"Hey, Mr. Burns, what about retiring in Chile, Canada, or Costa Rica? And, by the way, the Lake Chapala area in Mexico is way cheaper than San Miguel."

Lots of e-mail like that after the recent column about Joe and Venae Warner settling in San Miguel de Allende.

But David Shoemaker marches to a different drummer.

Why go to Mexico, he asks, when you can live inexpensively in Houston? To make his point, the Houston resident points out that it's possible to live quite nicely for about $20,000 a year. For that, he says, you can live in an adult apartment complex with 12-foot ceilings, two pools, lighted tennis courts, workout facility, and a park with jogging trail.

Not bad.

He's also within walking distance of 3 grocery stores and 15 restaurants, has satellite TV, access to an Internet connection, only needs a cell phone, and can fly almost anywhere in the U.S for about $200 on Southwest Airlines.

The cheap flights are important because he also takes up to 12 weeks of vacation a year.

That item got your attention, didn't it?

You should know that Mr. Shoemaker isn't retired. He's 41. He's a tax attorney who decided, at 33, that it was silly to generate $600 in billings at a large firm but take home only $100, after taxes, for himself. In addition, he saw no future in the heart attack path many lawyers take--- high income, high spending, grinding work, and living for scarce morsels of vacation time.

So he changed the rules.

He found two like-minded partners and started a small, low-key law firm with less overhead, fewer clients, and lower billing rates. They work intensely for their clients and may, I think, bring greater energy than big firm lawyers on the maximum billable hours treadmill.  

The end result: a better ratio of take-home dollars to billings dollars.

"There are lots of people with dreams of having enough money to quit working and move to Europe, Mexico, or some other place. But I think that's just escapism. They won't implement," he said in a recent telephone interview.

"What I try to say is, 'DO IT NOW.'   Instead of retiring (at some point in the distant future), why not work at a reasonable pace?"

That's what he has structured his work and personal life to do. His attention to detail reminds me of the late Joe Dominguez, one of the patron saints of simple living and author of "Your Money or Your Life."  

What's Shoemaker's key to personal freedom?

Limited obligations--- and something he calls "coverage."

"I've got a simple test to find the most stable employee. First you divide their debt by their salary. Then you add the number of dependents. I've met people with a score of 8. They had 4 dependents and a debt to salary ratio of 4."

If you have a ratio of 8, he pointed out, you may live in a fancy house, drive a fancy car (or cars), and dress in $800 suits. But you probably don't take more than two weeks of vacation.

As he sees it, you've got---No coverage. Your monthly payments are equal to, or greater than, your monthly income. You'll stay at a job, no matter what, because you can't afford the risk of change.

"Me? I'm consuming (too)," he says.   "But it's time that I'm consuming."

He keeps his fixed expenses low in both his business and personal life. As a result, he has more time freedom today rather than dreaming about unlimited time freedom in some distant (and receding) future.

Hard to imagine? Can't conceive of life without mortgage and car payments? Still collecting credit cards?

Maybe it's time to do a reset. While millions of people don't have this option because they work full time (or more) to scrape together $20,000 a year, there are other millions of people who think wistfully about working less and living more.

r. Shoemaker is working on a book about managing your life for now, rather than later. But if you'd rather not wait, let me suggest some reading on the same path:

"The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need" by Juliet B. Schor (HarperCollins, $13)

"The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure" by Juliet B. Schor (Basic Books, $16)

  "The Joy of Not Working: A Book for the Retired, Unemployed and Overworked" by Ernie J. Zelinski (Ten Speed Press, $15)

  "Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich" by Duane Elgin (Quill, $13)

"Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence" by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin (Penguin, $15)

Sunday, March 2, 2003: In Mexico, a simpler, good life

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