Embrace Your Inner Dirtbag
Personal-finance guru Mr. Money Mustache breaks down how Outside readers can stop wasting hard-earned cash on expensive gear and trips and start putting it toward real freedom: the financial kind
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It was 2011, and Pete Adeney was fed up. Not with his own life in Longmont, Colorado—that was going great. The former software engineer had retired six years before at the tender age of 30, thanks to the savings he’d accrued through the extremely frugal lifestyle he and his wife at the time had adhered to, as well as some smart investing. No, Adeney was frustrated by the conversations he kept having with friends and acquaintances who would say they wanted to leave the grind, too, but felt perpetually cash-strapped despite making decent salaries. As he tells it, “These comments were generally made over expensive pints of microbrew at a restaurant, or on Facebook between announcements regarding the purchase of brand-new dealer-financed Subarus, snowboarding trips, and road-biking equipment.”
So Adeney started a blog. Adopting the alias Mr. Money Mustache, he began dishing advice about how to live in a nontraditional, low-cost way to achieve what he calls “a frugal yet Badass life of leisure.” Over the next decade, the blog would be read by millions of people worldwide, and Adeney would become a leading voice in a movement referred to as FIRE—financial independence, retire early—which was then gaining traction among millennials in particular, who were learning these personal-finance tactics primarily through online resources.
Key to the FIRE approach is slashing expenses in order to generate savings that can then be invested, with the ultimate goal of retiring from full-time salaried work by your thirties or forties. But that mentality can often run counter to the expensive gear purchases and epic trips that seem core to the outdoor lifestyle. In an email interview, Adeney, now 46, shared his thoughts on how Outside readers can make better financial decisions and achieve the long-term freedom we all really want.
Outside: It seems that a lot of us outdoorsy types are bad with money. Why do you think that is?
Adeney: It’s not just outdoorsy types, really, it’s almost everyone in our rich but spendy country.
I think it boils down to a few behaviors that are innate to us as a species—social and status cues, herd mentality, and some of our irrational decision-making tendencies, known as cognitive biases. When you start with these natural weaknesses, and then nurture them with lots of persuasive marketing, you end up with people who buy just a bit more than they can afford, year after year. We end up spending most of our lives in debt while considering it normal, which is pretty much the definition of being bad with money.
A quick example: About 85 percent of cars in the U.S. are bought with some form of financing. Cars depreciate, so the last thing you should ever do is spend all your money on one, let alone go even further and spend more than all your money. We do it because we see other people doing it—that’s the herd mentality at work.
Then we’re programmed with all sorts of excuses as to why we should do this: “I need an SUV to carry my two tiny children safely,” “I’m an outdoorsperson, so I need high ground clearance and four-wheel drive.” These justifications, which are actually pretty feeble from an engineering standpoint, are fed into our brains from that big marketing program.
We pay lots of money for little conveniences and luxuries, which may be a fine strategy for a multimillionaire. But if you have any other possible use for money, you should give it another thought.
What would be a better decision than buying a new truck or SUV?
Right now a great multisport car that’s also money smart would be a 2011 Honda Fit, with good snow tires and a hitch so you can mount a bike rack or pull a small trailer. That’d be about $6,000, instead of spending $36,000 on a Subaru that’s really just a bloated and jacked-up version of the same basic car. This type of thinking can make a difference of $100,000 per decade in car costs alone, through the combination of a lower purchase price and lower operating costs.
You can apply the same type of logic to your choices of bikes, skis, or even the activities you plan for yourself. For example, I love both snowboarding and mountain biking. But I live only 15 minutes from the mountain-bike trails, and they’re free to use and much better exercise. So I bike frequently and board rarely.
A common trope is “Spend money on experiences, not things.” But what if your experiences require the purchase of expensive items? Like a $60,000 Sprinter van, or a $19,000 camper, or an $8,000 carbon road bike? What’s worth spending money on?
Wow! Those are some spectacular numbers. And that brings us back to the idea of being good with money. Because the true definition of being good with money is having a realistic sense of what you can afford at the current stage of your life.
While you still have things like a car loan or a mortgage, you just can’t be thinking about an $8,000 bike. Heck, I ride bikes every day, have no mortgage, and enough savings to last several lifetimes, and I still would never spend even half that amount on a bike. So instead of thinking about what’s worth spending money on, I encourage people to break it down more like this:
- What things really make me happy in life, and which things bring me stress or unhappiness?
- What is the most effective and least costly way to cut out some of that stress and bring more of the happiness into my typical week?
When you look at the bigger picture like this, you might realize that your commute to work or maybe even your entire job is stressful. So you find a way to shorten the commute or find a new job. You might wish you had more time to spend with friends or family, which might mean scheduling less into your days, focusing on quality rather than quantity.
On top of that, a proven formula for happiness and satisfaction is to emphasize production over consumption. For example, volunteering to build trails is often more satisfying than walking on them. Creating an adventure by camping is more satisfying than passively consuming from a buffet at a resort. For me, building my own really nice house is more satisfying than buying an existing one and living in the luxury that somebody else created.
Only at the end of all that do you decide if you really need any new upgrades. I rarely get any new outdoor equipment these days. I already have what I need, and it’s way more than enough stuff to keep me busy. Even as a retired guy with no pets, and a child who’s nearly grown up, I still find that my main shortage is that of time.
Related to that, can we talk a bit about what you call “tiny-details exaggeration syndrome?” On your blog, you define it as “the tendency of humans to zoom in on increasingly irrelevant details as their material wealth increases.” How might this behavior play out when we’re making gear purchases?
Yes! TDES, as I like to call it, is particularly endemic among outdoorspeople. For example, I happen to own a $2,400 Giant Reign mountain bike, which is the fanciest bike I’ve ever had. But I got it on Craigslist for $400, because it’s a 2010 model.
This bike is insane. Every part of it looks like it was sculpted by an advanced alien race. Yet many cyclists, even those who aren’t professional racers, wouldn’t even consider such a lowly bike—because of TDES, they buy themselves brand-new $3,000 versions of the same basic thing. Yet I can ride the same trails as them and have just as much fun. More importantly, I can ride whenever I want, even if it involves disappearing to Chile for six months to explore the Andes, because I never have to go to the office again, because I made decisions like this one.
Is there any framework you recommend that people use for making a decision on whether to spend a big chunk of cash on something like a pair of skis or a guided international trip?
Absolutely. I suggest asking yourself questions like these:
- Do I have any debt like a car loan, student loan, credit card, or anything besides a very moderate and affordable mortgage? If so, the answer is: Hell no, you are in a debt emergency, and you shouldn’t be buying anything besides groceries until you get out of it!
- Is there any way I can get the same happiness at a lower cost? For example, doing a local version of an activity instead of a far-flung one, or buying high-quality used equipment instead of new stuff.
After clearing those basic hurdles, if you have thought it out for a good long while and still think the purchase is a good idea—go for it.
Can we also talk to the person who’s reading this from, say, a ski town where they’re making minimum wage waiting tables or patrolling? A lot of these folks might think, Saving and investing seems impossible for me right now, making $13 an hour. Is there anything they can do differently to attain long-term financial freedom?
That’s a challenging lifestyle, but I like to think of it like an optimization game, because I lived it for a long time, too.
I grew up in a poor, small town. My parents probably had a middle-class income, but they lived so frugally that my siblings and I would never have known it. We were always the last family in school to get flashy new technologies, like the VCR or the microwave, and we generally had to buy our own toys or bikes or movie tickets. I started working at age 11 as a newspaper delivery boy—yes, I’m that old—and then cutting grass, painting houses, and working my way through minimum-wage jobs in order to save for college and pay for my own clothes, food, and gas and insurance for the rare times I was allowed to borrow the family minivan.
This made me really appreciate how valuable money is, so I learned to stretch it. The tricks were pretty basic: Don’t own a car unless you absolutely have to, and if you do, make sure it’s a manual-transmission Honda hatchback that you know how to maintain yourself. Cook your own food, brew your own beer, grow your own pot, and share a rental house with great friends rather than rent your own apartment. Work hard, and take a step up the ladder whenever you get a chance, and start a side hustle or help somebody else who has their own business. Save money, stay out of debt, and eventually you won’t have a shortage of money anymore.
I don’t want to sound too glib here—there’s still privilege inherent in my situation. But the biggest gift my parents gave me was the assumption that I need to work for what I get, and conserve it. Learning to optimize everything in order to have the most fun with the lowest cash flow was the real trick that made my teens and early twenties still work out well, even when I didn’t have money.
Many people put off financial planning, because it can be viewed as boring compared to planning something outside that weekend. What do you want to say to people who have that attitude?
I admit, I do find money interesting and I like talking about it. But that’s not always necessary for success. After all, I went from zero money to retiring at age 30 without ever even making a budget. All you really need to think about is, Is there a way to make the most of this life, while wasting the least amount of money I can?
Spending money can be good—if it truly creates happiness, you’re using it right. Wasting money is the only thing you need to avoid. My definition of waste is to spend more money than you need to get a given level of overall life happiness. In other words, to get better at money, sometimes you need to get more creative with your entire life.
What are a few pieces of your most straightforward, actionable advice for outdoorspeople who want to live a “frugal yet Badass life of leisure”?
- Drive less, and do it in the least expensive, most reliable, and most efficient car you can find—ideally, a small hatchback. Transportation is usually the biggest and most easily cut piece of our excess spending.
- Don’t go out to dinner or buy drinks in bars, except as a last resort. Host parties instead. By being the leader of your social group rather than a follower, you get to set more of the agenda, save money, have more fun, and be more popular as a side benefit.
- We all have way more opportunities to do fun stuff than we have time. Put everything that you want to do on a list, then sort it by activities that are less expensive and more healthy, and prioritize those first. You’ll find that you never even get to the bottom to do the more expensive stuff, because life is too busy.
- Have some courage, and drive to make a bit of money outside of your regular job. If you have a house, rent out a room. If you’re a renter, shop around regularly for a home that’s close to work and has other benefits, like an opportunity to earn money by helping the owner with their own business.
Stop watching TV, and use that time to read books or absorb podcasts on things that broaden your knowledge and give you new ideas on what to do with your free time. That time is your chance to get ahead—and make your life a lot more fun in the process.