You still get to choose your own life
Lifehacking for the next generation.
The word “privilege” gets thrown around a lot—often as a catch-all to explain why someone else’s life might be better than ours.
In fact, when I shared my digital nomad essay with early readers, many thought my lifestyle sounded unattainable and “privileged.” I almost didn’t include my personal life as part of the story because I was worried about coming across like, “look at the beautiful life I get to live!” But then I thought: well, this is my life, and it didn’t just happen to me by accident—I worked hard to create it that way!
I am definitely privileged in a lot of ways: I’m American, I grew up upper middle class, my college education was paid for, and I left school with my parents passed down Toyota Camry. But I also chose a lot of my privilege: My husband and I saved more than 60% of our income, living on $45,000/year for more than a decade. We purchased a house that was many hundreds of thousands of dollars beneath our means, poured all our savings into paying it off by 36, and invested the rest of our money in index funds.
Now we have no debt, a paid-off house, plenty of savings in index funds, and when my husband and I work remotely around the world, we Airbnb our house and more than cover the cost of our travels. It may seem glamorous and privileged, and it is at baseline, but we also built a lot of that privilege ourselves. We could just as easily have spent our money on fancy masters degrees and expensive cars and houses and become strapped to mortgages and debt we’d have to maintain high salaries for the next 30 years to pay off. If we had done that, I wouldn’t be writing this newsletter right now.
There are a lot of privileges that are not in our power and many of my essays focus on how we can extend those privileges to everyone, establishing a more even playing field from which we can all start. But there are also a lot of privileges that are in our power and that is what I want to talk about today. Because, every one of us has something we can affect, and some way we can tilt the world in our favor. It is still, and always will be, up to each of us to design our lives the way we want them from wherever we start. And we could just as easily squander opportunities as take them.
When my husband and I were starting our lives together, this intentional curation of our lives was called “lifehacking.” Back then, I followed travel hackers like Chris Guillebeau who used credit card points to travel the world for cheap, minimalist bloggers who had few belongings and curated tiny wardrobes (I still have a 66-piece “capsule wardrobe”), and financial freedom (FIRE) writers like Mr. Money Mustache, who saved nearly all of his money for the first 10 years of his career so he could retire at 30 and live off his investment dividends for the rest of his life. I’ve written about our own FIRE journey and the financial decisions we made that got us here before:
Now that we’re here, things look a bit different. My sister, who is eleven years younger than me, couldn’t follow the same road that we did to achieve financial independence. That’s because my husband and I entered the job market in 2007 and, though we saved aggressively until we bought our first home in 2011, there can be no doubt that it was also the best time in a century to buy a house. We paid only $387,000 for a small one-bedroom house in the San Francisco Bay Area back then, it’s worth $1.2 million today (we sold it at $540,000).
Owning a home was a big part of our financial plan back then, but it would be financially ruinous for us to make the same decision today. Especially with those interest rates! Yikes!
When my husband and I bought our first home, our interest rate was only 3.2%. That meant a $300,000 loan cost only $167,162 in interest over 30 years, for a total of $467,162 spent on the home (and much less if paid off sooner, as we did). Today, at a 7.7% interest rate, a $300,000 loan costs $470,915 in interest for a total of $770,915 spent over 30 years! On a $300,000 house! Unless you can pay for a house with cash, today, the cost of a home will likely surpass the value of the home, making it a terrible investment. And that’s not counting the fact that the original starting price of a home today is much higher than it was a decade ago.
I hope that we can build a lot more housing and make it more affordable for coming generations, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still housing hacks to be found in the meantime. Today’s lifehackers could choose to live in a more affordable city or a more affordable part of town. To rent a smaller place or to share a house with friends or family.does an incredible job documenting the co-living movement, where communities pool their money together to buy a house they can share with friends and family. Those who want to travel could choose to live in a co-living space for $330/month or get a remote job and live in a much more affordable country on a digital nomad visa.
If houses are a horrible deal now, jobs are the highest paying they’ve ever been. Today’s lifehackers could drastically increase their income by pursuing a career in one of the highest-paying industries (which have even higher demand!). And while I hope that higher education becomes more affordable or even free, it is still possible to get a high-paying job without an expensive education, perhaps by going to community college or even by not going to college at all. Many high-paying jobs, including software engineers, can skip college altogether and participate in a bootcamp instead, which take only three to 12 months to complete and often pair students with high-paying job opportunities upon graduation.
Starting life with little (or no) debt is an enormous advantage. And in my opinion, most school debt isn’t worth it unless you are going into a high-paying medical field or law degree.
Those open to a blue-collar job (such as those in the refractory industry—my husband’s field) can earn $60,000 right out of high school with no credentials, and be earning six figures by the time their peers are graduating college, with plenty of opportunities to grow in industries essential to human flourishing. Glass, concrete, steel, and rare minerals are all things that are vital to the creation of our buildings, roads, cars, airplanes, rocket ships, satellites, cell phones, and literally everything else we use on a daily basis. And the jobs in these fields are in demand, especially as the current workforce reaches retirement age.
Not only can we expand our income with our career choices, but we can also minimize our expenses with our lifestyle choices. As Mr. Money Mustache puts it: “Here’s how to cut your life costs in half: Start by getting rid of your Debt Emergency if you have one. Live close to work. Move to another city if you enjoy adventure. Don’t borrow money for cars, and don’t buy stupid ones. Ride a bike wherever you can. Cancel your TV service. Stop wasting money on groceries. Give your kids the opportunity to achieve greatness without being pampered. Lose the overpriced cell phones. Learn to appreciate the life-boosting joy of using your own body to get things done. Learn to mock convenience. Practice optimism.”
And we don’t need to fill our homes with expensive things. Instead, we can get all of our furniture from Buy Nothing or take advantage of thrift shops and antique stores. (And find much nicer, and more unique things than the mass produced items found at Anthropologie!). Many apartment complexes now come with shared vacuum cleaners, blenders, video game consoles, bikes, surfboards, even sewing machines—things we no longer have to buy ourselves if we can share them. And we can buy things that can be fixed, rather than need to be replaced, to extend the lives of the things we do own.
Increasing wealth is not just personally beneficial, but societally beneficial as well. The mission of 80,000 hours is to help workers use the 80,000 hours of their careers for the greater good. The Effective Altruism movement advocates for maximizing your income so you can maximize your giving to effective charities—my husband and I support GiveDirectly.
Geoffrey Holt, for one, worked at a grain mill for most of his life but lived frugally in a trailer park, socking nearly every penny away in investments. When he died, those who knew him were surprised when he left $3.8 million to his small town in New Hampshire.
Even without a lot of wealth, we can still make an impact. Martijn Doolaard first quit his job to bike tour around the world for a year. Then decided he wanted to keep doing it while making money, so he got a freelance graphic design job so he could keep going for two more years. Now he’s purchased a tiny villa in the Italian Alps for €26,000, where he spends his time living in a yurt, fixing it up, and videoing the process for YouTube. His simple life doesn’t cost much to live, and he can cover it without having to work that much, all while giving back through his work.
The more extreme Rob Greenfield has chosen to live a life of activism on less than $10,000 a year (below the poverty line). My husband and I follow his YouTube channel where he documents how he lives in a tiny home, trades his gardening and woodworking skills for a place to put it, grows and forages all of his own food, travels only by bike and his own two feet, and has only 600 possessions (most of them books and canning goods). He lives a very good, but simple life, and donates 100% of his media earnings to causes he supports.
My husband and I have chosen some combination of all of these lifehacks to get the lives we wanted. We were never quite as rich as those who prioritized income, nor were we quite as frugal as those who prioritized lifestyle. We chose to prioritize careers that would make an impact on the world, give us income that supports us and allows us to support others, and where we can live remotely from around the world, experiencing other cultures and learning from other thinkers. Sometimes my husband has prioritized income over his job, often I have prioritized jobs that were more related to the kind of writing I wanted to do and had greater flexibility.
We’re currently figuring out the next phase of our lives and how we want to make an impact on the world from here.
Even still, many have pointed out that the way we live isn’t relatable to others because we don’t have kids and thus we have more money and time for travel. But again, we chose not to have kids because that is the life we wanted to live. Presumably, others choose to have kids because that’s the kind of life they want to live, and that is beautiful too. Both options are a choice—a privilege we make, not one we are resigned to.
Even with kids, there is still plenty of room to carve out the lives we want—like Kevin Maguire, who moved his family to Spain where they are able to work remotely and part-time while being able to afford a better life and spend more time with their children. Or Kristin Grieser, who moved her family onto a sailboat for seven years. Many couples choose to homeschool so they can travel the world with their kids in tow. Others move closer to family or friends so they have a built-in village for their kids. But you are more expert than me here and you had a lot to share about how you optimize your life with kids. (Click the below post to see your responses!)
Now, I am able to write this newsletter for a living. Even still, I have seen newer authors criticize writers like me for all of our publicity and media coverage—as though more attention should be given to smaller writers, not the already successful ones. But my writing success comes not because I sat back and waited around to be discovered, but because I actively made myself discoverable. (How would a media organization know I exist if I didn’t make myself known to them?)
I am not any more privileged than any other writer, I made my own privilege. I sent a pitch letter every day during the first year of this newsletter asking to be featured by other writers and major media outlets—that’s why I have a large following today. I started this newsletter, not to be a writer (I already was one) but because I wanted a wider audience for my writing and because I wanted to get paid for it (so I could spend more time writing about the things I’m passionate about, like bettering the world), and I actively made choices to go after that. I will continue to do that this year as I go after some much bigger goals for my art.
Yes, we are born with some privileges and lacking some others, but in many places around the world, we can also make our own privilege. There is something each of us can affect and that part is still available to all of us. We’ll keep working on perfecting the systems that support humanity and creating a better floor for all of us—that’s important! But we also don’t have to wait around for someone to hand us a more privileged life. We can still go out and get it.
Whether you make $10,000 or $100,000 a year, in many places around the world a dream and a budget can still get you pretty far. And do a lot of good.
But I’d love to know some of your lifehacks, please share them in the comments section!
Thank you for reading and contributing your thoughts,