“Somebody wants you to do something, fuck you. Boss pisses you off, fuck you! Own your house. Have a couple bucks in the bank. Don’t drink. That’s all I have to say to anybody on any social level. Did your grandfather take risks? I guarantee he did it from a position of fuck you. A wise man’s life is based around fuck you.”
— JOHN GOODMAN, THE GAMBLER
Humphrey Bogart used to keep a $100 bill in his dresser drawer at all times—a decent chunk of change in the 1920s. He referred to it as his ‘fuck-you money’, because it meant he’d never be forced to take a crappy part. According to Bogie, the only good reason for making money was “so you can tell any son-of-a-bitch in the world to go to hell”.
Unlike Bogart, I am not a tough guy. One time I cried in front of my boss. She gave me the rest of the day off. In fact, all my bosses have been great. I’m struggling to think of a single person I’d like to say ‘fuck you’ to.
But there are plenty of people who I’d like to politely say ‘no thanks’ to. And I say it all the time! It’s great. If I think back on the last few years, fuck-you money has changed my life.
In 2016, I quit my job. Mostly it was because I wanted to travel, and free up time to work on my own projects. But I also felt like I was being made to write an increasing volume of bullshit. After doing my darndest to write a balanced article, I’d see it sexed-up on the page, stripped of nuance, with my name over words I hadn’t written. The ratio of meaty investigative stories to clickbait and listicles was moving in the wrong direction.
This was a great job, at a respectable media company, which produced quality journalism. I wasn’t exactly clubbing baby seals to death. And yet, there were some things that didn’t sit right with me. I can only imagine how conflicted other people might feel.
In my last post, I mentioned the cold pitches I get from companies wanting to run sponsored content. If I was on the bones of my ass, they’d probably look pretty tempting. Instead, I file them directly to spam, which I guess is the email equivalent of an extended middle finger.
Fuck-you money means you can walk away from a shitty situation. You can fire an annoying client. You can turn down offers that conflict with your values, or are just plain boring. You can call out any shady behavior in your company or industry, instead of being held hostage by a comfortable salary.
The concept is starting to catch on. Nassim Taleb called the John Goodman monologue I quoted up top “a critical one minute lecture”, and included a section on fuck-you money in his latest book. But there’s still a fair amount of confusion out there.
Fuck-You Money ≠ Financial Independence
Financial Samurai, a popular finance website, asked readers for their definition of fuck-you money:
Based on over 2,000 votes, $5m is the #1 vote-getter to feel financially free. I personally chose $10m because $10m is what’s necessary to generate $250,000 in risk-free income based on today’s interest rates. Somewhere between $5m – $10m seems reasonable, depending on where you live.
Somewhere between five and ten million dollars… seems… reasonable?
I like Financial Samurai, but I feel like I live on a completely different planet to these finance guys. Scanning the comments under the post, there are people who already have a ton of money but are still unsatisfied. One person who ‘only’ makes $100k complained that he’d never have enough to feel free, and was counting on dying young so it wouldn’t matter. What’s going on?
The first problem is that fuck-you money shouldn’t be synonymous with the amount of money you need to hit financial independence or retire early (often abbreviated to FIRE).
Unlike FIRE, there are degrees to this. You can improve your life right now, rather than eat shit sandwiches for decades while you try to reach some distant number. There’s no need to save ten million dollars. Even ten thousand is enough to change things up.
Let’s define fuck-you money as the amount of cash you need to feel a basic sense of security. Say, one or two years’ worth of living expenses—enough to walk away from a bum situation, turn down any gig, or re-train for a new career.
Now we’ve got a much more realistic target to aim for, but the finance guys are still facing an uphill battle. There’s one more missing piece to the puzzle.
“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”
— NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB
If I were accustomed to living on $250,000 a year, my fuck-you money would last about as long as a fart in a hurricane.
Instead, I’m in a position where I could probably go five or ten years without lifting a finger, if I absolutely had to (not that I would—I like working, as long as it’s on my own terms).
My spending habits are just as extreme as the finance guys, but in the opposite direction. I’m living on about US$10,000 to $15,000 a year. Since my expenses are literally 20 times lower, so is my threshold for freedom.
That means there are two ways to open your options. You can either get more money, or require less of it. The first strategy is obvious, but the second doesn’t get enough love. For want of a better phrase, let’s call it ‘fuck-you frugality’.
Companies prefer hiring employees who have families, and mortgages to service, and who faithfully trot along on the consumerism treadmill. As Nassim Taleb points out, it’s the only way you can legally ‘own’ a person today.
This is not an argument for avoiding commitments, but it is a pretty great argument for keeping your life as streamlined as possible. If we’re our own jailers, deliberate living is the key.
I think this is massively underrated, but it’s not even the pinnacle of fuck-you. There’s one final level to strive for, so beautiful that it deserves its very own post. Tune in next week for Fuck-You Money Part II: Galaxy Brain Edition.