the process

Finding Your Kindling // Lighting Your FIRE with Contagious Flames

happy monday, friends! a quick note on comments — based on some helpful input, we’ve taken away the requirement to sign in to comment. if that’s been a deterrent to commenting, it’s no longer an issue. if the spam gets out of control, we’ll consider changing things up, but wordpress is pretty great at blocking spam so we’re not too worried. :-)

you know we love a good object lesson here at our next life (like this recent one). last week, i came upon perhaps the most literal one possible, so pardon us if today’s post is a bit on the nose. friday morning, i was sitting by the wood stove, doing my usual mountain winter morning routine: reviving the previous night’s fire to warm the house, checking email, perusing twitter. though merely 10 days ago it was still autumn here, winter came fast to our little hamlet in the mountains, mountains that i’ve been known to describe as “the sexiest range,” because if j money can make budgets sexy, then mountains are no stretch at all. plus people who love mountains (like loooooooovvvvvvvve mountains) know what i’m talking about.

but back to the fire. it was one of those inexplicable days when the fire just would. not. light. when the wood got red and glowy, but wouldn’t produce actual flames. those days are annoying, because they require more effort, and they’re a reminder that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. you can’t just keep blowing on the embers and expect them to light if you’ve already been doing that and it hasn’t worked.

the answer: add kindling.

those little twigs light quickly when they’re touching the hot coals, and flames are contagious. once there’s some actual fire, everything is much more willing to light. in a short time, your obstinate pile of smoldering wood has gone full inferno.

kindlingit can be the same with (capital letters alert) FIRE — financial independence, retire early — hereafter known in the lowercase as “fire.” when we’re working to improve our finances at every stage of the journey — tackling debt, trying to earn more, focusing on saving for a home, investing for retirement — we hit obstacles. we try things that, despite our best intentions, don’t actually help us make much progress. this is the literal fire not wanting to light, despite us wanting it to light. (which reminds me of when homer simpson lectures the parrot that “it’s not enough to want a cracker. you have to earn it.” take that, you entitled parrot.) the point of the kindling is not only to get us past those obstacles, and to get the fire going a little, but to get those flames to start spreading — and spreading fast.

in my own life, i think back a decade or so to when i was anxiously trying to pay off my debt, which included $12K in credit card debt, a $16K car loan and $10K in student loans. i wanted that debt gone so badly, and i was trying hard to make bigger payments than the minimum, but i hadn’t yet gotten my spending under control. the result: smoldering embers, but no flames. at that point, the kindling i needed was greater focus on reducing spending. as it happened, that was when the now-mr. onl and i moved in together, and we decided that paying off my debt (he had none) was our top priority. moving in together allowed me to stop essentially all of my spending — he paid the rent and bought groceries — and i devoted most of my paycheck to paying off debt, killing all $38K in two years. (i did not earn much in those days, so that was a big accomplishment.) even if we hadn’t moved in together, i was arriving at the conclusion on my own that i needed to stop spending if i was serious about debt repayment — no more purchased lunches at work, no more $10 cocktails out with friends, no more new clothes for work. the kindling i needed — the ingredient i had to add — was to free up more of my income for debt repayment, which meant spending less (and, in our case, adding mr. onl’s income to the mix helped speed that up a ton).

but of course the story doesn’t end there — paying off some debt doesn’t equal being all set for early retirement. crushing my $38K completely transformed how i saw myself in relation to money, and helped me go from feeling a little helpless to feeling empowered, knowing that i could overcome financial obstacles and actually achieve ambitious goals. in many ways, that experience changed everything for both of us, and helped us begin to shift into the early retirement mindset.

think of kindling as any accelerator, something that kicks you out of your comfort zone, helps you see things from a new perspective, or gives you a whole new pot of motivation to draw from. kindling isn’t always added money, though added money never hurts. oftentimes kindling isn’t money at all, but rather changing your personal environment and influences to enable your best financial decision-making.

that non-money kindling could be any number of things, including:

  • surrounding yourself with positive people who support your goals instead of negative ones who say you won’t succeed
  • doing some real and hard thinking about your values, and apportioning your time and money accordingly
  • blogging about your journey, and getting support from the amazing pf community (we wholeheartedly endorse this!), or reading other people’s blogs for inspiration
  • making frugal friends, and spending time with them instead of the big spenders
  • getting rid of shopping temptations like magazines full of ads, and unsubscribing from every sale email (we think the extra $4 a month we’re spending to get the ad-free version of hulu is money well spent), to reprogram your brain not to think of shopping as a thing
  • tracking your net worth, which can be a huge motivation all on its own, or even better, tracking your spending to understand where your money is going

the kindling you need could also be finding big ways to cut back on spending, like:

  • moving from a high cost of living area to a low cost of living place
  • selling your car and embracing public transportation (you know we love options that also happen to be green)
  • shifting your thinking from the pay economy to freeconomics (learning to love the library or library e-books, seeking out free concerts and classes, trading with friends for services or stuff you need)
  • moving to a cheaper home (follow claudia and garrett at two cup house for a real-time example of this)

that’s in addition to all the little ways you could cut back spending, like cutting the cord, trimming grocery spending and dining out less.

on the income front, we all know about side hustles, but there are other things you can do to increase the amount of money you have available to accelerate your fire goals:

  • retraining for a higher earning career path (what the authors of how to retire early did, to great effect)
  • simply asking for a raise (maggie at northern expenditure recently got a big raise this way)
  • combine finances with a significant other (we would never recommend rushing things just for financial reasons, but it’s for sure true that fire happens a lot faster with two incomes instead of one)
  • being patient (we’ve posted about how much our incomes have grown over time just by letting the power of compounding work even on small, incremental raises)

getting our finances in order, especially if we come into adulthood with student loan debt, or without a clear career path, requires not just a reallocation of resources, but a fundamental rethinking of how we want to apportion our life force and the monetary representation of that. we can’t just blow on the coals and expect our finances to change drastically. we have to find that kindling that will accelerate our progress in a meaningful way.

what’s true about literal fire is also true of financial fire: flames are contagious.

once you get some momentum going in debt repayment, saving or investing, it’s amazing how quickly other things start falling into place. good habits beget better habits. motivation begets bigger motivation. you start examining your spending to save a little money, and before you know it, you are motivated to go into full-on optimization mode. as the years go by, you find more and more ways to avoid lifestyle inflation, and to make sure that your pay raises are furthering your goals instead of expanding your spending. you start seeing more and more things that you can do without, and can stop paying for. that’s the power of the contagious flames.

in our lives, our most recent kindling was moving to the mountains. by removing ourselves from the huge spending temptations in the city and getting closer to our values, we accelerated every single part of our fire plan. and while we are far along in our journey, with early retirement just over two years away, we certainly didn’t start here. remember: every fire starts with a tiny spark. find your kindling, and watch your fire grow from a tiny flame to a blazing inferno.

what kindling could you find in your financial life? what accelerators have helped you supercharge your progress? any good contagious flames stories to share? spill ’em, friends!

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45 replies »

  1. Our kindling is in our planning – ironically something that I don’t particularly like to do. The more we plan, the more excited we get to make this happen for us. We will often find ourselves sitting motionless in the backyard – perhaps me with a cigar – commenting on how this will take up the majority of our life once we’re in the Airstream and retired. Though we don’t get pre-occupied with the finish line, we definitely keep that in our minds at all times.

    And the biggest thing – nothing, and I do mean NOTHING, has been more highly prioritized than our goal of retiring early. Not vacations. Not entertainment. Not cars. Nothing. FIRE is our one and only life goal at the moment, and we’re doing our best to get there as safely and efficiently as possible – stock market stagnation notwithstanding. :)

    • It’s like Homer says, “I loooooovvvve to sit!” :-) (That’s two Simpsons quotes in one day… I’ll stop.) There is something so wonderful about sitting still that we don’t appreciate enough these days. I’m glad you plan to devote more time to it!

      And you’re showing us all the power of the singular focus. Talk about a lightning fast timeline! Doing what you guys are doing would ONLY be possible with it being your most highly prioritized goal. And, even with the stagnating market, the amount you’re up this year shows that savings rate is much more important!

  2. The PF community has been the best kindling ever. While I’ve written about how we don’t necessarily plan to retire early (55 is the target age), we’re still pushing for financial independence. You’re so right about the power of writing things down, setting clear goals, and finding ways to share them with others (frugal friends, blogging, etc.). I also really appreciate you pointing out the fact that side hustling isn’t everything.

    • I so agree with you! Getting looped into this incredible community has really helped us supercharge all of our saving this year! I know you’re focused on the FI side of things, and totally respect that — if we loved our jobs, we’d have no problem working a lot longer… but we don’t, and we just generally don’t love working. :-)

      The side hustle… I had one for years, and I loved it, but it definitely drained me a ton. Now, though I miss it, I realize how much of my life force it sucked out of me, and I’m glad I gave it up!

  3. Mine has been working on side projects that have led to more lucrative work. If I never made the effort (like in today’s post) some opportunities that are coming about never would have happened. And so many other things like developing a frugal mindset. The flame still isn’t roaring quiet yet, but hopefully soon!

    • Even if your money flame isn’t roaring, your inspiration flame sure is! It practically oozes out of your posts, which is beyond wonderful. Thank you for being a source of such positivity in the PF world!

  4. Love the metaphor. :) I can definitely relate to your experience of wanting desperately to pay off debt and be in a better financial place, yet not actually taking the small but important steps needed to do that (and not really even fully realizing that important steps were necessary…or even possible). I’m still in the gearing-up stage, as I haven’t *quite* graduated yet and so won’t technically need to make a loan payment for another month…but I’m trying to lay down as much kindling as I can right now, so as soon as I graduate (and find a job) I can be out of the gate and running. So far this mostly means assessing my spending, cutting back where possible, and trying to grow my emergency fund a little in case I can’t find a job right away. But I’m looking forward to the next stage when I can collect new types of kindling from new trees. :)

    • I think it’s amazing what you’re doing — that you’re working to analyze your finances and even save while you’re still in grad school. So awesome. I know you feel like you’re getting a late start (or friends who are now professors have lamented this same thing to us), but having put in the hard work of really considering where your money is going will pay off big time once you are collecting your “new types of kindling.” :-)

  5. My kindling was mainly inspiration from Mrs. SSC and starting to read all the PF blogs out there. That did more to cement it in my head that we won’t have to go crazy frugal and whatnot to achieve this goal. Like you said, reign in spending, track our money, and invest and be patient.
    We hit the point that our monthly contribution is no longer the biggest growth factor for our investments. We’ve finally hit that rolling snowball compounding point. Yeah!! We didn’t realize that until we analyzed what would happen with Mrs. SSC getting laid off.

    • It’s amazing that we all feel the same way about the PF community and how it’s helped to motivate us! I love that you took a similar lesson from it — that you don’t have to go to any extremes to reach your goals.

      We’re at that point with our balances, too — and it’s awesome… and scary. Realizing that we are no longer fully in control of our own destiny is a little disconcerting, but like you said, it’s amazing to feel like the snowball is working in our favor now.

  6. Our kindling of a raise definitely has motivated me in the right direction! I LOVE this object lesson. As others have mentioned, the PF blogger community is also great kindling. YOU GUYS are great kindling. Every day… a little more motivation to the fire!

    • Right on — you are definitely my hero, Maggie, for making that raise happen. Proof that overthinking and deliberating can be detrimental, and sometimes it’s best to shoot from the hip (or have a kid accidentally hit send on an email for you!). :-) I totally agree that this community is kindling. I’ll be having a bad day, or getting bummed about being off-track on our goals, and folks just cheer me right up and help me refocus. We’re super grateful. :-)

  7. Oh my gosh LOL, I love that you bring up sexy mountains! In Eugene we have a winery called Sweet Cheeks Winery – the story goes that it received this name because the incredible panoramic view of the mountains resembled some “sweet cheeks” and that can be put into the sexy category haha.

    This is a wonderful comparison! I am very much an advocate of how one positive habits lead to more throughout your whole life. When I started hyper focusing on my finances, it was amazing how my health, relationships, routines, etc. followed suit unintentionally.

    My kindling was actually a “burning flame” inside me in which most written content for my age range focused on the negative. Specifically, student loan debt. I wanted to create a way for myself and others to start feeling empowered early about their finances, and not wait until later years. Once I was able to pinpoint this – I integrated all of your categories listed above! Ebooks, library, blogs, communities – from there my fiancé, family & friends were inspired to join in & support each other. It’s a building journey, but one that will certainly blaze soon! :)

    • Haha — I’m kind of a sucker for personified nature. :-) I think it’s wonderful that you let a frustration drive you to create something positive and beautiful. And given how much the people in your life have come together to support you in your goals, I’d say you already have a blaze on your hands!

  8. Just found your blog and love your writing. Keep it up!

    I couldn’t agree more with the other commenters here that the online community has been major kindling for me. When I first stumbled upon ER blogs a few years ago, I was casually saving a decent chunk of my income but with no real goal in mind. I had let my frugal habits slip a bit, and I was even toying with the idea of buying a fancy new car. Within a month of discovering the idea of FIRE, though, I had doubled down on savings and set a date for leaving my job.

    • Thanks, Matt. We’re grateful every day for this amazing community of PF bloggers and readers — a major source of inspiration and information for us! But wow — your story is awesome! How cool that the PF blogs actually set the wheels in motion for a major life change for you!

  9. My kindling is an ever present burning desire to get out of the rat race. It just feels so unnatural to me. I’m completely not the corporate type. For the wife, I think she just wants to be able to sleep in every day!

    Honestly though, setting goals and watching our accounts grow really adds fuel to the fire. And it’s true how supportive and motivating everyone in the PF community is. I love learning from others and following their journeys.

    • Sleeping in every day is a good goal! :-) And we completely agree that tracking progress against goals is hugely motivating! It provides context around other financial decisions, especially spending, that can really help change your decision-making process for the better. We find ourselves saying no to purchases a lot more than we ever did before we kept close track of things.

    • I definitely agree! We didn’t have any financial goals, but now that we have them, it’s served as the kindling. What keeps the fire going week in and week out is being able to connect with others on their financial journeys–love all the motivation and support from the PF community !

  10. Our kindling was our rock bottom moment and educating ourselves on personal finance. Now we want to inspire and help others. Our story has help some close family members get their financial acts together too.

    • I think you guys are the kindling now for so many people! The example you set, and the fact that you climbed out from under what surely must have felt like an insurmountable mountain of debt — that for sure inspires lots of people!

  11. I love the idea of thinking about financial change in terms of kindling. Sometimes people think they need to make big changes to get the results they want but the fact is that it really doesn’t take much to make changes and small tasks like tracking spending or focusing on saving a few dollars a week really do make big changes. I see them happen all the time with my clients.

    • I always love when you weigh in and back up our assertions with actual experience giving financial advice to your clients. :-) In our experience, those little changes can lead to a lot of big things if they’re the right little changes!

  12. I like this analogy. I’m in need of some kindling right about now. I’m pretty sure that my next kindling initiative will take the form of a better managed discretionary account. It’s where all of my former money sins continue to reside. I want to give them all the boot.

  13. Without a doubt the biggest accelerant to our FIRE was getting rid of our financial advisor, though the results were far more like throwing gasoline on a fire than adding kindling.

    -Bye, bye thousands in hidden fees every year.
    -Bye, bye thousands in taxes every year (sad but we listened to him when he advised us to invest with him in loaded mutual funds in taxable accounts instead of cheaper funds offered in our 401k)
    -Hello massive increase in amount of money we actually invested and increased return due to the above for every year going forward.
    -Hello to increased savings rate as we finally realized that our retirement needs had everything to do with our spending and were not related to what we earned in our working years.

    Did I ever mention I don’t like the financial advice available to young people with low net worth?

    • Hooray for ditching expensive, bad advisors! This is funny timing, since I’m doing my free consultation with Personal Capital today… mostly just curious what they’ll tell us. My prediction: You’re paying too high of fees on your 401k funds (we already know this but can’t do anything about it until we quit and roll it over), you’re too heavy on stocks, and you’re too heavy on cash. We’ll see!

      And yes — the low net worth point is so true. When you get a high net worth, everyone’s dying to give you free advice (like how rich celebs get crazy swag bags at every event), but there’s very little for low net worth people!

  14. It’s amazing how little financial changes can add up to a ton of savings. Mr. Money Monster and I have a latte factor called eating out. *shame* Since we trimmed this back to almost nothing, we have hundreds leftover each month for debt repayment and investing. This was the kindling we needed to kick our embers into flames. Currently on the chopping block: one of our cars! We’re getting serious. Keep up the great posts, ONL! You’re in our motivational reading rotation. :)

  15. My kindling has been realizing that my frugality can actually make a difference in my future. So many equate frugality with being a miser. I am not a miser. I squeeze more fun out of life than most people around me! And by investing what I’m saving today, it’s opening a whole new world of possibilities.

    I’ve also gotten a bit of a bump lately realizing that most people have no idea nor do they care how frugal I am. No one pays attention to how many days per week I pack my lunch or how long I’ve had my car. They have their own payments to worry about. In HS and college, there were more opportunities to spend, more pressure to spend and more weird looks when I didn’t want to spend. Now that I’m an adult frugal bird, I can spread my wings and fly!…. though not around the fire. That could be dangerous. ;)

    • Don’t fly around the fire! :-) What a great realization! And so true. As long as you don’t go to work looking like a slob, I really don’t think anyone pays attention. And that’s so freeing to know that!

      Love your frugality realization. We’re definitely finding that our good mix of FIRE progress comes from both sides — maximizing income by working our butts off and being willing to travel all the time, to get the biggest pay bumps and bonuses, while also doing everything reasonable to cut our spending. (Nothing unreasonable, though — we’re all about balance, not extremes!)

  16. Thanks for the mention! :) I love the analogy of the kindling we use to spark our own FIRE journeys. Before this year, I had no idea what we were working for, other than maybe VP status in our respective fields. Though we haven’t completely ruled out the potential for upward mobility, we decided we didn’t want to be dependent on W-2 jobs for income–this realization sparked in us something fierce. I’m glad there are so many on this journey together!

    • Upward mobility isn’t a bad thing as long as you don’t let it rule your life. (We’re happy to have gotten to the levels where we are since that equals more pay which equals faster FI!) But yes, I love the way you guys are thinking about it — not being chained to your desks or beholden to a megacorp. And being on this journey together really does make it that much sweeter. :-)

  17. My kindling is also reading all the PF blogs. I keep adding more and more to my reading list including yours recently. For me it seems like there are never too many. It definitely helps motivate me.

  18. This is gonna sounds silly, but my #1 kindling was sprouting my own alfalfa. This was the gateway to all the self-provisioning we practice now! At the time, it seemed like an innocent way to save $$ on sprouts, which I eat every day. But before I tried, I never thought I was capable of making my own food. That was the confidence booster that birthed my curiosity!

    Also, when I first decided to pay off my debt, I was planning to continue living so frugally after it was done. But after years of that lifestyle, I just lost interest in spending money mindlessly. Now, I try to always keep my small moves open-minded! You never know what one little action might turn into.

    • I love that! How cool that you had an epiphany around creating your own tasty and healthy food out of little seeds. :-) And that’s so great that you kept your frugal ways post debt — I certainly did NOT do that myself!