Disclaimer: I am not a professional financial adviser, and this series in not meant to provide individualized financial advice. I am just one guy who did well enough to become financially independent at age 35. This series simply shares the lessons I learned for your entertainment.
By The Pointer
I think we’ve all been there: late hours, high stress, thankless work. Most of us have said, “Why am I doing this?” Some of us have even taken action, and found a new job. But how many of us have come up with a long-term escape plan so we never have to work for anyone else…ever again? That would leave lot of time for family, friends, volunteering...and of course: travel.
Early "retirement" is a real option for most people
It’s not a pipe dream. You don’t need to inherit a fortune or develop the next big start up to find financial freedom. Regular people (myself included) work toward this every day by spending less than we earn and investing the difference. Basic financial knowledge and time are the two key ingredients. With the help of this series, anyone could build investments that become sizable enough to generate dividends and capital gains that can pay for your lifestyle. No need for a paycheck from an employer!
If you’re thinking this sounds like most people’s retirement plans, you’d be right. However, you don’t have to wait until 65 (or much, much later for most Americans) to do this. You can reach this point decades earlier if you save and invest properly.
Some people call it FIRE (financial independence, retire early), but I hate that term (or at least the “R”). “Retirement” implies someone will do nothing with their newly freed up time. I prefer plain old “financial independence” or “FI”.
Are you trading time for money?
Most people don’t really think about it, but they’re trading their time to their employer for money. Employers pay the same consistent salary as long as you continue to show up to work on time, leave at a reasonable hour and do something productive while you’re on the clock.
Time is a limited resource for all us, but most Americans are spending most of their waking hours working in an office for someone else. Think about it. Most people spend their whole day…
Driving through heavy traffic…
In cars they can barely afford…
To get to jobs they don’t like…
That take up most of their day…
So they can pay for homes they basically only sleep in…
While seeing their families for maybe a couple of hours each day.
If this wasn’t so many people’s actual lives, it would be funny. The goal with this series is to break the time-for-money system. That system continues perpetually until we can find ways to generate income that don’t require time as an input. We’ll talk about how passive income from investments like stocks and bonds can generate money for you while you sleep. No need to go to an office!
What is “enough” for you?
This whole journey starts with defining what amount of money is enough for you. That’s much harder than it sounds. Society, especially in the United States, puts a lot of emphasis on always striving for “more.” We want more money, bigger homes, nicer cars.
But how much is all of that stuff and prestige really worth? Remember, most of us are trading time for money. What if not upgrading to a luxury car means you could retire 5 years earlier? Is that car worth 5 years of freedom to you? This is how people pursuing financial independence think: not “can I afford that,” but “is it worth the time I’m giving up?”
As you read through this series, you’ll probably be constantly refining your view of what’s “enough”. Most people start with their current annual spending. Mint.com is a great, free resource for tracking your spending. It allows you to import all of your credit card transactions (and manually enter cash transactions as needed). That gives you a good view of what you’re spending, and it’s a great resource for budgeting going forward.
Remember, your current spending is your starting point. As we get further in this series, I’m expecting you to find ways to cut down that number. Always think in that time-versus-money trade off. How much of your spending have you really put to that test?
How I got out of the rat race
In a way, I was always pursuing financial independence, but I never had the framework to describe what I was doing. I’ve always been a naturally frugal person. My expenses never exceeded my income except for when I was taking on student loan debt in graduate school (my biggest financial mistake). I liked the security and flexibility that I had with savings. I could take a spur-of-the-moment trip if a deal came up or a friend was heading somewhere. I also contributed to my company’s 401k, but more because I was “supposed to” than because of any grand plans.
Then, I read this interview with Brandon, the Mad Fientist. That was my introduction to the idea of financial independence. I thought it was a great ambition, but like most people that are exposed to a new idea, I wrote it off by saying to myself, “Good for him, but he must be depriving himself to pursue this goal. That isn’t realistic.” Still, the idea had been seeded.
In 2015, I was 32 and going through a particularly stressful time at work. It made me think deeply about what I was doing with my life, and if I was really living in line with my values and priorities. I remembered that Mad Fientist interview, and after some Googling, I came across Mr. Money Mustache. He’s probably the closest thing that the financial independence movement has to a leader. Reading his blog gave me the same things I want to give you:
- Structure: I always knew I wanted greater freedom over my time so I could travel more, but I didn’t know how I could do that. I was saving but without a clearly defined goal. The Mad Fientist and Mr. Money Mustache showed me that there is a path to where you can turn savings into assets that free you from dependence on an employer’s paycheck.
- Tactics: They also described the literal tactics that would allow me to save money, invest and set reasonable goals for what I truly need. Unfortunately, I had to read most of their sites to get that info. Here, I try to lay it all out for you in one organized series.
- An Example: Perhaps one of the biggest things these two gave me was a sense that I’m not alone in my values. There are others who are willing to forgo luxuries if it means being able to live a simpler life with more control over their time. Not only that, they actually did it. They achieved financial independence in their 30s, and they had guest contributors and stories about others doing the same. This wasn’t a pipe dream!
Once I started aggressively pursuing FI, I began by paying down my student loan debt. At first, it was painful to put a bonus I received toward debt principal, but I’m glad I did. Shaking off that debt reduced my expenses, and once it was paid off, it allowed me to put my money in investments that produce wealth. Eventually, I was saving and investing over 70% of my post-tax income.
It’s crazy how a strong stock market combined with aggressive saving and investing can grow wealth at a crazy rate. Luckily, I had invested in my 401k since I started working so I wasn’t starting from zero. Still, I reached the point where my investments could cover my basic expenses within 4 years. I left my office job in May 2019 at the age of 35.
Setting realistic expectations
As we start to get into the nitty gritty with the next installment in the Living Freely series, you should be aware of a few things. One is that if we compare this financial independence journey to a prison break, it’s not a quick escape. No one will drive a bulldozer through a wall tomorrow so you can run out. This will be more like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption chipping away at his cell walls for years to build an escape route.
This approach is effective, but it’s not instant. Depending on your current financial situation, savings rate and how you define “enough” money to live on, it could take a decade or more to reach FI. Just keep in mind that no matter what your horizon is, you’ll be ahead of the majority of the world that will probably never retire.
You should also be aware that I’m not a certified financial planner or an accountant. I’m just one guy sharing his experience. I’m sharing what I learned on my own journey from my own perspective (a white, gay, single, American, male that came from a relatively high income job and lived in a high cost of living area). There are lots of ways to reach FI so my path certainly isn’t the only one to consider. My goal is simply to share my story, and bring together what I learned in an organized, free guide. Hopefully, you’re interested in reading on because we’re about to start getting into the next step: setting a quantified savings target that will tell you when you can achieve financial independence.
The Living Freely Series Table of Contents
Step 3, Part 1: Cutting Expenses
Step 3, Part 2: Increasing Income
Step 3, Part 3: (Legally) Avoiding Taxes - Part 1
Step 3, Part 4: (Legally) Avoiding Taxes - Part 2
Step 4: How To Invest Your Savings
Step 5: Achieving Financial Independence