Kool Cats Photography (Flickr)

Trimming the money mustache

Your finances are not just about your choices—and your most important choices aren’t just about your finances.

Every so often I come across references to financial advice blogs, and one that keeps re-surfacing is “Mr. Money Mustache,” with the curious tagline of “Early Retirement Through Badassery.” Mr. MM’s blog is different from many others not merely because of the macho schtick but because his advice is (so he says) genuinely different:

The standard line is that life is hard and expensive, so you should keep your nose to the grindstone, clip coupons, save hard for your kids’ college educations, and save any tiny slice of your salary that remains into a 401(k) plan. Mr. Money Mustache’s advice? Almost all of that is nonsense: Your current middle-class life is an Exploding Volcano of Wastefulness, and by learning to see the truth in that statement, you will easily be able to cut your expenses in half—leaving you saving half your income. Or two thirds, or more.

Never borrow money for a car (and “don’t buy stupid ones”), drive as little as possible, live somewhere with a low cost of living that still allows you to drive or bike to work, get all your groceries at Costco, and get a cheap cell phone. Expenses cut in half, just like that! Easy as pie.

Okay. Good advice. Here’s the rest of his specific recipe. First, graduate from college with a computer engineering degree and—thanks to generous parents—no outstanding student loans, and start making $57,600 within a year while sharing houses with roommates to keep rent around $350 a month. Then a few years later get a new job for $77K a year, move into your first house, and have your spouse-to-be move in a year later. After only five years out of college, your and your partner should have a combined annual income of $160K, with savings of $250K (and rapidly climbing).

His is not just a story of frugality and diligent savings paying off after a decade. It’s a story of somewhat unacknowledged good fortune. He started out with no student debt—a rarity for graduates in today’s world—and a job well over the median per capita income in the United States of $28,000. After five years his household income was in the top 10% of households. By the numbers alone, this is exceptional.

I don’t want to downplay the virtues of frugality and diligent savings, or to dismiss Mr. Mustache’s accomplishments. But I’m out of sorts with the “self-made man” myth that seems to be resurgent recently. If Mr. Mustache had started with (only!) $20,000 in student debts and gotten a job for $33,000 a year—still over the median per capita income—his story might be very different.

There’s another implicit assumption that sticks in my craw here, which doesn’t seem to be related on the surface to the self-made man myth but often appears side by side with it: that things that don’t matter to the self-appointed arbiter of Important Things are “stupid,” rather than signs of different priorities.

Someone who loves driving for its own sake and buys her car based on that? Not stupid.

Someone who genuinely loves music and spends more on speakers than you did on your whole audio system? Not stupid.

Someone who won’t move out of a city they genuinely love even if it means a 45-minute commute? As long as they also genuinely love the job on the other end of that commute: Not stupid.

There’s no question that if you can save half your income, you should. If you can live somewhere where work is a bike ride away, go for it. And choosing to maximize income and minimize expenses above all else, with the goal of being able to “retire” before you’re 35—that’s fine. But it requires getting an awful lot of ducks in a row, some of which aren’t under your control. If your income is closer to the country’s median than it is to Mr. Mustache’s, that 35 might be 45. Or 55. Still early, but maybe an awfully long time to choose your work, housing and transportation based solely on the numbers.

I know we can’t always choose where we work and where we live because the choices bring us joy. Moving to a new city—or finding a new job—is a challenge, both emotionally and fiscally. But those choices are just as important, just as valid, and for most of us, more realistic pursuits. I may never be able to retire, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be just as happy as Mr. Money Mustache.

And my cars will be much cooler.