Okay so… I have very mixed feelings about the book Die with Zero by Bill Perkins.
I’ll go over what I like first — because it’s a much shorter list.
A good idea
Perkins’s proposition is simply that you should aim to die with as little money as possible.
He argues that anything left when you die has, for all intents and purposes, been wasted. You could have traveled more. You could have given more — to kids or charity.
He says he understands that people are worried about saving enough for old age, but he also asserts that most people save more than they need to.
Apparently, financial advisors have told him that people’s retirement spending, on average, actually decreases over time.
Obviously, in the first blush of retirement, people run around doing everything they had been putting off. Those are the spendy years.
But, he says, once retirees cross all the big things off their lists their spending slows. Or the aging process simply takes its toll, and they can’t do as many big activities, thereby slowing their spending.
And the second one is why it’s so important to Perkins that he die with zero. Because those activity ideas for retirement are being planned by younger, more hale people who forget that their retirement-age bodies may not be able to keep up with those goals.
So he wants to us to make sure we actually get to do the things we’re planning — which means prioritizing some goals over others, even if it means your savings account dips a little lower a little sooner than you’d hoped.
I don’t disagree
I’m all for making sure we don’t just endure the present in pursuit of a happy future. I’m in favor of having folks enjoy the here and now, while also trying to also provide for our future selves.
So I like the general idea, and I like his tactic of how to decide what to prioritize when: buckets.
He asks readers to write down everything they want to have done by the end of their lives. Then to divide the their anticipated lifespan into five-year increments.
Once you look at activities and at ages, he said, you’ll get a good sense of which activities should go in which “buckets” of years.
More physical activities should probably done earlier. Perkins points out that even if you’re fit in your older age, chances are that your body just doesn’t recover the way it used to. So you could still do something big, but the physical effects may keep you from doing other activities you’d planned.
Other types of goals can wait a bit longer, like a big expensive vacation with nice hotels and other more relaxed, less physical activities. You can hold off on that type of thing until you’re earning more (and thus have hopefully saved more).
And that yet more things can wait until actual retirement age, like becoming a patron of the arts.
So the idea is that when you look at the list and the timeline, it should be a bit easier to figure out which goals need to take precedence.
The final thing I liked about his outlook was the reminder that saving enough to have a bunch of money left for your kids or charity is isn’t as good as it sounds.
He argues that charities (and potentially even kids) need money now. Yes, it’s great to have more money with compound interest, but it may have less impact at that point.
Charities tend to struggle all the time to find the money to do everything they want. So money in 40 years is all well and good — if they’re still around or if they haven’t given up on the programs you want to fund.
And kids? Okay, an inheritance can always be put to good use. But if you live to a ripe old age, those kids will get their inheritance when they’re more likely to already be financially stable.
On the other hand, even a thousand or two bucks a year when they’re in their 20s and 30s could make a huge difference. It can let them pay off student loans more quickly — saving them for a lot in interest — or help them get a down payment for a house more quickly, before prices get even more out of control.
So, Perkins says, socking away lots of money for future beneficiaries — be it yourself in retirement, kids or charities — may be less helpful than you think.
Overall I like a lot of Perkins’s outlook on things. But the presentation of it and some of the arguments he makes are… problematic.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Which is that, unlike most of us, Perkins could actually afford an elephant.
While he’s upfront about his being a millionaire (and we’re not talking a single million), I suspect I’m not the only one who found it hard to relate to some of his examples.
Like two friends he uses as examples of working well past the point they could’ve comfortably quit (and thus missing out on years of life). They were a millionaire and a billionaire.
One of his big points was that millionaires/billionaires can save so much that they then have trouble spending down even with huge charitable donations. Because they’re money is making so much more money. Oh noes!
And while it’s good for everyone (who can afford it) to prioritize some present enjoyment and just generally make sure they’re planning certain goals at the right times of their lives, most of Perkins’s more generally applicable advice ends for a lot of people.
This book is clearly geared toward high earners. You can tell because his big advice for when it’s safe to quit is when you have “about 20” times the minimum yearly amount you could happily live on.
Besides that being alarmingly vague when you’re talking about quitting work altogether, that’s not an attainable goal for a lot of people. Even if you can live of $35,000 a year, that would be $700,000 in cash and retirement assets. Most people won’t have that before retirement age. Heck, most won’t have it at retirement age.
And hey I get it: Not all books have to be geared to all audiences. But nowhere in this does Perkins acknowledge that his advice is really only for a small segment of the population.
But of course that’s not the only problem.
Perkins is extremely un-PC when it comes to talking about old people. And what’s worse, I don’t think he even realizes how awful he’s being.
For example, one of his earliest references to what old age looks like for many people is sitting around watching TV and eating tapioca pudding.
As my autocorrect would say “Oh, duck you!”
First of all, plenty of older people are keeping active these days. Yes, at some point physical issues will get in the way for most of us, but to characterize anyone old as sedentary and unadventurous… No.
Second, even if that were their life, he has no right to judge it.
Some people are happy as clams relaxing and watching TV. They like it, and after decades of working hard and (statistically speaking) raising a family, they just want to relax and enjoy the wealth of quality modern programming. Personally, I think that’s perfectly valid.
And incidentally, all of this ageism is, by proxy, also ableism.
If you’re going to look condescendingly on sedentary seniors, then what must you think of younger people who have lower activity levels? Because many people with disabilities aren’t able to be super active.
So are their lives sad too? Or can we maybe just agree that there’s quality to be found in whatever vesion of life is possible for people?
Oh and one last bit of ageism that stuck in my craw: In on of Perkins’s hypotheticals, someone loves both movies and theater and wants to fill a lot of their free time enjoying both — before and after retirement. The author says that since movies are more affordable, earlier years should be skewed with more movies and some art, whereas in later years the person can go more heavily into theater tickets and fewer movies.
Okay, solid point. But then he inexplicably feels the need to add that the person shouldn’t wait too long to enjoy the theater — “to the point where you’ll be too old to hear the actors or to stand in line for the restroom; at that point in your life, you’d just as soon stay home watching Jeopardy or reruns of The Golden Girls.”
Seriously, dude, duck you.
Problems with his scenario
Also one of Perkins’s main justifications for dying with zero simply doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. (There’s another bit of logic that doesn’t hold up, but since this one is the biggie, the second one is being put at the end as more of a PS.)
The author has a hypothetical person at the end of their life dying with $250,000 still in their bank/retirement portfolio. Which he sees as a huge waste.
He tells readers that his father’s end-of-life care cost $50,000 a day. So by that logic, sitting on $250,000 could mean extending your life by a mere five days. (Ones which he heavily implies would be not worth it, since you might be hooked up to a variety of tubes and machines.)
In fact, he actually says that he’d rather die five days earlier and have used all that money for something he could’ve appreciated in his prime, creating valuable memories. But um… It’s not the same.
Present value issue
First and foremost, that $250,000 at the end of your life isn’t $250,000 in the middle of your life.
Using a compound interest calculator very inexactly — because I’m not going to fuss with pre- versus post-retirement return rates — I found that $250,000 in your late 80s is around $17,000 in your 40s and around $8,000 in your 30s.
Now, I’m not saying you can’t have one hell of a time with $17,000 — or even $8,000. But it’s hardly the same as sitting on $250,000 during your prime years. So it’s a false equivalent.
Not to mention…
Unless Perkins’s father was in a private hospital that didn’t accept Medicare/Medicare Part D plans or unless he was on treatment plans insurance companies consider radical, the man was paying nowhere near $50,000 a day himself.
In fact, he wouldn’t even pay $50,000 total.
Medicare has out-of-pocket maximums well below that of many private insurances’ deductibles. Depending on which Medicare plan you choose, once you’ve spent around $3,000 to $4,000 for all expenses that year you pay $0 for anything other than your Medicare plan premium.
And most end-of-life care is far from radical, so it should be covered. Meaning not only would someone not being paying $250,000 for an extra five days — they’d likely be paying nothing at all very early into their stay.
That’s not how hospitals work
A third very important point: Care wouldn’t stop if he had $0.
First of all, I feel compelled to point that no one who has paid FICA taxes for at least 10 years would ever permanently have $0. They’ll be getting Social Security benefits each month.
But even humoring Perkins and agreeing that somehow this person had no bank balance and no income, the logic still doesn’t hold. Because — and I can’t believe I actually have to say this — hospitals can’t check your bank account. So they would have no way of knowing you were at $0.
But let’s humor Perkins even further and say that somehow the patient had no income, no savings and the hospital could check on that type of thing.
Nope, the scenario doesn’t work. Because hospitals don’t stop care even when they know they’re not getting paid. If they did, there would be a lot of dead poor people shooed out the door of an ER that knew they would-be patients could never pay.
So sure, a broke patient isn’t getting any radical/expensive procedures that aren’t absolutely necessary. But they’ll sure as hell get basic life-sustaining care. No patient is ever going to hear, “Oh, oops, you’re out of money. Say bye-bye to Mr. Ventilator!”
So Perkins’s seemingly profound point — which he uses to drive home how important it is to stop living solely for the future — is completely unrealistic. Which undermines an otherwise decent idea.
And yet more ableism
As I mentioned earlier, his outlook is also damned ableist. Because he’s highly disdainful of the quality of life his father had at the end — hooked up to a bunch of machines.
As someone who spent three months on life support, this annoys me greatly.
Now, I know that’s not the same as knowing you’ll spend whatever life you have left hooked up to various equipment. And certainly, being on life support wasn’t a good time.
But Perkins’s implication that you must be miserable if you require machines to live is… a lot.
Maybe his father was miserable. But that doesn’t mean that everyone who needs machines to live would feel they have no quality of life. Neither Perkins nor I can know that. And I have this quirky habit of trying to avoid assuming that there’s no value in a life that I can’t identify with.
To be fair, he does say that, in the moment, you would absolutely be willing to spend the $250,000 you have to extend your life. But he also makes it very clear that this is situational valuation. He very obviously thinks that, if they were given the chance to have spent the money in a different way, they’d have chosen that option instead.
Ya know, if they’d actually had $250,000 to play around with. Which, again, they wouldn’t.
This book was too long
My last major bone to pick is that this 220 page-long book should’ve been significantly shorter. Because it didn’t bother having the one thing that would’ve made the length worthwhile — actual guidelines — and it had far too many examples that ended up detracting from his points.
A lack of quantification
With a title like Die With Zero, I think most of us would assume that the book tells you how to do that. Instead, Perkins almost exclusively explains (repeatedly) why you should.
As I said, he suggests having “about 20” times your desired retirement income before quitting. And then he gives readers the name of a couple of websites to help estimate their life span.
That’s as far as it goes.
To be fair, Perkins does mention an app that was underway. But people who spend $12+ on a book probably won’t love finding out that either they could’ve gone with a free app or that they now have to also pay for an app.
Now, I absolutely understand that there’s no magic formula that will work for everyone. Maybe even the majority of people. But some actual guidelines would’ve been good, rather than copious examples that started to feel…
Beyond the fact that his early examples make his points nicely and don’t particularly need to be underscored by more, Perkins’s examples later in the book actually made his points resonate less with me.
I’ve already mentioned the millionaire and billionaire buddies’ 1% of the First Worlder problems. But he took it a step further by making himself less relatable by talking about his 45th birthday bash.
He decided to celebrate age 45 instead of 50 because he suspected (correctly, as it turns out) some people wouldn’t be able to attend an event in five years.
So he decided to go all-out — and “all-out” means an entirely different thing to Perkins than to most of us.
Specifically, he flew something like 30 to 40 friends and family to a tropical island island and put them up in a hotel and fed them presumably very well) for a week. Oh and on two nights he had some rock stars come in and play.
After reading that, I felt less connected to his point. I suspect others will come away with the same feeling.
All in all
While the basic idea is worth considering, I genuinely can’t believe the book got published in its present form.
As far as repetition goes, maybe the publishers made Perkins put in the additional examples to pad the book — and maybe he just couldn’t think of any others. That I’d understand a bit more.
But that doesn’t explain how so much ageism and ableism got past an editor theese days.
Or how no one thought people might be frustrated by the almost complete lack of how-to the book contained.
Anyway, what it all boils down to is that I like Perkins’s basic idea — enjoy life at all stages, don’t wait too long — but not the book that explains it. I think that rationing out experiences (if you can afford them) is definitely something to consider. Just not necessarily from Perkins’s viewpoint.
In other words, if you’re curious enough to try reading the book, I urge you to go to your local library rather than Amazon/a bookstore. I’m not even putting an Amazon affiliate link here — that’s how much I want you to not buy the book.
You shouldn’t have to spend your money on what I think a lot of people will find less than helpful, overly repetitious and ageist advice. So if you really want to read this book, get a library loan. After all, it’s not like Perkins needs the royalty money.
Has anyone else read the book? Did you have a different reaction?
One more half-baked example
Perkins clearly values experiences like trips, since they pay dividends over time with memories you can revisit. So he’s big on people not putting off all of their travel goals til retirement.
He acknowledges that people put off travel because of financial stress — earlier on you get paid less, you have expenses from kids, etc. — but he urges people not to wait too long.
And that’s not a bad point, except that he’s missing a very obvious set of other reasons why a lot of people travel later in life: kids.
Setting aside the question of whether they can even save up for a grand trip, parents have to figure out what to do with their kids when they go on this dream trip.
Either they leave the kids at home — which won’t go over well with the kids (and, depending on the length of this big trip, maybe the people expected to watch said offspring) — or they incur exponentially more expense by taking the kids with them.
Sure, three- or four-person families can stay in a single hotel room. And I guess bigger families can make use of cots to stay in one room — though I doubt the cot-sleepers will let them forget it.
But there’s still the extra plane tickets, food (did you know kids insist on being fed multiple times a day???) and probably a lot more souvenirs than the adults would’ve bought on their own.
Then there’s the little issue of actually getting the vacation the parents want.
Kids/teens are probably not going to love some of the activities that the grown-ups are so excited about. (In which case they’ll have moping minors detracting from the experience.) Or the kids might be excited but not able to keep up. (Damn youngins and their stubby legs!)
So people who try to fulfill a dream trip with the kids may pay a lot more just to not actually get their dream trip.
Oh and of course there’s scheduling a big trip when everything but summer break is less than two weeks. And during breaks fares are higher since everyone’s trying to fit in travel with their kids. And younger people are more likely to have jobs with less vacation days. And that even people with plenty of PTO may have to hoard it for when their kids get sick and have to stay home from school — or when the kids get them sick and they have to miss work.
On the whole, it may simply be best — in terms of money, ease of facilitation and just general enjoyment — to wait until the kids are out of the house.
But I guess we shouldn’t expect someone who retired as a multimillionaire in his early 30s to think of that type of stuff.