So like I said, I’m trying to put a serious effort into using my cash more intelligently. A lot of this shift has been absorbed from the voices of the little blogging subculture known as Financial Independence (FI), and my particular new favorite thinker therein has the moniker Mr Money Mustache (MMM). Funny name, serious sandwich. Here are a few tasty morsels to chew on from the author’s half-joking made-up life philosophy, Mustachianism:
1) I am an ultra-consumer
Okay what does that mean? MMM either made up the term or got it from somewhere else, but what ultra-consumer means is a person who buys lots of things. We tend to think of such a person as just an ordinary innocent consumer … but MMM adds the ‘ultra-‘ prefix to emphasize the notion that the average middle class American spends way too effing much on ridiculous short-term shit that adds no actual lasting benefit to their lives, like clothes and fancy food and new gadgets and big cars. And houses that we can’t afford, for that matter.
Before I even really discovered the world of FI, I bumped into this curious aspect of American life in my Demigods blogs. The “Parisians” in that blog, who are in fact the real citizens of a real middle east country, seem to live much happier lives than us. And yet, their daily existences are super-omg way slower than ours, and filled up with a lot less privileges, luxuries, and silly frivolous fancy things.
By contrast, as I’ve recently taken a fine-toothed comb to my own expenses, it’s quite clear that I fit right into the American middle-class crowd. Aside from my fixed costs like rent and car payments, semi-fixed costs like utilities, gas, and insurance … my “extra” money mostly goes to things that really don’t do much for me. Backpacking gear that I use twice a year, or that I even buy and sell off without ever using. Restaurant food that makes me feel good for about half an hour, and then regretful for the rest of the evening.
Today as I’m writing this, I have to ask myself: am I much happier at this moment because of all the restaurant food I’ve eaten in the past month?
The answer is almost certainly DAMNIT NO NOT AT ALL. The unplanned spending that resulted in those meals-eaten-out benefited me in just one stupid way: I felt happy while I was eating the food. And then 10 minutes later, that warm fuzzy feeling had evaporated almost completely. Ouch.
This leads us to something much more interesting …
2) Short-term-itis, and what money is really for
When reviewing the above, MMM would cheerfully point out that my brain (and my wallet) is suffering from Short-term-itis, which is: the mistaken understanding that money’s best usage is the buying of things that make me happy, like food and toys. Woopsie, turns out that maybe those things don’t ultimately make me happy.
But, there are thankfully some other good things you can do with your money.
Specifically, the FI crowd would say money’s best usage is generating further money, eventually to the point that it takes care of your expenses, and liberates you from the obligation to work.
Yep, that’s it.
This is not the same thing as playing the stock market aggressively with the latest hot investing book, nor finding gimmicky ways to start and automate 1000 businesses like Tim Ferriss. It’s not multi-level marketing. It’s just reducing your expenses with a determined aggression, and then putting all that extra cash to work for you in modestly intelligent ways, e.g. earning interest in CDs or in low-volatility stocks and bonds. Or in paying off all your debts in a hurry, even.
A separate but related thought to consider: if one can reduce his expenses to the point that he can live on 50% of what he makes, then in theory every year that he works has automatically paid for a second year of not needing to work. And if he can reduce his expenses to, say, 33% or 25% of his income, then the ratio shoots up dramatically.
Now … MMM is not a crazy ascetic spartan bachelor man. He’s a husband and a father, and lives in a pretty nice house in Longmont CO and enjoys basically all of the cool things that I like to enjoy. He’s got a good life in my view, but somehow he’s managed to drop his expenses for his whole family down to the level of about $27k per year. Holy crap!
Granted, if you click on that link you’ll see that the MMM family has already paid off a lot of things that people usually finance or mortgage, but anyway … Look man, $27k is less than what I make by myself, in an entry-level tech job. I spend more on myself in a year than MMM spends on his whole damn family! That’s kind of striking.
So anyway. I’m reviewing all this, and seeing where I can apply the scalpel to my own expenses. It’s really pretty fun.
3) What to do with all this
It has occurred to me, during this little frenzy of learning, that MMM and most of the FI world are not at all concerned with the gospel or the kingdom of God. Their aim is not the gospel but personal happiness and rational decision-making; their God is their own lifestyle. So if I’m not careful, I could get sucked into this tunnel-vision of life as an individualistic quest for financial independence, forgetting completely about the greater mission and epic in which I am caught up.
But, let’s not do that.
Instead, I think that MMM has some pretty profound things to say to the modern American who believes in Jesus. We are called to be in the world, but not of it (!!!). And yet 90% of the Christians I know (such as myself) have credit card statements that look like an ordinary middle-class American — lots of eating out, and lots of frivolous stupid garbage. Credit card debt that’s out of control. No budgeting or understanding of finance. Buying of stuff that either gets thrown away or replaced in a short time; takes up space and doesn’t get used. Over and above all that, we buy shit that simply fails to satisfy or bring any kind of life to us, even if we do manage to use it. What we have, then, is a lot of misplaced affection in things, and a lot of mismanagement of the resources we’ve been given.
This is a problem. Everyone knows it. We know we’re a generation of royalty. We are the church who has grown up in Babylon, amid the luxuries of Empire. We know deep down that guys like Shane Claiborne or MMM are onto something in the ways they’ve rejected the American Dream of Consumer Happiness … and yet we still find ourselves ensnared in its seductive grasp.
I’ve told myself that it will be better to ask good questions on this blog, instead of making judgments, projecting my values, and generalizing my own conclusions. So, take the above with some gentleness for my sake.
Here’s a good question, then: does your credit card statement look like the average American’s?
Here’s another question: do you think all those things are making you happy?
Here’s another question: what if it’s true that we’re all a little spoiled and confused by this relentless stream of advertising that fills up our lives? What if these guys like MMM are onto something that might actually bear fruit in our lives? What if we tried to take the sensible parts of their lifestyle, and found that it freed up our hands and our hearts to live the gospel with more passion and joy?
Hopefully those are some decent questions. That’s all for today.