Everyone is familiar with the concept of needs versus wants. Our parents teach it to us when we are in the learning stages of our lives, when we are being taught the virtues of sharing, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, working hard for your rewards and treating others with respect. It’s one of life’s little golden rules; not everything you want is something you need. But is this a concept that people truly understand?
A freelance writer I know spent a lot of time a couple years back boasting about her salary per yer, the fact that she lives in one of Seattle’s nicer neighborhoods, the fact that she makes X dollars per month, the fact that she and her husband drive Y cars and so on and so forth. And a couple of years ago I wrote a post called “What is success, and how do I achieve it?”
To quote myself from that article, “What is success? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, success is any sort of favorable or desired outcome, or the attainment of wealth, favor, and eminence.”
Specifically, I’d like to pay attention to the part about any sort of favorable or desired outcome. More to the point, I’d like to cover something I talked about in that article, which is how money earned and things purchased do not necessarily equal success.
“But that’s ludicrous,” you sputter. “Everyone knows that the true measure of success is how much money you have in the bank!”
Only in the United States, my friends. Or countries like it.
Let me give you an example. A few weeks back some friends and I were visiting the colonial town of Villa de Levya, a few hours outside of Bogota here in Colombia. One day when we were hiking down through the town we passed a BBQ going on at one of the local’s houses. Roughly 20 people gathered around, all of them drinking beer, enjoying the beautiful weather, grilling up some steaks and vegetables, and we noted how they had been doing the exact same thing every day for the past three days we had been in the town. They are simple people, living on around 200-300 dollars per month. They don’t have cars, they don’t have XBoxes, they don’t have iPhones or iPads or smartphones or laptops or 50 inch flatscreen televisions. And yet there they were, huge smiles on their faces, laughter all around and joy in their lives. I turned to one friend and mentioned how refreshing it was to be reminded that you don’t need tons of money and possessions to be happy in life.
Which brings me to the point of needs versus wants. Let’s take the writer from the start of the article, making her 80k a year with her fancy house in the burbs and the nice cars and plenty of toys. For her, success is measured in possessions and money. She makes 80k a year, but spends almost all of that on the possessions she has. At the end of the year she might put a couple of thousand of dollars in the bank after taxes, the house, the car payments and otherwise. Meanwhile, let’s take a guy working at McDonald’s, still living with his parents. He has no car, no rent, lives cheap and only makes around 25k a year. But because he has no possessions dictating that he spend all of his money on the sake of appearances, he only needs about 8-10k a year for living expenses, so at the end of the year he puts 15k or so in the bank. After a few years of working he has enough money saved up to pay for his own house in cash, and bam, he’s retired by the time he’s 30-35.
It’s pretty simple math. His needs are less than the first writer, so he can save more money per year by living simply. He’s not living poorly, just choosing to define success by a different measure.
As my long-term readers know, I’m an expat, a digital nomad, a location independent international vagabond. I make my home wherever I feel like traveling. Over the past 12 years I’ve seen dozens of countries, and for the past four years I’ve been living abroad in various cities around the world. I have every single amenity I had back when I was living in Greeley, Colorado, but I cut my cost of living down from over $30,000 a year to around $10-12,000 per year, including travel. That’s total expenses per year.
I have air conditioning, high speed Internet, high definition television, fully furnished apartments, world class medical coverage and I live an upper middle class existence on a fraction of what it costs to do so back in the United States. For example, my apartment in Bogota, Colombia is in the Chapinero district, near the Lourdes church, smack-dab in the heart of downtown. I pay around $325 per month for a fully furnished apartment with all utilities included, and I pay around $400 per month for my total other expenses, including food and entertainment. That’s around 700 per month, maybe 800 if I’m pushing it and spending a lot on wine.
That’s right. $800 per month in total expenses.
How much are you paying where you live?
Now ask yourself: do you really need to be living where you are now, or do you simply want to be living where you live now? Are you tired of the cost of living? Wish you had more free time? Dream of a time when you could work 3-4 hours per day and still make enough money to live like a king, plus put money in the savings every month? Find yourself struggling month after month to barely find the funds to put food on the table for you and yours? Contemplating financial aid from the government because you just simply don’t have enough money to make ends meet?
In times of economic crisis, those of us who are freelancing have it easy in the sense that we can pack up and go wherever we want. As long as we have a laptop and the Internet, our livelihoods are taken care of. And for those of you who might be struggling with the weight of it all, wishing and hoping and praying for a way out, you might want to consider the lifestyle of a digital nomad. You can have all of the things you have back home at a fraction of the price, plus you can explore exotic cultures and experience places around the world that most people only dream about or barely get to taste on their two weeks of vacation per year.
But don’t take my word for it. Just do a random search on expat living, digital nomads, location independent travelers, or international vagabonds. You’ll see that there are more and more people out there trading the needs they were told they had to have in exchange for the things in life they really want. You can also check out my digital nomad website, Marginal Boundaries, for more information on how I do what I do, and why you should consider it as well.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain