Cost-cutting is not a great way to build wealth. However, it’s a fantastic way to extend your runway when you’re in a short term sprint as you’re starting up a business.
Let’s say you’re starting a business because you understand it as the best way to actually build your long-term wealth.
You’re not making a profit yet, but you have a burn rate of $5,000/month. What if you could reduce your burn rate from $5,000 to $1,000/month? That would extend your runway significantly and free up other capital to deploy into the business.
Books like The Lean Startup and Running Lean are focused on lean business processes and iterating quickly to find product-market fit. I’m not talking about the same thing, but rather advocating leaning out your personal expenses when you’re in growth mode. It won’t necessarily free up more investment capital, but it will give you the mental freedom to greater risks with your time, which is near infinitely more finite than your money.
So how do you significantly reduce your expenses and enter “building” mode?
Housing, rent, or mortgage is usually the most expensive piece of anyone’s monthly expenses.
The common startup trope is sleeping on your friend’s floor or couchsurfing as you’re building your dream. Cool, not really sustainable. Although if you’re building a business with a friend, it’s definitely not a bad idea to live with or very close to them.
If you own your house, you can significantly extend your runway by renting out rooms. If you have a studio or one-bedroom house, then consider renting it out entirely and finding another temporary space to live.
If you’ve got guts or a pension for old-school American romance, get yourself a travel trailer or camper van and make it your new home. There’s a thriving subculture of people living this way. You can get a nice travel trailer or a not-nice van big enough to lie down in for $14,000. While not official policy, many Walmart locations allow overnight parking in their lots and many campers take advantage of this. There are also loads of other rural places you can park for free (or extremely cheap).
$14,000 may sound like a lot of money, but divide that by 12 for your annual rent costs and you’re around $1,166/month for “rent,” not to mention you can sell your vehicle later minus depreciation—or with appreciation if you spent resources actually making it into a nice camper van.
You can also rent out your vehicle or trailer for other campers on outdoorsy. Here’s a hypothetical scenario: you get a nice travel trailer, and ask to stay with a friend for a month (or four friends in the same city for a week each). You rent out your trailer to lots of different people during that month. You bring in a few hundred dollars each trip and you’ve paid off a third of your initial costs in one month. Combine this with a house sitting gig for three months, and you can now live free and clear.
You’ll still need a legal address for tax purposes, but maybe that can be a friend’s or relative’s place. You won’t be living there.
But wait, how will you shower and cook and all that? If you’re afraid of truck stop and campsite showers, then get a membership at Planet Fitness or another low-cost gym. You don’t need to lift weights there to use their showers. Plus those gyms are all terrible, so they’re pretty much only valuable for showers anyway.
Aside from living from a trailer, the most fun way to reduce your housing costs is renting a giant house and filling the rooms with your friends. Or fill half the rooms with friends and the other half with strangers whose rent will pay most of your bills. It’s a time-tested tradition for entrepreneurs because it works.
Car & Transportation
If you do the van route, maybe you sell your car to buy the van.
Otherwise, you can do “AirBnB for cars” and list your vehicle on Turo (assuming it’s in good condition). Car owners on Turo earn an average of $706/month. That’s not an income to itself, but it is a good way to offset your other costs and bring down your overall costs of living.
Your other option to rent out your car is Avail, though it’s only available in a limited number of cities as it’s still an early-stage startup. Avail is also great for when you’re traveling as a way to earn money with your car while you’re out of town.
Phone, Computer, Internet
You can pay for all these with your LLC. While this won’t make your items free, it will reduce your overall tax burden as a deduction against those items.
Your phone, phone bill, and computer can be included in this as long as you’re using it some of the time for business. If you’re mobile (per the van) then you can sit in coffee shops and use their wifi. I ain’t an accountant, so maybe run this one by one, but if you allocate a consistent daily stipend for wifi (e.g. $5) then you may be able to write that off, too.
It may be wiser, however, to not use coffee shops but instead either turn your phone into a mobile hotspot, use wifi at camp sites (yes, this is a thing now and it’s quite common), or buy a separate internet enabling dongle for your computer. This is old school, but you can essentially buy something that looks like a flash drive as a standalone hotspot. It give your laptop wireless through a cellular network. Compare prices to just making your phone a hotspot before buying in.
Eat Cheap and Healthy
Is your priority health? Baby, you’re gonna live off this stuff. My old faithful. Beloved by tech bros everywhere.
You’ll be made fun of, but you’ll have a better diet than everyone you know. Huel is a powdered meal replacement. Like it says on its homepage, it’s $1.91 per serving. It’s hard to beat that, even in a kitchen.
Theoretically, it’s nutritionally complete food, so you can literally live off this and nothing else. It’s not great tasting, but it’s definitely not bad. Its macronutrient balance is pretty evenly split between fats, proteins, and carbs (similar to “the Zone” for gym bros). It’s not just protein powder, but everything powder.
If you do two servings per meal, and three meals a day, your monthly cost for eating healthy (but boring) will be $343.80. Huel requires lots of water, so you’ll definitely be getting your eight glasses a day, too.
If you actually do this, then for your sanity I recommend reserving at least one meal a day that’s not Huel, preferably dinner. On the near-opposite side of healthy, McDonald’s is still cheap if you order cheap.
If you don’t know where your next meal is, scrounge together $8.45 and go buy 5 McDoubles. Really. They cost $1.69 a piece, will give you 380 calories per burger. That’s 1900 calories, including 110 grams of protein. It’s the best worst option you have. If you’re already young and healthy, you can live a long time this way.
The Gangster Move: Go Abroad
Finally, the most balls-to-the-wall way to really commit to maximizing your runway is moving abroad.
We’ll look at Buenos Aires, Portugal, and Bali. These three each have low cost of living, warm to relatively warm weather, thriving international communities (for ease of transition) and they’re all on different continents so you can pick the one that interests you best.
I realize these aren’t clean comparisons because one is a city, one is a country, and the other is an island (a province of Indonesia). But who cares, this is fun.
The capital of my beloved Argentina, BA is a beautiful city of 15 million people. Argentine culture is a mix of Spanish and Italian (most Argentines have Italian heritage) and Spanish is probably the most accessible language for English-speakers, especially those in the US.
Sadly, Argentina’s economy is absolutely in the dump—but this is good news for folks bringing dollars to the country and not relying on a local job.
I just checked AirBnB for a month’s stay in July 2021 (which is winter in BA, FYI). There are tons of rooms for less than $300 US dollars—for the entire month. I even saw one for $98. That’s better than a single night at a hotel in the US.
You’ll most rely taxis. Uber is there, but last I checked, it was illegal. Lots of things are illegal in Argentina that all the locals still do, anyway, but heads up.
This is where all the Europeans are apparently moving to these days. Without a doubt, it’s the cheapest country in western Europe.
Portugal uses the Euro and has Schengen (open) borders, so you don’t technically need a passport to travel to Spain over land.
Checking June and July around the southern coast and I see some spaces for around $800/month. There are plenty of options around $1,100, too. If you want to live around Lisbon, you can get monthly rooms for $600.
Bali is the classic remote worker, digital nomad paradise. If you love surfing, beaches, and frivolity, this is probably your spot.
It is the cheapest option here by far. Living a pretty luxurious life can cost you only $1,000/month. Bring a couple friends and these costs can plummet.
There are two catches. One, the time zone difference makes it especially difficult to coordinates calls in North America or Europe, which can make it difficult to build a business if you’re relying on people living there. Two, Bali is currently closed to outsiders because of COVID. It’s supposed to open in July, but obviously that’s subject to change.
Do What It Takes
If you have a little bit of money, get humble and make it stretch. If you have a lot, make your runway count.