Minimally Viable Standard of Living (MVSOL)

I am going to live on $3/day for 30 days, starting today. Well, that doesn’t include rent, utilities and toiletries, so what it really means is that I have $3/day to spend on food + entertainment. I’m not planning on spending any of it on entertainment, so what it really comes down to is $3/day on food.

I spent last night and this morning/afternoon going shopping. This is what I bought:

Not bad at all!

  • It’s a diverse array of foods. I plan on enjoying the meals I eat.
  • Nutritionally, it’s very sound. I’m getting the right amount of all my macronutrients (carbs, protein and fat). Ditto for sugar, fiber and sodium. I’m also doing a solid job of getting the right amount of each food group, although I’m currently pretty protein-centric. I’m not tracking my micronutrients (that’d be difficult), but I take the fact that I’m getting diversity in my foods + covering the food groups as moderately strong evidence that I’m doing a good job getting the micronutrients I need.
  • I should also note that even if my nutrition isn’t 100% optimal on $3/day, it’s still probably better than 99.9% of America.
  • Here’s a spreadsheet I made that breaks down exactly a) what I bought, b) how much it costed, c) nutrient analysis, and d) food group analysis.

MVSOL

I have a sense that we live in a point in history where being happy is extremely affordable. For example, I think that eating can be tasty, nutritious and affordable on $3/day (which is what I’ll be testing over the next 30 days).

From my spreadsheet, I think it’s pretty clear that it’s affordable and nutritious. The question seems to be how tasty and satisfying it’d be. But looking at that picture, I’m optimistic! I bet that if you showed that picture to someone living 150 years ago and said “this is what you’ll be eating for the next month”, the person would be ecstatic.

So, food is cheap. What else do people need to spend money on to be happy? Well, there’s rent + utilities, toiletries/everyday items, transportation, entertainment, health, education, and fitness. I think we live in a world where these things are all extremely affordable. (Well, this isn’t completely true and there are some qualifiers.)

My claim is that past a certain point ($X/month), there are huge diminishing returns. Furthermore, at that point, you have more than enough to be perfectly happy on. I’ll call that point the Minimally Viable Standard of Living (MVSOL).

  • Rent + utilities. I think the MVSOL is to have a place that is clean, has a kitchen, fridge, freezer, microwave, stovetop, a bed, a desk, a bathroom, shower, dressers, cabinets, air conditioning, and heat. Past that point, I don’t think that more stuff really translates to more happiness. You don’t need fancy furniture, carpets, counter tops or decorations. A dish washer would be nice, but you don’t need one.
  • You don’t really need much space either. A human being doesn’t take up that much space, so when you’re alone, you’re fine. Yes, it’d be nice to have a lot of space so you could have people over, but even a studio has more than enough room for 5–6 friends to hang out. Again, humans don’t take up that much space. The fact that you can’t have huge parties with 30 people isn’t a big deal; you could still go to other peoples’ houses for these parties, or you could go out with them somewhere else.
  • But as residents of places like New York and San Francisco know:
  • In a lot of cities, the MVSOL that I describe is extremely expensive.
  • I think that having strong social relationships is extremely important. Depending on the person and the situation, I think you could argue that the MVSOL involves living in an expensive city for the social benefits. Ex. someone with eccentric interests who can’t find a satisfying social life where they currently live. I also think that time is very valuable, and you could argue that if you have to spend too much time commuting, then you’re below the MVSOL level.
  • Toiletries/everyday items. There’s not much to say here. This stuff isn’t too expensive. Always buy the generic brand. Always buy in bulk. Paying for brand name shampoo, body wash, deodorant etc. is completely unnecessary for a MVSOL.
  • Transportation. You don’t need a fancy car, something that is safe and gets you from point A to point B is all you need for a MVSOL. Additionally, you don’t need to drive everywhere. A MVSOL doesn’t involve paying (for the gas) to drive 5 blocks to your friends house. Instead, hop on your bike and head over. It’ll only take an extra couple minutes. All of that extra gas and wear and tear adds up, and a MVSOL doesn’t involve paying for it.
  • I think that a lot of people don’t actually need a car. You can probably bike to 95% of the places you go to. And when you can’t bike, there’s always Uber/Taxis/Public Transportation/Friends. For example, I live in Gainesville Florida, a college town, and I don’t have a car. I get my groceries delivered. I buy stuff on Amazon. For $50/year, I can get anything delivered to me within 2 days. Once a week I have physical therapy, and I have to spend about an hour biking there (round trip), but it’s fun. Sometimes when I have to go to the doctor or dentist, I use Uber. I found an apartment right across the street from work, so I can walk to work (it’s a bit more expensive, but the time and money I save is well worth it).
  • Entertainment. We live in a time where entertainment is incredibly cheap. I want to say that an MVSOL is a laptop with internet connection… and I can’t find a good argument against it! It’s tempting to anchor yourself to what you see around you, but try to think about it from an outside perspective. With internet, we have access to music, information, interesting blogs, funny YouTube videos, your social life, movies, TV shows, games, puzzles… I could go on for ever. If you didn’t know that the internet existed and I asked you if having access to all this stuff would be sufficient for your entertainment needs, you’d almost certainly say yes.
  • Furthermore, I’m sure you have access to paper, which you could use to draw and write (both of which are a lot of fun, and not just for kids). There’s also the public library, which is free. And there are, parks, sports, exercising, and socializing, which are all also free.
  • It may be clearer if I name the things that you don’t need for a MVSOL with respect to entertainment. You don’t need a smart phone. 10 years ago, no one had smart phones. Think about that. You really don’t even need a cell phone. Or a phone at all for that matter. There are tons of ways to talk, text and video chat with people online for free. The marginal benefit of having a cell phone is that you can talk to them when you’re out instead of waiting however long until you get home and can use your laptop. Cell phones aren’t that old, and people have gotten by just fine for all but a spec of human history. And if it’s that important that you could communicate when you’re out, these days a simple phone with call and text (and a bunch of other useful features) is very very affordable.
  • You don’t need to spend boatloads of money on alcohol. You don’t need cable. You don’t need to go to the movies. You don’t need to go out to trendy restaurants with your friends. You don’t need fancy vacations. For a MVSOL, you definitely don’t need these things. (Given how easy it is to find free WiFi, I’m tempted to add internet to the list of things you don’t need to pay for)
  • Health. Health care is expensive. There isn’t much you could do about that. If you get sick, you have to go to the doctor. If you need medication, you have to pay for it. But there are things that you do have control over. You can be a healthy person. Eat right, exercise, sleep etc. And you can pay for preventive care. It’s much cheaper to pay for routine check ups and exams than it is to roll the dice and possibly get caught with an expensive condition.
  • Education. This is another example of how the internet just completely changes the game. Wikipedia: a free encyclopedia of a shit load of information. Google: ask it a question and it’s almost definitely going to point you to the answer. Coursera: “Free online courses from top universities”. No joke. This stuff is all real. We live in an incredible time. Public libraries are also a thing. They have a lot of books.
  • Fitness. Burpees. No excuses. You could also run, do push ups, pull ups, sit ups, body weight squats, and a ton of other body weight exercises. If you like sports, you could find a pick up basketball game throughout most American cities. If you’re looking for something less popular, use Meetup.com to see what’s available in your area. You don’t need an expensive gym membership for any of this. An expensive gym membership is not part of the MVSOL.
  • Equipment isn’t even part of the MVSOL, although it’s often a good investment. Something like a kettle bell is extremely cheap and useful, so it has a high ROI. Even something like a bench press or squat rack probably has a high ROI if you’re going to use it and you’re settled down (they’re difficult to move if you’re changing cities).

Qualifiers

  1. I’m sure there are things I am forgetting and not accounting for.
  2. I think that MVSOL does vary from person to person, but I think everyone’s MVSOL is similar enough where it makes sense to write about it like this. I also think the lifestyle you’re used to plays a role, but that the role it plays diminishes rapidly after a few months of acclimation.
  3. I erred on the side of definitive and concise language. In reality, my beliefs are less definitive and concise, but I thought that for the purposes of this article, clarity and conciseness outweigh extra precision.
  4. I’m not saying, “Don’t buy anything that exceeds the MVSOL”. Not at all. More on this later.

Implications

So, why am I writing this? Do I like to yell at people for being stupid? Yes. I think it’s ridiculous that our society says things akin to “everyone needs a smart phone”. But that’s not why I’m writing this.

I’m writing this because I think that there are some important implications.

  1. Everything is going to be ok.
  2. You should spend your money differently. Ex. buying more time and/or being more altruistic.
  3. Income redistribution.

Everything is going to be ok. A lot of people stress out a lot about their stocks, their job, and other money related things. Why? What’s the worst that could happen? If your worst case scenario is at or past the MVSOL point, I don’t think you have much to worry about.

Spending your money differently.

  1. Depending on how altruistic you are, you might want to choose:
Me: MVSOL
John Doe 1: MVSOL
John Doe 2: MVSOL
John Doe 3: MVSOL

over

Me: $12 lunch
John Doe 1: starving
John Doe 2: starving
John Doe 3: starving

A lot of people might choose to not donate money because they have a different idea of what their MVSOL is. But if they knew their MVSOL is half of what they thought it was, maybe they’d choose to donate more.

2. You might want to trade money for time. Yes, you could do that. No, there isn’t some market where you could go to and pay someone $25 for an extra hour, but implicitly, you could do the exact same thing. How? By working less.

Consider:

8 hours of work at $25/hour
0 hours of free time

versus

7 hours of work at $25/hour
1 hour of free time

If you used to work 8 hours a day and subsequently decide to work one hour less, you’ve effectively gone to the market and traded $25 for an extra hour. So yes, you could buy time with your money.

I think that a lot of people should work less and effectively trade their money for time. Let’s think about it. Say you could achieve a MVSOL by working 20 hours a week. What could you do with the rest of your time?

A
- Spend 20 hours working.
- Have extra spending money you could use to eat out and go to the movies.

or

B
- Spend 20 hours working on something that you're passionate about.
- Stick to the MVSOL because you don't have extra spending money.

My impression is that for a lot of people, the marginal benefit of the spending money over MVSOL is small, and being able to follow your passion is a tremendous thing.

Think about the developer who can’t work on his startup ideas because he’s too busy with his day job. Or the writer who could never find time to write because he’s teaching middle school. Or the musician who is too busy making ends meet to make music. Or the physicist who spends his days crunching numbers for some bank instead of pursuing his dreams of theoretical research.

I’ve met a lot of people who have dreams and passions, but drop them in order to achieve A instead of B. Ie. choosing a normal job with normal spending money instead of something part time + MVSOL + pursuing your dreams. To me, this doesn’t seem like the right choice.

Granted, there are complications.

  • To be clear, if you enjoy your job and/or don’t have anything you’re so passionate about that you need more spare time than you already have, I think it makes sense to choose A over B.
  • Having/planning to have a family (or are otherwise supporting other people). You need more money for that. But on the other hand, there’s also a higher demand for free time because you could spend your time with them.
  • Security. A good software developer could quit his job to pursue a project for a year, and have the expectation that if he fails, he could find work again pretty easily. Or alternatively, he could choose to work part time as a freelancer. But not everyone has this luxury to trade money for time so fluidly. The market for time doesn’t always have such high liquidity. The musician who quits his job to make music may not be able to find another one so easily if things don’t work out. In these situations, I think it makes sense to trade security for time. In the short run. In the long run, I think it probably makes sense to work for a few years, live at MVSOL, save up money, which provides you with security, and then when you’ve built up enough savings and security, trade money for time by quitting and following your passion.

Income redistribution.

This MVSOL stuff probably has some implications for how income should be redistributed. I’m just not quite sure what they are.

  • Giving money to people at pre-MVSOL levels has a high ROI. (I haven’t actually argued for this, but I think it’s clearly true.)
  • Giving money to people at post-MVSOL levels doesn’t have such a high ROI. Well, giving a starving person a $3 meal will make them much happier than upgrading an MVSOL level person from their MVSOL meal to Chipotle.
  • But there’s also the point that upgrading someone from MVSOL to Chipotle is likely to make them way happier than giving that $3 to a rich person.
  • And then there are the points about making the pie bigger and trickle down economics. Will giving the $3 to the rich person eventually lead to an extra $1 for 100 pre-MVSOL level people? What about giving the $3 to the Chipotle-level person? Maybe that will make the pie even bigger? Or maybe giving the $3 to the pre-MVSOL level person is what will make the pie biggest (in addition to the short term benefits of helping that person out)? I don’t know the answers to these questions. My biggest thought is that we need to put on our lab coats and approach these questions like scientists instead of politicians.