The proverb “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” warned generations to take time to enjoy life.  In his new book, Die With Zero: Getting All You Can From Your Money And Your Life, author Bill Perkins has updated it to, “Jack may die with a lot of money, but who cares if he never had any fun along the way?”.  This is the first of the promised reviews from my article, Top 10 Non-Fiction Books I Want to Read in 2024.

Initial Impression

     The book conveys a potentially life-changing message for a small subset of people but a potentially dangerous message for the majority.  Die With Zero’s premise is that you should attempt to literally die with zero dollars and aim to spend all your money while alive to maximize your positive life experiences.  After all, you can’t take it with you.  Perkins was trained as an engineer and created his worldview as an attempt at life optimization.  Perhaps the fact that he is wealthy from a career as an energy trader afforded him this luxury.  While the author’s message is valid, I question how many people it applies to and what the ramifications of the message could be if followed by those to whom it does not.  

Summary

     The best way to summarize Die With Zero is to examine each of Perkins’ 9 rules, which also happen to be the book’s nine chapters.

     The introductory chapter contains the core of the book’s message.  Life is about experiences, not money.  No one looks back from their deathbed and wishes they had done less in their life.  Perkins introduces two concepts to the reader.  He contends that “life energy” represents the sum of all the hours you are alive.  We all possess a finite amount, so every drop spent working to make money is subtracted from the total you will ever have. 

Since life is simply a collection of memories based on experiences, your goal should be to maximize positive life experiences.  Perkins believes that, unlike money, memories continue to pay you throughout your life.  When you spend money on an experience, you create a memory that produces a “memory dividend.”  For the rest of your life, you can reflect fondly on the foreign vacation you took, your wedding day, or the baseball game you attended with friends. 

     You have limited time on this planet, even less when you are healthy enough to enjoy it.  The earlier you build memories, the longer you have to collect the memory dividends.  So, Perkins recommends investing early in experiences.  Go to Europe on the cheap, have a love affair, jump out of an airplane, and spend your limited money on experiences while you are young.  You won’t be willing or able to do these things later in life.  You will likely make more money as you get older but will also have more responsibilities, less time, and less energy.  Don’t focus on saving your limited money while you are young to the exclusion of making memories.  

     Perkins wants you to die with zero or as close as you possibly can.  “If you spend hours and hours of your life acquiring money and then die without spending all of that money, then you’ve needlessly wasted too many precious hours of your life.”  Chapter 3 attempts to break down any psychological resistance to this idea.  If you like your job, great, but are there things you would like to do more?  We don’t know when we’re going to die, so many are saving for a future that will never come.  No one wants to run out of money, but Perkins believes people save too much for retirement when they simply won’t need that much during the later stages of their life.  They are depriving themselves now for a future that may never come or may not cost as much as believed.   

     Chapter 4 discusses the mechanics of how to die with zero.  Again, the book title is meant to be taken literally.  You can estimate how long you will live using actuarial tables and calculators based on age, sex, medical history, family history, etc.  The book names a few websites where you can complete this exercise.  If you are too concerned about running out of money at the end of life, the author recommends looking into insurance products to cover this risk.  He specifically discusses annuities and long-term care (LTC) insurance.  Annuities allow you to use your money to purchase a guaranteed income stream for life.  If you die early, the insurance company wins, but if you live longer than expected, you won’t ever run out of money.    LTC insurance is expensive but protects you should you need long-term care (think nursing home) at the end of your life.  

     According to the author, the most common objection to dying with zero is, “But what about the children?”  His rebuttal is that you should give money to your children or your favorite charity before you die.  Waiting until the end helps you feel comfortable that you won’t run out of money but does nothing for your intended recipients now.  Perkins mentions that the average age for receiving an inheritance is 60.  When will your children need the money more, when they are young or nearing retirement?  The author surmises that the optimal time to inherit money is between ages 26 and 35.  As for charity, there are people in need now, so why wait a minute longer to donate to a worthy cause?  

     According to Perkins, being on “autopilot” is mindlessly working to save every dime until retirement, then dying early, or living and regretting all the things you didn’t do.  Autopilot is the suboptimal use of your life energy.   This chapter discusses the balance between three factors in your life: time, health, and money.  When you are young, you have more time and health but less money.  As you age, this will gradually shift towards having more money but less time and health. 

Instead of rotely saving a particular percentage of your income every year, spend more when you have the capacity to enjoy it more.  Perkins suggests the optimal outcome comes from spending more money on experiences when you are young, healthy, and unencumbered.  Middle age should be about spending money to buy time, while spending money to improve your health allows you the ability to enjoy yourself when you are older.  

     Mentally divide the rest of your life into “time buckets,” or 5 to 10-year tranches.  What do you want to do during each bucket?  Perkins explains how we each die many deaths: the college student dies, the single person dies, the parent with children living at home dies, etc.  You can’t go back once you pass these milestones, so it is like that part of you dies.  What experiences does that part of you want to have while it lives?  This is a proactive way to ensure you are optimizing each season of your life.   

     When do you have enough?  Most people continue to hoard wealth throughout their life without answering this question.  Chapter 8 encourages you to calculate how much your retirement will cost and find the point when your net worth is large enough.  You should have a distinct point where you are as wealthy as you will ever be.  Once you have crossed the Rubicon, you should spend down the accumulated money.  If you don’t, what was the point of saving so much in the first place?  

     An asymmetric risk has a high potential upside but minimum downside.  These opportunities come primarily when you are young, as you have less to lose and more time to recover.  Perkins encourages the young reader to be bold and take chances.  The author finishes with this reminder: “In the end, the business of life is the acquisition of memories.”  

Critique

     I have one main critique of Die With Zero.  I’m afraid that the book’s primary message appropriately applies to only a limited number of people and can easily be misconstrued by the rest.  Perkins assumes that everyone is obsessed with accumulating money from the moment they get a job until the moment they die.  In reality, the average American lives paycheck to paycheck, with 58% unable to come up with $1,000 in an emergency. 

Most Americans are not over-saving for retirement but instead are woefully underprepared.  The Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances for 2022 showed that while the median net worth of Americans aged 65-74 was $410,000, their median financial assets were only $120,300.  This means that without the value of their primary residence, half of American retirees have less than $120,300 of investable assets, and this is the age group with by far the most money.  These people may fulfill Perkins’ mandate to die with zero by default.  

     The book is most effective when speaking to those who have already won the game.  If you already have enough to retire, why keep working?  Why not use your assets to buy more time, enjoy yourself, donate to charity, or enrich your children’s lives?  This is why the book has been so widely discussed amongst the FIRE (financial independence retire early) crowd; they have the assets and the mentality to receive Perkins’ message appropriately.  My concern is that the younger generation will misconstrue a message not meant for them.  The YOLO (you only live once) mentality is already prevalent in our society, especially among Millennials and Gen Z, who are the exact people who would benefit most from saving and investing now.  

Conclusion

     It is hard to argue with the basic sentiments in this book.  Life is more a collection of memories than a number amassed in a bank account.  You should spend time with loved ones while you can, as time is finite.  It is better to start having experiences early than to wait until you are too old to enjoy them.  No one wants to live their life on autopilot.  These truisms permeate the book, which is perhaps why it is so accessible.  We already know these things; we just need to be reminded.  The book’s magic comes from the title and the zeal with which Perkins delivers his message.  

     If you are Jack, who works without play, this book is for you.  If you are financially successful but can’t find the time to make it to your child’s soccer game, read this book.  Also, if you are a medical professional who hasn’t taken a vacation in years, download the book from your local library and give it a listen.  However, if you are young and/or struggling financially, I would recommend starting with Set For Life by Scott Trench.