Saving a high percentage of income as a path to financial independence has received a lot of recent attention in the press. I love that this crazy idea has almost become a movement, changing lives for the better.
Due to the publicity I’ve had the good fortune to meet several strangers who have become friends, thanks to the common bonds of world travel and financial wizardry.
However, I have a confession to make: I have more in common with the detractors. I actually really suck at being frugal.
If there ever was a quote that captured my personality, it would be:
“I can resist everything except temptation.” – Oscar Wilde
“Hey, Jeremy, want to go out for sushi?” – Sounds awesome!
“We are going to see Random Famous Singer perform at the Random Famous Theater, want to join?” – Do I ever!
“Ever been to Greece? Want to go?” – Sounds magical!
To combat this complete lack of willpower or self-control, I resorted to lifestyle design.
I believe I first came across the idea of lifestyle design in a Tim Ferriss book, The 4-Hour Workweek.
The main idea is to actively design one’s life such that it is extremely difficult to engage in behaviors that are detrimental or undesirable. If you don’t want to eat 2 whole pints of Ben & Jerry’s Karamel Sutra ice cream tonight, don’t keep 2 whole pints in your freezer. (I later used the concept of lifestyle design to address my tendency to over-indulge with the sweets, nom nom nom.)
We applied this concept to The Big 3 core spending categories (transportation, housing, food) while we were accumulating our nest egg, and the results speak for themselves.
Some people are naturally frugal. I’m naturally lazy. (Just ask my wife.)
After a long day of work, who wants to hop on a bicycle or wait on the street corner for a bus? Not me, I’ll drive, thanks. Oh, it’s raining? I’ll drive, thanks. That meeting is 100 meters away in another building? I’ll drive, thanks.
Funny thing… if you don’t have a car, it becomes impossible to drive.
So I sold my sweet ride and 3 things immediately happened:
1) I stopped driving
2) I started biking
3) I saved beaucoup bucks
“Riding a bike is the closest you can get to flying” – Robin Williams
By removing the option of driving my entire life improved.
I’m fairly certain that most city planners have never heard of lifestyle design. Without a car it can be downright difficult to get from point A (where you live) to point B (where you work) or even point C (grocery store, library, park.)
“It is impossible to not have a car where I live,” said everybody.
I used to think this too. The house I bought when I first moved to Seattle, besides being a poor financial choice, was a form of negative lifestyle design. I was locked into a location that required an automobile lifeline and a lifestyle that was high cost / low value. I was living the American Dream!
But there is nothing as motivating for finding a new place to live as a 90 minute bus ride (if you make the first transfer, unlikely) or a long bike commute.
But with a very deliberate and conscious search we found the ideal location.
Now I had:
1) an easy bus commute
2) an easy bike commute
3) big savings
What could be easier at the end of a long work day (and hunger inducing bike commute) than to pick up some take-out and veg in front of the television?
Unless you don’t own a television. And you already made plans to meet friends for a picnic in the park.
Social obligations and elimination of lazy “entertainment”/consumption options are great examples of lifestyle design; there is literally no way to screw this up. I know, I tried.
A local CSA sourced most of our picnic and home-cooked dinner party ingredients. A super-sized box of produce was delivered weekly and we were committed to not wasting one bit (I still have no idea what some of those vegetables were.)
Another key aspect of actively designing a lifestyle is skill development. Winnie at one point decided she wanted to explore her passion for cooking. Not long afterwards, the best meals in town came out of her kitchen (Winnie’s fav cookbook) including home baked bread (seriously, mmmmm), home made kimchee, home made kombucha, home made preserves… you get the idea.
Other Design Choices
Once we started making conscious choices we made better choices in other areas of living and spending beyond the Big 3.
Whenever our first thought was to spend money, we took a moment to pause and ask, “why?” Why not get “crazy” instead?
We figured it out a bit at a time through…
Often when people say, “Oh, I could never do that”… what they really mean is, “that seems different and I don’t think I would like it.”
And that may be true. Maybe it will be worse than you can even imagine. The worst. Terrible!
When we first downsized, we moved into a 400 sq. ft. apartment in Seattle’s International District (Chinatown.) It wasn’t nice. We definitely did not like it. Friends were confused… “You live… here?”
But no big deal, we just moved again. After a few months in a smaller space, 900. sq. ft. felt ENORMOUS! It was too big. We now routinely live in much smaller places. We grew as people and discovered we could thrive by living large in a small space.
Comfort zones need to be routinely tested lest they become a prison cell.
Owing to several deficiencies in character and constitution, lifestyle design was the best option for us to successfully save a high percentage of income.
Through trial, error, and experimentation, we arrived upon a way of life that incentivized both saving and personal growth. In short order our comfort zones shifted from “I could never do that” to “I can pretty much do anything.”
For naturally frugal people where saving money is easy and joyful, this may seem silly or unnecessary. But for people who wage constant battle with their basest self, this may be one way to a brighter future.
I close with one final quote:
Has Lifestyle Design improved your life?
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