How Finding Your Lowest Livable Lifestyle Can Lead You to Your Ideal Lifestyle
The last few weeks we’ve been discussing purpose (why you do what you do), your skills (what you do), and how they fit into your perfect career.
The only thing we haven’t covered in detail is money.
There are a lot of books and blogs that only focus on money. If this post inspires you to take charge of your personal finances, I put together a list of book recommendations at the end of the post. This week, we are only going to talk about money in the context of using it as a tool. First, to cover your basic needs and second, to fund your ideal lifestyle. If you’re looking for strategies to pay off debt or tricks to get funding for your start-up, by all means, scroll to the bottom and get wild with my book suggestions. Meanwhile, the rest of us are going to look at budgeting; specifically, identifying your Lowest Livable Lifestyle that covers all your basic needs while you look for other jobs or pursue a side project; and second, looking ahead and projecting an ideal budget for your perfect careers once you get there.
Why You Need a Budget
Having a budget might sound old-school, like balancing your checkbook, but it’s an art that should not be lost as our currency becomes more digital. Budgeting is important because it forces you to be aware of how you spend your money, so you think twice (do I really need this?) before making an impulse purchase.
For most of us, money is (and always will be) a limited resource. Despite the limitations, money should be viewed as a special type of tool, and like any other tool, money isn’t “bad” unless it is used in a way that fosters negativity. Like greed. When people become second to money, they get hurt. When money is used to support a healthy lifestyle and fund projects that result in positive results, money can be a very good thing—for example, when it’s put into a product, service, or organization that is mutually beneficial (win-win). Being conscious of your spending habits allows you to make better decisions that result in positivity more often. Meaning, you can put your money to work in ways that end up benefiting you (and others) more.
Before you can fund exciting projects or start justifying why buying a cabin and a boat will yield positive results, you need to figure out your baseline income, what I call your Lowest Livable Lifestyle (LLL or L3).
What Is Your Lowest Livable Lifestyle?
When I’m talking to people who are thinking about making a career transition, one of the biggest barriers is being able to financially support their transition. A common concern is, how will I continue to support my lifestyle if I take a pay cut, work part-time, or cut ties completely?
Before making any big changes, track all your necessary expenses so you know how much you need to make to cover your LLL. Your LLL is what you need to pay for all your basic survival expenses, like housing, transportation, clothing, and food. For some people, this is the apartment they are currently living in, a new car, and eating out three nights a week. To another person, this is living out of their used car and having a gym membership, so they can take showers and brush their teeth. Whatever your LLL is, you get to decide.
Step 1: Look at your old budget.
You might be thinking, “What? I didn’t have a budget.” Oh yes you did. Did you spend any money last month? You had a budget, even if you weren’t aware of it. Go back through your credit card statements, PayPal emails, Venmo transactions, bank statements, and wherever else money exchanged hands, and track every penny you spent.
To get an exact number, go through every purchase you made in the last three months and plug it into a spreadsheet. This will give you a real-life picture of your spending habits. It’s hard to hide expenses when they begin adding up, and the numbers don’t lie.
When you’re going through your transactions, note what it was you purchased, the cost, and what type of expense it is. Is it something you can’t live without (a survival need), something you can do without (something fun), or something you could live without but you are choosing to include as part of your LLL? Reflecting on your spending is important because the more you engage with an expense, the better at planning and executing on your budget you will be.
To help you get a better idea of survival-expense, I have included Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (see below). Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide what is necessary. What Maslow’s considers a high-level need may or may not be part of you LLL.
Step 2: Ask, do I really need this?
You might notice a column jumps out at you, like eating out or morning coffee runs. For me, I didn’t realize how much I was spending on books (come on, most of them were used books, too!). I’ve spoken to people who could have doubled their student loan payment if they stopped eating out and buying their five-buck morning coffee.
After you’ve finished tracking all your expenses, look for areas where you can cut down on your spending. When you look at a row, ask: do I really need this? Make a new column on the far right side where you can think of ways to reduce spending in that area.
In my book, Age of Agility, I write about how casual drinks at happy hour can cost you more than $2,000/year. All the impulse purchases add up, including the $2 gas station waters and $3 car fresheners. With your base-line budget, you get to decide what stays and what goes. Maybe splurging from time to time makes you feel good because when you were growing up, you were never allowed to buy M&Ms at the gas station. If this is an important part of your LLL, go for it. These are just examples of where you could cut excess spending, if needed.
When I’ve done this exercise in the past with people, they are amazed when they see their monthly expenses drop in half. They save money by making food at home and inviting friends over instead of going out. Eventually, they would love to be able to see movies every weekend or go out to eat multiple times per week, but right now it’s not part of their LLL. Save all the things you cut and still want to do eventually, and place it in a document for your ideal budget.
Step 3: New Budget
Finally, put an exact dollar amount on what you have been spending, your new LLL, and your Ideal Livable Lifestyle(ILL). You can keep all three side by side in the same spreadsheet if you’d like. Having an exact dollar amount will show you where and when you need to be mindful of your spending. Also, the ideal budget will be encouragement as you work on your job search or start a side project.
As you are filling out your LLL column and your ILL, feel free to experiment with things you are and are not willing to give up, such as airplane tickets and weeklong vacations. If things you previously relied on are cut out of your LLL, rest assured that they can still be part of your ILL. When you’re looking to the future and calculating your ILL, you can think of it as the number that will give you enough leeway to not stress about money.
Periodically update your LLL as your income increases and set new goals for your ILL. Eventually, with careful planning and forward momentum in your career, your LLL will become your ILL.
I’m not going to get into paying off debt or how to manage your money better, because this is merely about finding a comfortable number for you to live with. There are many resources out there, including one of my favorites, Dave Ramsey, who can help you with setting a budget and getting out of debt. I will say that a few years ago, when I was trying to learn how to manage my money better, paying with cash (something Dave Ramsey suggest doing) helped me visualize the money I was spending. If I told myself I was only going to spend $400 a month on groceries, having the $400 in an envelope at the grocery store helped me visualize what I could and could not spend. When I made my way to the cash register and the first grocery trip of the month cost $250, I realized there was going to be an issue the next three weeks, as more than half of my grocery fund was already spent.
Why You Need to Know Your Bottom Line
Identifying your LLL is important for a few reasons. First, to assess your current working situation; are your wages covering all your living expenses? If you are living at a deficit (spending more to live than you make), you will need to redefine what your LLL is to stop incurring debt. If you are working in a position you believe to be your perfect career and don’t want to leave, is there a way to boost your income to cover your LLL? If there isn’t, you fall into the “volunteering” overlap of skills and purpose (see Venn diagram), and fall short of a perfect career because you cannot survive on your current wages.
Another reason to identify your LLL is if you are in the bottom intersection of skills and money, the overlap titled “Golden Handcuffs”. You may be thinking, Sure, I’m using my skills and getting paid “OK,” but golden handcuffs is a little dramatic. You may feel comfortable leaving your job and working somewhere else, and this move isn’t a problem for you because you know you will be making about the same wherever you go. And it’s not like you hate the work you do, it’s just lost its excitement. It’s mediocre. It’s a job you could coast through the rest of your working career. This is what I like to call a J-O-B (yes, in big individual letters). There’s not a lot of emotion or dedication. It’s just a job, take it or leave it. Basically, there’s a demand and you have the skills to meet that demand.
If you just had the radical realization that your job is a J-O-B, congratulations. With your new knowledge, you can leverage the positives that come along with a J-O-B to fund a side project, new skill, or something that will eventually fulfill your purpose and lead you to your perfect career.
Let’s say you are currently working a J-O-B that supports your LLL. In your position, you might realize that you can get all your work done in half the expected time, giving you an extra 20 hours every week to pursue a dream project or side hustle (we’ll talk about side hustles and dream projects next week). Instead of being bored or giving in to your distractions, you can use the downtime you already have to work on something meaningful. If you can’t take a break from your normal working hours to develop a side project or learn a new skill, you can conserve your energy so later, you can focus on what does matter. A J-O-B is less stressful when you realize it’s not fulfilling your purpose, because you know it’s only a stepping stone to something better. It gives you clarity of mind to keep work at work, since your energy is better spent outside of work. And in many cases, a J-O-B may be the exact thing you need so you can get paid while you work on the goals that matter to you.
Next week, we’ll talk more about what your side project might look like and the difference between a side hustle and a dream project. Both hit on an idea I’ve only hinted at, the difference between your passion and your purpose.
Before I end, here are those book recommendations.
Money Management Skills by The Great Courses (audiobook from the Great Courses series—good stuff)
The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey
The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas Stanley and William Danko
What Every Angel Investor Wants You to Know by Brian Cohen
The Startup Game by William Draper
The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff
The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
The Startup Funding Book by Nicolaj Højer Nielsen
Raising Capital by Andrew Sherman
The Founder’s Dilemmas by Noam Wasserman
See you next week,
Andrew J. Wilt is the author of Age of Agility, a book that addresses the skill gap between school and work. He can be reached at Andrew.firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @andrewjwilt