I recently completed the book Die With Zero by Bill Perkins.  A friend read it and told my wife she believed our family was already doing much of what the book mentioned.  This piqued my wife’s interest, so she suggested we borrow the audiobook from the Austin Public Library and listen to it on the drive to our New Year’s skiing trip in Taos, New Mexico.  This was the first audiobook I’ve ever listened to, as I prefer to have a physical book in my hands, but it was a good experience.  Listening to the book in the car with my wife allowed us to pause and have real-time discussions of the concepts we agreed with and those we didn’t.   There were two or three unexpected expletives, but my children were busy playing video games, and I hope they didn’t notice.  

My Little Skiers

     While listening to the book, I kept thinking, “Yeah, but it depends on where you are in your life.”   A physician-entrepreneur friend of mine calls money “fun coupons.”  He doesn’t worry about retirement and savings nearly as much as I do and instead worries about having a good time and creating experiences, matching the book’s theme.  However, he may blur the line between fun and hedonism.  He’s been married twice and has three children with three different women.  He supports but doesn’t live with any of his children, so he has more time to travel and use his fun coupons.  He is a long-time friend, but our lives are not the same.  The author acknowledges this point, encouraging the reader to enjoy each season of life appropriately.  

     After listening to and reviewing the book, I couldn’t help but wonder: Was my wife’s friend, right?  Does my family follow the principles outlined by the author?  The book encourages you to spend your money because you can’t take it with you.  As I approach 50, with more money than I ever thought possible, am I on track to die with zero?  

Season 1:  College – Residency

     I unknowingly embodied the spirit of the book in my youth.  I worked and went to school until I graduated from Residency, but I also took out loans and spent every dollar I made on having fun.  This includes racking up $30,000 worth of credit card debt along the way.  I went out with friends, traveled cheaply, ate in restaurants, went to concerts, played sports, and drank an ocean of cheap booze.  I had a lot of great experiences and banked a lot of memory dividends.  On the other hand, while I usually maintained a healthy diet and was physically active, I also racked up a lifetime of stress.  I didn’t sleep.  I drank too much.  Through this time, I was constantly broke, tired, worried, and late, which manifested as anger and frustration.  Even though I had a lot of fun, it took a toll on me.   

 

Season 2:  Early Career 

     While my troubles were not solely financial, the peace of mind that money brings is not to be discounted.  Struggling to make ends meet causes a tremendous amount of stress.  The first thing that making money as an attending gave me was peace of mind.  It almost immediately felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.  Yes, I still had debt.  No, I didn’t have emergency or retirement savings.  However, I wasn’t worried about how I would pay rent anymore.  

     It was at this point that I started to deviate from the path laid out in the book.  Although I still had a lot of fun during this period of my life, I unquestioningly worked too much.  The company I worked for was short-staffed, and I could work as many shifts as I wanted.  Extra shifts = extra money.  What was I going to do, stay home and watch TV?  While I traveled a little and played rugby, there were many other things that I could have done but didn’t. 

     There aren’t too many things that I regret, but one occurred during this season of my life.  A friend from Residency was getting married, and I didn’t travel for the wedding so that I could work extra shifts for 1.5x or 2x my standard rate.  My friends rightly called me out on this one, and I had no excuse – I traded friendship for a few thousand dollars.  While the money I made during this season of my life laid the foundation for my current financial independence, I could have produced the same outcome while spending more time and money on experiences and maintaining relationships.     

Season 3:  Family

    Getting married and having children ushered in the current season of my financial life.  My wife and I traveled extensively before we had children.  Now, I work far less than I used to so that I can spend time with my family.  It helps that I am financially independent, but I would work less even if I weren’t.  I know my children’s youth is a fleeting moment I don’t want to miss.  My family does prioritize experiences and time together over things.  We live in a nice house, but nothing opulent, and certainly less than we could “afford.”  We prioritized a big backyard for our kids over many other things.  My wife and I both drive Hondas.  We keep our structured expenses low, and we appear to be an upper-middle-class family to the outside world.  

family time

 

 

Our Backyard

     However, we spend lavishly on the things that matter to us.  My children attend private school and have always had an Au Pair.  We purchased a vacation house with the express intent of creating memory dividends for our children.  It is important to us for them to remember going to the same place every year, making lasting friendships and experiences.  We hope this will become a generational house where they will bring future spouses, children, and grandchildren.  We travel a lot, spend time with friends, and try to give our kids the experiences we didn’t have growing up.  I didn’t ski until last year, yet my children are already skiing blacks while I am stuck on greens.  My children are also better swimmers, tennis players, pianists, and martial artists than I will ever be. 

     Yet, the book has inspired me to do more and to spend even more money on experiences, both in quality and quantity.  We have planned a return ski trip over spring break, and my wife has just booked a month-long trip to Europe during the summer.  We have always considered living abroad for a year while our children were young and have resumed these talks in earnest.  My wife just spontaneously booked a trip home to see her family in Brazil.  I encouraged her to buy the tickets regardless of the price, not to be wasteful, but because her parents will not be around forever.  We won’t miss any extra money she spent on this ticket, but she will regret the time missed with her family.  

Season 4:  The Future 

     Ramit Sethi tells you to find the things you enjoy spending money on and spend 10x more than you are currently.  This is supposed to bring you happiness.  The problem is that I can’t think of anything I want.  Houses, cars, and jewelry have little appeal to me.  A bigger house sounds more of a pain to me than a blessing.  I’ve already written about my experience with a sports car.  Money has already given me the security and peace of mind I crave.  I can’t 10x that.  

     My wife and I enjoy traveling, but time is the limiting factor with three school-aged children, not money.  Could we spend more money on the vacations we take?  Sure, but I don’t believe that would make us any happier.  Neither of us values staying in expensive hotels or 5-star service.  It makes us both a little uncomfortable, to be honest.  

     We value helping our family.  I bought my mother a house and a car while she was alive, but now my immediate family is all deceased.  We have already purchased a home for my wife’s mother in Brazil.  There just isn’t much else to do.  We will eventually give money to our children, but they are all still young.  We want them to grow up to be hardworking, responsible, self-sufficient adults, which limits the amount we can give them anyway.  Warren Buffett famously said he wanted to give his kids enough so they could do anything but not so much that they could do nothing.  

die with zero

 

 

My Mother-in-Law’s House in Brazil

     I believe that charity will play a more significant role in our future.  I would like to give away a substantial amount of money before I die.  The author recommends giving money away now instead of waiting.  I have taken this advice to heart, and one of my goals for 2024 is to open a donor-advised fund and transfer appreciated securities to it.  I have a lifetime charity goal that I intend to reach, but I would like to involve my children when they are older.     

 

Conclusion

    I believe that I have instinctively followed the principles of Die With Zero for most of my life, except during the first few years after I began my career.  I briefly let the pursuit of money trump experiences and friendships.  Fortunately, my wife and children helped me remedy that mistake.  However, enjoying my life has not stopped me from pursuing financial independence.  You don’t have to spend more money than you can afford to have fun and have memorable experiences.  You can responsibly do both. 

     My wife’s friend was right; we are not afraid to spend money on things we value, but we don’t typically value material things.  We value experiences, friendships, and, most importantly, time with each other.  My family’s spending is currently limited more by circumstance than budget, and I only see that changing when my children are older.  When they are out of the house, my wife and I will hopefully still be healthy enough to resume traveling and continue to build memories.  We will give money away to our children and to charity.  Will I die with zero?  Probably not.  But that doesn’t mean I haven’t had a lot of fun along the way.