What Should We Do When It's Too Expensive to Live?
The cost of living is ridiculous. With half of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, life is freaking stressful. What should we do?! I explore five major "solutions," share the pros and cons of each, and reveal what I'm currently doing.
The cost of living is ridiculous.
It doesn’t matter where you’re living. You have most likely felt the impact of rising costs of rent, food, and gas without seeing the same increases in wages.
Half of Americans can’t find $400 in case of an emergency. As inflation heats up, 64% of Americans are now living paycheck to paycheck.
This is freaking stressful. What should we do!?!?
I’ve talked to many of my friends and read several responses online about solutions. Here are some of the major themes I’ve seen:
- Save money
- Make more money
- “Lie flat”
- Move abroad
- What I’m doing…
We will briefly explore each theme sharing the pros and cons that I see. At the end, I’ll share what I have been thinking about.
I don’t have the answers but I hope sharing perspectives will (1) open your mind to something new and (2) start a helpful discussion towards solutions that are right for you.
Disclaimer: I know that I speak with a ton of privilege having grown up in a middle/upper-class family, being young and (relatively) healthy, having no dependents, being a U.S. citizen, etc. I acknowledge that everyone’s situation is different and I encourage everyone to make the best decisions for themselves. My hope is that by sharing perspectives, we start a conversation about how to deal with this global problem.
💰 Saving money
You need to pay your bills and buy stuff. Bills and stuff cost a lot of money.
So all you need to do is stop buying avocado toast and save money. Right!?
In theory, that makes sense. But in reality, it’s much more complicated.
See, the stuff we need and want to buy is so much more expensive now while our salaries are still stagnant.
So even if we receive a magical 10% raise, the big purchases we typically want to make like buying a home or starting a family still feel impossible for most of us.
Oh, I guess that wasn’t that complicated after all.
This sucks, eh!?
While I do believe in spending less and saving money, it may feel like you’re running on a hamster wheel for years on end, especially if you don’t have the ability to save a lot. 😢
🤑 Making more money
What about making more money?
If stuff is more expensive, we could simply earn more money. Sí?
- Get a second job.
- Start a side hustle.
- Get promoted in your job.
- Learn about investing/web3.
- Switch to a more profitable career.
But before you jump to this conclusion, ask yourself:
Do you honestly want to do this?
For some people, working is really fun and profitable. That’s great for them!
But not everyone loves to code, sell things, or do other high-value work that the market rewards you for.
Most people don’t have high-paying jobs. And for those who do, they don’t want to face the inevitable burnout that comes with jobs like these.
Plus this type of work may simply not be a source of meaning for most people. But you might retort,
“Dude Tam, it’s 2022! We have the internet–anyone can learn anything they want to for free. Anyone who is saying excuses is simply LAZY and doesn’t want it bad enough.”
- Just because someone can learn how to code doesn’t mean they want to.
- Just because someone can get promoted doesn’t mean it will make them happier.
- Just because someone can start a side hustle or take on another job doesn’t mean that will give them more purpose.
Imagine someone living paycheck to paycheck. They may likely be stressed out with their current workload.
Do you think they go home after their day job with a full tank of energy to work on something they don’t particularly enjoy?
They would rather be doing other things like spending time with their family, indulging in their hobbies, or simply relaxing.
You know, like a normal person who doesn’t live in a society and culture devoted to work. 😜
If you like your job and the market happens to reward you handsomely for it, that’s amazing.
But there are a LOT of meaningful jobs that don’t pay enough: teachers, healthcare workers, etc.
Some of us are barely surviving with our current salaries. And we don’t necessarily want to work more on top of our full-time jobs.
✈️ Move abroad
Move to a country where your USD or CAD lets you live like a king.
Remote work is normal now. Why not go live in Bali or Argentina or Costa Rica?
This honestly isn’t a bad option. However, living a nomadic lifestyle may not be feasible or desirable for everyone.
- Your job may require you to be in your home country.
- You have an elderly relative you need to take care of.
- You don’t want language barriers when you live in non-English speaking countries.
- You don’t want to deal with logistical issues like obtaining VISAs or dealing with taxes.
- You may experience a lot of loneliness from not seeing your closest friends and family.
There can also be issues with general crime and safety. Different problems if you’re a solo female traveler. Or the guilt of gentrifying the area and living with locals who don’t want you there.
I’ve experimented with the digital nomad life back in 2018 starting in Cape Town for a month. Then to Mexico, Atlanta, Thailand, Vietnam and Toronto over the next several months.
I had an amazing experience. But eventually, I hit my breaking point.
I remember being in Pai, a beautiful city in northern Thailand, surrounded by rice fields and other travelers like me.
Everyone told me I’d LOVE my trip to Pai. But I honestly wanted to be anywhere but there.
This was towards the tail end of my travels and by then, I was exhausted of meeting new people and exploring new places.
- I missed having a home base.
- I missed seeing my closest friends.
- I missed going to my local cafes and restaurants.
- I missed dancing at my old dance studio and seeing my gym buddies.
- I missed walking around my neighborhood with my best friend and her dog.
I realized then that I’d love traveling in spurts, not forever.
The nomadic lifestyle may be perfect for the right kind of person. But let’s be honest: it’s not realistic or desirable for everyone.
😴 Lie flat
When all else fails, you can choose to “lie flat.”
This movement started during the pandemic when Chinese millennials became fed up with the rat race.
The disenchanted middle class saw their bleak chances of economic success and basically asked themselves,
Why am I working so hard?
Chinese citizens saw the game ahead of them:
- Pressure to outwork and outperform their peers
- Taking out a crippling loan on a home that isn’t actually yours
- Marrying early and having children.
They’re like, f*ck that!
I don’t want to work 996s (9am - 9pm, 6 days a week) anymore.
My salary is a joke compared to the cost of living. Buying a home? Forget about it.
I’m burnt out and exhausted. F*ck the grind.
I’m going to just do me and live my best life. ✌️
So… that’s what they did.
They gave up the traditional goals pressured by the government and their families.
They want to work as little as possible, buy as few things as possible (unless absolutely necessary), and not have kids. A story from The Daily Beast sums it up quite nicely,
Chu Qiao, a 23-year-old based in Shenzhen, said she recently adopted the lying-flat mindset. While keeping her job at PWC, she no longer strives for a higher-paying job and can enjoy her free time. Before, life was full of anxiety for Qiao, who dated in fear of ending up alone, hit the gym after a 10-hour-day to keep an ideal body shape, and tried to beef up her résumé with new software certificates and data skills. But now, instead of feeling the pressure to be the best version of herself in other people’s eyes, she is spending more time with family, friends, and her border collie.
“I like it now,” she said. “I realized that I work to live, not the other way around. I’m just living for myself.”
What’s my take on this?
I get the spirit of lying flat.
However, I do think this movement has switched to the other end of the extreme.
From burnout culture to doing nothing.
The idea of watching TV and seeing a few friends/family members once a week doesn’t feel meaningful or important to me.
Same as the idea of laying on a beach all day.
If I had to choose between working 996s or lying flat, of course I’d choose to lie flat.
But I still believe work serves a meaningful function in our lives.
Contributing to a larger purpose is beneficial not just for who you serve but for the person serving as well.
There has to be more of a middle ground (in my opinion).
🤓 What I’m doing…
OK the moment you’ve all been waiting for.
The magical answer to combat inflation and the rising cost of living.
I’m still figuring it out. lol
You think I know what I’m doing!?
Because I write a fancy blog post once a month???
In all seriousness, I used to be on the extremes on many of these ideas. But over the last few years, I’ve fallen more towards the middle ground.
Here are some of my candid thoughts and what I’ve been doing.
Save money and spend it on experiences
It’s been proven time and time again that buying expensive things doesn’t make us happier. I’ve learned the foundations of saving money and budgeting. But since finance stuff is not interesting to me, I choose to be a lazy investor and go in on index funds.
Once my bases are covered, I shamelessly spend the majority of my money on memorable experiences. For me, that can look as small as paying for my family/friends’ dinner bill. Or as big as quitting my job to embark on a chess sabbatical. Or prioritizing my health (and to recover from long COVID) by not working right away after leaving my job.
Note: I know I can be quite frivolous when it comes to spending money and it has a lot to do with my position in life (no dependents, no debt, no huge costs, etc.) I don’t recommend everyone to follow my lead. But my point is to spend money on what makes life meaningful for you. Because what’s the point of having money in the bank when you’re unhappy on a day-to-day basis?
Make more money
We live in a capitalistic society so we need to make money to live. But there are two kinds of work (1) work to earn money and (2) work for meaning.
For some people, #1 aka their day job combines both points. If that’s you, that is an amazing situation to be in.
For other people, #2 can look like caring for your family, being a good friend, or learning how to play an instrument. These things are objectively not very profitable.
I recommend you pursue #1 to live your version of a comfortable life. While I wish we had a Universal Basic Income in place, we need to do what we need to do in order to survive.
After seeing how people around the world live, I gained a new perspective on what "enough money" looks like for me. It's a lot less than I had originally thought. I bet it would be for you as well.
If you are in the fortunate camp of having made made “enough money,” stop working to earn money.
Yes, this may seem like a radical statement.
But I’ve seen many of my friends who have enough, yet they still strive for more when they don’t need to and are visibly unhappy with their lives.
Instead, I recommend saying no (if you can) to #1 work and doing #2 work, work that lights you up! Even when it’s not profitable.
For me, that means writing this blog, learning to dance, or simply spending time with friends. I make less money but I feel much happier and lighter–I hope to feel this way for a long time.
Note: I’ve recommended the book, The Psychology of Money, before and I’ll do it again here. Everyone grows up with their own special relationship with money. This book examines the stories we grew up believing and relearning with fresh eyes on what we actually believe today.
You don’t need to live abroad. But moving out of your hometown is an opportunity to go outside your comfort zone.
Experiment with extended trips on the road. You’d be surprised at how cheaper (and more rewarding) an extended trip could be.
For those who want to learn more about living a nomadic lifestyle, How to Live Nowhere by Blake Boles is an amazing free resource to learn from someone who walks the walk. 🙌
I believe lying flat is a great first step if you are coming from a situation where you’re overworked and burnt out.
But I think doing this for your whole life can isolate you from society and keep you in a bubble.
I personally hope to live a life that includes contribution and service.
I accept that I’m not going to change the world or realistically make a big dent anywhere.
But I’ll die happy knowing that I was good to the people closest to me and generally with whomever I met.
I’ll die happier if I knew that I used my talents and privileges for good to benefit the world around me.
Adjust your expectations and plans
When I was 18, I assumed the path that would make me happy would be to graduate from university, work at a big tech company, buy a home, live in the Bay Area and start a family.
But today, I have no college degree, no full-time job, no property, no home base, and no plan to start a family soon.
(God that would be a great line for my dating profile eh?)
Qué pasó, Tam?
Well, I got older and learned new things about myself and the world. This made me change what I wanted in life. I took more risks–some worked out and many didn’t.
I don’t have the things I originally wanted but I don’t care anymore. I’m surprisingly very happy and proud of how my life unfolded.
If I had stuck to this idea of what my life should have looked like, I would have been miserable knowing that some things are unattainable. And some things, like finding the right partner, can’t be forced.
With how things are looking, I might never have enough money to buy a home in my ideal location. But with constraints come opportunities.
- I’m considering co-living solutions for the very first time.
- I’m considering new places outside of my “ideal location”
- I’m considering what life can be like if I never marry anyone.
These are things that I've never seriously considered before! What is on the other side of the big scripts that we accepted by default?
What if we ourselves the opposite questions:
- What would life look like if I never had kids?
- Where would I live if I couldn't own a home?
- How will I get around if I didn't own a car?
- Will I be successful if I didn't graduate college? Or obsess so much about work?
- Will I be happy with less money/possessions/status?
From asking these questions, people have discovered Van Life, a movement of adventurers living out of their vans.
There are subreddit groups devoted to people who choose to be child-free and against the poor work conditions across the nation.
YouTube channels giving the orange pill to the problems with car-dependent suburbia. And so many more alternative ways of living.
There is no “perfect” way to live.
We are all adapting to our situations and adjusting our expectations.
Explore. Experiment. See what resonates with you.
Making changes in your grand life plan might sound depressing at first, but who knows? Life may be more interesting because of it.
A BIG thank you to my friends Rebecca Wang and Irene Hong for reading an early version of this draft. 🙏
Tam Pham's Blog
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