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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.
it 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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Categories: the process