small change toward a rich life

Redefining success; redesigning our lives

Here in middle-class America, there’s a formula you’re supposed to follow in order to be considered a successful adult. With only minor variations, you’re expected to:
get a college degree,
find a lucrative career,
get married,
buy a house,
fill it with stuff,
and have kids
… all while continuing to work at that same career until (sometime in your mid-sixties) you can afford to retire. Those of us in ‘Generation X’ took our early lessons from the boardgame Life, with its little pink and blue people-pegs in plastic cars that followed exactly that course.

Life boardgame car with pegsThat early programming sits there, largely unexamined, in the back of everyone’s head. Even if you make a conscious choice to route yourself around some part of the preordained path — maybe you skip the church wedding, or resolve not to have kids — the rest of the success script is still influencing every major life decision.

Which is to a large extent how I found myself in my mid-thirties with a de facto husband, two stepkids, a house full of ‘nice’ possessions, and a corporate career. And why, when I had all of those things, I felt like I could finally call myself a success.

•   •   •

But although I felt accomplished, I certainly wasn’t happy. The truth is that the career part has never really worked out for me, or for Jak. Despite repeated attempts, neither of us have ever thrived in a corporate environment. The best I’ve managed is ‘temporarily bearable’, and my condition has more often been ‘full-on miserable’. The day in October 2008 that I was fired from my job? I had spent that morning at my doctor’s office, getting a prescription for anti-anxiety medication so I could make it through the panic attacks I was suffering almost every morning before work.

For his part, Jak has only ever really wanted to do one thing, and that’s write novels. My enthusiasms are broader, and include design, illustration, and non-fiction writing as well … but not in the ways and for the reasons that corporations want to pay for.

In short, we both want to be self-employed artists.

There’s one good way to be a self-employed artist, and that’s to have a working spouse who is happy to fully support you. Clearly that’s not going to happen for us.

We know a lot of writers, and even the fantastically successful ones still have other jobs, by and large. The ones who are making a living writing fiction now didn’t just jump in; they spent fifteen or twenty years cramming writing around their day jobs and family life, until the trickle of royalties from dozens of prior publications finally added up to something substantial.

Jak is more of a dreamer; I’m more of a pragmatist. So every time Jak broaches the subject of quitting his job to write novels, my brain calls up a mental model of the economic realities. For quite a few years now, it’s looked something like this:

income/expense chart 1

In this graph, purple is our approximate annual expenses — given our best efforts at thrift, in our current location — and green is the amount of reliable income from self-directed work.

As you can see, there’s at minimum a $60,000 gap between what we absolutely needed and what we could reasonably count on making from our artistic pursuits. Which is why every time Jak would mention his desire to write for a living, I would respond with — well, a sympathetic shrug at best, and irritated grousing at worst. It just wasn’t even close to realistic, so yearning after it did no one any good.

Last winter, the picture started to change. Once we decided to jettison the house and go back to renting, our future situation looked something like this:

income/expense chart 2

Now the disparity was down to maybe as little as $35,000. Something that a part-time job might bridge, if the idea of a part-time job in either of our careers weren’t completely ludicrous. (Of course the kind of jobs that do come in part-time flavors pay much, much less.)

But that wasn’t the end of it. In the past few years, some economically interesting things have been happening in the world of publishing, what with ebooks and all. My conservative estimate of income from writing and other creative pursuits ticked upward. Also, with a larger pool of savings, we’d have the option of withdrawing perhaps as much as a few thousand dollars per year, even before official retirement age.

So then my mental graph started to look more like this:

income/expense chart 3

Still a gap of at least $15k per year — but now we were out of the realm of ‘laughably absurd’ and into ‘merely impossible’.

And there, about a year ago, is where we made a sharp left turn. We decided to consciously set aside society’s idea of success, and look for a way to succeed on our own terms.

•   •   •

We didn’t quite wake up one day and decide to chuck our entire life plan out the window. But we did change course surprisingly fast, over a span of just a few weeks.

We had already — in part out of necessity, but also out of a pointed ethical reconsideration — become increasingly comfortable with eschewing the possession-centric, consumer-driven lifestyle that’s part of the price of admission to the upper-middle class.

Now, in choosing to abandon both our house and the entire idea of owning property, we had put ourselves firmly and irrevocably off the accepted path. Having gone that far, we started to seriously discuss — to stretch the metaphor just a little bit farther — the possibility of driving right off the game board altogether.

Going back to the graph: expenses are generally easier for us to control than income. But we’d already tightened those belts about as far as they could go. Rent accounts for well over half our total budget. Because of shared custody, we don’t have the option of moving more than a few miles in any direction.

two Canada geese in flightAs long as we were both supporting a child and tied to Seattle, that gap wasn’t going to get appreciably smaller. But in just a few years, our final fledgling would be leaving the nest. At that point we could conceivably move … anywhere.

So the question became: is there anyplace we could go — that wouldn’t be intolerable for other reasons — that would allow us to bridge the income-expense gap and do work that didn’t make us miserable?

I set about finding out.

•   •   •

To make a long story … um, slightly less long, I found one place that looked particularly promising: the Lake Chapala area of central Mexico — a series of small towns along the north shore of Mexico’s largest lake, about 45 minutes from Guadalajara.

Based on my best research, if we moved to Chapala, we could realistically expect our graph to look something like this:

income/expense chart 4

Not a guarantee of success, but at least a reasonable probability. This could be our path to a happier way of life.

•   •   •

Of course, I was trying to evaluate the feasibility of living in an area I’d never even visited, in a country with which I had only passing familiarity. Lots of room for error there.

Which is why next week Jak and I will be heading down to Mexico to test-drive the expense side of the plan. We’re going to live in the Chapala area for a full month — not as tourists, but as much like residents as possible. We’ll take the local buses and shop in the local markets and see if the two of us really can live there, happily, on less than $2000 per month.

What this means for Pocketmint is a month of personal finance, Mexican-style. It should be pretty different from anything you’ll be reading anywhere else. I hope you’ll come along for the ride!


40 responses

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  1. Matthew Amster-Burton says

    This is an incredible post, Karawynn. I can’t wait to hear about your Mexican fact-finding trip.

    • Matthew Amster-Burton says

      Oh, and I would love to hear more about how you found Chapala and what other places you crossed off the list or are still considering.

      • Karawynn says

        I’d have to reconstruct the process with regard to eliminated options, as that all happened a year ago when <sheepish> I wasn’t writing Pocketmint. But yeah, now that you mention it, I can see how that might be of general interest. I’ll see what I can do.

        Thanks for the enthusiasm! :)

  2. Scott James Magner says

    this plan fills me with glee

  3. Mike Brotherton says

    I’ve wondered why more writers/artists don’t do this. So many seem to need be in crazy expensive places like LA, NYC, or, ahem, Seattle. I was talking about this with Charles Tan in Manilla last year — the Philippines can be very cheap in the smaller cities. Also be aware if you stay out of the USA for 330+ days per year, you don’t need to pay US taxes.

    • Karawynn says

      I picked Seattle originally for a lot of reasons, but the primary one by far was the sociopolitical culture, followed by ‘big-city amenities’. I’m hoping that a major city less than an hour away will be sufficient for the latter; the former is a gigantic question mark. I am motivated to adapt, though!

      The income exclusion that comes into play after 330 days only applies to foreign earned income. It’s pretty much impossible to earn income in Mexico as a noncitizen, so that’s unlikely to apply to us.

      However, we expect our total tax burden to be small for other reasons — low overall income means a low tax bracket, plus self-employment expense deductions.

      • Mike Brotherton says

        There are foreign markets to consider for writers and artists. I don’t know what the rule is exactly with a US agent, since my Japanese royalties get paid through him, but I imagine it might be possible to develop an income stream that is not US-based. There are probably loop holes to make this a significant benefit.

        Another possibility to get some Mexican income, if there’s a university locally, might be to investigate “visiting scholar” programs. Might be a longshot writing in English, but who knows? I got a fellowship from the Brazilian government when I was there on sabbatical that covered my expenses. This was working through astronomers at the university there, and I had to do some teaching (which is in English there at the graduate level in the sciences, since my Portuguese wasn’t fluent).

        Anyway, sounds like an adventure and taking priorities seriously. Best of luck!

  4. Fahmida Y Rashid says

    Apparently this kind of fact-finding mission is not as unusual as I would have thought. I was in Mexico in February – Cancun, actually – and met a number of couples while standing in line for immigration at the airport who were all flying in and planning on “trying” out living in Mexico for about a month. They had three locations in mind, and the plan was to stay at each location for about a month, and figure out which one they were going to permanently move to.

    • Karawynn says

      Interesting! Were these couples mostly 65+, or were any of them younger?

  5. Amy Haimerl says

    I think there should be a Seattle meeting of the personal finance editor/writers. You, me, Mamster, Cowley. Or, we could crash your Mexico party! PF and tequilla!

  6. Bobby Stevens says

    Fascinating, and courageous. I look forward to reading more.

    • Karawynn says

      Thank you, Bobby. (I couldn’t help but notice that you took a left turn somewhere along the way as well … I’d love to hear that story sometime, too.)

  7. meera says

    Your football field graphs are taking some time to get used to! The x-axis dependent variable is blowing my mind a little.

    As long as there is a line item for “visit Meera wherever she might live” in your budget I am ok with your Mexico Solution.

    • Karawynn says

      Ha, they do look like football fields! I hadn’t noticed. (I started with the $ going up the y-axis, but page layout issues forced me to rotate.) Are they hard to understand? or what does ‘blowing my mind a little’ mean?

      My working budget includes one flight to the US per year. Jak’s entire extended family (and the lone member of mine that I claim) lives in Texas, within driving distance. So our flight destination will largely be a matter of where the kids and our closest friends are — currently Seattle/Portland and NYC. Your odds, at least on alternate years, are excellent.

      Plus, you can always come visit us! ;)

      • meera says

        I’ve never seen a dependent variable on the x-axis before! It was a little hard to understand at first. The way you have it, your range for income and expenses looks more like shading meant to imply progress instead of the max/min range I assume you mean.

        I can live with twice a year. If I’m not in NYC by then – a fair likelihood, given that this is 5+ years in the future – I’ll have to get more serious about this negotiation.

        • Karawynn says

          Okay, math geek. :P

          Seriously, I didn’t even know that graphs were divided into ‘dependent’ and ‘independent’ variables, much less that one had to be on a particular axis. All I knew is that the page would lay out badly if I had tall skinny images between paragraphs. :/ Since it apparently does matter, I’ll see about redoing the graphs.

          Maybe sometime you can explain to me what makes the $ a dependent and not an independent variable in this case, because I’m still not grokking it.

        • Karawynn says

          There, reoriented the graphs. They’re vertically huge, but hopefully less confusing!

  8. Amanda says

    Wow. Fascinating and sensible. I’m excited to read the next episodes!

    • Karawynn says

      Thanks Amanda! (I’m excited to find out what happens next myself!)

  9. Miiockm says

    I think everyone secretly dreams of being self-employed. Myself included.

  10. adam says

    If you don’t like Mexico, consider China. it’s pretty wild, and pretty cheap.

    • Karawynn says

      It might be too wild, Adam, on a number of fronts. I am confident I can learn Spanish. Mandarin? Not so much. :}

      Have you lived in China?

  11. Karen says

    I’m so glad I found your blog, Karawynn. We too are hoping/planning to move to Mexico, or possibly slow-travel thru Mexico/Central Am/S Am. Our #1 motivator is cost of living, #2 is world-schooling our dc. We have 9dc, but 2 are now adults so they wouldn’t necessarily go with us. The rest are 5-15yo. It costs a lot for us to feed & house them, and living in Canada (west coast) is just getting more and more expensive. We eat mostly vegetarian, so I know our groceries would drop drastically, and I think the nutritional value would rise as they would be ripe and fresh, rather than picked unripe and shipped.

    I’ve read all your Mexico posts with great interest.

    It would be interesting to know your process of deciding on Lake Chapala area.

    • Karawynn says

      Wow, did you say NINE children? Let me just pause for a moment in awe and sympathy.

      I really love the idea of ‘world-schooling’. Hey, you should start the kids on Spanish now! :)

      You are the second person to ask for details of my decision process. I wish I had been blogging at the time, because it’s hard to reconstruct everything in hindsight. But I will try to put together a future post with as much as I can recall.

      • Karen says

        Yes, Nine. No sympathy necessary. We are ‘rich’ beyond our wildest imaginations when it comes to family relationships. This week (the 28th) we actually welcomed our first grandbaby (a girl), and I know life will get richer and sweeter as time goes by.

        Anyways, we are already dabbling with learning Spanish but intend on learning more of it this next school year (we’re already unschoolers) via playing games, conversations, etc.

        I was disappointed when I recently realized that Lake Chapala isn’t a recreational lake for swimming and fishing. Bummer.

        Your regret at not blogging ‘at the time’ makes me think that maybe I ought to start blogging about ‘it’ right now while we throw ideas around. But I’m apprehensive about putting the idea out there. Maybe I should just blog privately. Hmmmm.

        • Karawynn says

          Actually, Lake Chapala is fine for recreation, and people do swim in it now. It used to be very clogged with water hyacinth, but they finally managed to eradicate the invasion a few years back.

          One of the local expats with a civil engineering background has been testing the lake for several years, and it’s perfectly safe for swimming, fishing, and so forth. While we were there we talked to some expats who knew of a boat club run by other expats. Not many of the Mexican locals own boats, although one had just started a new ferry service between the north and south shores that was highly recommended.

          Here’s last year’s test information: http://www.focusonmexico.com/Lake-Chapala-Projects.html

          I’m not sure why you’re apprehensive about putting the idea out there …? But I’d encourage you to write about it, if you’re at all inclined. If it makes you feel better, you can start privately, and always take it public later if you want.

          • Karen says

            Completely different story than I had heard previously about Lake Chapala. Thanks for the link.
            Apprehensive, because of all the nay-sayers. With a bigger-than-average sized family who have always unschooled, etc.,( lived outside the box) one sometimes gets tired of other ppls opinions/negativity/criticisms. Think I’ll write the processing out privately ;) for now.

            Again, Thanks.

  12. Frank says


    I just got here from the MMM website. I am planning on taking a left turn real soon myself (actually I am going to be a kept man for a few years..:)..). Have not really thought about living in MX but no reason why not.. I’m an ex pat from the UK so I know how to do this to a degree..:)

    really looking forward to what you and Jak discover.. all the very best to you!

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