Jan 13

Why I Don’t Relate to Mr. Money Mustache

You know me. I like change and I like new shinny things. But I want to talk today about one area of my life that I have not been able to change: living frugally. Or at least, living frugally by Mr. Mustache’s standards.

The Setup

So there’s this successful blogger, Mr. Money Mustache. He writes about “Early Retirement through Badassity”, which is cool and interesting. My wife and I have been following his posts for a while now and even have read through a bunch of his back-catalog. We’ve been using it as a yardstick to measure how frugal (responsible?) we are with our own finances and to help us focus on the right things. This has been great, but I had to unsubscribe today. It’s not because his ideas are bad, but because his ideas work best for a very narrow subset of people. And I’m not one of them.

This is not a complaint post. This is a MMM-isn’t-for-me post.

The Things We’re Good At From a Mustachian Perspective

We already use his ideas in many ways!

  • We live close to where I work. < 10 miles.
  • I take the bus every day. This let us get rid of one of our 2 cars.
  • Last summer I biked to work ~20% of the time. Aiming for better this summer.
  • We contribute on a large hobby farm, grow a few food items on our city lot, can food for the winter, and hunt in season. This reduces the grocery bill a lot.
  • My wife is an amazing cook, and can make a tasty meal appear out of almost nothing. Our food bill is silly cheap.
  • Cheap fast internet. I pay annually with the city wireless, which works out to be about $25/month compared to $50+ if I went with the cable company.
  • We don’t pay for cable. Technically, don’t even own a TV, though we do love Netflix.
  • We pay about $3/month for our home phone via Ooma.
  • We save for retirement. Not much right now, but we have a little something put away.
  • Our debts are minimal: a used-car loan that will be paid off this year, a home mortgage, and a little credit card debt that is getting actively paid down.

The Ways I’m Not a Mustachian

1. Family Size.

Mustache has a 2-adult, 1-child family. My wife and I have 3 children. The feds say each child is a $3,800 exemption every single year. It’s pretty obvious to everyone that more people adds more expenses, but few understand the sorts of places this can show up. The obvious is groceries. Less obvious, tickets to any event – like to the Children’s Museum or to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is more costly. Or splurging on a dinner-out — by almost twice. The family car needs to be bigger and, with little kids, needs to be safer and more reliable for more years than a more mature family would feel the need for. A car alternator gone bad on the highway is one thing if it’s you and a 6-year-old and another thing entirely if it’s you and a 9, 7, and 4 year old. Mix in a “I have to go potty” and stress can go through the roof. This is not an impossible situation of course, just immeasurably harder with more kids. MMM’s suggestions such as driving an older car work better with smaller families. Another aspect of this is:

2. Safety & Housing.

MMM thinks that Safety is an Expensive Illusion, and in many cases he’s right, but I can tell you in terms of buying a house, neighborhood safety and house expenses can and have to be measured (murders, poverty, vacant/condemned buildings, violent crime, etc.). It would be interesting to do a study on it with precise numbers, but from my review of the real-estate listings and crime data put out by the city police department, every mile you got closer to downtown (where I work), the price of the house went up by $25k and the crime increased noticeably. Safety is not an illusion in all situations, and it matters with kids. When we moved into the city, we paid a premium on a house in a stable neighborhood with a low crime rate. We’re not in the fashionable part of town, but we don’t have to worry an inordinate amount about some of the problems that comes with living in an urban area.

We moved to a new house 2 years ago (to be closer to work – a very mustachian thing to do) and wanted space to accommodate three kids. If we’d only had one child we would have had smaller, cheaper houses to choose from in our area. In the end we found one in a safe neighborhood with ~1700 square feet and 3-bedrooms. And we finished more of the basement to turn it into a ~1900 square foot 4-bedroom because…

2. Home Schooling.

… we wanted a room for school. A place where we could set school up, gather all of the books, and make a space that the kids could not mistake for another play area. The space also doubles as my home office on the weekends. It’s worth underscoring here that because everyone (except me) is home all day long, every single day, that the personal space for each kid is more important.

The reasons we home school are many and varied, but despite all of our worthy reasons for choosing this lifestyle it does come at a cost. The catch is that although we’re already paying for public school through our taxes (and glad to do so), getting materials for schooling at home is an added expense. Those used books and piano lessons aren’t free! We try to be as economical as possible, but it’s still a financial output for our family. Some might critique our decision to opt for this educational plan when there’s a free program down the street, but we feel it’s an apples to oranges comparison to what we’re offering at home, despite the expenses. It’s cheaper than private school.

3. Pre “Badassity” Income.

MMM writes for the high-income earner, though he does attempt to be more broad. Depending on how you read his Is Tbis Blog More Powerful than Doubling your Salary? article, he says that an appropriate income to aim for is “around $100,000 per person per year”. So he and his wife were probably pulling in 6-digits each during their peak earning years (did he say so explicitly anywhere?). $200k/year puts you in the top 4% and by popular opinion, barely middle class. You don’t have to make hard decisions or even be that smart to save up the $20,000 deductible needed to get to make his $237/month Health Insurance Plan a workable option. He notes that a one-time $20k “would not be a significant hardship for us”.

I’m 15 years into my career in a great industry (software development). I’ve been very fortunate to have had abilities and interests in a field that the world has deemed very valuable. I got to ride most of the Dot Com boom, and was minimally affected by the bust. I work hard and am considered to be smart by my peers. Yet we’re a single income family and not anywhere near the top 4%. A $20k hit would be a very significant hardship.

4. iPhone

God knows, I could learn to enjoy more things that are free. But I am a technologist and I love my gadgets. An iPhone can be pretty expensive when compared with other bills, but when I look at the use from the cost-per-hour that I get out of it, it’s one of the most affordable tools and cheapest avenues of entertainment available to me.

So I read about his $10.00 Per Month iPhone Plans and I wonder why he even has a smart phone. It assumes less than 250 minutes on the phone a month (no problem), but also assumes that you never use a mobile data connection. Any mobile data use will rapidly bump up that monthly cost.

I use cell data all the time. Sure I have wifi at home and again at work. But these are not the same place for me, and when I’m traveling on that bus twice every day I catch up on email, I read the news, I send (free, data-only iMessage) text messages. The idea of a no-data smartphone doesn’t make sense to me. What’s the point? Seems like getting a nice iPod Touch and one of those pay-as-you-go phones would be a better option.

I did look into another alternative: If I dropped my iPhone plan entirely I could pick up an iPad Mini with a monthly only-data plan. I’d break even after about 12 months and save $50/month from then on. Text messages would be limited to iMessages with my iOS friends, and SMS messages for everyone else would route through the clunky Google Voice. Out-bound Skype phone calls would be a dubious effort and in-bound calls would mostly end up in voicemail. I’m still thinking about it, but the cons feel too strong and the ROI too far out. So I stick with the phone plan.

You can be a Mustachian if you like.

I like his ideals. Conspicuous and mindless consumption is the norm and I like how he makes people question their lifestyle assumptions and expectations. But when I read his suggestions for saving and simplifying a budget, it seems as though we don’t have the scratch to participate. His website doesn’t account for larger families or already conservative budgets. I’ve made decisions in my life that shouldn’t be antimustachian, but have worked out to be antimustachian in practice. Like being a single-income family and homeschooling, or living in the city with its increased cost of housing. Or paying for piano lessons for the kids.

And then there’s the whole snowball effect that MMM has benefited from. He started off making a lot of money which afforded him the ability to save a lot of money quickly, allowed him to retire early and subsequently purchase cheap insurance. And because he’s retired/working from home, his need of a cell phone is also quite different from the rest of us commuting/working middle-class folks. I don’t want to seem as though I’m belittling the work or discipline that it took to save that money, or to begrudge the independent mind that resisted the lure of our consumer culture. It’s just that my start in life was quite different and I just can’t relate.