The Thoreau Test: Can You Live on 6 Weeks’ Work?

“For more than five years I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands, and I found, that by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living. The whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study.”

~Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau could live on 6 weeks of serious work per year.

Most likely, you cannot.

Because inflation has ruined your purchasing power and the median salary has not risen enough to compensate for this.

Also, taxes have increased. So you have to work a lot more.

To put that in perspective:

Inflation has risen by roughly 500% in the last 50 years, in the United States.

Let’s assume the equivalent for many other western countries….

While inflation has reduced the value of your currency by 80%, the median salary has only gone up 50-150% (depending on industry).

This is not enough to compensate.

It means, if you are an average person, your purchasing power has been reduced by:

Inflation: 500 %

Average Median Income increase: 100%

Divided

= 2.5x

1/2.5 = 0.4

Your purchasing power is only 40% of what it used to be, 50 years ago.

That’s not a good thing.

How would you feel if someone took more than half of your belongings? Probably you would beat him up.

It would be beneficial to think about why and how this has happened.

I don’t believe the average person is aware of this fact.

However, I do believe that the average person is intuitively sensing that something is wrong, and I also believe that this is the reason why Online and Investing are two future industries.

Now, consider these numbers:

(Might not be exact, but should be roughly right.) 1

Numbers are adjusted for inflation:

 

1930: Average Wage  =  $27.481

2012: Average Wage = $44.321

 

1930: Average Home Cost = $53.365

2013: Average Home Cost: $289.500

 

1930: Average Car Cost: $8369

2013: Average Car Cost: $31.352

 

And, in this period, taxation has gone from 7% to 35-75%.

The United States became USA by making a fuss over a small stamp tax. 2

Small things matter, when gradually increased.

On one side, you can say that these are just numbers.

But on the other side, these numbers mean something.

They mean that the average person has less power and responsibility over his own life (and has to kiss more ass and do more reporting to the state).

The trend is more Homeostasis Dwellers.

It’s getting harder to become a self-sufficient individual. Going by averages.

But going by averages may not be the right way to project the future.

Practical advice:

  • How can I get into a better industry? One that’s growing.
  • How can I make as much money as possible in a short amount of time, given what I already know?
  • How can I minimize my expenditures?

200 years ago an average person could make a living off of 6 weeks‘ work.

My grandparents (on both sides of family) built their own houses. No one does that anymore. Now it’s all about specialization. There are real-estate companies for that.

_____________

Can you think of a way where you make a whole year’s salary off of 6 weeks of effective work?

I’ll go first: Diamond drilling.


  1. for nerds

  2. And that was the right move. Because it was a seemingly small step in the absolutely wrong direction.

Comments

  1. Art Johnson says:

    While I applaud the strife for financial independence, I think that the calculation that ‘proves’ that people had huge purchasing power 200 years ago is too simplistic to be true. If that were the case, you wouldn’t have so many experts agreeing that the world has much less poverty than it had back then (see the great swedish statistician Hans Rosling).

    • Yes what you are saying is true..

      The guy Hans Rosling made a big effort and deserves massive respect.

      However, the average human has been able to purchase fewer goods for his/his income over the last decades.

  2. I asked about the Thoreau Test in Future Skills FB group. Here are some answers I got (copy-pasted with full names redacted):

    =====================

    ALEXANDER:
    Work as a [software] contract developer, get paid $100 / h. That’s $24000 to live on – doable in many countries.How long does it take to come a contract developer? In general I’d say this can take 3-5 years – if nothing else that will make the client think of you as “senior”.

    ERIK:
    It is an interesting and thought provoking challenge Ludvig Sunström. It is also the reason why I personally left my employment to become a consultant of my own instead. For two reasons:

    A) As Alexander states above, the hourly pay for almost anyone working as a contractor is (and should by all logic be) a lot higher than for an equivalent employee. If you are good at what you do, you will earn more.

    B) It’s not accepted by society to go “Hey, I am just going to work 2 days a week and then chill out/run errands/spend time with my kids/read books the rest of the time. Not many bosses would be OK with that. Not many colleagues, neighbors or politicians either (GDP needs to go up, up, up!).

    So I really recommend thinking in terms of self employment with higher rates and optimizing your business for more freedom RIGHT NOW. Not at the age of 70.

    It’s actually the only fairly easy way I know to redesign life. Without any startup costs, investors or years of paying your dues until business is up and running or your investments are paying enough interest rates or dividends to set you free.

    Most people point out to me that it’s risky though. But I argue it’s not. Quite the opposite actually! Because it allows for diversified risk with several customers, instead of depending on ONE employer. Both from a plain financial view but also mentally – supply and demand now works both ways and in your favor if you make it.

    Sorry for a long rant. But this subject really gets me going.

    PONTUS:
    Get 20 years experience in legal niche. Work as specialist counsel and charge 8000 SEK per hour. Work one week, charge 30 hours (240 tkr). Split the proceeds between dividends from your company and salary (should be low tax with such low earnings). Let’s say 20% tax. You have 192 tkr after tax, or 16 tkr per month. That should sustain you either on a budget in the developed world or with some more economic leeway in South America or Asia.

  3. You mentioned Online & Investing as future skills. Are you suggesting that learning e-commerce & investment models could be a solution to the 6 weeks of work question?
    Also, you mentioned drilling. Is this an industry that investors are watching?

    • Hi Rod,
      While that’s probably a great idea, that was not specifically what I was suggesting in the article.
      Re drilling: I only mentioned it because I know a guy who makes a lot of money in a short period of time doing it, and he fits the article description.

      • This is an interesting thought experiment. After my first read, I thought of this in terms of current skill levels. Not about acquiring entirely new skill sets, as some Fb members mentioned.

        Cal Newport writes about acquiring ‘career capital,’ i.e., rare skills, in his book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” My favorite example of this is the software developer, Lulu Young. As she acquired rare skills, she began to negotiate for more autonomy in her schedule. Eventually, as a freelancer, she gained complete control of her time and started taking substantial breaks from work.

        When you think about this in terms of what Thoreau gained, time autonomy, it’s definitely worth a few years of sacrifice & deep work to acquire new skill sets or improve significantly on the current ones.

        However, for some people there could be a downside. A friend of mine works 4 months a year and makes a lot of money (petroleum engineer). And, like Thoreau, he spends his downtime studying, ruminating & writing- about flat earth theory & a moon hoax.

  4. Emanuel Olsson says:

    I have so small expanditures (600 usd a month) so for 2 years when I was ounger I acutally worked for 8-10 weeks a year and then spent the rest of the year “free”. Though I have “free” health care and also not very demanding needs when it comes to consumption.

  5. If you want to have a lot of money, you have to do things that few people know how to do. And work on your own, where you don’t have a boss.

    Anyway, as an engineer, I will start to work for others in a company. When I learn more about my job I’ll be working by myself.

    Other things you can do to make more money is avoid taxes. I sell things online and I try to do it as much as I can in cash so no one can tax me for that. When I buy things, if the seller is smart as me, you can pay in cash too and get better prices.

    >How can I minimize my expenditures?
    This reminds me of this articule:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Car_costs
    You can cut a lot of living costs if you don’t own a car.

    I have some experience in ways of getting the most money with least work. The only way to achieve this, is to have money to invest. It’s the difference between being paid by your work vs by your invested money + work.

    For example, I started working for a friend selling his stuff online, for a comission. While he paid well, he did no work, besides buying and having the goods in stock.
    Then I began to have money for myself, and started to buy on my own. I did the same work as before, and I had to buy and manage stock. When I adquiered more money and experience, I found the way to import by myself. Now, I do little work and have other people to do the selling for me. I sell them in bulk so I am working less.

    So… If you want to be rich, you need money and you need to know what to buy.

    Investments? They suck. In my country (Argentina) there is a new tax that you have to pay for your investments. No thanks. And even if I didn’t have that tax, you win WAY MORE money if you buy stuff to sell. Stuff doesn’t depreciate (well, it depends on what you buy), but doesn’t suffer from inflation. Consider for example, that when I sell something, I might have a 30% profit. It depends. I don’t know how long I have to wait to sell it. If you manage to get an annual percentage rate of 30% in some investment you have to wait a year to get that money. It would be really risky and you have inflation too. I can sell the goods faster than that, and then buy more with that money.

    Also, investments suck because you can lose big money. I had some bitcoins, and lost like the war. In the same way you can lose a lot with stock market. Never listen a fool about where to invest your money, don’t make the same mistake as me. Most people want to be rich in 6 months at most, and it doesn’t work that way. You know this Ludvig, its all about compound interest. The only investment that I would put money in, is maybe a high security bond (it is very unlikely that you will lose your money but it could happen anyway). Only I would do this if i’m thinking where to put my money, and I don’t want to lose against inflation in the mean time.

    So… The recipe for sucess with money would be something like this:
    1) Understand compound interest at a young age, 18 would be ideal.
    2) Start getting money in any way, doing any decent work.
    3) Don’t waste your money in stupid things like vacations, a motorbike or a new car like 95% of people. Hold it a few years. Do the effort. You also need to be mantained by your parents for a time so you dont have to use your money to live :p
    4) Use your money to get more money. You can do this easily buying anything at a low price, and then resell it. You can ask for bulk prices in any online website. And then do the math. You can aim for a niche if you want. You can see how well anything sells online.
    5) With time, in the same way that money compounds, you will learn new ways to do your work better. You’ll start to get more clients, and better prices for your products. Even new products. Count on it.
    6) The ideal would be to combine this with some knowledge that few people know. In my case I should sell stuff related to engineering. Maybe in a later stage you could produce some parts by yourself. Right now I don’t have experience with this.

    But if you stick to points 1 – 5 you will always do fine in life with money. The thing is that maybe it could be not so fulfilling for your soul. Anyway, it feels good to use all the money you want for whatever you want (if you don’t waste it like a moron).

  6. Thought-provoking post Ludvig.
    Though perhaps not realistic for most average people, as you say, I still like this concept as a benchmark of something to aim for.

    I don’t think you or I or other ambitious people would be happy to work “only” 6 weeks per year (while laying on a beach doing nothing). Like you said in BOOH (I believe), what we want is not a life without stress or challenge, but one with a “golden mean”, of self-chosen projects and so on.

  7. I don’t think coming up with personal solution for low income and taxation should be the goal. The system has long been fucked and corrupt and it’s long overdue for some fundamental change in wealth distribution…. Now, how would we achieve that without the bloodshed of the SAME bottom-feeding tax-payers as ourselves, and make sure that the “top” don’t remain at the top afterwards…?

  8. A couple of things:

    Published figures underestimate US inflation since at least the mid-1990s (look up Boskin Commission); the calculation was changed for the purpose (I am certain) of phasing out Social Security benefits while keeping the tax. One source guesses that actual inflation is 2 points higher than reported. Over 22 years that means about 60% greater increase in the CPI than official numbers.

    However, based on experience, I believe actual inflation to be substantially higher than even this. In particular, healthcare costs are in a state of hyperinflation since the “Obamacare” catastrophe.

    Second, only the wealthy get away with low taxes like 35%. When the distributed burden of all taxes is computed, the middle class are getting burned for maybe 60%. Property tax, as a fixed cost, is always passed to the renter or consumer. Half of the Social Security tax is nominally paid by the employer, but it’s pretty obvious who actually takes the cut. Sales tax affects mainly those who spend all or most of their income on goods and services. Corporate income tax is at least partly passed to the consumer. Etc.

    I have an economics textbook from 1963 where they calculated actual tax burdens on Americans by quintile. The bottom quintile were free riders, but the middle class paid over 40% already, and the highest quintile much less. That was when the highest income tax bracket was *91%*.

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