Get rich…in Monk Mode

Now is the perfect time to experience what I call Monk Mode.

In Monk Mode you work, you think and you rest. Then you repeat.

In Monk Mode you spend NO MONEY other than needed for food and utilities.

Millions of people are currently discovering some version of Monk Mode for the first time.

For many, lockdown has been a brutal adjustment. For others, its been a time of improved productivity, health and wellness. You don’t choose the hand you’re dealt, but you can always choose how you respond.

Monks live(d) in monasteries, located outside towns, designed to minimise distractions. They were places of calm, of work and of contemplation. The layout of the buildings (courtyards, gardens, prayer rooms, communal dining rooms) was designed to balance time alone and with others. Monasteries were productive places. Monks studied, wrote books, grew their own food and lived self-sufficiently.

It’s not just monks that benefit from Monk Mode. Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Isaac Newton discovered the laws of calculus whilst self-isolating from The Black Death. It’s amazing what you can achieve when you screen out the distractions of the outside world.

Let me share with you the story of how I discovered Monk Mode.

In 1989, I was at university in Nottingham. It was December, the end of term. Lectures were over. My housemates had all gone home to their families for Christmas. But I stayed on in our student flat on my own.

I’d drunk spent all my money for the term and was now broke. But when I say was broke, I was actually in a better position than most students today. I was debt-free and had about £10 to my name; enough to buy noodles or rice. It’s amazing how cheaply you can live when you have to.

But when you are the future Escape Artist, you are not satisfied with £10 in your bank account. Nope, it was time to earn some money. I had found myself a job in the Christmas holidays. So instead of going home to my nice middle-class world of family, Radio 4 and home-cooked mince pies, I stayed up on my own to work.

I’d landed a job in a food factory on an industrial estate in one of the grimmer less desirable parts of the city. The pay was £3.30 per hour which wasn’t half bad in 1989. But you could get double time (£6.60 an hour) by working the night shift (and a massive £9.90 an hour by working New Year’s Eve). So I got myself on the graveyard shift which, if memory serves, started at 2am and ran until midday the next day.

At the risk of sounding like Monty Python’s Yorkshiremen, I will never forget the experience of getting up in the middle of the night, getting wrapped up in multiple jumpers, coats, gloves etc and then cycling to the factory on my bike in the dark and the ice and snow. Good times, good times.

When I got to the factory, I put on my white wellies, white coat and white hat. I then worked a 10 hour shift on the production line where we made either pork pies or quiches for the major supermarkets. Sometimes you were on the slicing station, sometimes the packing station, other times on the cling film machine. Never a dull moment. 🤔

Back then, there were no 24 hour shops. What with snow and sleep in the daytime, it was a hassle to go out and buy food so I decided to run down the last remnants of food in the freezer. During the night I worked. During the daytime, I slept and read books. I ate free pork pie from the factory and frozen peas. I spent nothing for a week. This was full-on Monk Mode.

This was not a big deal; it was only a couple of weeks. I’m not looking for a medal or any sympathy (which is just as well on the internet). But it’s funny how that experience stayed with me all through my life.

Years later when I was a top-rate taxpayer working in corporate finance, I often had to work weekends / unpleasant hours. Somehow the experience of working the night shift in the pork pie factory put things in perspective for me. That and the money.

But money isn’t everything and there’s more to Monk Mode than just not spending. Monk Mode is a spiritual experience. It’s de-cluttering for the mind. Monk Mode is not a life without fun and laughter nor is it a life without community. Monks lived communally, brewed fabulous beer and enjoyed occasional pissups feasts. Monk Mode is life without the bullshit of consumerism. Monk Mode is how you reverse the hedonic treadmill where you keep doing more and buying more to keep up with The Joneses.

In the mini-recession of 2002/3, I had another experience of Monk Mode. My wife was just about to have our second child so we were down to one income. I was not enjoying work (understatement) and my career seemed to have stalled. It looked like I was going to be unemployed and my career would be going down the toilet at a time when my financial responsibilities were at their greatest. It felt like a perfect storm.

I slashed discretionary spending down to a point where we were saving over two thirds of my salary. Everything that could be cut, got cut. No bars, no restaurants, no cinema, no shopping, no takeouts. In some areas I went too far. Fear will do that to you.

Monk Mode was how I survived and regrouped. That time was no fun but it laid the foundations for my future financial freedom. From that point onwards, I saved >50% of my income…even after I’d found a new job. 11 years later I was financially independent.

We all want to live in abundance, where your wants are less than your means. There are 2 ways to achieve that: you can increase your means or you can reduce your wants (or both). In many ways, reducing your wants is easier as its more directly within your control. If you can learn to enjoy production more than consumption, you have won the game.

Monk Mode means screening out the noise and over-stimulation of the outside world (and especially The News). Monk Mode is detox for the brain and balm for the soul. If you suffer from depression or anxiety, then Monk Mode may be the answer. Or at least part of the answer. Had you noticed that yoga retreats, mindfulness courses and meditation apps have all become big business in recent years? These are all just examples of our deep-seated need for Monk Mode.

In Cherrypicking From the Modern World I suggested that just because (normally) we can do anything and go any place doesn’t mean we should. This is not really about frugality, it’s just common sense. Sanity means recognising when you have enough food / booze / travel / stuff. These things are all subject to what economists call diminishing returns. The first ice cream is fun, the fifth is a struggle (not to mention fattening).

A lot of people will be turned off by something that reminds them of poverty. But I commend Monk Mode above all to busy and successful high income professionals. Monk Mode is a powerful tool for successful people like you.

I didn’t invent Monk Mode, it’s an ancient concept from stoicism. Below is an extract from one of Seneca’s letters to his friend Lucillus. Seneca was probably the richest man in the Roman Empire. A combination of Finance Minister and Venture Capitalist, he was the Warren Buffet of his day. He had multiple houses, slaves, country estates. He was not a penny-pincher.

Seneca recommended a period of Monk Mode each year. The purpose was to engineer a period of voluntary poverty. The aim was to face your fears and to take the sting out of them. This has the helpful side effect of triggering gratitude, reducing your wants and increasing your happiness:

Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” 

It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence.

In days of peace the soldier performs manœuvres, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes. Such is the course which those men have followed who, in their imitation of poverty, have every month come almost to want, that they might never recoil from what they had so often rehearsed.

Let the pallet be a real one, and the coarse cloak; let the bread be hard and grimy. Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food, and you will understand that a man’s peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune; for, even when angry she grants enough for our needs.

There is no reason, however, why you should think that you are doing anything great; for you will merely be doing what many thousands of slaves and many thousands of poor men are doing every day.

But you may credit yourself with this item, – that you will not be doing it under compulsion, and that it will be as easy for you to endure it permanently as to make the experiment from time to time. Let us practise our strokes on the “dummy”; let us become intimate with poverty, so that Fortune may not catch us off our guard.

We shall be rich with all the more comfort, if we once learn how far poverty is from being a burden.

Lockdown will not last forever. What changes will you make to your life when it is lifted?

It would be a shame to waste a good crisis.


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16 comments

  1. Love it. I’ve gone to Monk Mode numerous times before. I work for the defense dept in America and after 9/11 I had numerous times where I was working 80 – 100 weeks and besides work it was just sleep and eat and go back to work. Also I spent over 4 months in Afghanistan and it was the same. It’s kind of like a “life cleansing”.

    I’m not doing it right now because I’m sitting okay with finances. We’ll see how long this goes on, but if I have to don my Monk robe again I will 🙂

  2. I loved reading this! I’ve been reading Consolations of Philosophy and there was a chapter which referenced Seneca lots and this fit in perfectly. I actually really enjoy self-imposed Monk Mode every now and again. I see it as a game as I don’t really need to live this way and it helps me connect to a more basic level of need and reminds me to be grateful that I don’t need to live this way, but I can if I ever do. Life is about more than just surviving but at times surviving is enough.

    Stay well,

    Sonia

  3. Ah yes those skint Uni days of yore. I remember:
    Going to pubs and drinking pints of blackcurrant squash. From a distance it looked like beer but it cost only 6p a pint!
    Being scared witless in a factory job when a really big mean looking guy drove up to me at speed on a forklift truck when I was stacking in a dark corner. I thought he was going to teach the Uni toff a bit of a lesson but he was just telling me to down tools for lunch. So much for first appearances!
    Nearly slicing my leg off at a different job cutting the grass on the steep embankment of the A34 with an old manual scythe. Mind you that year was also the fittest I have ever been.

    Happy days indeed.

    The one good thing with this pandemic is spending has fallen dramatically – far more than the stockmarket even initially fell. And I am cycling on country lanes with literally no motorised traffic – that really is bliss.

  4. Damian Tow · · Reply

    That’s funny to hear a story of working at Pork Farms! I grew up in Nottingham and had many friends who did holiday work there, I had similar experience working in other factories as a student. I recognise the Monk Mode approach having applied it myself when changing career 10 years ago with minimal income for a year. Actually my tastes were reset by that experience and I have gone from a relatively high earner/spender in my 30s to much my frugal in my 40s. This also aligned with spending much more time in nature and becoming a trekking/mountain bike guide part time. Being able to do work that aligns with your purpose and values helps with Monk Mode living too, as you don’t need the distractions/compensations of consumerism. Let’s see if more people conclude a similar thing as we come out of the Corona crisis.

  5. Pork Farms in 1989! You were probably there with my brother!

  6. David Turner · · Reply

    Best summer I had was when I some managed to get 2 jobs. Office drone in the day followed by bar man in the evenings & weekends. Finished at 5PM in the office start in the pub at 6.30pm, midnight finish, sleep, back to the office for 8.30am. No time to spend anything. Kept me in beer money at uni for the following year.

    I was at Nottm Uni as well.

  7. I agree this Monk Mode time is a great opportunity to study, catch up on my reading, cook/bake more and take things slower than usual. Everything is much more peaceful and quieter in lockdown London – it’s a nice change. At least I try to make the best of it. Enjoy the sun!

  8. Connie Benfield · · Reply

    Im ready. My way is not working.

  9. Ben Olney · · Reply

    Hi Barney Enjoy reading your posts. Just an idea , perhaps you could do a post comparing platforms / fees for different people at different stages of the process? For example some people just starting from £0 and adding £100 a month may suit a % platform , whereas someone else with a lump sum of £50k may prefer a fixed fee platform? I guess there are also other factors as well. We all know from your kind posts that VWRL or equivalent is the best fund to invest in, but I feel many people including myself don’t know which platform to go with to get started. Anyway thanks very much for your work, Ben

    1. Damian Tow · · Reply

      Hi Ben have a look at Money to the Masses website where the founder does lots of platform comparisons.

  10. Here is a quote from a UK daily newspaper, and is exactly the reason we should strive for FI, and have an emergency fund, in cash…

    “A City worker who lost her job due to coronavirus says she is ‘now poor’ with just £30 a month left after mortgage payments.

    Under the pseudonym Alice, the woman revealed how she used to shop at Waitrose and Marks and Spencer but was forced to seek out food banks.

    ‘I was used to having extra money being able to save being able to do my shopping at Waitrose, Marks and Spencer and then all of a sudden going from that to not earning anything – you’re now effectively poor,’ she told the BBC’s Today show”

  11. […] There’s plenty you can do to survive the tough times. On a similar note, I remember reading the Escape Artist’s excellent blog post about going into Monk Mode where he discussed the benefits of doing so. Go check it out! His blog is pretty […]

  12. […] Get rich… in Monk Mode via The Escape Artist — “Now is the perfect time to experience what I call Monk Mode. In Monk Mode you work, you think and you rest. Then you repeat. In Monk Mode you spend NO MONEY other than needed for food and utilities.” […]

  13. […] Get rich… in Monk Mode via The Escape Artist — “Now is the perfect time to experience what I call Monk Mode. In Monk Mode you work, you think and you rest. Then you repeat. In Monk Mode you spend NO MONEY other than needed for food and utilities.” […]

  14. […] Get rich… in Monk Mode via The Escape Artist — “Now is the perfect time to experience what I call Monk Mode. In Monk Mode you work, you think and you rest. Then you repeat. In Monk Mode you spend NO MONEY other than needed for food and utilities.” […]

  15. Thanks for your article, what a great read!
    Sadly, millions of people are forced to be in Monk Mode at the moment. At the same time and despite the adversity we are facing, the concept of work, think & rest should help many of us to improve and get stronger.
    I also share your optimism that we are already moving forward for the better! Hang in there, everybody!

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