On the importance of putting first things first

Holy cats! That was an interesting 72 hours.

For the past three days, I've been fighting a terrible cold. Or maybe the flu. I'm not sure which. It hasn't been fun.

On Sunday, while I was in Florida attending an early-retirement retreat, I woke with crap in my lungs. All day, I was coughing and sneezing and hacking. I still felt relatively strong, though, so I made sure to get in my four-mile training run. (I made two goals involving running this year: I want to run at least one mile every day and I want to run a half marathon at the end of March.)

On Monday morning, I felt worse. Still, I rolled out of bed and tromped the one mile I had scheduled for myself. It was a l-o-n-g mile, let me tell you. I was wheezing and gasping the entire ten minutes.

The six-hour flight home to Portland on Monday afternoon was miserable. I hate flying when I'm sick, and I know how much that sucks for other passengers. I huddled next to the window and tried not to breathe too deeply. Breathing too deeply rattled the crap in my lungs and sent me into fits of coughing, so I mainly zoned out and made an effort to take shallow breaths.

“You sound terrible,” Kim said when she picked me up from the airport. That night, she made me sleep in the guest room.

I spent all yesterday fighting a high fever. I tried to write an article, but it was a futile endeavor. I couldn't focus. I couldn't write or read or even watch TV. (I starting watching the new Blade Runner movie, but I couldn't focus for more than a few minutes at a time.) I could barely focus on videogames.

In the afternoon, I felt a little better, so I decided to take the dog for a walk. “I have a three-mile training run scheduled today,” I thought to myself. “I probably shouldn't do that. But surely I can do just a mile.” I put on my running clothes, grabbed the leash and the dog, and headed outside.

After two minutes of running — and less than a quarter mile — I pulled up short. I couldn't catch my breath. I felt like I was going to faint. I walked the dog back home and crawled into bed.

And that's how my goal of running at least one mile each day in 2018 came to an end.

Blind Pursuit of the Less Important

My example of blindly pursuing a small goal at the expense of the Big Picture is relatively minor. It's not a big deal. But it's not hard to find examples of people doing this on a grander scale, which can lead to all sorts of complications.

I've noticed, for instance, that many people who discover the ideas behind early retirement become laser-focused on their “number” — the amount they need to save in order to reach financial independence (a.k.a. FI). They rearrange their lives so that they can save 50% or 70% or 85% of their income, but never take time to figure out what they're saving for. Why are they saving for financial independence? What's the purpose?

Then a crisis occurs and they realize the goal they've been pursuing was a red herring. Financial independence and early retirement aren't the actual objective — and they never were. A happy life filled with meaning and purpose is what they really want; financial independence is merely a tool to help them achieve it.

I see this all of the time in the financial independence community. Everyone who reads FI forums can tell me what their number is — but only a handful can tell me why they're pursuing FI.

Here's a classic example. Yesterday, in the financial independence forum on Reddit, an anonymous user posted a heart-breaking story about losing the love of his life because he was too focused on money — too obsessed with how and what and not enough on why. Here's his story:

I should be clear, it's because I obsessed over FI and ignored my life goals.

Together for 7 years, living together for most of it. She was perfect for me and was also very frugal. I had it all.

I read the stickied post. “Find the life you want to live and save for it”, or whatever it's called. But I didn't take it to heart. I thought I was doing this. I didn't understand. I was so wrong. I was blind. I was living the life I wanted to but I was ignoring the life that my partner wanted.

I didn't spend money with her to do the things she really valued. I didn't buy plane tickets to go visit her family with her when she desperately wanted me to come. My whole life I said I wanted kids and then discovered FI and changed my mind because they were too expensive. I refused to buy nicer furniture for our apartment and made her embarrassed about our place and not comfortable in her own home. Over and over I made this mistake and we drifted apart. She wasn't asking for much, just for things she really valued. She is frugal. I was selfish. And I lost sight of the fact I always wanted kids.

I realize this all now but it's too late. I told her all of this but it's too late. Don't be me. Examine every facet of your life and think about it. I regret it all.

FI ruined my life, but it's my fault, not FIs fault. It was my obsession. So here's my advice. Focus on the life you want to live, but compromise with your partner too because I'd trade all the money in my bank for that relationship back. And once you are in the boring middle…focus on what makes you and your family happy today.

Don't be me. Don't get obsessed. Live in the present.

Goals are good. Goals keep us motivated. They give us meaning and purpose. They spur us to become better versions of ourselves. They help us learn and grow and develop into more interesting human beings.

But some goals are less important than others. Some goals are meant to support higher-level goals.

Putting First Things First

I believe strongly that financial goals ought not be top-level goals in your life. Your financial objectives are there to help you pursue more important things. Because of this, there are times you ought to set money considerations aside to attend to more important matters.

This isn't just true with financial goals, of course. It's true with all goals that support larger purposes.

In my case, running one mile every day this year wasn't my real aim. When I take a step back to look at the Big Picture, I realize that specific goal on its own was meaningless. That goal was actually representative of a larger goal — to get fit, to exercise more often. Running every day was merely a manifestation of a deeper desire.

In that context, it's no big deal that I'm going to miss two or three days of running while recovering from being sick. In fact, the time off is a good thing.

As you work toward your goals — financial and otherwise — please remember to place them in proper context. Prioritize the important stuff. Don't sacrifice a greater good for some lesser aim. Don't give up your long-term health to keep a running streak alive. Don't sacrifice a relationship to obtain some arbitrary savings goal.

Put first things first.

“Putting first things first means organizing and executing around your most important priorities. It is living and being driven by the principles you value most, not by the agendas and forces surrounding you.” — Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly-Effective People

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Jason@WinningPersonalFinance
2 years ago

You’re absolutely right.

Here’s why I’m chasing FI:
1- I want to spend as much quality time with my family as possible. Coming home late at night and spending a rushed 45 minutes together is not the dream.
2 – I want to “work” to help people, not increase corporate profits
3 – I’d love to have more time for my hobbies
4 – Not needing the money from my job will help with the above

Accidental FIRE
Accidental FIRE
2 years ago

Great message JD. Here’s what you can do – shoot for a total of at least 365 miles this year. You get to say you averaged a mile a day and you still have lots of running to do to make it happen. It’s a compromise.

Really sad about that guy on Reddit. That’s a hard lesson to learn

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
2 years ago

That poor guy on Reddit is a good example of frugal vs. cheap. Frugal is making the smartest money choices possible, in alliance with your financial values and goals. (“Sure, I’d *love* to meet your family, so let’s start looking for the best airline and rental car deals” — and, if need be, saving money elsewhere to meet your travel goal with cash.) Cheap is hoarding every dime to the point where you or someone else is adversely affected. Losing the love of your life? I’d say that’s adverse. The saddest part, for me, is that he now realizes his… Read more »

Wesley
Wesley
2 years ago

This was really timely for me. I’ve been pondering a mid-life career change lately, but this made me ask…why do I want to do that, and what else would I do? What makes me happy? Clearly, I’m not thrilled with my current career. The money makes it tough to make the switch. JD, I’ve been rereading your posts about the change you made to becoming a full-time writer around the time that you became debt free. The sticking point for me is my kid. It’s tough to justify a career change, for less money, when I don’t have a clear… Read more »

Lady Dividend
Lady Dividend
2 years ago

That is a heartbreaking post on Reddit. The whole point of FI is to enjoy life and cut out the frivolous things which don’t matter.

My partner loves to be spoiled and made it clear for his birthday he wanted Lana Del Ray tickets for his birthday. I had to gulp at the cost of two tickets in the upper levels. Couldn’t I make him a nice dinner instead? We went to the show Monday and I thoroughly enjoyed myself and spoiling my partner. I’ll just cut the money from somewhere else. It was definitely worth it.

S.G.
S.G.
2 years ago

J.D. THIS is why I still read your stuff even when the rest of the internet annoys me. Of the people in the FI community who SAY this, you are the only one who seems to live it. When I find myself apologizing for the compromises I make with DH for a happy life I know I’ve had too much FI for now. I know exactly what this guy is talking about because I’ve been there. I have happily and thankfully made the other decision. But when you do you start feeling the judgement, when your ONLY saving 15% of… Read more »

S.G.
S.G.
2 years ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

I wouldn’t say there’s a moral component. It just IS. MMM’s judgmental no-excuses approach has helped a lot of people get their financial lives in order. It just makes me want to punch him in the face. It doesn’t make him a good or bad person, just a misalignment of personalities. My point is I think that personality type is over-represented in the blogging community. It makes sense: someone who cares enough about something enough to write about it regularly must think about it a lot and have a lot of opinions. And someone who writes about it regularly winds… Read more »

Fiscal Pete
Fiscal Pete
2 years ago

J.D, that was an excellent article. Thank you for sharing it.

Kristen W
Kristen W
2 years ago

I live in the Portland area and had the exact same symptoms over New Years (and I had my flu shot. Maybe I didn’t get as sick as I would have otherwise? no idea). Feel better.

Joe
Joe
2 years ago

That reddit story sucks. I hope he find a better future. You have to enjoy the journey. It’s okay to maintain laser focus for a year or two, but it probably won’t work out well in the long term. We are sick too. Junior and I were sick since last Friday. To top it off, my wife is out of town on business this week. Ugh! We both got the flu shot last year. We’re slowly getting better, but it still sucks. Hope he can go to school tomorrow. Feel better and take a few days off to rest. I… Read more »

Scott
Scott
2 years ago

People are dying from this flu for the exact reasons that you had the hard time with your running (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2018/01/10/he-was-21-and-fit-he-tried-to-push-through-the-flu-and-it-killed-him/ and https://www.boston.com/news/local-news/2018/01/11/needham-mother-who-died-after-flu-diagnosis-mourned-by-friends just to name two), J.D., so yeah, please get to a doctor and take it easy. I’m 2 weeks in and pretty much over the bulk of the flu symptoms (no fever/weakness/sneezing/etc. and not much remaining congestion), but it went after my lungs pretty badly, so I’ve had an urgent care visit and an ER visit since I first got sick, and a couple rounds of meds. Earlier today, an attempt at some light driveway shoveling (we had… Read more »

Cindi
Cindi
2 years ago

My parents worked hard all their lives. I watched my mother sleep on the floor of my dad’s factory while she waited for him to finish working. My dad’s factory had no heat in the winter. Air conditioning in the summer was out of the question. Yet the two managed to make themselves into multi-millionaires. My parents went nowhere. Only camping vacations in a VW bus that my father hand-built the interior for sleeping. When my mother was 58 she and my father took their first vacation to Italy for 3 weeks. My mom felt very ill during that trip.… Read more »

rachel
rachel
2 years ago
Reply to  Cindi

Thank you so much for sharing your story. This is what I’m working towards (balancing the living-life-now/keeping-an-eye-towards-the-future) and I loved reading your experiences. Keep doing what you’re doing 🙂

FIRECracker
FIRECracker
2 years ago

That’s a sad story. I have a similar one about a friend of a friend who died at 32 from a heart-attack from overworking himself to death (this was a person who worked at the same company as me, but in a different department). His boss and team members planted a tree in this honour at the back of the building where he worked, but one week later, they forgot all about it and continue working crazy hours and ignoring their health. The moral of the story: don’t waste your life. Time is more valuable than money. We all ended… Read more »

S.G.
S.G.
2 years ago

I wonder sometimes if the FI community winds up in a cycle where they decide on FI because they are unhappy about their lives, especially their jobs. So they pick a number and focus on meeting it, which means more of their lives wind up tied up working extra hours at the job they hate and they aren’t enjoying as much of their regular lives (and yes, I know there is still joy in free activities, but cutting expenses does often mean sacrifice and harder work at home to save money) and it winds up in a cycle until they… Read more »

JoeHx
JoeHx
2 years ago

I hate being sick, too. It’s not so much the pain and discomfort, but the sudden lack of motivation that gets me. I just want to stay in bed, which means anything I’ve been working on – even easy stuff like video games and reading – gets pushed to the side. I just hate it.

FI, for me, means freedom. Freedom to do what I want. Freedom to spend time with friends and family.

And I get to play with numbers, which is always fun.

Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life
Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life
2 years ago

Hah I had the same goal and it was derailed for the same reason! Twinsies.

But what’s more important is that we work on building our health bit by bit regularly when it won’t hurt more than help. We can do this sensibly.

Scott
Scott
2 years ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

Yeesh! Well, on the upside, at least you’re being treated, and you stopped running before you literally dropped. Here’s to a quick and full recovery, but please don’t rush it. The website and the exercise and so forth will all still be here when you’re ready for them. In particular with the website, some of us have been keeping up with you for a very long time, through a number of sites and a number of periods when you were a little scarce, so know that you don’t need to be in a hurry to keep up with new benchmarks… Read more »

S.G.
S.G.
2 years ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

Take care and get better! Hopefully Kim is well and can bring you chicken soup and whatnot.

And maybe get a pneumonia shot next year.

FrugalStrong
FrugalStrong
2 years ago

Absolutely fantastic article, JD. It’s a good reminder for me, as a Type A engineering nerd, to lighten up a bit.

Keisha Blair
Keisha Blair
2 years ago

Great article, JD. These are very important points! My husband passed away at age 34 – sometimes we think we have a whole lifetime to do the things we want and we just don’t. See link to the article I posted about my journey here:

https://journal.thriveglobal.com/my-husband-died-at-age-34-here-are-40-life-lessons-ive-learn-t-17b102935efe

Stephen
Stephen
2 years ago
Reply to  Keisha Blair

Man, as someone who’s about to turn 29, your post there has me feeling pretty somber. The idea of only having 5 years left to live… is terrifying. And the reality is it could be even less than that.

Amanda
Amanda
2 years ago

That reddit story reminds me of my sister. She is so focused on saving money to travel around the world (she takes multiple international trips each year) that she is a cheaper miser the rest of the time. For instance, visiting family over the holidays she refused to rent a car because it would cost her a couple of hundred dollars. Instead she demanded that people drive her, her kids, and her husband around OR give them your vehicle to use. Every interaction with her is like that and she brags how she is able to save so much money… Read more »

Jacq
Jacq
2 years ago

My parents retired early due to good planning and investing. They were my first inspiration and one of my why’s of FI…being able to spend more time with friends and family. But that also means spending time with them now. My friends know, Father’s day I will be at my dad’s, other weekends are scheduled with mom, etc. Yes, I’m spending money to visit mom, I’m also planning to see aunts & cousins from both sides of the family. I’m sure that money could compound into a lot more over 30 years. The memories are much more valuable. My uncle… Read more »

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