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Why Should I be Frugal, When I’m So Rich?

bin_jettinAhh, money. The more you have of it, the more you get to spend, right? Everybody does it that way, so that must be the right way to do it. We all agree that, sure, the debtors and the flashy live-beyond-their-means club need to rein things in. But for those honest folks who work hard and earn plenty of money – they might as well spend it on whatever they please. That’s the good life. They deserve it!

This is surely what people are thinking when they call Mr. Money Mustache “Extreme”.

“The triple M family retired with too little money for comfort, and that is why they are forced to live such a spartan lifestyle. They’re fooling themselves if they think they really are living well on $25,046 per year!

To illustrate the point, let’s dive into the MMM Mailbag and consider a couple of recent letters from readers:

Dear Mr. Money Mustache,

What made you want to retire? You are a very young guy who is very well educated. Your education allows you to make over 100K a year + benefits. I am not criticizing, I am curious. It seems that you were happy at work, what made you want to quit?
Why live a frugal lifestyle when you can easily spend without thinking about money and work?

While this reader initially caught my fancy by throwing out words like ‘educated’ and ‘young’, the letter rapidly took a turn for the worse when it started talking about the $100k and the benefits. Because that transported me right back into the cubicle, with a thick layer of tinted glass between me and that expansive view of the Rocky Mountains and the accompanying fresh air that used to taunt me at work.

Why live a frugal lifestyle when I could instead go back to work in order to earn more so I could spend more? Because I love being free to do whatever I want… right now! Because I have a seven-year-old boy, my little pride and joy, who has way too many plans for us every day to ever let a job get between us. And because I couldn’t imagine spending any more money than we already do – our life is already an overwhelming conveyor belt of abundance and I can hardly keep track of all the tumbling boxes of luxury as it is.

Now let’s consider another email that offers an interesting counterpoint:

Dear MMM,

Comments: Love the blog.  Wanted to give a perspective I’m not sure gets expressed very often:

My income last year was a little over $1 million pre-tax, and while my wife and I live a quite modest lifestyle by high-income NYC standards, we still spend absurd amounts of money on absurd things.

The “problem” (obviously a cadillac problem) is that we have no incentive to make smart choices on a day-to-day basis. Since we live so far within our means, we just go ahead and shop at the crazy-overpriced neighborhood gourmet grocery store because it happens to be the closest. We buy organic meat because why the hell not – maybe it’s a little bit better for you. We take cab rides at $30-$40 a pop when the subway is inconvenient.

Now… obviously it’s a luxury to be able to put such a high priority on my own time and convenience and minor health improvement. But… I find that living this way is actually somewhat stressful and depressing. Trying to find the cheapest/best way to navigate life used to be invigorating and emotionally rewarding for me, as I know it is for you and your army of Mustachians. I stopped doing it because it started to seem irrational to put a lot of thought into saving $20 when I make that much in 3 minutes at my desk. But it turns out that putting that thought in is *fun* and keeps you vital.

I don’t know how many purely recreational mustachians there are but in 2013 I will be trying to become one!

By the way I now know two other successful Wall St types who are big fans of yours. In this business we tend to hate our jobs, so we are a very good constituency for early retirement advice!

What’s going on here? Why would a man be frugal on a million dollars a year? And then seek out additional frugality measures to make his life more interesting?

Therein lies the whole reason this blog is useful to anyone. If I were telling you to spend less money just so you could get out of debt, save up a fortune, and then eventually spend loads of money (which I recall is a paraphrase of the Dave Ramsey slogan), the advice would be useless. Because that would imply that the lower-spending portion of your life is less good than the subsequent high-spending part. What if you never get to the high-spending part? What if you fail or die first? It would have all been a waste. Better to just keep spending all your money now, to get the most out of life.

While this has become the accepted wisdom of contemporary society, you and I are fortunate to have discovered at such a young age that it is all bullshit.

Spending more money on yourself can spare you from hardships. But hardship is just an unpleasant way of writing “effort”, and effort is really the only thing getting you out of bed in the morning. Effort is the spice of life. If you smooth over all possible difficulties with Benjamin Franklin Wallpaper, you end up with your enormous jello-like form sprawled in a hovering cruise-ship deck chair staring at an LCD screen while soft-spoken robots bring you drinks. Your life would be like playing a video game with infinite cheat mode enabled and the joystick taped to the right – you just coast through level after level perfectly straight while the bad guys explode as they touch you. Except in real life, you too die at the end.

Although I’ve never made a seven-figure income, I can still relate to the writer of that second letter. You see, a little-known fact about the MMM household these days, is that while we continue to live the lifestyle that many consider extremely frugal, we’re not actually short on income.

Try as we might to earn less money, our income has gone up almost every year since retirement in 2005. Rental income increases from the rental house, stocks pay dividends that are reinvested. People take up hobby occupations that end up delivering occasional windfalls. All in all, we are now at a point where we could probably triple our annual spending forever, without running out of money. And yet, I continue to ride my 2008 commuter bike everywhere, get filthy doing local construction projects, and buy everything used from Craigslist. Mrs. Money Mustache rides a 10-year-old mountain bike for her primary transportation, wears old clothes (that still look rather nice on her fine form) and spends about $50 per year on haircuts and beauty products. We’re even shopping around for a smaller house in the neighborhood, to downsize our space a bit. How could this possibly be?

It’s because our current life is already more than enough. We don’t want to lose the challenge and the spice that is part of life right now. I have only one digestive system, so I can’t eat any more spectacular food than I already do. My house is already big enough to hold everything I own, plus all my friends. My subcompact Scion hatchback can easily hold the whole family and our stuff, and exceed any legal speed limit. How could an even fancier car possibly make us any happier?

Another factor in happiness for me is the satisfaction that comes from efficiency. I love seeing things that are efficient, elegant, well-designed. And of course you’ve probably noticed my corresponding boiling rage for things that are not. Buying treats for yourself that aren’t truly necessary is inefficient. It’s unsatisfying.

Paul Allen’s 414-foot Octopus yacht has engines totaling 19,000 horsepower, which burn about 622 gallons of diesel fuel per hour at cruising speed. It’s currently off the coast of Australia, a journey which took about $780,000 of fuel to make. This is an inefficient way to have fun. A man skilled at having fun should be able to achieve equal bliss within walking distance of his own house. He could then invest the surplus funds to save a few lives, which are surprisingly affordable these days at only about $200 per human according to Peter Singer. Or you could start companies, fix cities, or even change countries. All challenging and effort-filled endeavors, that these days can be done just as effectively in thrift-store clothing as they can in Armani suits.

And so I’d like to issue a challenge that you consider deflating, rather than inflating your own lifestyle as you get richer. The desire for luxury, while very real and occasionally pleasant to satisfy, is actually a weakness that stands in the way of a happier life. Getting off of the path that society has beaten for you will lead to much better adventures. So I’d rather work towards strength as I get older, rather than striving for weakness.

After all,  which would you rather be, the man who requires 622 gallons per hour of diesel and a crew of 60 to have fun, or the one who can do it just by stepping out his front door?

 

  • Tom Street May 4, 2013, 8:46 am

    One issue that comes up frequently is the critique that if everyone lived like you, then the economy would tank. There is a difference between living below your means and living within your lowered means because you don’t have a choice.

    I don’t think one has an obligation to consume just because, on a macro level, the economy would tank. However, I would be interested in your opinion on this issue. No doubt it has come up before with respect to other posts.

    Reply
  • Tom Gorski May 5, 2013, 2:19 pm

    A good way to save up in spite of being rich would be remind yourself everyday about the chances of destabilization of economy..

    Reply
  • Kokuanani May 26, 2013, 7:01 pm

    *** He could then invest the surplus funds to save a few lives, which are surprisingly affordable these days at only about $200 per human according to Peter Singer. Or you could start companies, fix cities, or even change countries.***

    Thank you for reminding your readers that “doing good” is an admirable goal.

    With all that extra time and money folks gain from following your MMM suggestions, I hope they’ll “invest” some of both in this direction.

    You don’t have to do things as “big” as starting companies or fixing cities. You can find out what programs your local schools have for after-school care & tutoring for kids who need help. You can work with those trying to master English as their second or third language. You can drop by the animal shelter and give eager dogs a bath or some petting, or take them to an adoption day at a local mall.

    There are many, many opportunities to make the world a better place and take your focus away from yourself. And they’re pretty much free.

    Reply
  • Sandra July 24, 2013, 12:33 pm

    Why is everybody so concerned that Mr. MMM is living on so little. The person who said that he is fooling himself : come on now, Pal. It’s according to the individual whether they think they’re living well.

    As for him retiring : well, so what. He says he’s got a part time business. If he wants to go back to work, I guess he will. That’s up to him.

    I tell you one thing, I wish I could change the way I conducted my life. I should have done more like him. I wish I’d been home more with my four kids. They turned out ok, but I could have done better. Now, four kids are a lot and expensive. I could have managed the money I had to spend on them as well, I think. I had to work, and my husband at the time was a terrible provider. I am now retired and am doing ok. I have a pension and a small
    nest egg. I’d have liked to have more saved and invested, but I am not complaining. My kids and two grandkids that I raised are grown and doing fine. It could have been improved on is all, although I do not have to depend on anyone and certainly have a decent roof over my head, a paid off car, and I can travel occasionally. Not too bad.

    Reply
  • Michael Corayer January 2, 2014, 4:47 am

    Since finding this blog a few weeks ago I’ve haphazardly worked my way through most of the posts and I have to say that this one really stands out. A few years ago I used to dream of mansions, fast cars, and luxury travel, but now they just seem silly. The years of saving have shown me that the more my stache grows the less I actually want the stuff it could potentially buy. I’m already happy, so buying more stuff really would be inefficient. There are much better uses for my money than trying to impress others with a Ferrari or a ridiculous yacht. And as for those who are easily impressed by that “stuff”, well, they probably aren’t people I want to spend much time around anyway.

    Reply
  • Heather Petersen September 26, 2015, 9:35 pm

    I totally relate! I love being efficient, and I find great beauty in multipurpose, efficient, and necessary things. I love your blog!

    Reply
  • Albert Miralles July 18, 2017, 4:00 pm

    WOW, Best quote I’ve read so far (or at least I feel identified the most…) “Another factor in happiness for me is the satisfaction that comes from efficiency. I love seeing things that are efficient, elegant, well-designed”

    Now and again stupid things are a in fashion……. and I feel like: “When is being efficient going to be sexy and cool in this society?!” We have to make it mainstream if we want to save our planet.

    My work mates don’t get that I bought a second hand, 20 years old Lada Niva to go to Morroco and challenge myself everyday trying to get to my planned checkpoint. They’d rather go to Italy coast, relax and spend money on fancy drinks and overpriced pizza (don’t get me wrong I love Italy and it’s food, was just an example).
    Your life can me amazing with so little and saving money!

    I love spending just the right amount of money or using just the energy I need (even when cooking…LOL) I know some people would call me cheap….I say it is goddamm cool!

    PD: in Spain our heads spin around (well, you got the point…) when you mention how much money you make a year……I’m an engineer making 26K a year and I’m a lucky one!!!

    Reply
  • Dave February 28, 2019, 7:51 pm

    MMM- If you’re referring to Dave Ramsey’s “Live like no one else, so that later, you can live like no one else”, I think you’ve got it wrong. In fact, I think you have lived out that exact idea! You “lived like no one else” early in your career by saving a huge percentage of your salary, not buying needless luxury items, not going into debt, biking to work, etc. And now, you get to “live like no one else” as shown by your really early retirement.

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache February 28, 2019, 8:12 pm

      Right.. but from my understanding, Dave advocates scaling up the luxury purchases once you can afford it, whereas I suggest keeping things reasonable throughout your lifetime. That’s the difference in our messages.

      Reply

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