| August 27, 2015

Money & Career, Personal Finance, Podcast

Podcast #133: How to Attain Financial Independence Via the Strenuous Life

What would you say to a person who told you that you could retire at age 30, never have to work again, and still live a comfortable life, all on a normal salary and without winning the lottery?

You’d probably call them crazy. Of course that’s not how money works.

Well, my guest today did retire at age 30, and he did so without making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. And through his blog, he’s helped other people reach “financial independence” a lot sooner than they thought possible by living a life of “financial badassery.” His name is Pete and he’s the owner of the website Mr. Money Mustache. In today’s podcast, Pete and I discuss how living Teddy Roosevelt’s “Strenuous Life” can help you become financially independent.

Show Highlights

  • How Pete retired at age 30 without making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year
  • The Strenuous Life as a philosophy towards finances
  • What to do when you no longer have to work for money
  • How it’s possible to save up to 75% of your take-home pay (even if you have kids)
  • How much money you need to save in order to become financially independent
  • What you can do to teach your kids about money
  • Where Pete puts the money he saves
  • What you can do to earn more money to increase the amount of money you save
  • And much more!

mr money mustache pete retire early

After talking to Pete and browsing his website, I took a hard look at my finances and looked for ways I could practice some “financial badassery.” I don’t know if I’m ready to save 75% of my income, but I’ve taken some small steps. A few days after I talked to him, I canceled my family’s cable and saved us a little over $1,000 a year. I also got rid of some subscription services that I signed up for, but forgot about. Couple hundred dollars of yearly savings right there. If you’re looking for ways to get your finances in tip-top shape and perhaps even retire early, definitely take a look at Mr. Money Mustache’s blog.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. Now, imagine you’re in your 20s. A lot of you are actually in your 20s and someone comes up to you and says, “Look, with your current job, right, you don’t have to be making millions of dollars a year, just an average middle class job, you could retire at age 30 if you really wanted to.” Of course, you’ll probably say, “Well, that’s crazy talk. Of course you can’t. That’s not how it works. You have to work 30, 40 years to save enough so you can stop working or the way you shortcut that is you start a business and sell it for millions of dollars or a rich uncle dies, you win the lottery. We’re not counting on that so I’m going to put my 30, 40 hours 30, 40 years in.”

My guest today has done it. He actually retired at age 30 working as a software engineer. He wasn’t making millions of dollars a year. The way he did it was just through extreme frugality. His name is Pete. He runs a blog called Mr. Money Mustache. I know a lot of you guys follow him. Pete promotes what he calls financial badassery. His big argument is that Americans waste a lot of money on stuff that we really don’t need, luxuries that make us comfortable. If we can get rid of a lot of these luxuries or cut back on them, we can actually save a lot of money. What he says is like, “Look, you just live the strenuous life. Do things that are hard and you’ll actually save yourself some money that will give you financial freedom a lot sooner than you think.”

I think it’s really fascinating, his approach. Today on the podcast, Mr. Money Mustache and I discuss financial badassery and the mindset shift that needs to take place in order for you to be able to retire early if you wanted to. We’re also going to talk about what do you do when you retire early at age 30 or 35, what do you do with your time. Then, finally, we discussion some brass tacks things you can do right now to start saving more money to allow you to have some more financial independence. A really great show, I think you’re going to like it. Without further ado, Pete, Mr. Money Mustache. Pete, Mr. Money Mustache, welcome to the show.

Pete Thanks a lot Mr. McKay. I’m excited to be here on the Art of Manliness for the first time.

Brett McKay: I think you’re actually my first mustached guest I’ve ever had on the Art of Manliness Podcast.

Pete: Only in my publicity materials because actually in real life, I don’t always have mustache including right now. It’s too much maintenance. In that expense, I’m kind of failing in the manliness contest but it’ll grow back this winter and then I’ll be real again.

Brett McKay: Then, you’ll be real again. You have a blog called Mr. Money Mustache. I know a lot of our listeners are probably readers of it but the story behind it is you retired at age 30. How did this happen? How did you retire at age 30? You did this with you’re married, you have a kid. Did you win the lottery? Did you have a dead, rich uncle happen? What happened?

Pete: It’s all of the old fashioned … I did everything the old fashioned way. First of all, I should clear it up. I’m 40 now. This is about 10 years ago that my wife and I retired. The reason we did that is in order to start a family. We always figured we are such workaholics back in our 20s that we want to be free from that in order to concentrate on kids when they came along. That got us motivated to save through our 20s. We just worked as normal tech workers. We’re basically both software engineers. No magic, not really stock options or any kind of stuff like that. It was just we lived like a normal lifestyle but we earn a little bit more than normal which is not necessary for early retirement but the real key is just not spending everything you earn.

We lived on a little under half of what we took home and invested the rest and just paid off the house, bought normal index funds, nothing flashy. I did a rental house or two at times. When we were done, when we had enough savings, and we’re going to get to that later in the interview, it was enough to just live off the dividends and capital gains and rental income from the houses. Then, that was enough to cover our living expenses which are pretty low. We’ve been doing it ever since. Only after we realized that very few people did this did I feel it was necessary to start a blog to explain this weird, how we did this weird thing that’s actually pretty easy to do.

Brett McKay: It’s just aggressive saving, living frugally. We’re going to talk about some of the brass tack things you do. Before we do that, let’s talk about the underlying philosophy. I feel like it’s not so much tactical things that are hard to do. It’s the mindset. That’s the biggest change to do what you did. What’s the underlying philosophy behind the Mr. Money Mustache way of finances?

Pete: It’s a good question because I didn’t even realize I had an underlying philosophy as a kid and as a 20-year-old but then I realized I think of everything as a game. Some people think you win the game if you get the most luxuries and spend as much as your paycheck as you can without getting in trouble whereas I always thought I won the game for keeping as much money as possible and accomplishing the most stuff myself. For example, I always thought, “Oh, I’m 20 miles from work right now. I wonder if I could bike there. I wonder if I can make the bike trip in the winter. I wonder if there’s a way I can get the groceries without resorting to a car, just little challenges and doing stuff, pushing your own boundaries and doing things that are harder.

If you combine that with thinking about what makes you more money and what saves you more money, and that also applies to working harder and trying to kick ass a little bit more in your job, it just automatically … First of all, it makes you happier because accomplishing and learning is a much stronger source of happiness than any kind of big screen TV or nicer pair of golf shoes and stuff it’s going to provide you. You’re happier but at the same time, you’re earning more money and you’re spending less money. It’s like these 3 spokes of a philosophy which I later rebranded and I called it badassery which is the desire to be a bit more of a badass in your life tends to make you a lot more wealthy than you’d otherwise be too.

Brett McKay: Interesting. How do you do this when you’re surrounded by messaging to do the complete opposite? It’s not just the media or advertising but your friends, your family. They might not do it overtly but subtly, they’re like, “What are you doing? You should be living this sort of lifestyle buying stuff. Buy your kids nice things. Go on that vacation that’s really expensive.” How do you make this mindset shift when you’re being bombarded with messaging that says don’t do that?

Pete: I really like that question because you’re speaking of a US perspective and most of your listeners and readers and mine too are in this country. It’s important to realize that we are actually bat shit crazy in this country. A lot of other countries don’t have the same consumption disease that we have. You can get a long way just by doing the opposite of what everybody else does because we’re all doing it wrong. Everybody is out of shape, a lot of health problems, self-inflicted and stuff because we’re indulging in our momentary desires instead of thinking in a multi-decade plan of how can I make my life the best, how can I do the most difficult thing.

If you get negative feedback from society, that means you’re doing a good thing. Of course, I’m saying that with a little bit of a joke in mind because really, it’s not negative feedback. It’s just slightly questioning like for example, people in my town, my friends know that I finished working, I have lots of savings but I still ride around an old bike and they see me carrying a bike trailer full of groceries home from the store instead of having my servant drive it in a limo and deliver it and prepare my meals and stuff. They know that I just like doing stuff the hard way because that’s a more satisfying life. I think it’s in your mind that people are criticizing you. If you confidently set out to do a new, more badass lifestyle, really you end up getting more respect instead of less if people see that you’re serious about it and you’re pretty confident in your own internal values.

Then, the second part of that is just tune out of TV and advertising. TV is designed for nothing but to make you want more stuff like a shiny or bigger pickup truck and stuff. I’ve never really been into that. I just got rid of TV about 1999 and haven’t turned back. I’ll still watch great movies and stuff but there’s just no need to absorb advertising of any sort. You can just wipe that out of your life now that the world is more modern and you get to choose the information that’s pumped into your head. Between those 2 things, people should try and come back to me if they have any problems if those are working.

Brett McKay: This is great. You hit on this idea of not being a consumer but here’s what we’re missing is, we’ve written about this on the site before, anthropological studies about masculinity cross cultures, one thing that anthropologists have found is that to be a man, what separates men from boys and primitive tribes as well as larger industrial cultures like us is that whether you’re a producer or a consumer.

Pete: That’s awesome. That’s a great way to make the distinction. I get a lot of joy out of producing stuff. I’m currently living in a house that I built for myself for my family almost from scratch. It was a 1950s kind of dump when we moved in and then I tore the whole roof off. Producing this house, and I built other houses in the past, and producing writing and producing stuff through my jobs in the past was always where all the joy came from. I find when I occasionally indulge in consumption, it doesn’t really give me as much thrill as I thought.

One time, I went to a resort in Cancun and everybody’s just bringing me stuff and all the buffets are ready for you. All there is to do is just take, take, consume, sit down and then, I was like, “Well, what can I do here? Do these guys working on a hotel need any help?” I was looking around for something to keep me occupied for the week I was there because there’s no production to be done. I think that’s a great way to shift the balance of your wealth is to suddenly think about producing. Consumption is a necessary thing but you minimize that because it gives you more resources to produce which is where all the fun really is at.

Brett McKay: What I love about your philosophy, it’s un-American but it’s very American at the same time because what you’re advocating is basically what our founding fathers advocated, our great, great grandparents like you yourself, save as much as you can, produce, don’t consume. I guess there was a shift after the Second World War where consumption became a way of life for Americans.

Pete: Right. There’s still a lot of production going on in the background. I think people are trying to fool us. Spend, spend, support the economy. That’s not really what’s going on. The reason the country is strong is because of all the great stuff that we produced. Consumption doesn’t even have to be quite as much of a part of that. First of all, you can export your stuff. If you make the best cars like the Tesla Model S, ship it over to Germany and they’re buying them instead of BMWs. Then, you’re winning that part of the economic game.

The other thing is if you produce stuff that delivers long term dividends like for example, you build up a big awesome solar power factory or whatever that delivers energy for the next century, that’s a kind of production that is a long term benefit to society instead of just building a bunch of pickup trucks, wearing them out, burying them in the ground, build another bunch of them. There’s different kinds of production and consumption that have different long term effects on a country’s wealth. I like to move towards the stuff that actually creates lasting strength, lasting wealth.

Brett McKay: Mr. Money Mustache is playing the long game. Awesome. We’re talking about financial independence. There’s lots of books that have talked about that. Your Money or Your Life is one that I’ve read and had a big influence on me but how do you define financial independence? How do you know when you are financially independent?

Pete: That one’s a pretty easy answer. I think it’s just never having to work for money again which doesn’t mean that you don’t have to work, you don’t feel like working. I enjoy working every day but money is no longer a factor like this guy is going to pay me more even though I don’t like working for him. You no longer make that choice. You no longer sell out your core values. I even call this, I actually changed the word in my blog to being calling it retirement.

Some people say financial independence but I really like the word retirement because it just has a more of a final say. I’m trying to redefine retirement and say, “Well, guess what? Everybody should keep doing the work that they care about. You should quit your job if you don’t like it but you can call yourself retired as soon as you’re financially independent.” It’s just like a celebration word, just my own personal preference.

Brett McKay: Awesome. You advocate some serious savings rate, 50% to 75% of your income. Now, I know for some people, a lot of people who are listening are just like, that’s just like no way. You can’t do that. How do you do that on a tactical brass tacks level? How do you save, squirrel away 75% of your take home pay?

Pete: That’s a key thing, is first of all, think about take home pay because when you first say 50% of your income, people will say, “Wait a minute, almost 50% goes to taxes,” or whatever, you got to understand you’re talking about your post tax take home pay and then you should be able to work on saving a portion of that. The first thing is to say wipe out the prejudice where you say that’s not possible because it is. You can live on 10% of your take home pay if you really got badass about it. People do this. People live on $4,000 a year in the US. It’s a matter of being smart and how far are you willing to go on it.

Now, I never had to go anywhere close to that far. My family lives on, we’ve always lived on around 25,000 or spending just because that’s as much as we can manage to spend without feeling like we ran out of stuff to buy. As for the brass tacks question though, you just got to think about the main places to optimize. The biggest one in America is cars. A lot of people spend about 500% what they need to on driving around and not really ending up anywhere different at the end of the day. Tricks for that include prioritizing living close to what you do, live close to work, switch jobs, switch houses if you have to, don’t drive a big automatic transmission SUV. Get yourself a nice used Honda and make it last for 15 years.

Then, there’s food, cooking your own food, not going out for dinner as much but still keeping it social by hosting dinners and having friends that do the same thing so people end up having more fun at lower cost. Then, there’s just the general leakage like a lot of people walk around picking up objects all day from stores or shopping malls. If you just cut that out, reform your day so that shopping isn’t really part of it. A lot of people end up dropping a $1,000 a month from their spending just right there. Thinking of the big 3 is what gets you to the 50% or even 75% savings rate.

Brett McKay: I guess a lot of it is just being mindful of your spending. I think a lot of people just spend money mindlessly. They don’t even know where their money is going.

Pete: Totally. How many people have cable TV $100 a month or more? That’s an expense you can just wipe out today and just be like, “Hello. I don’t need cable TV anymore.” That’s $1,200 a year, compounds into like 15,000 per decade by the time you invest that money conservatively and that’s just by erasing something that you don’t need anyway because you should be out there producing instead of consuming other people’s reality TV shows and stuff. If you like watching sports, go out and play sports. That’s it. It’s a harsh thing to say on the Art of Manliness Podcast. There’s a lot of better stuff to do with your time than watching TV.

Brett McKay: How do you do this with kids? I’m sure some people who are listening are just like, “Okay, well, yeah. That’s easy if you’re single, right? I can live a Spartan life.” How do you do that when you’re married and you have kids?

Pete: I always wondered about it too until I had my own kid. It turns out they’re not as expensive as people say. It’s up to you how much kids cost. Obviously, there’s certain amount of healthcare cost with the kid that are somewhat available. There’s food. They do eat but other than that, it’s pretty flexible. It depends how much stuff you buy your kid and how much time you spend with them. For example, if you’re home with your kids like we were, then that saves a lot on daycare which often costs over a $1,000 a month.

There’s activities. I encourage my son to do whatever he wants because we can afford it but just because he has access to his parents so much, he’s less into the travel, sports teams and stuff and more into doing things in the neighborhood. It’s a little bit more of a previous generation the way things run in my town where the kids run around in a pack free and they play in the creek and play sports in the park behind my house and stuff like that. It’s amazing how cheap kids are. I think my son, we’ve added it up just very casually. It’s averaged to under $300 a month since he was born. Some people spend 10 times that amount on a per kid basis. I wouldn’t encourage you to cheap out like deny your kids of stuff in order to save money but if you just think of it in a different way, the expenses tend to melt away.

Brett McKay: Kids aren’t that expensive. My son’s clothes, he’s 4, we’ve always bought clothes from friends who had kids and they grew out of them. It’s nice stuff. It’s stuff from the Gap but we bought it for way cheap.

Pete: Your friends are usually thankful if they can unload their kid’s stuff to you. That’s a really good point. I didn’t even think of clothes because they’ve generally, until it was a certain age, they kind of just flowed in from other people and similarly, we passed his smaller clothes onto other people. Now that he’s 9, he’s big enough and growing a little more slowly that he truly destroys each item of clothing before it leaves the house. There’s no more hand-me-downs and stuff but clothes are just amazingly cheap these days. As long as you’re not in a fashion competition, you’re not going to spend more than a $100 or $200 a year on kid’s stuff.

Brett McKay: Are there any things you’re doing like have proactive conversation about money with your son?

Pete: Yeah. I like that question because I hope he ends up with the same luck that I have with not being really overly material desire burdened. First of all, there’s living by example which seems to work. He sees what his parents do with money and he sees how we’re not really into buying flashy stuff. We just have one old Toyota for our car whereas other friends of his where the parents still do after work might have multiple BMWs or big SUVs but there’s other stuff. Not having TV really helps him because he’s not barraged with a lot of kid advertising all day. We don’t take him around to shopping malls because I just pick up the necessities just through Amazon and everything gets delivered to the house. There’s not a lot of retail therapy.

The final part that’s been cool is that he gets his own money now. If he wants something like a toy or a video game, he has to fund that out of his account. We keep his money in a spreadsheet that I call just the Bank of Dad. Anytime he gets some money like earns it or gets it from a birthday present or whatever, from a grandparent, he puts it into the Bank of Dad. I give him 10% interest which updates automatically every month and he can see his balance. He can check it from his little computer. Now, he has an incentive to leave the money invested which is just how it should be for an adult. It’s like, “Well, I could burn $50 but then suddenly, I’m making $5 or less per year on interest. He sees the balance. He still buys stuff. He’s generous with his little buddies but he’s not going to blow it all on just nothing because he likes the idea of the passive income.

That’s a real thing adults should be trading off to. If I want to fork over $100,000 for a Tesla Model S, I have to realize that hundred is no longer going to be working for me for the rest of my life. It’s going to be sitting in the driveway depreciating and that’s one of the biggest things that keeps my spending in check, is just realizing I’d like to keep the nest egg in there working. Kids can actually get that concept pretty early too.

Brett McKay: Awesome. Besides saving, spending less than you earn, what else do you do or what else do you advocate that people do to supplement their income so they could support a family well not working for money?

Pete: That’s a nice shortcut because first of all, it is possible to just save so much that you never have to earn another cent but most people don’t do it that way especially if you’re fairly early in the financial independence and you quit your main job. A lot of people will keep a side job. For me, I really like doing carpentry just like pro, casual pro level carpentry around the neighborhood for people. Even over these last 10 years, I’ve still done different sizes of jobs just like when my son is taking a nap or when he’s in school, just go over and do some work for people that I like spending time with. It’s a little bit extra money.

My wife has experimented with stuff as well. After she quit working in software, she got a real estate license which is a fun thing for a lot of people to experiment with. She did some house selling and now, she has an Etsy shop this year where she’s making neat handcrafted bracelet and necklace stuff. Her Etsy shop is ticking off quite a bit. People never lose their desire to produce after you quit the job. You’re probably going to make money even after you retire.

Just to expand your question a little bit, I also think if you get focused about this and you get excited about challenge and hardship and the focused mind, you can often earn a lot more than you think in your regular career as well. I was always trying to think of my job as the number one priority while I had it as a software guy. I think that helped me earn more than I otherwise would which allowed my career to be a bit shorter. I think people should, while you’re still employed, you should really pour it on and switch jobs as needed or switch roles. A lot of people can make a lot more money than they currently do.

Brett McKay: Awesome. Here’s a question. I know probably you’re not going to have a specific answer but roughly, how much does someone need to save in order to retire early? Is there a rough percentage of your income that you get? What is it you should be shooting for?

Pete: Right. That’s a pretty easy question actually because the financial companies like Fidelity or whatever, they often confuse you by talking about how much of your income you need. That’s totally wrong. What you need to do is figure out how much you’re spending and then you need 25 to 30 times that amount invested. That will generate passive cash flow that you can live off more or less for the rest of your life. That’s just a really good rule of thumb. If you spend $10,000 a year just because it’s a round number, you’d need $250,000 of investments to reliably deliver you that money forever.

Then, there is where the rubber meets the road because a lot of people, higher income people, will build up a lifestyle for themselves that cost $100,000 a year. It turns out, to fund that, you need between 2.5 and 3 million dollars invested to keep that cash fire hose going, which is pretty hard to save up that much money unless you’re a really high earner. I optimize on both sides trying to earn more, trying to design an efficient lifestyle which is why I always use this $25,000 figure. 25K, if you have your house paid off which is how I do things, is more than enough to fund a family of 3 or 4 in most US areas. In that case, you need about $600,000 plus pay off your houses. 6, $700,0000 is enough to retire on plus the value of your house. You could think of it as about 1 million dollars. It sounds like a scary number if you’re a beginner at saving but once you get into these 50% savings rates, the numbers really start to crank up unexpectedly and suddenly, you’re dealing in 6-figure change instead of 3-figure changes in your wealth each year.

Brett McKay: Is this money that’s not … They’re in index funds but they’re not in a retirement account?

Pete: Right. I would encourage you put as much as you can into the retirement account because you can read about the details later but there’s ways to get that out earlier or you could spend your post tax money first and then gradually work into your retirement money as you’re older or you might end up earning more money as a carpenter or whatever after you retire anyway. You don’t worry about those details other than put it in there.

Index funds is the easiest way. It’s a safe way. If you’re at all interested and skilled in rental house management or income properties, you can get a higher rate from that than you can from stock investing in general but it’s not an easy … You do have to know a little bit. You have to be somewhat motivated to learn and understand why it doesn’t work in San Francisco very well and then why it does work in Oklahoma pretty well because of the price to rent ratios being more favorable in some different areas of the country.

Brett McKay: The whole paying off the house thing, there’s 2 sides of that debate. Some people say you shouldn’t. Some people say you should pay it off early. I heard the other thing, you shouldn’t pay it off early because there’s tax payment and stuff but I’ve never understood that argument because you’re basically paying the bank money so you can save a little bit on taxes.

Pete: Right. It’s true. It’s a win-win question. You can’t really go wrong as long as your other alternative isn’t buying a boat with that money. If you pay off your house, you’re getting a 4% return on whatever your mortgage rate is. A compromise to make the best of both sides of the coin might be to leave your house unpaid off while you’re working. Max out the index funds while you’re working and your income is high especially if you have an expensive house because you’re going to be up above the standard deduction. You’ll actually be really benefitting from the mortgage write-off.

Then, once you quit, your income will be a lot lower because you’re just living off investments instead of your massive doctor or lawyer salary or whatever. Then, you could transfer some money to pay off your house. That really lowers your monthly expenses a lot. You lower your cash flow requirements which just makes people relaxed. It’s a fairly good investment. It’s a 4% guaranteed fixed yield which you can’t really get anywhere else right now. It protects you from fluctuations in the stock market because you’ll always have that zeroed, all your monthly mortgage bills. You’ll just be paying property taxes and that’s it.

Brett McKay: What’s the one thing that someone who’s listening to this podcast right now, what can they start doing today to start on the road to financial independence?

Pete: You could start learning about other people who have done it. That’s one thing to do or you can just start taking action, make sure you have a good working bike and start replacing car trips with a bike. I like that as a psychological bridge to better money management because it’s a challenge. It saves you money but it’s also getting you change, it’s getting you more physically fit and it’s changing your mindset so that suddenly, you are active instead of passive and you’re figuring out how you’re solving problems in the world instead of just relaxing and pressing the gas pedal. I like to use the bike as both the figurative and the literal model for the first step to a financially prosperous life because it’s the perfect example of the stuff you have to do if you really want to get ahead of everybody.

Brett McKay: Awesome. Do hard things like find something that’s hard and do it.

Pete: Yeah. I would say the bike is a perfect … That can be the hard thing unless you’ve got something else in mind.

Brett McKay: Awesome. Pete, where can people learn more about your work?

Pete: There’s only one place, just my blog, mrmoneymustache.com and it’s showed up on a lot of other stuff like newspapers and podcasts and stuff recently so you can poke through those in my media section too if you want more of this big picture interviews but really, if you just want to crank through some of the early articles and then see if you take a liking to them and if you do, then there’s a never-ending chain because I’ve been writing this thing for 4 years. There’s a lot there to have fun with.

Brett McKay: Pete, Mr. Money Mustache, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Pete: Likewise. Thanks so much.

Brett McKay: Our guest today was Pete. He’s the owner of the blog, Mr. Money Mustache. You can find out more about his work and some more advice on personal finance badassery at mrmoneymustache.com. That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoyed the show, you get something out of it, I’d really appreciate it if you would give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or whatever it is you use to listen to podcast. That will help us get some feedback on how we can improve the show, as well as get the word out about the podcast for more people. The more, the merrier. I really appreciate it. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

Last updated: September 15, 2015

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