Live like royalty on $20,000 a year

Photo: Philip Brewer

I'm stealing the title for this post from the cover of a magazine that I saw back in the early 1980s. It caught my eye especially, because at the time I had just gotten a raise and was, in fact, making $20,000 a year. I was intrigued enough to pick up the magazine and glance through the article, only to be terribly disappointed. The author had a very different notion of how royalty live than I did.

I didn't buy the magazine, and I've always kind of regretted it, because, once I got past the cognitive dissonance that the title created for me, it actually wasn't a bad article, about the same topics that we cover here at Wise Bread. It was all about finding bargains, making do, and ways to get what you want by spending time instead of cash.

The only specific piece of advice that I can remember doesn't apply exactly any more. Airlines were still in the throes of deregulation, and there was a constant stream new cheap ways to fly, usually various versions of flying standby. Their example involved something like waiting until three days before your vacation and then scrutinizing lists of destinations for cheap deals. My reaction was, "This is how royalty travels? They decide where to vacation based on where the cheap flights are going? I don't think so."

Now that I've had 25 years to think about it, I have a very different perspective of how royalty live. My wife, for example, spent a few nights in the home of a member of the Balinese royal family. They had been deposed some time earlier, and much of their wealth had been seized, but they had a house and rented out rooms--the princes and princesses would all squeeze together to vacate a room for a paying guest.

They key here is when you think "royalty" don't think "Queen of England." Think "pretender to the Dalmatian throne" or the descendent of some Raj or Khan.

What would you do, if you really were royalty? You'd never rule (nor, if you have any sense, ever want to). Give that, you'd be just like you are now, except that you'd have all the extra baggage that comes along with being royal--history, other people's expectations, family traditions and aspirations.

Seize the advantages of being a commoner!

  • Your family still has aspirations, but they're both modest and amendable. If they don't match your own, work to guide them to a better match.
  • Think about your family traditions. Hold onto the ones that you value; abandon the others.
  • Except for your family, ignore the expectations of others. It won't even occur to them to despair of the future of your house or your family line.

In fact, when you think about it, the fantasy of being royal is being able to do whatever you want. The reality is that being a commoner makes it much easier.

The key here, as in most things, is to think clearly about what you want. Your big advantage over royalty is that, once you know what you want, you have many fewer constraints than a royal does in arranging your life to achieve your goals (rather than the goals of your subjects).

Figure out what you want from life. It may well be the case that you can't get everything you want--but you can get almost anything that you want, if you make that thing a priority, and arrange your life to get it.

You can get much closer to the fantasy of living like royalty than most royals ever do.

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lghbob's picture

Thank you Phillip for a really great piece of advice.

Would that more folks could see their way to accepting a little less, to enjoy their life so much more.

We had our own moment of truth 18 years ago after a cancer scare, and set our priorities to try an early/frugal retirement from the "want more" world... and never looked back.  Now, in our 70's, we're not world travelers or socially prominent, but we are living the life of royalty on our own terms, and soulfully content.  Strange to say, but the turning point came in an essay,  much akin to your own wise perception. 

For whatever interest it may have, I'll post it here:


The Station
by Robert J. Hastings

Tucked away in our subconscious minds is an idyllic vision. We see ourselves on a long, long trip that almost spans the continent. We're traveling by passenger train, and out the windows we drink in the passing scene of cars on nearby highways, of children waving at a crossing, of cattle grazing on a distant hillside, of smoke pouring from a power plant, of row upon row of corn and wheat, of flatlands and valleys, of mountains and rolling hills, of biting winter and blazing summer and cavorting spring and docile fall.

But uppermost in our minds is the final destination. On a certain day at a certain hour we will pull into the station. There will be bands playing, and flags waving. And once we get there so many wonderful dreams will come true. So many wishes will be fulfilled and so many pieces of our lives finally will be neatly fitted together like a completed jigsaw puzzle. How restlessly we pace the aisles, damning the minutes for loitering ... waiting, waiting, waiting, for the station.

However, sooner or later we must realize there is no one station, no one place to arrive at once and for all. The true joy of life is the trip. The station is only a dream. It constantly outdistances us.

"When we reach the station, that will be it !" we cry. Translated it means, "When I'm 18, that will be it ! When I buy a new 450 SL Mercedes Benz, that will be it ! When I put the last kid through college, that will be it ! When I have paid off the mortgage, that will be it ! When I win a promotion, that will be it ! When I reach the age of retirement, that will be it ! I shall live happily ever after !"

Unfortunately, once we get it, then it disappears. The station somehow hides itself at the end of an endless track.

"Relish the moment" is a good motto, especially when coupled with Psalm 118:24: "This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it." It isn't the burdens of today that drive men mad. Rather, it is regret over yesterday or fear of tomorrow. Regret and fear are twin thieves who would rob us of today.

So, stop pacing the aisles and counting the miles. Instead, climb more mountains, eat more ice cream, go barefoot oftener, swim more rivers, watch more sunsets, laugh more and cry less. Life must be lived as we go along. The station will come soon enough.


thanks again for sharing 

my opinion only

Guest's picture
martha in mobile

my epiphany also came about because of cancer. After getting through surgery and treatments I just wanted everything to be the same as before (homelife, worklife, etc.). Then, with a little perspective gained through time, I began to wonder: if my cancer came back, would I be sorry or pleased with how I had spent my time since the initial cancer experience? The answer to that question has since guided my actions. Now I work part-time from home because I would have regretted every crappy minute I spent at my highly paid, highly stressful job. I pick up my daughter from school every day and we sing songs and memorize poetry together. I cook dinner (lots of beans and rice w/o aforementioned highly paid job) with a glad heart instead of rushing through to get food on the table. I am grateful every single morning: not that I had cancer, but that I am alive, that I know what's important to me, and that I have been frugally enough to be able to live my choices.

Philip Brewer's picture

I know from experience how hard it is to get past the "just a bit more of this stuff I don't like, and then I'll be able to focus on what I'm really interested in" thing. It's a very easy trap, in part because there's a certain amount of truth to it--it really is possible to save your way out, if your earnings are high enough and your standard of living is low enough. The personal finance magazines have stories about people who have succeeded in nearly every issue.

Part of the solution is to do the thinking first, rather than after. What really mattters to you? A serious illness often catalizes that thinking process, but people don't have to wait for one. They can think any time they want.

Thanks for your stories!

Nora Dunn's picture

The question I keep asking myself is "if this is the last day I have to live, is there anything I wish I had done"? The "aha" moment came for me when I realized I would never say I wished I had spent more time in the office.

So I got rid of the office job and started chasing dreams! I haven't looked back, despite some sacrifices like Martha (read: more rice & beans, and a lot less lobster & caviar)!  

Philip Brewer's picture

Yeah, "last day to live" is one question to ask yourself. But if you lived every day like it were your last, you'd never save; you'd never build for a long-term goal.

Where I find the sweet spot is thinking, "What if I found out I only had 5 years to live? What if it were 10?" That gives me some scope to build for the future, without spending most of my life waiting for it to start.

If I were only going to live 5 or 10 years, I'd spend my life exactly as I'm spending it now--as a full-time writer. If I only had one day to live, I might do something wildly impractical that I'd enjoy--and I still do such things, but I also want to do things that I'll look back on and say, "That was a worthy way to spend a day," instead of just "Wow, that was fun."

Guest's picture

Plan as though you're going to live to 100; Live like you're going to die tomorrow.

Guest's picture

I'm another who had an epiphany when I had to have an angioplasty. It made me realize that I didn't want to die at that job. I retired early and now live on little, but I DON'T HAVE TO GO TO WORK EVERYDAY. That's living like royalty, without having to go to all the ribbon cuttings. I shop the dollar stores and do all the rest of the money saving games. It is such a small sacrifice for the trade-off. Reading "Your Money Or Your Life" made it all clear.

Guest's picture

"Airlines were still in the THROES of deregulation..."

Jesus Christ.

Philip Brewer's picture

@Dave:  Fixed.  Thanks!