Now, I’m no stranger to riches – I grew up moderately-rich Canada, before moving to the ultimately-rich USA. Since then, I have visited pretty much all of this country’s biggest and richest cities from coast to coast through a mixture of business and pleasure trips.
But spending some more time in Phoenix for the first time since becoming Mr. Money Mustache provided me with a new opportunity to have my mind exploded. Let’s do a little summary, in case you’ve never been there.
Phoenix is a giant sheet of city that has been stamped down on an infinitely large expanse of flat desert plain, with nice mountains out on the horizon in each direction. If you were playing a video game where you design cities, and you zoomed out to the maximum level and clicked the mouse in one corner and dragged and dragged diagonally and kept dragging until you reached the maximum size limit, you would have designed Phoenix. There are a few small scenic mountains sprinkled throughout middle, just to keep things interesting.
There is an infinite amount of flat space in which to expand, no rules against sprawl, and unusually good access to electricity, water, and mining wealth. When you add in a climate of constant heat and sunshine that keeps plants growing and buildings and concrete looking shiny and unweathered forever, this city is a nice experiment in urban planning under the heading “what if you put all the video games settings on “easy” and see what happens”.
The result is astounding. Although the city was small only a few decades ago, it is ENORMOUS now, stretching about 62 miles (100km) when measured diagonally. Inside, every street contains about 6 grotesquely wide lanes, all packed with $100,000 cars and SUVs driving quickly through well-timed traffic lights at the 45MPH speed limit. On each side of each road is a row of fancy gardens and palm trees, then a thousand-acre parking lot, then a row of gleaming office buildings or high-end retail stores made of glass, copper, and aluminum. At intervals, you will see wide winding streets leading to residential areas off to the side where large stucco luxury homes with tile roofs and impeccable landscaping perch on large lots behind “no parking” signs. Then if you drive far enough, you’ll eventually reach an airport-runway-sized intersection where you are offered on-ramps to the freeway that runs on a hundred-mile-plus journey around the city. Once on the freeway, you’ll find an infinite number of lanes of immaculate black pavement, moderately but not overly packed with $100,000 cars and SUVs traveling at about 75MPH. Each vehicle is always populated by only one person, of course.
If you live in Boston or Toronto, or if you spent your youngest years in a poor small town like I did, it can all sound a bit mouth-watering at first. Phoenix is a driver’s paradise, and I found myself fantasizing about owning an electric Tesla Roadster if I lived there to make the most of the conditions.
But then I slapped myself in the face and realized how stupid it all was. Here I was surrounded by a bunch of tragic, clueless people who actually thought it was a good idea to spend $100k on their cars – even while statistically speaking I knew that the majority of them were compete fakers who couldn’t actually afford the cars (most high-end cars are still bought on credit, by people with less than $1M net worth). These people were all driving around, despite the fact that there were totally empty wide sidewalks and bike lanes available and the weather was beautiful. And they were spending hours going from one store to another to take care of their basic needs as well as to buy plenty of useless yet expensive crap. And it was happening every day, multiplied across an area of over one thousand square miles.
Even I found myself driving the family around excessively: in the process of going out to hiking spots and other attractions and meeting up with people, we cranked out about 250 miles on the car, all while ending up at the same hotel we started at at the beginning of the week. Doing the math, this put us up at almost the national average driving level, and it felt weird – almost all my memories involve whizzing along a highway in one direction or another.
I even drove to a grocery store, if you can believe it – the nearest shop was a Trader Joe’s about 2 miles from the hotel, but with no bike and no knowledge of the area, I actually voluntarily got into a car and endured six-lane intersections and car lineups and a treacherous U-turn. All to travel TWO. MILES. I felt like a complete idiot after that experience.
All of this made me wonder: was this city crushing out all of Mr. Money Mustache’s superpowers? Am I only able to live an efficient life because I live in a city that is only 5×5 miles? How can someone grow rich in this bigger city, when the social norms are all based on overconsumption and extreme amounts of driving? There are no positive role models to live up to, so you’d expect easy credit to rule the day. And rule it does: Phoenix had one of the biggest credit-fueled house price booms in the country in the mid-2000s, and is still reeling from one of the biggest crashes to this day. $50,000 house with palm trees on a golf course, anyone?
But never fear, because there IS an answer. You just have to dare to be different, just as I always suggest.
During the visit, I had the good fortune of meeting up with several groups of Mustachians who responded to my earlier invitation. Different people came to various events* and I got to hear the insider’s perspective on growing a Money Mustache in the desert. One guy had strategically arranged very low housing costs for himself and was saving about 60% of his tech worker salary. Another had sold his car almost a year ago and was happily traveling everywhere by bike. A couple with two young kids had sold both of their expensive cars and bought a single older Honda minivan with hail dents at a massive discount, slicing their car expenses way down – and they are now in the process of renting out their paid-off house and buying a new deeply discounted foreclosure house close to work to eliminate a commute. And still other newer converts were just coming to terms with the idea that they could become debt-free forever, but had not yet put all the steps into action**.
By the end of the week, I was starting to get a handle on living there, and I think the same methods apply in both giant rich cities, and small average cities:
1: Lead a Local Life:
Just because the Phoenix metro area all looks like one city, doesn’t mean you have to treat it like one. For example, we know that my own city is about 5 miles square. Then there’s a 12-mile stretch of mostly open terrain, and the similar-sized city of Boulder starts. A few more miles of cows, then you get into the 2.5 million person Denver metro area. From my house to the very heart of downtown Denver is about 38 miles by road. But I don’t just hop in the car to go there for a sandwich! That’s several worlds away, and if I found myself needing to visit there more than about once a year, I’d seriously consider moving there to reduce the commute. This is to be compared with the 62 mile diagonal width of Phoenix (from Sun City to Apache Junction), 80 mile length of Los Angeles (Northwest corner just before Simi valley, down to Mission Viejo) and 65 mile sprawl of San Francisco/Silicon Valley (San Pablo to Los Paseos). If you’re wondering how I define the edge of a metro area, it is this: the buildings are gone and you see only cows, cacti, or snowy mountains.
Using my local lifestyle rules, even a trip to Boulder is a special occasion that would have to involve seeing people that I really like and hopefully several courses of delicious food. I’m not going to drive to Boulder just to get my nails done or pick up some used beermaking equipment from Craigslist. That shit can wait, and we’ve all got other local things to do on our to-do lists.
This local lifestyle applies to finding friends too. I have dear friends that live outside of biking distance, and great friends that live well within. I spend a lot more time with the local ones, which leads to meeting more local friends, which further builds the non-car lifestyle. I miss you guys, all the girls and fellas living down near Denver.. but living a real life (and the accompanying early retirement that it leads to) is worth making a few choices for. You still love your friends in other states, right? But you don’t fly there after work on Wednesdays for a poker game. It’s the same thing.
Once you open your eyes to what is near you, you realize you don’t have to travel as far as you thought. Opening up Google Maps for the area near my hotel, I see there is a bike-friendly route that would take me 1.7 miles to Trader Joe’s, Costco is 3 miles away, and there is a huge business park to the East with financial, high-tech, medical, and outdoors companies. I could get a job there if I needed one. There’s also the McDowell Sonoran Preserve just another couple miles East as well as golf courses, restaurants, all the usual high-end car dealerships, a fucking enormous shopping mall, and plenty of people. So even in the most distant and glitzy Scottsdale area at the Northeast corner of Phoenix, a local life would be possible. Better yet, if I was moving there I would choose Tempe, in the area near the university, the waterways, and the nightlife and light rail line. Down there, people actually ride bikes.
2: Convert Envy to Pity:
With transportation addressed, the other factor is what other people think of you. Or more accurately, what you think other people are thiniking about you. Because regardless of reality, it’s the way you feel about yourself that matters.
An Antimustachian would probably envy all the pale-skinned big-sunglasses ladies in their 50s driving the Mercedes AMG C63s ($95,000, 451 horsepower, as common in Scottsdale as Honda Accords in my hometown). “Wow, look at that beautiful machine – they’ve really hit the big time. I sure feel embarrassed parking my little Scion hatchback next to it”.
But with enriched powers, you now know you are in the right. You can’t afford that car right now, because you are not retired yet. So obviously it is only rational to want the least costly car for your needs, because your goal is financial independence. Any unnecessary spending is not a treat – it’s a curse! It just sucked you away from the pleasure of being free for life!
But even more significantly, you wouldn’t want that car regardless of your wealth. I could line my driveway with those things without going into debt, but holy shit, the very idea of even a quarter of that amount of money going to such an inefficient, uncharitable, environmentally unfriendly cause as a fast car just makes me want to pick up the thing and throw it into a metal recycling facility to reclaim its wasted resources. Money is not purchasing power – money is the freedom to live life and to do good in the world, and regardless of where you live, it must be respected properly.
3: Use the Fake Rich People to Your Advantage
Jobs in wealthy cities pay higher. People in these cities buy ridiculous things at high prices. You could be a Professional Dog Walker or a Poodle Groomer in Phoenix/Scottsdale and make $80,000 per year. I could open up a high-end renovations company there and jack up my own rates to $80 per hour ($160k annualized). Any losses caused by higher costs of living are more than compensated for by the increased income potential for a resourceful and entrepreneurial person. The key is to fine-tune your skills to meet the market. If you are never planning to work anywhere other than the Wal-mart or Subway, do it Detroit so you can live for free in an abandoned house. But if you’re going to be around big-spenders anyway, you might as well capitalize on it!
So, thanks Phoenix for all the sunshine and the fun, and the education too. I’ll be back!
*One of these people happened to be the guy who runs Global Bikes in Phoenix, and he and his wife even lent me a very sweet mountain bike and took me out on a cactusy roller-coaster of a trail out in the foothills. Thanks Nicole and Mark!
**(like ditching the Toyota Tundra in favor of something with no loan and good for at least 35MPG, hint, hint ;-)