Who Cares What Everyone Else is Doing? Here’s How I Manage my Money as a Nonconformist

how to manage your money
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Go to college, get a decent job, buy a big home — and go shopping!

It’s the American Dream, and loans and credit cards will pay for all of it.

Hey, there’s nothing wrong with education, employment, houses and credit cards. But sometimes we half-consciously follow what the people around us do — without considering whether we might be happier going another direction.

And that conformity is expensive!

In the U.S., the average student loan debt is $28,950, the average mortgage loan is $222,261 and the average credit card debt for households that carry balances is $16,140.


Maybe you’d prefer to travel around the world for months at a time instead of making payments on a big house. Or you might want more meaningful work, even for a much smaller paycheck. And what if you’re like me and you don’t even want a job?

Fortunately, there are alternatives to financial conformity.

This is my own situation, in brief: No degree, no job, no debt, mortgage-free home and doing fine.

Based on my experience and a lot of research, here’s a nonconformist guide to personal finance. Could it work for you?

Educational Debt Is Not a Necessity

To avoid educational debt, you can look into college scholarships.

But there also are these interesting options we’ve previously reported:

If you do go to college — and must pay for it yourself — you could implement a two-part plan to stay out of debt.

First, choose from universities that cost less than $5,000 per year. Second, pay cash as you go by getting one of the best jobs for college students.

Or, skip college and commit to building a business instead. For inspiration, read about the many entrepreneurs who succeeded without a college degree.

Another possibility? Go to college temporarily, and then drop out.

College dropout billionaires like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg credit their college experiences and contacts for much of their success. For them, the experience was valuable, but the degree clearly wasn’t necessary.

Get a degree or don’t. Obtain an alternative certification or license. Go into debt or don’t — the choices are many.

After a few boring college courses, I opted to continue my own education with a thumb-out travel curriculum.

What Good Is a Job?

My wife and I make money in many ways, but very little comes from traditional employment.

I’ve been a full-time employee for a total of six months or less since my first job 35 years ago. My wife isn’t a fan of jobs either, but we always pay our bills on time — and we have money in the bank.

Smart money management is our secret to living well with limited employment.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a paycheck — you can use your job to achieve various goals.

For example, I’ve used jobs (part-time, of course) to pay off a mortgage, learn about businesses, make friends and fund mountain-climbing trips.

But jobs are not, strictly speaking, a necessity. Here are some of your many alternatives:

Join the Peace Corps

When you’re done with college, you can to do something interesting and make some money in the Peace Corps. Your student loans might even be forgiven.

Start a Business

You can start a small business for under $100, and there are a number of ways you can make $100,000 without a job.

Get Rich and Retire

If you earn enough early in life, you could even retire young.

You might start with one of the fastest ways to make $1 million.

I don’t have the ambition and commitment needed to get rich, so I’ll muddle along in a lower tax bracket, and maybe even throw an occasional job into the income mix.

Invest for a Living

With $10,000 saved from summer jobs, 20-year-old college dropout Mike Henkel started investing in real estate. By 24, he owned rentals worth $4 million.

My more modest real estate investments will earn me only about $8,000 this year, but every bit helps.

A job is a great thing if you love it and it pays well. But it can also be a temporary tool, or something you avoid altogether. The choice is yours.

Oh, and in case you’re tempted to leave employment behind, be sure to read my guide about how to quit your job.

Homes Take Many Forms

You might want an oversized house with a big mortgage, but if other things are more important, consider cheaper housing alternatives.

Making a school bus your home or camping half of each year to save money may work well for some people.

My wife and I lived in our van for a month, but there are less-extreme non-conforming alternatives like these:

  • Pay cash for a house to avoid monthly payments
  • Rent a room instead of a whole apartment
  • Stay with mom and dad a while longer

Start by deciding whether it makes more sense to buy or to rent. In either case, there are plenty of options for the non-conformist.

Secondhand Does Not Mean Second Class

Some things you should buy used because it just makes financial sense.

My wife and I won’t buy used mattresses or running shoes due to the “ick” factor, but wood furniture? You bet! For example, we bought a new-looking solid oak coffee table at a rummage sale for $20 — it’d be $180 at a furniture store.

We had a six-figure income when we bought the thing, but why spend an extra $160? It could pay for another day (or two) of travel, or dozens of used books on Amazon, or whatever.

Life is richer when you buy used items. You free up money for so many other things, or work less and have more time for doing what you like.

Do You Really Want Children?

We’re not all meant to be parents.

Yet childfree couples are pressured to have kids, to conform to the societal norm.

Still, the choice is yours. My wife and I have never regretted our decision not to have kids. Studies show there is no gain in happiness from having children.

And children are expensive! It’ll cost $245,340 to raise a child to the age of 18, according to a recent USDA report.

Even if you definitely want to have kids, you can choose the timing more consciously. It may make financial sense to wait until your career is established and your income is predictable.

A Marriage By Any Other Name

I’m married because it’s the legal way to be with the love of my life, Ana, who I met in Ecuador 15 years ago.

But, if you and your soul mate already share the same citizenship, you can simply spend your lives together — without a government permission slip (otherwise known as a marriage license).

Part of the decision might be financial.

Plenty of articles tout the tax advantages of marriage. But some people believe marriage is obsolete, and there are financial disadvantages of marriage, like these:

“55% of men and 50% of women say they would like to get married someday,” the Pew Research Center reports.

And if you’re going to spend your life with someone anyhow, the financial advantages of marrying may outweigh the disadvantages.

Or maybe not — it all depends on your particular plans and circumstances, and it’s your choice.

Pets and Personal Finance

Our cats are our children.

We build outdoor enclosures for them, feed them expensive healthy foods and pay $50 to $60 per night for a cat sitter when we travel. Animal companions are a wonderful — but expensive — responsibility.

A medium-size dog will cost you $1,580 the first year, and a cat $1,035, the ASPCA reports.

Then there are the “surprises.”

For example, the average cost to repair a dog’s injured anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is over $3,000, and one of the most common dog surgeries.

What if you love animals, but don’t want the 10-to-20-year financial obligation of a pet?

Don’t get one! Instead, consider one or more of these options:

  • Volunteer to walk dogs or play with cats at a local animal shelter
  • Watch pets for family and friends
  • Become a pet sitter and make money spending time with animals
  • Donate time and money to animal causes

If you have an unconventional life and variable income, financial responsibility is the key issue with pets.

After all, a decent person won’t abandon a pet because of a little financial difficulty. On the other hand if you spend even twice as much on animal causes instead of owning a pet, you’re financially safer.

Why? Without direct responsibility for the animals, you can more easily stop expenditures when you need to.

Avoid Christmas and Other Holidays

I don’t participate in the frenzy of Christmas activities my friends and family enjoy (or tolerate).

My choice has saved me thousands of dollars over the years.

U.S. consumers spent an average of $812 on Christmas gifts in 2015, according to Gallop. That’s just on the gifts — there’s also the cost of trees, lights and other decorations.

What a waste, especially considering 20% of Christmas gifts are unwanted in Australia, and £700 million ($1.13 billion) is spent on unwanted gifts in the United Kingdom.

There aren’t any figures available for the U.S., but who hasn’t received a few useless Christmas gifts — or given them?

There’s pressure to conform to this expensive tradition, but if you make your nonconformity a stand against consumerism, your family and friends will still love you. Send them a link to “The Case Against Buying Christmas Presents.”

Unless you really enjoy spending a fortune on Fourth-of-July fireworks or other holiday traditions, say no to those, too.

If you enjoy Christmas lights, drive around town to see them instead of buying any. If you like fireworks, watch the ones your tax dollars paid for. Or, just do something else fun and interesting.

Take it from me — you can enjoy the holidays without the expense of doing what everyone else is doing.

What’s the Price in Time?

Part of being a nonconformist is choosing new perspectives, like pricing things in terms of time worked.

If you take home $14 per hour after taxes, a $50 pair of shoes costs 3.57 hours at your desk, on the assembly line or wherever you work.

Some items obligate you to ongoing expenses.

For example, you might pay 429 hours upfront for a snowmobile ($6,000 at $14 per hour after taxes). But you’ll also pay annual licensing, insurance, repairs, maintenance and operating costs.

Those can double the time-price over the first five years, bringing it to 858 hours, or over 21 weeks of work.

You can go too far thinking like this, especially if you hate your job — like asking yourself “Is eating today really worth the time I’ll spend at my desk?”

But the exercise can change your mind about what you thought you wanted. It’s also useful for comparing options, which brings us to the flip side of this perspective…

How Much Money Does Time Cost?

With no regular job, I decide when and how much to work.

I can’t completely slack off, but if I find a way to save $100 on car insurance or make $100 more with a new bank account, the money buys me five hours.

I make about $20 per hour, so I can play chess or hunt wild edibles in the woods instead of working. In other words, I can buy hours for $20 each.

Have you ever heard people regret the lack of time spent with their children? Maybe it’s because they choose to spend money elsewhere instead of to buy time with kids.

Time is the stuff of life and money can buy it.

Maybe you’d rather spend your paycheck on time to do something interesting (or nothing at all), rather than on expensive coffee and the latest gadgets. Maybe morning lattes and the newest iPads are what you value more — and there’s nothing wrong with either of those options!

The choices are yours, but considering them from other perspectives helps you make them more consciously.

How Many Times Will You Retire?

Is age-based retirement a necessary tradition?

After all, some people are healthy and productive at age 88 while others are disabled and unable to work at 28.

And who wants to wait until old age to relax or do interesting work that doesn’t produce income?

Why not retire next year?

OK, maybe not permanently, but consider what author of “The 4-Hour Workweek” Tim Ferriss calls “mini-retirements.” I’ve enjoyed a few of them so far — once or twice just to travel, and other times to relax and figure out what I wanted to do next.

If you want mini-retirements throughout life, you have to save money.

Even if your “retirement” lasts only a few months, you may continue to spend your savings afterward while you look for the next job or income source. Be prepared!

It works well to take mini-retirements when you’re between jobs for other reasons.

For example, if you plan to quit a job, first save enough money to delay the necessity of a new paycheck for a year. Or, if you know you’ll be laid off in a few months, work overtime to build up a mini-retirement fund.

Of course, it always helps if your expenses are low, which brings us to…

The Advantages of a Small Lifestyle Overhead

There are two basic types of personal expenses.

Fixed expenses like house payments, utility bills and medical insurance make up your “lifestyle overhead.” Focus on keeping this small if you want more freedom (we’ll get to “buying freedom” in a moment).

You can cut discretionary expenses, like restaurant meals, vacations, shopping for non-essentials and going to the movies, as needed. Don’t worry about these unless they’re interfering with other goals.

But be careful about purchases that become part of your overhead, like a boat or second car that will need ongoing licensing, maintenance and insurance.

To understand the importance of a small lifestyle overhead to a nonconformist, consider this scenario:

You find a job you’d really love, but it pays 50% less than what you currently make — and you currently spend everything you make every month.

What can you do?

If your lifestyle overhead is high, you’re probably out of luck. Stick with the job you hate.

On the other hand, if your lifestyle overhead is low, and your current income goes mostly to parties, travel, and clothes, you can reduce those costs and live on the smaller income provided by the awesome job.

My wife and I own our home free-and-clear, pay less than $140 per month for all utilities, and always buy used cars with cash.

As a result, we have money to spend how we like. Our income is down 70% in the last few years. But, because of our low lifestyle overhead, we’ve had no real financial difficulties (despite our worries).

We’ve even taken five vacations this year. Oh, and I keep my workweek to 30 hours or less.

That brings us to…

Freedom and Personal Finances

Freedom has political and spiritual meanings, but also financial aspects.

Who doesn’t feel more free with enough money to buy what they need and want? Even if you love your job, wouldn’t you also love feeling free to quit when you want?

There are two basic ways to increase financial freedom.

The obvious way is to quickly make more money, and invest some of it so you eventually have all the residual income you need.

The other is to pay less for things. If your necessities cost half as much, you have the freedom to do twice as much with your money, or to work a lot less.

Only you can decide how much to focus on each approach.

Live simply, and you can work less to support your lifestyle (my most common approach).

But you can only reduce expenses so far. So, if you have expensive needs or desires, it might make more sense for you to focus on getting rich.

Freedom is very personal.

If I had a beautiful big home with a big mortgage, three kids, two cars, a boat and a job with a $140,000 salary, I might jump off a cliff to escape.

But that’s a dream situation for some people — maybe you’re one of them.

Whatever your goals and income, learning to wisely manage money and take control of your finances gives you more freedom.

Taking control means learning from others, but doing what works best for you — regardless of what everyone else says or does.

Your Turn: Are you a non-conformist? If so, what do you do differently from others when it comes to your money?

Disclosure: This post includes affiliate links. We’re letting you know because it’s what Honest Abe would do. After all, he is on our favorite coin.

Steve Gillman is the author of “101 Weird Ways to Make Money” and creator of EveryWayToMakeMoney.com. He’s been a repo-man, walking stick carver, search engine evaluator, house flipper, tram driver, process server, mock juror, and roulette croupier, but of more than 100 ways he has made money, writing is his favorite (so far).