Get Rich With: Good Old-Fashioned Honesty

Just a few minutes ago, I was at the grocery store bagging up a few last-minute purchases for a dinner party we’re hosting tonight. I was enjoying a bit of small talk with the young lady running the register, when suddenly she transformed into a zombie and started rapidly muttering some nonsense that had nothing to do with our conversation:

Okay Mr. Mustache, you saved $3.12 today which is 15%, your fuel bonus is up to 120 points, and you are eligible to participate in a store survey at the URL provided on your receipt. Would you like any help out today sir?

I wasn’t overly surprised, because she had briefly run the same zombie script a minute earlier when the customer ahead of me was checking out. But I felt sympathy for her: here was an otherwise-intelligent college student being forced to recite a series of selling points that were dreamed up by a team of lame-brained marketing executives somewhere far off in Safeway headquarters. I knew her plight, because I was often scolded in my own minimum-wage jobs for not delivering the prescribed annoying marketing speeches when I thought the boss wasn’t watching.

The executives surely had their on-staff statistical analysts run some numbers, which indicated that customer conversions from grocery to fuel sales increased by 3.12% in the 90-day period after adding the fuel points reminder, and that Safeway discount card usage increased 5.55% due to the reminders about the fake savings. These executives surely congratulated themselves – “We’re making a killing just by forcing our young, powerless employees to recite our targeted messages a few hundred times each day!” Just as factory farms make a killing by pumping antibiotics, hormones, steroids, antidepressants, and even ibuprofen into their caged animals to increase growth speed while decreasing handling costs, and just as tobacco companies have made killings in the past by actively distorting evidence that their products are in fact killers.

Companies who run their business like that are indeed making a killing. In the short term, they’re generating killer profits. In the long run, they’re killing the goodwill of their customers, employees, and society as a whole. Because while they think they’ve thought of everything by running the numbers, they have actually forgotten to capitalize on the biggest advantage of all.

This advantage is often overlooked, because it is almost impossible to measure, but it’s still there. The name of this incredible long-term strategic tactic? Good Old-Fashioned Honesty.

The neat thing about honesty is that it can be adopted by large companies and individuals alike. In fact, it’s much easier to adopt it yourself, because in large groups the political jockeying often allows less honest characters to rise into power, where they are able to force a “shortcuts-only” methodology on the rest of the group.

To the untrained person, the benefits of honesty can be counter-intuitive and hard to grasp. On the surface, almost every business and personal decision can be optimized by being a little bit sneaky. The Safeway executives are certainly happy to increase gasoline sales.  The plumber can definitely make a few extra dollars by exaggerating the number of hours worked on his customers’ projects. The tourist-trap operators have a good cackle when they count their profits from $78.00-per-adult admission prices and selling people overpriced photographs of themselves on the roller coaster.

Even I have been encouraged to be sneaky, by some of the companies that provide referral fees for this blog. “If you just write an article promoting this new credit card or that product, you’ll surely see your commission numbers go through the roof! No, it doesn’t matter if you actually use the product yourself – just write the articles and you will see!”

But there’s another way to do it, which is to turn down all the short cuts and try honesty instead. The bizarre thing about honesty, is that it actually makes you much richer than sneakiness, even while making you feel better about your work!

When the plumber or the tourist trap operator or the online writer turns down opportunities to sell out, they sacrifice some short-term profits, but they get something much more valuable (although not measurable) in exchange. The good will of their customers. At first, this good will is invisible. That’s the difficult period that loses most potential honest people. Then it might turn up in the form of a compliment or a smile occasionally. Gradually, it will manifest itself as repeat business from customers and referrals, or job promotions, and companies competing to hire you for increasingly desirable positions.

But after many decades of relentless honesty, the result will be nothing short of a small cult following. You’ll have an army of friends and colleagues who would trust you with their life, or their life savings. You’ll have the respect of your family. Most importantly, you’ll have the respect of yourself, which will be there for you whenever the external world takes one of its inevitable dumps upon your head. When you eventually expire, the story of your honest life will be your most valued legacy, as one MMM reader shared in Eulogy to a Great Dad.

Being honest with yourself can boost your productivity as well. The dishonest person is always in self-denial, blaming the world for his or her problems. “I can’t save more money and become financially independent, or physically fit, or happy, because the world has inflicted me with this or that problem, or it has forced me to live in this area far from my job, or it just has a grudge on me.”

There’s no doubt that not everyone is born with or given the same advantages. But there’s also no doubt that many people, with fewer advantages than you, have overcome them to achieve much greater things than you. So to be honest with yourself, you need to say, “I currently SUCK, compared to these more badass people. Sure, I’ve done some great things in my life, and I’m proud of them. But I still suck, which means I have an opportunity for improvement”.

The day you stop believing that you currently suck compared to your true potential, is the day you start blaming the rest of the world for not reaching it.

An honest company develops a cult following among its customers. They come back far more often, spend more, and spread the word much wider, than they do when they sense they are being duped. These companies tend to last for several generations, remaining highly profitable throughout the years, and close down only when the owners or their descendants decide to retire.

Meanwhile, I now avoid Safeway whenever I can, and mock it on this blog regularly – just because they have always had the big-company dishonesty about them. Besides the constant sales pitches, I’ll never forget the time they tricked me into paying $3.99 for a single red pepper by doubling the price overnight.  That move may have brought Safeway an extra $2.00 of profit in the short term, but it will cost them many thousands over the long run.

Although his fame has brought him a few critics, one of the most prominent honest people I’ve ever studied is Warren Buffett. Calmly and through many decades, he has simply told the truth, and avoided sellouts and shortcuts while practicing his natural talent of investing in and managing companies. Despite constant understatements of his own abilities and cautious downplaying of the future performance of his company Berkshire Hathaway, he has consistently blown the doors off of his less honest competition, in both company performance and in respect.

The honesty has created such a snowball of credibility that his words alone can save or destroy companies. A series of relatively small investments he made during the 2008 financial crisis helped to stabilize the entire world economy, simply by lending his credibility to the financial system.

Imagine being so well respected, that even your symbolic gestures can save the whole fuckin’ world*. That is the utmost expression of the power of Compounded Honesty.

Although the examples above can be intimidating, getting started in riches through honesty is easy. You just have to stop caring at all about short term gain, and develop the ability to downplay, rather than exaggerate your own abilities.

“Although I’d enjoy building this $25,000 kitchen for you, Mrs. Smith, I’d still suggest you consider some other options as well. You might get just as much functionality by just adding an island to your existing kitchen. And be sure to get quotes from other contractors as well – I’ve bid this one a bit high, since some of the work is new to me and will take me longer. Other carpenters may be able to beat my price if they are more experienced in this area”.

“I’m sorry about the bug in the latest software release – that was totally my fault because I failed to catch it when designing my test cases. I’ve now got it fixed – and a big part of that came from the help that Rakesh provided me late on Thursday night.

Once you adopt the policy of honesty, it is hard to go back. The reduction of stress you will experiencing from dropping all pretense and salesmanship will provide an immediate boost in your effectiveness. And far from being expensive, it’s actually one of the the most profitable habits you can develop.


* My use of the F-bomb in this sentence represents my best effort at being honest as well. I was initially tempted to censor it, thinking, “Hmm.. Honesty is also a common religious value, and who knows, this article might get forwarded widely among churchgoers if the Internet decides it shall be so. But swearing would very much decrease its popularity among that group.  Should I use a different word? No. Fuck it. The sentence sounds better with the wonderful expletive so I must be true to the Mustachians.


  • Shaniqua June 15, 2016, 11:05 am

    Honesty truly is the best policy. My husband and I have always run our business this way. We have owned the business for the past 4 years and hubby has worked for them for 15 years before that. We have a strong customer following which is very evident in the excellent reviews and happy customers we see. Hubby and I are happy cause they keep funding us with the money to help us retire in the next few years.

    Is it bad that I never even noticed your swear until you pointed it out?

  • Be October 4, 2016, 9:41 am

    I remember in my old bank job telling someone to just go to the post office to get their foreign currency exchanged since they don’t charge a fee (and the bank does). I’m not wired for dishonesty – it’s actually a liability occasionally but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  • Jeremy January 14, 2017, 12:05 am

    “Honesty is also a common religious value, and who knows, this article might get forwarded widely among churchgoers if the Internet decides it shall be so.But swearing would very much decrease its popularity among that group.”

    How right you are. I love your blog, your writing style, your wit, and your outlooks on money and living. I would share your blogs with the teens in my youth group, but I do not because of the language. Pointing them to a blog that so freely throws around the F word would be against so mush of what I teach them. Your readership would definitely increase if you filtered out the language.

    Your blog is amazing :)

  • Pauline March 25, 2017, 8:24 pm

    Mr.MMM, I am a churchgoer and your swearing didn’t bother me. I appreciate your honesty.

  • EarningAndLearning May 11, 2017, 11:00 pm

    Another great post MMM!

    I worked with a woman who was radically honest whenever she was asked a question by the boss. She taught me so much, mainly by showing me that the sky won’t fall if you own up to your mistakes, even in the face of evil, nit-picking, horrible bosses.

    When the boss would ask, “How far along are you on that project?” She’d say, “I haven’t started it yet, sorry about that, but I’ve made time this afternoon to tackle it.” Or when the boss furiously asked who hadn’t given her a phone message by an important customer who called back and complained about the boss not returning her call, my colleague said, “That was me. I’m so sorry. I wrote it down, then promptly got distracted and misplaced it. I’ll be more diligent about messages in the future.” The boss calmed down, and said something like, “Ok, well, don’t do it again” or something anti-climactic like that. I’d never seen anyone so honest, and was inspired to be the same way in that office.

    I’m also big on giving credit where credit is due, mainly because I know how it feels when someone DOESN’T give credit when I’ve contributed in a meaningful way. It’s awful to feel invisible and underappreciated, and I never want to make anyone to feel that way.

    Great post, lots to think about, thank you!

  • HFBandit October 26, 2017, 1:30 pm

    I only discovered your blog in recent weeks, but as soon as I saw the tagline “financial freedom through badassity”, I immediately sent the link to my workmate, knowing you’d be just her cup of tea. As a Christian, I think we need to be able to look past the swearing and see the point of the message. So while I might warn fellow Christians about the language content, I’m more interested in plugging the honest way in which you share your message. The world needs way more people who tell it like it is, so thank you for being one of them. :)

  • James Shute March 19, 2018, 7:04 pm

    mrmoneymustache I am a very conservative Christian. I think you should write the article how you see fit. You are not a Christian nor are you religious by any means from the articles that I have read. With that being said it would not be right for myself or someone else to hold you to a set of standards that you have not decided to live by even though I have. Although I don’t personally like using, listening to or reading profanity us religious folks need to be willing to humble ourselves and understand that we can learn a thing or two even from people who don’t hold the same beliefs as us. I think your way of finances is actually a very Christian way and I appreciate everything you have taught me through this blog.

    God Bless.

  • Heather May 23, 2018, 11:03 am

    A good example of this is when I was just reviewing my auto policy with geico trying to grow out my mustache skills by increasing the deductibles I noticed they are charging a $5/month service charge for monthly installments vs paying whole policy upfront. It is this kind of dishonesty nickel and dime kind of attitude that creates disloyalty to a company.

  • Chad Shipley October 25, 2018, 5:30 am

    It’s hard to describe how much I love and can relate to this extremely well articulated content. Being honest has been the bedrock for me and has helped me overcome significant disadvantages – Most notably, being extremely under skilled in an extremely high performing culture.

    My dad used to ask me all the time if I really thought I could compete and stay par with kids coming out of some of the best schools in the country. During my first interview, I learned the difference between a suit that almost fits (more affordable) and a suit that fits perfect (my competition’s attire).

    He was interviewing at all the big 4 or 5 or whatever and looking for the best benefit/offer package. I didn’t even know what a 401k was.

    It turned out, that my dad had taught me better skills than you’ll ever find in a text book. Be honest. Work hard. Be humble. And keep trying. Turns out that mentors love helping you when you don’t think that you know it all.

    I recognized the importance of honesty personally, but I see dishonesty everywhere and have always thought it to be working against them in the long term (as you eloquently noted). Ego is the same. As much as I enjoy stories from “The 48 Laws of Power”, I also cringe at the underly tactics being outlined (of what I’ve read so far). I’d much rather hear of tactics like honesty.

    I work in technology and often get into philosophical debates between a value proposition. Money people want to quantify everything. And maybe they should. Is there a difference between measuring the customer satisfaction or the increase revenue. Some would say that you should be able to quantify customer satisfaction with increase in revenue. And of course you can. But sometimes this begins to blur the line. I almost want to say “you’re missing the point”. Are true motives being disguised by euphemisms like “customer experience”. There is a clear difference between company’s that build a culture around revenue and those that build a culture around customer satisfaction.

    In your example, the company could argue that it is providing the customer a service by having the clerk tell them what they saved. Obviously, you saw through to the core of the culture. I often wonder what kind of business case was dreamt up for the first bank that offered the ability of their customers to deposit a check via an app on their phone and a quick photo. Was that a revenue or cost reduction conversation or a “this is just clearly a benefit to our customers” conversation. Anyway, sorry for the rant. Long story short – I appreciated the read. Thanks. And, I often am asked financial questions and while I can provide some sound advice, I have referred people here for deeper content. This is a great service to the world!

  • BobJ April 21, 2021, 4:43 am

    ” just as tobacco companies have made killings in the past by actively distorting evidence that their products are in fact killers.” Careful Mr. M, you should have said.. “just as studies have shown…” You don’t want to get sued by making this claim on your own. (not that it is false.. but they have the money to make your life miserable.)


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