Here’s more of my “old man wisdom” about early retirement. I call it that because the lessons that I learned may or may not fully apply to you, but they worked for me and that is why I’m sharing them. Last time I talked about savings rates and how you need to save between 30-50% of your income in order to retire early. That’s a lot, and it leads to another long-running debate: Should you spend your energy trying to earn more money, or spend less money?
The “Earn More” or Capitalist argument is that you can’t save your way to being financially free. You need more money. You need a positive attitude, the willingness to work hard, and a desire to be rich. Capitalists tend to talk about things like entrepreneurialism, multiple streams of income, passive income, leverage, real estate opportunities, and occasionally some sort of multi-level marketing program like Amway or Herbalife.
The “Spend Less” or Frugalist argument is that unnecessary spending is the core problem. You don’t need all that stuff. You just need more spending discipline. Most American households have an amazing, luxurious lifestyle with huge houses, more than one car per person, and enough calories to feed a football team. People who earn more, just spend more. It is amazingly common to earn $250,000 a year and still live paycheck-to-paycheck. Look at athletes like Antoine Walker and Vince Young who have each earned over $100 million and $30 million respectively but still filed for bankruptcy shortly after they lost their jobs.
The easy answer – which I have used myself – is to do both. What a cop-out answer! Let’s try harder.
Studies have found that happiness is doesn’t go up after $60-$75k of annual income. Why is that? Perhaps it is because $60k will get you all the you need to be physically and socially comfortable. A house that isn’t embarrassing, reliable transportation, the ability to enjoy a dinner at Applebee’s with friends, the ability to travel occasionally. The median household income in the U.S. is roughly $51,000 a year. $60,000 is roughly 20% higher than that, making you “above average”. If you were to upgrade to a gated community, a Bentley, eating at 3-star Michelin restaurants, flying only on full-fare business class tickets, that won’t get you any better-quality friends. If you already make $200k and aren’t happy, then making $400k or $800k won’t make much difference.
Back to that 50% savings rate. If you’re happy with spending $60k (on average people spend 97% of their income), then you’d need to earn roughly $120k in order to save half. That seems like a good upper bound. If I already earned $120k or more, I’d probably focus on adjusting my spending to the 60k level instead of trying to make more.
On the flip side, as your income drops far below the median you start feeling the pinch more and more. A family of three that earns under $25,000 a year can be eligible for food stamps and other government subsidies. Earning $50k and saving 50% of that means living on $25k a year without being eligible for most government subsidies. Now, some people do live on less than 25k, but is rarely by choice (extreme counterexample). If I earned $50k and really wanted financial freedom, I would focus my energy on earning more money.
If your household income is less than 150% of the median income in your area, I would focus on earning more money. Start your own business. Invest in yourself through career advancement or a job change. For example if it is $60k, I would try to get to a household income of at least $90k. (That could be two people earning $45k each.) You could do a little frugalizing and spend $45k to get to a 50% savings rate.
If your household income is more than 200% of the median income in your area, I would focus on managing your expenses. If median income is $75k and your household income is $150k, then try and see if you can get to the spending level of a $75k household. Examine all of your expenses one-by-one. You will need to prioritize and probably cut back on areas that are less important to you. Early retirement is a big goal; you might need to make some big changes like moving to cheaper housing or dropping a car payment.
If you are in between 150% and 200% of the median income in your area, that is more of a gray area, and you may just need to do a little of both.
You can argue about the exact percentage cutoffs, but the basic idea is that I want a rule of thumb that accounts for the tendency of most people to maintain their social relationships (which are closely linked to happiness). At very low spending levels, it gets harder to maintain your social relationships and the self-discipline and energy needed can be better spent making more money. At a certain point, spending more money does not improve your relationships.