A Letter to My 22 Year Old Self

Today’s post comes cour­tesy of Joel at FI180. Joel and I met at Camp Mus­tache SE this win­ter. Once I heard his sto­ry, I knew he had a lot of great words of wis­dom to share. Over the course of the week­end, we con­vinced him to start a blog to share his sto­ry. He and his wife will be FI in just a few short years!  You can find Joel at fi180.com — please go and check out his site after you read this post. Take it away, Joel!

A Letter to My 22 Year Old Self

Hel­lo, twen­ty-two year old Joel! Greet­ings from a decade in the future. There’s so much to catch you up on: There’s a new Pow­er Rangers movie! Apple makes cell phones now! And we have elec­tric cars that prac­ti­cal­ly dri­ve them­selves!

But there’s a seri­ous mat­ter I want to dis­cuss today: your future hap­pi­ness. Let me describe two pos­si­ble futures for you, each a decade away:

Future 1

Pic­ture this: you grad­u­ate from col­lege, move to a new town, and get a high pay­ing soft­ware engi­neer­ing job. You imme­di­ate­ly buy a beau­ti­ful new house, new fur­ni­ture, and new cars. You live in a fan­cy gat­ed com­mu­ni­ty with elab­o­rate foun­tains and walk­ing trails. Friends and fam­i­ly to come vis­it, and they mar­vel at all the nice things you have!

You buy all the newest tech toys every year, and con­sid­er your­self an ‘ear­ly adopter’ of tech­nol­o­gy. Sure, you pay a pre­mi­um for the priv­i­lege, but you can afford it with your salary. You’ve always loved the lat­est com­put­ers, gad­gets and giz­mos. It’s why you got into com­put­ers to begin with!

You get mar­ried to your high school sweet­heart and enjoy an extrav­a­gant wed­ding, a trop­i­cal hon­ey­moon, week­ly din­ners at 5-star restau­rants, and month­ly mas­sages at the spa. You are also quite the jet-set­ter: you trav­el near­ly every oth­er week­end, all across the U.S., vis­it­ing friends and fam­i­ly. Your cred­it card has no lim­it, and when you think of some­thing you desire, you buy it. This future is high-class liv­ing: you blew past the Jones’ years ago.

said fan­cy house

Future 2

Pic­ture this: five days a week, your alarm clock wakes you super ear­ly, and you stum­ble from bed grog­gy from lack of sleep. You get dressed, make cof­fee, and race out the door to sit in traf­fic on your dri­ve to work. When you final­ly arrive, you sit in a cube and write code for hours on end. Same sights, same sounds, day in and day out. Same peo­ple, same faces. Same wid­gets, dif­fer­ent day.

You would think a tech­nol­o­gy job would inter­est you, but over the years you real­ize it’s all the same: write yet anoth­er ver­sion of an already exist­ing wid­get for a pro­gram that is behind sched­ule and over bud­get. You’ve tried chang­ing jobs, but it’s no use. New code, new cubi­cle, same prison sen­tence. The flu­o­res­cent lights flick­er above you glance down at your smart watch and notice it’s 73 degrees and per­fect out­side. Your legs ache to run out­side and enjoy it, but you can’t: you are too behind on your mile­stones. You are always behind, actu­al­ly. You’ve tried com­ing in ear­li­er, stay­ing lat­er, work­ing through lunch. Noth­ing works.

You check the clock every ten min­utes, hop­ing time would move faster. All you want to do is go home. Tick, tick, tick, tick. The watch hand moves so slow­ly. When the day is done you still haven’t com­plet­ed your mile­stones, but you are hap­py to leave. You get back into your car and sit in traf­fic on the com­mute home, dri­ving past all the same sights and sounds. You do some men­tal math and real­ize you’ve dri­ven this route over twen­ty five hun­dred times. You’ve seen all these same sights and sounds over twen­ty five hun­dred times. You’ve gone home and veg­ged out in front of the TV to clear your stressed out mind over twen­ty five hun­dred times! You’re in an infi­nite loop, and in just a few hours, you’ll be wak­ing up at the crack of dawn to do it all again.

Your health is not what it once was. You don’t have enough time to exer­cise reg­u­lar­ly. Hell, you don’t even have time to go on walks any­more. You don’t have enough time to cook healthy, either. You can actu­al­ly feel your health slow­ly slip­ping away. It’s grad­ual, and it sneaks up on you over the years. You’re mind isn’t as sharp as it once was. You look in the mir­ror and you real­ize you aren’t quite the per­son you remem­ber. You notice all the grey hairs start­ing to come in. You think about the email you received from your depart­ment admin­is­tra­tor ear­li­er in the week, break­ing the news that one of your cowork­ers passed away over the week­end. He was only in his ear­ly six­ties, just a few years away from retire­ment. It’s the third email like it this year.

OK. Which future do you choose? Hint: It’s a trap!

 These two future sce­nar­ios are exact­ly the same! The bleak life you live in the sec­ond is sim­ply the price you must pay to ‘enjoy’ all of the fan­cy things in the first. All of your free time is spent work­ing, the fun part of your life has been on hold indef­i­nite­ly, and you rarely have free time to enjoy the shiny things you pur­chased in future 1. Some­how, this is a nor­mal and accept­ed part of becom­ing an adult! Let me be crys­tal clear here: IT IS NOT WORTH IT!

Here’s the thing: all those lux­u­ries in future 1 are super­fi­cial. The new house and cars, the fan­cy fur­ni­ture, it’s all a sham. None of it actu­al­ly brings you any long-term hap­pi­ness. After a few months, the shini­ness fades, and you are back to square one. It’s called the hedo­nic tread­mill. The things you are sac­ri­fic­ing for those lux­u­ries though- your music projects, the abil­i­ty to con­trol your own sched­ule, hav­ing free time to spend with friends and fam­i­ly- these things real­ly did con­tribute to your hap­pi­ness, back when you had time for them.

Even if you think you want all those lux­u­ries in future 1, you can still have them. Just not now. You have to wait until the time is right. When is that? When the pur­chas­es you want to make are only a small frac­tion of your over­all net worth.

For exam­ple: Your net worth is cur­rent­ly around $100. Don’t pre­tend like it isn’t- I remem­ber being 22. I’m you- remem­ber? Let’s say you want to buy a $400 pair of design­er sun­glass­es. That pur­chase is 400% of your net worth. (Not good, but with a pos­i­tive net worth, you’re already doing bet­ter than half of the U.S. It’s a low bar.) Now, let’s say you wait six years, work hard and save a large por­tion of your income, and get your net worth up to $400,000.00. (I know it looks like a large num­ber, but it doesn’t take as long as you’d think to save it.) Now, you buy that same pair of sun­glass­es. But this time, that $400 pur­chase is a mere 0.1% of your net worth. A tenth of a per­cent doesn’t even move the nee­dle. You can com­fort­ably afford it now.

Iron­i­cal­ly though, even though you can, you won’t want waste your mon­ey on such a friv­o­lous pur­chase. Because when you final­ly get good at sav­ing mon­ey, you start to respect it more. You learn how valu­able it is, and how much free­dom it can buy you. Not to men­tion: you don’t have fan­cy sun­glass­es right now, and your life is still pret­ty great.

You’ve Already Got It Good

Actu­al­ly, your life is freakin’ awe­some. You have it so good right now, and you don’t even know it! You’re ‘work­day’ con­sists of class­es and home­work that aver­age out to about 5 hours per day of work, includ­ing trav­el time. That’s the equiv­a­lent of a 25 hour work­week, bud. Your work­day nev­er begins before 10:30am. Ever. You enjoy breaks in spring, win­ter, and sum­mer, as well as two weeks off between semes­ters. If you add it all up, that’s the equiv­a­lent of almost 8 weeks of vaca­tion per year. (You haven’t real­ized this yet, but even the most gen­er­ous U.S. com­pa­nies give only 4 to 5 weeks paid vaca­tion per year. Not 8.)

time for vaca­tions like this

You walk all over cam­pus, near­ly 5 miles per day and it is great for your health! You’re con­stant­ly bom­bard­ed with excit­ing new sights and sounds, and you get to spend time with friends every sin­gle day. You take it all for grant­ed. It’s just every­day life for you right now. You have so much free time. If you look at the ratio of free time to work time, you’d see that only 30% of your wak­ing hours were spent ‘work­ing.’ That leaves 70% of your time to enjoy fam­i­ly and friends, write music, and start oth­er cre­ative endeav­ors.

Com­pare this with you from the bleak future, where you spend more than twice as much time work­ing, get half the vaca­tion time, and rarely have time to spend with friends and fam­i­ly. A few months from now, when you pur­chase all that shiny new stuff, you unknow­ing­ly make a deci­sion to put the good parts of your life on hold for over a decade.

What Can You Do?

It doesn’t have to be this way! You, young Joel, are in the per­fect posi­tion to change this! Google ‘finan­cial inde­pen­dence’. Start sav­ing more than half of your income from day one at your first job. It’s easy: as soon as you start your first job just set your 401(k) con­tri­bu­tions to 50% (or more if you are feel­ing adven­tur­ous)! You’ll nev­er see that mon­ey- it comes out before your pay check- but it is still yours, and work­ing hard to buy you your free­dom. Don’t wor­ry- your pay­check will still feel large: you have noth­ing to com­pare it to. Seri­ous­ly, you only have $187 in your check­ing account right now. Any pay­check will feel sub­stan­tial.

You’ll only have to work about a decade. Maybe less. That’s right- you could be DONE with your work­ing career for­ev­er by your 30th birth­day if you want. I know that sounds crazy right now, but trust me, you can. Want to short­en it even more? Stop blow­ing your grant mon­ey on a fan­cy two bed­room apart­ment! Stop blow­ing your intern­ship mon­ey on fan­cy restau­rants! Take some of your free time and learn to cook for Pete’s sake!

You don’t need a car on cam­pus, and you take for grant­ed how nice it is not hav­ing to sit in traf­fic every day. Walk­ing and bik­ing are mas­sive life enhancers! When it comes time to move, don’t buy a fan­cy house 12 miles from work. Instead, rent a cozy lit­tle apart­ment with­in a mile or two of your employ­er, and walk or bike every day, like you do now! Loca­tion is key. Skip the car, gas, and toll expens­es, and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly skip the traf­fic. If you must, buy a reli­able four years young Hon­da for $5k and dri­ve it sparse­ly for a decade!

I can see your eyes glaz­ing over, Joel. You aren’t pay­ing atten­tion. I for­got how stub­born you were at that age… how stub­born I was. You know what they say: some peo­ple can learn from other’s mis­takes. Oth­ers need to make their own. I guess you fall into the lat­ter camp. Sigh. Not all is lost, Joel. You’ll real­ize what I know now around your 30th birth­day, and you’ll do a quite dra­mat­ic finan­cial 180. It will be a wild ride, and you’ll kick your­self for not lis­ten­ing ear­li­er. Once you get there, once you have your free­dom back- hold onto it tight, and don’t ever let it go.

Until we meet again, a few words of advice: Time moves much faster than you think. Be care­ful not to obsess over mon­ey: make sure it works for you, and not the oth­er way around. Pay atten­tion to your wife: she’s been right about this stuff all along. Don’t let any job eat away at your morals. And vis­it mom and dad more often. While you’re there, play with your child­hood pets a few more times. Some things don’t wait around for­ev­er, you know.

Thanks for read­ing and be sure to check out Joel’s blog! Is there any­thing you would want to tell a younger you?

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17 thoughts on “A Letter to My 22 Year Old Self

  1. This is nice, Joel. 🙂 Ahhh, I real­ly do miss col­lege, espe­cial­ly after being in the “real world” for a few years now. I was prob­a­bly more stressed dur­ing col­lege than I am work­ing (school and extracur­ric­u­lars gave me more like a 12-hour work­day). But damn if I wasn’t in shape! It’s much more dif­fi­cult to stay fit if you’re in an office, but it can be done.
    Mrs. Picky Pinch­er recent­ly post­ed…What A Fru­gal Week­end!My Profile

  2. Joel, you could have just told your­self to bet every­thing in your pock­et on Trump becom­ing pres­i­dent. They were offer­ing 100 to 1 back in June 2016. A $10,000 bet could have made you a cool one mil­lion… FI: Done!~ 🙂

    • Haven’t you watched Back to The Future Part 2?? Giv­ing gam­bling advice can rip a hole in the space-time con­tin­uüm! Besides, I think young Joel is bet­ter off learn­ing this les­son the hard way. He’s quite stub­born. If I gave him that mil­lion dol­lars, he’d have spent it all in only a few months. 😉
      Joel recent­ly post­ed…A Let­ter to My 22 Year Old SelfMy Profile

  3. Wow, not sure what it was about sce­nario two that got to me, but I actu­al­ly had a moment of tears and nau­sea. The fact that that is real­i­ty for so many peo­ple is hor­ri­fy­ing.

    Well writ­ten Joel, and con­grats on your 180.
    Lady­FIRE recent­ly post­ed…DTF: dol­lars to fun ratioMy Profile

    • Thank you! Future 2 is still my day to day real­i­ty… I’m writ­ing to you from the dread­ed cube right now. BUT the end is in sight! And with my large accu­mu­la­tion of FU mon­ey, I put up with less office BS than I used to, so my days aren’t quite as drea­ry any­more.

      So many peo­ple get them­selves in these stress­ful work sit­u­a­tions and can’t find a way out… that’s why I’m so grate­ful I found the FI com­mu­ni­ty. See­ing the light at the end of the tun­nel makes all the dif­fer­ence!

      • I’m glad I found this com­mu­ni­ty young. I don’t have to go through the painful meta­mor­pho­sis of con­sumer to kick­ass, but I do love see­ing the change in oth­ers, super inspi­ra­tional

        -also post­ed from a cubi­cle 😉

  4. Skip the car, gas, and toll expens­es, and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly skip the traf­fic.”

    Don’t let any job eat away at your morals.”

    And vis­it mom and dad more often.”

    Holy crap, Joel! There’s an awful lot of wis­dom in this post. Thank you.

  5. If only we could all go back and have a chat with our younger selves. I would def­i­nite­ly have told myself to start sav­ing for retire­ment from day 1. My first job out of grad school didn’t offer a 401k and I didn’t think it was a big deal. It also took me a few years to start sav­ing any­thing at all. Know­ing what I know now, I would’ve changed that in a heart beat!

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