2019 marks my 8th year of involvement in the Financial Independence community. I started out on this journey as a green, young professional looking for a place to belong in this big crazy world.
I was driving to work recently and listening to the ChooseFI podcast episode with Mr. Money Mustache and Mr. 1500. I am lucky to consider all 4 of them to be friends — listening to that episode made a long commute feel much shorter! In it, Pete was talking about how he’s learned to optimize his life for happiness and it occurred to me that’s what I am doing in my life. I think my life so far can be broken down into 4 distinct stages.
Stage one is everything before FIRE. I wasn’t a complete noob as I had a pretty solid grasp of the financial basics. I had gotten a full-ride academic scholarship to the local state university so I didn’t have any student loan debt. My parents had hammered a good foundation into me on personal finances, so I stayed within my means and didn’t go on crazy shopping sprees for nice clothes and the newest electronics. They had taught me to try to avoid loans as much as possible, so my first car was a complete beater that cost $4,000. After that car died an early death at the hand (hoof?) of a deer, I bought my second car outright with money from my signing bonus with the Air Force. I still have that car today, nearly 150,000 miles later.
It’s no stretch of the imagination to say that finding the Financial Independence community changed the course of my life drastically for the better. I learned how to take my finances to the next level and prepare for the future ahead. I have traveled to all sorts of places I never would have gone to, both domestically and abroad. Shoutout to my trip to Omaha for the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting!
I have met many wonderful people in this community. Some have become the best of friends. Some have become roommates. Some have become mentors. Some have become family. I’ve even dated within the community! Some have taught me valuable life lessons about the world and how it works, for better and for worse.
Stage Two encompasses the first part of my journey to Financial Independence. During this stage, I optimized for wealth. Nearly everything I did was through the lens of “is this the most optimized financial decision I can make?”. I think that was the right move for me at that point in my life, but I don’t think it’s the right thing for me to do now. I am really grateful I found FIRE so early in my life because I avoided a lot of sub-optimal decisions like buying a new fancy car and buying more house than I needed. I made a lot of great decisions as well, like maxing out my 401(k) for many years and saving money in other tax-advantaged accounts. My net worth was definitely on a steady trajectory in the right direction.
This stage was motivated by a desperate desire to be free from the restraints of a full-time job. At the time, I was adjusting from the freedom of a college schedule to a full-time job. To make matters worse, I didn’t get to choose the first two positions with the company and they were.…… not the best fit for me. I hated the second one, in particular, and was doing everything I could to save money and get out of the working world. If that’s what a career was, I was out. I didn’t understand how people could work for 40 years!
But then I found a position I actually enjoyed doing, that was fulfilling to me. Everything changed. My outlook on working and careers got better.…… but I still wanted out.
Stage Three was where it all started to go a bit sideways. I had all these new friends doing amazing things (and making lots of money while also not being tied down to an office job). I thought to myself, if they can do it, so can I! And so I jumped right in. I bought a rental property to house hack. I said yes to starting a podcast. I became a financial coach. I tried to take on freelance writing projects.
I was miserable. My net worth might have been rocketing up but my happiness and quality of life was plummeting. I was stressed out and anxious. No amount of quickly stashing money is worth sacrificing my mental health. I am incredibly grateful I did try it though. Nothing worked out like I thought it would, but I have learned so much from my experiences.
It turns out I actually do enjoy working and having a job to go to — as long as it’s a job that’s a good fit for me and my skills and doesn’t have a work-life imbalance. I think going forward, an ideal setup would be a job that is less than 40 hours a week. Maybe 32 if I could manage it. That would give me time to get stuff done during the week and allow me to enjoy my weekends more. That is more of a long term goal, though.
I’ve learned I need to get better at telling people no. I have people coming to me on a fairly regular basis who want to collaborate with me on a project or want me to contribute to something they’re doing. I don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about how much time/effort it will take from me and my life before I say yes. I only have so much space in my brain and I’ve found it gets full fast! After I left the podcast, I likened it to defragging my brain. I have so much more brain power to put to things now that I’m not worried about the five million and one things podcasting requires. That is but one example. The same thing happened when I stopped the other side hustles.
I’ve also figured out that I am my best self when living in a place with room to sleep in, a room to do crafty things, some storage and an in-unit washer/dryer. I think my mental health and happiness levels really suffered when I moved in with friends or lived in a studio apartment. As happy as I was to live with other people, I never really felt truly at ease in someone else’s home. I need a home of my own (whether that be a condo or single family home).
Stage Four is where I’m at now. It’s about doing something different. It’s about optimizing for happiness, not money. Now that I have a healthy cushion, I don’t necessarily need to frantically hoard money like Smaug the dragon. Instead, I can do things that bring my happiness back up to its normal baseline. With that in mind, I’ve let my budget loosen a bit. I will be upping my food budget to a number more in line with what I’ve been spending in the past, instead of the aspirational food budget I have now. My housing budget is also going to change. I don’t know specifics yet, but I will be going from splitting a 2 bedroom apartment in DC proper to a bigger place somewhere in Fairfax County, Virginia. I will be getting more space with a higher price.
Yes, that’s right. I’m doubling my housing budget to see what that does to my quality of life. Crazy, innit!? That’s kind of what is fun about life though! We get to try these things and if it doesn’t work out, we can always try out new things.
“I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now.” — Edma Mode (Incredibles)
Thanks for reading! How has your FIRE journey changed over the years? Sound off in the comments below!