Reaching financial independence is, more than anything, a waiting game.
We can talk all about investment strategies and allocations and conversions and this and that, but that’s mostly a distraction from this basic fact: reaching FI is just twiddling your thumbs while you wait for your money to pile up. Save a bunch, wait for the next paycheck. Save a bunch, wait for the next paycheck. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Especially for those who follow a passive investment strategy like indexing, there’s very little to do once you set your plan in motion, other than fritter around the edges. Optimize a grocery bill here, cut out an entire expense there.
And that kind of stuff feels wonderfully empowering in the early stages of the journey. You’re hacking the heck out of life! You’re breaking free from the Matrix! But eventually, your budget is fully optimized, with all the fat trimmed, and you max out your savings rate.
And sometimes, that empowering journey you embarked on can start to feel discouraging. Maybe you even hit the point of feeling powerless, realizing there’s almost nothing you can do to speed your progress other than watch the seconds tick by. The only thing to do is to wait for this far-off goal to inch closer and closer at what can feel like a snail’s pace, and which can move farther away in an instant at the markets’ whims.
Even if you never hit that point of discouragement, there is no escaping the basic fact: becoming financially independent takes time, often a long time. Several years best case, many years for most. It also requires forces larger than us to cooperate, namely the global economy and the stock markets, which don’t always behave the way we want them to.
Forgoing the things you see those around you buying or doing, living way below your means, bucking societal trends — all of that can take a lot of focus and energy. And trying to keep all of that up — maybe secretly! — for years, while trying to find every possible way to speed the journey, it can get to be too much.
That’s why it’s so critical to pace ourselves on that journey. We may want to sprint all the way to the finish, but no one can sustain a blistering pace for more than a short time, at least without paying some price. We’ve learned this the hard way, and are determined to pace ourselves more healthily in our last full year of work. Here’s how we’re doing that.
2016 was one of the toughest years of my life. Work was especially taxing, and I was on the road more than I’d ever been in a prior year, which absolutely played a role in that. But a huge part of what made the year harder than others was that we had gotten more and more focused each year on hitting a higher savings target than we had the prior year, to the point that in 2016, we didn’t want to do anything to slow our progress. That meant we took not a single real vacation in the whole year. We had two long weekend trips together, and I went to FinCon, and that was it. (We also took very few sick days, even when we were sick.)
That might have been enough recharge time for someone else, but as we learned the hard way, it wasn’t enough for us. Not on top of the 60+ hour work weeks, the 70+ hotel nights, 130 flights and round-the-clock phone accessibility.
By the last quarter of the year, I’d hit a point of near-desperation, wondering how on Earth I could possibly make it through one more year, even though we were so close to our target numbers. But as I eventually realized, the problem wasn’t work or our savings rate or anything else, it was that we weren’t pacing ourselves properly. We were trying to maintain a full-out sprint for far longer than we could possibly sustain, and it finally caught up with us.
The good news is that we’ve changed our approach this last year, helped by the fact that we ended last year well ahead of schedule in our investments and mortgage payoff. There’s now less pressure on us to max out our savings capacity, which we are super grateful for. And that has allowed us to set clearer boundaries at work (we’re mostly successful in this mission), to plan real vacations including our two-week trip to Japan last month and to focus on pacing ourselves through this last year so that we can cross our finish line without having pushed ourselves to the point of collapse. Here are some of the ways we’re pacing ourselves.
Track Less Often
There is something that feels amazing from watching your spreadsheets trend in a positive direction. Seeing those numbers grow, the graphs go upward — it’s like a shot of adrenaline, especially when you’re first starting out. And that’s great.
The problem comes if you start thinking of those numbers not as numbers (or as Monopoly money), but as a marker of what you’re worth as a person. That’s putting the determination of your value to the world in the hands of the markets, not your own.
When we first got serious about FI, I was updating the spreadsheets several times a week. It felt so good to see those numbers grow, and to feel the direct impact of our efforts to increase our savings rate. But as that honeymoon period began to wane, tracking that often kept me overly focused on the ups and downs of the market, which are irrelevant in the long term. It made me feel like those numbers defined us, instead of just being numbers. And it gave me the perception that we were barely creeping along, because I was mentally comparing our numbers one day to our numbers from only a day or two before, which felt like no progress at all. It made the journey feel long and slow, which wasn’t true at all, just because of my skewed perspective. Eventually, I started tracking only once or twice a month, and then we could really see the progress, which made a huge difference for us mentally.
The truth is: once you’ve got your automated plan in place, tracking does very little to speed your progress. It might provide some motivation to keep going when things are good, but it might do what it did for me, making the journey feel especially long. (Especially because, in big picture terms, the journey is often short. But it may not feel that way when we’re too close to it.)
If you ever hit those FI doldrums, when you feel like you’re not making much progress, try not keeping track for a little while, and see if it makes you feel better.
Celebrate Interim Milestones
The multi-year journey to FI can feel like a slow trudge if you only focus on the end goal of some magic number. But in truth, we’re all hitting milestones all the time. Big round numbers saved. Percents of a mortgage paid off. Highest ever savings percentage. Maybe blog milestones if we blog. When we were only focused on the big end goal, the journey felt harder than after we began celebrating those milestones like hitting basic financial independence, paying off our house, and marking two years of the blog.
We said a few months out that we’d buy a bottle of Dom Perignon when we paid off the mortgage, and the day we saw that zero balance show up, you can bet we went out and bought that bottle, and loved every sip of it. It was extravagant, sure, but it was also a huge freaking milestone, and a great reason to celebrate. Not everyone believes in treating yourself, and I’d agree if it’s a frequent thing. (No one needs to drink Dom on the regular.) But a once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime milestone? We felt no guilt celebrating that in style, even if “style” meant “drinking champagne in our pajamas on the couch.”
When you’re early in the journey, the milestones might be smaller, but that doesn’t make them any less worth celebrating, though “celebrating” might just be giving yourself a pat on the back or high fiving your partner. But don’t be afraid to give yourself those reminders along the way of the progress you’re making!
I’m going to go all Eastern philosophy on you now. Buddhism and other Eastern traditions remind followers often that we do not control everything about our lives, which is fundamentally different from the Western view (fallacy?) that we control our own destinies. We may control a lot about our lives, but we certainly don’t control everything. We don’t control the world economy and its impacts on the job market. We don’t control stock prices and what they do to our portfolio balance. We don’t control whether our city has clean drinking water and how that might impact our health. We don’t control the other drivers on the road and whether they’re looking at their phones instead of driving without distraction. Etc.
And likewise, we don’t control everything about our own path to FI. There’s a lot that can slow us down or speed us up that’s well outside our own spheres of influence, and recognizing that and continually reminding ourselves of it has helped us approach the journey with more patience.
I love the analogy you’ll often hear in yoga classes about learning to surf the wave instead of fighting the current, and that’s what we now aim to do. The markets will go up and down and change how close to or far from our goal we feel. But ultimately all that matters on our journey is what we do, and we focus on doing that thing (in our case, investing twice a month) no matter what.
But we’ve recently focused more on taking it a step further. There’s a funny paradox in FIRE that we focus on being more frugal by not craving things, but then kind of by nature, we do crave for our accounts to grow, and to reach our goals. So we’re less attached to stuff, but perhaps more attached to money and numbers.
Our big shift has been trying to practice more detachment from all of it, reminding ourselves that those numbers don’t define us or our journey, and thinking less about the numbers overall. Focusing more about the big life questions than the money questions. And it’s definitely helping.
Practice Self Care
Our big realization last year was that we needed more time spent not working to be able to sustain our pace. It didn’t have to require spending on flights or hotels, it just had to be time offline. That’s the best way we can take care of ourselves at this point in time.
And we all need some way to take care of ourselves as we pursue these ambitious goals. Whether it’s simply taking a few minutes every day to sit still somewhere and enjoy the quiet, or indulging in a massage every once in a while, or taking a big splurgy trip, it’s up to each of us to figure out what we need to be able to keep going. And then to make sure we actually do that thing, even if it takes time away from a side hustle or slows our progress toward FI slightly.
It’s far better to sacrifice a tiny amount of progress than to burn ourselves out entirely.
What About You?
How are you pacing yourself on your journey? Or do you think you could pace yourself better? Has anyone hit that level of burnout like we did last year? How did you get through it? Has anyone found any great tips for pacing yourself that you can share with us all? Let’s dive into it in the comments!