How low can you go?

I want to teach you a cool game. The winners of this game get huge cash prizes; I won a paid-for house.

The game is called, “How low can you go?”

To play, we need to create a low or no-income budget.

I hear some of you saying, “Wait, what, another budget? I haven’t done the first one.”  Well, since this one is easier than your real budget – get going.

In some instances this really is a worst-case budget – as in you have unexpectedly and unhappily lost your source of income. In other cases this is a best-case budget – as in you have joyfully taken the leap to a new venture or retirement. Either way, let’s play the game.

If you lost your income, how little could you live on?

With no income, entertainment becomes a walk, a bike ride, a trip to the library. So scratch the movies, the bars, and the vacations.

Eating on as little as possible does not involve fast food or restaurants or steaks. E-Mealz (a really cool menu planning system) can provide menus and shopping lists that will feed a family of two for as little as $30 a week.

If you had no income would that AC be set to 68? Would you be jumping in the car and motoring across town 4 times a week; or might you consider exploring the use of the city bus?

Really get radical here – consider what you spend on clothes and nails and hair color; how can you look presentable for less?

Itunes, Netflix, Redbox ? Not with zero income.

Take a look at that cell plan; you have no income. You don’t know when you will have some again. Can you get it lower? Do you really need it?

Do you have an extra room? What if you got a roommate? No, not forever, could you do it for a while if you needed to?

Things you can’t give up:

Insurance: you need health coverage. If you have dependents you need term life. If you drive, you need auto and if you own a home you need homeowners.

Taxes: you must pay you property taxes, auto tags and renew your license etc.

If I stayed in our home (paid for), kept both cars (paid for) and the cell phones I could go as low as $2,100 a month.

Fully half of my as-low-as-I-can-go expenses are insurance (home, car, health and life) and taxes (property, tags). If I needed to go lower we could easily live with one car (saving insurance, tag and maybe some gas) and ditch the cell phones. But to go any lower than that would require a housing change.

Ok here’s the fun part.

It’s just a game (hopefully you haven’t lost your income or if you have you had already worked out a plan) but what if you played for real? What is the monthly difference between your as-low-as-I-can-go expenses and you normal expenses?

What if you went only half way to as-low-as-I-can-go and applied the rest of the money to reducing debt or increasing savings? If you played for 6 months what would your financial picture look like? How about a year?

This is how we paid off our house. We played the: “How Low can You Go?” game for two years. It really wasn’t about huge sacrifices because it was just a game; we knew we didn’t have to live that way but we wanted to win.

Riding the bus or your bike, going to the library, carrying your lunch, having friends over for dinner and a board game instead of going out is not a drag. After you do it for a while, you may find parts of your low income life that you actually enjoy more than your old free-spending ways.

Can you beat me?  What’s your as-low-as-I-can-go number?

Good Debt vs. Bad Debt

In the world I grew up in there were two kinds of debt, good and bad.

Good debt was debt used to buy things that are going up in value, real estate, home improvement or education.

Bad debt was debt for depreciating stuff like clothes, vacations, dinners out etc.

Cars, even though they depreciate like crazy, got a pass and were ruled ok debt.

This is no longer that world.

In today’s world there is Bad Debt and Worse Debt and Toxic Debt.

Bad Debt is a 15 year fixed rate mortgage on a home that the payments are no more than 25% of your take home pay. How can this possibly be bad? It is debt. It has risk. It costs you money in the form of interest. It is as close to being “good” as a debt can get but let’s call it bad to remind us we want out of it as soon as possible.

Worse Debt is secured debt on rapidly depreciating cars, boats and other toys. In the old world, advisors would say a car loan was fine if paying cash would wipe out your reserves; after all you need a car. Depending on where you live and what you do for a living you might convince me you need a car, but you will have a very hard time convincing me you need a car loan. Buy a car you can afford. Can’t pay cash for a new car? Guess you don’t get a new car. Can’t pay cash for a 5 year old car? Try an 8 year old car.  Maybe you really have to have a car loan but if so, it should be a very small loan on a used car and you need a plan to pay it off really fast.

Toxic Debt paying 12-25% interest on stuff that has virtually no resale value is financial suicide. You did not need the stuff in the first place. If you carry a balance on your credit card it proves you could not afford the stuff. Don’t buy stuff unless you can pay for it.

Another form of Toxic debt is the school loan. This is new world. The price of tuition has gotten so high and the lure of easy loans is so strong that many graduate with huge loans that are totally out of line with their probable earnings.

The Financial Aid Officer sitting across the desk from you is the devil incarnate. You are selling your future. Be very, very, very careful.

Wake up! If you have been living by the rules you were taught and you’re not winning, it’s because the world has changed.

There is no good debt and right now is a great time to assess how you can adapt and win.

Need a ride?

This is a graph.

Let’s call it our “How People Get to Work Graph”.

Most people live under the big fat part of the graph. They are driving financed or leased cars to work. They are obligated and indebted. They are normal.

Normal Sucks. (Please remember this highly technical financial phrase; it can make you rich).

If we move just a little to the right, we find people driving their paid off cars to work. These people are not entirely normal, they are not indebted (at least not for their car) and they have given themselves a chance to win. Dave approves of these people’s transportation.

Out to the right a little further, we might find two or more people car-pooling, sharing their transportation expense. Most of you are still with me here, that’s a scenario that you can wrap your head around.

But let’s go way out under the long tail. Here we can find people who have sold their car. They don’t have a car. They don’t have car insurance or maintenance or parking or gas expenses. They don’t have finance costs or depreciation draining their net worth. They are car-free. These people are way Beyond Dave.

Could you do this? Before you answer please notice I have my fingers in my ears. Go ahead a rattle off your 52 rationalizations why this is crazy and the people who do it are nuts and why it would never work for you. Done?

The average American spends nearly 20% of the income on transportation. Twenty percent, how much is that for you?

Edmunds True Cost to Own can give you an idea what it really costs to own different models.

These people without cars plan to live without cars. They live relativity close to work. This means not only do the save on transportation costs, but they may also save on commute time as well.

What would more time at home mean to you?

Would it mean you could get a load of wash done in the morning so everyone is less rushed and stressed in the evening? Would it mean you could cook dinner more often instead of picking up unhealthy and expensive drive through food? Could you get an extra hour with the kids?

Add this value to your twenty percent.

So, how do you get to work if you don’t have a car?

Buses, trains, subways and car pools work in some places.

Electric Bikes, bikes and walking work in others.

A combination of any of the above works in even more places.

I commuted by bike 10 miles each way for a number of years. I usually rode at least 3 days a week. It was good for my health and good for the budget. It wasn’t as good as being car free but it was much better than normal.

How far can get you from normal?


Keeping up appearances is one of the reasons people get into, and stay in debt – they are living beyond their means. Dave Ramsey says, “We buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like.”

You have probably spent your whole life learning this “need” to impress, and it is surprisingly difficult to change.

I see two year olds sporting Nike and Ralph Lauren; so if a good part of your decision making involves what others might think, let’s get the blame thing out of the way. It is your parents’ fault (just kidding, Mom). Now let’s start looking for ways to change this.

We have been proudly on our “austerity” program for some time as we worked to pay off our debt, build our emergency fund, and finally pay off our house. We’ve been killing it, living on a tiny percentage of our income and very happy doing it. We do not feel restricted or deprived. Many of our friends and family know what we are doing and although they sometimes poke a little fun, they are for the most part very supportive.

So given this and the fact that I think I’m way past spending money to impress others, what was up with my GT soda explanation? We recently had some family over for dinner including a favorite aunt and uncle that I don’t often get a chance to see. As I served our guests refreshments, I found myself giving a lengthy explanation of my Aldi (discount groceries) brand diet cola. I do believe I was a little embarrassed to be offering an off-brand soda to people I care about.

How silly is that? These people have known me all my life, I’m certain whatever they think about me would not have changed based on the brand of a cola.

It’s an important to be aware how much this concern of what others might think controls our decision making. Before last night I would have said none, but apparently the real answer is some.

If you find yourself at the car lot because your car isn’t new a enough or nice enough for your friends – STOP. What do you think? What financial goal are you currently working on? Will a new, or new to you, car advance or setback that goal ?

The objective is not to take all emotion out of decision making but to create an internal dialog where we catch ourselves before making choices that conflict with our goals.

Build yourself a list of the thoughts that trip you up and check your thinking before making choices.

“Self, I’ve noticed that you still tend to make some decisions based not on what will lead you to your goal, but based on what others think. Is this one of those decisions?”

“Self, Seems like sometimes what you really, really want today – you lose interest in by next week. Is this one of those decisions?”

So easy peasy, now that we know you’re predisposed to want things to impress others (that’s your parents’ fault remember), all you have to do is be on the outlook for choices that don’t move your goals forward. Question your choices and rethink these stinking thinking decisions; you’ll be richer for it.

Shiny Things

The constant desire for new stuff can be our undoing while trying to build wealth.  Unlike the crow, you were not born with an attraction to shiny objects.

Marketing is powerful.

The car you thought you liked last week becomes the car you can’t wait to replace when you are inundated with ads for the newer cooler model. Every new tech toy captures your imagination, becoming the one thing that would make you happy. Not one of the 33 pair of shoes you already own will do for Saturday night, once you catch a glimpse of the latest Jimmy Choo’s.

Marketing is powerful and if there is any hope of you controlling your own life you must be prepared to fight back with some formidable strategies of you own.

Long Term Strategy: ALWAYS

Always have a plan and a goal for your money. Make both the plan and the goal specific and measurable. Having an overall plan helps you resist temporary temptations.

Once you have lived for a while with your long term goals in place, you will find in becomes much easier to be very intentional with your spending.  But until then, give these three mini-strategies a try.

Mini-Strategy One: Blow $

Set up a blow budget; allow yourself a fixed amount of money every month that you don’t need to account for. But do not spend over this limit.

Mini-Strategy Two: Wish List

Keep a list of things you want. Don’t buy anything that’s not on the wish list unless it can be paid in full from your blow money. Having a wish list forces you to consider an items worth to you relevant to other wish list items. Prioritize your list and create a goal in your account or put a jar on the kitchen counter or set aside a little extra in your savings account for the desired purchase. Make a chart tracking your progress and hang it on the wall. Wait until you’ve saved enough to buy your wish list item. You’ll be surprised how fast you can save for something you want, once you’re focused.

Mini-Strategy Three: Cooling off

Set a hard and fast unbreakable cooling off period before you buy, even if you have the cash. Wait 24 hours for decisions less than $50, a week for less than $200, a month for $500. After the cooling off period, if you still want it and you can pay cash for it and it’s the number 1 item on your wish list, go for it!