The Zero Cost Lifestyle

Several years ago I was sitting with a bunch of friends at a restaurant. Dinner was winding down and we were all stuffed.

My friend next to me asked me how I made so much money. I always had the money for everything, she said, and she was always struggling.

The bill came and everyone went down the list adding up their stuff. Before tax and tip mine was around $7. Hers was $30, more than four times what mine was.

She had two margaritas, an entree which she didn’t finish, and an appetizer. I had three burritos a la carte, chips that were free, and water. I used to get the burrito plate, but then I realized that for less money I could get three burritos instead of two and not have the extra rice and salad that I didn’t want.

That’s why I always have money. I don’t spend it stupidly.

For those who don’t want to read this whole thing, here’s the short version:

Figure out what you really want to do, and then figure out the absolute cheapest way to do it. Be creative. Think outside the box.

That doesn’t mean to compromise on what you want to do, by the way. I’m not saying that. I mean to figure out what you REALLY want and going after that. Not the packaged “this is the good life” you see on TV.

I like the idea of a zero cost lifestyle. You save money up front to set yourself up, and then you make enough residual income that your lifestyle is never threatened no matter what.

Here are my monthly costs for when I’m in Austin:

  • Rent: $0 (RV)
  • Electricity: $0 (Solar power)
  • Gas: $150
  • Insurance: $50
  • Food: $750 (it’s important for me to eat well)
  • Entertainment: $50 (I mainly do free things with my friends and find adventure.)
  • Cryonics: $50 (to Alcor and life insurance)
  • Water / Waste: $20 (dumping and filling up at a local RV park)

That’s about all I can think of. Added up that’s $1070 per month. I eat perfect food that I love, live in the exact spot that I want to live, and I spend my free time doing what I want to do. And I’m taking care of myself so that I’m healthy and I will be frozen when I die.

That’s not to say that I don’t do a lot more than that (like travel all the time), but these are my base costs to be happy and comfortable.

If I was making half a million a year I wouldn’t change much. I’d still be in the RV and I’d still be eating in the same restaurant every day. I’d spend more money on crazy adventures, but I’m not exactly lacking those now.

I make money in a bunch of different ways. A few hundred for writing for Gadling, another couple hundred for ads on this site, a few hundred for Conversion Doubler, a little bit more for affiliate links, and maybe a thousand or so for my book. Let’s say I make $1800 total.

That’s not a lot of money. In fact, I think that’s below the poverty line but I’m not sure. I’m pretty sure that everyone reading this has the capacity to make that much money, and almost all of you probably make more than that now.

But… that covers my base expenses comfortably. And it’s built into my lifestyle. I’m going to write whether I get paid for it or not. My book is all automated at this point. So you could say that the net cost of my base lifestyle is nothing.

That means that I can spend nearly 100% of my time doing whatever I want. I can work on other businesses to make more than a paltry $1800. I can take a month off and sit by the creek if I want.

And look what happens when I travel. I don’t pay the $150 for gas or the $20 for water. I make $700 more than I need for my base expenses. That means that I have $970 for airfare and renting an apartment (or staying with a friend for part or all of the time), and I already have $750 for food once I get there and $50 for museum tickets or whatever.

I don’t actually keep track of my budget like this. I’ve saved up money so if I’m off a little bit in either direction it doesn’t matter, and I’m disciplined enough to not blow money on stupid things.

Getting here wasn’t free, either, and I realize that. I had to spend around $20k to get the RV I really wanted and get it wired up with solar. But still, there are much cheaper RVs to be had that would be totally serviceable. I had the money to spare and knew that the one I bought would retain it’s value well.

And of course, an RV isn’t the only way to work all this out. It’s just the one that appealed to me so I figured out the right way to do it.

I had to come up with ways to make my life generate income. I chose (or drifted towards) writing and such, but there are a billion other ways to do it.

The real appeal of the zero cost lifestyle is that it is incredibly liberating. You get your time back. You don’t have to worry about getting fired or rent rates going up. Sure my book sales could dry up or something like that, but in worst case emergency mode I just cook for myself and spend $600 less per month.

Even if you aren’t ready or interested in going hog wild like me, there are a lot of intermediate steps you can take to move in this direction. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Get rid of your TV and cable. You don’t need it – it adds nothing to your life. If there’s something you really need to see then go see it at your friend’s house and be social. That’s a couple hundred for selling your TV and $80 less a month or whatever for cable.
  2. Start writing about things you’re an expert in. This will develop your writing skills and start building up a body of work that you could use for a book in the future. If you’re a good writer, start writing for a blog you like.
  3. Go through your credit card bill and see what other monthly charges you can get rid of or reduce. Forty a month seems like nothing but it’s $480 per year. Ask yourself, “would I pay $480 now to have this for a year?”
  4. If you own a house, rent out part of it. If you rent, check craigslist every week to see if you can find a better place for cheaper. Rent is probably your biggest expense and you spend it even when you travel.
  5. Think about ways to make your hobby your job. My work doesn’t feel like work because I like doing it. Ten hours of work you like is better than one you don’t like.
  6. Stop renting and start house sitting.
  7. Sell everything you don’t need. Stuff takes up mental energy, time, and money to store. It also ties you to one place.
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