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Get Rich With: Your Own Urban Tribe

A small tribe of Mustachians gathers in a Seattle Park

A small tribe of Mustachians gathers in a Seattle Park earlier this summer

Here in the MMM family household, we live a lifestyle that could be considered unrecognizably oddball, or classically familiar depending on who you ask. Although the fairly well-appointed house in an expensive area probably does a good job at reassuring certain neighbors that we fit in, our lives are pretty different.

We spend most of our time within a 2-mile circle with home at the center. The car is just starting in on its third tank of gas for the year, and I’m expecting this one to make it through December. We often go months without visiting any store besides the grocery, and the half million dollar house contains no TV set, clothes dryer, powered lawnmower, ties or suit jackets of any sort, and no items of clothing (other than great hiking shoes) worth more than about $50.

None of this is by necessity or due to lack of money, it’s just how we’ve ended up after ten years of  freedom from conventional work, while trying to optimize our lives for happiness rather than maximum consumption. But the end result is still pretty powerful, as I can’t seem to blow more than about $25,000 per year no matter how luxurious we feel our lives are.

The further along we go, the more I realize this is a great way to live, and probably not just for us. Because a life like this comes with other changes aside from the superficial spending-related ones described above. It seems that we are sliding right into the comfortable groove of much older human civilizations, the ones in which all of our instincts are more at home: something you could call the tribe.

The Modern Urban Tribe

I’ve noticed that our life is following a pattern that echoes back to a far distant era. We wake up when our bodies feel they have had enough sleep and the house is brightening with the sky. I walk outside to inspect the sunrise with bare feet and strong coffee, and a relaxed breakfast for all of us is never compromised. Only after this routine, sometimes with music or other times with a chapter of reading from a book, do we start to think about other things like meetings or appointments or heading out for some good old-fashioned hard work.

Our house backs onto a park, which is at the center of a human-friendly community where people actually walk places. Because of this, people tend to just show up throughout the day. Little MM might run out to join some friends after seeing them out throwing toy airplanes in the park, who later join him to make mud rivers in the back yard or come inside for a round of Starcraft II. Kids wander in pairs or groups from one household to another without an armored SUV escort, or even shirts or shoes. We all climb trees and play in the creek. Adult friends might stop in as part of an afternoon walk, which ends up leading to beers and the joint cooking of a feast, which in turn attracts other adults and children, possibly even leading to unexpected tent sleepovers in the back yard.

In such a community, leisure and work tend to blur together. I might recruit a friend to help build a fence, who ends up needing my help to replace a furnace. A third friend might stop by to learn about the installation process, but mention a house he saw for sale down the street which leads to a short-term real estate investment partnership. Everybody could use some help at times, and everyone has some help to offer at other times. As a result, kids and salads, tools and books and loaned vehicles, money and heirloom tomatoes and homebrews tend to circulate freely through the crowd, enriching us all with each transaction.

Such a life is not just the quaint habit of a few lucky rich people in a friendly, safe neighborhood. It is the foundation of human civilization itself. We are meant to live in medium-sized groups, to walk between each other’s dwellings, and to collaborate and play freely with an abundance of unscheduled free time. When you start with these basic building blocks of a community, you automatically press your happiness buttons and suddenly start living a much happier, healthier life.

Lessons in Tribalism from my Summer Vacation

This summer, I had an unusually action-packed trip as I made my way through the cities of Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa and surrounding spots in Canada to visit friends and family. With our own lifestyle so bright in my mind, it was fascinating to see how other people live.

Many people we know in Ottawa live in isolated suburbs, scattered 30 miles from their other friends and from work. Some chose their location because they wanted to live on a large plot of land, and others because they wanted a big house that still fit within the limits of their mortgage payment budget. But few if any made the choice based on living within walking distance of friends, family, food and work.

They have adapted to this situation by living more planned lives. A long email discussion of schedules precedes any gathering of friends, and they need to work around traffic and weather and repairs and gas prices. Brand new cars have gone from shiny to dull to rusty to junkyard while my used car has yet to lose the stiff blackness of its nearly new seat fabric. Getting together is still fun, but it tends to happen less often and end earlier in the night. I couldn’t help but notice the amount of happiness this physical distance seems to subtract from the equation.

Later I ended up in San Francisco, peeking in on the lives of some new friends as an outsider. As I joined the neighborhood parties and looked at the way this much smaller, bike-scaled city functions, I noticed that the social life of these friends was much more similar to my own despite the much larger population of the city. Spontaneous gatherings and sharing of household amenities was the norm. Patios or parks would fill with neighbors and driveways would fill with bikes. The fact that people lived within walking or biking distance of friends seemed to make all the difference.

The final lesson came when I headed to Victoria, BC for three days. This is an island city of 80,000 people which happens to feature the highest rate of bicycle commuting in Canada. Meeting a friend at a the airport, we immediately went to one neighbor’s house to borrow a bike for the duration of my visit and ditched the motor vehicle. Then we rode to a barbecue gathering for local business owners. The next day featured a longer ride through the city and out to the surrounding lakes and mountains, then I took a bus downtown to join a meetup of Mustachians in a public park. Afterwards we walked out for a late night dinner, and then I enjoyed an hour-long solo midnight walk back through the city to my temporary home.

I found an amazing similarity to my own city of Longmont, Colorado. More seemingly random people knew and cared about each other, spontaneous gatherings and excursions to the mountains were commonplace, and the general consensus was that this was a wonderful and happy place to live. Prosperity and good health seemed to be in abundant supply in these more tribe-oriented places.

So How Can this Make us All Richer?

I believe the close and local community is a big part of what we’ve been losing with modern life. The dual-full-time-income-plus-kids household, ivy-league preschool syndrome, car commuting and suburban sprawl in our city designs have all made it a little harder to live a local lifestyle. But it absolutely does not have to be that way.

There’s a Greek island called Ikaria that pops up regularly in health news because its people enjoy some of the longest, healthiest lives on Earth. At least once a month, somebody emails me a link to one of a few major stories about it, because they notice the parallels to the lifestyle you and I are working towards right here. Plenty of sleep. Some outdoor hard work every day. A high degree of socialization. And of course, olive oil and wine as desired. Ikaria is the Original Island of the Mustachians. Even without much money, these people are wealthier than most of us in rich cities.

Slowly but surely, the US is waking up from its suburban slumber and starting to change the way cities are designed, with groups like Strong Towns pushing and city planners trained in New Urbanism pulling as they gradually start displacing the people who were raised with nothing but cars. But without even waiting for these changes, we can start adding some Ikaria to our own lives.

Great Friends are Hiding Among your Neighbors

Some of my own tribe travels the streets of Longmont, CO

Some of my own tribe travels the streets of Longmont, CO

You just need to start meeting your neighbors. Not just one or two of them, but all of them. Not everybody will be cool or fun or have much in common with you, but some of them actually will. When I move to a new house, I actually write down the addresses of the 10 nearest houses and then set a goal of filling in a name and summary of the details for each household. Then I keep branching out and making eye contact and meeting people from other nearby blocks, because it is a genuinely happy thing to know people who live so close to you.  Why focus your energy on traveling to meet friends who live several cities away, while ignoring those right next door who you haven’t even met yet?

Joining local groups can facilitate this, whether it’s through a school, business group, church, or bike, sport or volunteer club. Even getting a part-time job at an in-style downtown venue works well. The key to keeping it tribal is simply to keep it local – you need to mingle with people you actually live with. To create an area with a “high social collision rate” as a doctor friend of mine puts it.

Even after 10 years in my own city, I still run into a new person every week who I’d actually like to spend time with, who lives within a five minute walk. As the network grows, so does my happiness. And miraculously, the number of things I can think of to spend money on continues to drop, because a more satisfying life automatically cuts down your desire to doll it up with more toys.

The answer to a better life may be walking past you right now.

Further Reading: 

This year a busy urban neighborhood in South Korea tried banning cars for an entire month. It ended up blowing everyone’s minds for the better: http://www.fastcoexist.com/3045836/heres-what-happened-when-a-neighborhood-decided-to-ban-cars-for-a-month

Do any Longmontians want to try this here? The first city in the US to accomplish this feat will start a chain reaction that changes everything.

  • WageSlave August 24, 2015, 4:31 pm

    MMM, is there an unusually high number of people in your area that are also retired, or otherwise not working? I totally agree with your sentiment, but at this stage of my life I have zero time for chance encounters during the week, and little even on the weekends. I’m very “time poor”, with full-time work and two kids under five. The wife and I wake at 5:20 to exercise (home gym), then I take the train to work (about 30 min door to door). I get home just after 6:00, when it’s dinner and cleanup followed by getting the kids to bed. This puts us at about 8:00pm, where my wife and I have about an hour of “us” time before needing to put ourselves to bed. Though my wife is a stay at home mom, her day is similarly devoid of free time: walking the 4-year old to preschool, various household chores, lunch prep & cleanup, putting the 2-year old down for a nap, bringing preschooler back home, dinner preparation… and we still outsource house cleaning, driveway snow removal, and handyman stuff. Weekends are catch up time for anything that didn’t get done during the week. I don’t know how people with young kids and *two* working parents do it.

    I’m hoping we’ll find a little more free time when the kids are both well past the toddler stage… and with me saving 70% of pay, hopefully some kind of retirement scheme or reduced working hours can become a reality sooner than later. But until then, it often feels like treading water.

    Reply
    • dan August 28, 2015, 1:05 pm

      wageslave – If you’re savings 70% of your take-home pay then by definition you should probably have less than 10 years left till retirement! Very impressive!

      Reply
  • Jenny August 25, 2015, 12:12 am

    I totally get this and appreciate the tribe thing (I live it too). BUT, (and forgive me if already stated) but being on your third tank of gas this year is great if one is not flying around the globe n a big ol’ polluting jet and same applies to reading the lady the riot act over the gas lawn mower – just if we are keeping the whole pollution thing in perspective

    Reply
  • Michael August 25, 2015, 7:33 pm

    I completely agree with sentiment! Heck I’d rather have a large communal park area as a back yard instead of a fenced in isolation chamber or a vestigial strip of grass in the front.
    I used to live in an apartment complex laid out like a doughnut around a well-kept lake and grassy area. I didn’t have to put forth any effort to maintain it but I still got to enjoy all the benefits of the space! Because of this space I made friends with my neighbors, with whom I would not have met otherwise. Its funny how small changes in layout can make a big difference.

    Reply
  • David W August 26, 2015, 11:14 pm

    Mr M, I love your humor. I love your message to be self sufficient. I don’t like wasting money. But often, I feel like you have checked out from reality. I have a big SUV I paid cash for. It represents 1.5% of my net worth. I drive boat loads of kids around the suburbs to sporting events. We have a great time. I work four miles from my house and drive my SUV everyday. I probably could retire, but I like my challenging work. We save 40% of gross income. It’s not efficient at my hourly rate to ride a bike. Sweating my butt off in GA biking to work wouldn’t be conducive to looking nice at work. My client cares that my shirt and slacks are pressed. Cars create incredible personal efficiencies. Time is money. Suburbia means sprawl and lots of space for less money. Distances are further. The car makes so much more possible. Suburbia is good. My neighbors are fun. We meet at the tennis courts, watch football at the clubhouse and meet at the pool. MMM there are many ways to achieve FI and happiness. My car is a part of daily efficiencies as I suspect it is for so many. We are all not slaves to the auto marketing gods. I want to find a common ground on this subject. Thanks for hearing me out. Keep up the good work.

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache August 28, 2015, 9:13 am

      Good response David! I can see you have thought about things. Our values might just be different: for example, what if you felt that resource consumption was a pretty big issue for the human race at this stage in our development? Would that change the way you’d want to use our gas, metal and asphalt?

      Also, biking is a LOT faster and less sweaty than you might think. You’ll often beat a car over a 4-mile race if there is any traffic at all. And you need at least a few hours of solid outdoor time every day anyway – if you don’t get it out whizzing through Nature on the bike, you’ll need to get some other way. It also extends your lifespan by many times more than the time you spend doing it – the opposite effect of cars, so it actually takes less time if you look at the big picture of a long, fit, happy life.

      Finally, you could at least look into a Nissan Leaf or an electric-boosted bike like I have: efficiencies of a car without some of the inefficiencies.

      Reply
    • Rick August 28, 2015, 9:58 am

      And I wouldn’t throw out bike riding over the appearances issue. I ride to work most days (3 miles each way) with a specialized garment bag full of my lawyer clothes strapped across the rack on the back of my bike. Other people stock the office every week with the clothes they will need.

      Reply
  • Tree August 29, 2015, 4:43 pm

    OOO I hated living in Victoria – I was there for 6 years.

    Reply
  • Melissa Yuan-Innes August 30, 2015, 5:11 am

    I live in the boonies between Montreal and Ottawa. We have to have a car–no grocery store or farmer’s market closer than 15 minutes’ drive away. On the upside, it’s a strong rural community. Big families, lots of friends, active kids. When we first moved in, our neighbour brought us an apple pie. More recently, I was warned that my kids have to play soccer or they’ll be ostracized. As a doctor, it’s not uncommon for me see people living to their hundreds, surrounded by lots of family. So I’d love a more car-free live, but it’s also possible to have a car and a community.

    Reply
  • DP August 30, 2015, 6:08 am

    I lived in San Francisco for a bit and it was definitely an eye opener on how much of a community feel there was in different districts. Coming from the midwest, where community was very important, I was turned off by some of the different locations in the Bay Area that seemed to not know what community meant at all. However, parts of San Francisco were different. People knew their neighbors, walked or biked everywhere, had festivals every weekend, etc.

    While sharing mowers and having others over for dinner is a great way to enhance your pocketbook as opposed to going out to eat, it is also an enriching way to live your life – like your Greek island. Unfortunately, so much of America is going in a different direction.

    -DP

    Reply
  • Julie August 31, 2015, 11:32 am

    This is a great article! We live in Lakewood, CO but I work out near DIA while my SO works in Littleton. Kids go to school/daycare in Littleton, we own and operate an apothecary in Lakewood on the weekends; I spend about half of my life in a car. It’s horrible. I’ve bought my bike and am ready to start the transition! Meetup has been invaluable for local tribe activities. Unfortunately for me, most of these activities are held when I’m stuck in my car. We’re slowly transitioning to work for ourselves and quit the rat race. Can’t wait!

    Reply
  • Gregg August 31, 2015, 4:18 pm

    IDYLLIC BUT NOT GREEN: This post suggests both an idyllic and green lifestyle–only three refills of the car tank–until the reported travels to Hamilton, Toronto, and Ottawa, Canada; to San Francisco, and to Victoria, BC. Presuming all that was by air travel and MMM left the wife and kids at home, his share of the carbon dioxide emissions from those flights was approximately 5,500 lbs. (about 6,500 miles at roughly 0.85 lbs. per mile). Question: Is there any common human activity that generates more greenhouse gases per person-hour than air transportation?

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache August 31, 2015, 6:27 pm

      You are definitely right Gregg – you will never hear me say I lead a low-consumption or green lifestyle. Just slightly less ridiculous than average (or maybe 90% less ridiculous than the average family in our wealth bracket). It’s just a baby step.

      Regarding the air travel, I do offset more than all our family’s carbon footprint (6500 miles of air travel is about 1.5 tons (https://www.carbonfund.org/how-we-calculate), which is $15 to offset at carbonfund.org .. not perfect but a cheap way to clean up at least some of the mess!

      Reply
  • Karl September 6, 2015, 3:50 am

    Urban tribes are great. We had a similar arrangement back in my old city where a bunch of us were living in a few different share houses all in the same bike friendly neighbourhood just 20 minutes ride from the CBD of Perth. We’d have spontaneous BBQs, busy-bees, meet ups, game nights, doco nights etc. It’s really nice to have lots of friends all within a short walk or bike ride.

    A number of us are the ‘new wave’ of new urbanist town planners too… so this gives me hope that the future might see more living situations like this as we come into control and have more influence of the local and state planning laws and strategy.

    Reply
  • Andrew September 7, 2015, 11:58 am

    So it’s been a few weeks since reading this article and I’ve made a conscious effort to speak to every neighbor I come in contact with. It’s been a unbelievable experience learning about the people who live around you! We’ve only lived in the neighborhood for about 8 months, and would really like to build relationships and community with everyone around us. Truly loved this concept and can only make for a more enjoyable life.

    Reply
  • Markphilips September 15, 2015, 11:57 am

    Hi there MMM, I discovered your blog via a Twitter post from a friend this September. It was podcast #133 interview at The Art of Manliness. Since then I’ve been reading (and applying) your blog posts from the beginning.

    Finding ones Urban Tribe is a great topic. And I’ve been pondering on this to create more local connections in my small neighborhood. We’re making an effort to slow the pace of life by doing more STAYCATIONS where we choose to work around the house more which gives us the opportunity to say hello to neighbors who walk, jog, or ride their bikes on our street. On weekends, we choose to live car-free or car-lite wherein we choose to stay home, walk 20 mins to the library, walk 10 minutes to the nearby park, ride our cargobikes two miles to the morning farmers market where we meet our neighbors and local farmers and producers.

    I used to live in Burlington, ON and Scarborough,ON but I had the opportunity to move to North San Diego just over a decade ago. I always looked for that small town feel that is walkable and bikeable. I used to bike everywhere in Toronto coupled with TTC subway rides even in the midst of the coldest winter.

    Reply
  • Robert October 28, 2015, 8:09 pm

    Very interesting way of seeing life, it definitely seems rewarding. Although personally I enjoy the solitude A LOT and it’s hard for me to imagine going and knocking on a neighbors door. I will have to get myself to practice it.

    Reply
  • John July 21, 2016, 11:53 am

    Hi MMM,

    I just started reading your articles – I should say I’ve read about 50% of them in the past few days – great stuff! I have a ways to go, but I fancy myself a fledgeling junior Mustachian. Anyway – I just read the NYT article on Ikaria and…wow, what a lifestyle. I hadn’t thought much about the importance of community to one’s health (and wealth), but now I’m seeing things differently.

    Thanks MMM!

    Reply
  • Andrew Mullen May 15, 2017, 8:10 pm

    My best friends are from Ikaria. They have a home (with no driveway…you have to walk to it) in the tiny mountain village of Mandria. It truly is a wonderful place and it completely changed my whole perspective on life.

    Reply
  • Kathy O June 7, 2018, 10:14 am

    This article has been in the back of my mind since I moved to Davis, CA. I think it is important to choose to live in an area where you can have a lower cost lifestyle and fit in. Davis is filled with state government workers and UC Davis employees who live a modest lifestyle. A wild Saturday night involves going to a local brewpub, paying $5 for a beer and hearing a great local band for free. The majority of women my age in Davis (56) have grey hair and are in great shape from riding their bikes everywhere. The motto of the UC Davis gym is “Come as You Are”. It could be the motto for the whole town.

    I watch my friends who stay in higher cost places like Washington, DC and Silicon Valley. There is a lot of pressure to look young, wear nice clothes, take amazing vacations and have a fancy house. It is hard to go out without spending at least $100. Behind the fabulous lifestyle, I know there is a lot of private financial anxiety, especially as people get older.

    It is very hard to have a Mustchian lifestyle in many places, but easy in others spots. Chose where you live not on the beautiful views, charming houses, or great weather, but where you can have a modest, community oriented life.

    Reply

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