All you hear in the news is how everyone has so much consumer debt, student loan debt, mortgage debt, and that retirement is further and further away due to the economy/bad choices/etc. Looking around at our coworkers and most of our friends, this seems to be mostly true. Lots of expensive cars, trips and toys on credit cards, and student loans that often didn’t equate to equally good jobs. The housing market in our area has exploded in the last few years and those who can think about buying are mostly pushing further out to afford a bigger home.
I graduated college at 21 and got married six months later. We bought our home at 23 at the bottom of the market, and my student loans were paid off at 24. My husband and I both work “career” jobs and don’t struggle to pay our bills or worry much about emergency expenses. When we compare ourselves to “most people” our age, we are doing amazingly well. We are comfortable and know most would love to be in our shoes. While we’ve made some good choices and stayed out of debt, this success has allowed us to get complacent. As our incomes have grown, we’ve stayed comfortable and allowed our spending to grow with them.
And then I started reading online blogs about financial independence, and realized that maybe we could do a lot better. I had never really considered an alternative to the traditional work story, and we were comfortably within what we would need for that path. Until I realized that wasn’t the only path – MrMoneyMustache “retired” at 30, Frugalwoods became financially independent in their early 30s, and RetireBy40 beat that goal by two years.
Since we’re in the last months of our twenties and a long ways off from financial independence, they’ve blown us out of the water. Comparison here isn’t the thief of joy, however, because they show what’s possible and what’s better than the story we’re usually told. I always do better when I have a higher benchmark to measure myself against, and only get in trouble when I start focusing on how much better I’m doing than others. There’s no use in measuring against someone who will be stuck working a job they hate until they’re 70 because I know that’s not where I want to be. Better to benchmark ourselves against those who reached financial independence in their 30s and 40s. We may not be ultra ultra frugal like some of these bloggers, but there is considerable room for improvement that can get us there well before the typical 65.
Reading stories of early retirees has also gotten me to realize that “retirement” doesn’t need to mean sit around and do very little with your time. I’ve started to consider what we might want to do and where we might want to be if we weren’t tied to a traditional job. While financial independence looks to be a good fifteen years out for us, it’s sparked dreams and ideas that look very different from what I might have otherwise imagined. Perhaps we will stay right where we are at and continue our careers. Or perhaps we will pick up and move to the islands once our son graduates high school. Financial independence means WE get to decide. Financial freedom to choose our own path.
Since learning about the financial independence / retire early movement, I’m sometimes upset with myself that I’ve “wasted” a decade in which I could have been making even better financial choices. I’ve always been careful with my money, but being ultra frugal hasn’t been my fallback. This means I’ve definitely spent more money and time on things that weren’t worth it. That is part of being human, though. Everyone can look back and see clearly what they could have done better. And I do realize that I’m taking control of this now and not waking up at 60 years old, still at my desk, and realizing I’m trapped with no way out. Instead of being frustrated that I’ve wasted years comparing against the typical consumer, I’m going to take this new focus and do the best we can now. When you know better, you do better.