I love my life.
Most mornings, when I wake up, I get to choose exactly what my day is going to look like. I could choose to stay in bed all morning or binge-watch TV series’ on Netflix if I so desired.
In practice I usually get up early, exercise and then do some work. I suppose that my reality sounds a bit like yours.
This morning, I got up at 5 and I’m sat in an office typing out this article. Hold on a minute, am I not supposed to be the guy who isn’t in the rat race? Well, the difference between where I am now and where I was 4 years ago is that if I want to, I can get up, walk out of the office and have the rest of the day off.
There’s nobody to stop me from doing this (or sack me if I do). I might not achieve my goals if I made a habit of pissing away my days watch Breaking Bad instead of doing the creative work which is important to me but it is ultimately my choice.
Add to this the fact that I specifically chose this office because of the creative, talented people who rent desks here and my life looks a lot less like it used to. Everybody should be in this situation!
But most people are not.
More importantly, a significant number of people think that having somebody else decide how and where they spend 5/7 of their time until they turn 65/66/67/68 is an inevitable part of life. Those people are wrong. Being free is in reach for many. It’s probably in reach for you. The first step you need to take is to identify the barriers to winning your freedom.
Here are, in my opinion, the 5 biggies.
1. Other people
Be very clear about this. That you think you don’t have any other choices is of great benefit to several other groups of people.
For starters, if you think that you need a job, your employer is unlikely to be the first person to point out to you that the emperor is wearing no clothes. If you can be convinced that having somebody else call the shots for your entire adult life is desirable, you become very pliable.
Next, as much as the government like to talk about entrepreneurship in a positive light, having loads of independent business people in the country rather than everybody being PAYE employees would make it far harder for the authorities to collect tax as efficiently as they currently do. If you’re an employee, you’re a sitting duck. You have no control over the timing of your income and your employer is forced to pay the government a pretty big wodge on top of your salary in employer’s national insurance contributions.
Although I’ve argued that a £50k per year employee pays an effective tax rate of 27.5%, if you add employer’s national insurance into the picture, a more realistic description of the situation is that the employee costs the employer £55780 and suffers an effective tax rate of about 35%. Although the employer nominally ‘pays’ employer’s NI, the burden falls squarely on the employee (as the employer no longer has that money available to give them as salary). If you are a £50k per year salaried employee, you work more than a third of every year just to pay tax. Free country?
Finally, think about all of the other people who want to convince you to spend money (and hence persuade you to keep your nose to the grindstone). Here’s a scary 50s quote from Victor Lebow about how consumers are viewed in America:
Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption.
The marketing of consumption goods is designed to ritualise the buying of things which ultimately do not improve your life. Marketers appeal to our greed, pride and low self-esteem to persuade us to buy as much stuff as possible.
The other base emotion which can easily be tapped is fear. Have you ever bought insurance just for ‘peace of mind’? Well, then you’ve probably made some bad financial decisions. Do you think that the guy in the electronics store is trying to sell you an extended warranty because he cares about you?
The more money you waste because other people have persuaded you to part with it even though it was not in your best interests, the longer you have to spend at work. Simple as that. To become more free, be very aware of what other people want you to do and think hard before deciding to comply.
2. Living month-to-month
Let’s start by defining what I mean here.
I define living month-to-month as having a lifestyle which consumes all of your income. You bring in 3 grand after tax one month and you’re down to your last £50 by the time the next payday comes around. If you have an unexpected expense (perhaps a big car repair), you either have to tighten your belt and change your lifestyle in the short term, or your credit card takes a pummelling.
Now, this is a much better situation to be in than spending more than you earn. That would get you into trouble pretty quickly. However, if you can predict that next month, you’ll need pretty much every penny of what you expect to earn, then you’d better hold onto that job with both hands if you want to carry on as normal.
Perhaps you could treat yourself to a new job. There’s a difference between having a different master and not being a slave any more though.
The great problem with needing that big impressive salary gushing into your bank account every month is that it doesn’t really give you much flexibility to explore other possibilities. It also makes you a lot more careful about pushing the boundaries of your current employment situation. Most reasonable employers wouldn’t be too worried about you having a side-business you worked on in the evenings (assuming it didn’t interfere with your job).
However, if your contract forbids it and you really need this job, you’d be unlikely to ‘try it on’. Spending everything you earn also means that, by definition, you’re not filling up a tank with the most potent type of freedom juice that exists on the planet: spare cash!
3. Lifestyle inflation
Maybe things were different when you were younger.
You came out of uni and got your first ‘proper’ job. You made less than £30k a year and so spending it all wasn’t too difficult, especially when you went to the pub after work 3 nights a week. You never built a cash buffer.
Now you’re in your 30s or 40s. You’ve got some pretty respectable earning power and you’re taking home a lot more than when you had your first graduate job. But you still seem to be in the same pattern: living month-to-month (see point 2).
Sure, you’ve got a nicer car and you own a big house. Ooh, and you go on a nice foreign holiday every year. And a couple of city breaks. Don’t forget the posh wardrobe full of grown-up ‘nice’ clothes – people need to know that you’re doing well. There’s no way you could have paid for your £100 a month phone bill when you were 25 either.
Now, don’t get me wrong. What you enjoy and what I enjoy are probably worlds apart. I don’t want to preach about what you should or shouldn’t buy.
However, consider this. If every time your income increases, your expenses go up by the same amount, you will always be living month-to-month. This is just true by definition. But there’s a much bigger problem with letting your expenses expand to fit your income, especially as you climb into the higher salary bands.
If you are a highly-paid employee, you occupy a rare position. There a far fewer jobs out there which pay £50k or £100k than entry-level jobs which are accessible to many other people. If you’ve let your expenses creep up to need that managerial or executive position, you are much more vulnerable to a rapid decrease in your ‘standard of living’ (bullshit phrase which roughly translates to “how much you spend”) than somebody who earns £30k a year and spends every penny.
Just imagine how much of a kick in the teeth you’d get if there was another global financial crisis and you were made redundant. There probably wouldn’t be that many jobs at your current level of remuneration kicking around. The competition for the few jobs that remained would be brutal. How would you pay the gigantic mortgage then? Would the leased Audis have to go? You might say
Now I earn a lot, I’m free to spend freely
You’re spending yourself less free every time your expenses go up
If you need that fat salary, you will never be able to make a change to a freer lifestyle. Start banking any extra cash in your pay packet so some day soon, you can do what you want.
4. Single stream of income
Most people have a job. Many believe that this gives them something called ‘security’.
I think that’s, at best, an incomplete analysis of what having a job gives you. Here are a few things that I believe having a job does give you.
Predictability. You know when you have to work. You know where you have to go. You know who you must obey and who must obey you. All being well, you get a predictable amount of money on a fixed day every month.
Specialisation. If you’re an employed solicitor, you don’t need to worry about marketing yourself (aside from getting the job in the first place). You learn how to be a special type of cog and then plug yourself into a machine that already exists. The machine will make sure you get paid. Other people will do the bits that you don’t know how to do.
Downside protection. You won’t lose money. If you go in and do your job properly, you will be paid the amount you previously agreed upon. The worst thing that can happen is not earning anything (losing your job) but (in most cases) it’s not like somebody’s going to come and ask you for 10 grand because you made a bad decision.
Notice that financial security was conspicuously absent from the list.
If all of your income comes from a single job that we’ve already established (see point 3) cannot be taken for granted forever, you have the opposite of security. If you upset your employer, she has the power to turn off all of your income in one fell swoop. Your industry could change massively or disappear overnight. Your pleasant, understanding boss could be replaced by a psychopath tomorrow morning.
To make things worse, because you’ve always made all of your money from holding one job at a time, having a job might be the only method you know for making a living. All the time that you’re sat merrily at your desk, thinking you have security, you’re actually missing out on opportunities to get out there and work out how to build some real security.
Imagine two people. Anna is a freelance photographer and small-scale entrepreneur. She makes an average of £40k a year. This money comes from 3 different businesses and over 100 different clients. She saves 20% of her income and has a year’s living expenses in the bank. If she wants to earn more, she advertises more and occasionally experiments with profitable projects like running photography courses.
Becky is a lawyer. Being a lawyer is the only ‘proper’ job she’s ever had. She makes £150k a year. It all comes from her private-practice law job. She spends the lot. She has lots of nice stuff and no savings. She has no time to learn about other ways to earn money.
Who has more financial security?
Becky could have loads of security if she just directed some of that cash into savings. However, if both of these people found themselves unemployed and in need of income, my money would be on Anna coping best. She knows how to make a living in the broadest possible sense. She knows how to build a business and get clients. She knows how to duck and dive as opportunities come and go.
Becky just knows how to be a solicitor.
Takeaway point: having a single well-paid job is a good way of stashing cash (or building investment capital) for eventual freedom but relying on that approach to give you freedom now would be ridiculous.
5. Not thinking critically
Think about today’s pet example: having a job. You might think something like
I can’t come to meet you for coffee at 11am on a Friday because I have to go to work
But if you think about this carefully, it’s just not true. The word can’t has a specific meaning. But there isn’t a physical law which compels you to go and sit at your particular desk in your particular office between some arbitrary times that somebody else has defined for you. There are no bars around your office that would physically stop you from leaving in the middle of the day.
What do you really ‘have to’ do?
If you’re human and want to stay alive, you need to breathe. You need to eat and your life will be a lot more bearable if you have some shelter. You also need to refrain from openly contravening too many laws (if you want to stay free). To have a really nice life, I’d advise you to define and then attempt to work towards your ‘purpose’ in life.
Beyond that, you have a completely blank canvas. The real problem most people need to solve then isn’t ‘I need a job’ or ‘what kind of job should I get?’
It’s tempting to think that having a job is compulsory just because of the sheer volume of people who have one. But I think many people have failed to think critically about what they’re trying to achieve.
In my view, the best approach is to focus on the basic problems of needing air, food, shelter, family/friends and purpose and find the way of solving those problems that best suits your personality. It may well be that having a job fits into that picture for you. If it doesn’t, the first step you need to take is recognising that, if you think sensibly about it, having a job is just one out of a plethora of ways of solving some of life’s basic problems.
My advice to you is: don’t do something just because everybody else thinks it’s a good idea. It sounds like a cliché but, you really need to think outside the box if you want to be free. There a many ways to ‘make a living’ ranging from subsistence farming to being on the board of a FTSE100 company or a famous footballer.
Take a few minutes. Have a think. Can you think of any factors that are stopping you from having a better, freer life? Perhaps a job you hate or a troubled family relationship. Maybe you’re in debt. Maybe you’re no longer interested in work you used to be passionate about but feel you should ‘stick it out’ after all those years of education.
Now, if you think of something, try and look at the problem from a few different angles. Do things have to be this way? Could you make any small changes which would make it easier to break free? Are you just in this position because it’s the same as what all of your friends have done? Have you unwittingly made any assumptions that are restricting how you think about this problem?
If you mull it over enough, you may well find that it was never a problem in the first place and you just needed to change the way you thought about it.
What’s the best way for me to make a living without compromising what’s important to me?
is a far more sensible question than
What shall I do between 9am and 5pm every weekday?
was an absolute watershed moment for me.
The basic problem (being able to eat) hadn’t changed at all. Only my perspective had been altered. I had learned to ask the right questions and not accept assumptions that everybody else takes for granted.
If you do the same things as everybody else (and think in a similar way too), you shouldn’t be surprised if you get similar results – wage slavery and no free time!
If, on the other hand, you try to make some unconventional changes, you must expect that people will not understand your choices and may even try to claw you back down to their level.
However stepping outside convention is necessary to achieve any degree of freedom so you need to learn to be confident in your ability to work things out for yourself.
If you want to be free and autonomous, you need to develop your critical thinking skills to allow you to come up with creative solutions. But even more importantly, you need to develop some confidence that those solutions have a chance of working.
Just remember this: if you intend to ever break free, you’ll first need to learn to deal with your own self-doubt as well as all of the criticism you’ll receive from your rat-race-dwelling friends and family.
This is not easy. I still ‘wobble’ sometimes, but it feels more natural with every month of independent living that passes. You can achieve it too!
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[Images “Stand Out From Crowd” courtesy of Renjith Krishnan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net, “Cartoon Character Hamster Exercise” courtesy of saphatthachat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]