Die with zero – Does it make sense?

Recently I met up with a good friend for a much-needed chat. Over the course of a few tasty cans of beer, my friend mentioned that he recently listened to the “Die with Zero” audiobook and really enjoyed the key messages of the book.

Curious, I borrowed the book from the local library and finished reading it in two days.

The book’s author, Bill Perkins, suggested that we should all aim to die with zero dollars in our bank account, or at least as close to zero as possible. He argued that too many people spend unnecessary energy working extra years only to earn money that they wouldn’t be able to spend in later years and die with a large sum of money in their bank accounts. This is definitely different from the traditional belief of saving money during your working career and spending your savings once you’re retired. 

Why die with $200k in your bank account, considering it took you an extra five years to save it, when you could have stopped working five years earlier?  

Perkins believes that our lives are the sum of our life experiences which can be quantified and optimized. Therefore, we should focus on spending our money when we are younger and obtain as many life experiences and memories as we possibly can. 

My friend now believes in spending his money in the most optimal way to obtain memorable experiences for himself and his family while keeping a focus on saving for retirement in the best approach. This is similar to what I’ve been preaching on this blog – find your own personal balance between spending money to enjoy the present moment and saving money for your retirement.  

The fallacy of “save-save-save” mentality 

For many of us on the financial independence retirement early (FIRE) journey, we think about saving money constantly. We think about what’s the best way to save money and how to boost our savings rate, so we can become financially independent earlier. 

But the “save-save–save” mentality isn’t actually healthy. It’s actually giving the FIRE movement a very bad vibe. 

I’ll be honest, I was certainly guilty of focusing purely on our savings rate early on our FIRE journey. I wanted to cross the finish line and hit the escape button. Over time, however, I found that I wasn’t enjoying the small things in life. I felt frustrated when we spent money eating out or having a cup of coffee and treats at a cafe; I was having arguments with Mrs. T over these small expenses, because I wanted to save more money to expedite our FIRE journey.  

When I stepped back and looked at the bigger picture, I realized that the “save-save-save” mentality wasn’t healthy. It was actually quite detrimental, especially to my relationship with Mrs. T.

The idea of becoming financially independent faster but without my lovely wife was not a price I was willing to pay. I realized there’s a fallacy in the “save-save-save” mentality.

I knew I had to change.  

So over time, I changed my view – saving is important, but it’s about finding the right personal balance between spending money to enjoy the present moment and saving money for the future. 

What about the kids? 

At first, the idea of dying with zero bugged me when it came to passing down our legacy. We’ve always wanted to pass down our dividend portfolio to our kids and possibly grandkids so they can be ahead financially. Doesn’t “the die with zero” idea mean we are being selfish and not thinking about our kids at all?

I was glad that Perkins discussed this idea in great detail throughout the book. Basically, he suggested that we should allocate money to kids and give money to them much earlier to provide the biggest impact, rather than giving inheritances. The argument was essentially that we should ‘gift’ money earlier (and there is no gift tax in Canada) earlier when our kids can arguably make greater use of these financial gifts, rather than waiting later in their lives – when we die – when they probably do not need the money as much. Specifically, it might make greater sense to give our children money for a down payment for their first house in that very expensive market, rather than holding on many years and only passing on that money when we ourselves pass on.  

For example, giving your kids $100,000 when they are in their sixties doesn’t have as much impact as giving them each $100,000 when they are starting a family. 

The same concept applies to giving to charities.

So why wait to give your money away after you’re dead when you can provide a bigger impact and create a legacy by giving money away earlier while you’re still alive? 

Arguably more importantly, you get to see the positive impacts of the ways in which your money is improving people’s lives. 

To me, that makes a lot of sense and I can certainly appreciate what my parents have done for me – paying for my post-secondary education, taking us on trips, giving us money for our honeymoon, giving gift money to our kids, etc. 

The more I think about it, the idea of allocating money to give to our kids and charities during our lifetime is more attractive than leaving the money in our wills. I will need to discuss more implementation details with Mrs. T as we get closer to our FIRE target. I also need to get her to read “Die with Zero.”

Time-bucket your life

My biggest takeaway from reading “Die with Zero” was the idea of starting to ‘time-bucket’ your life. 

What are ‘time-buckets?’ Well, ‘time-buckets’ are a simple tool for discovering what you want your life to look like in broad strokes. You can do that by creating a timeline of your life and dividing it into a series of set time intervals, such as five or ten years. Then in each time interval, you write down ideas and experiences that you’d like to do. For example, run a marathon, build a house, volunteer at a local charity, go to Italy, visit Yellowstone, take your kids to Disneyland, etc. 

The ‘time-bucket’ idea got me thinking…as I turn 40 later this year, reaching a major milestone, what do I want to do in the next five, ten, fifteen years and beyond? 

Here are some things I would love to experience:

  • See the Great Pyramid of Giza
  • Take my kids to Disneyland
  • Ski in Hokkaido 
  • Go to Machu Picchu
  • See the Terracotta Warriors
  • Take my kids to the British Museum
  • See ‘The‘Last Supper’ in person
  • Live in Denmark
  • Live in Taiwan
  • Go to Australia and New Zealand
  • Attend my kids’ high school graduation
  • Attend my kids’ university graduation
  • Attend my kids’ weddings
  • Go to Antarctica
  • Write a cheque for $1 million to a charity
  • Volunteer at a local charity

When I look at the list, I realize many of them are travel-related and I want to do them while I’m still young, instead of waiting until I’m in my 70s.

If I break down these experiences in time intervals of 5 years, it’d probably look something like…

40-45 years old

  • Take my kids to Disneyland
  • Ski in Hokkaido 
  • Take my kids to the British Museum
  • Live in Denmark
  • See ‘The Last Supper’ in person
  • Go to Australia and New Zealand

45-50 years old

  • Live in Taiwan
  • Attend my kids’ high school graduation
  • Go to Antarctica
  • Go to Machu Picchu

50-55 years old

  • Attend my kids’ university graduation
  • See the Great Pyramid of Giza
  • Volunteer at a local charity

55+

  • Volunteer at a local charity
  • Write a cheque for $1 million to a charity
  • And many more adventures

As I compiled my ‘time-bucket’ list, the more I began to ask myself… why wait? At six and eight years of age, my kids are at the perfect stage to enjoy the magic of Disneyland. Do I really want to wait another five or so years to take them to Disneyland for the first time? The Disneyland experience will certainly be very different with younger kids versus teenagers.

I also realized the power of spending money now to enjoy life and to gain life experiences. Skiing in Hokkaido when I’m more than 55 years old certainly wouldn’t be as enjoyable as skiing in Hokkaido when I’m in my early 40s. 

With that in mind, I can’t help but feel excited about the potential experiences and memories I will be able to gain in the next five, ten, fifteen years and beyond.  

Final thoughts 

The more I think about it, the more I have to agree with Bill Perkins and his idea of ‘die with zero.’ Since no one can accurately predict when their time on Earth will come to an end, I think my personal approach can be summarized as follow:

It is important to save money for the future but do focus on spending money to gain life experiences and ever-lasting memories. Give money away to people and charities at times that would make the biggest impact. Most importantly, enjoy your life while you can and not think about all the regrets you have when you’re on your deathbed. 

Dear readers, what do you think about the die with zero idea? 

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37 thoughts on “Die with zero – Does it make sense?”

  1. I wholeheartedly agree. I think we’ve all been in the save-save-save mentality. My spouse still has that mentality and at times I say, do you want to be buried with bags of cash? (we don’t have kids). There’s also the optimizing mentality. We usually don’t buy things unless it’s on sale. But the amount of time that it takes to monitor prices, research products, etc. is usually not worth the few dollars we save when we could have spent that time enjoying life.

    The idea of time buckets is an interesting one. I’ll have to come up with my own. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  2. It seems my friends and family don’t understand why I am not working full time and saving as much as possible. It’s frustrating. I have a ten year old son, and I’m an older single parent. My financial future is fine, I’ll have more income in 10 years than I’ll need, but cash flow is a bit tight now…and I just bought a ski condo and am focusing on time and memories with my son. I say I don’t want to be on my deathbed with lots of money and be saying “I wish I would have…”

    Reply
  3. Hi Interesting concept more akin to winning a game. Not sure how money is a proxy for fulfillment or happiness perhaps more like an enabler at its best.
    Even that is probably a stretch as scores of happiness are often highest amongst poor countries. I suspect the metric used is not substantiated. Thank you for writing this post as I realized I would be content either way.

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  4. I’m definitely guilty of the “save” mentality.

    I am wondering how to balance between 2 things:
    1. Running out of money before you die.
    2. Having too much money before you die.

    If I knew exactly how long I will have to live and what my lifetime expenses are, it would be trivial to know the stopping point for gathering money. But I guess the main question from me with this approach is: how do you accurately estimate how much money you should be spending?

    For me, if I had to take a wild guess at my lifetime spending, I wouldn’t be surprised if I was off by half a million (under or over). Medical expenses alone in the states can throw estimates way off.

    Reply
    • Obviously it’s not possible to know exactly when you’ll die and then figure out the calculation accordingly. The important message I got from reading the book is to enjoy life more rather than always focus on the save part of the FI journey.

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  5. I think we all tend to worry too much about how much money it will take to have a satisfying, comfortable and happy life. That said, lifestyle and flexible choices can make a big difference. We didn’t have a great nest egg to retire on, but more than sufficient to live comfortably. Our young family in the 70’s and 80’s did lots of camping and sailing in the Thousand Islands in summers. What should be remembered is that during those days mortgages were at rates 12% to 18%. My husbands starting salary with a university was $9200. Our first modest home was $11,000. We had to take a loan to cover the $1000 down payment. University salaries were frozen in the 80’s which didn’t help. We paid off our mortgage and then it came time to pay for our kids(2) university expenses. Retirement came earlier than expected. But thru it all we had happy times and memories together. We are very proud of our family. We have traveled extensively in our retirement, once staying in the caretakers house below Edinburgh Castle-what a hoot! We have solar on the roof and an electric car in the driveway, all timed as we could afford them. We are now helping our daughter pay off her mortgage before she is 55. I am now playing the market taking some risks and find the whole stock market challenging and rewarding as well as very time consuming! Great fun.

    Reply
  6. I like the idea very much. The only problem is, how are we going to make sure we die with zero, and not live the last few years with zero? I guess that’s the toughest part to manage. Maybe be conservative with inflation & my age expectancy & later year medical costs, and calculate to spend all with some conservarism.

    Reply
    • That’s definitely a problem and the author discussed this in the book. Obviously we don’t know when we’ll die but it’s more important to focus on the overall concept.

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  7. Gladly, I didn’t need to listen to any audiobook to learn this. My mother has been doing this for decades. Her mission has been to distribute all the money they have before they leave this planet.

    She bought a house for 2 of my brothers and always told me that my parents’ massive house can be mine if I ever go back to our homeland, Iraq.

    I also don’t get the FIRE community. They either don’t do anything with their money or they don’t share. I hope it is the latter.

    We come with nothing, we leave with nothing. That’s always in my head and I never understood the logic of owning so much money you can never spend.

    For my kids, I plan to invest in their education and house down-payment. I am sure they will do alright after that.

    And I will never have to worry about “Writing a cheque for $1 million to a charity” for 2 reasons. 1. I will never have an extra $1M to give away, 2. I don’t trust any charity through experience. I rather knock on doors and give the money in-person or through friends.

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  8. Die With Zero is really a book that reopen our eyes about the conventional wisdom of FIRE.

    I have a humble blog and my last post also happened to explore this concept of Time-Bucket.
    https://unifiedtheoryoflife.com/step-1-5-for-life-process-stages-of-destinations/

    I have already read through Die With Zero when I wrote the post but I found the idea from Wait But Why is a lot more powerful. I actually planned another post to follow through with reference with Die With Zero but didn’t come around to post it.

    Anyway without clicking the link, the idea that I put out was to define each of a 5-year bucket as distinct stages of my kids life and I can plan around them. For example Preschool years are to invoke their love in the world, Primary School is to see the world as a diverse place, and Secondary School is to deepen their understanding of cultures of the world. Then this will naturally help me to narrow down the travel plans.

    Reply
  9. To take this idea one step further, would it make sense to donate winners to charities, and use losers ( I assume that I am not the only one who has some) to bring down one’s tax rate even further? At some point, I just give up on some stock and realize that as much as I tried to buy good ones, I am not 100% successful, and some will just never pan out.

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  10. Great read. I retired at 55 from high tech. Great interesting work but high demands and lots of travel at the time. The family had great vacations but in hindsight I was away or working more than having a good balance. I also saved, saved, saved and it was a good think in some ways as my Nortel pension was greatly reduced. Fortunately from 55 to 60 I did some short term contracts doing stuff I enjoy at my time and pace(2 or 3 day weeks)
    We paid off the house when we were 50 and my wife and I took those payments and enjoyed life with experiences travelling and soaking in different environments and cultures yearly.
    With most things in life the goal is extreme and moderation can lead to the best path. Die with zero is a great concept and does seem a bit selfish. I found giving to my kids after they have independence is rewarding for us and appreciated by them.
    Most importantly Skiing in Hokkaido is amazing. My son has worked there for the last 6 years and unfortunately we have only been once(pandemic cancelled our second trip). Yes I wish I did it when we were in our 40s but the powder conditions is perfect for 57 year old back and knees.

    Reply
    • Hi Paul,

      Glad to hear that you were able to step back a bit to enjoy your time more. The Die with zero concept might be too extreme for some, but like you said, you can adjust your plans and do it in moderation. Looking forward to skiing in Hokkaido one of these days. 🙂

      Reply
  11. Bob,
    I always enjoyed your posts as they always have more then financial ideas and numbers and charts.
    This post struk me at a perfect time of my life , I’m 52 and have two kids and after working hard for the longest time I can finally say that my financial future is secure although nothing is 100% guaranteed.
    we’ve always made sure to have the balance between saving and living because after all tomorrow isn’t guaranteed and today as my kids are 20 and 18 and they’re both in universities we made sure that we had our family trip every year , we took to disney at the age of 7 and 8, we went to Mexico 6 times since they love the water and water activities and we’ve been to San diego and New york , I’ve got few thousands pictures saved on my google hub and they’re mostly from our vacations and I tell you those pictures and memories are priceless , just like your parents we’re paying for their universities in full thankfully we did max their contributions to the RESP and after selling a rental property that we owned and paying some small debts that we have now we’re thinking of saving an amount of money that they would use as a downpayment for a first home.
    Dying with zero totaly makes sense because yes i wanna save for retirement but when retirement comes and I got no energy to do anything what all that money is going to do for us ? and yes we wanna help the kids now not later and vacations now and hopefully later , but yeah Thanks for this great article Bob and trust me the disney trip at your kids age is priceless 🙂

    Reply
    • Thank you Gus, I appreciate your kind words. Sounds like you have had a lot of family trips since your kids were young, that’s awesome. It’s amazing that you have thousands of pictures saved that you can go back and see.

      Reply
  12. What about us who never saw/ felt that “work” was a drudgery, or some kind of victory that we survived, and now we are free?
    Ps: I realize it’s just a book and opinion. Just sayin’ tho…..

    Reply
    • Not sure what you mean exactly… the book has nothing to do with whether you see work as drudgery or not. It simply suggests to enjoy your money while you can.

      Reply
  13. I am 77 with no health problems. My wife has perennial health issues with a brain aneurysm in November 2019 followed by a stroke while in hospital. She is fully recovered but has slowed down and travel, especially by air is out of the question.

    I still run (a euphemism for slooow jogging) and do weights regularly. If I predecease my wife she will need some financial guidance. I do all the investing, paying of bills etc. My older son who lives 5 houses down the road will fill that role. Should she predecease me I shall sell our home, buy a hobby farm and look after my animals. I will distribute my finances to my children and grandchildren so that when I die they will be the beneficiaries of my TFSA’s and RIF’s.

    Who dictates that someone in their seventies or eighties is an invalid or has lost their marbles, vim vitality and zest for life?

    We eat out too much but sometimes we have to compromise with those we love!

    I appreciate your blogs.

    Reply
    • Thank you Brian. Glad to hear that your wife has fully recovered from the stroke. I can understand that it gets harder and harder to travel by air when you get older. I think you should be the one that decides what you can and cannot do when you’re at an older age. Everyone’s different.

      Reply
  14. The “idea of ‘die with zero” has probably passed out minds as we were getting older. Helene and I are always telling our kids not to expect a fortune when we both pass on. The only drawback is that we are now both approaching our 80. Health issues seem to be a norm as we get older. We may have to move to a senior home in the future due to major health issues. Senior homes are quite expensive.
    We could be looking at paying around $ 4,000-$5,000 a month between the two of us. CPP, OAS, and our existing pension may not be enough to cover the monthly rent. I do have large savings to cover future rent increases including day-to-day expenses for maybe 15 years. To be honest, I cannot see myself giving any of the monies to our children at the present time. To be realistic, to “die with zero” has many drawbacks.

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    • You definitely want to make sure you have enough money to cover any health expenses in old age. The idea is probably not for everyone but it’s an interesting one to consider, especially for extreme frugal ppl.

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  15. I am definitely inclined to live life with this approach – to give with warm hands, and to make a difference in my children’s lives. To make a point – I think it’s much better to give your kids even $20,000 at age 30 instead of $100,000 age 60.

    I have a retired friend who’s about 16 years older than me. We are avid kayak anglers. Last year he shared that sometimes he thinks about just how may bass fishing seasons he has left (in a kayak, or otherwise). That really inspired me to think about how I want to spend my remaining years. I feel like I have 30 or so of them left, and I really do want to make sure that my wife and I, and our kids get the best 30 years of life there is – for us, and for them – and I don’t want to work (full-time – you know the drill) a day longer than I truly have to.

    Die with zero would be fine with me.

    Reply
  16. Die with Zero sounds like an great book. I think if people are very mindful of their spending they would come to the same conclusion eventually. You can’t take it with you to the grave after all. Do you plan to visit Australia with your kids or just your wife? It would be amazing to see a smiling quokka up close and personal.

    Reply
  17. Sounds like an interesting book. I’ll have to get it because I’m not sure I understand the concept completely.
    What if you don’t die on the expected date? I wouldn’t want to have zero when I’m old. How about a sizeable padding? But, I agree about kids. Help them out when they’re young. Why wait until they’re old? The money wouldn’t make a huge difference if all goes according to plan.

    And yes, everyone needs to find a balance in their journey to FI. It’s best to be happy now. You never know what’ll happen next.

    Reply
  18. I think I might be one of the few who read this book and didn’t particularly love it. I agreed with some of the concepts but he’s really targeting a very specific group of people who can really afford to think like this. For most who are struggling to make it to retirement age with a little something in the bank, I’m afraid they will read this and live the FOMO lifestyle even more. (I understand who his target audience is and he does mention it a few times but I think it could still get lost on some people.) Overall it was good but could have been summed up into a blog post like what you’ve written here instead of a book for me.

    Reply
    • Hi Court,

      You have a good point. The book might be on the more “spending” extreme side of things but the author did bring up some very good points we in the FIRE community should consider. 🙂

      Reply
  19. I absolutely agree and is why I left work in 2017 Bob. I had a sizeable FI stash following my MMM lifestyle but then realized that life could change at any moment. It was time to leave work and start experiencing life. I still need to make a very small amount of part time income because my investments aren’t quite enough to cover my entire cost of living but it is worth it for the amazing freedom I have. Once CPP and OAS start paying out for my wife and I in the future we will have more than enough cash to live a comfortable life while aiming to drawdown our portfolio.

    I did also read the book and while I don’t want to stray to far from my frugal ways, I will do my absolute best to experience life to the fullest.

    Reply
    • Hi Chris,

      It’s awesome you’re able to leave work in 2017 and enjoy the outdoors more. The lesson I got from the book is finding your personal balance between living life to the fullest and planning for the future.

      Reply

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