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Lifestyle Design: How to Create Your Perfect Life on a Budget

When Tim Ferriss’s “The 4-Hour Workweek” became a bestseller in 2007, it seemed the phrase “lifestyle design” suddenly appeared everywhere. It was a buzzword, and like most buzzwords, it quickly lost its original meaning.

However, well over a decade later, Americans need the concept of lifestyle design more than ever. Americans today work longer hours than they did 40 years ago – 7.8% more hours, according to the Economic Policy Institute – yet the Pew Research Center reports that real incomes are lower today than they were in the 1970s.

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It’s far too easy to drift on life’s current rather than steer your own ship. But if you don’t define and create your ideal life, you end up living your boss’s vision, your parents’ vision, your spouse’s vision, “the Joneses'” vision – everyone’s idea of what your life should look like except your own.

It’s time to take back control over your own life, from your career to your finances to your personal life. And you can do it all while living frugally.

What Is Lifestyle Design?

In a word, lifestyle design is intentionality. You define your ideal life, and then you create it. If it sounds simple, that’s because it is – but it’s far from easy.

I spent most of my life living in the city where I was born. I fell into every job I ever had. I drifted where the current took me, even though every decision seemed like an exercise of free will at the time. That changed a few years ago when, in the space of a year, I got married, moved overseas, and started an online business. I gave up a six-figure salary to pursue the unknown, which was not only terrifying but unpopular with my new wife.

When friends back home see my Facebook photos of being on safari or cage diving with great white sharks, they say things like, “You’re lucky. I can’t do that with my job.” Luck has nothing to do with it. I gave up the steady salary, 401(k), and paid time off that they enjoy. I gave up security and office camaraderie. In exchange, I get to work from anywhere, set my own hours, and visit 10 countries per year. But to this day, I earn less than I did as a W-2 employee.

Designing your perfect life requires sacrifices. But what most people don’t realize is that they’re already making sacrifices, whether they know it or not. The point of lifestyle design is to ensure that you’re sacrificing what’s less important to you in favor of your highest priorities.

After a great deal of reflection, I decided my priorities were flexibility, travel, and independence. In exchange, I sacrificed security and stability. You can’t have it all, so it’s up to you to intentionally choose what you want to sacrifice and what you want in exchange.

The Laptop Lifestyle

Some people confuse lifestyle design with a mobile “laptop lifestyle.” The terms aren’t synonymous.

I know people who intentionally designed a completely stationary lifestyle for themselves. They work a traditional in-person job and own a home. But everything about their career, home, and family life was carefully and thoughtfully designed. Other people design a mobile lifestyle, working from their laptops from anywhere in the world. I was one of them, once.

Flexibility and the ability to work from anywhere are common themes in lifestyle design circles, and the mobile lifestyle can be rewarding for anyone adventurous enough to seek it. There’s nothing like traveling the world or moving to another country to push your boundaries and stimulate growth. But it’s also possible to design a lifestyle that’s more traditional. It all depends on what you envison for your life.

Lifestyle Design & Budgeting

One oft-overlooked benefit of lifestyle design is you can use it as an alternative to budgeting – a nice perk for anyone who hates spreadsheets and the math behind budgeting.

By simply designing your life for low expenses, you don’t have to watch every penny. For example, my wife and I structured our lifestyle so that we can live entirely on her modest salary. She took a job that provides us with free housing and health insurance. We intentionally chose a housing unit where we don’t need a car to get to work or amenities.

That leaves us free to spend her income on food, entertainment, and travel and funnel my income into investments. If we run out of money with five days left in the month, well, then we have to get creative eating what’s in the pantry. But that doesn’t normally happen because we know what kind of lifestyle we can lead on the money she earns, and we live it.

Set a high savings rate, then find ways to automate your savings and other mandatory expenses. Take a holistic approach to designing a happy life that doesn’t stretch your means, and then settle into it. Design it well enough, and you don’t have to budget anymore; your savings and bills simply take care of themselves.

Pro tip: Automating your savings is easy with a Chime bank account. Each purchase you make is rounded up and the difference is moved to your savings account. You can also have 10% of every paycheck automatically deposited into the same savings account. You can also use the Digit app which will analyze your spending and automatically save the perfect amount of money. It’s the total hands-off approach.

Online Savings Account Automated Budgeting Planning Finances

Key Areas of Lifestyle Design

As you start designing your perfect life, begin by intentionally sorting your priorities in these four areas.

1. Type of Work

While your work is not the same as your lifestyle, your job does place limitations on your lifestyle. Some kinds of work dictate every other facet of your life. For example, if you have your heart set on becoming a spy for the CIA, expect to work when and how they assign you; you don’t get to dictate terms.

Pursuing a dream job may require you to be willing to move to another city, state, or country. That’s fine if you intentionally choose to prioritize your career over your other goals or if, ideally, your dream job places you exactly where you want to be. But if your dream job takes you to the Arctic tundra, it may be difficult to achieve goals such as meeting a spouse.

Try these exercises to help you clarify and find the right career path, but remember that your career is only the beginning of your lifestyle choices, not the end. And until the day you die, it’s never too late to make a career change.

2. Geographic Location

Do you know exactly where you want to live? If your first priority is living in a specific place, you can almost certainly achieve that, but it often comes with other costs. Your job prospects may be limited unless you telecommute. If you’re single and looking to meet a mate, your dating prospects may also be limited based on where you live. Likewise, the local cost of living could mean exorbitantly high housing costs.

Far too many people never question whether they should move somewhere else. Even if they do consider leaving their hometown, they limit their vision to the same state or country. Few people realize that in some countries, they could live a luxurious lifestyle on $2,000 per month. So get intentional with where you choose to live.

3. Work Schedule

How many hours do you want to work each week? Which hours, and on which days?

Being a bartender means working nights and weekends. Being a litigation attorney means working when the courts are open – and usually many hours beyond that as well.

Some career paths allow you flexible working hours. I get to set my own hours as a combination entrepreneur and freelancer, but it comes at the cost of employee benefits and security.

4. Family Life

Whether to marry, whether to have children, whether to stay home with your children – these should all be deliberate decisions you make in advance. They impact your career, your finances, and everything else in your lifestyle. Sometimes they require sacrifices elsewhere, which is why you need to prioritize them as you design your lifestyle, just as you do the other areas above.

How to Design & Create Your Perfect Life

Lifestyle design starts and stops with prioritization. You can have anything you want in life, but not everything, so designing your life means sacrificing lower priorities for higher ones.

Step 1: Define & List Your Priorities

First, write out your top five priorities for an ideal life. Consider these questions:

  • Where would you want to live if you had no restrictions?
  • How much flexibility do you want in setting your own hours and working remotely?
  • What kind of work do you most want to do?
  • How important is income to you?
  • Do you have debt that you want to pay down?
  • How many hours do you want to spend working each week?
  • What hobbies and personal interests are a priority for you, and how many hours do you want to devote to them each week?
  • Do you want to marry?
  • Do you want to have children?
  • At what age do you want to retire?

Just start writing at first; don’t stress about getting it exactly right. At the moment, you simply want to start the ideas flowing. It gets easier once the tap opens and your priorities appear on the page.  Then, you can pause, take stock, and start ordering them by importance.

Priorities List Corkboard Tack

Step 2: Convert Your Priorities to an Action Plan

Once you know your priorities, the rest is execution.

If a specific career path is your highest priority, then scour the world for available positions. Don’t stop networking and applying until you find a position that meets your standards, even if it’s not in your current city, state, or country.

If living on the beach in Costa Rica is your highest priority, then start looking for ways to earn money remotely, such as telecommuting or becoming a freelancer.

Regardless of your priorities, remember that they come with a cost. The career that lets you set your own hours and work from anywhere may not pay as well. The high-paying job that takes you to oil rigs in the wilderness of South Dakota may make it difficult to meet eligible singles or have a social life.

Form an action plan based on your few highest priorities. Some priorities will work in harmony with one another; for example, paying off your consumer debt is a good start toward early retirement. But you will inevitably sacrifice something you want in favor of your highest priorities.

Step 3: Base Every Decision on Your Priorities

When a tough decision fraught with tradeoffs arises, solve it with a simple litmus test: Which tradeoff is lower on your priority list?

Keep in mind that your priority list is an organic, evolving thing. Your priority to pay off your debt disappears the moment you achieve it. The dream job you prioritized over marriage, children, and geography may not be everything you dreamed after working it for a year or two. You might decide that a high-octane career isn’t worth it, despite the high paycheck, because it costs you your nights, weekends, romantic partner, and health.

It’s your responsibility to keep your finger on the pulse of a “perfect life” as you define it. It’s also your responsibility to make every decision in light of whether it reflects your priorities. Otherwise, you run the risk of slipping back into autopilot.

Be especially careful to avoid lifestyle inflation as you earn more money. Put your extra income toward your financial priorities, not keeping up with the Joneses.

Final Word

People who design their own perfect lives are called “lucky” all the time. But in reality, the people who slip into their jobs, family lives, and locations by default are the ones who need luck. Without it, they end up living whatever lives happen to drift their way, which may or may not reflect their values and priorities.

Lifestyle designers don’t need luck. They need vision, determination, and patience.

Retake control of your lifestyle based on what matters most to you. To do otherwise is to defer your life to whatever comes your way – a surefire way to live based on someone else’s priorities rather than your own.

What are your top priorities for your life? How can you design your lifestyle to reflect these priorities?

G. Brian Davis
G. Brian Davis is a real estate investor, personal finance writer, and travel addict mildly obsessed with FIRE. He spends nine months of the year in Abu Dhabi, and splits the rest of the year between his hometown of Baltimore and traveling the world.

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