Lets not sugar coat it, becoming financially independent and retiring early will be HARD. Leaving the rat race years or decades before what is ‘normal’ and having a large enough stash to last past your 150th birthday is no small feat. It will take hard work and commitment, but most important of all it will require a radical new mindset. Here are three ideas that may help along the way:
1) Redefine Successful
The biggest barrier to changing the way we spend and save is our status anxiety. The fear that if we don’t abide by the norms of modern western consumer culture and buy and do all the things the media and advertising define as ‘success’ that we’ll be miserable losers. So instead we make crazy decisions like buying fancy cars, expensive clothes and electrical gadgets which we think will make us happy, or cool or both. Of course, when we take time to reflect on the absurdity of this way of living we see it for the madness that it is. But everybody else seems to be doing it and we don’t want to be the odd one out (humans are pack animals) so we just kind of go along with it anyway.
The good news is that embracing a less consumerist lifestyle and not keeping up with the Jones’ doesn’t require masses of willpower (remember this is a blog post about mindset). If you really believe that the trappings of status will make you happy then denying yourself these things will make you miserable. But its not the presence or absence of things that makes us happy or unhappy, it is the presence or absence of desire for things.
Craving and desire are the cause of all unhappiness. Everything sooner or later must change, so do not become attached to anything. Instead devote…
Nurturing a sense of inner peace and devoting yourself to higher spiritual goals is one way of redefining success as many great spiritual and religious leaders have taught.
Thankfully for the weaker of spirit among us there is another way to free yourself of the desire for superficial status symbols – become an obnoxious smug know-it-all!
The Jones’ are sad, status obsessed wannabees wasting their money on frivolous crap because they are stupid.
There is something darkly enjoyable about feeling smugly superior to people and it makes frugality a breeze. You don’t want to be like the Jones’. The Jones’ are idiots. What kind of moron spends $40,000 on a car when you can get one that does all the same stuff just as well for $4000? Why would you pay full price for clothes when you can get the same stuff second hand for a fraction of the price – do you enjoy paying more to have to remove stickers and labels? All those people paying for cafe lunches 5 days a week instead of spending a fraction of that money on a packed lunched – financially illiterate fools! I wonder whether people will look back when they are 65 and still working and think “Wow – I’m so glad I spent those extra few hundred dollars on that phone that did all the same things as my old phone but had a curved edge – what a great investment of my hard earned cash”.
So there it is. It’s up to you whether you prefer to take the high road or the low road, as long as the road leads away from all that stuff you don’t really need.
2) Focus on Freedom
This might seem counter-intuitive but one of the best ways to become financially free is to become aware of the many ways your freedom is constrained. If you are lucky you have a job you enjoy, and that can be great, but it would feel even greater if you were free. While you are dependent on the income your job provides to support yourself (and or your family) then work is not optional and that makes it not fun. There is something in the Kiwi psyche that is fiercely independent and anti authoritarian, we don’t seem to like stuff that is compulsory. This can be seen in the way Kiwis (including many low income workers) rejected compulsory unionism, we rejected compulsory retirement savings, even though we know it is something we should do – we just didn’t like to be told we had to. We even rejected when the ‘nanny state’ tried to make energy saving light bulbs compulsory: “Screw you NZ government, you can’t force me to save energy and massively reduce the cost of lighting my house!”.
One of the more entertaining personal finance bloggers is a British guy called ‘The Escape Artist‘. He compares the journey to financial freedom to The Great Escape in a kind of fun way. Your boss and the system represent the guards trying to keep you imprisoned in your 9-5 workaday life till you are old and grey. Your family, friends and colleagues are mostly docile prisoners resigned to their sentence, unwilling to rock the boat or question the propaganda the guards feed them. But once you know that escape is possible you become animated by it, unwilling to accept your fate you are constantly and quietly working away towards your eventual release. Freedom is not something that just all arrives out of the blue one day, it is bought slowly piece by piece over time. Think of each investment or saving adding to your speed and altitude until eventually one day you reach escape velocity and can soar over those prison walls.
The first step for me was a bank account given the name ‘Freedom Fund’. Lots of people have a rainy day fund/emergency savings account. The difference with the Freedom Fund is it has a positive focus and long term objective. Having savings in case something bad happens is a short term goal with a negative focus, purchasing freedom from the rat race is a long term goal with a positive focus. Every dollar that is put in the fund is purchasing a tiny little slice of freedom and those pieces add up quickly
Purchased freedom has great value well before full Financial Independence is achieved. One of the recurring themes in Financial Independence blogs is the concept of ‘F – You Money’ this is an emergency fund sufficient to cover for loss of income for a lengthy period of time should you ever decide you want to tell the boss “F – You”. I can personally attest to the power of this concept. I have never told my boss “F – You” and probably never will, but having a decent emergency fund means that if I ever felt I needed to I could. It also means that the time I went to ask for a 6 month leave or the time I asked for that promotion, or the time I went to ask for flexible working hours I was able to approach it with confidence and negotiate as an equal partner rather than accept whatever was offered, safe in the knowledge that if push came to shove I could just walk away from the job. The money was still sat in our bank account unused, but on some psychological level I had spent it buying just a little bit of my freedom and that felt great!
3) Get Some Perspective
One of the foundations of financial literacy is learning to distinguish between needs and wants. In our 24/7 advertising saturated consumer culture it is all to easy to forget that human beings really have a very basic set of needs. We need food and water and warmth and shelter. We are social animals, we need company and belonging and love and affection. In a practical sense we need some form of income or employment to pay for these things. We are now on level three of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and it’s about here that we start to get a little wobbly. Once we are in the area of ‘esteem’ our needs stop being absolute and start to become relative. We start caring about the Jones’ again. Before we know it we find ourselves trapped in a work and spend treadmill where we are sacrificing those basic needs like our health and well-being just to compete – madness!
So what is the antidote to this loss of perspective? One part of it is around taking a big picture view and practicing gratitude. Even the most hard up of Kiwi’s are able to live a lifestyle of massive opulence compared to 100 years ago. Even if we compare ourselves only within the present day, we live in a country of incredible wealth. We have safety and security, a fantastic natural environment, a first world healthcare system and a social safety net which means that unlike many parts of the world and many generations past it is basically unknown to see people starving or suffering from preventable disease. Of course we can always be wealthier than we are, but lets not feel too hard up just yet. Visit the Global Rich List to see how you rank, then remind yourself that you may be in the top 5-10% of wealthy people in the world and have aspirations to be in the top 1%, things aren’t so bad – then say thank you! 🙂
Purchasing your freedom is a long journey and it’s not always going to be easy. But having the right mindset is half the battle. If you know what success looks like, you understand why you are making the change and you have a rational perspective on your current position and what your real needs are then that’s a good foundation. All that’s left is just to get started. Happy saving!