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Retire extra early? Here's what it takes

The pursuit of financial freedom requires an entirely different mindset than you've had up until now. That's according to a family man who retired at 30.

By MSN Money Partner Oct 2, 2012 5:02PM

This guest post comes from Mr. Money Mustache.


Image: Couple sitting on porch swing © Thomas Barwick/PhotographerHere's a paraphrase of a note I recently got from a beginner Mustachian:

"Hey, Mr. Money Mustache. I can see the financial benefits of your lifestyle. But I just have different tastes. I like my better wine, and my husband really likes his books and his iPad. So we figure that if we would really enjoy something, we might as well get it. And, you know, at this stage we can really afford it." -- a person who still has mortgage debt and a cost of living that will require them to work for the next 20 years.

Mustachians like you and me are engaged in a lifelong process of increasing our wealth. (See: "How I retired at age 30.")


In the beginning stage, the goal is mostly monetary wealth, and I see no problem with that. Money is a big and exciting part of our culture. And most of us start out with our arms and legs tangled up in the stuff to the point that it is a source of stress, status and a loss of autonomy. The need for money requires us to set alarm clocks and drive to other cities every morning, give up on the chance of raising our own kids, and sign up for terms of voluntary slavery that can extend 45 years or longer. When you arrive at the door of the Temple of Mustachianism in this condition, it is natural that you'll have your mind on your money and your money on your mind.


But as powerful as the problem of money seems to a beginner, there really is a solution. Applying the principles of my blog (or those of many of the other books and websites on financial independence) will almost certainly make you wealthy enough to be free from the need to work for money in a reasonable amount of time.


But then what? The pursuit of wealth continues, but it just moves to the higher level of accumulating life wealth. Freedom, self-actualization, learning, generosity and other fancy stuff that seem like untouchable luxuries to someone who is struggling to survive will become your day-to-day challenges. And it's a happy place, although it's not without pitfalls.


Now that I'm really old (38 next month), I've had a chance to study both sides for quite a few years. And there really is a pattern that shows up as people transition from desperate consumers to seasoned retirees.


That pattern could be summed up like this: Getting rich is more mental than it is tactical.


When people first start reading up on how we're all becoming rich here, their first questions are ones like these:

  • How could I possibly live on 50% of my income? Or 25%?
  • How can I cut costs? What are your top three tips?
  • Why is your electric bill a third of mine and your grocery bill half?
  • How will you pay for your health care? Your son's education? Valuable travel experiences?

They're all good questions. But you'll notice that they are tactical in nature. People want tips and recipes for saving money.


Solid tips are valuable resources, but they work a lot better if they are combined with changes to your mind that make the tips turn into real improvements in your lifestyle rather than temporary deprivations that are simply means to the end of getting more money in the bank.


But, you might say, "what do you mean changes to my mind? We're all born with a certain mind, and it's fixed for our whole lifetimes. I just want the money-saving tips please, Mustache."


If you find yourself agreeing even remotely with that statement, I'm excited on your behalf, because it means we have a lot more to learn together.


Even if you've never heard of the ancient art of controlling your own mind, that doesn't mean your noggin is an untouched virgin that has never been modified. It just means that until this point, someone else has been doing all the controlling.

Your cultural values and beliefs, your attitudes toward hard work and struggle, and virtually all of your desires to own anything, from a certain style of house to a vacation destination, have been programmed into you by the outside world. Most of your desires are not your own!


To balance the scale a little, all you need to do is understand that you can program your mind in the opposite way. You can build habits, you can eliminate most of your irrational fears, and you can even eliminate most of your irrational desires.

The idea of programming your mind is extremely powerful. It has been practiced since even before the ancient Greeks (see: Stoicism), and it's relatively easy to do. Yet it's a practice so rare that the standard Joe Consumer type will think you are a magical superhero if you have the ability to do it. Don't believe me? Check out this quote:

"A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone." -- Old-time Mustachian H.D. Thoreau, 1817-1862

Is this antique, folksy wisdom that no longer applies in the modern world now that iPads have been invented? Or is Thoreau actually a mind-control master who figured something out that most people who have come after him have forgotten?


The answer is of course Option B: You really are rich according to how many things you can train yourself not to want. But note that this is completely different from just perpetually wanting things and aching inside every time you can't buy them. It's a much more powerful skill.


One of my friends has a $75,000 motorboat. I have more than enough money to buy a boat just like his and park it next to him in the marina. I wouldn't even have to come out of retirement to be able to afford this purchase. Yet I don't even want a motorboat. Even with 10 times my current wealth, or 1,000 times, I still would not want the boat, or a luxury car or even a bigger house.


This freedom from desire is actually making me richer, because it allows me to focus on things other than things. And as it turns out, wanting less is an age-old recipe for having a much better life.

But to believe it, you need to have control of your own mind first. So let's start getting some of that control right now, with a couple of examples.


Let's suppose you want the latest iPad. You want it because it is convenient to be able to look at pictures and websites and books and play music around the house. Sure, you already have other computers that do those things, but the iPad is special because it lets you do them while holding it in one hand, sitting on the couch.


Wow, that couch is pretty convenient, too, isn't it? It is comfortable, enjoyable, convenient and joyful to sit and lie on your couch. In fact, wouldn't it be best to just lie on that couch all day? Forever? Yeah! Maybe you could even hook it up with a catheter and a bedpan and a friend or robot could bring you all your food on the couch, too. With each release, the latest iPad could be delivered to you, and you'd have the most convenient and comfortable and effort-free life ever.


Maybe you were with me for the first bit of that paragraph, but it probably lost its appeal by the time we reached the end, right? And indeed, with proper understanding, almost any consumer purchase (and almost any bad habit) these days, beyond the necessities, should start to sound like a catheter and a bedpan to you.

"I really like my Land Rover, and I deserve it because I'm a big executive now. It's much faster than biking those five miles to work. Especially since I don't want to arrive at work all sweaty." Uh-huh. And it's much more convenient than a compact hatchback, because you don't have to bend your knees to get into the driver's seat. And you no longer have to wait a whole 10 seconds to accelerate to 60mph, because it has a big enough engine to pull its enormous bulk to that speed in only six seconds. Would you, by any chance, like a catheter and a bedpan to go with that?


"I like running my A/C at 72 degrees because it's just so nice to come in out of the Texas heat into a fresh, cool house. Then I do the laundry and use my electric clothes dryer to get crisp, hot clothes ready to wear without all that hassle of hanging them up to dry." Uh-huh. If only your clothes were equipped with catheters and bedpans, then you'd really be set, wouldn't you?


We could go on and on with this theme (and you're welcome to do so in the comments, because I find it pretty funny). But the bottom line is, virtually everything we buy is actually a form of false happiness, a slippery slope that ends at the catheter and the bedpan, and the earlier on the slope that you catch yourself, the richer and happier you will be.


Mental exercise: The next time you really want to buy some sort of treat for yourself, whether it's a latte or a Mercedes, try the trick of not buying it instead. Mockingly offer yourself a catheter and a bedpan as a substitute.


Then over the coming months, make a note of your feelings of desire for that item you skipped. How do you feel about not owning it? Are you happy? What are you doing with the time and money that would have been spent in acquiring that item? How do you feel about the accomplishment of voluntarily controlling your urge to buy something? Do you feel more in control of your life in general? Repeat the experiment with more items over time, and note the change in your feelings.


Once you master this basic mental framework, you are truly ready to breeze through the tactical aspect of getting rich. Now that you know that virtually no purchases, regardless of their convenience or enjoyability, will actually make you happier, you can instead make the decision based on whether or not you can afford it.


You just need a new definition of "Can I afford it?"


If you still need to work for money or, at the very least, if you're not saving at least 50% of your take-home pay, you cannot afford it -- where "it" is anything.


In certain cases, you will still buy things you can't afford. Groceries are a good example. A bike is another one, because like all good investments it earns you money rather than costing you. Housing, clothing and plain old fun with your friends and family are also things worth buying when you can't afford them. But your decision-making process will simply be made differently: You'll be maximizing the lifetime wealth delivered by each spending decision rather than the convenience or short-term pleasure.

You'll have more fun in both the short term and the long term. You just won't have as much of that catheter-and-bedpan "convenience" we've all been spending our money on up to this point.


Only by gaining control of your mind and the conveyor belt of false desires it serves up can you get true freedom in your life. Freedom, unlike convenience, can really bring happiness. It's a bit dizzying, and maybe even a bit difficult. But once again, it is the good kind of difficulty.


So, who's up for some difficulty?


More from Mr. Money Mustache and MSN Money


Oct 3, 2012 9:26AM
I get it.  All the sarcastic comments are from people threatened by the whole idea.  This is a CONSUMER culture and we've been raised to want MORE, not LESS!  More things equal more happiness. But it really doesnt.  I've been able to purchase many of the things I thought I really wanted and now they sit getting dusty.  Want less, not more.  I like that.
Oct 3, 2012 12:11PM
It's all about choices and options.  People are happier when they have choices and options.  Wealthy people are happier because they have more choices and options than poor people.  Having choices doesn't necessarily mean you have to own them, or exercise the options. It's the idea that you can afford to, but choose not to. Building up assets gives you more choices and options.  Spending or taking an option (blowing all your money, or opting to not work), reduces your choices and options after and you become less happy.
Oct 2, 2012 11:06PM
What if you already use a bed pan? I'd loved to sit on the couch and play with an Ipad all day and night. I hate getting up in the snowy cold to go use the outhouse, so I go in a jug in my cabin. Does this mean I'm ready to retire or I just can't afford plumbing? I always told myself when I'm rich, the first thing I'm going to buy is food.
Oct 3, 2012 10:56AM
So basically, if you get off your a## and get to work - be it washing laundry by hand, cooking dandelions picked from the lawn, or bicycling the kids to school - you won't have time or energy to spend on... well, spending.  Interesting.
Oct 4, 2012 10:53AM
Am I the only one who thinks it's funny that towards the end of the story, there's a link entitled: "Smart Spending on the go: Get our app for  or "? The whole concept of this article tells you to avoid frivolous spending on things like iPads or smartphones and then it tells you to get an app for these very devices. 
     I'm planning on retiring in my early 50s. (I'm almost 42 now) I save as much as I can in my retirement plan (15% now and bi-annual increases as my pay increases) and Health Savings Account ($50 a week) through my employer, I've just recently bought my first investment property, I try to save energy by using my programmable thermostat and CFL bulbs, and I keep my monthly expenses low by refusing to own a mobile phone or pay exorbitant cable TV costs. Depending on how this investment property turns out, I might buy more in the coming years in order to generate more of a future income stream.
     At one point in my previous job I was contributing as much as 30% into my 401(k). When I got married I moved to another city and had to start over, so I started out contributing 10% and I've worked my way up from there. But I would say I agree with the author. Save more, spend less. And for me and my wife, not having cell-phones or cable TV helps us to lead less stressful lives.
Oct 3, 2012 3:40PM

This article has some wisdom that is very hard to learn just by reading it. The fact is that the human body is designed to be healthy when moving more than resting. If you are not healthy then it is much more difficult to be truly happy.


We are designed to want high calorie foods and avoid unneeded physical effort so that we can survive in a world where food is hard to find and physical effort is nearly always required for survival. So in the modern world the very tendencies that helped us survive are now harming and killing us. It looks like the choice is to physically labor on a low calorie diet into healthy old age or else eat, drink and rest more for a shorter sicker life.


We are programmed to desire more and more because it stimulates the economy but now we are learning that this rate of consumption is unsustainable as the planet's stored energy resources run down and the population keeps multiplying. The trouble is that nobody has figured out how to have a happy society with shrinking energy consumption. Invariably everyone wants the other guy to do with less so that they can keep their own lifestyle intact as long as possible. This leads to riots and wars.


Mature wise people can happily live on a shoestring budget but they are few and very far between. They have realized the difference between happiness that is short lived (always followed by suffering) and the true joy that comes from having freedom from the tyranny of desires and aversions.


Unfortunately all the explaining in the world will not make us that mature or wise. We all must find out the hard way by trying everything else first and then finally discovering the truth by elimination of all other possibilities. This process usually takes at least a lifetime. 

Oct 3, 2012 1:52PM

People forget that how long you live is not certain.  If you live like a poor hermit and scrimp here and there, yes you can retire early if you make it that far.  How many of you hear about people in their early 30s or 40s that just die.  Now you have lived your life scimping by so that you can retire early and bam, done, no enjoyment, no happy life everafter. 

I do beleive in saving and not blowing your money on any whim that you may have but if you want it, can afford it and it will not disrupt your financial plans of retirement at a more realistic age of 55 or 58 then get it and enjoy.


Oct 2, 2012 9:22PM
farm in upper crops and record prices willl produce  thousands of millionaires this year alone,never mindthe land prices increasing at 23 plus percent anddon't foget the gov,t subsidies and programs not to plant and just get cash....
Oct 3, 2012 11:47AM
Interesting story, and money may not buy happiness,  BUT... have you ever seen someone frowning and sad on a quad, or a motorcycle, or a jet ski? Why make money if your not going to do anything with it? Trust me when I say that money DOES NOT buy happiness, but it sure as hell will buy other stuff that makes you happy!
Oct 3, 2012 12:04AM
steal it all and you'll never have to work
Oct 2, 2012 10:08PM
He enjoys comments so here's one: you're a moron!
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