This blog has so far been read in 25 countries outside the UK so, for international readers, I should explain that Bear Grylls is a British ex special forces soldier and survival specialist turned TV presenter.
I am not really a fan of the whole celebrity circus but Bear Grylls seems like a genuinely good guy who is up for lots of fun dangerous stunts. As well as jumping out of helicopters and climbing up waterfalls, he does a nice line in culinary demonstration, showing how to eat spiders, cockroaches, grubs and other stuff (see clip below). This makes for more interesting TV than the competing but blander fare offered up by cookery programmes such as Masterchef etc.
His latest programme featured 13 ordinary-ish men surviving on a desert island for a month living on rainwater, snails and fish. The programme was all good stuff showing how the men had to toughen up, co-operate and be resourceful.
It highlighted for me how everything is relative. The most interesting part was when the contestants returned to the mainland and access to the comforts of consumer society: a cold beer, a soft bed, plenty of hot tasty food. I am sure that no food eaten by a billionaire at Gordon Ramsey’s latest restaurant can compete with the joy of eating when you are really hungry or have been eating raw snails for the past month. If you are, say, Mr Burns from The Simpsons, the sad truth is that you will inevitably become blase about caviar, lobster and steak dinners. This is known as hedonic adaptation.
It occurred to me whilst watching the programme that Bear is an interesting illustration of the different possible paths to financial independence.
If you ask a typical person in the UK or rest of the western world to imagine someone who is so rich that they don’t need to ever work again, one of a few clichés will spring into their mind.
They may think of successful entrepreneurs like Richard Branson or Mark Zuckerberg. They may think of lottery winners. They may think of footballers or film stars. These categories all share some features in common. Firstly they are vanishingly small % of the population (do the maths). Secondly, they are highly visible thanks to relentless media coverage. Thirdly they mostly spend money with the same restraint that George Best showed towards alcohol.
This is an example of how our world view is distorted by an availability bias – in other words, we see the world the wrong way because we are have images in our heads that are unrepresentative, but easy to recall from mental storage. If you read The Millionaire Next Door, you will realise that the great majority of millionaires (ie financially independent people) take a very different path to spending and wealth accumulation.
Bear Grylls is on TV a lot. You can buy his DVDs. His auto-biography is available from all good book shops. He is, I guess, paid a lot of money by TV companies and publishers for all this stuff. Celebrities have pricing power and their economics are scalable (they can sell media content to a lot of people and the marginal cost of delivering that content to another consumer is effectively zero).
As a result, I’m sure that Bear has several million pounds in the bank. If he doesn’t, something is wrong and he should get a new agent (Bear: you can email me on TEA@theescapeartist.me).
So far, so normal (in a TV celebrity context). However, Bear is very unusual amongst celebrities in that he also illustrates another, very different path to financial independence.
Bear’s speciality is surviving in any environment. He finds water, food, shelter and other stuff you need to live without money, without convenience stores and without the whole infrastructure of an advanced market economy. Bear knows he will always be able to survive and thrive in any economy. His boss can never wake up one day and downsize him. Should western civilisation ever collapse into a dystopian Mad Max style scenario, he will surely outlast most of the rest of us.
Based on a 4% safe withdrawal rate, you are financially independent and need never work again once you have investable assets of 25x your annual spending. So, if you are currently spending £16,791 per year (the 2012 UK average after tax disposable income per head per the ONS), then you are financially independent if you have investable net worth of about £420,000. The maths works the same if you double the numbers. So if you are spending £33,582 per year, you need about £840,000 of net assets.
If however you are Bear Grylls, you have the comfort of knowing that you can survive without spending any money at all. So even if someone stole all Bear’s money, he would still be financially independent. Angry, but still financially independent.
Getting to financial independence is not the same as running a marathon because its not a fixed distance that’s the same for everyone. Every £1 you reduce from your annual spending reduces the amount needed to get to financial independence by £25. So the question is how far the rest of us can bring down our spending in order to bring the finish line of financial independence closer to us.
Let’s face it. None of us really want to eat cockroaches and scorpions but I am guessing that knowing that he can, if push came to shove, is a source of mental strength and confidence for Bear. As a result, he has the power to say “No” to people. I can only speak for myself, but I have never seen Bear Grylls commuting, sitting all day inside a cubicle nor attending sales conferences.
The Escape Artist is no more keen on eating grubs than the next man. It does however, seem logical that there could be a rational, middle ground between the zero cost, invertebrate diet modelled by Bear and the ridiculous debt fuelled over-consumption of the middle classes in the West.
Our mission on this website is to reveal that middle ground.