The freedom of less
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
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
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%
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
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
|Capitol Hill, Seattle
|Green Lake, Seattle
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
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
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
A luxurious lifestyle would be nice, but it's not necessary for a life well