I generally keep this place pretty well disguised as an Early Retirement Financial Blog, but secretly it is a Life Improvement Blog. The glitzy monetary veneer allows me to get lots of media attention and scoop in readers, because everybody wants to read about money, and everybody wants more of it. “Meet the man who retired at 30!”, “Millionaires when most peers are still in debt!”, and so on.
Eventually these new readers find out that we live on only 25 grand a year, and they immediately become concerned. “That’s way too hardcore. I could never live like that. We spend more than that on youth hockey alone.” They would prefer that I go back to the part about having more money.
But when you actually show up at Adm Karpinsk’s house, after sheepishly hiding your SUV around the corner and apologizing for your non-compliant lifestyle, you notice that the poverty-stricken ramen noodle lifestyle you expected is nowhere to be seen. Instead, the scene feels decidedly fancy. How can fanciness and frugality both exist at the same time?
It’s really simple, and best summed up with just a few more key F-words:
Focus, Festivity and Flow
Let’s first illustrate them with a few quick stories, and then come back to explain why they work (and how they help us amass millions of dollars, of course) at the end.
Here in the MMM household, every dinner is a candlelight dinner. But I don’t stop there: every lunch is a candlelight lunch, and even every breakfast is a candlelight breakfast.
Candles as a personal finance tip. Crazy? You are correct – crazy awesome. The very fact that we can afford great food and have a peaceful place to sit down and eat it is cause for celebration. Instead of becoming accustomed to this incredible luxury, I prefer to pause life and focus on it several times every day. Quietly and deliciously, in the presence of a silent, glowing flame.
Gathered together with family and friends is always the best way, but if there’s nobody around and I’m dining alone, it is still a celebration worthy of candles*. Fire has been a symbol of human gatherings since before we had a name for it, so of course I’m going to carry and pass on this tradition.
Just as gathering around a fire is a part of our shared heritage, so is Music. The right music has magical effects: have you ever rediscovered a song that was the foundation of a heart-wrenching high school romance, or an intense trip to another country with new friends, or even a particularly intense period of studying during your undergrad degree? The sounds of the song can pierce directly into your soul and bring old feelings flooding back as if you were instantly seventeen years old again.
This happens because music is wired more directly into our emotional systems than sights or language. It’s an animal response more like smells and pheromones, and it can influence your mood completely and positively even if you don’t notice it happening**.
Before even knowing about this long romance between my own species and music, I have always craved it. Nowadays, I make a point of putting some good stuff on the stereo at appropriate times (the festive times) throughout the day. It’s easy to forget, but it is definitely worth remembering.
High Energy Electronica like Mord Fustang if there’s a crowd of boys running around shooting Nerf darts at each other. Happy, groovy music like Medeski Martin and Wood when we’re cooking and the house is full of socializing adults, maybe sliding a little down the Chillax scale to Morcheeba when it’s time to eat that dinner around the aforementioned candles.
The deepest satisfaction in life and the widest smile as your head hits the pillow each night comes not from optimizing your consumption, but from the act of purposeful creation. The problem is, the craving for consumption is always there on your shoulder, telling you to eat just one more brownie, or research just one more thing on Amazon, or flick your thumb down just one more time on the endless Facebook feed to find out what He said earlier that made Her say that this afternoon.
Even Reddit or Slashdot or (gasp) the Adm Karpinsk Forum are geysers of consumption temptation. You can get valuable information from these sources if you consult them when you actually need that information, but you can’t get more happiness by consuming more of them than necessary.
To fix the problem, you need to very consciously stop the binge. You need to not even bake the brownies in the first place, or uninstall the apps, or violently sweep your Life Table of the debris that is getting in the way of you doing the much more satisfying activity of actually creating something you care about.
This article is the perfect example. As you may know, I’ve been battling with time management issues since we started homeschooling about a year ago. Suddenly the golden daily six-hour chunk of time that had allowed me to write up the over 450 articles on this blog, and rebuild a few houses on the side, even while being a full-time-dad was gone. The impact on on my productivity is documented well when you scroll through the months on the list of all posts.
The free time was not fully gone, of course – nobody is going to pull out the sympathy violin for a pair of financially independent 41-year-olds with no jobs, no pets and one gloriously curious and healthy boy. But my old default system was no longer working. Almost every time I felt the desire to sit down and write something, I’d be busy or interrupted or it would be bedtime already. I had a bad case of Excusitis, the failure disease.
Then one unhappy evening my wife and I were having a pointless argument over which one of us had spent more time using their phone when they were supposed to be helping out with family life. We both decided to install the “RescueTime” app to track our own phone use, then attempt to be reasonable about that use over the next month. I was appalled by the results:
I was spending an AVERAGE of Two Hours and Fifty Five Minutes a DAY staring at my PHONE? Almost one fifth of my waking hours?
Some of my top goals in life include staying in shape as well as writing this blog and an associated book on the subject. You can get an excellent weight training workout done in about 20 minutes, and an entire blog article (out of my 200+ partially written article ideas) takes only 4-6 hours to iron out and publish. This means I could easily finish an article and/or book segment every week AND get plenty of time in the home gym with only the time wasted EVERY THREE DAYS on the phone. That blew my mind.
I had already won a small battle with that infernal brain-scrambler earlier this year, when I stopped bringing it into the bedroom and banned the Twitter app. And yet still we have this three-hour-a-day problem. Time to make a bigger change: the zero telephone day.
What would happen if I left the thing off for an entire day? Would those three hours magically pop back into my life? Could I take the deprivation? What if I applied this rule permanently, any time I am at home and thus have better things to do than looking at a phone?
If you are reading this, the experiment has been a success. When moderation proves too tempting, it’s best to go cold turkey. I have found that completely banning the phone from my pocket during time at home creates a shockingly powerful quiet and has me doing all sorts of useful things when I would have usually just settled down on the couch for “a little reading break.”
Creating space in life for the flow of creation is the third investment that is guaranteed to bring you a wealthier life.
So Why Does This all Work?
(and how does it all relate to millions of dollars?)
Regardless of your income, spending, or wealth, you still have exactly 24 hours available to spend each day. You can get up early, work late, run around to constant activities and employ a staff to help you spend your surplus money more effectively. But none of these things are likely to bring you any more happiness – because the trap of constantly being busy displaces many of the happiest possible things you can do with your time – focus, festivities and flow.
So instead, I just put certain core things first:
- Eight hours of sleep every night with no alarm clocks accounts for a good chunk of it. Proper sleep brings both health and happiness.
- Great, full, meals of good clean-burning food with people I care about takes time as well. But it’s equally important to health and wellness, so why would I sacrifice this for an inferior option?
- By the time you add in at least a couple of hours being active outside, time to reinvest in strength and a resilient body, time to create (sometimes referred to as ‘work’) and flow, time to visit other people, and time to be festive and celebrate the joy of being alive, it’s almost bedtime again.
And there you go: an entire life of happiness before I even get a chance to set foot in a shopping mall or sign up for any cruise ship voyages!
Believe me, if I still feel any shortage after all of this that can be corrected with even more activities or even more purchases, I’ll be the first one out there buying stuff with some of this surplus money. But until then, I’ll keep living the good life, even if it is “too frugal” for some of my fellow high-income peers to understand. Lower spending, higher wealth and most of all higher happiness.
* I like soy or beeswax candles instead of standard paraffin candles, which are made of petroleum and release more car-style pollutants. Especially if burning them in a smaller room and/or in winter with closed windows. Mrs. and little MM make their own candles from a reusable kit they bought on Amazon because it’s fun and they become very handy, classy gifts for people.
** For the same reason I’m equally excited about keeping anti-music out of my life whenever practical. The absence of TV in my house, muscle-powered rakes and lawnmowers instead of gas ones, and even my microwave oven that was specifically selected because you can disable the goddamned beep completely, are all deliberate choices because we want to keep the mental stage set for good times whenever people gather to enjoy them.