How to Improve your Finances: Be Boring

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I love the sitcom Taxi. It ran for five seasons from 1978 to 1983. Some of my favorite episodes are when the Reverend Jim has a dream about Alex dancing the Can-Can wearing a catcher’s mask, when Latka re-invents himself as alpha male Vic Ferrari, and when Alex goes to a gay bar to help Tony and winds up being yanked to the dance floor by a hulking gay Casanova.

But now that I’m a groovy freakin freedomist, my favorite all-time Taxi episode is named On the Job. In this episode, our intrepid cabbies get laid off from the Sunshine Cab Company and agree to meet a month later to share the stories of their new-found jobs (yes, there was a time in America when one could find a new job pretty quickly). Elaine, the lone female cabby in the group, gets a job as a secretary for an executive named Mr. Givens (it’s the second vignette in see the clip below).

Mr. Givens, it turns out, has worked for the company for over twenty-three years, a record. And what’s the secret to Mr. Givens’s success? He flies under the radar. Nobody really knows what he does or who he is. Some people know his name, some people know his face, but hardly anyone can put the two together.

Mr. Givens is refreshingly boring. He doesn’t need to impress others. He’s perfectly happy being “forgettable”.

Mrs. Groovy and I behave like Mr. Givens when it comes to our personal finances.

The best tool Mrs. Groovy and I have for building wealth is our household income. But our household income isn’t huge. It can’t buy a bunch of envy-producing stuff AND fully fund our 401Ks. We have to decide what’s more important to us. Do we want to buy the symbols of wealth so we can get a brief hedonic high and possibly impress others? Or do we want to save like maniacs so we can achieve financial independence a lot sooner?

Because Mrs. Groovy and I have long subdued our egos, we have chosen the less flashy lifestyle. We shop for clothes at Walmart and Kohl’s rather than Neiman Marcus. We bought a used Camry rather than a new Lexus when our previous car died. Our house isn’t a look-at-me McMansion in a gated community; it’s a basic three-bedroom in a nice but hardly upscale neighborhood. A date night for us might entail a walk (so we can listen to a podcast from Tim Ferriss or Farnoosh Torabi); or it might entail treating ourselves to mini-Blizzards at Dairy Queen.

And here are some of the lessons we learned from adopting the Mr. Givens, under-the-radar, don’t-look-at-me lifestyle.

Life is still good. Call me nuts, but driving an 11-year-old Camry hardly constitutes an example of severe deprivation. Nor do our cheap Android smartphones and 32-inch Vizios denote a life of abject misery. So, yes, our stuff is “low-end”, our car is old, and our house is modest. But consider this: There are roughly 500 million people in India today without access to a toilet. When nature calls, they must visit a nearby field or river. 500 million! That’s roughly 180 million more people than live in the United States. Mrs. Groovy and I, despite our “spartan” ways, are 1 percenters compared to most of the world.

Less means less worries. What I love best about our Camry is that I don’t love our Camry. It’s an 11-year-old car with 135K miles. If somebody scratches it: yawn. If somebody steals it: again, yawn. Nothing we own, including our house, would cause a financial crisis if it needed to be replaced or repaired. Nothing we own, including our house, would be imperiled if Mrs. Groovy and I both lost our jobs. That kind of peace of mind is priceless. And it’s only possible because we buy what we need, not what we can “afford”.

Less means less work, too. Our home is 2,000 square feet. That’s 20 percent smaller than the median size of newly constructed homes (2,479 square feet) and 50 percent smaller than the typical McMansion. This means we have less space to fill with furniture and less space to clean. It also means we have less lawn to cut and fewer bushes to manicure. I look at a 4,000 square-foot McMansion and cringe. Even if I won the lottery I wouldn’t want that headache.

You can save a lot. When you don’t need the latest and greatest; when you aren’t driven to show the world you’ve “arrived”; you aren’t compelled to live beyond your means. Your money can go toward amassing wealth rather than amassing fancy stuff and debt. Mrs. Groovy and I have been debt-free for 9 years. Our saving rate during this period has been around 50 percent. And that’s based on gross income, not net income.

Final Thoughts

Your ego is your biggest obstacle to building wealth. Madison Avenue knows this and works tirelessly to exploit it. That’s why every pitch, every ad, and every commercial says you’re a loser if you don’t have the product being hawked.

Don’t fall for it. You’re not a winner if you have fancy stuff and are in debt up to your eyeballs. Be like Mr. Givens. Be a loser. Live modestly. Bring your lunch to work. Don’t buy things to impress others. And save, save, save. This way you can retire in your forties. Let the winners retire in their sixties and seventies, if at all.

Oh, if you have the time, look at the clip below and see what happens to Mr. Givens when he abandons his under-the-radar, don’t-look-at-me credo. It’s not good.

Oh, and just so you know. The fortunes of Mr. Givens do not fare well after the below clip. Elaine convinces him to abandon his under-the-radar, don’t-look-at-me credo and he ends up getting fired.

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8 Comments

  1. Mr. Groovy

    Hey, Dan. Thank you very much for your kind words. And thank you for sharing your car-buying savvy. Excellent post!

  2. Ditto to Sandra! I’ve found that buying a cheap new car (Hyundai Accent in my case) and hanging on to it for a long time really makes sense. After dealer incentives, I typically get it for the same price as a 2 year old model would cost (see my post on that- http://penniesanddollars.com/easiest-way-get-great-deal-new-car/) so I avoid the first 2 years of depreciation. And Hyundai’s 10 year/100k mile warranty (on new cars only) really makes it worth it- have made use of it twice so far.

    Good post! Good points! You’re absolutely right that our egos are often our biggest enemy!

  3. Sandra

    I have a cute, two-door, paid-for 2010 Toyota Yaris with only 16,000 miles on it (I don’t need to drive much). I decided back then to purchase a new car because I wanted something that I was going to keep for a long time and that I was the only owner of. So I plan to drive my car until retirement (9 more years) and beyond!

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, Sandra. My sister drives a Yaris too. Excellent car. Sometimes a new car makes sense, especially cars like the Yaris which sell for half of what the typical American pays for a new car ($33K). And if you’re going to drive it for 15 years or more, it’s a home run. You’re mitigating the financial bite of buying new, and you’re definitely being boring. “Drive the same car for 15 years? How pedestrian! How lame!” Here’s to being boring, Sandra. I like your style.

  4. Love my Toyota too. It might not be fancy, but at least it’s my favorite color!

    Way to go for flying under the radar. They’ll all know who you are when you have your retirement party, though, and they still have to go to work for a few more decades!

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, Julie. We’re even flying under the radar when we retire. Mrs. Groovy and I both work from home and our co-workers are thousands of miles away. So when we retire this October, there will be no office parties. Just some emails and some phone calls. Perhaps a little sad, but it definitely fits our M.O. Thanks for stopping by. It’s always great hearing from a fellow Toyota lover.

  5. You can’t beat a Camry! They are workhorses. Mine is an 05 with over 185,000 miles. I plan on it lasting for much longer too. DQ Blizzards are the best reward for anything! Loved the post. Thanks for sharing!

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, JT. Agreed. The Camry is a workhorse. I got 144K on mine. She (Lucy) is just hitting her stride. Mrs. Groovy and I both agreed that we wouldn’t consider a replacement until Lucy reaches at least 200K. Thanks for stopping by, JT. I can never hear enough from fans of Camrys and Blizzards.