The freedom of less April 18, 2017
For the past two years I've been devoted to the pursuit of less and fewer: Less debt. Less stuff. Fewer commitments. Less driving. Fewer expenses. Less social media. Less drinking.
And suddenly I'm finding myself with more: More money. More attention. More time. More meaning. More fitness. More freedom.
It hasn't been an easy journey, but it has been a simple one. There are just two principles that have driven me here:
- Spend less than you earn.
- Strive to be happy with what you have.
Rewind back to late 2014. I had just moved to Seattle with my girlfriend at the time and was living the yuppie dream. We had an apartment with a sweet view and we went out drinking a few nights each week. I didn't spend beyond my means, but I generally spent the money I earned each month. I'd buy new computer equipment, recording equipment, or clothes. And what I didn't spend went toward servicing my student loans. Our monthly rent was $2,275/mo, which was pretty standard for our neighborhood.
Then something hit me. I realized I'd been holding my student debt for almost a decade. There was haunting symbolism in that. Each month I made a $400 payment to Sallie Mae. It felt normal—as if that was the way things were and that I'd be paying the loans for another decade. My balance at the time was somewhere around $30,000. The amount was a far cry from the student loan horror stories you hear from graduates nowadays, but it still made me nauseous to think about paying them off.
I decided enough was enough. It was time to rid myself of debt once and for all. I tallied my monthly expenses. I began eliminating all non-essential spending. I told my friends I could only go out one night per week. I took on more client work to help pay down the balance. And before long I paid them down.
It's hard to describe the feeling of being free of the shackles of debt after having known it for so long. I felt like I could breathe again. I knew the money I earned was now mine to keep. I knew I was in control of my time for the first time since before college.
Or was I?
Despite my temporary hustle to pay down my debt, I realized my living expenses were out of control. My girlfriend at the time and I parted ways, and I was stuck servicing rent at our apartment. I did the math, and realized that if I suddenly lost my income I could only sustain my lifestyle for maybe two months.
For the remainder of my lease, I labored to reduce my expenses where I could. I dined out less. I found a new affinity for lentils. And I took on more client work so I could save and invest at least a little bit.
And then I met my current partner. She and I moved into an apartment in Green Lake, which is a much less expensive Seattle neighborhood than Capitol Hill. My rent dropped from $2,275/month to just $1,067, with my partner covering part of the $1,600/month total. That meant I just reduced my rent by 53% overnight. Woo-hoo!
But you get what you pay for. In Seattle, a 2-bedroom apartment for $1,600 is a steal. But it was right next to a busy street and it sounded like there was a highway in our living room. Our bedroom window faced an alleyway. We didn't have the luxury of laundry in our unit. And the appliances, while working, were outdated. The refrigerator smelled like rotting milk. The apartment had terrible ventilation problems.
All of this would have been tolerable if we had a compelling reason to stay in Seattle. If either of us had a lucrative or meaningful career that was reliant on our physical presence in Seattle, it would have been worth it to tolerate the cost. But I work from home. At the time, my partner was working a part-time retail job. What were we paying for, exactly?
We both love attending cultural events that a big city like Seattle hosts. But we're also both generally homebodies. I can't speak for my partner, but as I've gotten older I've found myself valuing a nice home. Not a big home or a flashy home or anything like that. I value a home that feels like home. A place that's comfortable. A sanctuary. And our place in Seattle was anything but that.
Then we took a trip to Eugene, Oregon. And it was right then I knew I'd found my new home. I just had to convince my partner it was the right move. After a few long discussions, we decided upon a cozy house in the hills. Rents in Eugene make me feel rich! Here's the cost breakdown for my last three apartments. Notice the precipitous drop in price per square foot:
|Location||Monthly Rent||My Share||$/sqft|
|Capitol Hill, Seattle||$2,275||$2,275||$3.79|
|Green Lake, Seattle||$1,600||$1,067||$1.60|
My partner and I cook almost every day and eat most of our meals in. We have a morning coffee and breakfast ritual. We own only one small car.
Because of all this, my mandatory monthly spend is only around $2,000. That covers rent, food, and utilities.
For every $2,000 I have in the bank, I can sustain myself comfortably for a month without working.
I'm not sure there was a specific moment when it happened, but it changed my relationship with work forever.
It was the moment when I realized the psychological power of capital. The power of money is hardly in the material things it can buy. No, the true power of money is in the way knowing you have it changes your behavior.
Because I know I'll be able to pay my bills for the foreseeable future without working, the way I treat my client work has changed dramatically.
No longer am I desperate to please clients in the short-term. I remember bending over backwards, compromising my values and my health in order to make sure I'd continue to get paid.
Now instead of engaging with clients purely to get paid, I do it to serve them and their interests. Conveniently, money tends to be a byproduct of this service.
The beauty in having capital is that you're free to walk away from toxic client relationships. And you're in a position to vet new relationships with more scrutiny before it's too late and you've made promises you cannot keep.
The irony too, is that by maintaining a low-expense lifestyle I'm able to charge more for my services because I know I don't need the work. This doesn't mean I don't respect my clients' needs and constraints. In fact, minimalism has led me to respect them more because when I work with clients, I treat them like people instead of paychecks.
My desire to make it in my career has subsided as a result. If you're ambitious you probably know what I mean by wanting to make it. It's that sense that if only you had a few more markers of success, you'd finally be happy. You know what? I've acquired a few of those markers over the past decade and none of them made me happy. I've had luxury apartments and fancy dinners and $15 cocktails. I've been lured by big salaries and bonuses. None of it made me happy. Truth is, most of the things that make me happy don't require money. So why do we keep chasing more of it?
So what do I live for now?
I live for meaning. For cups of coffee with my partner in the morning. For quiet bicycle rides. For losing myself in complex programming problems. For being a disciplined learner. For the pursuit of art. For excellence.
I live to be curious. To be valuable. To serve others. To contribute. To live each day like it's my last, but knowing what that means for me.
I live to be free. To recognize that money is important not because of the stuff it can buy but because of the freedom it can buy. The freedom to breathe. The freedom to spend an afternoon writing an article for my blog instead of working to pay off a BMW.
To me, happiness is knowing if I died tomorrow I'd die with dignity. I'd die knowing that up until this moment I spent my days in accordance with my values.
A luxurious lifestyle would be nice, but it's not necessary for a life well lived.