Adam Zerner

Thoughts on Mustachianism

I've always been a Mustachian. Recently I've been noticing myself having some diverging thoughts about it. But despite those diverging thoughts, there's still a lot of core ideas that I really identify with.

Anyway, here are some assorted thoughts.

He doesn't always advise frugality

People often assume he's all about frugality. In reality, he thinks that some things are worth spending good money on. For example, he likes the idea of splurging a bit on a home because of how important it is.

I live in one of the nicer houses in my town’s nicest (to me) neighborhood*. I love the four bedrooms and four bathrooms and the nice renovations I’ve done throughout this place over the past five years. It’s not the cheapest place to live, but to me it’s the best value of living pleasure to the dollar I could create. A house to me is the home base of your spirit, and when you’re living a frugal and natural life, you spend a lot of time at home. As a result, when I compare the sunk cost of my housing to that of other people, I come out behind.

Part of the blame for this is on readers for being uncharitable. But part of the blame is also on MMM, in my opinion. He spends an awful lot of time talking about frugality, giving examples of how you'd be better off by being more frugal. He spends very little time talking about things that are worth splurging on. When you allocate your time that way, it can be easy for readers to get the wrong impression.

Bang for your buck is a very central idea

Think about the following spectrum:

  1. Ramen
  2. Chicken and rice
  3. Home cooked beef and broccoli
  4. Postmates
  5. Sit down restaurant
  6. Fancy restaurant

As you move along it, things get more expensive, but also higher quality. So then, in figuring out what the best point on the spectrum is, you have to think about bang for your buck.

In going from home cooked beef and broccoli to Postmates, I'd argue that the bang for your buck is usually pretty bad. It'll be a pretty big step up in price for food that really won't be (much) better than what you'd make at home.

In going from Postmates to a sit down restaurant, I'd argue that the bang for your buck is usually pretty good (just don't go to Olive Garden). For an extra 5-10 bucks or so you can enjoy some truly legit food.

MMM argues that in many different situations, people usually are at point 4 on the spectrum when the bang for your buck is terrible over there, and they'd be much better at say, point 2. You really won't be sacrificing much by going down to point 2, but you'll be saving a whole lot of money.

I identify extremely strongly with this idea, and I think that many other people do as well.

Early retirement isn't for all

Ok, but what happens when you are rich and have a lot of disposable income? Then maybe it's ok to choose 4 over 2, even if the bang for your buck is theoretically better down at 2.

Many people have enough income to comfortably live a life of 4. However, the catch is that in order to do this, they have to work a 9-5 until they're 70 years old and can retire. To oversimplify MMM's position here: fuck that!

MMM is a pretty big advocate for early retirement. It's really nice to be able to spend your days doing what you actually want to do, not what you need to do to pay the bills. Seems pretty self-evident when you put it that way. Who wouldn't want to do what they want to do instead of what they need to do?

That said, he also talks about how it can be good to retire in your mind. Some people genuinely enjoy their job and would want to work even if they didn't need the money. For them, MMM advocates for continuing your job but still saving up enough money where they'd be able to retire if they wanted to, because doing so provides a valuable peace of mind.

Until recently, I've been a pretty big believer in both of these ideas. Moreso the early retirement one than the retire in your mind one. But a few months ago I think I started to change my mind.

On the surface, it seems like a lot of people are frustrated with their jobs. When I talk to friends and family about their jobs, I often hear complaints about bullshit, deadlines, pressure, politics, and incompetence. And it's usually not the case that they wake up in the morning eager to go to work. Instead, most people look forward to weekends and vacations. Both because they want to escape the bullshit, and because they have other things they want to do that they don't have time for during the work week. This would lead one to believe that people don't prefer work to free time.

The counter to this line of thinking is that it's too short term. Sure, in the short term this is how people feel. But in the long term, they'd be miserable without their jobs. What would they do all day? Where on earth would they derive any sort of purpose in their lives?

I'm exaggerating in my depiction of this counterargument, but still, I've always found it to be ridiculous. Are you telling me that without their 9-5 cubicle jobs that people can't find excitement and joy in life? Craziness!

Sure, this might be the case at first. It can be hard to fit passion and pursuits into your life when you have the 9-5 (stress; lack of time). So there might be a void to fill at first. But just because people start out with a void doesn't mean they won't be able to fill it! Surely after a few months of watching Netflix, they'll have decompressed, got it out of their system, and they'll be ready to start exploring their passions. Maybe it'll take some time to do this successfully, but when you're in early retirement, time is a luxury that you have. Music, art, science, volunteer work, sports, community service, philosophy, entrepreneurship, travel, friends, family, politics, board games, card games − there are so many things to get involved with!

These are the beliefs I've held until recently. Now, I lean in the other direction.

  1. Thinking more concretely about people I know who either have gotten more time on their hands, or just about what I see them doing if they did get more time on their hands, it seems like it's often more of the same.
  2. People who retire at the natural 65+ age, my understanding is that it's more of the same for them as well. It doesn't seem to me that significant new interests happen very often.
  3. During this covid pandemic, to my surprise, I've realized how large a role jobs play for many people. Many people were eager to get back to the normalcy of the office and seeing their coworkers. And people who lost their jobs, I don't know how to explain it but it just seemed like something important was missing in their life.
  4. A job often provides a strong sense of community, and a strong sense of identity. It's an ingroup that you're a part of.
  5. I think that there is something to be said for social conformity. Having a consistent job is a normal thing to do with your life. On the other hand, retiring early to do whatever is more on the fringe and could be met with confused looks.

Ultimately, I don't think I've done a good job of communicating why I lean in the other direction now, but I do.

Ok, but what about retiring in your mind then? Well, that's something that I'm more on board with. In my experience, job security and the possibility of being fired is something that often gives people a lot of stress. To an pretty irrational degree, if you think about how likely those things actually are and how much harm they'd actually do. But it's still an easy thing to fall victim to, and it's something that I've fell victim to to a rather significant degree, despite my thinking that it's irrational.

Retiring in your mind seems likely to largely eliminate these issues, and that is highly valuable. So then, it seems worth paying a large amount of money for it. You don't pay for it in the same way you hand the cashier money when you buy your groceries; here you're paying for it by allocating your money towards a retirement fund instead of on the material things you'd otherwise allocate it towards.

But I'm also not convinced that retiring in your mind is something that is for everyone. I get the impression that a good chunk of people don't have these issues with job security and stuff providing them with stress. They're in a job they feel comfortable in and aren't worried about being fired.

Overall, I don't feel particularly confident about any of these ideas. I've come to believe that these things can be subtle and not as clear as they may look on first glance, so my error bars are pretty wide. Maybe that's what I should have emphasized in this subheading.

Things worth splurging on

Like I mentioned earlier, MMM has a lot of insighful posts on where it makes sense to cut back and be frugal, but doesn't have many posts on where it makes sense to splurge, even if he believes that it makes sense to splurge in various places. I personally would really enjoy hearing more from him about where he thinks it's worth splurging. Anyway, here are some areas that come to mind that I think are worth splurging on:

  • Air quality. CO2, VO2, PM2.5, humidity levels. They all matter. Ever feel like you've got a constant low-level cold? Or do you wake up with a scratchy throat in the moring? Maybe it's just low humidity and you need a humidifier. CO2 is perhaps worse than low humidity because like a lack of sleep, it has important cognitive impacts that you aren't aware of/significantly underestimate. I could go on and on about all of this, but the short version is that it matters and is something I think is worth investing in solutions for. Check out this excellent presentation for more info.
  • Education. Imagine you want to learn something new. You could try to find free resources online, or you could pay $50 for a book or a course or something. I think the latter is often the wise choice. a) It could save you hours and hours of time, so you'd be trading money for time at a great price. b) I think it often in practice will just lead you to a much better understanding at the end of the day than you'd get with the free resources. That said, I think that there are also many exceptions to this rule where the free stuff is as good or better than the paid stuff. I've made some purchases I regret based on the assumption that it must be better because it's paid. I also want to point out that from the perspective as a career investment, speaking generally (I think there are definitely exceptions), I suspect that career advancement is mostly a matter of stuff like years of experience and making the right moves rather than actually accumulating knowledge and skills.
  • Mental health. I have a strong suspicion that a large majority of people would benefit a lot from counseling, and that it's one of the best bangs for your buck out there. This is in contrast to the popular idea that counseling is for people who are "sick". Hopefully I'll elaborate more on these thoughts one day.
  • Stress relief. I've always been the type of person who thinks that eating out is a bad bang for your buck and something I should do sparingly. But then there are nights where I procrastinate, am hungry, but don't have a good plan for dinner. These situations can lead to stress and arguing. In a perfect world I'd plan ahead and these situations wouldn't happen, and I would like to strive for that perfect world, but in the mean time of me being stuck here in the real world, it seems worthwhile to fork over the cash and make life easy for myself (and my girlfriend!). Eating out is just one example of this though. I think the principle applies to other tricky situations that just prove to introduce stress and difficulty. Eg. hiring a cleaning person to come once a month.
  • Lots of things related to health and exercise. MMM talks in places about how you can exercise and be healthy on a budget. Eg. with burpees. I totally agree, and I've always been one to strive for this. However, again, in theory one would be able to do this successfully, but in practice it can prove to be difficult. Health and exercise seem important enough where maybe you should just not mess around and fork over whatever cash you need to fork over in order to get the job done, even if that means spending $200/month on CrossFit.
  • High usage items. I'm thinking of things like a bed and an office chair. Given how much time you spend with these sorts of items, the price gets "diluted". Although with beds specifically, my impression is that the cheaper online only ones from places like Tuft & Needle are better than the expensive mattress store ones.
  • Living near friends and family. Even if your friend and family are located in a high cost of living area like San Francisco, if it's important to you, it can definitely be worth splurging on.

Increasing earnings is intriguing

MMM's posts are largely about reducing spending. But what about increasing earnings? I'm not sure.

One thing that comes to my mind is pursuing a FAANG job if you work in tech. Salaries there start at ~$200k/year for developers and plausibly reach ~$300-400k/year as you get further into your career. That's a lot of money!

Another thing that comes to mind is switching from a lower earning career to a higher earning one. Ie. by learning to code and getting into the tech field.

Of course, these options aren't always practical. And I don't necessarily blame MMM for not spending time on them and instead choosing to focus on other things. It's fair if he wants his blog to have a narrower focus, or if he doesn't feel like he has the knowledge to get into career stuff.

Compromising with your partner

It's one thing if you live alone and deal with your own finances. It's another thing if you share your life with someone else. As they say, "marriage is all about compromise". And "happy wife, happy life". (Just examples. There are other types of partnerships of course.)

It may be tempting to say that the partner you choose should be aligned with your philosophy financially, and if they see things differently than you then perhaps you aren't right for each other. I used to think things like this about finding the perfect partner.

Now I think it's silly. Two people are never going to agree on everything, even on major, important things. So then, if you are in a situation where your partner isn't quite as Mustachian as you are, it seems very reasonable to be less Mustachian as a compromise.

Depending on what the tradeoff is of course. It's one thing if they want you to lease a car you can't afford and generally live a lifestyle that is going to keep you stressed out in a miserable 9-5 until you're 70. It's another if they want to order pizza once in a while.

Lifestyle flexibility

I'm not sure how Mustachian this section is going to be. It's more of me offering my own hot takes, although I get the impression that MMM would agree, and perhaps he's written similar things before.

During this covid pandemic, I've made various changes to my lifestyle.

  • I live in Las Vegas and normally enjoy playing poker. I stopped doing that and instead have been spending time doing other things, like learning Haskell and playing some nostalgic old computer games.
  • I used to enjoy going to the gym to lift weights. Instead of doing that I've been exploring different bike paths.
  • I love playing basketball but have started playing tennis instead. It's not the same, but it's still pretty fun.
  • I like exploring cool ethnic restaurants once in a while. I haven't really been able to do that anymore. Well, sometimes I get takeout but a lot of times the quality of takeout isn't nearly as good which makes it not really worth it for me. I want the experience of the food being awesome. Instead, I've spent more time learning to cook different dishes. For example, pad thai is something I love. I've tried to make it a few times in the past. It came out bad each time, so I chalked it up as something that isn't a good fit for a home kitchen. But I decided to give it another shot. The first time it came out bad again, but then after really trying to follow the advice on She Simmers, it finally came out really good! (If you're wondering, the key was getting the noodles to the right level of doneness.) Again, not quite as fun as going to my favorite Thai restaurants, but also not a huge step backwards.

On the other hand, I see a lot of other people generally not really knowing where to turn as far as changing their lifestyle, and instead waiting impatiently to be able to return to what they are used to.

Thought experiment: what if you were picked up and transported to a new place and socioeconomic status? Could you find joy as a firefighter in Kansas? A street vendor in Brazil? A garbageman in Ukraine?

The way that I think about it, standard of living is partly absolute, and partly relative. Kim Kardashian would have a harder time adjusting to one of those lifestyles than I would. But there's also something to be said about standard of livings being absolute. The quality of food, parks, shopping, entertainment, nightlife, infrastructure, housing.

New lifestyles take some time to adapt to, but if the lifestyle isn't too big a step downwards on the ladder of absolute standard of living, then I'd like to propose that a Mustachian should be able to adjust and find a similar amount of joy in it. To recognize:

I used to enjoy doing it that way, and this way was a little bit uncomfortable at first, but now I think it's actually pretty cool!

This takes some amount of maturity and perspective, but these seem like reasonable goals for a Mustachian to aspire towards.

If you have any thoughts, I'd love to discuss them over email:

If you'd like to subscribe, you can do so via email or RSS feed.


- 2 toasts