If you’re going to become rich, you need to either earn way more money than you spend, or spend way less money than you earn.
This is the basic math of it, which even the worst complainypants cannot dispute. The whining usually starts when Mr. Money Mustache starts talking about how to implement the ideas above.
For example, observe the following simulated but very typical conversation as I counsel Joe and Josephine Consumer on how to escape from their current situation (buried under a mountain of debt with no hope for retirement before 75), and instead reach early retirement before their young kids even finish high school.
Mr. Money Mustache:
So, Joe, you tell me it’s hard to pay the bills. But I can’t help but notice this nearly-new Chevrolet Silverado 4×4 pickup in the driveway of your home here in the suburbs. That was a $50,000 truck when you bought it on credit. It costs 8 times more than any reasonable vehicle given your financial situation, consumes 3 times the fuel, and depreciates twice as fast.
It’s like pointing a firehose of your hard-earned cash, straight at your toilet while holding the flush lever down, 24 hours a day. So we’ll need to sell that on Craigslist – tonight.
But…But… All my friends at the law firm will think I’m a sissy if I show up with a little Honda Fit! Plus, I need a reliable vehicle because I have to drive to meet clients. And I once hauled a dishwasher with this thing, and was thinking of getting a boat to tow with it since we’re looking at buying a cottage this year.. Plus, I’m underwater on the truck: the loan is bigger than what any dealer would give me for it, and I’ve never bought or sold anything on Craigslist before because I’m scared of talking to strangers and don’t know who I can trust, and (voice fades into background)…
Right. Well, guess what? None of this matters, because you won’t even be driving to work any more – that’s a sucker’s move. Y’all are moving to a smaller house within 8 miles of your workplace, and biking to work from now on. As a bonus, that’s right next to the university where Josephine teaches, so she can walk to work.
Now hold up Mr. Money Mustache. We’re all settled in this house in the suburbs. Plus, our kids are starting school soon and this school district is better than the one downtown. And I’m not walking to work – winters are cold and slushy here. Nor am I biking around town with my kids – I don’t even have a suitable bike and it’s dangerous to ride bikes in the United states and (fades out)….
Got it. So anyway, we’ll start cleaning up and staging your house tonight so we can have it photographed for sale next week. You’ll start by moving to a rental downtown, since renting is a better deal than buying here in Expensiveville. Later, you can buy a fixer-upper four plex and renovate it yourself over the next few years as you develop your DIY skills. Also, why the hell do I hear your air conditioner running in the background when it’s only 80 degrees outside, while you keep the daylight out with curtains and use antique 60 watt heaters instead of LED bulbs to light your indoors? And why is your clothes dryer running simultaneously as this beautiful sunshine shines down upon your back porch? This casual waste of electricity is burning about $15,000 of your wealth per decade.
We’ll fix this, then move on to your food, entertainment, child-raising activities, vacations, phone service, and soon enough you’ll have a reasonable 60% after-tax savings rate and be set to retire in your 30s.
J+J (in unison):
Gaaah! We can see your wisdom, Mustache, but this is all too much for us. We’re not really in good enough physical condition to ride bikes. We don’t even know how to change a faucet, let alone DIY-renovate a 4-plex. The kids are crying, dogs are barking, our garage is piled high with boxes and broken items, and we have daycare schedules, trips coming up for friends weddings, golf games and happy hours, ski passes and TV series to watch. There is just no time to handle all these changes you want us to make!
Mustache (turning to face you, the audience)
See, this is what it really all boils down to: Time. Energy. Mental and physical overload. When your life is already overfilled, it is very difficult to gain the power to make the major, positive changes you need to actually get somewhere.
In other words, if you want to create more wealth and happiness in your life, you might need to clear some space for it first.
The MMM Family’s Secret Frugality Weapon
When people encounter this site for the first time, they usually see my family’s $25,000 annual spending number and assume that we have an extremely frugal lifestyle.
“My family could never be as radical as those guys – Mustache’s ways are extreme!”, they say, “but we’ll implement a few small changes in our own way.”
This frustrates me to no end, because I don’t even try to save money any more – all I see is an abundance of luxury in every direction when I gaze out my kitchen window. But I’ve recently come to realize there is one way that we are extreme when compared to other families of similar background: we schedule a lot less stuff into our lives.
While others will buy an unlimited annual ski pass and ride the mountains every weekend, I’ll get a four-pack of lift tickets and make a single weeklong trip with my friends. Others will buy a cottage and split their time between two houses, I’m happy with one. While others will start with a cat, then have a kid, then adopt a dog, then another dog, then create second, third, and fourth kids, I’m feeling plenty busy with just my boy.
None of this is done with money in mind – it is done out of a desire for balance, free time, and a safety margin in life. By keeping our non-negotiable commitments to only 50% of our time, we leave the other 50% open for growth, self-development, and an ability to work much harder to deal with the black swan events that life inevitably serves up.
While others might imagine we’re missing out on life by not stacking it up with more activities, I feel we’re allowing ourselves just the right amount of space to actually live it. And of course, the side effect this has on the money side has been very large as well.
I think this difference in life planning style might boil down to my slightly compulsive tendency to think of future consequences.
When I was a 26-year-old deciding between BMW and 401(K) as the destination for each financial windfall, I always chose the more responsible option because I predicted my future self would appreciate it. Even today, when I open the fridge at dinnertime and face the tempting selection of ice-cold Colorado microbrews laid out in front of me, I usually leave them untouched, not because I don’t crave one, but because I don’t want the future me to have to deal with a flabby beer belly.
The same thought process applies when I consider signing up for a big future commitment, like a busy weekend trip or yet another well-meaning project related to this blog, or even adopting a cat: sure, it sounds lovely in theory, but will my future self appreciate having that much time taken away from him, when he might have other plans?
Of course, you can take future fixation too far and end up with a boring life today, but I correct for this by imagining a future me regretting a boring youth, and do my best to strategically misbehave at optimal levels today. So far, so good as I do not lead an overly pure or monk-like life.
Getting back to the point: To become richer, you need to make changes in your life. But changes take effort, and to perform this effort you’ll need to free up the time and energy to become powerful enough to do it.
How to Make Space for Badassity
When find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. In the world of gaining more leverage over your own life, this means to stop adding complexity. To get you started, here are a few tips from my own book of rules.
Discover the Power of No
For the next several weeks, say NO to all optional plans which are outside of biking distance of your house. If you don’t have a bike, make that walking distance. You need to start focusing your lifestyle on your local radius. Try having a weekend with nothing planned except catching up on things around the house and exercising right within your neighborhood.
Next time someone other than your very closest friends or family invites you to a distant wedding, make up an excuse and give yourself the gift of staying home instead. Save that energy for the people nearer and dearer to you – including yourself.
Institute a “Purchase Procrastination Program”
Pause any and all research and shopping trips besides food, and make do with the things you have at home. If you have a vacation coming up, promise yourself you’ll get that special purchase made after the vacation instead of before it. If you’re working on a major life goal, delay the purchase until after you achieve it.
Clean, Cancel, and Declutter
By now, you’ll already start having more free time. Use it to attack your garage, your closet, your kitchen junk drawer. Sell stuff on Craigslist, recycle, give away, and trash anything not important to you. Note the new breathing space that opens up in your mind, and even your lungs.
And of course, if you haven’t done so already, cancel cable TV and stop consuming the daily news.
Sharpen the Saw
The most efficient thing you can ever do with your time, is to make yourself a better person. So spend some of your new free, quiet time by starting each morning with a 45 minute walk in the quietest local area you can find. If you’re already knowledgeable in weight training, do a bit of it each day. If not, at least do some push-ups and Yoga for now. Learn about basic meditation, and do it.
If you follow these steps, within a week or two you will have roughly doubled your free time and energy, which gives you the power to start really making the more difficult changes.
Sell your expensive cars and replace them with efficient ones at least ten years old (which is still plenty new). Get a bike. Find a smarter place to live that is closer to work, or a smarter place to work that is closer to home (and get a raise for yourself while you’re at it – the US labor market is quite literally at its strongest point in most of our lifetimes).
Look through this blog’s list of all posts and implement all of the ideas from the early articles, one by one and watch how your life expenses peel away.
None of this is all that difficult – at this point millions of people, many with far fewer advantages than yourself, have done exactly this and have drastically changed their lives for the better.
If you’ve been poking around here on this site for a while and, still find that major change and plentiful surplus money is in short supply, stop struggling and start by slowing down.