Die With Zero: How to Spend (All) Your Money

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You might be saving too much money right now! You need to spend more! That is the unconventional message of the book Die With Zero by Bill Perkins. Some delayed gratification can be a good thing, but it can be a very bad thing if you simply end up dying with a big pile of money. Life is about having as many positive experiences as possible, and dying with more than zero means you wasted potential experiences.

The main problem is that our incomes, free time, and health vary differently with age. Incomes generally rise with age. Yet, our health and physical ability generally drops with age. Free time is a bit different, as you tend to have more free time when you are either quite young or quite old.

Therefore, the idea that we should save all the money we can in order to spend it in retirement isn’t ideal. Certain experiences are best during certain seasons of life, and you should spend your money at the times when it has the most impact. That also means you shouldn’t save much money in your 20s, as that is the best time for many of those “valuable” experiences. Here are some suggestions from the book about how to fill those “time buckets” (click to enlarge):

While I agree with many of the messages in this book, the tone often rubbed me the wrong way. Too put it bluntly, this book felt written by a “really rich guy” for his really rich friends. The author lives in a different world. In one example, he was proud that he threw a party in the Caribbean island of St. Barts which involved flying out all the attendees, renting out an entire hotel, and hiring Natalie Merchant for a private concert. Huh?

When you write a book, you ask your friends to leave an Amazon review. Perfectly reasonable. But read this:

I have to start off by saying that I know Bill Perkins personally, and that is going to make my review biased. With that being said, in my 1 year of knowing Bill, Ive had the most amazing experiences of my life. Everything from travelling around the world to playing chess with Sir Richard Branson on his private island.

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via GIPHY

My primary criticism is the implicit assumption that “valuable” experiences have to cost a lot of money. Hiring celebrities to sing for you. Dropping $100,000 on a birthday party. Is it really a great tragedy if someone doesn’t end up skiing in the Swiss Alps? I’m pretty sure I’m going to die without sailing the Amalfi coast, because I have no idea where that is!

Today, my three kids went to their great-grandmother’s and great-aunt’s house. My wife spent her youth climbing a large lemon tree in the yard. Her grand-aunt is 93 years old and the kids got to help her pick the lemons and made (very messy and sticky) lemonade together. My wife reminisced about how she used to do the exact same thing (including the messy and sticky part) with her late grandmother. That was also a priceless memory, but it has little to do with money. It was about love and making an effort to spend time together.

My secondary criticism is that the book doesn’t actually teach you how to “Die with Zero”. I was honestly hoping for some insights about spending down an investment portfolio in order to accomplish “maximum spending”. Unfortunately, the book contains little practical investment advice. There is only a quick mention to “look into” annuities, and to use a longevity estimator.

There was no rebuttal to the fact that with nearly every investment, you’ll need to leave yourself some wiggle room because you don’t know how long you’ll live, future expenses, future investment returns, future interest rates, and future inflation. The only safe solution might be a TIPS ladder, which would require a lot more money than what you might need with stocks.

Let’s end on a positive note. Here are the best takeaways from this book.

  1. The most valuable things in life are experiences shared with loved ones.
  2. Each stage of your life is special and unique.
  3. Make a list of truly valuable experiences that you want at each stage. Think about why they are different for each stage (health, free time).
  4. Make them a priority. If it costs money to make it happen, then spend it happily and consciously.

Some things can wait, and others can’t. Maybe you want to learn how to surf, raise a huge family, start a nonprofit, or move somewhere warm and breezy. However, I would reiterate that I do not equate “valuable” with “expensive” or “rare”. Here are the most valuable memories that I can thing of:

  • Early 20s: I met my future wife, who is my best friend and inspires me every day. Finding the right life partner was so important to my happiness.
  • Early 20s: I did backpack around Europe and stay in hostels as a single person. The total cost was probably a couple thousand dollars and I paid cash (no debt). It was fun, but I would have also had amazing memories hiking the Appalachian Trail or teaching English in Japan.
  • Early 20s: I quit a well-paying job to take a risk and try to switch careers. It didn’t work out as I imagined, but it did work out.
  • Late 20s and early 30s: Once we had things lined up, we “spent” our energy mostly on many hours of work and high saving rates. No regrets as it set us up for the rest of our lives.
  • Mid-30s to Early-40s: We “spent” some of our money by choosing to work less and be able to raise our young children. I will never have to say the words “I wish I spent more time with them while they were young, and less time working”. We still work but our saved money gives us flexibility and the ability to choose what we work on. I am able to exercise and socialize regularly.
  • So what’s left? In my 20s, I wish I spent more time with my friends doing simple things like hanging out at bars. Today, I wish I kept in touch with them better as well. This book has strengthened my resolve to take the effort to meet up with them soon. It’s hard with everyone’s work schedules, families, etc. Something simple like go-karts, hiking, or bowling. We probably won’t stumble into Richard Branson, but who knows?

Looking back, it was more about constructing a daily life of purpose and happiness, rather than a bucket list of limited experiences. My “must haves” are based on the components of happiness, where I use money so that I can say things like:

  • I consistently lead a purposeful and meaningful life. I spend my time on things that are important.
  • I consistently become absorbed in what I am doing. Time seems to pass quickly when I am working.
  • I am in excellent health and am satisfied with my level of health.
  • I consistently receive help and support from others when I need it.
  • I am consistently excited and interested in things.
  • I rarely feel lonely.
  • I consistently feel loved.

It’s a good message not to hoard your money forever. We do have some bucket-list items like travel destinations, but honestly checking them off won’t change our lives from “good” to “awesome”. Our personal concept of financial freedom leads to a ideal lifestyle that wouldn’t change much if you were to give me more money to spend. We have “enough”.

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Comments

  1. I love your perspective and the beautiful picture of your children enjoying the family lemon tree. THAT is a life lived with joy and intentionality. Thanks for sharing it with us!

  2. This was wonderful, I rarely take the time to click through an email to leave a comment, but I had to for this post. Beautifully written, funny and authentic and so true! I have been following you since around the middle of your late 20s-early 30s accumulation phase and I am always so inspired by how much you know yourself, what is most important in life, and have made the tradeoffs to get there. Thank you!

  3. I’m not a big fan of much of the hate the rich have rec’d in recent years, but I do suspect they tend to see things differently than maybe us average folks. And by rich I don’t mean someone making $200k per year, but more someone that is worth $10s of millions. Maybe at some point people lose some self-awareness of fall out of touch.

    • I truly think the author came from a good place, it was just more than a little tone-deaf. I acknowledge that my income in the past was well above average, and it would help if the book acknowledged that it would take a sustained income that was well above average to realistically accomplish that example bucket list of items shown.

  4. Excellent article and wonderful perspectives. Thank you!

  5. James Chen says

    Great critical review on a book that has a hard time seeing beyond material wealth.

    • Perhaps when you reach a ultra-high net worth, you start to ascribe true value to the things that require such high amount of money. Otherwise, you might realize that your extra money doesn’t make much difference! What does a $30,000 purse do that a $300 purse doesn’t? Yet people start to value such things when they have the money.

      Having a special and memorable birthday party with your closest family and friends is possible at nearly any income level.

  6. I enjoyed reading your perspective, because it pretty much aligns with my own. I am 72 and have probably saved way too much. However, it is nice to not stress over money. I would add an item to your list on constructing a daily life of purpose and happiness: I consistently give help and support to others when they need it.

  7. Appreciate your comments, Jonathan. I agree with your reminder that some of the best memories in life are not associated with money. Granted, we need a base to retire on and not worry every month. Beyond that, I tend to shy away from people that compare vacations, houses, cars with success or who we are. Maybe add: Keep the kid in all of us alive – always be on the lookout for new things to learn or people to support.

  8. I think the idea is solid and more people need to think about it.

    I really wish my dad had learned to spend more of his money when he was younger. He is now in his 80’s and has more money than he’ll need and he still can’t bring himself to splurge or barely spend anything. If you’re focused on being frugal and saving for the future for too long its a hard habit to get out of and you end up living like a poor person your whole life and dying with piles of unspent money.

    • I agree, habits are hard to break. I’m having some similar experiences with my parents. The question is, what could they spent money now on that would really make them happier? I’m honestly not sure, given their personalities.

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