Before you set off on any kind of journey, you need a plan. A roadmap. (And maybe some snacks.) In my experience, most people don’t have any kind of concrete plan for their retirement, and if they have any notion of what their life will be like, that mental image is mighty vague.
This question might sound ridiculously simple, but give it some thought: what would make you happy? Chances are, you’d end up paraphrasing Nickelback’s Rockstar: “we all just wanna be big rockstars, and live in hilltop houses, driving 15 cars.” Leaving aside the fact that just maintaining that stuff would be a major chore, that’s not a real answer. Sure, it would be nice to have several sports cars and more living space than you’d ever possibly need, but is that what you specifically want in life?
When it comes to needs vs wants, there’s a fascinating dichotomy. Technically, all you really need to survive is food, water, and shelter. Living in a micro-apartment (or a shipping container, or a tiny home, or a trailer, or an apodment as they’re sometimes called) while eating bread, tofu, and vitamins would be pretty miserable, but you’d survive and probably have a fairly long lifespan. (Ironically, Cubans had less diabetes and heart disease during their economic crisis in the 90s, simply because their diets got a lot leaner, with far less meat and far more walking and bicycling.)
If, on the other hand, you lived like a rockstar, with parties and sports cars and random substances purchased with cash, that might get tiresome (if not unsustainable) after a while. There are quite a few unhappy millionaires out there, so the 24/7 party lifestyle is also out.
And so, again, the question: what are your needs, what are your wants, and what will you compromise on? What are the underlying themes in all your answers? What do you want? What do you need?
For example, let’s look at food. What I need is healthy food. What I want is delicious food, and given that I have a sweet tooth, I want some dessert too. I want to spend as little time in the kitchen as possible. I also want the food I make to be sufficiently interesting and fancy to impress my guests if I ever have company. (This damn pandemic is really cramping my social life.) Here are the compromises I came up with:
- a while ago, I bought this Instapot on sale (this is an affiliate link that’d get me a small commission), and it ended up saving me a lot of time and headache. It can cook rice with vegetables and salmon in just four minutes, assuming you add just the right amount of water. Sure, there’s the inevitable cleanup, but washing a single metal pot is much easier than cleaning several pots and pans. One other huge advantage is that the food always ends up tasting great. That pressure-cooked salmon simply melts in your mouth. (Great, now I’m hungry.)
- I decided to master the most basic recipes by cooking them over and over, all the while experimenting with temperatures, cooking times, etc. At this point, I can make a pretty great egg-and-milk omelet with veggies, though to be fair, my first attempts ended up turning into scrambled eggs when I couldn’t quite flip it over. Good times. (Hey, it tastes the same in the end.)
- To make things interesting, I go out to eat once a week. I found a couple of diners that serve gigantic portions of delicious food: with my customary black coffee and the 20% tip, the grand total comes down to just under $25, or $100 per month. That adds some nice variety into my weekly routine, gets me out of the house, and makes eating out a fun a experience. (If I did that every single day, that would become my new baseline, and I’d fail to truly appreciate the experience.)
To use a more extreme example: in 2019, I finally secured an international transfer at work, and moved from Seattle to Toronto. (That was a pretty long drive, eh.) I love traveling and exploring new places, new experiences, new surroundings. Unfortunately, Canada isn’t all that different from the US. Sure, there are some fun little differences: Tim Hortons instead of Starbucks, maple syrup instead of guns, meters and kilometers instead of feet and miles. But overall, though, it’s about 95% the same. It simply didn’t feel like a sufficiently foreign country. With the pandemic in full swing, and with no way to tell when the rest of the world gets fully vaccinated, international travel was out of the question for the foreseeable future. I was bored in Toronto, and recreational travel abroad wasn’t a good idea, so I found a good compromise – I moved to Quebec!
I’ve been enjoying the beautiful Quebec City for six weeks now, and I finally feel like I’m in a foreign country. This full immersion is an excellent opportunity to learn an interesting new language, there’s history on every corner (as a tour guide told me, “You can’t swing a cat without hitting something historical – or hysterical”), the architecture makes you feel like you’re in some quaint European town and not just north of Vermont, etc. At the risk of jinxing myself, I think I love it here, and I can definitely see myself spending the rest of my life in this city. (Well, half of the rest of my life, anyhow. Once I get my Canadian citizenship in two years, I aim to become a snowbird and spend the six cold months each year someplace cheap and fun and tropical: Thailand, Mexico, Algeria, you name it.) When it comes to travel, what do you want? What do you need? What would you compromise on?
I hope these examples – one simple, one fairly radical – illustrate my point. Sit down, grab a pen and paper, and try to brainstorm what you really want, how you can balance it with what you need, and how you can find a compromise that would be fun and end up saving you money. Did I mention that Quebec has the cheapest rent in Canada due to rent control? My one-bedroom apartment with all the utilities and high-speed internet costs about $470 USD per month, and it’s right next to the beautiful tourist district. I ended up saving more than 50% compared to the tiny studio I used to rent in Toronto!
Now that you know what to look for, start brainstorming. What do you want? What do you need? To quote 30 Rock, “There are no bad ideas, only great ideas that go horribly wrong.” Think outside the box and see if maybe you could brew your own beer, or find a great new spice that will make home cooking more exciting (spoiler alert: garlic salt is delicious), or maybe you’ll come up with some wild new hobby I haven’t even thought of! What do you want? What do you need? What will you compromise on?
If you turn this into a habit, you’ll be able to come up with a very basic idea of your core values and wants. In my case, my core wants are relatively simple: I want reliable internet access; a safe place with hot water; healthy food; interesting surroundings; an opportunity to keep learning. I’ve found all of that here, in my amazingly cheap apartment in Quebec City, where every walk outside can be a multicultural adventure. Along the way, I realized that without a full-time job, I no longer needed a car, so I sold it and cut out all the car-related expenses (registration, insurance, paring, maintenance) as well. Life is a whole lot easier now!
What interesting money-saving compromises have you settled on in the past? Leave a comment to share!