Die With Zero: A Comprehensive Book Summary


It didn’t take long after completing dental school and a surgical residency to start getting hounded by insurance agents and financial advisors.

I had no idea how many policies were needed to own a practice!

Any way, the financial advisor recommended that I only work with him to ensure I’d be able to someday retire using the ever popular “accumulation” model. This is where you’re expected to work for 40+ years and dump all of your money into a 401k. 

He brought in fancy charts and diagrams depicting how the power of compound interest would work in my favor once I reached 70. 

Related article: 401k vs Real Estate – Which Is Best For Retirement?

Little did I realize that there were several “what if’s” that came into play such as what if:

  • I didn’t want to work for 40 years in the same career
  • I wanted options early in life with a possible career change
  • my goal was financial freedom by 50 years of age or less
  • I had a different perspective of wealth than he did
  • the stock market tanked shortly before or during retirement 

Luckily a few years ago I realized that there were other ways to invest instead of the “accumulation model” specifically with real estate.

The majority of the learning I’ve acquired after training on non-dental topics has always stemmed from reading 4-6 books a month.

Recently my interest was piqued when a member of the Millionaire Money Mentors forum suggested a book with an interesting title, Die With Zero.

Honestly when I first saw the title, I laughed out loud thinking that my wife had secretly written a book behind my back! 🙂 

As most books about investing discuss how to grow wealth and accumulate more, this one was the total opposite. It detailed several eye-opening insights about how we could plan out our finances to ensure that we enjoyed life and died with, you guessed it, ZERO.

Shortly after reading what the book was about I purchased it and I have to say is one of the few books I’ve read that have made me pause and rethink my view about money and life.

Here’s what I learned that I feel is worth pondering…


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Die With Zero

Die With Zero

The Wall Street Journal bestseller, Die With Zero, was written by high-stakes poker player, former hedge fund manager now turned CEO of Brisamax Holdings, Bill Perkins.

It seems that his goal is to turn the way people approach retirement on its head by getting us to ask ourselves:

Are we going to keep working long hours in order to put away money that we’ll NEVER get to spend because we’re ALWAYS working?”

Main Point

The main point and important thing Perkins is trying to get across is that we should start focusing on creating lifelong memorable experiences once we’ve saved enough to fund retirement. 

He recommends the earlier the better so we’re still healthy enough to enjoy these memorable moments to create priceless memories instead of waiting until we’re too old to not. 

The book’s philosophy is centered around 9 rules.

9 Rules To Live By The Die With Zero Philosophy

Rule #1 — Maximize positive life experiences

If the 2020 pandemic didn’t make you realize that life is fragile, I don’t know what will.

We personally knew several people that either passed away or came very close to it due to acquiring COVID-19. 

Related article: 7 Lessons Learned During The Coronavirus Pandemic

The pandemic has also taught many of us what’s really important in life.

People fail to realize that when they’re in the rat race, the main focus is on making money to buy stuff. Yes, it’s good to have things such as a nice home, cars and clothes.

However, there’s a difference between enjoying these non-essential things and putting value into them. THINGS are not valuable.

Most people will agree that it’s NOT money that makes them happy but it’s experiences with others that do. It’s these relationships with people that have more importance than material things as God creates humans for connection with others. 

It’s for this reason that Perkins recommends that we don’t delay gratification for too long and put off what makes us happy until it’s too late. 

As we get older and our health declines, we must all answer the question, “How can we make the MOST of our finite time on earth?”

It makes NO sense to let opportunities pass us by for fear of squandering our money. Squandering our lives should be a MUCH greater worry.  We should choose our experiences deliberately and purposefully rather than living life on autopilot.

Space Invaders

As a previous Atari gamer, I like this analogy Perkins gives:

Life is NOT a game of Space Invaders – you don’t get points for all of the money you rack up in the game but many people treat it as though it were. They just keep earning and earning, trying to maximize their wealth without giving nearly as much thought to maximizing what they get out of that wealth – including what they can give to their children, their friends, and society now, INSTEAD of waiting until they die.”

Memory Dividend

Perkins also mentioned a book that’s quite popular among the FIRE community that transformed his understanding of the value of his time and his life called Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin.

It made him realize that spending money on experiences make us happier than on things. Unlike material possessions, which seem exciting at the beginning but then often depreciate quickly, experiences actually gain in value over time.

They pay what he calls a memory dividend

The bottom line is don’t wait until you retire to begin doing the things you enjoy. Start enjoying them NOW.

Interesting concept, right?

Rule #2 — Start investing in experiences early

Your life is the sum of your experiences and everything you do (daily, weekly, monthly, annually, etc.) adds up to who you are.

When you look back on your life, the richness of those experiences will determine your judgement of how full a life you’ve led.

What’s an experience worth?

How do you place a numerical value on an experience/meaningful adventure?

For starters, think about the enjoyment you get from each experience in terms of points, such as those you’d earn in a video game. 

Peak experiences will bring you many experience points. Small pleasures will get only a few points. How many points you assign to an activity is up to you as everyone’s values and interests are different. 

If you take all of your positive experiences from last year and add up their point values, you get a number ( ex. 4,650 points). You can represent this number as a bar on a bar chart. The HIGHER the number, the HIGHER the bar. It’s that simple.  You can then carry that over and do it for each year of your life. 

Some years will be better than others. You can then start to figure out how much time at each age you devote to earning money vs having enjoyable experiences.

These experiences yield the memory dividends we previously discussed because humans have memories, right?

If you don’t think these memory dividends are powerful, think again. The big tech companies know this and are now monetizing it.

If you’ve used Facebook or Google Photos then you’ve more than likely seen the “On this day 5 years ago” message with accompanying photos from that day. The companies realize how to tap into your memory dividends which spark good feelings and a desire to reach out to those in the pictures. 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve forwarded those to my wife as we’re constantly reminded of how fast our boys are growing up!

Think back to a memorable vacation. Now think about how much time you spent (and continue to spend) on showing pictures of that trip to close friends. Next, think about all of the times you’ve reminisced about that trip to the people you traveled with. All those residual experiences from your original experience are the memory dividends that continue to add up. 

So when you buy an experience (ex. Hawaii vacation), you don’t just buy that experience itself but also the SUM of all the dividends that experience will bring the rest of your life. 

Experience points

Perkins shares what he calls “experience points” which is his way of quantifying how much enjoyment you get out of an experience. 

If you stack up all the bars (all the ongoing memory dividends from an experience) you get a second bar that might be as tall or taller as the bar that represents the original experience.  Similar to the power of compound interest when it comes to money, your memory dividends will also compound especially when you share the memory experience with others. 

Perkins’ plan for us is to invest in our own life experiences which brings overall lifetime fulfillment and start as early as possible. 

Rule #3 — Aim to die with ZERO

In the book Die With Zero, Perkins shares a story about a friend (John) that became addicted to making money even though he didn’t find enjoyment with his job the longer he worked.

He eventually became a billionaire even though early in his career he wanted Perkins to stop him from working once he reached the $15 million mark as a trader.

He told Perkins, “Once I make $15 million, if I’m still trading, punch me in the face.”

His story sounds familiar to other high-income professionals that join our Passive Investors Circle. It seems that they can never get never get enough, and as their net worth grows, their goalposts keep shifting.

He states that if you spend hours of your life acquiring money and then dies without spending all of it, then you’ve needlessly wasted too many precious hours of your life. There’s no way to get those hours back. If you die with $1 million left, that’s $1 million of experiences you did NOT have. 

People who save TOO much

Some people are terrified that they’ll run out of money BEFORE they die. Nobody wants to spend their last years in poverty so it’s understandable that people save for the future.

But what Perkins has noticed is that people who tend to save actually save TOO MUCH for TOO LATE in their lives.

They’re depriving themselves now just to care for a much older future self that may never live long enough to enjoy that money.

For those that remained concerned about running out of money in the golden years, he recommends they look into long-term care insurance.

Rule #4 — Use all available tools to help you die with zero

In order to put yourself in a position to have enough money to not run out during retirement, it helps to use tools such as a life expectancy calculator.

I’d never tried this before and admit it was a bit creepy having an outside source depict when I was potentially going to exit this life. 

The book states that if you don’t have any idea when you’ll die, you won’t be able to make decisions that are anywhere close to optimal.

That means that if you’re the cautious type, you’ll just save and spend as if you expect to live to be 150.

As a result of dying rich, you’ll have wasted many hours of your life energy earning money that you’ll NEVER get to enjoy. 

If you’re interested in finding out how much longer you have on Earth, this is the calculator I used to tell me that I was at the halfway mark thus far. 

Rule #5 — Give money to your children or to charity when it has the MOST impact

What about the kids?

Too often people who make comments about the kids to argue against the Die with Zero way aren’t actually putting them first but instead are treating them as an afterthought. (I’ve never thought about it this way until I read the book.)

When Perkins teaches us to live our best life and die with zero, he’s talking about spending all of our money (not the kids). 

He recommends that we give our kids (or charity) whatever we’ve allocated for them before we die.

Why wait until we’re gone?

A real personal finance plan includes the kids. That way, you’ve already separated out their money from yours. 

Research shows that the average age people receive an inheritance is age 60. Perkins performed a poll to over 3,500 people and asked people what their ideal age was to receive an inheritance. 

The clear winner was the age range of 26 to 35 which is old enough to be trusted with money, yet young enough to fully enjoy its benefits. 

You should be focusing on maximizing your life enjoyment rather than on maximizing your wealth. Those are two very different goals. Money is just a means to an end: Having money helps you to achieve the more important goal of enjoying your life. But trying to maximize money actually gets in the way of achieving the more important goal.” – Bill Perkins

Your real legacy is NOT money

How do you want your kids to remember you? What kinds of experiences do you want them to have with you?

That’s important to think about before it’s too late. I’m learning this first hand with two teenagers.

We only have so many summer vacations left before they’re gone and out of the house. Focusing on making memories with them now before it’s too late. 

The value of time with your kids is like the value of water. If you’ve got 50 gallons of water, you wouldn’t pay a dime for an additional gallon.

But if you’re dying of thirst in the desert, you might be willing to cut off your arm to get even one gallon. 

Questions to consider:

  • Is each additional hour of work you do really worth it to you and your children?
  • Does your work add to your legacy or serve to deplete it?

Remember, the purpose of money is to have experiences, and one of those experiences for your kids is time with you. Therefore, if you are earning money but NOT having experiences with your kids, you’re actually depriving your kids and yourself. 

One you have enough money to take care of your family’s basic needs, then by going to work to earn more, you might be depleting your kids’ inheritance because you’re spending less time with them.

Rule #6 — Don’t live life on autopilot

A person’s ability to extract enjoyment from their amount of money begins to decline with age.

It’s for this reason that Perkins recommends we take optimal advantage of the time we have and don’t fall into the trap of living our lives on autopilot. 

Your ability to enjoy many experiences in life depends on your health. But finances plays a part too because a lot of activities cost money.

So you’d better spend it while you STILL have your health as the usefulness of money declines with age. Having much money is nearly worthless at the beginning and very end of life. 

The utility of money changes over time, and it does so in a fairly predictable way: Starting sometime in your 20’s, your health very subtly starts to decline, causing a corresponding decline in your ability to enjoy money. 

If your capacity to enjoy life experiences is higher at some ages than others, then it makes sense to spend MORE of your money at certain ages than others. 

Take for instance the so called “Golden Years”. The books states that the “real” Golden Years is the period of maximum potential enjoyment because we have the MOST health and wealth. Most come BEFORE the traditional retirement age of 65. Those years are the ones during which we should be doing most of our spending and NOT delaying gratification. 

Balancing health, money, and time

Think about the 3 basics people need to get the most out of life:

  • health
  • free time
  • money

The problem is that these things rarely all come together at once. Young people tend to have abundant health and a good deal of free time, but they don’t usually have a lot of money.

Retirees in their 60’s, 70’s and beyond have abundant time but unfortunately less health and thus a diminished ability to enjoy the time and money they do have than the young do. 

People in their middle years, neither very young nor very old, typically have a different problem: They face a TIME crunch, especially if they have children at home. This time crunch is their BIGGEST obstacle to having positive life experiences. 

To get the most positive life experiences at any age, you must balance your life, and this requires you to exchange an abundant resource in order to get more of a scarce one. 

Young people exchange their abundant time for money, sometimes to a fault – they should prize their free time more than most do. Older people spend a lot of their money trying to improve their health.

People in the middle years sometimes trade money for time – and the MORE money they have, the more of it they should be using to buy time.  

The author feels that earlier investments in health would actually yield greater lifetime fulfillment. Preventive steps like eating right and exercising helps keep healthy as high as possible for as long as possible which makes every experience MORE enjoyable. 

Rule #7 — Think of your life as distinct seasons

The book highlights an Australian palliative care giver that allowed her to be with patients shortly before their death. 

She found that:

  • Their #1 regret was wishing they’d pursued their dreams vs living their lives that others expected of them. 
  • Their second regret, mostly from male patients, was that that they wished they wouldn’t have worked so hard and missed out being with family and friends more. 

The takeaway is being aware that your TIME is LIMITED can clearly motivate you to make the most of the time you do have. 

Time buckets

Time buckets are a simple tool for discovering what you want your life to look like in broad strokes.

The book suggests we draw a timeline from now until we die, then divide it into 5-10 year intervals.

Next, list out all of the key experiences (activities or events) that you want to have and drop each into the specific buckets based on when you’d ideally want to acquire them. 

For example, if you want to snow ski 70 times during your life, during which decades or five-year buckets would like to have those ski days?

Don’t just think about money, rather think about the point in your life when you’d really like to have each experience. By doing this approach, you’ll begin to realize that some experiences are better done at certain ages. 

Rule #8 — Know WHEN to stop growing your wealth

Out of all nine rules, this one was the HARDEST for me as I’ve always been an “aggressive saver.”

The BIG question Perkins wants us to answer is:

What’s the best way to spend our money for maximum enjoyment and in order to generate maximum memories?

He feels that many of us delay gratification and SAVE for the future. By continuing to work day after day, we run the risk of waking up one morning and realizing that we may have delayed TOO much. 

At this point in the book, he gives a new philosophy to live by that diverges from the norm.

He recommends that we find one special point in our life when our net worth will be the HIGHEST it will ever be and mark that down as “your peak.”

This is the point that it’s the highest is ever SHOULD be – after which we must start spending it down on experiences while we can still extract enjoyment from experiences.

So our focus should NOT be on trying to obtain a certain number (dollar amount), rather we should focus on determining the date of the peak which he gives how in the book. 

He feels that psychologically NO number will ever feel like enough. Many of the new Passive Investors Circle members for some reason feel that their “magic number” is $5 million.

Related article: How Much is Enough?

If you focus only on a number, you can easily justify working LONGER by telling and convincing yourself that you’ll be able to enjoy an even higher quality of life if you save up $5.5 million instead. Then it goes to $6 million.

So where does it end?

That’s the problem with a numerical target. To try to keep up with this moving target, you keep working on autopilot and end up postponing the best experiences of your life.

Remember, money is NEVER enough. More money does NOT equal MORE experience points. 

Once you’ve finally determined your net work peak, start spending down, or what he calls decumulating. This means you will be spending more in your real golden years, when you are in reasonably good shape in both health and having much wealth.

He finds that this is typically between the ages of 45-60. But what are we taught to do, keep saving well past these years which could be too late in life. 

Rule #9 — Take your biggest risks when you have little to lose

People are MORE afraid of running out of money than wasting their life, and the author claims that this type of thinking has to switch.

Your biggest fear ought to be wasting your life and time, not “Am I going to have x numbers of dollars when I’m 80?”

The younger you are, the more risks you should be taking, and the bolder you should be.

Identify opportunities that pose little risk and go for it. You won’t be able to do this once you get older.

What do you think?

How do you feel about these 9 rules compared with what you’ve been taught regarding investing, enjoying life and retirement?

Comment below!

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  1. Hi Jeff
    As always eye opening. I just wonder what would have the authors take be on families with kids with disabilities. Besides special needs trusts I wonder how would one die with Zero.

  2. As retirees who opted to move from a high cost area where our children and grandchildren are, to a low cost area with great recreation facilities and beautiful homes at reasonable prices (we paid cash and have no mortgage), we’ve realized we dramatically overestimated the amount of time and resources our family has to visit us. Consequently we’re marooned in our lovely home, with the boat and the trailer and the collector car, in the middle of nowhere with no friends or family. We now drive all day to see the kids, and since they’ve all got kids of their own, we now stay in a hotel so as not to disrupt their lives and afford ourselves some privacy. If we had it to do over again, we never would have sold out of the high cost area. Who knew? Now that we’re getting too old to make the trips, we’re again considering another sale and move as seniors with a giant house full of crap.

    1. Laura, this is a great point to consider for those that are thinking of picking up and moving once the kids have moved out. Our plan is to take a “wait and see” approach regarding where our kids end up settling down before making a move.

  3. Thank you for the summary…it’s very insightful! Pulls together a lot of areas of consideration together in one place…

  4. I’ve been following and advocating SRI (socially responsible investing) for many years. I’m in crosscultural education and have supported myself by investing, and living in, a property that is now worth a great deal. I’m now looking for investment in my education centre in a highly desirable area (a top Canadian tourist destination), so that I can build an online training curriculum based on my methods. Collaborating with other social enterprises in education has been the key to accruing the social capital needed to get me to this position.
    As an advocate of lifelong education, retirement has never been an option.
    Thanks for the summary of the book.

  5. To me there’s a lot to disagree with in this kind of thinking. First, it assumes your career isn’t one of the best experiences of your life. Many of my top life experiences were directly related to my career. I worked until 60 and have no regrets, I have tons of great memories from work. It never felt like a waste of my time. Secondly it assumes spending more money gives you better experiences. I’m sorry, but that’s simply not true. My wife and I will die with millions, but that’s OK, we live a rich life and spending more money wouldn’t make us any happier, we just enjoy activities that aren’t that expensive. Today we ran a few miles at 6am with some friends, then played a couple of hours of outdoor pickleball with some other friends. Then we had a hot dog roast over a fire in the back yard. That was all basically free, but it was great fun. And as for giving your kids money while they are young adults, that’s a great way to mess with their lives. Kids need to struggle and achieve on their own or they may very likely never be fully functional adults. We have given generously to many in need, but only a small amount to our own kids who are great productive adults. I think there is a middle ground on all these issues.

  6. Great stuff and excellent thought-fodder but not for me. I have seen first hand what happens when people lose their memories with nothing to show for them. Money at least can always be made and you can buy back many lost things but you can never get back lost memories.

    I’m a collector, artist and musician and the things I have and have made bring me as much or more happiness than most vacations I cannot remember and unorganized photos stored on a computer. (Thankfully I’m old enough to have some printed photos and albums that are easier to flip through.) Vacations end but art and music live forever. There’s always something on my walls or shelves that I can look at, listen to, play with, watch or read to make me smile, laugh or be comforted or inspired.

    People help and inspire me more than specific experiences. I like having reminders of those people.

    I prefer equal weighting experiences and things as long as both bring happiness. Whatever works for you is what matters.

  7. I think this book is aimed at a very small group of people who are obsessed with their net worth, and could beneficially stop saving earlier and spend more time and effort LIVING.

    Looking at the retirement savings figures, the vast majority of people save very little, and would have a much happier 30 years of retirement if they spent less during their working lives to save more.

    The whole approach of scoring points and adding them up to establish value of experiences is as flawed as using money to score points. How do I equate a trip to a museum with my daughter; a romantic time with my wife; an evening out with an old friend. They are all necessary – scoring them detracts from the pleasure. (And, as Steveark points out, they need not be expensive.)

    For most professionals, work is a major source of meaning in life. The challenge of FIRE – beyond building a stash large enough to retire at 35 – is how to live a meaningful life. Holidays are enjoyable if they are a break from work. Living in Mexico for 10 years where the beer is cheap rapidly becomes lame.

    I think there is huge value in a guide that genuinely teaches us how to live a meaningful life. From this review, “Die With Zero” is not that book!

  8. Love the sharing of different opinions and perspectives in the book reviews and the comments. Appreciate the variety of insights.

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