Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Cheapskate Must-Read: How to Survive without a Salary

How to Survive without a Salary deserves to be much more well known than it is. Tim at Canadian Dream : Free at 45 reviewed it a few weeks ago and didn’t seem especially impressed. Other reviews are few and far between.

Most readers won't want to duplicate Long’s lifestyle exactly, but all of us can learn from him. The chapter on “Needs” is some of the most useful personal finance writing I’ve ever read. For anyone working towards early retirement or simply trying to live below their means, this book is invaluable. Some of us will be able to translate his ideas into a way to quit or downsize our own jobs as he did.

The Strengths

Charles Long quit his salaried job early in life and eventually moved to the Canadian countryside with his wife and two children. Their lifestyle is based on reducing costs and material needs as much as possible (“conserving”) and using “casual income” to meet their remaining need for cash. “Snowflaking” as popularized by I’ve Paid for This Twice Already is similar to the idea of casual income, but Long’s family uses their version of “snowflakes” to pay for essential needs rather than to reduce debt.

Long and his family make extreme frugality sound normal, even fun. They may not have indoor plumbing (really!), but they do have, as he describes it, “a standard array of offspring, pets, and bulky appliances that signal a rather ordinary middle-class household,” as well as a sizeable country house and an abundance of homemade wine. The beauty of this book is that it helps you realize how you, too, might be able to adjust your needs without giving up quality of life.

It’s easy to misinterpret this book as a back-to-the-land guide to country living, especially when the author keeps throwing in examples like how to get the best deal on roofing felt. However, it’s far more than that. If you pay attention, you’ll notice many examples of “conserving” in the city from both his family and from others. It’s also not a step-by-step guide to quitting your job—he mostly describes what he and his family did after he quit his job. But the techniques he describes would certainly help anyone still on their way to building up a nest egg.

Long’s can spin a good tale, and he’s lived an interesting life. He has an impressively broad and colorful circle of acquaintances and introduces us to characters ranging from perfectly conventional careerpeople to a nomadic salesman. I loved reading the details of how these vastly different people live frugally but well.

Amy Dacyczyn’s Tightwad Gazette books introduced me to the idea of “creative frugality.” Dacyczyn’s books will give you lots of examples creative frugality. Charles Long’s book will teach you how to be creatively frugal. The list of questions he gives us for examining a possible need, his thoughtful analysis of the true costs of owning things, and his extensive exploration of secondhand and barter economies teach us how a “conserver” thinks, which is more valuable than any number of examples. Specific thrifty techniques may or may not work depending on needs, wants, resources, and location, but a new way of thinking can be universal.

Long shows that the principles of creative frugality can be applied to any need, no matter how obscure or how complex. He also offers an exceptionally broad look at the alternative economy—thrift stores, auctions, dumps, and barter, to name just a few of the places he shops.

He encourages readers to make the most of their creativity, to believe that they can do things on their own, and to have the confidence to use some of their “unmarketable” skills as sources of casual income. It’s clear that Long loves his lifestyle, and he wants to help other people live the lives they love, too.

The Weaknesses

Long is Canadian, and his brief discussion of healthcare seems to assume that catastrophic coverage is both available and affordable. Anyone in the U.S. seriously working towards early retirement will want to examine the issue of healthcare from all angles and budget for health insurance carefully and generously.

He doesn’t spend much time on long-term big-ticket items that worry most of us, like how to support ourselves as we age or how to pay for kids’ college. Long’s “pension plan,” is “a young hardwood forest.” Most of us could use a little more specific guidance.

He also has an interesting blind spot when it comes to debt—his discussion of renting vs. buying assumes that one is able to buy a home without taking on a mortgage! He explains the difference between “good debt” and “bad debt” quite nicely, but doesn’t give any specific ideas on how to eliminate debt. I do think this book still has a lot to offer to those who are in debt, especially if you need to cut your expenses to the bone in order to make progress on paying it off.

Highly Recommended

The chapters “Needs,” and “Casual Income” and the section in “Getting Ready” about material fasts are essential reading. “The Secondhand Market,” “Auction Buying,” and “Alternatives to Buying,” are also packed with great information and interesting stories. If you’re turned off by politics, you may want to skim or skip the preface and the last two chapters, which at certain points deteriorate into screeds against the state of the economy.

How to Survive without a Salary was most recently updated in 2003. It’s now out of print and available from Amazon only at relatively high prices. I believe it’s well worth $15.00 or so, but check it out from your library or request it from interlibrary loan to see whether it resonates with you before buying. According to Worldcat, it’s available at about 300 libraries worldwide
(more on the wonders of Worldcat and other library hacks coming soon).


Sam said...

Thanks for pointing out worldcat.org. I was not aware of this excellent resource.

Scarlett said...

You're welcome! I love Worldcat, as evidenced by the fact that I just talked about it again.

Jacob said...

Long's books is one of the few PF books I actually own. It's really exactly what the title suggests: How to live without a salary. Not how to live without a job. His ability to get a job on demand when he needs money is impressive.

The way to get cheap health care in the US is to exercise daily and eat correctly. The required regimen lies far from the average. On top of that, I think a high deductible HSA plan is just the right thing to get. Another thing I have noted about the US (being an immigrant) is that everybody seems to be on at least one kind of prescription drug often more. This is curious since this is not the case in Europe which has comparable (some higher, some lower) life spans.

Scarlett said...

@Jacob: I didn't get the impression that he gets jobs to make ends meet, more than he sells a few doors or eggs or something when they need a little extra cash. Did he mention jobs?

Yeah, Americans love to take medicine instead of making lifestyle changes. I think everyone I know is on at least one daily medication.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the many good books I have read that were listed on ERE. I also am enjoying going thru your blog...thanks for sharing!!!