out or pick up because hey, they are snuggly. These are enormous and fantastically expensive commitments, because they dictate where you will live, drive, and how much time and energy you’ll have left to work for money. It is a wonderful luxury that we can all afford these things if we prepare for them in advance. But make sure you’re on very firm ground before jumping in.

Good old-fashioned Hard Work  is almost always a gift to your future self, because it builds skills and earns you money. And the satisfaction you get from the subsequent lifetime of looking back on all that hard work is even better than the money and skills.

Maximizing your Luxury and Convenience right now may feel like a reward to your present self, but the belly full of expensive food will be converted to a turd on the conveyor belt by the time your future self retrieves the results. You leave your future self poorer, fatter, and with fewer skills. You may create a pleasant memory or two, but memories of hedonism are less satisfying than those of hard work.

This last rule applies to all categories of life, from purses to pickup trucks, iPhones to international travel. You can safely buy them if you have more money than you need, but you can also safely forego them without losing an atom of happiness or life satisfaction. Of course, we will all enjoy breaking this rule and indulging occasionally, but in general the rule is to put down the golf clubs and pick up the tool belt a little more often.

 The Reward at the End

You could live your entire life as described above and it would still be a fine, deeply satisfying existence. By building strength and character, you design away the worry and whining that dominates modern life. It’s simply the right way to live. But there is pleasant little side-effect: standing here in the future and unwrapping all these gifts as they come off the belt.

I’ve always been almost pathologically focused on creating a better future for myself and anyone who happens to be along for the ride. I endured four years of relatively horrible engineering classes because I knew they were the ticket to a good job. The happiness of the resulting jobs easily made up for all that hardship, but I was already looking ahead at the next step: how to invest all that money to make the future even better. Every beer foregone, barbell lifted, bike pedaled, and fence post hole dug through hard soil in hot weather was done with the benefit of the future self at least partially in mind.

But suddenly I have noticed that I am that future self, and the rewards keep piling up. This bonanza of gifts from the past has been ongoing since about age 21, and yet I still have 60 years to live.

It still blows my mind each Monday that I never have to go to work: I can thank the 25-year-old version of me for that. Here at age 40 I can still sprint through the park with my boy or enjoy a long day hoisting roof rafters and balancing on ladders: I owe this good health to the generosity of my past self as well. Even my pleasantly warm bare feet, which sit comfortably on an Oak floor heated to a toasty 80 degrees by a DIY radiant heat system*** as I look out the window at a snowstorm, are owed to the October version of me, who crawled around for hours in the dirt of the crawlspace to thread and connect all those hundreds of feet of PEX pipe. Thanks, dude.

The rewards are great, but the very act of giving (both to yourself and to others) is just as great. So with that in mind, I’m going to fold up this computer and get back to work, sending some more gifts into the future.

 

* You can insert your own city or country name here, as this phenomenon of crybaby journalism is a global phenomenon.

** Actual example from one of my less pleasant landlord experiences

*** It’s Alive! I am working on the long-awaited follow-up article for you, but this system is a joy to use, and it looks like the project’s plentiful naysayers will end up defeated.

  • Mike November 17, 2014, 2:15 pm

    Great article that all our kids / young adults should read, but even us old timers should keep our future selves in mind when making purchases!

    Reply
  • Vawt November 17, 2014, 6:26 pm

    I still sometimes struggle with the reward myself now versus reward myself later by saving even though I am working towards early retirement. I must remind myself that financial independence is my ultimate goal. Hopefully it is only about 7 years away!

    At least I was in a good position financially before I got married and had kids, many people are not prepared for those costs and commitments. I have used a budget for a while now, so I just had to add some line items for diapers, etc.

    Reply
  • Money Saving November 18, 2014, 10:38 am

    Preach it brother!

    You had me at rotting elephant corpses! You were able to put into words the sheer exasperation I feel when some folks feel they are “dealt” a bad card by the “system”.

    Reply
  • Chris November 18, 2014, 5:23 pm

    Another great post! Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, “We must all suffer one of two pains – the pain of discipline or regret. Discipline weighs an ounce, regret weighs a ton.”

    Reply
  • Anna November 18, 2014, 11:04 pm

    We have double coverage of PPO. My husband has stage 4 colon cancer. The medical coverage has helped him stay alive and is he is doing good. He has had numerous surgeries. The anesthiologist and both hospitals are out of network even though the hospitals are in network. I was told by UCLA that they are all out of network, they don’t need to contract with the insurance companies because the patient doesn’t have an option. Thank God we have our home paid off or we would have lost it if we had to pay medical bills and a mortgage. Our bills we $32,ooo for the year even with the two insurances. People need to be aware that they will have more bills other than the out of pocket,

    Reply
    • Aimee April 14, 2016, 2:33 pm

      I am sorry to read about your husband’s situation.

      For you and others……Are you aware that you can request in-network anesthesiologists when you are scheduling your surgery? If there are only out-of-network ones available, then you can request to have another one brought in or work with your insurance company. You do not have to just accept what the hospital or insurance company tell you initially.

      Reply
  • Free to Pursue November 19, 2014, 9:14 am

    I’m all for taking personal responsibility and completely agree with your statement that “As it turns out, the amount of TB you must endure is inversely proportional to the amount of control you can gain over your own life.”

    I think we are well-advised to focus on controlling our future outcomes as best we can because of the freedom of choice it offers. I also think we need to understand that, though we offer ourselves increasing levels of “padding”, that we can never completely eliminate risk. Sh*t happens, even to the best prepared.

    Bottom line: Don’t be stupid in the present and your future self is more likely to benefit from a softer landing when bad things happen. The more cushion the better.

    Reply
  • Mr. FC November 19, 2014, 11:38 am

    This is what I get for being out traveling for a week – miss an awesome post like this one! It’s so hard to remember this in the moment, though. It’s a mindset change more than anything else. I think it’s kind of like being in the Matrix (to use a cheezy movie reference) – once you see the world for what it is, your behavior starts to change.

    Great write-up in NY Magazine today, congrats MMM!

    Reply
  • DJ November 20, 2014, 4:45 am

    As a DIYer, I’ve always prided myself on my abilities to tackle most jobs, whether it’s installing flooring, doing stairs, laying flagstones, or anything else. But as a 6’3″ man, I should have realized that I should have been more careful with my back. At age 40, I herniated a disc in my back which has decreased my quality of life. It got better after a few months, but spontaneously came back 5 years later (MRI imaging says it didn’t increase) after I was doing core exercises. It did not get better. Let’s just say that I’ve had to readjust my past pain scale estimates. Luckily, I had back surgery just last week. Be warned! Take care of your back!

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache November 20, 2014, 11:45 am

      Good luck on the recovery DJ!

      For other fellow tall men, I think the ultimate way to take care of your back is to learn to do deadlifts (as well as other core stuff and just plain walk around outside whenever you can) at an early age, and keep it up through the decades. My back doesn’t complain when I lift a bag of concrete, because it is already used to lifting stuff that weighs much more. But when I fool myself into thinking I can get away without the deadlifts, trouble can creep in within just a few months.

      Reply
  • Jason November 20, 2014, 11:25 am

    Whew, I did it!! Every post ‘since the beginning of time’. It’s been an enlightening month or so of reading. Rarely have I found a voice that so closely articulated my thoughts, and helped expand them so much further. Your blog has helped me focus mentally on helping my future self, not only financially, but also in leading a happier and more productive life. I had some frugal muscles before, luckily from my past self having the ‘Advantage of Having to Work for what you Get’. Now I’m committed to developing these muscles to their maximum potential and be ‘retired’ in 12 years. I’m only disappointed that now I have to wait in anticipation for your next article, rather than devouring a dozen or so at a time! Cheers, keep up the fantastic ‘work’.

    Reply
  • Steve Adcock November 20, 2014, 1:51 pm

    I never realized how much my actions in my 20s would turn around to bite me in the ass until I got into my 30s. Now in my 30s, I have completely changed how I view life in general and manage my finances so when I’m in my 40s, I can look back to today and thank myself, my young and energetic self, that I saved so much then.

    I owe much of this to Mr. Money Mustache, who finally convinced me that early retirement and enjoying life for what it truly is isn’t all that difficult after all. All it takes is the right mind set.

    Reply
  • Christian November 20, 2014, 9:32 pm

    While I agree with most of your post, I have to say I STRONGLY disagree with the point that having children while you are young is a poor decision. Children do cost money, but they don’t have to cost that much…certainly, not the hundreds of thousands of dollars everyone says they will cost. In fact, financially having children while you are young often is cheaper then having them when you are older….that’s they way the system is set up in the US (I’m not saying I agree with it). And having children when you are younger is a way of NOT shafting your “future self” with all the joy that comes from having lots of family and grandchildren. If you ask anyone what makes them truly happy, the answer 99% of the time will be family…so why give yourself the shaft and deny your self children? Yes, it is hard, but worth it in the long run. And I am basing this on the idea of a a good 2 parent household, which I know is often not the case.

    So I’m 29, have 3 children. I’m finishing my last year of dental school. Live off a 28k/year scholarship stipend (and probably only spend about 20k). I own 2 cars in cash and have a 75k equity in my home. 75k in cash/stock/401k/savings. ZERO debt besides 75k left of mortgage. Net worth aprox: 150k….And I haven’t even started my career yet (I will next summer)! My children have not been a financial burden on me in the least. Our tax system is even set up with financial benefits from having children. I plan on having 2-3 more children and being financially independent between age 40-45.

    I tell you this to say that children can fit in with your MMM philosophy. I’m not saying everyone can do that, but if you live by your principles (which I do for) having children should not be seen as a set back IF you want them and you are having children responsibly.

    Reply
  • AnnieA November 21, 2014, 1:58 pm

    All the recent articles re “John Smith is about to be laid off and he has $12 in the bank” have been making me feel guilty, because I was not feeling at all sympathetic to JS’s plight Now I understand why: the real tragedy was not downsizing, but that Past JS had been shafting his Future JS.

    Reply
  • Marissa November 23, 2014, 5:30 am

    I died when you wrote that someone couldn’t survive in a $150,000 income. My family of four’s income is about $35,000 and we can barely survive because of my dumb past mistakes (student loans). Thanks to you, I’m very motivated to get out of debt. Also, I have friends who are ‘woe is me’ with their debt. But I don’t say anything because they won’t listen.

    Reply
  • Tawcan November 24, 2014, 12:26 pm

    Absolutely love this article. It’s all about a little bit of sacrifice now and rack in the rewards later. Early retirement isn’t the end goal, it’s really trying to get more time so you can do things that you enjoy.

    Reply
  • jch November 27, 2014, 3:15 pm

    I’ve been lurking here for awhile now and being thankful on Thanksgiving made me decide to leave a comment.

    This post is just reminding people about the law of the harvest. Whatsoever you sow, that will you reap.

    This applies to all aspects of life not just the financial ones. All decisions we make have consequences. Sometimes the consequences will also be realized on future generations. Not only did I learn from my parents, they provided for my future. The frugality of my parents allowed them to help me build my future self. My frugality will help my children and grandchildren to have what they need to succeed. So my grandchildren’s financial future will be blessed by my parents decisions.

    When I discovered MMM, I was already making changes in my life to reduce expenses, but MMM helped me realize that with a little more effort I could become financially independent by the time I want to retire at 65-66. That is something that I had not considered before. Thank you MMM for that.

    If we decide to follow God’s commandments, we will be thanking ourselves in the future because the consequences of our actions will reap blessings.

    Reply
  • Set December 8, 2014, 2:12 pm

    Precursor: Apologies if this offends anyone. I get carried away with myself and have quite likely missed all the most relevant points and tone of the article in my hurry to get my own point across. Don’t hate me.

    I both like this article practically, and I hate it on principle. And it could probably be summed up with: “but memories of hedonism are less satisfying than those of hard work.” NOPE.

    I think this author and I are very different. I’m not exactly a get out and go person, nor am I irresponsible financially towards the future (bearing in mind the little to no money I have anyway, I’m good at saving), but at the same time it’s often plain FUN to be irresponsible, to not always weigh up pros and cons of spending money or doing activities towards the future. I’m my present self – if you spend your whole life living for your future self, then you’ll never live, because your future self will never arrive, and your present self – that’s who you will always be – will never be rewarded with good, simple, irresponsible fun. Your future self is unattainable, and nobody who subscribes to a ‘live in the moment’ philosophy (what I’d like to subscribe to but often don’t take advantge of myself) could follow that and this author’s as well.

    I would hate to be old and look back on a life of frugality, and never seizing the moment and being impetuous and stupid. A diehard adherent to this philosophy strikes me as the sort who’d repeatedly turn down going out with his friends on nights out or holidays or crazy ventures and schemes because he’d weigh it up and realise the expenditure didn’t to any favours to his future self.

    My view on life is very simple. ‘Ask yourself, ‘would this make for a more interesting autobiography?”

    The time for being stupid and impetuous and somewhat ruining your life in a rather fun fashion is best when you are young Don’t miss the chance until you’re old and boring with a family to look up to you! :P

    I mean, (sorry to go on with myself), you could use this philosophy to work your fingers to the bone in your youth. Why take a break, go on holiday, hang out with friends, when you could always be working more, thus saving ever more money for your future retirement? There’s very little reason to do any of these things. Sure it’d be painful, and stressful and lonely, and could drive you near collapse, but you’ll survive – you’re working for your future self right, not your current self? You’ll certainly have a lot of money! You can make new friends from a very secure, more mature position.

    N.B. This is all coming from someone whose future self (theoretically) will probably hate him for putting him in such a mess. I advise nobody to listen to my advice.
    But… all I’m saying is, there should always be freedom to FORGET about your future self, if just for a little while…

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache December 9, 2014, 10:14 am

      Haha.. nice summary of Hedonism as a philosophy, Set!

      First of all, anyone who knows me in person will attest that I do plenty of irresponsible things in the moment. I have six varieties of gourmet marijuana in the desk that holds this very computer, and a hard drive full of ridiculous party photos from around the world. Hedonism is great fun at times!

      But as a longer term philosophy, everything works better with balance, and it takes a lot of hard work to properly balance a medium amount of hedonism. I took me most of my 30s to realize this. Have you done much really hard yet really rewarding hard work in your life yet?

      Reply
      • Set December 9, 2014, 6:25 pm

        You are right of course – I am a hedonist! Although not completely one, or I’d probably be dead or in jail. You are also right that hedonism needs funding.

        Moderation, as is always the case, is key to it all! I am 26, so not quite in my 30s. I am sure I still have a lot to learn.

        As for your question… I have done work that wasn’t really hard but was somewhat rewarding (writing fiction), I have also done really hard (relatively speaking… hard for me!) work that wasn’t at ALL rewarding.

        As for really hard and really rewarding… nope, not yet. Perhaps it’ll come, but perhaps also we find reward and satisfaction/pleasure in too different things, and have a different approach and tolerance of ‘hard work’. Then again, work can mean all manner of things.

        I do not have a business-y mind, do not work well under pressure or doing menial things, be them office or labour, and the only work I have found rewarding really are things that cater entirely to my own interests and projects – meaning on the artistic side, and where I have full control. And creative types always are a weird, bunch – half slacker, half mad energy, all discontentment and no compromise – and it only feels like actual work when it’s the self-management side of things…. which never feels rewarding.
        Who knows, reward may come in time… but I find reward in different things to you, possibly Not in the hard work itself, but in the attention of others. For example, the simple pride of a glowing review, atributed to something I brought into the world. Then again that itself was the result of some kind of struggle, so perhaps not so dissimilar. But I avoid difficulty when I can, unless I can see the direct rewards to possibly reap from engaging with it – rewards that must be more than monetary.

        I’m sure I don’t know a tenth of what you’re about, and perhaps you are spot on with me, I don’t know. But it takes all to make a world. I’ve survived this long! But like I said before – unlike you, nobody should take my advice…. I’m sure it’ll all turn out upside-down in the end :)

        P.S. Sorry for going on. I like to write…

        Reply
  • Michael Christensen December 31, 2014, 4:20 pm

    Why are medical costs so high in the US? In a nutshell:
    1. It’s a for-profit industry.
    2. It’s the ultimate seller’s market (it’s hard to even get prices in advance much less comparison shop).
    3. The industry is making a lot of money.
    4. You completely trust your salesman – your doctor.

    Here is a good article on why they are so high here that goes into much more depth:
    http://www.uta.edu/faculty/story/2311/Misc/2013,2,26,MedicalCostsDemandAndGreed.pdf
    It was written by Steven Brill and published in time. Please take the time to read it and educate yourself.

    Reply
  • Noa February 23, 2016, 8:28 am

    Instead of “*” in the article with the info at the bottom, wouldn’t it be easier to insert the text into () so that you don’t have to go back and forth on the article, or try to place them at the end of the article?

    Just a thought! (I always have at the end of each article, lol)*

    *See how easy that was? :)

    Reply
  • Joey December 30, 2016, 1:10 pm

    Goodness. This is a flat out masterpiece. Though I have intuitively applied much of this throughout my life, it has been hit-or-miss, done without an overall philosophy or with any real understanding. I am sick of hearing others constant complaining about things they had the power to manage, yet I have struggled to get others to understand the what and why of how they could have avoided many troubles. Prior to my coming across this post, I have read no one or nothing that so clearly and positively reveals how one’s present decisions affect their future well-being. With your wise and clear tutelage, I hope to better share these very important points with my friends and family. Bravo and thank you MMM.

    Reply
  • Maddy August 12, 2019, 7:03 am

    Hello I am Maddy I am writing this because my uncle in Colorado gave me a graduation challenge. What I have learned so far is how to keep and use your money wisely and not like the rest of the population on random stuff that won’t even matter a week after you get it. Also I have learned how to properly save and use my money when needed. This has all been very helpful for me since I am just a young 19 year old female who really did not know much about finicals before this. What I would like to learn more about is the stock industry and how truly powerful that is and if it is ever truly worth getting into, also how much to save for retirement per each pay check.

    Reply

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