“Mr. Money Mustache” – real name Pete Adeney – blogs to 300,000 regular readers, advising them how they can retire when young and yet still live comfortably. He practices what he preaches. Or, instead, practiced: Adeney retired in 2005 at the age of 30 having saved enough cash from a generous wage to cover annual spending for the rest of his born days.
Laughing that he “accidentally started a cult,” Adeney’s “Financial Independence, Retire Early” movement – FIRE for short – now has adherents worldwide.
Adeney admits that the word “retired” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in the many press articles that have been written about him and the FIRE movement, and not just because he does a lot of actual heavy lifting: one of his extreme saving tips is to get big into DIY, and the former software engineer is a self-taught handyman, building his own house and others.
“Retired … is a novel word to throw around for those under 50 that sounds much more interesting than financially independent,” Adeney wrote in an early posting.
Being adept at home repairs, plowing the pennies into investments and working for nearly a decade in the booming tech sector allowed Adeney and his then wife to give up their jobs with enough dollars in the bank to guarantee they could maintain a good standard of living indefinitely. Not everybody can luck out with a premium paying job, but there’s one thing that can stem what Adeney calls the “Exploding Volcano of Wastefulness”: don’t drive as much.
Cars suck more cash than most people imagine. On an average income half of a working week is spent paying for the costs associated with running a vehicle, calculated philosopher Ivan Illich in his 1974 book Energy and Equity. (“The typical American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car,” wrote Illich. “He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it.”)
In 2017, the average amount borrowed for a new car in the U.S. was $31,099, averaging a $515 monthly payment while $21,375 was taken out for a used car, working out at $398 a month. According to a Finder analysis of Federal Reserve Bank of New York data, Americans had accumulated $568.6 billion in auto loans by the end of 2017.
Living without a car, or selling one of them if you own multiple, can seriously boost your wealth.
“One of the weirdest things about this country is the way people use their cars,” blogged Adeney.
“It takes some serious effort to find a spot in our Three Million Square Mile land area, where you will not see endless lines of seated humans trundling meaninglessly back and forth in these giant and stupendously inefficient machines … roaring, stinking, crashing, and impoverishing their owners.”
The supersaver advocates living closer to work, ditching the car and using a “money-printing fountain of youth” – a bicycle to you and me.
“A bike-based lifestyle is an all-encompassing change for the better,” claimed Adeney in a 2012 posting.
“It’s like shedding all of the stress and responsibility of adulthood that have crusted over you and going back to being eight years old again … without losing an ounce of that golden power and freedom that comes with being an adult.”
Those who counter that it’s cars that are the true liberators are choosing to ignore traffic jams, air and noise pollution, road deaths and the obscene amount of space given over to multiple-occupancy motorized “freedom machines” often carrying just one human.
“When you use a 3500-pound car to transport your 150-pound self around, 96% of the weight of that clump of matter is the car,” says Adeney.
“You’re moving 25 times more junk around than you need to, and thus using 25 times more energy to do it.”
To Adeney it’s “immoral to drive” because of its “effect on other living things,” but even if the eco and ethical arguments don’t win you over, the financial ones should: commuting by car is horrendously expensive, with long-term costs that few factor in.
He cites a typical couple who commute to work in separate cars and who spend $19 per day in direct driving and car ownership costs.
“After 10 years this would cost them about $125,000 each in wealth,” estimates Adeney.
Living closer to work and biking there would, instead, net the couple a cool $250,000.
Born in Canada, the self-described “freaky financial magician” now lives in Longmont, Colorado, which is “sufficiently small and bike-friendly that car trips within town are completely unnecessary,” he says.
“Since groceries and kids are easily handled by a bike trailer, the only reason to drive would be a physical impairment, transporting items too large for a trailer, or driving to another city.”
Adeney is not an anti-car zealot: “I secretly love those machines. I love driving them, sitting in them, and reading about them. But you have to realize what they’re good for.
“These are … missiles designed to shoot you and your friends in great comfort across the entire country on life-changing vacations. You don’t just take such a thing down to the drive-through or drop your kid off at school in one. They’re for special occasions when all other options fail.”
And even though Adeney says “you must ride a bike; we all must,” he owns cars, but he drives them only when necessary, and “necessary” isn’t “always.”
As well as a 1999 Honda mini-van he owns a Nissan Leaf electric car ( powered by a solar grid he installed).
“I bought a Leaf in September 2016 mainly to promote and support the idea of electric cars,” he told Forbes.
The purchase was also a promotion for his blog. “And it worked – my local Nissan dealer reported record sales of the car just from referrals [from the blog], and the same effect happened to some degree across the country. It was my own small contribution to nudging out fossil-fuel-powered cars, which truly are obsolete.”
He adds: “If money were a big consideration, I wouldn’t even own a car these days. Bikes, e-bikes, and optional bike trailers can replace almost everything I use a car for; then you can call a Lyft/Uber or rent a car for anything else. Most people could save several thousand per year by adopting this strategy.”
Bicycles are Mustachian because they are economically positive:
“Bikes are virtually free, and require no insurance, registration, license, parking spaces, or any other hassle,” Adeney writes on his blog.
“They are so easy to own, and so incredibly useful and beneficial, with absolutely no drawbacks whatsoever to ownership. And yet somehow, there are adults out there – millions of them, a majority of them in the U.S. – who don’t even have a bike.”
Cycling, he stresses, is “not a weird fringe form of transportation that only people in Portland and Colorado do. It’s just simply the way we [should] all get around for moderate intra-city distances.”
Also, riding a bicycle adds years to life, and has proven benefits for mental health:
“[On my bike] I get to whiz by hundreds of unhappy, out-of-shape car addicts, I get free rock-star parking right by the front door of every venue, and riding reduces stress,” Adeney told Bicycling.
However, people don’t just drive cars because they keep off the rain or can – in theory – carry many passengers, they are status symbols, and for many people driving is bound up with self-worth. How can Adeney’s money-saving schtick negate billions of dollars worth of automobile advertising?
“I think that instead of economics, we need to think of it as a marketing challenge. So we need to take the same marketing skills that sell cars and apply them to sell the bike lifestyle instead. People want to be successful, attractive, healthy, respected, powerful and wealthy – and they want to get to their destination on time.
“Auto companies use these techniques on their customers, and boy does it ever work! A great example is the fact that large pickup trucks are the best selling vehicles in the U.S., even though they don’t do anything very well – bad handling, bad gas mileage, hard to fit into a parking space and a relatively useless for big cargo as well.
“But they address people’s insecurities – the desire for power and size. And more importantly, they address automakers’ need for high profit margins because people are willing to pay more for an impractical truck than they are for a practical car. So, they advertise these trucks using emotional appeals and aspirational images like towing and camping, rather than by reminding people they will be $100,000 poorer every ten years by making that choice.
“The good news is that bikes really do give you all the things that cars don’t. They make you richer and more attractive, which in turn raises your status and power in the world.”
Let’s return to the keeping-the-rain-off aspect of cars – bicycles can’t offer the same levels of comfort, can they? They don’t have to, Adeney told Forbes:
“When you go out and ride your bike through cold, or rain, or heat, you come back as an invigorated champion, and you feel great for the rest of the day.
“Cars feel more comfortable and easy, and there is definitely a place for them – like a family vacation or driving your elderly mother home from the airport on a winter day. But overall, getting out into the weather and accomplishing things with your own body is unparalleled in its ability to make you happier and healthier.”
But, unlike Adeney, not everybody can live in a bike-friendly locale.
“Although the difficulty varies, biking is possible everywhere that car driving is possible,” he counters.
“In fact, the options are even wider because bikes can cut through alleys and over curbs and terrain where cars are not allowed or would get stuck. That’s the first thing to get into your head, because in the United States, it doesn’t matter how easy biking is, almost nobody still does it. In my city of Longmont, I take 100% of local trips on my bike, and yet over 99% of residents choose to take a car every day. Most of it is a personal choice which is why we have so much room for easy improvement.
“Secondly, we are all free to choose where we live, and where we work. If you don’t live somewhere that is bike-friendly, start crafting a plan to eventually move somewhere that is. Next time you look for a new home or a new job, make that a factor and don’t settle for something that is car-dependent. Your wealth and your health and even overall life happiness will be transformed by this simple change in perspective.”