the process

Set Yourself Up to Float, Not Sink // Deliberately Seeking Positive Buoyancy

happy monday, friends! as we tweeted last night, we had a pleasant surprise when we got home last night from our long weekend camping trip and discovered that the markets moved in the right direction at the end of last week. we’re now almost back to our july peak. might we actually hit our original targets for this year? fingers crossed…

our short camping trip was a high speed chase of sorts, trying to pack in a trip in between weeks of endless work travel, because #lifeisshort, and we try to live for today just as much as tomorrow. so we may have broken the speed laws of more than one state while we high-tailed it to california’s magnificent eastern sierra, to visit mono lake, one of the oldest lakes on the planet, and also an extremely alkaline one. mono lake is known for its tufa, the calcium carbonate structures you can see in the header image on this post. but it’s also known for how salty it is, because it has no outlet, so evaporation gradually concentrates the salt, which now stands at two-and-a-half times the saltiness of the oceans. all that salt means that swimmers in the lake float very easily. it’s a very disconcerting experience, actually, how easy it is to float.

and that got us thinking… it’s easy to think that swimming is swimming. but it’s not. swimming in a regular swimming pool is what most of us are used to, which is about the same as swimming in a normal lake. we’ve heard from friends of ours who compete in triathlons that it’s much harder to swim in race conditions, because the churned up water from all those swimmers makes the water less dense, making your body less buoyant. but swimming in a very salty lake, on the other hand, where the water is more dense and your body more buoyant, is easier. add in currents, and you’ve got more variables: swimming against the current can feel impossible, while swimming with it can make you feel like you could outpace michael phelps.

so something very simple, which many of us learn to do as children, is not actually as straightforward as it seems. swimming — or even floating — is not an absolute act, but a relative one. and that means that we can make choices that make it easier or harder for ourselves. we can choose water that makes us more buoyant, and we can swim with the current. we can choose not to think of our swimming as a race, and avoid that churned up, less dense water. (you already know where we’re going with this.)

so many of us try to keep up with the joneses, which means thinking of our finances as a race of sorts, which puts us in the absolute worst conditions to succeed if our goal is to float, not to sink. what if, instead of seeking that choppy water, we seek out our own out-of-the-way lake, where we can’t help but float? or we find our own stream where we can have the current at our backs, helping to guide us forward?

all of this reminds us of our sliding doors weekend, when we felt like we went back in time to see what our lives would have been like — how expensive and wasteful they would be — if we had stayed in our old group of friends on the east coast. that would have been swimming against the current in choppy waters. instead, we moved to small town and surrounded ourselves with frugal friends — finding a more buoyant place with the current on our side.

and it made us ask ourselves: what else can we do to make ourselves more buoyant? how can we set ourselves up to float, not sink? a lot of it is mindset, and realigning our goals has helped us to stay positive in the face of the market correction.

but there are any number of things that any of us can do to set ourselves up to float:

move to a lower cost of living area — we left the expensive city for a lower cost (though still expensive) mountain town. we could move somewhere cheaper still.

minimize housing costs — we bought a lot less house than the banks said we could afford, and we’re contemplating downsizing. we could downsize our energy bills by collecting our own firewood instead of buying it.

surround yourself with frugal people, instead of big spenders — we love our outdoorsy friends, who’d rather go for a hike than an expensive meal. and we live in our very middle class neighborhood, where neighbors aren’t regularly rolling up in a new benz. (more like old jeeps and subarus, and an array of pickup trucks.)

stop trying to keep up with the joneses — working from home is great for this. we don’t worry about what we wear except when we travel for work, and we don’t have to hear about our coworkers’ new this-or-that.

spend consciously, not frivolously — this one was a big adjustment for us, but going from baller to saver puts us closer to our big early retirement goal every day. we’re still working on getting the grocery costs down farther.

put systems in place that work for you — we know that we’re bad at following a budget, but rather than let ourselves feel like failures and give up, we created a multi-faceted system of paying ourselves first. we could still get better at figuring out some systems that will help us work out more consistently and destress more effectively while we’re still working and traveling a ton.

get clear on your big life goals, and work hard to achieve them — life is short. don’t waste time trying to reach goals that aren’t important to you. since we figured out that early retirement is our ultimate life goal, we have dropped just about everything else and been laser-focused on doing whatever we need to do to reach that goal.

surround yourself with people who support you — this is probably the biggest one. besides separating yourself from people who pressure you to spend, even without meaning to, the best thing each of us can do to ensure we float is to surround ourselves with people who lift us up, rather than people who pull us down. it’s been tough, but we’ve let go of some friendships that brought negativity into our lives, and invested heavily in the ones that make us feel like better people. (psst — that includes you! like it our not, you’re our friends, since you’re a huge positive force in our lives, and you help us get better at this early retirement journey all the time.) :-)

what do you do to set yourself up to float instead of sink? have you observed any common habits that people might see as “buoyancy neutral,” that actually make you more likely to sink than float? anyone else been to mono lake? please share in the comments!

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27 replies »

  1. I love the object lesson. I would say we’ve been guilty of being “buoyancy neutral” as you say. We weren’t bad at finances, but we were stagnant. We spent less than we earned, but never adjusted our savings amount up… we let lifestyle creep happen slowly, because that’s what happens when you don’t adjust your savings up periodically. Now we’re getting better at swimming! :)

    • I’d say you guys are getting better! It seems like you’re on a great path, and think about things just the right way. I think we’ve all been guilty of lifestyle inflation at some point, and I actually don’t think that’s all bad. If you’ve never known some of the things that you once spent on but have now chosen not to, you can’t ever know that you don’t really need those things. Then it would just be “the grass is always greener.” We are happy with what we spent in the past because it tells us that we really don’t need that stuff, and can now be completely content in that knowledge. :-)

  2. My biggest weakness is some of my friends and co-workers who live the fancy life. I do get tempted – especially by some fancier vacation stories. But, I just try and remind myself that the $8,000 week vacation is the same price of 3-4 months of FI life… so that helps :)

    I love mono lake! Well, I love the Sierras… you all are so lucky to live close by to there. We would really like to retire to that part of the US, but the cost of living seems too high. bummer.

    • That’s a good reminder to keep that Joneses envy away. :-) We have put it into terms that $100 equals a day of financial independence, more or less. So every $100 we spend means trading a day, which helps us think it through more clearly. You’re right about mountain towns in the west being pricey — though we’ve heard that Montana isn’t bad! :-)

      • Montana intrigues me, but my husband seems scared of the intense cold. We were looking in Idaho for a while too… who knows where we will end up!

  3. I think that it’s the implementation of all of these tactics that keep us bouyant, but an eye on continuous improvement keeps us questioning other areas of life that may weigh us down. Surrounding ourselves with positive, like-minded folks in our online and offline lives has helped significantly with staying positive and focused on the future.

    • You guys are the poster children for really thinking about how you can make yourselves more buoyant! Moving into the little house is a bold step, and one that I’ll always admire. :-) And we’re with you — the community here (and to a lesser extent IRL for us) is a huge positive!

  4. Love the topic. To me, the two most important factors in completely managing your own finances are: 1: Having confidence, and 2: Ignoring everyone else (in other words, stop trying to keep up with the Jonses).

    Surrounding yourself with supportive friends is a huge, huge part of it too, though I admit to have completely failed in that regard. All of my friends are still in the spend-spend-spend mind set and perfectly willing to continue sentencing themselves to a lifetime of office work.

    But luckily, #1 is still running in my favor. My wife and I have so much confidence in what we are doing (as you can probably tell in our blog posts!) that it almost automatically takes care of #2 for us. We don’t give a wit what our friends are doing, and we certainly don’t let them detract us from our larger goals of financial independence and early retirement. In fact, I get a bit of a sense of satisfaction when I see how they are living their lives, because I used to live exactly like that. Observing the traditional spending habits of Americans tends to remind those of us who are more frugal of just how LITTLE we are missing.

    For example, one friend spends thousands and thousands of dollars on sports cars. Another just HAS to have the latest Apple product. Another one got into horses and now spends well over a grand every MONTH to board, feed and maintain them.

    I think you hit on another important point about goals. Goals give us something to work towards. If we have no goals, that also means we have no means to measure “success”. We just keep saving and saving and saving for…what? Financial independence is a goal. Early retirement is a goal. Transitioning from full time to part time work is a goal. But saving without a goal doesn’t provide near the structure and pathway needed for a lot of people to take charge of their finances. Without goals, it all just seems so pointless.

    I think you guys have a MAJOR positive as you head into early retirement, and it’s *the ability to downsize*. From what I gather – and I could be wrong – you are basing your retirement plans primarily on where you’re living now, which will naturally take more resources to support and maintain. But if things do get tight for whatever reason, you have enough room to downsize to reduce your expenses probably $10k or more yearly. That’s an awesome backup plan.

    I have been to your mountain town area many times as a kid when we lived in CA, but we’ve never been to Mono Lake. I’m not much of a swimmer, but I’m kinda intrigued by how easy it is to float in Mono Lake. Maybe one day we’ll swing by with the RV and spend a few weeks in the area so I can test for myself just how easy-swimmin’ that lake truly is! :)

    And the photography doesn’t seem bad, either.

    • Mono Lake is a goldmine for photography, and it’s close to the Yosemite High Country, so I assume you guys will spend some time there once you hit the road. :-) It’s not a lake where you’d want to bring out the floaties and spend the day — it’s more like a quick swim to go, “Oh wow, it feels weird!” and then you quickly rinse all that alkaline water off and go about your day. :-)

      It’s interesting that you guys don’t have the positive social circle at least in terms of frugality, but you’re so right that you make up for it with confidence — that comes through loud and clear on your blog!

      And you’ve connected the dots correctly — we’re planning to stay put (our best case scenario), but are totally prepared to downsize either if we need to free up more capital or if we just feel like we don’t need the “big house” anymore once we retire and aren’t working from home. Jury’s still out…

      Hope your week is off to a great start!

      • It seems that our week is always off to a great start when we get to read one of your new blog posts. Thanks for posting on Monday – you always make us think and feel thankful that we found your wonderful blog. :)

  5. This is a wonderful analogy! One of the biggest things I think about when setting yourself up to float is getting comfortable: comfortable with the idea of money, with the strategy behind money, with conversations about money, and many more aspects. It’s challenging to reverse how you use/save/spend/give money if you have been brought up finding ways to avoid managing it responsibly altogether. I always revert back to the psychological aspect of how you feel about money as the first big step, then talk strategy to find more ways to stay afloat! A common habit I see is lifestyle creep – a few years out of college lots of people are starting to make career moves and/or receive promotions. These changes can be viewed as “buoyancy neutral” because instead of using that increase in salary to reach financial goals, it’s used on more opulent expenses (music festivals, trips abroad, etc.).

    • Okay, we’d put music festivals in the totally worth it, completely justifiable expense category. :-) Haha! But you are completely right on that lifestyle inflation is the biggest threat to people’s buoyancy, especially as we all start to convince ourselves that we “deserve” more. Maybe buoyancy is a good metaphor for that, too — we should accept that neutral buoyancy (floating) is good enough, and not seek to hop onto larger and larger watercraft! :-)

  6. My biggest floatation device is focusing on and studying my own road. I’ve learned that most purchases don’t add much to my life. In fact, I feel better when I save the most. Once I realized this, it made not spending that much easier. Though, I’m happy to splurge on travel :)
    It also helps that I have good examples around me, both of what to do and not to do. The wealthy people around me are openly very frugal and it seems that those I know don’t make very much are the ones spending like crazy. So the strong swimmers are floating pretty in Mono Lake and the weak swimmers are trying to swim against the current in a fast river. Sometimes I think the weak swimmers are fighting too hard against the current that they can’t lift their head out of the water to look around and see there is another way to live.

    • That’s pretty incredible that you have frugal wealthy people in your social circle! How wonderful to get that validation, if nothing else. And travel is the one thing we never regret spending on. We might regret taking a cab instead of the train to or from an airport, but never regret the big picture expense.

  7. Moving to small town with like minded people has been the big freedom maker for me. No one knew us here before. We have no baggage, we just are. We live simply and easily, supplementing our food bill with fresh garden produce and my biggest form of relaxation and refreshment is lying in my hammock. Where you live and who you live with makes a huge difference to your life. Oh and I drive a pick up.

    • That sounds perfect. You make a great point that we didn’t raise here: preconceptions and social expectations can create a lot of spending pressure. Like you, a big part of the benefit we got from moving to a small town is that we were unknown quantities here, and could establish a more frugal reputation for ourselves than we had in the city. Thanks for commenting!

  8. Surrounding myself with like-minded people helps me stay afloat. I don’t have a lot of friends who share the same financial views but at least my immediate family, my partner and this guy I sit with (and talk to all the time) at work (haha!) are all conscious spenders. Being grateful and avoiding comparing myself to others also work. I learned that comparing harvests jealousy and jealousy makes people miserable – this is probably one of the reasons why some people feel the need to inflate their lifestyle.

    Awesome stuff, as always! I hope you guys have a great week ahead! :)

    p.s. I actually don’t know how to swim.

    • It’s never too late to learn! There are lots of things I didn’t learn until I was an adult — skiing, mountain biking, and more.

      That’s so great you have an immediate social support network with good values around spending. And the comparison and jealousy point is huge.

      Hope you’re doing well! :-)

  9. Love the analogy. My biggest flotation device right now is the small emergency fund I built for myself a few years ago (when I said, “Hey, I should probably do something about my terrible finances!”). I’m still in debt payoff mode right now, but having some funds set aside for unexpected car repairs, etc., has really improved my “swim” so to speak.