I was reading an old but entertaining article title Age Of Consumerism Is Over.
It’s interesting, but unfortunately the author missed the point. Let’s start off by defining what it means to consume. Basically, consumption means to use up or destroy. So the age of cnosumerism is the age of using up resources and destroying goods. I’d say that adequately describes the industrial age. The linked article states:
Spending data and interviews around the country show that middle- and working-class consumers are starting to switch from name brands to cheaper alternatives, to eat in instead of dining out and to fly at unusual hours to shave dollars off airfares.
Though seemingly small, the daily trade-offs they are making — more pasta and less red meat, more video rentals and fewer movie tickets — amount to an important shift in consumer behavior.
By eating generic cereal instead of Kellogg’s, eating a frozen pizza instead of having it delivered, flying the red-eye instead of the 9AM flight – Is there really a shift to less consumption? Of course not. These are acts of frugality, but they are not reductions in consumption. If your goal is to save money, then this is moving in the right direction. But it’s limited. Your largest (and seemingly most necessary) expenditures won’t be reduced. You can’t get a generic mortgage. You can’t use coupons for your utilities and gasoline. You can buy a Kia instead of a Honda, but the depreciation over time sadly isn’t much reduced. (A $15K Kia that is worth 5K a decade later vs. a $25K Honda worth 10K a decade later saves only $500 per year)
So since frugality can only take you so far, how to we get ahead? The answer is simple: a true reduction in consumption.
Here is what I’ve done over the past 3 months:
- I sold my car. This results in an immediate gain of $3000 cash for the sale on Craiglist, $100/month in average maintenance, $50/month in gas because my motorcycle is more gasoline efficient. Assuming a conservative 3% return on investment after inflation, the cash on hand to fund the $150 in monthly expenditures would require $60,000. Add the $3000 in cash and I just saved $63,000. I also ride my bicycle more, so there are significant health benefits (which will reduce future healthcare costs). Note: my wife still has a car so I can still go longer distances when necessary.
Before we continue, let me explain these numbers in more detail. A recurring monthly expense of $150 results in an annual expense of 12 x $150 = $1800. If you wanted to retire, you would need to live off investments. A reasonable expected ROI after inflation is 3%. So you need 3% of a nest-egg to be equal to $1800.
$1800 / .03 = $60,000
Sounds like a lot, right? It get’s worse. Lets say you make $60,000 per year and save 10% of your income, a total of $6000. This means you need to work 10 years to save the money to maintain your car. And that’s before you add in the actual initial cost of the car. Worse yet, add in a monthly car payment of, say, $300. Now your monthly expenses are $150+$300=$450. This means you need $180,000. At the same savings rate of $6000 per year, this would take 30 years. All so you could drive to the job that you do so you can own the car that gets you there. This sounds too bad to be true, but it isn’t. These are simple equations that an economy based on consumerism doesn’t want you to truly realize.
OK, now we’re rolling. What else have I done to reduce consumption?
- I moved closer to work. Actually, I switched jobs and relocated to a new city and prioritized our house hunting such that I could run/bike to work most days. This saves an additional $30/month in gasoline. Using the 3% ROI again, this is an additional $12,000 in required savings.
- I sold my McMansion and purchased a much smaller house in my new town. This resulted in an immediate payout of $220,000 in equity, of which $40,000 I put as a down payment into my new home netting $180,000. My monthly mortgage payments were reduced from $2400 per month to $900. This is a savings of $1500 per month. At 3% ROI, this would require $600,000! It’s worth noting that the extreme savings were not just due to down-sizing. It was also a function of reduced interest rates (4.75% in 2004 vs. 3.2% in 2011). It was also a result of reduced tax rate in my new state. It’s also worth noting that within a month we had more good friends in the neighborhood than we had after 8 years in our old neighborhood. I credit this to the type of people that live in a lower income neighborhood as compared to a McMansion neighborhood.
- In our smaller house and new climate, I expect to save no less than $100/month in utility bills. Less rooms to heat/cool, less water to keep the grass alive. $100/month would require an investment of $40,000. [October Update: I’m actually saving more than $100/month on utilities]
So let’s tally up the results. By selling my car, moving to a new city, and downsizing my house, I received an immediate cash value of $183,000. More importantly, I reduced my monthly expenses by $1780. This would require a nest egg of $712,000 with a 3% ROI after inflation to maintain. Adding these two together, I am $895,000 closer to retirement!
What does this mean in actuality? At my current income, savings rate, and expenditure rates, I’ve pulled in my retirement age from 55 (22 years from now) to 35 (2 years from now). And I’ve done it while making no significant sacrifices, increasing my healthy activities, and living in a more friendly neighborhood.