Over the past few years, we’ve hit a steady stream of financial milestones that have all felt like a big deal when we hit them. There was the most recent one, when we paid off our house. (I promise, I’m shutting up about it now!) ;-) Last year, we met the basic definition of financial independence. Before that, we hit various “meaningful” round numbers, bought our first (only?) rental property, and way before that, we paid off our car loan, and my credit card and student loan debt.
While it feels amazing to crank through goals at such a fast pace (seriously, how did we get so lucky to be able to do this?!), there’s also something about all of this that feels entirely…
Hard to believe
Are we the only ones who feel this way?
Lifestyle Inflation and Tangible Numbers
Thinking back to early in my career, I earned barely enough to get by in the expensive city where I lived (and in truth, I lived beyond my means, subsidized by credit cards). So when I got my first raise, I was so thankful, because (I believed) I needed that extra money to survive.
When I got my second raise, and my third, the money no longer felt like survival money — thank goodness! — but I did spend it all, using it to afford things that I hadn’t indulged in before, like going to shows and going out to eat once in a while.
When those raises started to pile up year after year (still our biggest source of compound interest), I — and later we — were able to do a lot more. Not just go out to eat, but go to really nice restaurants. Travel a lot more, and stay at better places. Buy backpacking gear that didn’t feel like it was from the stone age.
We felt those pay raises, because we spent that money. Every new dollar we earned, or most of them anyway, had a direct cause-and-effect impact on what life was like, so those dollars were tangible to us.
But now they aren’t anymore. What happened?
Lifestyle Containment and Intangibility
At a certain point, we realized that we didn’t want to spend most of what we earned anymore, especially because we realized that we could have a pretty sweet life even if we saved a good portion of it. We started saving in earnest, eventually we learned about FIRE and we started saving harder, and then we developed our own FIRE plan and started saving harder still.
Since then, our spending has been fairly static year to year, and it’s even declined a bit as we’ve adjusted to our post-baller lives.
We work hard at jobs that demand a lot from us — near-constant travel for me, around-the-clock connectedness for both of us, crazy long hours for Mr. ONL — and every year we expect our pay to go up as a result. We may not need that money, but we believe we earned it and deserve it.
While we’re glad to get those raises, we can no longer draw a line between those pay raises and anything tangible in our lives. Sure, our investment accounts go up. Our mortgage balance goes down. Our cash accounts go up. That’s all super fun to track (let’s all be honest — it’s the most fun to track). But sometimes it feels like the numbers on the spreadsheet are just Monopoly money, or a video game score.
As all the numbers get bigger, they get more and more intangible.
Big, Abstract Numbers
We don’t share our numbers, so let’s just make some up. Let’s pretend we have $50 million in the bank (because obviously we do not have $50 million in the bank). We’re never going to buy something that costs $50 million, or even $25 million for that matter. We’re never going to write a $50 million check. So what does that number even mean?
Thinking about our tiny fraction of that pretend number, it may be much smaller, but it still feels the same. It’s a lot of money that we’ll never spend all at once, or even in big enough chunks to appreciate the bigness. The part of it that’s invested in the markets changes every day, so it’s not even a real number, it’s just a daily approximation.
And with our pay, we certainly don’t earn stratospheric sums, but we earn far in excess of what we need to live on, most years a little more than the last. But earning more each year doesn’t change our lives, and we’ll never spend in a year anything close to what we earn now, even if money became no object. (That’s probably a slight exaggeration. We would love to write a bunch of fat checks to charity or endow a foundation, or do something else to make a lasting impact. Ah, do-gooder pipe dreams.)
We know intellectually that big numbers mean freedom, and that they should feel like safety, security, peace of mind. But right now they’re still just numbers on a spreadsheet. Or like our score in a game we’re about to beat, which translates into nothing in real life.
“That’s Not Our Money, Right?!”
I’m always curious how others feel, but we never look at our investment balances and think, We’ve made it. Or We’re rich. (Even though, by any definition, we are.) Or We’re happier because we have this money.
On a very basic level, we’re just the same people doing what we’ve always done. We go to work every day, we do our job, we collect a paycheck and only spend part of it. And somewhere along the line these big numbers happened. But they aren’t ours, right? There’s no way we saved up that much money, or at least it doesn’t feel like we could have.
Anyone could counter back with market growth and compound interest, the power of time, 401(k) employer matches and all the rest. We understand math. But math doesn’t make it feel any more real.
The One Tangible Thing, Sort Of
The only thing that is starting to feel more real is the smallest number, the only one we want to keep shrinking:
That’s how much longer we have to work, at most. It’s definitely not fully real, but it starts to creep into our minds in those stressful work moments, when we remind ourselves: Don’t freak out about this. Just a little longer…
But we still both panic a little at the thought of telling our bosses we’re leaving, no matter how many imaginary resignation letters I’ve written in my head over the years. So clearly it’s not that real, and maybe we’re also not mentally ready. Or maybe if we magically hit our number tomorrow, we’d have no hesitation about peacing out. I guess we’ll know when we get there.
Will It Feel Real After We Retire?
When we hit financial independence, we said a little Yay! to ourselves, but then nothing changed. When we paid off the house, we did a little dance, and then went back to living the same life. The milestones have been nice, and we’ve celebrated them all, but with no tangible change in our lives when each one has come alone, they’ve each in turn faded into abstraction.
But of course our life is about to change, in an enormous way. Retiring from our careers will be the biggest adjustment either of us have ever had to make. It will mark the end of an almost 20-year career for Mr. ONL, and the first real free time that I’ll have had since middle school.
Will any of it feel more real then? Will those numbers begin to represent something tangible?
What Feels Real for You?
Let us know — can anyone else relate? Do your numbers feel more abstract as they get bigger, or is it just us? Do you look at your balances and think, “I did that!” or does it feel a little How did I get here? like it does for us sometimes? And for those who’ve retired already, did retiring change how you view your numbers? Did what they represent change? Did your feelings about them change? We’d love to hear from all different perspectives on this stuff, so let’s chat in the comments!