Minimum Viable Lifestyle

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What is the absolute “minimum viable lifestyle” you are willing to live? What could you cut from your life and not miss much, if at all?

The “minimum viable” idea comes from the startup world, where companies try to produce a “minimum viable product” or MVP, which is the version of the app or product with just enough features to get feedback from users before continuing to invest more time or energy into development.

Jonathan at MyMoneyBlog explored this topic in the post “Live Cheaply and Invest in Yourself.” His point is that if you can live cheaply you can focus on your art, craft, or job.

If your lifestyle only costs $20,000 per year, all you need to do is save $20,000 to buy yourself a year of time to work on whatever you want. Even if the work has no monetary pay off in that year, you will not starve or be homeless.

Derek Sivers also discussed this idea in “How I Got Rich on the Other Hand.”

It’s not how much you have. It’s the difference between what you have and what you spend. If you have more than you spend, you’re rich. If you spend more than you have, you’re not. If you live cheaply, it’s easy to be free.

Derek recognizes that he became rich at the age of 22 when he saved $12,000 and his monthly expenses were $1000. At that point he could stop working a minimum wage job and focus solely on his music career.

Even if he didn't get enough gigs to cover his expenses in any one month, his savings would at least get him through a year of focusing on his art.

Derek became rich at the age of 22, when his savings could cover his lifestyle. He achieved escape velocity from exchanging his time for money. When he sold his company for $22 million decades later, it didn't make a difference in his level of freedom. Only the amount of money in his bank account changed.

Thinking About Your Minimum Lifestyle

The MVL has lots of connections to financial independence. By driving your MVL down and actually living it, you can achieve FI much quicker. However, you may discover that a diet of rice and beans is not actually a lifestyle you enjoy living and that a few extra months of working before you reach FI is well worth having a nice steak dinner.

This reminds me of the concept of “Build the life you want, then save for it.” By paring down to the essentials, you can add back in the luxuries that make life less stressful and more joyous.

By establishing an MVL, you will notice how extravagant your life really is. You can practice gratitude for every additional luxury you add on top of your MVL. How amazing that you don't need to buy the cheapest coffee, you can afford to dine out, and your cell phone can take pictures, browse the web, and play music!

Establishing an MVL gives you a goal more easily achieved than long term FI. If you can live on $30,000 per year, then $100,000 in savings can buy you 3 years of time to start a new career, leave the military for a civilian job, or work on another project you are interested in. It is much easier to save $100,000 than $750,000 (3x vs 25x expenses).

One of the many things that the 2020 COVID pandemic has exposed is just how little it takes to be happy. It's all about relationships, activities, and experiences.

Where I live currently, we cannot gather in groups at all, restaurants are only open for takeout, and hiking trails are closed except to solo hikers. What joy there is in going for a hike with friends and having lunch together at a restaurant afterwards! How I will cherish that experience when it is available again.

MVL Thought Experiments

Here are a couple thought experiments to think about your own minimum viable lifestyle. The biggest expenses in most American households is housing (33%), transportation (16%), and groceries (7%).

What is the minimum housing situation you could accept? A 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom apartment? A tent? A house? Could your children share a bedroom?

What is the minimum transportation requirement you need? A car? Could you taxi or Uber? Walk or bicycle? What if you worked from home, as many people were forced to do during the coronavirus pandemic?

What is the minimum food standard you need? Organic everything? Vegetarian? Dining out? Take out 4 times a week?

When you travel, what is the minimum travel arrangement? Economy class? Premium economy? Business class on any flight longer than 6 hours? No red eye or over night flights without lie flat seats? Do you even want to travel?

How about technology? Do you need the latest iPhone? What about last year's model? Could you get by with a flip phone with just texting and phone calls? Could you get buy without data and just using wifi?

What about your fitness and health – do you need a gym membership? Could you build your own home gym? How often do you need new running shoes?

My Minimum Viable Lifestyle

Looking at my monthly recurring expenses, here is my best guess at my minimum viable lifestyle for my wife and I:

  • $600 on food (groceries)
  • $100 on 2 cell phones with some data
  • $100 on bike supplies and repairs
  • $15 on Spotify (music)

That's only $815 per month or $9780 per year. Add in a one bedroom, one bathroom house or apartment at $1000 per month and monthly living costs are only $1815. Annually that's $21,780.

This minimum viable lifestyle at $22,000 per year would only require $550,000 of savings to support for 30 years or more.

In a world without travel, dine in restaurants, bars, concerts, gatherings – this sounds pretty doable. In fact, we have basically been living this minimum viable lifestyle since the COVID travel restrictions were put into place back in March 2020. We have added a few extravagances added on top like new running shoes, extra streaming services, and ordering delivery.

There is a fantastic website called “The Earth Awaits” where you can put in your monthly budget and it shows you low crime, low pollution cities around the world where you could live within that budget.

I did not include rent in my minimum viable budget because rent or mortgages are incredibly subjective to where you live. A $2000 per month home in Hawaii vs Oklahoma are going to be remarkably different standards of living.

Now, granted I already have many of the more expensive things that make a frugal lifestyle like this possible. I own a few bikes, my car is paid off, I bought an espresso machine, I have a home gym, and my cell phone and laptop work fine. But all of these purchases are small in the grand scheme of things and last for years if not decades. Buy it nice or buy it twice, as I say.

Even buying a $1000 toy every other month would only $6000 to your annual expenses and increase your required FI savings to $625,000. A new cell phone, laptop, bike, new hobby, whatever it is doesn't add much to your savings goal.

While many in the rest of the world struggle to access clean water, in the developed nations we get to decide whether we buy the organic apples or just the regular ones. Neither will cost a day's wage.

First World Problems

Notice all the things I didn't mention in the minimum viable lifestyle above: Clean water. Healthcare. Protection from violent criminals. We are so blessed in the developed nations to never even have to consider how we will access these things.

Access to healthcare is an issue in the United States, but in all other developed nations it's either affordable through cash or it's subsidized or cheap enough as to be almost free.

700 million people live on less than $2 per day. That figure is purchasing power adjusted. Imagine I met you in any small American town or city. I gave you $10 on Monday and you had to survive until Friday just on that $10. What would you eat? Where would you sleep? Living on less than $730 per year seems impossible to us, and yet over half a billion people do it.

And in my minimum viable lifestyle I allocated more than $2 per day just to to exercise and fitness. Never forget how incredibly lucky you are to be reading this website on whatever laptop, phone, or device you are lucky enough to be using.

If you want to learn more about what you can do to alleviate suffering in the world, check out The Life You Can Save and GiveWell.org.

Leave a comment below on what your minimum viable lifestyle looks like. Are you living it now? Could you actually live it? If you can't actually live it, it's not viable is it? Be honest with yourself. How low could you really go? And how different is that from how you are currently living?

This is not an exercise in feeling guilty about your spending. Rather it's a chance for you to be thankful for the abundance in your life and to see how little savings you actually need to declare your minimum viable lifestyle financial independence.

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