Your Minimum Viable Lifestyle

To get started on your Minimum Viable Lifestyle journey, download our free “Imagine Your Future” resource here.

Having a financially sustainable lifestyle, based on your Minimum Viable Lifestyle, gives you the flexibility to define success in broad terms.

You reasonably think about work choices in the context of income. The more neglected side of the equation is cost. The more income you have, the more you invest in a lifestyle that gives you prestige among peers and the creature comforts that motivate you to keep working at maximum capacity.

You build up expensive and demanding cost structures leading to an overhead that’s often unsustainable in later life and rarely put into the context of the trade offs needed to pursue a broader definition of success. This doesn’t need to hold you back.

By planning ahead, you can ensure that you thrive in your lives as a whole, including career. Don’t fall off a financial cliff, surprised by a health issue or redundancy, or caught out by a longer life and shorter terms in a more volatile world of work.

Imagining the Future

Extremely intelligent people who are totally capable can become completely absorbed in the immediacy of their work. They’re always on and always connected, and their careers are increasingly demanding. Just getting through the day can be exhausting.

Instead of worrying about where the next job or promotion is coming from, ask yourself, “What kind of life do I want? Maybe what I have works for now, but is this what I want in ten years? What kind of meaning and impact do I want to have? What do I want my legacy to be? What kind of connections do I want to make? What purpose do I want to live by? What values do I want to live by?”

These questions allow you to emotionally conjure the life you want, which can excite your brain and emotions about the process. Starting with what you will have to cut out will make you less enthusiastic. It’s like starting a diet by thinking about the way your new size 6 dress will feel or running after your toddler with energy and spunk. Imagining your future is a key to having the discipline to make change.

One Man’s Journey to Minimum Viable Lifestyle

Let me tell you a story about Todd Miller. Todd is a film studio executive, CEO of Celestial Entertainment and a veteran of the entertainment industry. He is a great planner and is mystified by how people don’t plan well, financially or career-wise. He feels most executives don’t think sufficiently far ahead and are only focused on what’s next, either a promotion or the boss’s job or a great job at another company. Most people don’t take the time to think in terms of five or ten or twenty years, and to prepare for that.[1]

Years ago, faced with career burn-out, Todd took a sabbatical to bicycle across the United States and figure out his focus. He saw that many of his friends hated their jobs and were just hanging on by a thread because they had set themselves up with an expensive lifestyle. This was his wake-up call to rethink his own next steps and reorient from planning for his next job to crafting the rest of his life.

He realized that he did love his work and set about creating a plan to invest further in his career in a way that allowed him to do his work on his terms. He reviewed his costs and began to research investments that would allow him to be less reliant on just income from work, developed a retirement plan far in advance that included a great bungalow by the beach, and started developing the relationships and board seats that will ultimately provide interesting intellectual stimulation and ongoing work as he shifts into more of a portfolio career.

Your Minimum Viable Lifestyle

Step 1: What are the non-negotiables?

Think about setting up a minimum viable lifestyle or MVL to enable more choices in life. The first step is to consider non-negotiables. What are the parts of your life that, when you look back on life, will allow you to call it success? It’s different for everyone. For one person it is the ability to travel around the world with young kids, living in fleabag hostels and learning about the world through first-hand experience. For others it might be the stability of owning a paid-off home, no matter what size, that means you always have somewhere to go.

I am lucky to be in a dual-income household, so we have more flexibility but lowering my income to write a book wouldn’t feel right without first making sure my family was taken care of. If one day my children have their own ambitions and they cannot go to university because we can’t afford it, I would feel like a failure as a parent. That’s not a broad judgement of what others should do, just a recognition of my own priorities and quirks.

While, as Americans, we had the opportunity to set up college savings plans; these were accelerated to ensure each child had at least a year’s schooling at a private school (no small feat!), and we will figure it out from there. We focused most of my income on savings and making a certain amount of headway toward retirement.

Step 2: What is Your Worst-Case Scenario?

The second aspect of this is to have a crystal-clear idea of the worst-case scenario and plan of what you will do in that instance. Then you can conjure up some mitigating plans to ensure the worst does not come to pass or that you are prepared when it does.

Business strategists incorporate it into scenario planning; author and self-experimenter Tim Ferris calls it “fear-setting” and says it’s one of his most important tricks, while Silicon Valley pundit and founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman, calls it “having a plan Z.”[2] This is knowing in advance what job you might go for when your startup blows up and you need to get some cash to pay your credit card bills, or the sabbatical you take becomes a lot longer because your company restructures. It’s the best worst option. It means imagining what life you have in that scenario, what apartment you live in, what food you put on the table, and how your life changes. That is the extreme Minimum Viable Lifestyle.

I’ve heard multiple versions of this. When I started a portfolio career I asked a colleague who had gone from being a hedge fund manager to a journalist what she missed the most about her former lifestyle. “Nice shoes,” she said.

Step 3: What Can You Do to Eliminate Anxiety and Risk?

If you know the worst-case scenario, what can you do to make sure you take steps to avoid the worst of it? You can take steps to identify and shore up your money-making skills from speaking, waitressing or copy writing. Then it is about mindset. Are you worried about the money or just anxious about the loss of stability? If so what can you do to give yourself more stability? For example, Todd has his beach house in Thailand to fall back on, even if he can’t afford to live in an expensive city when he retires.

Sometimes, you can gain a sense of stability just by recognizing and planning for a more volatile cash flow. Lifestyle maven Emma Sherrard Matthew mentioned that one of the hardest things is “giving up a big salary, working out the daily cash flow. I do have income from being a chairman and from some of my advisory but much of it is angel investing, which will take three to five years to materialize. It’s an adjustment.”[3] Coach Danny Khursigara mentioned eliminating financial anxiety in order to be able to focus on the longer-term ability to add value.

Finally, don’t gloss over the mindset required to go on a journey from wealth externally defined to success, internally defined. You may need to redefine what success means to you. Practice your “elevator explanation” for when people ask you why you would give up your fabulous apartment/car/five-star vacation to pursue longer term goals. You can tell people you are optimizing around quality time, building a life in the context of work or just investing in yourself.

When planning for the future, consider the minimum requirements you have for your life and work from there.

To get started on your Minimum Viable Lifestyle journey, download our free “Imagine Your Future” resource here.

[1] Todd Miller (minimum viable lifestyle), interviewed by Diana Wu David of Future Proof, May 3, 2018.

[2] Tim Ferriss, “Fear Setting: The Most Valuable Exercise I Do Every Month,” The Tim Ferriss Show, May 15, 2017, accessed October 11,2018,