On the surface, a lot of guys will find the Jack Reacher lifestyle attractive: self-sufficient loner, no ties or responsibilities, just a rugged individualist living life his own way. A fair few of us without many ties to government will empathise. But is it reasonably possible?
For example, I’ve spent a large chunk of my working life overseas and today work for myself; I file a tax return and maintain an address and that’s about it. Conceivably I could hit the road tomorrow – just me and a laptop – and effectively drop off the grid except for a few client emails and a bank account.
So if your basic driver in life is to be left alone, today’s always-on, everyone’s-connected world makes it possible in principle. But here’s the kicker: Jack doesn’t do Web. He draws his military pension at Western Union and carries, no phone, no laptop, nothing to take advantage of APEX fares on online-only deals with.
So let’s look at it from a more practical angle: what does the Jack Reacher lifestyle cost?
First, let’s recap what we know of Jack from the film. (I haven’t read the books, so to all Reacher fans: apologies if what I say doesn’t reflect the character in print.) Jack makes even the way I travel (a month-long trip into a laptop bag) look like I’ve hired a team of Sherpas and a herd’s-worth of steamer trunks: Jack carries nothing, nada, just the shirt on his back. (And he’s only got one of those).
Wearing the same jeans and shirt every day means they’ll wear out faster, and taking the ass-kicking into account he probably needs to replace them every two months minimum. Let’s say his wardrobe costs are $50/mth. (I’m assuming cheap shoes, which he’ll wear out often.)
Furthermore, Jack travels by bus: without ID it’s the only option open to him. Greyhound discontinued its Discovery Pass a while back, so Jack now needs to pay for each trip separately. Without a phone or web skills, he’ll be buying the most expensive kind of fare – at the station, just before the bus leaves.
So his seat on those glorious obloids of Americana that criss-cross the American continent is probably costing him upwards of $25 every couple of days; sleeping on the bus saves a night’s accommodation of course. Let’s say his bus tickets total $200 a month. That’s a fair chunk out of his pension already.
Next, overnight accommodation. Jack’s a military man, so spending the odd night under the stars counts as fun for him. He’s also one for the ladies – the film has an oddly gratuitous scene early on with the requisite brunette-getting-out-of-bed-topless content – so doesn’t always need to pay for a motel.
However, he’s not the kind of drifter so funky that rats ask if there’s a window to open. (Remember, the ladies like him.) So he needs a shower at least every 48 hours and a launderette to scrub the blood out of his jeans every, oh, two hours or so.
This is where the costs start to mount: let’s say four motels a week, anything up to 20 a month, and even in the mega-cheap USA that’s a big chunk of change for someone who can’t get the online deals. Even in summertime, when the livin’ is easy and the women are just like the livin’, he’s realistically spending at least $800 a month in beds he’s had to pay for.
Whoa, we’re up to $1050 a month and Jack hasn’t had lunch yet.
Fortunately for Jack, the USA is the world’s premier destination for cheap calories – although how you maintain a Krav-fit body on lard and carbs beats me – so his budget doesn’t need to be too high here. Let’s say he always gets the $3 breakfast special, picks up a Big Mac for 99c, and ends the day with a $10 steak’n’beer at a dive bar to fuel himself for the inevitable fisticuffs outside later. Call it $420 in basic subsistence.
On top of that – surely at least a few of the laydeez that take a shine to him need a drink bought first? Call it $50 a month. (Jack tends not to splurge on a date.)
So technically Jack can survive spending $1520 a month.
But we’re missing a lot of things here. Without even a Wal-Mart bag’s worth of travel gear, he has to use the cheap half-toothbrush and sachets of shampoo available in motels – and many motels charge for such items these days; they sometimes gouge you. (Plenty of mid-to-high-end hotels across the USA have never heard of shower gel.)
So when Jack’s scrubbing other people’s body fluids off his perfectly-defined abs, he’s doing it in the most expensive way imaginable: buying fresh toiletries every day. (Come on, he doesn’t carry spares in his jeans pocket – as anyone who’s “liberated” the odd sachet from a hotel knows, that leads to disaster.) And that can’t be less than $5 a day when you add up disposable razors, decent exfoliant and the odd self-suturing needle. Another $150 in cold hard cash down the plughole.
We’re up to $1670, and that’s just basic necessities.
No second beer for him, no movies, no bowling, no gym membership. Life isn’t worth living! We can assume Jack’s not big on the auteurs, but he must spend something on stuff not strictly needed for continued existence; perhaps $200 a month.
So the absolute minimum needed for a Jack Reacher lifestyle – as spartan as humanely possible – is $1870 a month. While Americans pay a lot less personal tax than us in the UK – all the USA’s financial troubles stem from this, taxing like a small state yet spending like a big one – it’s still the best-case take-home from a salary of over $26,000. And Jack’s on a pension, so our disbelief isn’t willingly suspended yet.
So let’s move onto Jack’s income. In percentage terms a US military pension is one of the best deals out there – index-linked and backed by the State, available to veterans as young as 37. But while Jack’s a retired military policeman, I doubt he completed the 30 years service needed for a full 75% final salary arrangement (does Westpoint count?) and probably isn’t a reservist; you tend to need a permanent address for that.
So his monthly draw is probably lot less than the $35,000 a lucky few might get – and taxes (how does he file, I wonder?) continue to be levied. So let’s stretch a point and say Jack takes “home” about $2000 a month. He always uses money-service offices to draw it, which charge at least 5%, so he’s spending another $100 a month in fees alone. Which makes his income around $1900 a month.
So: it’s a close-run thing – but yes, Jack Reacher can afford his lifestyle on his pension. The question is, could you?
Which, of course, is the ultimate irony. This rugged individualist is entirely reliant on his public sector pension. Because these days, only public sector pensions (the defined-benefit kind still reasonably common in public service, anyway) are index-linked, rising each year with the cost of living. Reacher’s $2000 a month will rise, and keep rising as he gets older. He has to worry about a lot of things… but not about inflation eating away his livelihood.
Which makes people like me – building their own pension pots, doing everything they can to grow a investment worth enough to provide an income in retirement – far bigger risk-takers than our Jack. Nothing’s index-linked in our world, there are no government guarantees or cost of living hikes each year. Far more than Reacher, we private sector people are utterly alone.