Zero-Based Living

Javabird hatching a nest egg.

“Hey, who said life was going to be easy.”


“Zero-Based Living is a philosophy of lifestyle that embraces the Power of Zero as a mindset.  Understanding how to use zero as a means to see a given problem in a new light becomes our way to unleash the extraordinary potential locked within.”


The Story of Zero


It All Starts Somewhere


The story of Zero goes something like this:  Zero is a loser.  Zero is the number everyone looks down on.  Zero is an empty shell, a goose egg.  Who wants to be a zero?  Were he alive today, the comedian Rodney Dangerfield might say, “Poor Zero gets no respect.”


The untold tale of Zero is something far different—for the hero of every great success story starts with modest means, that is, with Zero.  Before the Earth was born and filled with vast continents, oceans and an abundance of life, there was only the vacuum of space—Zero.  As we look back on life we see joy, pain, happiness, failure, success or something different, but in the beginning we were each born as a blank slate—a Zero.


In the game of life, as opposing teams gather to do battle, the score is tied at Zero.    In this sense, Zero represents a state of mind.  It is the place within—the one we leave behind as the whistle blows and we rush into the fray.  In this moment, our game plans are set, our minds and bodies are in peak condition, our energies are focused on the things that matter most, and we still hold on to that glimmer of hope that comes as we envision ultimate success.


Conscious Decision Making


Javabird developing a new mindset.

Zero-Based Living is a philosophy of lifestyle that embraces the Power of Zero as a mindset.  Understanding how to use zero as a means to see a given problem in a new light becomes our way to unleash the extraordinary potential locked within.  The Philosophy of Zero-Based Living is built on a fundamental premise—no matter where we start, no matter how bleak or even how great our current situation, we already possess the power we need to change things for the better.


One way to view life is as a continual series of decisions, one following another.  This suggests that by making better decisions, we choose the shortest route toward an improved quality of life.   Zero-Based Living takes this concept one step farther, suggesting that fully conscious decision-making is our key to better lifestyle.  Making mindful choices requires self-honesty, a commitment to core values and principles, an accurate assessment of our strengths and weaknesses, and the establishment of real and achievable goals.


Zero-Based Living is a systematic approach that utilizes the Power of Zero in our quest to master life’s ongoing challenges.  The number zero turns out to be a powerful tool for self-discovery in this process.  It provides the means to gain the strength, focus and confidence we need to side-step life’s pitfalls on the road to success.


The Power of Zero Money


Spending Nothing


One cent more than zero.

A single penny is one cent more than zero.

How hard would it be to spend nothing—zero?  If you have no money, the answer is not hard at all.  On the other hand, since most everyone has at least some money and almost everything costs something, the idea of spending zero dollars may seem little more than a frivolous exercise.  It’s not.  By starting with the number zero as we project future spending we find out which things are most important—in other words, we discover our real priorities.


Some priorities are obvious, say, the need to eat.  Others are obscure or hidden.  For example, paying for a term-life insurance policy might be one of the last things we think of when we think of a typical spending priority, but it also might be critical to your family’s economic survival if you discover you have a life-threatening illness.


Discovering Hidden Priorities


An excellent method for revealing our hidden priorities is to start from zero as we examine our expenses.  Being relentless in justifying every cost is a powerful key to monetary success. In the financial world, this method is known as “zero-based budgeting”.  In the world of Zero-Based Living, it comes to mean something more personal.  By examining our spending patterns with a critical eye, and zeroing in on the things most important to us, the process of elimination also sheds a powerful spotlight on the things that are less important.  In a sense, this exercise becomes a reflection of our core values, meaning it tells us who we are (and who we’re not).  This information is essential for spending smarter, and for making more conscious decisions in all areas of our lives.


Establishing spending priorities.

Start with a list and see what you can’t live without.


The Place To Start


It is important to note zero is a starting point, and not our ultimate spending goal. Certain spending is necessary and can’t be avoided.  Some spending generates saving in the long run—for example, buying in bulk.  Other expenditures—like updating our wardrobe, painting a room or going to dinner with a friend—provide immediate “feel good” improvements to lifestyle that far outweigh the added costs.


Less Is More


Stop! Are you heading the wrong way?


In “The Fight Club” (1999) the character Tyler Durden pronounces, “The things you own, end up owning you.”  It’s a line that sticks with you for its simplicity.  In fact, our relationships and possessions carry certain emotional and financial obligations.  The Philosophy of Zero-Based Living borrows on Durden’s idea that “less is really more”, but then expands on it to remind us not to become detached, but to become more aware of our attachments.  If we let our desire to own a smartphone overcome our inclination to stay on budget, we should be aware of the consequences.  Perhaps you love the capability of your new smart phone, but rue the day you shelled out $400 and signed a two-year contract to buy it.  In the end, life is a continual series of choices and our choices matter.  It’s like setting up a string of dominoes—pull one out here and tip one over there and just watch what happens.




Making a habit of frivolous spending without regard for the consequences is certainly one way to go in the journey through life, but it comes with a high cost.  In a sense, doesn’t a “nary a care” worldview also suggest a basic lack of self-respect?  In other words, since it takes time to earn money, and that time represents a significant portion of our life energy, aren’t the earnings (or money) we hold in our hand akin to a reservoir that contains the remaining sum of that energy?


This is an important concept to understand.  If you don’t believe self-worth and money are tied, ask the guy who was fired how he feels about himself.  Chances are he’ll say he’s depressed or that his life sucks.  Why?  Because deep down he realizes his capacity to maintain his current standard of living is significantly diminished.  In essence, he feels lousy about himself because he now doubts his ability to feed his family.  When we spend without care, it’s another way to say that a portion of our lives—the time spent earning a living—holds little or no value.  In truth, it’s imperative we make conscious decisions as we spend our money, for money represents far more to us than a convenient means to exchange goods and services—it represents our life blood.


Wealth and Opportunity


Unless we trade our dollars for items of real value (like food and shelter) or for investments we can turn back into items of value at a later date, spending holds a certain risk:  It becomes the means to fritter away opportunity.  In a sense, wealth equals opportunity, so acquiring more of it banks that opportunity for a future date.


Spend now or save?

Do we choose to spend now or save for some future opportunity.

As we look at money and try to establish spending priorities the issue we need to keep in the back of our heads is this:  Do we choose to spend smarter and acquire the opportunity savings provide for us, or do we choose to squander our money away and give up on whatever opportunities the future holds in store?


When we resist materialism, financial obligation, and the emotional ties that come attached to either, we are freer to make the choices that matter most in life.  At the same time, we should emphasize that a life with zero obligations or a life with zero cost is a life without meaning.  We need people in our lives.  We need food and shelter to survive.  The key is to seek balance and set deliberate and achievable goals.  This way we have the means to recognize when our choices threaten to pull us off course.  The concept of “less is really more” is not about giving up on our dreams, but taking a longer view in our quest to fulfill them.


The Big Picture


The classic Dickens character, Mr. Scrooge, abhors spending before he learns the value money provides in bringing joy to life.  Zero-Based Living is not about imitating the original, miserly Mr. Scrooge; it’s about understanding how the value of our money multiplies when we learn to employ it to purchase an improved quality of lifestyle.  In the bigger picture, by starting with zero, we are forced to examine whether our spending choices make sense.  When they don’t, we gain the necessary insight to change course.


The Power of Zero Effort


Money Without Effort


When we think of the effort it takes to earn money or achieve success, the Power of Zero tells us to look beyond the present and focus on the long term.   In reality, a Zero Effort career is a fantasy.  No matter where we are, it took considerable effort getting here and it will require even more effort to keep going.


Redefining Retirement

Fishing under a rainbow.

Retirement…fishing and that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

One way to understand “zero effort” is to think about our basic assumptions regarding retirement.  Now, depending on your age or circumstance, the idea of retiring may seem either so far off, or out of reach, as to be irrelevant.  Yet if we think about it, our current job or chosen profession represents our journey along the path we travel towards a special day in life—the day we quit working for a living.  In other words, retirement is the day we look forward to with the hope we can start spending zero effort going forward.  This implies we now hold enough resources in reserve that we can maintain a chosen standard of living.  Beyond retirement, and in the bigger scheme of life, zero effort becomes a state of being; one where we seek to expend less effort earning income in order to maximize wealth and opportunity.




Zero-Based living tells us to broaden our horizons, and find new ways to earn money that magnify, or “leverage” the dollars we make for each hour of effort spent pursuing income. A shorter way of saying this is that we need to leverage our time.  Instead of working faster, harder, or longer hours (i.e. expending additional effort), we learn to apply new methods that multiply our savings and earnings potential.   We should point out that some people learn to put FAR less effort and energy into their lives (virtually zero) and earn MUCH more than we do.


Leverage does NOT require we seek any and all means necessary to get more income. For example, there is little doubt a second job offers a short-term solution for a family budget in crisis, but there aren’t enough hours in the day to make this an effective solution for the long-term.  Dare we mention a second job impacts your ability to get the sleep you need, and along with that, your health, your sanity, your job and your relationships?  Leverage is never a simple matter of adding additional hours to our work schedule; it’s about learning to make more efficient use of time.


How To Leverage Your Time


Calculate your leverage.

Where can you make more efficient use of your time?

If leveraging our time is so critical, how do we go about it?  The possibilities are endless:  Turn a hobby into a career on the side, and build it up until it eclipses your full time job. Spend time learning to invest money—even a small amount of time pays off in big dollars. Buy a rental property, and let it grow in value while you work every day at your full time job. That way you earn more every day, for about the same hours worked.


Or perhaps you make and sell a product.  In this case, leverage might mean figuring out a better way to build more units in less time.  It could also mean spending a few hours to develop a marketing plan in order to beef up sales.  A significant increase in sales may or not be a realistic goal for your business, but even an incremental increase makes a huge difference in the long run.   Another great way to leverage your time is to get more education. When you gain the skills or certification you need to qualify for a higher-paying job you increase your lifetime earnings.


Yet another way to leverage or magnify income is put the money you have to work. If you own a dividend paying stock there is potential income in stock appreciation, plus an ongoing stream of money you collect by holding onto it.  Smart investors learn to find investments with ongoing streams of income.  Of course if you have no money to invest, it’s hard to magnify wealth in this way.  Don’t despair over this; make a choice to alter the equation.  Start a savings account today.  Add five dollars a week and in a year you’ll have $260.  Now, find a solid, dividend paying stock and open a discount brokerage account.  Maybe that $260 buys 5 shares of company Z.  If you add to it in regular intervals, and “reinvest” the dividends, your account could hold several thousand dollars in a few short years.  There are even companies that allow you to purchase fractions of stock shares at a time.  All you need is $4 to make a trade.  See


Turning Inspiration Into Leverage


"Bent City" by Bob Anderson  All rights reserved.

Why not try and develop a talent? Who knows where it will lead.


Maybe you’re inspired by an idea or by someone you know.  Perhaps you paint or write.  Taking on a creative endeavor is another way to leverage time.  To try this, use some of the unproductive time in your schedule–the time that creates no income–and spend it honing your craft.  Time can be measured in hours or life spans.  If you talk of a single three hour block of time, it may be hard to see a meaningful way to magnify your income.  One the other hand, if you watch an average of three hours of TV in a day, that’s 1095 hours a year, spent idly passing the time.  In a ten year span, it grows to 10,950 hours or 456 twenty-four hour days.  That’s almost a year and three months of unproductive time!  Imagine spending half of that on developing your talent, instead.  You might paint a masterpiece and sell a hundred thousand prints, or you might write a book and become a best-seller.  Now, you found a way to leverage your time by looking at the long-term and you created the potential to collect royalties off every copy you sell.  Talk about leverage!

Work Smarter Not Harder


The reason people say time is money is because of the opportunity it presents us.  Remember:  Every decision to use our time one way affects our ability to use it another.


It goes without saying that some forms of leverage are riskier than others.  Owning a business or a stock share is more risky than opening a savings account.  The key is to understand that risk and reward are two sides of the same coin.  Raise the risk and your potential reward or loss goes up.  Lower it and they go down.  Knowing your tolerance for risk is important.


The Power of Zero Effort is not about piling on guilt so you work more hours every day doing something you hate.  It’s also not about holding on to some lame hope you’ll live a fantasy lifestyle in the future.  Instead, it’s about gaining a true understanding of the connection between time and money, in order to make life better today.


The Power of Zero Hardship


Is It Only About Money?


Don't have enough money?

Money pays bills, but it doesn’t always solve the problem.


An important goal of Zero-Based Living is find new ways to improve your current lifestyle.  One way to think of a life of luxury is recognize it as a state of being that includes zero hardship.  Ask yourself: What makes your life difficult right now?  Do you feel the answer keeps coming back to a lack of money?  If that’s true, have you ever considered that rich people suffer from many of the same problems afflicting the rest of us?  They still get divorced.  They still go into debt.  They still have to deal with issues of healthcare, aging parents, childcare and the cost of education.  Are their lives really that much better for being rich?


Going Deeper


While there is little doubt that money cures many of our perceived ills, our real problems in life usually go deeper.  Sure, adding dollars to the equation affords the opportunity to pay off an overdue bill, but is that the real issue?  Is it worth asking why a bill is overdue in the first place?  Is it because you overspent?  Is it because you don’t care? Is it because you lack priorities?  Is it because an unexpected emergency popped up?  Did you forget to pay it?  Are you depressed or angry and just getting even?


When our decisions are based on better facts, they lead to better outcomes.  If we adopt a zero-based budgeting process, perhaps we’d come to understand our current income isn’t sufficient to pay for non-priorities.  Perhaps we’d also have a better handle on our priorities.  Or maybe we’d set-aside a portion of our income and build a fund to cover emergencies.  Then, again, if we achieve greater efficiencies of time through the power of leverage, maybe our income would increase to the point we could afford more of the things we desire.  Before deciding money alone is the answer, it’s worth considering what else makes life so difficult.


Redefining Success


Grow some roses.

Take the time to look around and smell the roses.

Remember:  Zero Hardship is a state of mind.  If we enjoy our work because it interests us, or if we feel good over an accomplishment, it’s much easier to get out of bed in the morning.  If we appreciate our home because it provides a safe place to live, or because of the way we’ve redecorated it, we don’t mind staying there.  If we look into the mirror and are happy with the person we see reflected, the whole world looks brighter.  If our long-term goal is to retire on zero effort, we may need to forgo a few pleasantries in the short-term.  At the same time, by working on ways to adjust our internal state of mind, we bring a sense of well-being and happiness to the present.


Make no mistake: Zero-Based Living does not require us to embrace poverty in order to find happiness.  On the contrary, with the Power of Zero behind us, we can redefine success to mean living in style today, no matter how bleak or robust our finances happen to be. If spending big is out of the question, either because you don’t have the money or don’t want to spend frivolously, zero in on small, inexpensive ways to improve your quality of life.  Chances are you’ll confirm that success and happiness are already within reach.


Small Improvements Lead To Big Changes


Great buys at a garage sale.

Find a few treasures at a garage sale.

What are some small improvements that can make a big difference?  Why not clean out a room full of clutter and reorganize it into a new work space   Why not spend some time at an estate or garage sale and find a few treasures to help decorate your home?   Why not move furniture or even remove an over-sized piece to the garage?  Keeping fewer items in a room equates to more living space, which makes a small home seem larger.  Do you have a friend that cuts hair?  Why not risk a new hairdo?  Do you have too much stuff?  Why not downsize and relieve yourself of the burden all that stuff carries?  The point is this: If you start making a few small changes today, they quickly grow into big improvements in the quality of your life.  What are you waiting for?  You can get started right now.


The Future Is Now


A yacht for the super rich.

Think about today, not some wealthy future.

The trouble with pinning our hopes for a better lifestyle on getting rich first is that it pushes us to fantasize about an uncertain future. When our thoughts are future-based, it becomes far too easy to miss all of the “good” happening right here and now.


The dream of acquiring vast wealth is often built on the false hope our ills can be cured by money alone.   Instead of wishing for a future of fantasy riches, the Power of Zero shows us how conscious decision-making, planning, and finding small ways to improve our situation are the means to make a real difference in the quality of our lives.


The Power of Zero Dependence


Declaring Independence


Inner balance and harmony.

It’s important to find balance.

In order to think, plan, and build for success, it is essential to develop an independent frame of mind.  Key to that effort is achieving a state of mental clarity.  The ultimate goal is to learn to be our own person, but in order to do that we need to ignore all the negative messages and distractions that bombard us every day.  You may feel internal harmony is an unreachable goal, yet the Power of Zero offers guidance in filtering out all of the noise. It thereby creates the space we need to achieve a sense of balance and inner peace.


Incessant Chatter


Modern society often feels like a jungle, one filled with the incessant chatter of a million boisterous monkeys. Yet unlike the monkeys of the wild, society’s voices are often aimed at us with scheming intent—to get us to buy things we don’t need, or to believe in things against our best interests. The messages are never-ending, and come streaming through our media—TV, radio, smart phones and the internet.  All are amped up, fine-tuned and designed to suck us in by appealing to a core set of human needs:  the desire for beauty, long life, sex, and the hope for health, happiness and a sense of belonging.


There are messages to sell us things. There are messages that take pot shots at our ideas and our dreams. There are messages to instill fear.  We are given “guilt trips” by loved ones and others. Society has many rules and expectations.  They are all the things we think we ought to do because someone told us to do them, or perhaps because everyone else does them. Expectations drive us to get married, have kids, take a pill, buy a house, two cars, three big-screen TV’s, a new computer every two or three years and a smart phone.  Sound familiar?


All of these expectations—some express and some implied—exert a powerful influence on our ability to make independent decisions, and having that ability is critical if we want to make changes for the better.  The odds are stacked against us.  Companies spend billions on slogans convincing us of their cause.  They show beautiful, happy people using their products and then imply or promise our lives can also be this wonderful if we only buy their goods and services.


Fighting Back


How do we fight back against this overwhelming barrage and filter out the noise? First, we use the zero-based model to establish our priorities.  It helps to ask how tied we are to each thing we own, each thing we do, and each goal we have.  Next, we need to build a wall around those answers and defend them for all we’re worth.


In the middle ages, people built castles and threw up stone walls to protect their lives and property.  Today, software engineers throw up “virtual” walls to keep spyware or computer viruses from stealing our private financial information or locking up our computers.  It’s easy to conclude walls serve a purpose and are an integral part of our history.


Personal Shield Wall


When is comes the Power of Zero Dependence, erecting a personal shield wall is key.  When we fail to address the daily threat of society’s relentless spam, we stand defenseless in the onslaught.  As such, our lives are set to flounder.  Every effort to save in one department will be mitigated as we spend somewhere else.  Every effort to claim and hold an opinion will be an effort wasted.


How do we begin to build our personal shield wall?  The first step is take an objective look at life and decide how tied we are to the things we own, the things we do and the goals that seem important.  This is no easy task.  It takes time to sort things out, but knowing who you are versus what someone else expects of you will help set the course for change.  You will need to examine your life with a fine-toothed comb.  Do you want that house and the mortgage and maintenance that come along with it?  Do you need two cars and two car payments, not to mention the insurance?  Can you afford the cost of new TV or the contract that comes with high-definition cable?  Can you improve your marriage?  If you’re in a new relationship do you want to be married?  Do you want kids or is that something your parents want from you?  By getting to know the real you versus the person others expect to fall into line, it is easier to ignore the daily chatter.


Zero Belief


Review with a critical eye.

Second, start reviewing all the random messages you receive with a critical eye—a mindset we call zero belief.  Zero belief is not an absolute.  By no means does it require we close our minds and reject every message out of hand, for we all need to believe in something.  Instead, it’s a practical way to engage the world.  It suggests a strong dose of skepticism is a healthy alternative for determining what messages we should take on as our own.  Skepticism requires probing, analysis and asking plenty of questions as we seek to discover what works for us.


To help in this exercise, it pays to know the various sales tactics, tricks, and mind games that are designed to separate us from our money, or make us feel inadequate, or sway us to some questionable cause. To this end, it is worth reading some of the best books on this subject, as “The Art of Clear Thinking”, by Rudolph Flesch, or “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, by George Orwell. There are many excellent titles.


Finally, a regimen of personal exercise can go a long ways toward finding the energy to fend off the noise. By going running, walking, biking, or working out on a regular basis, you relieve stress, feel stronger and build confidence—all helpful for building and maintaining a strong sense of independence.


The Power of Zero Ingratitude


Zero Envy Zero Dismay


An important element to a happier lifestyle is learning to appreciate what we already have. One way to gain appreciation is to strive to feel zero envy over other people’s successes.  A second way to gain it is to endeavor to feel zero dismay when we fail to get the things we think we want. Letting go of envy and dismay discharges negativity and that creates emotional space—a critical prerequisite for discovering gratitude.


Put an End to Endless Yearning


We humans are funny creatures. We often crave to own a particular item for weeks, months or years.  In the process we convince ourselves life is miserable because of our need is unmet.  Of course, the moment we take possession we start to lose interest.  Far too soon, our former “must have” item becomes a fading memory of the past.  The mere act of ownership is often all it takes to shift our constant sense of yearning to one of indifferent satiation.  If that were the end of our troubles it would be one thing, but satiation is a fleeting, transient beast.  Soon, we find something else to lust over and thus we begin the cycle all over again.


Some thinkers believe that our desire for the things we don’t possess serves a larger purpose: It drives humanity to change and innovate. There is no arguing that change and innovation are noble causes in the grand scheme of life.  Yet on a daily basis, it is essential we learn how to appreciate the things we possess in the moment.  It is equally important we learn not to change or innovate for the mere sake of some restless pursuit to be different.


Acknowledging the Gifts


Achieving a sense of gratitude comes as we learn to appreciate life’s various gifts in the moment.  Learning to be joyful is good.  Do we acknowledge our joy?  Do we revel in it?  Or do we let it slip away unnoticed?  Whether we speak of joy, happiness, love or success, we need to take the time to understand each of these gifts as we experience them.


Javbird giving thanks.

“Hey, thanks! That was really nice.”

A useful practice in learning the art of gratitude is to make a point of offering thanks.  It doesn’t matter whether you thank God, the universe, your spouse, your boss, your kids or some stranger on the street.  The point is to recognize the gift in front of you and acknowledge it with words.  Offering thanks is an excellent daily habit to take on, because it forces us to acknowledge what is going on in the present.  Some people call this “being present” with yourself.  Being present is a good because we focus on all the things going on in our immediate sphere of influence, which is within our power to change, rather than the future, which is beyond our control.


Gratitude is a surprising concept.  When we fail to appreciate what we have, we own nothing of value.  When we fail to acknowledge the love of others, our lives become an empty shell.


Subscribe To “The Philosophy of Zero-Based Living”


The Power of Zero is the core concept behind “The Philosophy of Zero-Based Living”.  By discovering new ways to look at old choices, we begin to zero in on the steps we need to take to begin our journey toward greater meaning and success.  More than anything, Zero-Based Living is course on learning to thrive in a world where it often feels difficult to find the emotional energy or wherewithal to keep going.


The people who subscribe to the Philosophy of Zero-Based Living are people seeking answers.  At our hope is to provide you with new ways to look at life’s problems.  We plan to bring ideas on saving, investment and all things money.  We’re interested in your personal stories and the things or people that helped turned your life around.


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