“Act as if You will be Fired Tomorrow” – the Impact of Capitalism on Family, Career, Society, and Trust

In the last few months I have been really busy. A lot of my work is mainly stakeholder management and project management. It can be very stressful but at the same time it can be rewarding because you produce something very tangible at the end.

The routine of work sometimes depresses me because it feels meaningless. The financial year is over, so I will need to prepare my tax return soon. This has its upsides because I get to see how much passive income I have received. Last year I made about A$20k in passive income, which works out to around A$1666 per month (US$1200 per month). (According to most digital nomads, passive income of US$1000 per month is enough to retire in Chiang Mai.) However, I don’t feel that US$1k per month is enough. Now that I have reached this milestone, I feel more secure in my job because, if I were fired the next day, I could simply fly to Chiang Mai and retire. Approximately two years into my job, there was a large restructure of the organisation. I saw colleagues being fired and legally abused. This experience taught me at an early age that the job you have (even a government job) is precarious and not secure. It was devastating seeing colleagues with family responsibilities and large mortgages being fired. In my opinion, this experience, coupled with witnessing the divorce of my parents, have shaped me greatly. These were hard moments but I got through these moments stronger, and thankfully none of these incidents affected me. They affected others, but because I witnessed these incidents, I was able to learn from them. The key lesson is the importance of acting as if you will be fired the next day. Whenever I walk into the office, I act as if I will be fired. I do not take my job for granted. I structure my life as if I will be fired and live accordingly. If I am not fired and make money, that’s a bonus. 

Marriage and career are similar in that, if you don’t handle them correctly, you will be in a position of dependency. My mother is a traditional woman. She cooked and cleaned and tended to the household. She was loyal. However, my father cheated on her. Many people ask me what I think about the incident and what I will do, almost expecting me to disown or become angry at my father. But I was too numb to really do anything. When I really think about, even though my father cheated with another woman, I begin to realise that my mother shares some blame because she made herself dependent on my father. She thought she was doing the right thing. Traditionalism seems like a good idea. Most people, when they are unsure of what to do, do what has always been done, which is the allure of conservatism. It provides an easy default answer. The problem is that what has been done in the past does not always work, especially when the world today is very different to the world centuries ago. Today we live in a highly capitalist individualistic society. As Margeret Thatcher said, “There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.”

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However, Ms Thatcher was wrong. The quote should be: “There is no such thing as society or family: there are individual men and women.” Society is just an aggregation of individuals, and so is a family. A family is simply a mini-society. Thatcher was a political conservative and as such felt compelled to accept capitalist ideology without understanding that capitalism and traditional family values are incompatible. Under a capitalist system, it is each man for himself, and family is an expense and liability. This explains why, as countries become more and more economically developed, family structure changes from extended family to nuclear family and now the nuclear family is breaking up into pure individualism. Under pure communism, the community, country, or people is the family. The nation is the family. However, as market capitalism is introduced, this family breaks down gradually. The next phase of capitalism will be technocapitalism, which will make the world far more individualistic. Whenever I see families, the children are on their smartphones, disengaged. In fact, often the parents are on their smartphones as well. Everyone has separate lives. Everyone is an individual, and this individualism is enhanced by technology.

So while family was important in the past, those days are over, and we must adapt to the changing times. The same applies to career. In the past, it was normal to have a job for life, but such an idea goes against free market capitalism because businesses should have the freedom to hire talent that benefits them, and so under pure capitalism you should only be hired insofar as you are profitable and if you grow older and your productivity deteriorates, the ideology of capitalism would state that you should be fired unless your experience and wisdom compensates sufficiently. More rights for businesses to fire workers as well as more private sector and contestability principles being applied to government jobs has made jobs more precarious over time. The idea of an employer being almost like a family is starting to diminish under the weight of individualism.

As such, the best approach is not to be suckered by the delusion of the sacredness of collectivist fantasies such as family, nation, or organisation. You are just an individual. You are expendable. You may be divorced, fired, or betrayed at any moment. You must expect that and you must prepare for it.

The solution is as follows:

  1. live a minimalist lifestyle in opposition to consumerism
  2. minimise all obligations, not just financial obligation (e.g. debt) but also non-financial obligation (e.g. social norms, obligations to family and friends, etc)
  3. diversify your investment portfolio
  4. live off passive income.

Ultimately, it comes down to trust or lack of trust in others. These recommendations address the risk of trusting in others. If you live a minimalist lifestyle, your distrust is in business whom you believe will try to profit off your impulsive desires. If you minimise debt, you do not trust that your the source of income to pay the debt will continue forever. If you keep people at arms distance, you do so because because you recognise that anyone can betray you at any moment for their personal gain. You diversify your investments because you cannot trust any one investment to perform well. You live off passive income because you cannot trust your job to provide for you, and you cannot trust your body to always be young and agile enough to provide value to an employer.

In an individualistic world, the only person you can trust is yourself, so you structure your life so that you never need to trust anyone.

How Much Passive Income Do You Need?

Most people I speak to, when they want to measure someone’s wealth, measure wealth by referring to how many houses they have. For example, “John owns 14 houses. He is rich.” However, someone may own 14 houses, but each house may only be worth $200k, which gives total assets of $2.8 million. However, what if he also had $2.7 million worth of debt? His net worth would be $100k whereas someone who owns one house worth $1 million that is fully paid off would be 10 times wealthier even though he owns 14 times fewer houses. This example clearly demonstrates how misleading a count of houses is. A more sensible approach is to calculate net worth.

However, net worth can be misleading as well. For example, suppose you inherited a house from your parents that was worth $500k and you live in this house. Suppose suddenly this house went up in value to $1 million. Are you better off? Your net worth has increased by $500k, but because the extra wealth is within the house, you cannot unlock it unless you sell the house. If you sell the house, you’d still need a place to live, so you’d buy another place. The problem is that if you buy another place, that home will have risen in value as well, so the net effect is that you have paid taxes, real estate agent fees, conveyancing fees, etc but there is no difference in your living standards. You are worse off. If you downsize and buy a cheaper place, you’d be able to unlock your extra wealth, but then your living standards drop (e.g. extra commute time).

This point highlights that net worth, although better than a count of houses, has its flaws. An alternative metric, in my opinion, is passive income. Passive income (e.g. from dividend income but also from rent, interest, etc) is income you receive by not working. Passive income should subtract any debt as debt is negative passive income. Debt is the opposite of passive income because you must work to pay off debt. This applies if you hold debt as a liability. If you hold debt as an asset (e.g. you own bonds) then this is passive income. The bonds generate interest for you that you can live off without any work.

Passive income is more useful because it directly measures your standard of living. If your net worth goes up by $500k, that may have zero impact on your standard of living. However, if your passive income goes up by e.g. $1000 per month, that is actual cash in your hands. It directly impacts how much you spend and directly impacts your standard of living.

So how much passive income is enough? It all depends on the person. Everyone is different. It also depends on the city you live in. Some cities are expensive while others are cheap.

However, using Melbourne, Australia for this example, in my opinion, to cover the basic necessities of life, passive income of about A$2000 per month (US$1500 per month) at a minimum is needed, in my opinion.

Currently I work, and I do like my job at the moment, but loving my job is a recent experience. For a long time I have hated my job mainly because I have had bad managers. Something I have learned is that things change all the time at work, so you need to have an exit plan at all times. Too many people get a job, expect they will always love the job and always make good money, so they go into debt to get a mortage, have children, inflate their lifestyle, etc and then suddenly they find they hate their job, but by then they are trapped. I made this realization early on in my career because, when I started working, I went through a restructure in the organisation. I learned quickly how risky it was to have debt and obligations, and I realised the value of structuring your life so that you have the ability to walk away from anything, not just your job but from any person or any organisation. There is great power in being able to disappear at the drop of a hat, and this is achieved with passive income coupled with minimum or no obligation (including financial obligation i.e. debt).

Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.

~ Neil McCauley

Even if there were a restructure at work or a tyrannical manager took over and started legally abusing staff, with passive income of $2000 per month, it is easy to stop work and live an urban hermit lifestyle e.g. renting a one-bedroom unit on the outskirts of the city (e.g. this place in Frankston), living off Aussielent, and surfing the internet all day. The only costs are rent ($1000 per month), Aussielent ($320 per month), wifi ($50 per month), electricity ($100 per month), and water ($100 per month), which comes to a total of $1570 per month. I round that up to $2k per month just to give a little buffer. Nevertheless, this is quite a spartan minimalist lifestyle. Doubling it makes $4k per month passive income, which I feel is enough to really enjoy a comfortable and luxurious lifestyle e.g. travelling, living in the city, eating out, etc. Nevertheless, $2000 to $4000 per month in passive income is a good range to aim for.

You Save 100% of Your Salary? What if You Die Before You Retire?

I probably shouldn’t do this, but I told someone recently that I save 100% of my salary and live off dividends. One of the argument he used against this is that, if you save up a considerable amount of money, you deprive yourself while you save and there is a chance that before you retire, you may die, which means you never had the opportunity to enjoy spending the money that you saved.

This made me think about why I continue to live a minimalist lifestyle and live off dividends.

If you die with lots of money saved up, you could have enjoyed that money. However, for many people, freedom is so important that it’s not the spending of money that makes them happy but the holding of money. This applies to me as well. I love to hoard money not because of what I can buy with it but because of the freedom and autonomy it gives me.

If I had, say, $1 million then according to the 4% rule I can spend $40k per year forever. I never need to work ever again so long as I’m satisfied with a $40k per year lifestyle. There is no need to suck up to some boss, and I can do jobs on my own terms and live according to your own rules. I continue to work, but I do the work that I love. That is freedom, and I care about that more than some shiny Ferrari.

You enjoy your work when you’re not dependent on it

In my opinion, you enjoy working when you don’t care if you’re fired. If something at work bothers you, you simply ask your manager if you can be transferred elsewhere. If for some reason you are fired, just shrug and walk to a job agency or find a new job yourself. Because you live off your investments, it doesn’t matter if you’re unemployed. You don’t work to feed yourself because other people feed you.

However, if you’ve never saved up any money, if rather than living off dividends you have massive debt and spending obligations, you are then dependent on your job, and dependency is slavery.

Slavery has not been abolished. It has evolved.

How to Live Off Dividends

It’s the Christmas season now. My family does not really celebrate Christmas. I remember being really disappointed not receiving any presents when I was a child because my parents were always busy and didn’t really think about Christmas. Over time, I began to accept this as normal, and now that I am an adult, it doesn’t bother me at all. There is definitely something wasteful about Christmas. People suddenly splurge on toys, clothes, and gadgets. They eat large amounts of food. Then when January comes around, they are back at work slaving away. Chances are their bellies are bigger, and when they get their credit card bill, they realize their debt is bigger as well.

For me, Christmas in 2015 has been a spartan and minimalist Christmas. I remember my previous Christmases. I would buy all sorts of presents for family and friends, and I’d usually have a credit card debt in the thousands, but nowadays I usually use a debit card to make purchases. I do have credit cards, but I pretty much only use them for emergencies or online or foreign purchases. Even when I use my credit card, I pay it off maybe within a few days.

During past Christmases, I would always dread going back to work the next year. When everyone winds down at work, it’s a nice feeling. Office Christmas parties, Christmas decorations, and so forth set a nice and relaxed atmosphere, and I look forward to having time off to relax.

However, during the holiday period, and especially during the new year, you think about the year that has ended and naturally you think about your life. You think about your career and whether you’ve done the best you can. It can be stressful.

This year is different for me mainly because my dividend investing has gotten to a point now where I can live off dividends. When I started working, I was saving about 85% of my take-home pay and living off just 15% of it. I invested in shares, managed funds, or ETFs that pay high income. As time goes by, the amount your investments pay you will rise, and when they reach a point where they are equal to your expenses, you are a free man because you are no longer dependent on your job. If you quit, you can live off your investments.

“Although freedom does not guarantee happiness, it is the best assurance we have for obtaining happiness.”

~ Andrew Perlot

Every man should strive for freedom, and the easiest and simplest way I know of obtaining freedom is to build passive income.

I am going to lay down below the steps I took to live off passive income. Most people should be able to do what I have done.

Save 85% and create two separate bank accounts

As I have said earlier, living off dividends starts with saving up about 85% of your income. I recommend setting up two bank accounts. Talk to HR and ask them to send 85% of your income to one bank account. The other 15% will go to a separate bank account.

Having two bank accounts is an excellent system to separate your “spending money” from your “investing money.” Spend only from your spending account. Use your investing account for investing.

Live with others to keep costs down

Living with others can be tough, but it is the easiest way to save significant amounts of money to allow you to hit your 85% savings rate. Accommodation is the biggest expense most people face, so it makes sense to hit it hard. Most people focus on trying to save money on small things like coffee (see David Bach’s latte factor) or discount vouchers for t-shirts!

In my opinion, don’t bother with the little things. If you want to have a soy latte, drink it! So long as you are spending 15% of your income, you’re fine.

Living with parents is the best policy, in my opinion, especially if you get along with them. If this is not possible, then renting with others is also another option. You can even buy a house and then rent out spare rooms to bring in rental income. All these three options should cost approximately the same (although living with parents could be free depending on how generous they are).

Related reading: How to Live with Annoying People

Save money via abstinence, not discounts

When trying to save money, most people make the mistake of trying to look for discounts. For example, when buying jeans, they look for jeans that have 50% off, or when they travel to Thailand they look for airfares that are 30% off.

An even better strategy is to just not buy the jeans in the first place and not travel. Discounts often lure people into spending more than they otherwise would. Often discounts are fake, that is, an apple may be $10 but be 50% off, and so the discounted price is $5, but in reality that apple only cost about $0.50 and the retailer made a $4.50 profit. In other words, forget about the percentage discount and think about the actual price.

Basically the only necessities in life are accommodation, clothes, transport, internet, and food.

Do not conform. Rebel against society

If you’re living with your parents, driving an old car (or taking public transport), watching YouTube rather than cable TV, then many people will think you’re weird. They will put you down and try to persuade you to conform. Try to resist. Don’t conform to society. Do what you want to do. Also remember that this is not permanent. As your savings go up, your dividends will go up, and your standard of living will go up, but this will take time.

If you must, borrow from yourself

Spending only 15% of your income might be difficult, and you may run out of money when you need to spend on something you need.

If this is the case, one option is to borrow from your own savings. This is where setting up two bank accounts is a great idea. You transfer money from your investment bank account into your spending bank account. You then keep track of how much money your spending account owes to your investment account. The aim is to pay yourself back as quickly as possible.

Invest for income

Invest in a variety of assets that pay high income, e.g. ETFs, shares, and managed funds. If you’re unsure where to go, sign up for an online broker and buy shares in banks. Banks typically pay high dividends. As of December 2015, shares in Australia’s ANZ bank provide a dividend yield of 9%. I recommend using Bloomberg to find the indicated dividend yield of an investment.

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Diversify your investments and always direct dividend payments to your “spending account.” This means that over time, the amount you have to spend increases, which should motivate you to keep saving up.

Invest 100% of your income

Once your passive income from dividends (or other sources) is high enough, talk to HR at work and direct 100% of your salary to your “investing account” so that you are living off passive income. This may be difficult to do, but just remember there is no rush. Once the 15% you get from your salary seems like a small amount compared to your passive income, this is a good time to cut it off completely so that you can actually live off dividends.