Beyond wealth: What happens AFTER you achieve financial independence?
In their classic Your Money or Your Life, Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin argue that the relationship between spending and happiness is non-linear.
More spending brings more fulfillment — up to a point. But spending too much can actually have a negative impact on your quality of life. The authors suggest that personal fulfillment — that is, contentment — can be graphed on a curve that looks like this:
Beyond the peak, Stuff starts to take control of your life. Buying a sofa made you happy, so you buy recliners to match. Your DVD collection grows from 20 titles to 200, and you drink expensive hot chocolate made from Peruvian cocoa beans. Soon your house is so full of Stuff that you have to buy a bigger home — and rent a storage unit. But none of this makes you any happier. In fact, all of your things become a burden. Rather than adding to your fulfillment, buying new Stuff actually detracts from it.
The sweet spot on the Fulfillment Curve is in the Luxuries section, where money gives you the most happiness: You've provided for your survival needs, you have some creature comforts, and you even have a few luxuries. Life is grand. Your spending and your happiness are perfectly balanced. You have Enough.
According to Dominguez and Robin, your goal should be to achieve Financial Independence, the condition of having Enough for the rest of your life. "Financial Independence has nothing to do with rich," they write. "Financial Independence is the experience of having enough -- and then some." This is achieved when your savings has reached a level that will sustain you at the peak of the Fulfillment Curve indefinitely.
As many Get Rich Slowly readers have discovered over the years, the exercises and advice in Your Money or Your Life can transform your relationship with money, helping to break your dependency on Stuff. It's a great book for learning how to align your spending with your values. It provides a roadmap to Financial Independence.
Where Your Money or Your Life is less good, however, is providing advice for what to do after you've reached this goal. What happens when you achieve Financial Independence? What happens when you have enough — and then some? Many people reach this place only to find themselves wondering, "What next?" It's an important question, one that's often tough to answer.
What is money for? An evening with Vicki Robin
When I was a boy, my heroes were athletes and astronauts. I dreamed of playing pro football one day. Or, better yet, walking on the moon.
As an adult, my heroes are more mundane. They're the people who make personal finance accessible to average people. Long-time readers know that billionaire investor Warren Buffett is one of my heroes. So too is Dave Ramsey, who has helped countless people -- including me -- get out of debt.
But perhaps my biggest hero is an unassuming 73-year-old woman in cat-eye glasses who lives on Whidbey Island in Washington's Puget Sound.
In 1992, Vicki Robin (and her partner, Joe Dominguez) published Your Money or Your Life, a book designed to help readers transform their relationship with money. In 2004, the book transformed my relationship with money. It rocked my world. It inspired me to seek financial independence, which the book defines as "no longer having to work for money".
Fast-forward fifteen years.
Today, in 2019, I'm awe-struck to actually be exchanging email with Vicki Robin, discussing the past, present, and future of financial independence. And this week, when she came to Portland, I not only got to hear her speak in person, but also got to treat her to dinner.
Your Money or Your Life
Last night, Douglas Tsoi, founder of the Portland Underground Graduate School and the School of Financial Freedom, hosted a talk from Vicki Robin. A few dozen money nerds -- including some GRS readers (Hi, Scott! Hi, Brandon!) -- gathered to hear Robin's thoughts about financial independence.
For the sake of clarity, I've taken some liberties in what follows. I haven't changed any of Robin's ideas, but I've shifted some topics and quotes in order to create a smoother, more coherent flow for the blog. I've treated Robin's Q&A responses, for instance, as if they're part of the main talk. A real journalist would be mortified. I am not a real journalist.
Some folks in the audience were unfamiliar with Your Money or Your Life, so Robin started by briefly recapping the book's message.
The goal of Your Money or Your Life, Robin says, is to transform your relationship with money in order to liberate your most precious resource, time. The book's nine-step program is meant to help readers track the flow of money and stuff in their lives, guided by both self-interest ("does it work for me?") and higher values ("does it work for the world?").
It's natural that we act in our own self-interest. If we aren't right with ourselves, it's tough be of service to others. But Robin worries that too many people get stuck in the self-interest side of things and never move beyond that, never see how achieving financial independence gives them the freedom to leave a lasting, positive impression on the world.
Like me, she wants people to "live on purpose".
Saving regret — and how to avoid it
In November 2018, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a paper called "Saving Regret" [here's the full PDF version]. Once you wade through the study's academic language, there's some interesting stuff here about why people do and don't save for retirement.
Saving regret, the authors say, is "the wish in hindsight to have saved more earlier in life".
Obviously, you can suffer from saving regret at any age. When I met 31-year-old Debbie for dinner last week, her issues boiled down to saving regret. She wishes she'd saved more when she was younger. But for the purposes of this paper, the authors turned their attention to folks aged 60 to 79, people of traditional retirement age.
The researchers found that two-thirds of those surveyed said they should have saved more when they were working: "66.6 percent said they would save more if they could re-do their earlier life."
As you might expect, the authors found that high-wealth and high-income people experience less saving regret. (I'm pleased that the researchers recognize that there's a difference between income and wealth.)
But what causes saving regret in the first place? Why don't people save more? Let's take a look at what the study found.
Sources of Saving Regret
In their survey of 1590 people, the authors asked about education, personality, and what they term "positive and negative shocks". (The latter is basically trying to to determine how unexpected events affect saving.)
After compiling the results, they reached these conclusions:
- "We found only modest evidence for a relationship between our measures of procrastination and the desire to re-optimize saving." Yes, procrastination is a factor in saving regret. But it's not as big as you might expect.
- Failure to anticipate negative shocks — underestimating their probability and effects — has a greater effect on saving regret.
- Overall, "a substantial percentage of respondents view their economic preparation to be adequate, yet they nonetheless express saving regret." In other words, as many GRS have experienced, even when you think you have enough saved, you often wish you had more.
"Saving regret is high at the time of or shortly before retirement but is much lower at older ages," the authors write. They believe there are two reasons for this.
Financial freedom and the value of time
Note from J.D.
Last October, I had a chance to read an advance copy of Grant Sabatier's new book, Financial Freedom, which was just released this morning. I liked it. I loved parts of it. In fact, the second chapter of Financial Freedom inspired my article about how time is more valuable than money.
Today, I'm pleased to present a (heavily edited) excerpt from that second chapter. Here's Sabatier on why time is more valuable than money -- and why you can and should retire early. (Links and photos are from me. Everything else is from the book. Note, however, I've heavily edited this chapter in order to abridge it and to make it more readable in blog format.)
If some ninety-year-old rich dude offered you $100 million to trade places with him, would you do it? Of course not. Why? Because time is more valuable than money.
The average person has approximately 25,000 days to live in their adult life. If you’re reading this, you likely need to trade your time for money in order to live a life that is safe, healthy, and happy. But if you didn’t have to work to make money, you’d be able to spend that time however you wanted.
No one cares about your time as much as you do. People will try to take your time and fill it up with meetings and calls and more meetings. But it’s your time. Your only time. Financial Freedom is designed to help you make the most of it. Make money buy time.
My goal is to help you retire as early as possible. When I say retire, I don’t mean that you'll never work again, only that you’ll have enough money so that you never have to work again. This is complete financial freedom — the ability to do whatever you want with your time.
Traditional Retirement Advice Doesn't Work
I don’t ever plan to retire in the traditional sense of the word, but you could say that I’m “retired” now because I have enough money and freedom to spend my time doing whatever I want. I no longer have to work for money, but I still enjoy making money, and it’s attached to many of the things I enjoy doing. I love working and challenging myself and hopefully always will, so checking out to a life of leisure just isn’t my vibe.
If you want to “retire” sooner rather than later, you need to rethink everything you’ve been taught about retirement and probably most of what you’ve been taught about money. As a society, we have collectively adopted one approach to retiring: get a job, set aside a certain portion of your income in a 401(k) or other retirement account, and in 40+ years you’ll have enough money saved that you can stop working for good.
This approach is designed to get you to retire in your sixties or seventies, which explains why pretty much every advertisement about retirement shows silver-haired grandmas and grandpas (typically on a golf course or walking along the beach).
There are three major problems with this approach:
- It doesn’t work for most people.
- You end up spending the most valuable years of your life working for money.
- It’s not designed to help you “retire” as quickly as possible.
The first major problem with traditional retirement advice is that even if you follow it perfectly (and most people usually don’t), you still might not have enough to live on when you are in your sixties.
The popular advice to save 5% to 10% of your income isn't enough. You should be saving as much money as early and often as you can. If you want to be sure you'll be able to retire at 65, you need to start (and keep) saving at least 20% of your income from the age of 30.
Here’s how big a difference it makes.
Am I financially independent? (And does it matter?)
It's been two years since I last looked at my overall financial situation to determine whether I have the resources to meet my goals. In those two years, much has changed.
I sold my condo and bought a home in the country. I repurchased Get Rich Slowly. I invested in not one but three other businesses. The stock market has bounced around, I've begun part-time work at the family business, and I've made many other minor adjustments to my daily life.
With all of these fluctuations, I'm naturally left to wonder: Am I still financially independent?
As I've mentioned many times, financial freedom exists along a continuum. For the sake of this article, I'm discussing the fifth stage of FI, the point at which investment income supports standard of living.
At the end of 2016, I was FI (but only just). What about at the end of 2018? Do I still have enough saved to fund my future indefinitely? Let's find out.
Five lessons I learned while making a documentary film about FIRE
When J.D. decided to spend three weeks in Europe with his family, he asked a few people if they'd be interested in contributing articles during his absence. He even asked me!
My name is Scott Rieckens, and I'm new to the world of smart money management. I'm new to the world of financial independence and early retirement. I'm new, but I've totally immersed myself in it. I've immersed myself so much, in fact, that I've spent the past eighteen months creating a feature film about FIRE. (FIRE is the clumsy abbreviation for "financial independence/retire early". Basically, the FIRE movement is all about saving big so that you can choose to live however you want.)
"You've been in a unique position over the past year," J.D. said when I asked him what I should write about. "You've had amazing access to a variety of people who think and write and teach about financial independence and early retirement. You've been able to hear what they think and say in private as well as public. What about sharing your biggest takeaways from this experience?"
Perfect! I can dish out everyone's dirty laundry and avoid posting those embarrassing stories on my own site. It's a win-win for me, really. J.D. is such a sucker.
You ready? Let's go behind the scenes of the early retirement movement. Here are five things I learned while filming Playing with Fire.
Lesson #1: The FIRE Movement is Polarizing
When I started down the rabbit hole of early retirement blogs and podcasts, I was swept up in the euphoria that many others have experienced: "Holy moley, I'm going to retire in less than ten years!"
Coming from fifteen years of a spendy, financially-illiterate lifestyle, this was a huge revelation that gave me hope, joy, excitement, and...butterflies. Imagine the control over your life! Imagine the freedom! Think of all the ideas I will chase, the whims I can explore! Think of what this means for my family!
Somehow, though, I missed the blog post or podcast episode that explained just how difficult it can be to live within the FIRE framework while the people around you wonder what the hell you're talking about.
- "But I like my job."
- "That sort of lifestyle sounds terrible."
- "Are you joining a cult?"
These reactions dampened my enthusiasm. Nobody had warned me that there might be people who thought we were crazy for pursuing financial freedom.
Now, as FIRE is spreading through the mass media, there's been push-back from unexpected corners. Financial guru Suze Orman says she hates the FIRE movement. The comments on articles and interviews around the web are often negative -- even hateful.
I wasn't expecting that. How can something so positive be viewed with so much negativity?
Since starting our project, the number-one thing we hear from early retirement folks is: "I really hope this film makes it easier to share FIRE with my friends and family. Every time it comes up, things get weird and my already-socially-anxious-self gets all clammy."
I can say unequivocally that we have the same hopes.
Our society's relationship with money seems completely broken. When the best-selling vehicles are full-sized $60,000 trucks, yet 70% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, it seems the general population is managing money at a fifth-grade level. (And again, that used to be me before I found FIRE.)
We've got a lot of work ahead of us.
Which matters more for building wealth: Your saving rate or your investment returns?
My name is Zach, and I write at Four Pillar Freedom, where I tend to tackle financial topics through data visualization. While J.D. is on vacation, I offered to explore one of his favorite topics: the effects of saving rate versus investment returns.
Albert Einstein supposedly once said that compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world.But does data actually support this claim?
In this post, I explore the nature of compound interest, how long it takes to become an important factor in wealth accumulation, and whether or not it actually matters much for people who hope to achieve financial independence in a relatively short time.
What matters more: your saving rate or your investment returns?
Accumulating Wealth in the Early Years
Suppose your goal is to achieve a net worth of $1 million. If you invest $10,000 every year and earn a 7% annual return on your investments -- which is a reasonable assumption for long-term stock market returns -- you'll accumulate $1 million in about 30.7 years.
The chart below shows exactly how long it would take to reach every $100,000 net worth milestone, using the assumptions of a $10,000 annual investment earning a 7% annual return:
Notice how each $100,000 net worth milestone takes less time to reach than the last. In fact, it's mind-boggling to see that it will take youlongerto go from $0 to $100,000 than it will to go from $600,000 to $1 million:
The first $100,000 takes the longest to save because you don't receive much help from investment returns early on. The time it takes you to go from $0 to $100,000 is mostly dependent on the gap between your income and your spending.
How we used geographic arbitrage to pursue our dreams (and enrich our lives)
Howdy. My name is Michael Robinson. While J.D. is visiting Europe with his cousins, I volunteered to share how my wife and I have leveraged the power of geographic arbitrage to pursue our dreams -- and to build our wealth.
Geographic arbitrage means taking advantage of the differences in prices between various locations. You earn money in a stronger economy (San Francisco, maybe, or the U.S. in general) and spend it in a weaker economy (South Dakota or Ecuador, for instance).
Geographic arbitrage is a powerful tactic worth considering if you want to increase your saving rate so that you can better pursue your financial goals. Several times over the course of our lives together so far, my wife and I have managed to unwittingly stumble upon the benefits of geographic arbitrage.
How to retire early: Early retirement by the numbers
More and more, I'm meeting people who want to know how to retire early. There's been a lot of buzz in the media lately about early retirement, and that's led folks to wonder how much money they would need to quit their jobs -- or if early retirement is even something they should consider.
Why retire early? Well, for most people a job is a necessary evil. We work because we have to. Early retirement gives us the flexibility to choose how we spend our time, whether that entails sitting on the beach drinking margaritas or it leads to new work that provides meaning and fulfillment.
Lots of us dream of leaving the workplace in our forties or fifties instead of sticking it out until age 65 -- but we keep working to support the lifestyles to which we've become accustomed. We like our iPhones and Playstations and Priuses, so we surrender to the idea that we'll have fifty-year careers.
Still, there are a surprising number of folks who manage to retire young. In fact, the 2018 EBRI Retirement Confidence Survey found that 35% of retirees left the workforce before they turned 60. (Previous surveys have shown that 18% of people retire by age 55.)
These folks aren't lucky lottery winners, and most didn't have high-paying careers. In general, those who manage to retire early have opted to live with less when they're younger so they can obtain financial freedom before they're too old to enjoy it.
Early retirement is a fantastic goal, but it can be tough to achieve. Three major obstacles stand in your way:
- You have less time to earn money. If you start working at 20 and retire at 65, you have 45 income-producing years. But if you retire at 45, you only have 25 income-producing years.
- You spend more time living on your savings. Life expectancy for the average American is nearly 80 years. If you retire at 65, your savings will probably have to last only ten to twenty years; if you retire at 45, your savings may need to support you for thirty or forty years.
- You don't enjoy traditional retirement benefits. If you retire young, you can't access Social Security or Medicare for several years -- or decades. You also face penalties if you choose to access your retirement accounts before you reaching minimum age requirements. (I'm experiencing issues with this gap already!)
In short, early retirees have less time to make money, and that money has to last them longer. Even if you stay healthy and the economy cooperates, that's asking a lot.
That's not to say you shouldn't plan to retire early -- it's a laudable goal, one that I encourage here at Get Rich Slowly -- but if you're serious about doing so, you need to be diligent. You need to have a plan. And you need to understand the numbers.
Let's take a look at the basics of how to retire early — and why you might want to do so.
Time is more valuable than money
It's a GRS tradition! Each year on Halloween, I publish a story about planning for death. Usually these are general articles about estate planning. This year's story is personal.
When my best friend died in 2009, one of my biggest regrets was that I hadn't made time to travel with him.
Sparky had previously asked me to join him on trips to Burning Man (in 1996) and southeast Asia (in 1998) and Mexico (in 2003). I'd declined each invitation, in part because I was deep in debt but also because I thought there'd be plenty of time to do that sort of thing in the future.
Turns out, there wasn't plenty of time to do that sort of thing in the future.
After Sparky died, I resolved to make the most of opportunities like this. Being in a better financial position helped. Having ample savings gives me the flexibility to join friends on short adventures or to explore the U.S. by RV for fifteen months without money worries. (Yes, I realize that's a fortunate position to be in.)
Here's an example. In 2012, my cousin Duane asked me to join him for a three-week trip to Turkey. Remembering my vow after Sparky's death (and remembering the power of yes), I agreed. That trip to Turkey is one of the highlights of my life so far. I'm glad I did it. It was worth every penny.
The Best Laid Plans
Early in 2017, Duane contacted me. "This fall will be the five-year anniversary of our trip to Turkey," he said. "Want to have another big adventure?"
"Sure!" I said. So, we started planning.
We bought books, watched videos, and browsed websites. We invited Kim to join us. Over the course of several months, our plans crystalized. We'd fly to Paris, rent a car, then spend three or four weeks driving around France and Spain and Portugal, enjoying festivals, experiencing the grape harvest, and exploring ruins. (Duane loves ruins!)
In June of last year, I sent Duane an email. "I'm going to buy plane tickets tomorrow. Do you want me to buy yours?"
"Hold up," he responded. "We need to talk." He called me on the phone.
"What's going on?" I asked.
"Well, J.D., it's like this," he said. "I have cancer. I've been having problems with my throat for a few months, but I thought that was because of indigestion or something. It's not indigestion. I have throat cancer."