Maybe you’re dying to do something different with your life. Maybe you want to discover your mission, change careers, or take a midlife sabbatical, but it doesn’t seem sensible to make a big change, to do something different, does it? You’re tied to your soul-crushing job, fettered to an income you’ve become accustomed to—it has a stranglehold on your life.
But you can break free of the shackles of unnecessary obligation and its laundry list of side effects: stress, debt, discontent, anxiety, depression. The two of us took back control of our lives with a simple, three-category list. You can do likewise.
First, write down all your expenses—every last dollar you spend. Mortgage, car payment, rent, credit card statements, meals, gasoline, electricity, student loans, bottled water, trips to Starbucks, retirement, healthcare, savings, etc. Write it all down. All of it! Now separate those expenses into three categories.
Category One: Needs. What do you really, truly need to live? Everyone is different, but most of us have the same basic Needs. What do you need? Food? Shelter? Super Nintendo?
Category Two: Wants. This category is important. Many of the things you want can lead to happiness. The problem is we indulge too many of our Wants—new vehicles, designer clothes, impulse buys—many of which end up being Likes instead of Wants. Another way to look at this category is to ask yourself, What adds value to my life?
Category Three: Likes. This category is for when you say things like, “Yeah, I like my satellite radio, but I don’t get a ton of value from it.” Or, “I like that dress, it’s soooo my style, but I don’t really need any new clothes.” Many of the things we just sort of like suck up a ton of our income, and it’s hard to notice during our consumer-driven frenzies. These Likes are often impulse purchases that feel great in the moment, but the post-purchase methamphetaminic high wears off by the time the credit-card statement enters your mailbox. It’s an odd double-bind: it turns out you don’t really like many of your Likes at all.
You’ve made your list, you’ve got your three categories, and now it’s time to take action. We’ll start from the bottom and work our way up. (This is what we did before we were ready to make any big life changes.)
Month 1, get rid of 100% of your Likes. All of them—gone.
Month 2, get rid of 100% of your Wants. Yes, all of them (at first). Once you’re headed down the right path, and you’ve made the necessary changes in your life, you can reintroduce your Wants one at a time, though you’ll likely realize you want far fewer of your old Wants (your pacifiers) once you’re traversing a more meaningful path. Remember, your Wants are important—they add value to your life—but they’re not more important than changing your life.
Month 3, reduce your Needs by at least 50%. More if you can. You might be thinking, But I need a roof over my head! I need to eat! I need my MTV! Okay, you needn’t get rid of everything: you needn’t live in a hut and eat only Ramen noodles. But you can significantly reduce your cost of living. Can you sell your home like both of us did? Can you cut your rent by 50% (or by 75% like we did)? Can you sell your car and get a cheaper one like Ryan? Can you find ways to reduce your food costs by 50% like Joshua? Of course you can. While there isn’t a cookiecutter answer for anyone, you can reduce your expenses and live more deliberately. This is the high price of pursuing your dreams. Unfortunately, many people aren’t willing to pay the price, and so their dreams never become Musts for them—they remain Shoulds, which eventually turn into Wishes, which one day become Never Going to Happens—and that story always has a sad ending.
But once you remove yourself from the clutches of money, you’ll worry less; and once you get rid of your worries, you’ll have nothing to worry about—you’ll be able to make any change you want to make.
That doesn’t mean you should go out and quit your job today—it means you should plan accordingly, and when you’re ready, you can make the right decision. Knowing you’re no longer trapped by the trappings of your previous income requirements, you can make a real decision, one that’s not based on fear.
Every beautiful change takes time and action: it takes time for a flower to bloom. These changes are scary at first (they were terrifying for us). And although big changes are often simple, they’re rarely easy—but nothing worth doing is ever easy.
Read this essay and 150 others in our new book, Essential.