Book Review: Free at 45 by Canadian Dream (Timothy Stobbs)

Imagine an alternate version of Mr. Money Mustache. What if I had suppressed some of my profanity, become just slightly less hardcore in my frugality techniques, and moved to Western Canada instead of the Western US? Who would I be?

You may already be aware of the real-world simulation that exists to model this situation, his name is Timothy Stobbs, and he is the author of the blog Canadian Dream: Free at 45, and the book Free at 45 : How to Retire Early and Happy.

I had the pleasure of reading this book during my recent vacation and was pleased to note how well it had been put together. Since it’s the Weekend Edition and I’m way behind on my book review program, I thought I’d share a quick review of the book with you right now.

About the Author: I came across Tim and the Canadian Dream blog shortly after MMM was born.  Maybe the connection was through Early Retirement Extreme, or maybe somewhere else. But it turns out that somehow, all of us small-time financial bloggers end up getting to know each other. Eventually we will all start holding regular meetings to play poker and smoke cigars in executive boardrooms while wearing 1920s hats, but we are not yet powerful enough for this.

From the wisdom of his blog and his book, and the concept of retiring at 45, I had assumed that Tim was older than me, like 43. But the book says he was born in 1978 – just a kid! This makes the mature perspective even more impressive. Watch this guy, he will surely become quite a sage with even more age.

So on to the book.

Free at 45 addresses early retirement from a different perspective than many of the most popular books. First of all, it does not set an age limit on the activity. It is a turnoff to me when books assume people will be done raising children and starting to experience physical decline when they retire. I like the idea of leaving the door open to any age of retirement, and this book does that.

Secondly, the book maintains a focus on understanding happiness rather than replacing most of your pre-retirement income. There are hints of the concepts of hedonic adaptation and stoicism in some of the happiness chapters, even without explicit reference to the terms. These things are the key to the whole deal: financial independence works much better with a free mind, rather than one that has chained itself to high consumption as a substitute for understanding actual human happiness. Chapter four, entitled “What we Need” is particularly nice in this area, describing the hierarchy of needs as described by Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef:

Sustenance (food and water)
Protection (safety and shelter)
Affection (love and friendship)
Understanding (making sense of life)
Participation(being part of a social process)
Leisure (time to reflect on things, daydream, and relax)
Creation (making things)
Identity (knowing who you are)
Freedom (choosing for oneself)

When writing the book, Tim did something I have never thought of doing myself: He interviewed actual retirees. Then he gathered their perspectives and advice along with his own experiences when baking them into a book. That’s a good strategy, and it leads to a more flexible message than Mr. Money Mustache’s strategy of just telling you about his own early retirement experiences. I just may be cribbing from this idea myself in the articles to come.

Tim and I do have our strategic differences regarding how much frugality is ideal, which one could have already predicted by comparing our retirement ages.

In the book, there is a graph from a US study suggesting that the happiness vs. money curve peaks at an annual income (and spending) level of about $75,000. I’d suggest this is a bad spending number to shoot for because it represents the average result of a population of people with absolutely no Mustachian training. The amount of money required for peak happiness drops rapidly as your Badassity increases.

Another area of the book that made my Mustache bristle just slightly was the talk of “extreme” early retirement. To paraphrase “Some people choose to retire extremely early, which might require extremely low annual spending such as $24,000 per year. But you can kiss the typical North American lifestyle goodbye if you make this choice”.  If you review my lifestyle from the 2011 spending article, you can see that I have certainly not kissed very many material things goodbye – at least not when measured by factors like the quality and size of my house or the food, health, education, and travel that the MMM family enjoys. Similarly, the idea of retiring while you still have young kids was treated with a certain amount of fear – another taboo I have enjoyed breaking.

On the “Wholeheartedly Agree” side, I enjoyed the second half of the book’s simple presentation of the technical details. How to start by correctly assuming that your retirement spending should have nothing to do with your income level – earning more does not make you need more of anything to be happy. How to calculate investment returns and passive income requirements. How to account for special outlays like university assistance for children or extra travel. He even nicely described one of my own longstanding beliefs, that frugal people are partially immune to inflation because we watch the prices of things as the years pass, and are willing to adjust our lifestyle as needed to avoid getting suckered.  (Oil prices rise faster than food prices? Spend more time cooking and less time traveling! Opposite thing happens? Reverse the strategy!).

He also covers a bit about understanding risk so you don’t get suckered into spending unnecessarily out of fear. “Safety is an expensive illusion” is one sagely quotation in this area.  In many cases when you do the math, it works out much better to take a risk than to pay to protect yourself against the worst possible case of an unlikely event. (Life insurance for a two-earner family strikes me as one perfect example).

I also enjoyed the Canadian-ness of the book. It is refreshing to read a book where the author is not obsessed with health insurance. In Canada, you take care of your own health, and the society takes care of any medical bills. And it’s all done at about half the cost per capita of what we spend here in the US. It’s a wonderful thing and we should copy it to the best of our ability. It is also nice to hear about Canada-specific issues like the TFSA, RRSP, and of course litres, kilometres, and extremely cold winters.

This will surely boost the appeal for Canadian readers, since they are often stuck reading US-based publications (like MMM itself) and then mentally adapting the advice to their own country.

The book is casual and non-scientific, much like the writing you would find in a good blog. Some might even say the presentation is too casual and concise, but this is actually a positive factor in my opinion, because frugality and financial independence are more about attitude than science. In the modern world of publishing, we are all free to write and publish our own books, and the world is a richer place because of it.

So, thanks again Tim for sharing your book with me and with the world. If a Money Mustache Manual ever comes out someday, I’ll be sure to return the favour ;-)


  • Dave January 21, 2012, 3:45 pm

    Although I’ve only recently found MMM, I’ve been reading Canadian Dream faithfully for a long time. I’ve found inspiration from both your blogs, and it is unfortunate that there aren’t more like yours. Thank you for sharing your wisdom, and helping people make their lives (and the world) better.

  • DC January 21, 2012, 4:08 pm

    “This will surely boost the appeal for Canadian readers, since they are often stuck reading US-based publications (like MMM itself) and then mentally adapting the advice to their own country.”

    That’s how I do it in Europe, take American and Canadian advice and adapting to Europe:) Anyone has suggestions on European MMMs or EREs? Much appreciated.

    That hierarchy of needs by Max-Neef is way too similar to the Maslow’s one. Wasn’t Max-Neef hierarchy based on the one Maslow defined on his psychologic studies?

    • Kirk January 21, 2012, 4:42 pm

      For a european blog try simple-living-in-suffolk.co.uk

    • Gerard January 21, 2012, 8:42 pm

      Yeah, I thought of Maslow when I read that bit, too! But I guess it makes sense that people who write about personal finance would be more familiar with the version from the economist.

    • Earn Save Live January 21, 2012, 11:46 pm

      Along with this, if anyone has suggestions for personal finance bloggers in Australia or New Zealand, I’d love to hear about it!

      I’m an American living in Australia, and I’ve only been able to find a couple other money bloggers in this part of the world.

  • jlcollinsnh January 21, 2012, 4:14 pm

    I’ve been meaning to invite you to the poker game, but I wasn’t sure you had a 1920s hat.

    • MacGyverIt January 21, 2012, 4:22 pm

      And the cigar! You can’t have the poker game and 1920s hat without a cigar!!

      • jlcollinsnh January 21, 2012, 4:52 pm

        but of course!

        no one gets even this far with out the cigar!!

  • MacGyverIt January 21, 2012, 4:20 pm

    I don’t have an educated opinion on the Canada vs USA health care issue but I’m curious from MMM’s Canadian readership if they hear the same stories the USAers do about “this person couldn’t get surgery in Canada and had to come to the United States to get help”.

    I don’t have any first or second or third hand accounts of these potential urban myths, so I’m interested in first and second hand reporting. For the USAers, the cost of health care over 50 (w or w/out a medical condition) is an intimidating prospect.

    • Mr. Frugal Toque January 21, 2012, 8:00 pm

      Without going into the personal details of people I know … yes, I’ve seen cases such as kidney stone ultrasound where an American hospital can get us services faster (or geographically closer) than a Canadian hospital. In this case, the provincial health care system will pay for the American procedure.
      With specific political exceptions, most of us do not see this as any kind of failure on the part of our system. It just means that our government is programmed to take care of us by whatever means are necessary.
      If there were only one surgeon in the world who could fix your condition, and she lived in Jakarta, would it be a failing of your HMO that you got sent there for your operation? I doubt, as the guy being saved, that you’d see it that way.
      As a Canadian and, more generally, a human being, I take a great deal of comfort in knowing that everyone I see around me is covered by the blanket of universal health care and I would find it very disturbing if it didn’t work that way.

    • MMM January 21, 2012, 8:44 pm

      Yeah, Mr. Frugal Toque is right that even the exceptions to the rule still get handled well.

      But even more important in my opinion is the Rule itself: MOST people in Canada get excellent quality healthcare, efficiently and at a much lower cost than us, all while never having to worry about it for a second.

      The scare stories that the Republicans like to spread are always of these alleged EXCEPTIONS to the rule. “Oh, but what if you have XYZ condition and then this other thing happens? You’d need to be in the US to get that treatment!”

      The fact that they have to resort to exceptions as ammunition only serves to prove the rule further: Public single-payer healthcare rules. When making a decision about what works best for a country, I don’t give a fuck about the tiny exceptions, I care about what will help the greatest number of people the most, and equally importantly, what will save us the most money. Statistically, you will win by making this vote. Never bet against statistics!

      • rjack January 22, 2012, 5:17 am

        “Public single-payer healthcare rules” I couldn’t agree more. Also, I think there needs to be much more emphasis on preventative education and care.

    • FMaz January 16, 2017, 4:23 pm

      Yeah it’s funny how the USA like to point out that some Canadians come done to the US to get treatments for various reasons.

      There are far more people in the US dying for being unable to afford proper care.

      So between having to fly to another country to get specific treatment or dying… My choice of a Health care system is the one that care about keeping you alive. ;)

  • Tony January 21, 2012, 4:30 pm

    “…frugality and financial independence are more about attitude than science”

    If you had a 10 commandments of mustachian-ism that would probably be pretty high up there.

  • The Money Monk January 21, 2012, 5:40 pm

    I’ll let you know when I finally get financially independent, because I’m definitely taking you up on that poker game!

    That is one part of ‘retirement’ I am looking forward to: hours and hours of poker.

    • jlcollinsnh January 21, 2012, 6:05 pm

      My guess is that people who master this path are likely to be formidable poker players.

      Maybe I’ll just watch. :)

  • Mr. Frugal Toque January 21, 2012, 8:26 pm

    I think the $75 000 figure is important not because of the number itself, but because it’s important to tell people that there is, in fact, a point where we can scientifically demonstrate that money doesn’t buy happiness.
    You mileage may vary, but at some income level you have to start saying things like:
    “Fuck it! I’m taking a six month leave of absence to learn how to base jump like I always wanted to.”
    Because flinging yourself off a cliff is, let’s face it, pretty awesome and, furthermore, a far more enriching experience than watching an Escalade depreciate in your driveway.
    Or you could go camping, write a novel; learn piano.
    Y’know. Whatever.

    • jlcollinsnh January 21, 2012, 9:20 pm

      “a far more enriching experience than watching an Escalade depreciate in your driveway.”

      Great line, Mr. Torque!

      • Jan in MN January 22, 2012, 7:55 am

        Reminds me of Jeff Yeager’s great line about new cars… “…. Are you parking your stupidity in the driveway for everyone to see?”

  • JJ January 22, 2012, 7:44 am

    This sounds like it’s right up my alley. Will read. Can’t believe you went all Manfred Max-Neef on us.

  • Executioner January 22, 2012, 7:57 am

    Liters and kilometers are fine. Litres and kilometres make my mustache bristle.

    • MMM January 22, 2012, 10:14 am

      Haha.. well, they’re SI units, as in Systeme Internationale. So we use the fancy French-derived spelling.

      You might want to work on training that Mustache a bit – it’s supposed to detect personal finance infractions, rather than detecting diversions from “US English” spelling conventions ;-)

    • Mr. Frugal Toque January 22, 2012, 11:03 am

      My toque can hold about one litre of poutine, but eventually it soaks through and gets all over the chesterfield – and not even a whole pack of serviettes will get *those* colours out.

    • McGaggs April 5, 2015, 2:02 am

      I’ve always found it strange that an engineer would write a blog and refer to lbs and inches. Now I know you’re just localising your product.

  • Poor Student January 22, 2012, 8:05 am

    I am Canadian in Ontario and have been reading the Free at 45 blog for a while. He often does a good job of separating the difference between spending and happiness so I am not surprised that the was a big part of the book. I really enjoy both of these blogs when looking for spending advice.

  • Canadian Dream January 22, 2012, 7:53 pm

    Seriously…you thought I was like 43?!?! I haven’t heard someone make a comment like that in years. Granted my parents did comment I seemed to be born old in some regards. I shutter to think of myself when I’m 80…I may even know something by that point. :)

    I love the idea of the poker game…instead of cash I would personal put in guest posts. It would make the game much more interesting to bet three months worth of posts. *grin*

    Anyway, glad to hear you enjoyed the book. I personally enjoyed writing as it was nice to write a chapter and not have to worry about how long I went on for on a given topic. Please feel free to steal the interview retirees trick when you do you own book. I had actually done several case studies in an earlier draft of the book that I at one point cut out since it was killing the flow of the book. It’s depressing in some regards the huge volume of stuff I edited out of the book for various reasons.

    Oh, regarding Manfred Max-Neef’s needs. There is no hierarchy to the list, which is why it is different than Maslow’s work. Basically Max-Neef pointed out you were doomed to be unsatisfied unless you had all of those needs met. Which often explains why people mindless buy crap trying to fill a hole of wants when they haven’t even finished their needs yet. I argue in the book if you focus on your needs you can be happier for a fraction of the price of all those wants.


    • MMM January 23, 2012, 10:06 am

      Heheh.. my apologies for the age misconception, Tim. Part of your Aura of Seniority comes from your businesslike avatar picture – you are wearing a tie and photographed in front of one of those professional portrait backgrounds, something that normally only happens to CEOs these days (OK, perhaps also bankers and real estate agents :-) ).

      • Canadian Dream January 23, 2012, 11:35 am

        Ah, the picture…I can explain. That was done as part of my School Board job..it’s my offical shot that is on the website. They only bother with those once every three or four years.


  • Mr. Frugal Toque January 23, 2012, 6:49 am

    I knew something was messing me up in this post.

    Sustenance and subsistence are words. (Sustenance is the one you want here).

    Substinence is not actually a word, even though it gets used on the internet.

    • MMM January 23, 2012, 8:33 am

      Ahh, thank you Mr. F. I have corrected it in the article.

      Funny that the spell checker didn’t underline Substinence when I was writing it (even when I went back into the editor and corrected it right now), even though it underlines it here in the comments section.

      Anyway, it’s a useful bit of education to avoid future embarrassment. Looking back at Tim’s book, I see that he spelled it “Subsistence” which is a real word – I just transcribed it wrong.


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