Die with zero review – a fund manager dares to define Enough

In a commencement address, the late John C. Bogle, the founder of The Vanguard Group who was famous as someone who could have been a billionaire but instead made others richer declared his guiding life principle, “enough”. In the speech he recalled a story of two authors Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller at a party hosted by a billionaire fund manager. Heller comments to Kurt that this billionaire makes more money in a single day than his popular novel Catch-22. Heller responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have . . . Enough” (Bogle, 2007. para. 1).

Bill Perkins’s challenging, anti-finance book proposes a formula to calculate Enough and implores us to live to it (Perkins, 2020). In an easy reading 240 pages, Perkins tackles how someone can calculate their Enough number and optimise their life to “maximize their experiences”.

This is an important book because most of us never know how much is Enough. The Australian Retirement Income review found most retirees die with the majority of their wealth (Kehoe, 2021, para. 22). Perkins instead urges us to think beyond numbers as “no number will ever feel like enough.”.

Perkins, a trained engineer turned successful fund manager, sees life as an “optimization problem: how to maximize fulfillment while minimizing waste”. He was motivated by seeing most of us live “suboptimatally”. With the help of “ghostwriters” he outlines his 9 rules for life, backed with a surprising amount of research for the genre. Yet, this is not your everyday personal finance book. There is nothing about earning more, reducing expenses, investing the difference and how happiness will arrive once you retire. Most people never feel secure, so they keep saving. Perkins goes against the grain and argues we should battle our fears and “die with zero”.

Perkins declares the standard western life script of delaying gratification until retirement is a bad idea because many experiences are only available when you are young. Experiences require trade-offs between “money, free time, and health”. Perkins advises readers that making “deliberate choices about how to spend your money and your time is the essence of making the most of your life energy.”

A book review should never give away the plot, but this is non-fiction. There are many ideas in this book but there is only one formula, and it is brave at that, an answer to how much is Enough:  

“survival threshold = 0.7 × (cost to live one year) × (years left to live)”.

Finally, a companion to the 4% rule that goes beyond net-worth and considers your longevity. This formula is supported by his research and his gut feel. In the end it is a guesstimate, but I cannot fault it.

The death theme continues with Perkins suggesting we divide our remaining years into “time buckets” to discover what we want in life. He argues, “death wakes people up, and the closer it gets, the more awake and aware we become”.  This is a fantastic little variation adding the age dimension is an inspired take on a bucket list, acknowledging that some activities like snowboarding will not be possible in our later years.

This book has tremendous ideas, but it is occasionally let down by the mixed writing quality. Yet, there are some memorable passages particularly when refuting the common objections including the fear of running out of money and people who “love their work” whom he elegantly dismisses with:

“Our culture’s focus on work is like a seductive drug. It takes all your yearning for discovery and wonder and experiences, promising to give you the means (money) to get all those things—but the focus on the work and the money becomes so single-minded and automatic that you forget what you were yearning for in the first place. The poison becomes the medicine!”

Unfortunately, I often had to jump to the “next section” for explanations or had to reread to fully understand the concepts presented. It is difficult to say whether this results from the limitations of the reader or the consequence of the book being a product of multiple “ghostwriters”. In the end, the book makes a motivating argument, but will the reader have the tools to courageously “die with zero”? Perhaps not, but I do not think Perkin’s himself would consider the book definitive.

Finally, this is a book for people who have already graduated from personal finance books and have succeeded financially. It is an enjoyable read and a powerful reminder that life is not all about work and accumulation; it is about experience. “Why wait until your health and life energy have begun to wane?” instead Perkins implores us to “chase memorable life experiences” and this is certainly a book that will help readers question how to optimise their life.

 
References

Bogle, J 2021, "Enough". James Clear. Viewed, 19 May 2021 <https://jamesclear.com/great-speeches/enough-by-john-c-bogle>.

Kehoe, J, 2021. Reverse mortgages to ‘unlock’ $500b in home equity for retirees,

Australian Financial Review. Viewed 19 May 2021, <https://www.afr.com/policy/tax-and-super/reverse-mortgage-to-unlock-500b-in-home-equity-for-retirees-20210516-p57sce>

Pekins, W 2020, Die with zero, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York.

This article was updated on September 1, 2021

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