Book Review: Your Money or Your Life

by Mr. Cheap

There are a few books that are beloved and can be a bit dangerous to review.  YMOYL is the bible to a number of people, so I’ll start with saying that I think there’s a lot of good stuff in there, it’s a solid book and just about everyone should read it.  In spite of this, I think there are some major weaknesses in it.

Overview

Joe Dominguez was a Wall Street Analyst who developed a program to retire at age 30, then started teaching a course (and eventually wrote this book) to help others do the same.  Since he passed away in 1997, his co-author Vicki Robin and a new collaborator Monique Tilford have continued updating the book and “spreading the gospel”.

The core of the book is the idea that their is a point of “enough” where your needs and reasonable desires are met and the law of diminishing returns kicks in:  you enjoy each little bit extra less.  They present a plan to identify this point of fulfillment, bring your spending and earning in line with it, and eventually retire early with investment income providing what you need while you devote your life to what you really want to do (instead of whatever you feel forced to do right now).

Apparently “The Complete Tightwad Gazette” author Amy Dacyczyn took their course and it was part of the lifestyle change she followed which led to her excellent newsletter (I actually recognized her from an example in the book where she was just identified as “Amy D.”, then later they made reference to her full name and newsletter.

Specific Strategies

How they recommend getting to this point is the core of the book, and in my opinion what REALLY shines.  Basically they suggest figuring how much you’ve earned in your lifetime (more on this later), your networth, and tracking your income and spending.  From here, they get you to figure out what your REAL hourly pay rate is after you’ve accounted for all the associated costs with your job such as work wardrobe, commuting or buying beers at the pub to decompress.  Combining these two, you see what your spending is on various items in terms of your time (e.g. you might be spending 30 hours of “life energy” every month on rent).  For all your spending, they advocated deciding if your spending is in-line with your values or not, and suggest making changes in areas where it is not.  They advocate maintaining a wall chart where you track this from month-to-month, as well as your investment income, and as a trend line becomes clear, estimate when you can quit your job and do what you really want with your life.

Mixed Philosophies

I think the strategies they present are EXCELLENT, but mixed in with them are some extra world views such as sustainable living, environmentalism, anti-consumerism and anti-capitalism.  I don’t particularly have a huge problem with any of these (I have friends in each of these camps), but they’re all tangential to the core of the book and I would have preferred if the authors had stayed a bit more focused.

Much like Dave Ramsey forces you to take Christianity with your debt-reduction advice, I think the authors are using readers’ interest in getting control of their money to force these other views on them.  Again, it’s fine to be a member of a specific faith or to be an environmentalist, but there are a large number of secular people who are interested in reducing their debt and there are a large number of people with other world views who are interested in getting control of their spending.

It seemed like all of their examples were people who followed this program then went on to get into hippie stuff.

Dogmatic

I found in a number of places it was their way or the highway.  You don’t get an explanation:  just do as you’re told.  The first step in their program is to determine ALL the money you’ve made in your entire life.  EVERYTHING.  They expect you to try to account for that 5 dollars you got for Christmas when you were 5 years old and that quarter you found on the street when you were 15.

When you do this step set your sights on impeccability – have you really searched your files and your memory banks for all your income?  Yes, you could settle for a “close enough” answer – but we suggest you go for the former, since the power of this program increases with every ounce of honesty and integrity you invest in.  Rounding to the $100 is looser, but over a lifetime that might be plenty.  Rounding to the $1,000….  well, people who do a halfheated job often get a life to match!

I almost stopped reading at that point.  I’ve worked most of my life (delivering flyers then newspapers then flipping burgers as I got older) and trying to estimate my lifetime earning to the nearest $100 would be an insane amount of work.  The only point to this exercise seems to be to develop a realization of how much money has gone through your hands.  For people who view $100,000 as unimaginable wealth, it makes it more concrete if they realize they’ve earned, and spent, this amount many times over in their life.

I disagree with them about the level of detail needed:  I think someone could complete this part of their program with a FAR, FAR rougher estimate then they insist on.

Focus on Your Strengths

They spend a whole chapter echoing the investment advice some friends have told them about, which seemed like another waste of space to me.  In the original version Joe Dominguez suggested buying treasury bonds exclusively.  In this version, they try to present a larger picture of investing and fail miserably.  I think they would have been far better off to suggest Joe’s approach as a start, and encourage readers to learn themselves about investing once they got to that point.

Final Words

Again, I REALLY love this book and think its focus on making specific measurements about your finances and using these measurement to enact change in your life is first rate.  The accounts of people’s lives who have followed the program are interesting and drive the points home.  I think there are some parts that could be streamlined to make it a better book, but in spite of this I heartily recommend it.

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