How I live comfortably without a job


ID-100332684 Most of my friends have jobs. That’s just what you do. It’s the way the world works, isn’t it?

I prefer my way though. I don’t have a job and, unless something goes wrong, I don’t think I’ll ever want to have one again for the rest of my life. Who knows? People change I suppose. My wife has a (part-time) job and that suits her quite well.

I’m a freelancer and also run very small businesses. I guess I work about 20 hours a week on average. If I wanted to take a month ‘away from it all’, I could accomplish that pretty easily.

My family and I are comfortably off and we’re not in the slightest bit worried about money. I’m not a ‘big time’ entrepreneur and we’ve not had any large windfalls. Neither I nor my wife ‘come from money’. We are fully responsible for generating our own income and there’s nobody else to blame if it all goes wrong.

So how did this all come about? Well, there are a few ways that we’ve designed our life to be different from the lives of our friends to allow us to have time to ourselves. Here are the main features.

Low overheads

If we had taken the ‘conventional’ path and both worked at our professional jobs on a full-time basis, we would be a moderately-high-earning, dual-income couple. Now, I don’t mean rolling in it, but we could definitely be in the ‘big detached house, two new German cars and a long-haul holiday every year’ club if we so desired.

Instead, we reasoned that when I was at uni in my mid-twenties, keeping our spending low didn’t worsen our quality of life at all compared to our friends who were already parts of DINKY couples. This being the case, what possible benefit could we get from both selling the majority of our waking hours for the sake of meaningless consumption?

We live a moderately frugal life. To put a number on it, not including childcare, in the 12 months prior to writing this, we spent around £32,000 or around £2700 per month on average. Now that’s by no means a poverty-level existence. We pretty much do whatever we want. We go for plenty of meals out with friends and family. A new pair of shoes rarely costs less than £80 (buy cheap, buy twice and all that). We live in a comfortable 3 bedroom semi in a beautiful countryside location.

I know that many people in this country would consider our lifestyle to be luxurious. However, this level of spending is far lower than the £6000-£7000 per month we could bring home between us if we decided it was a good use of our time to do so. We still aim to invest what, by most people’s standards, is a massive amount (about £1000 per month) for the long term to make sure that when we ‘retire’ we’ll be comfortably wealthy.

That means, considering both current needs and providing for the future, we only need to generate enough income to give us about £3700 after tax and childcare at the end of every month. That’s not a miniscule amount, but a very manageable task if you have decent skills and take an effective approach.

Our main strategy for keeping the overheads down is to not allow our fixed and structural expenses get too high. For instance, we drive around in old but reliable cars. Not losing £5k per car every year to depreciation is an easily overlooked benefit to our strategy.

We also rent a house rather than owning one and, at the moment, we’re getting a fantastic deal. I’m not saying that we’ll never buy but if we do, it could well be a cash purchase from accumulated capital rather than becoming mortgage slaves to the bank.

Side note: if you’re thinking something along the lines of

Renting is throwing money away

or

You’re crazy! A house is a good investment and should be your biggest asset.

then suffice it to say that you may have been brainwashed. The rent vs buy question is usually more complicated than that and you need to analyse the situation in a lot more depth to come to a sensible conclusion one way or the other.

We also forgo expensive holidays. We’ve never done a long haul holiday. To be honest, as we don’t have much stress to run away from, it isn’t currently an attractive proposition. Note however that if, say, we wanted to do a month-long trip to California next year without changing our other financial goals, I could just do more work this year in order to pay for it. It’s our choice.

Marketable skills

I will admit that my wife and I have one advantage when it comes to making money outside the confines of traditional jobs. Our professional skills fit the freelancing model quite well.

That made my transition from having a job to ‘fending for myself’ quite smooth. I basically went from describing myself in terms like

I’m a professional X

to saying

I’m a freelance professional X

I accept that if your current profession doesn’t fit that mould exactly, you might have to be a bit more creative with how you intend to make a living. However, don’t be disheartened. That you have got to the point of becoming a professional in any field is proof enough that you can provide the most important thing of all to would-be purchasers of your services: value!

Now… I’ll let you into a secret.

I could easily support my lifestyle even if I abandoned my profession completely. I’d do this using the skills I picked up over the years running a one-man-band computer consultancy business. That business was how I learned to be an entrepreneur. It stopped us from being poor when I went back to uni at 24. It taught me that it’s possible to make a living even if you’re skint and starting from scratch.

The services I provided running that business didn’t require any degrees or certificates. There were no professional gatekeepers. I didn’t need any third-party approval. I had to be able to do one thing and one thing only: provide value to my clients. If things were broken, my clients wanted them to be fixed. If there was a problem, my clients wanted a solution.

Never once in 14 years did anybody ever ask me why I thought I was qualified to offer the services I advertised. I could either do the job or I couldn’t. If you’re not in a job that translates easily into a freelance career and you want to build a flexible life, perhaps you need to work out what your version of my computer consultancy business is.

Are you good with numbers? Well then maybe your pen-pushing corporate job has given you most of the training you need to be a freelance accountant. Are you a good organiser? Maybe you should be a management consultant. Are you obsessed with exercise? It’s only a small jump to start doing high-end personal training for wealthy people.

If you’re bright and competent at something (which you must be if you have a professional 9-5!), I’m pretty sure that a bit of brainstorming would lead you to a few different ways you could provide value to people other than getting a job. Forget about credentials, professional bodies and other bullshit. Think about value! Also, don’t fall into the

But nobody would ever pay me X to do Y

trap.

If you’d have told me at the age of 18 that people would ever pay me £40 per hour for fixing what I perceived to be very simple IT problems, I would have laughed at you and gone back to my poorly paid job in a bank!

Cutting out the middle man

My professional skills are in a technical field.

It’s quite common for people in my field to transition from being an employee to being a ‘contractor’, usually so they can earn more money. The way this usually works is that the person in question would register with one or more agencies who would put them forward for short-term (usually 3-6 month) contracts. The agency would do all of the sales work. In return, they would be rewarded with 25-30% of the hourly rate they were billing the contractor out at.

Everybody sticks to their speciality. The contractor only needs technical skills. The agency deals with sales. It’s win-win. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, most techies I’ve met are far more confident performing their bread and butter work than doing sales meetings and pitching to total strangers.

However, I’ve been selling my services directly to other people since I was a teenager, so the thought of letting somebody else take almost a third of the billing rate to do something I could do myself didn’t sound too appealing. I reasoned that if I could capture all of my value, rather than just 70% of it, I would only have to sell 70% as many hours as I would if I did the same work for an agency. That would allow me to reclaim almost a third of the hours I would otherwise have to work.

It turns out… that’s exactly how it works!

The first time you do a cold call or spend £500 on advertising which yields £50 worth of business, it feels bad. But lo and behold, with a bit of practice, you can quickly become competent at these things. I still wouldn’t call myself a ‘salesman’ but I’m confident that my sales skills will keep me fed for the rest of my life.

Working out how to do the sales work yourself has some other cool side-benefits too. Usually, if you engage with a client via an agency, there will be a clause in the contract which means that if you work for the client again within a year of the last contract finishing, the agent is entitled to their cut. This means that even though you’re the one who is building a relationship with the client, the agent gets to take a cut pretty much forever, long after their original work of landing the job for you was completed. If there was no middle-man in the first place, this isn’t a problem though!

I’ll be the first to admit that building up a client-base without using agencies has been challenging. However, we were well enough capitalised to make sure that the lead time wouldn’t cause any problems.

Accurate financial monitoring

When you have a traditional job, your monthly cash flows are quite predictable. Perhaps on the 25th of every month, your bank account receives a credit for £3000. Over the course of the next 30 days, that money gradually bleeds away until the 25th of next month comes and you’re ready for a refill.

Do you actually know where it goes though?

Do you know off the top of your head what the 3 largest expenses you have every month are and what percentages of your total spending they account for? What do you really spend on ‘socialising’? Do you monitor what your cars are costing you?

I’m sure that all sounds really dry and boring but it really is crucial if you’re responsible for generating your own income and you sometimes get it in uneven chunks. It also gives you the power to quickly squash any bad habits that arise as you’re always aware of what your financial behaviour is really like.

I keep a close eye on a few key financial metrics which I use as early warning signs to guide my income production strategy. The most important metrics I track for our family are:

  • Average monthly expenditure over the last year
  • Last month’s expenditure
  • Balance of cash reserves
  • Net worth

This minimal amount of information is sufficient to make decisions like

  • Our expenses are creeping up – we need to be more careful or I need to ramp up income production efforts.
  • That car purchase took its toll on our cash reserves – we need to replenish our savings rather than worrying about long-term investments for now.
  • Last year we spent X. That means that for the next year I need to put in place Y and Z to produce enough income.

Notice that I don’t even bother monitoring income. Assuming that all bills are paid on time, our cash reserves remain at their desired level and our net worth is increasing fast enough to let us retire completely reasonably young, then everything is going according to plan.

I also perform a monthly financial management exercise (it takes about 20 minutes) which ensures that we are on track, our resources are divided equally in ownership between me and my wife and that the asset allocation of our investment portfolio is appropriately balanced.

When we were working on getting the most from our spending, I paid a lot more attention to where in the budget (e.g. car repairs, going out for meals, phone bills) the money was going. I’d heartily recommend that anybody who is trying to wean themselves off a monthly salary does the same thing.

I use MoneyDashboard which pulls data in from our bank accounts automatically and presents the raw numbers in the form of useful graphs and charts. If you want to see a more comprehensive description (with pictures!) of how I use MoneyDashboard in my financial management activities, sign up for my free 6-part email course.

Lots of liquidity

You might have noticed that I shout quite loud about keeping a reasonably large pile of cash on hand at all times. I’m sure many in the personal finance/investing community would berate me for my obsession with bathing in a deep pool of non-volatile, unproductive liquidity. It’s certainly not an efficient configuration in terms of growing your wealth.

However, if you’re always living on money that you earned a year ago, your perspective towards making decisions in the present alters massively. You have a massive degree of optionality.

The phone rings. It’s a prospective client for your freelance consultancy business. They’d like to buy some of your time. What do you do? If you have no cash and no other takers, the answer is probably ‘do whatever they want at whatever price they’re willing to pay’. However, if your immediate survival needs are more than taken care of, you can afford to think more in terms of long-term strategy and lifestyle design. You can ask ‘does this fit in with my long-term plan’.

You can also more accurately reckon your opportunity cost. Perhaps you really want to carry on doing what you’re doing and interrupting it for a consulting gig would only be worth it at a 50% premium to the usual going rate for your services in the market.

You still need to be careful not to portray yourself as a money grabber but if there’s a justifiable reason for pushing up your rates, you can do so with confidence. This really helps when you’re trying to work out what you are worth in the market as well. If you have a net to catch you when you get it wrong, pushing up your rates until you find the price at which people all start to say no becomes a real possibility.

Thinking outside the box

I try to never accept the solution that everybody else has chosen for any given problem.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The wisdom of the crowd can be a wonderful thing. Sometimes, asking for a lot of opinions on something is a really good way of working out the truth.

However, consider that the vast majority of people have decided to submit to the 40 (60?) hour work week. Have all of those people individually made this choice because it’s the one that gives them what they want out of life? Are our society’s usual 9-5 office hours special in some way? Or are people just continuing the pattern that was programmed into them since the first time they sat in a school classroom?

Fixed hours? Check! Authority figure who must be obeyed? Check! Somebody else tells you when you do and don’t have to be here? Check! Sounds a lot like school to me!

I try to make a point out of occasionally challenging myself to find new solutions to old problems. For example, when our old car died, I did an experiment for a couple of months to work out whether being a one car family would work for us (my wife got the car!) It turns out that, because we live out in the sticks, work in different places and have a toddler, that second car really is worth what it costs us in time spent generating income.

We’ve also experimented with things like buying the ‘basic’ supermarket version of a variety of different goods to see what’s worth spending the extra on. We’ve found some easy ways of getting value for money. We’ve also eaten/used some crap products! The point is, because we tried, now we know.

On the income generation front, I’ve tried really hard not to use my professional skills as the default answer. Clearly, having that solid foundation of a freelanceable skill is a really good place to start from. But I’ve also done a full audit of what value I do/can provide to others.

I love music but I’m not good enough to charge for guitar lessons. I’m an avid gym user but don’t have an interest in doing any personal training. I love advanced maths and engineering problems but I don’t think I have the patience to tutor 18 year olds again. However, I’ve always been a good leader and have a long history of helping other people achieve their goals so doing some coaching was a natural choice.

A really powerful technique I use to test whether or not I’m just going with the crowd is to read around the ideas of other people who have what I would call ‘non-standard’ approaches to life. Check out the links in the sidebar and you’ll find some really interesting material outlining a lot of other ‘alternative’ ideas.

In general, I like reading things written by people who are interested in money, lifestyle design, personal development, business and entrepreneurship. I think that those are the most important fields to get a good grounding in if you want to start thinking of creative solutions to making a living and living the way you want to.

If you want to grow and gain some confidence that you can escape the rat race, try doing some experiments. Push yourself outside the norm.

Park your car 2 miles away from work where it’s free and benefit from the exercise and the £100 a month (in saved car park fees!) towards your freedom fund. Find somebody with a problem and persuade them to let you solve it for money. Speak authoritatively to somebody about a complex subject you’re comfortable with. Above all, learn to enjoy feeling slightly uncomfortable.

Blank Canvas

The theme I want to leave you with is this (I completely stole the analogy from Jacob Lund-Fisker): life is like a Lego kit. It’s fine to follow the instructions and build the model the way the manufacturer intended. Indeed, that’s often the best way to learn about building models in general.

However, once you realise that you have a pile of bricks which can be recombined in interesting ways, you can solve a wide range of problems just by thinking differently. Whether you’re considering work, money, retirement, achieving goals, personal development or whatever – this is the way to think about your life if you want it to look much different from anybody else’s.

Nothing is set in stone. Everything is negotiable. I got what I wanted and there’s no reason you can’t too if you adopt the right approach.


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[Images “Clear Lake” courtesy of phaendin at FreeDigitalPhotos.net, Cartoon Character Hamster Exercise courtesy of saphatthachat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]