How to live like a millionaire with zero-based living

Updated to Life on December 27, 2022.

There is a concept in accounting called zero-based budgeting. Essentially, it means you build a budget from scratch and have to justify every expense.

Instead of thinking about 15% growth in sales or  10% reduction in costs, you ask “What’s possible?”

This radical budgeting is a welcome change, because…budgeting is boring.

What’s more exciting is to employ a similar concept to your life. Even better is to use zero-based planning to live like a millionaire.

Here’s the thing.

I’ve been an entrepreneur since the Pleistocene era – over forty years of working budgets, building assets and chasing revenues. All good.

After all, ask any financial planner or business coach and they’ll be pushing you to build, build, build toward some far-off goals.

But what if your ladder is leaning up against the wrong tree?

What if what you thought you needed you don’t need at all?

I’ve reached a time in my life when all the options are in front of me…if I choose to see them.

It’s all about the phase of life you’re in.

What phase are you in?

Life is not a linear, incremental, born-grow-die, formula.

We all go through phases.

Maybe you need to be in a head-down, grindstone building phase. Children at home, bills to pay, wealth to build.

I’ve been in that phase for a long time. “It’s easy to burn yourself out,” wrote Jen Rubio, co-founder, the runaway start-up, Away Luggage “if you’re in a bubble of what you’re doing, and you’re not aware of the world around you.” 

Or, maybe you’re in a life-is-good, enjoy the kids, golf on weekends phase.

I’m in that 60-70, what-the-F#ck phase (trademark pending). Recently stepping through a wondrously amicable divorce and diving (with both feet) straight into a new relationship, adult children and I have more options than I know what to do with.

Options I can either ignore (thinking I’m locked in the heads-down phase) or pause to take a closer look.

I call it zero-based living.

Enter Zero-Based Living

We all know how to do it—build plans from nothing.

We create incredible vacations that way.

Or when we write our first book, design our first marketing campaign, client retreat or staff party.

Of course, we have ideas from our past, but we aren’t attached to old plans. We start with a fresh page, unencumbered by a pull for incremental changes.

Zero-based living is an exercise in challenging the most fundamental assumptions about your life.

Does your work fulfill you, or are you only there for the paycheque or pension? (I wrote about the challenges of starting your own business here.)

Why are you still married (it’s great if you have a great reason)?

What excuses are you making for that extra weight you carry around?

Maybe (at first) it’s simply a thought experiment: where would I live if I owned nothing? If I didn’t already have a job, what would be my dream job?  If I woke up tomorrow in a new country, how would the best version of me show up to the world?

The objective is not to design the next iPhone (but that would be cool), but to challenge assumptions that put blinders on your ability and to see what’s possible. It’s millionaire thinking: I have the resources, now it’s up to me to decide how I want to live.

How to get started

Start with the big chunks in your life – the ones that you know you’ve been ignoring: home, marriage, relationships, kids, health, work, finances, etc. Pick the one you’ve been ignoring for too long.

Yeah, that one.

Now it’s time to enjoy unlimited thinking – millionaire thinking – that jumps over old assumptions and steps into what-if’s?

Just this week a friend called looking for advice about taking on consulting work to augment the income from his well-paying, secure, but intensely boring, stifling job.

I asked: “If you didn’t have that job what would you love to do?”

He knew the answer. For as long as I’ve known him, his sweet spot is working directly with executives and teams to invent brilliantly creative team performance solutions.

Zero-based living is to put yourself in that new situation – in his case, re-starting his consulting company – and make it work.

Zero-based living challenges you to create a new solution without assuming you have to replace a certain income or match a current job—you are planning from scratch.

Within 5 minutes we had roughly calculated that with just 10-15 contracts a year my friend could leave his job, satisfy his income needs and clearly be a whole lot happier.

The decision was clear, the solution obvious, now it was just a question of when.

Next steps…

As I step into zero-based living I have to admit, I’m nervous.

I notice a pull to stay true to course—keep working on what I’ve been working on—follow well worn patterns. Here are some examples:

I look out my kitchen window and see my Filbert tree needs trimming, the hot tub needs cleaning and the old bench I meant to repair is still leaning to starboard. Just a few more “must-do’s” gnawing away at my spontaneity and smothering my happiness.

Welcome zero-based living

What if I didn’t own this house and instead lived in more simple condo I could lock up on weekends without a care?

What If I hired a lawn person (I’m sure they have a more impressive title) who dealt with all those tasks I squeeze in on a Thursday night when I’d rather be reading a book with a beer?

What if instead of always asking how can I earn more to pay for more I ask what is the minimum I need to live the best life possible?

Whether this is a fun “what if?” exercise or you are serious about big changes, zero-based living can challenge you to step off whatever merry-go-round you’re on and discover a track that’s moving forward.

To quote one of my favourite song writers, Harry Chapin, “When in doubt, do something.”

Enjoyed this article? Here are 3 of my favourite articles about habits:

Make your bed and 12 more great habits for the super-busy person
Want to earn more? Practice these 4 uncommon habits
How to Stop Being a Drama Queen and get Stuff Done


Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash