Mr. and Mrs. Money Mustache have just returned from a very spendy night on the town. The night and the people were lots of fun. But almost equally fun was the sheer amazement and marvel I felt at just how crazy the spending habits of our modern culture are, and how they continue to drift further into the abyss of fantasyland.
Let’s start with the facts. We went out for dinner, drinks, desserts and some live music in downtown Ottawa, which is Canada’s capital. This city has spent most of the last 20 years in a series of long economic booms, and with the latest one it’s starting to look downright glitzy. High-tech companies have been flooding in throughout the 1990s and 2000s, bringing tens of thousands of high-paying primary jobs. The federal government maintains much of its offices here, adding competition for workers. And an irrational real-estate run-up has been going for the past four years, inflating everyone’s paper wealth and causing predictable results. The whole city has sprouted that telltale bristle of construction cranes building highrise office and condo towers. To the untrained eye, it sings “prosperity!”, although through my own recently-burned shades I see “Real-estate bubble about to pop and cause a huge recession!”.
Regardless of the future, what we have right now is a big party. Beautiful and fancy restaurants are everywhere, and they’re all packed, with lineups just to get a table. Audis and Beemers idle slowly by in the dense party district, their LED headlamps illuminating the broad torrents of scantily clad legs as they flow across the crosswalks. Designer clothing is stretched tightly across butts and biceps as the bass pumps, jazz floats, and credit cards swipe.
So we show up at the restaurant, and we order ourselves some treats, because it’s a special occasion. This is an Italian place, and I don’t eat bread and pasta anymore, so I get a nice exotic type of salad and the biggest, darkest glass of beer that they can pour. Good times ensue, and I enjoy my food. My tablemates also enjoy their food, appetizers, entrees, various drinks, and desserts.
The conversation and the laughs are great, although the noisy environment makes it a little hard to hear properly. After an hour or so I’m getting restless from sitting still so long, but thankfully it’s time for the bill.
One of the great things about Canada is that it is traditional for restaurants to deliver a separate bill to each diner by default. (In the US, servers routinely mash everything into one bill and leave the people to sort it out for themselves). So I get my own bill:
Fancy Salad: $16
Overpriced Beer: $7
Tax & Tip: $7
Add in Mrs. MM’s similar meal and we’re out about $60 as a couple. Then we bought coffee and dessert at another place, spent a few dollars at the pub with the live music, and finally threw the $7.00 we had set aside for bus fare into the car cupholder of a friend who generously ended up driving us home at the end of the night. All in all, a hundred dollars might have gone up in smoke that night. Pretty expensive when you compare it to the $1.00 per meal ideal presented in the Grocery bill article, but still well within what we can afford because hey, we’re retired now.
But we were probably some of the cheapest eaters in the restaurant that night. Looking at the entrees page, I didn’t see a single dish under $20. The wine menu stretched into the triple digits. Appetizers, desserts, and coffees were readily available to inflate the tab further.
So you’d think that a restaurant like this would only be frequented by very wealthy people. Surely everyone there was already financially independent – free from car loans, home loans, with a ‘Stash sizeable enough to fund basic living expenses AND a job they loved which provided enough money to just throw around on hundred-dollar meals.. right?
But no.. those weren’t the people in the restaurant. There were my friends, none of whom are retired, and many of whom even wish they had more savings or lower debts! There were other people of all ages packed into the place, and I’d be willing to bet that less than 10% of them could truly afford to eat there, in my own strict definition of the word.
The problem is, the Mustachian definition of reasonable spending (relative to wealth) is pretty different from the average person’s definition. If WE ran the world, there would still be decadent restaurants out there for truly wealthy people, but people still stuck in cubes and trying to get ahead would choose more affordable activities for themselves.
Alas, most of us still have non-Mustachian friends, and we don’t want to throw them away just for their spending habits. Plus, there is still some fun to be had in the odd restaurant meal or other indulgence. Therefore, you and I sometimes need to compromise in the area of expensive socialization. It’s called Protecting your Money Mustache from your Spendy Friends, and it’s pretty fun once you get into it.
1: Understand the Big Picture
One of the key differences between being Frugal (good) and being Cheap (bad) in how you handle special occasions. A frugal person may have no problem dropping $50 or $100 on a good time with friends. A cheap person will feel uncomfortable and start looking at his or her feet with even the slightest and rarest of expenditures. The key is in understanding the effect of any spending over the course of a full year, then over 10 years.
For example, the Mustache family enjoyed the recent Ottawa blowout, but we can hardly even remember the LAST time we spent so much on an evening. If you assume it happens twice a year, we’re out $200 per year or $2700 every ten years, assuming some compounding. It’s solid money, but affordable. But many people I know engage in some sort of downtown happy hour once a week or more, at a cost of $5200 per year or $71,000 every ten. That’s serious money, and it was obviously NOT affordable to anyone who ends up ten years out of school and has less than $71,000 in positive net worth to their name. (Because this implies you spent more on restaurants than the combined value of everything else you own in life!). Many of the other patrons of the fancy restaurant that night were surely in that boat.
2: Take the lead in Planning
Why do non-rich people plan their social events at expensive restaurants anyway? Is it because those restaurants are the only way to have fun? Is it because they hate the idea of becoming wealthy? Is it because they’re all idiots?
No on all counts. It’s simply a habit everyone has gotten themselves into. One person suggests “Restaurant!”, the rest of them agree because it’s easier to agree than disagree, and the plan is made.
You can override the expensive planning habit by designing more of the events yourself. Dinner or drinks at a rotating series of your own places, a group bike ride, walk, skateboard, or rollerblade event (invent a novel destination), or a meetup in a public park for pick-up soccer or a fitness workout on the kids’ play structure. I highly recommend orchestrating an old-school Long-Jump competition if there is a sand pit. For inclement weather, get (or make) yourself a copy of Settlers of Catan.
Find a way to throw a Group Walk into any gathering you design – even if it’s just a trip to the beer store or a lap around a few blocks of your neighborhood. Similarly, minimize the unnecessary use of cars (don’t organize a hike 60 miles from home and then say “Everyone can just meet out there at the trailhead!”).
Besides making you and all of your friends richer, you’ll be shifting your group activities from consumption (of needless empty calories and booze), to production (of muscles, fitness, and overall mental wellbeing). They’ll also have more fun.
If you’ve never tried it before, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how willing people are to follow your lead. Most people just go along with whatever is planned for them. On the Ottawa night mentioned above, the Mrs. and I managed to get the friends to replace some of their bar-hopping with a walking tour of the university campus, which stirred up many old memories. Later, I orchestrated a 2-mile roundtrip walk to the music venue (overriding the group’s original plan to drive there), which helped to burn off some of the beer and add memories to the evening.
Long ago, I took this concept to the extreme by stumbling into role of social planner for a large company’s newgrad and student workforce. With no special skills or social status, I was able to control the leisure activities of hundreds of people – simply because I was the one typing stuff into the computer. Nowadays, I’ve taken it even further and acquired a more powerful computer.. and in case you haven’t noticed, I’m using it to control YOU!
Therefore, you have the power to take control too.
3: Get the separate Tabs – Without Shame
In Ottawa, we attended the restaurant, but chose only reasonably-sized meals. Later that night, we joined everyone in a visit to the Gelato place, but shared a single small ice cream instead of each ordering a separate large one. Instead of a $4.00 Espresso drink, we each had a standard coffee at $1.75. Same amount of fun, lower amount of sugar, and lower bill.
But ordering less costly stuff for yourself only works if you are the one paying your own bill. So you may have to be bold and start a tradition that yes, everyone should pay for their own stuff when you go out. “Hey Guys, I hope you don’t mind but I’d like to get my own separate bill for this. These days, I’m eating and drinking less, and saving more, and this is part of it.”
If it’s a one-off occasion and/or your friends eat the same way you do, you can skip this step, as mentioned in the “Big Picture” point above. But otherwise, shared bills are just injustice, plain and simple. Do we wuss out and put up with injustice, or do we stand up for ourselves? Exactly.
4: Blame Mr. Money Mustache
If you’d like, you can invoke Mr. Money Mustache as part of your justification. I’ll gladly take any flak your friends would like to dish out. If you have intelligent enough friends, they might even see the light on the spot, and convert to Mustachianism.
OK, I’m being silly here, but you’d be surprised at how many people I meet these days who had never thought of financial independence in their lives, and yet have now adopted the idea wholeheartedly. It really is a neat and useful concept to understand, and yet almost nobody in the general public has even heard of it… yet*.
5: Embrace the DBP – Drink Booster Program
As a younger man, I was known for occasionally sporting a flask or other hidden container of party supplies, whether the venue be a bar, a restaurant, or a public park. This takes the young adult’s dilemma of “I want to get tipsy with my friends tonight, but can’t afford the $7.00 drinks”, and turns it on its head. You can whip out your flask containing the tasty beverage of your choice, and offer drink boosts not only to yourself, but to all of your friends. They can do the same. This will drastically cut the need to buy overpriced drinks, while adding an element of strategy and intrigue to the evening.
Similarly, you can turn any public park, beach, or campsite into a great meeting venue by bringing your own food and drink. Some public places attempt to post ridiculous “No Alcohol” rules, and although I don’t want to get anyone into trouble, I do heartily endorse giving a serious middle finger to conservative societal regulations like that one. Be an adult, don’t interfere with the enjoyment of others, leave the place cleaner than it was when you got there, and use incognito containers as needed… but we should all be able to eat and drink whatever the hell we want while out enjoying Nature.
6: Remember – it’s Being Together that Matters
One of the primary reasons we’re growing rich together here, is to free up more of our time for the rest of our lives. This time will in turn be spent in a mixture of family, friend, and solitary activities. So when planning events, your real goal is to trick people into spending time together. Eating has become our default one, because everybody knows how to eat. But there are so many other things that people can do together, many of which accomplish the goal of togetherness even better. Your job is to understand this, and focus on the people part, while designing out the expensive baggage that has unnecessarily attached itself to all of our social activities.
* Chance that a random person you meet on the street in the US or Canada is a Mustachian: about 1:4000**
** Update: that was accurate when this article was written in 2012. As of 2016, this number is closer to 1 in 100 in the general public, or 1 in 10 among software workers. So there’s one of us hiding in almost every crowd!