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Don’t Let Life Pass You By While Saving for the Future

Since we retired a year and a half ago, Mark and I have done a whole bunch of different things, some of them big and important, some of them small and meaningless.

I wrote a book I’m proud of… and I built a sweeeeeeet house for my Sims.

We’ve traveled to new-to-us countries and revisited ones we’ve been to before… and we’ve rewatched the entire series of The Office and plowed through such high-brow shows as Nailed It and World of Dance.

We’ve each spent a lot of time doing work for the local nonprofits we head up… and we’ve dramatically deepened the butt-shaped grooves in our couch.

Because as much as I talk about the importance of purpose and meaning in early retirement, you don’t have to do meaningful things all the time. Sometimes you feel like devoting a huge portion of your time to the stuff that fills up your soul, and sometimes you just want to do nothing but watch Game of Thrones for a month.

GameOfThronesInAMonth

Having the freedom to devote a large share of my waking hours to catching up on a TV show just in time for the finale is an amazing thing, as Paula Pant put so well here:

GameOfThronesPaula

Valar dohaeris, Paula.

I don’t regret spending the last month essentially watching TV, or at least watching it in the hours when it was dark enough outside to actually see Game of Thrones on the TV. What I love is that doing that was a choice.

And it was a choice I got to make about how to spend a big chunk of time without thinking about money at all.

In a perfect world, that’s how it would be for all of us all the time. Of course, that’s not reality. But by pursuing early retirement, many of us are seeking the freedom to make our choices that way: free from the constraints of money.

Unfortunately — and this is the subject of today’s post — when we’re saving for early retirement, we often do the exact opposite of this and put money not only in the equation, but as the most important factor. And that can be a big mistake.

Quick reminder that I have a free event this Thursday in DC. All the details for that event and upcoming events in LA, SF, Sacramento and Reno in this post, and in the blog sidebar.

Don't Let Life Pass You By While Saving for the Future, by Tanja Hester, Our Next Life // early retirement, financial independence, work optional, adventure, happiness

A handful of years ago, when we were in the thick of saving for early retirement, some good friends got married in Italy. It was like something out of a movie: they rented out an entire mountaintop medieval village, and guests stayed in old apartments in that village, with festivities in the town square.

We were invited, but we didn’t go.

Why not? Because of the cost. A cost that we could have easily afforded, given that we were in our peak earning years at the time, but that we decided we’d rather save than spend.

And now, looking back, I regret that decision. I’ve regretted it for a long time.

Not just because the setting sounds so incredible, and because I’m also a huge geek for all things medieval (a big part of why we spent last November in the south of France), but because we missed out on being there for our friends, all in the name of not spending what is, in the grand scheme of things, a fairly insignificant sum of money. Would taking that trip have set us back from achieving early retirement? Not really. But did not taking it mean we missed out on a big life event, which we’ll regret possibly forever? It sure did.

Every Saturday I host a Q&A on Instagram stories (you can follow here if you don’t already), and the question I’ve gotten the most is: If you had it all to do over again, what would you do differently? 

I always answer the same way: I’d go slower. I’d enjoy life more while saving, and not put off most of the fun until later. Because the truth is that I feel like parts of my life passed me by in those years when we were so focused on saving, and put money ahead of once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Related post: Stop and Spot the Space Invaders // Slowing Down on the Journey

I’ve written plenty of times before about enjoying the journey more, and focusing not just on the future, but today too, but those focus on the more intangible and metaphysical aspects like simply paying attention and appreciating the present.

Related post: living for today — and tomorrow

What I’m talking about today is a lot more concrete: I wish we’d spent more money while we were accumulating our savings. 

And: I wish we’d thought less about money when deciding what to prioritize while we were saving. 

It would be easy to overdo those things, of course. It’s a slippery slope from “It’s okay to spend a little more” to full on “Treat yo’self,” and I’m certainly not talking about spending on every possible thing you might enjoy if your goal is to save quickly. It’s about balance, as with everything. But unfortunately, we didn’t get that balance right, and we thought about money too much, life too little.

There were some things I did right: I flew Chicago to see the Rolling Stones with my dad (those tickets were not cheap), and later flew with him to Las Vegas to see Elton John, knowing we wouldn’t have those opportunities forever. But we passed on the chance to see David Bowie, thinking we’d have more time, and then we didn’t. Did those flights and tickets cost money that I could have saved for early retirement instead? Of course they did. But those are wonderful memories for both me and my dad, and they were worth every penny. I wish I’d kept sight of that when passing on the things I now regret passing on.

When I look back at our full journey, the things I regret are almost never instances when I spent money. They’re instances when I didn’t.

Sure, I bought more shoes than I should have in my early and mid-20s, and I only broke even with my net worth about 11 years ago, thanks to some overspending and debt. But because those were mistakes I made when I earned relatively little, in my entry level period and the few years thereafter, those mistakes were all pretty small and (obviously) didn’t doom me to a negative financial future. They were entirely possible to overcome. But the mistakes I made while saving, and the life experiences I passed on, are things I can’t overcome because I can’t go back and replicate that time. It’s simply lost.

I’m sharing this in hopes that those still saving will take a broader perspective on life and remember that it’s good to save, but it’s also good to live your life, to really live it. Don’t let your life pass you by just because you have a big financial goal.

Remember what that goal is about in the first place: living the life of your choosing.

If your goal is to choose what makes you happy and do things that align to that, then do that now. Don’t wait until later. If you’re passing on most things you’d truly love to do now, all in service of some future goal that isn’t guaranteed, what’s the point?

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36 replies »

  1. That is a LOT of GoT to process in a short time. Some of those episodes gave me nightmares…

    All really useful lessons to share here. Life is too short to miss out on the big things while saving. I often use the prison analogy, which is a brute force tactic: Would a prisoner add a year to his five year sentence in order to get two weeks a year furlough? (or even one week?) You simply need to weigh your trade offs and avoid getting so blinded by your personal mission that regrets pile up.

    • I’ve commented something similar to this here before, but this has always been my biggest stumbling block when it comes to FI/RE. I just can’t get on board with ignoring what you want to do in your life now for some hypothetical future because you think you’ll just get to do it all then.

      We have a wedding to go to in Italy this year (what a coincidence) and it would have been easy for us to bail because of the money. But we’re going and we’re turning into a longer trip so we can visit Scotland, a country we’ve always wanted to see.

      Part of the problem for me is that my brain exists in the extremes. So it often feels like punishment if I say no to things I want to do just because I’m afraid of the cost. So thank you for sharing this part of the journey. It’s something that should be discussed more in the PF community.

      • totally agree..i’ve had the same thoughts. i’ve always lived life big (gone on snowboarding trips, lived in Europe (not cheap), lots of traveling). i could have not done all that and retired sooner. but it would have been so depressing to just work work work save save save and not do much..with just the goal of retiring early.

        most of the popular FIRE blogs are from dink couples that have LOTS of money do both save a lot and have fun and retire early.

  2. This is something I’m struggling with right now; decreasing the savings rate, and increasing the fun. I’m an all or nothing kind of person and even though this mentality has got me far in some areas of my life, it’s time take my foot off the throttle a bit.

    The path to FI/RE should be about spending less on material items, but not on life experiences – after all, the goal is happiness. No one wants to be depressed for 10 years whilst achieving FI!

    Great post, Tanja!

  3. Excellent article Tanja! – very important points and very poignant example with the mariage in Italy.
    If having a FIRE objective just means that you bring forward the “utopia” (being retirement) that you would get to with traditional retirement approach, just to realize that no “utopia” exists, then its a huge waste.
    Preparing the financial elements of FIRE are important, but for me the mental and social preparation is even more important.
    Thanks again,
    Robin

  4. Great post Tanja I think this could be one of the most important points you have ever raised. When we set our goals we made sure we wouldn’t have these regrets and often looked at the issue as one of – does it knock us off course? Most times we never bought twice as we accepted if over our 30 year savings plan they moved us a few years out it wasn’t truly an issue after all

    Like you point out it almost never does (there are way too many variables along the way to ever have the RIGHT number saved that often the little things don’t exceed the margin of error). Life is to be enjoyed along the way. I have mentioned many times here I do not like he shelter in place mentality, I think we cheat ourselves out of life’s greatest moments and gifts when the journey is all about saving and never spending once you have saved.

    I have been retired 14 months (retired at 52) and have made sure that we haven’t let retirement change or alter the way we evaluate spending our time and money. Zero regrets on our end

    As for GOT I hope you found something to like about last nights series finale. I would have preferred a little more infighting and deaths to determine the king / queen after (spoiler alert) Dany was dispatched. I would have expected more from the nobles in terms of all wanting a shot at the throne.

    As always I have enjoyed your post

    Phil

  5. Thank you for this post! It is certainly important to have some positive experiences along the way saving.

    Hence why I decided to take many small cheaper weekend day trips this summer…versus working a 2nd job again…

    I made progress in paying off my student loans, and the majority of my consumer debt. If I spend $100 every other weekend to get out of our immediate area, it is worth one’s sanity.

  6. This is SUCH an important conversation to be having within the FIRE space. Outside of it, it’s perhaps not as important because people in general tend to lean the “spend money now” direction, but I think it can be just as harmful to land in the “never spend money” side of things.

    Ps – we also passed on a wedding in Italy and I definitely kick myself about it now.

    • I totally agree, Angela! I had an opportunity when I was 23 to go to Africa for 4 weeks-ish with a group of friends (meet one of our friends who had just spent the past year there) – the timing was perfect but the cost of the plane ticket scared me. My friends had an epic adventure on a lot of levels and I’ve never again had the opportunity to go. I want my kiddo to take her own path but I am going to encourage her in every way that I can to take that trip and go for it and see the world.

  7. This is really an important point, especially for those of us who tend to be naturally thrifty, in every life stage. Thank you for sharing your regrets. and giving us all something to think about.

  8. Love this! Mr. ThreeYear and I have definitely spent more this past year, now that we’re location (but not financially) independent; however, it’s been a rich and memorable year that I don’t regret at all. While we’re still working, we’ve got jobs that allow us to be home a lot with no commute, and it feels like we’re at a savings rate that allows us to reach early retirement while still spending money on things that matter. So it’s good to hear from the “other side” that this strategy isn’t a total mistake. I’m trying to feel less guilty about deliberate spending on stuff we care about.

  9. Balance in all things and in all things balance… While I wasn’t part of the FIRE movement I retired at age 58 and we saved at least 30% of our income through our married life. Looking back, I too have some regrets of missing life experiences and events for the trade off of saving more. We are addressing this now but that is a real regret.

    Great post and I’m glad that you are enjoying your retirement.

  10. I binge-read the books in a week and had an epic fantasy hangover for the next few years. I still haven’t been able to watch the show because of it! Too much drama in far too little time.

    I do have a fair amount of regrets on money I did spend, wasted money on things we didn’t use the way I thought we would (and uh, ALL the money wasted on Dad), and that tends to focus me very strongly on future choices, biased to NOT spend.

    But I do have a regret like your Italy regret. Maybe I would have had to run up some debt to go but I bet I could have taken some money from savings to go to this friend’s island wedding. It’s been ten years and I still have sadness about it.

    So I am working at not letting that bias run our lives, just my purchasing decisions. Also (per today’s post) I’m making myself learn how to appreciate the minutiae of the journey and to BREATHE. I was basically holding my breath for the last six months trying to FORCE our savings to grow exponentially and that was a coping mechanism but it’s time to let it go.

  11. Insightful post! We definitely prioritized family travel experiences during our FIRE journey. My kids have been in far more countries than most of their middle school peers. Having family overseas helped us with that decision.

    I think a corollary to the theme of your post is the challenge of trusting your plan and spending on experiences AFTER FIRE. That is still a work in progress for us.

    But maybe the most remarkable revelation of your post is the tidbit that Paula Pant is actually participating in pop culture entertainment! ;-)

  12. Fortunately I can’t think of any times in my life where I regretted not spending money (mine are only the spending money variety 🙈) but this is a great point to be cognizant of in the future.

    I feel like I’m lucky to be in a situation where my base level spending is relatively low such that when these big once in a lifetime events do pop up, I don’t feel guilty for spending the money on them and enjoying my time. As I continue to get older and more big life events pop up, I will for sure be thinking about this, and truly determining whether or not the money is worth the experience, knowing that in the end, a one time expense of this nature really won’t move the needle on my financial independence journey.

  13. Finding that balance is tough! Especially when thinking about the financial impact of any big trips.

    I like the idea of asking “would I do this if I were retired and couldn’t replace that money?” If the answer is yes, then it makes sense to do it. It’s the whole “build a life you want and save for it” thing. It’ll mean a longer time saving but like you said – don’t let life pass you by.

    Like you, I didn’t do the best at this either. We didn’t travel internationally until we were in our 30s! I like the idea of spending money on cheaper, but still exciting experiences – hostels vs hotels, road trip vs flights. But those special occasions that come up like that wedding are outliers that are worth it – if you’d go later in life.

  14. It’s all about finding the right balance between saving for the future and spending money to enjoy the present moment. We’ve certainly made some money saving decisions that we later regret because we missed out on great experiences and memories. we are certainly making decisions with a more balanced approach now rather than just doing at how much money things cost.

  15. Yes — this is exactly why I still look more to the old-school “Your Money or Your Life” approach of identifying your values, understanding what life energy of yours goes into earning a dollar, and finding the areas where spending that dollar brings you true value.

    That doesn’t always lead to minimal spending, but it does guarantee that the spending you do is really worth it. I first read his book in my 20s, and I am on track to retire at 46 without feeling like I have sacrificed a thing.

  16. Another great post. I struggled with this for my first few years of work, as I wanted to pay off debt and accumulate as much as possible. I’m slowly starting to relax and recognize the importance of spending now on the things that are important to me – but I still sometimes look at things and cringe at how much they cost, even though I can totally afford them.

  17. Another difficult thing is deciding which experiences are the actual ‘once in a lifetime’ ones.

    Too lax and you basically join the YOLO crowd where everything becomes a priority over finances.

    Too strict and you’re back to being a financial robot.

    This is a subjective topic and vary greatly on whoever you talk to. But the point really is living with little to no regrets.

    Back to GoT “Love is the death of Duty” and sometimes “Duty is the death of Love”. Life is not black and white like that and we should celebrate the grey areas in between. 😀

  18. Amen! Time doesn’t compound like money, unfortunately; if anything the years only go by faster if you wait too long to spend them.

    Glad you’ve gotten a chance to relax lately (not a GoT watcher yet but it sounds intense)!

  19. Thank you for your wonderful blog. I have been thinking about this a lot lately as I look forward to “my next life” . I was divorced last year and my kids are almost launched. I have been looking at early retirement for a while. The money/balance part is really hard. I spend very little when alone, but don’t want to miss time with friends and my kids, so spend more money than I want when with them. However, it really isn’t a lot in the big picture.

    I am also, reading your book now. I really like it. Thank you for putting it all in one place. I appreciate you keeping it simple.

  20. Yes definitely focus on the future but not at the expense of the present. For us, travel and experiences with family and friends do not cause buyer’s remorse. That only comes about from acquiring “stuff” and “things”.

  21. Finding balance can be tricky. Setting guidelines for our spending makes the decision to spend or not spend a little easier when an opportunity comes up.

    We have about five years until our son heads off to college and we never want to regret that we didn’t do something as a family that we value. We will never get our time together back.

  22. You continue to raise issues that few other FIRE bloggers venture into. Balance and trade offs in the quest for FIRE is an important topic. Older relatives won’t be here forever and some important events only have one opportunity.

  23. Tanja, I’ve been reading your archive from the beginning (still in mid-2016) and I didn’t want to skip ahead and “ruin the ending,” but I couldn’t wait any longer to join the conversation. You talk about such interesting ideas, and the community that comments here is thoughtful and introspective as well.

    My story is long and convoluted, but the portion that relates to this post is that I spent eight years in a doctoral program from which I eventually withdrew due to medical reasons. I don’t necessarily regret attempting to obtain a PhD, but I do regret the opportunity costs – all of the things that I didn’t do because I was too busy with grad school. This is especially true because I realized after my first year in the doctoral program that we were FI (thanks, MMM!), and my significant other RE’d after my second year in the program. Nevertheless, I persisted…

    However, I am chagrined/happy to report that 6.5 years after Spousal Unit retired we have FINALLY begun to shift gears to a retired mindset. We have just returned from our first road trip with our travel trailer, which was scheduled for a long weekend, but which we let extend into a three week trip.

    Life is short and health is not guaranteed. Finding the balance between being an ant and being a grasshopper is an art.

  24. I agree so much with this post, it should auto-post every 4-6 months so that those on the path don’t miss out on this wisdom! Sometimes you’re not ready to understand this message when you’re in the trenches, but it’s so important.

    I am FI and work with my husband on passion projects, but a crazy thing happed on my journey – I gained 40 lbs. sadly, I gained some still after FI… I’m now on my down but I neglected myself in favor of $$ :( I thought after FI I’d be the picture of health, but a healthy lifestyle still requires work and maintenance, it doesn’t just magically appear…

  25. Wait a minute, where is MY invitation to a wedding in Italy!?? I have been a bridesmaid 6 times (dress colors: pink, red, sea foam green, purple, copper, chocolate brown.) and I’ve attended several more weddings, but no Italy weddings, what am I doing wrong? Clearly I’m picking my single friends badly. I do regret buying a few of those dresses…

  26. I’m balancing this as right now. I refuse to not live my life right now while saving for financial freedom. I come from a very frugal background, so it’s pretty naturally ingrained, but I also have the knowledge that life is short and you never know what could/can happen. I was only 11 and my mother only 40 when she had to have her first brain surgery to remove a tumor. I was 14 when she had to have her second surgery and 22 when she had to be placed in a nursing home for constant care where she continued to digress into a vegetative state. She was full of life before that and it scared the crap out of me to realize how quickly things can change.
    I have a goal to be financially free in 5-ish years. I could definitely get there even earlier, but I won’t be because I am taking nearly 5 weeks to vacation this year. I took my 6 year old on his first Disney cruise in January. We just came back from a 12 night trip to France and Spain. In July, we are taking a week to go to Niagara Falls, and in October, we are going to see the fall colors in the New England area for 9 nights. And I’ve already planned another 4-5 weeks of vacation for the following year… Would I save a bunch of money by not taking these trips…sure (though, I even do these trips frugally with points and miles), but it is important to me to live and experience life with my family and friends even while saving for the future.

  27. This is an interesting post, it is so refreshing hear from the retirees. as they say “don’t forget to stop and smell the roses”, beware of the “retirement and frugal police”.

    Thank you ONL

  28. I lived by a rule I call Parsimony. Parsimony is not frugal and it is not extravagant. It forces you to balance between the two so your return is best bang for the buck. An example is I bought a tread mill in 1993 and I still use it every day. It was a gym quality device not consumer and cost about 5 grand in 1993 dollars. My wife uses the machine as well about $200/yr no gym fees.

  29. As a fellow person living on Earth, I hope most of the guests that went to that event in Italy didn’t live in the US, as I imagine the environmental impact of all those transatlantic flights would be monumental.

    Where do we draw the line between enjoying travel for our own enrichment and preserving the planet for others?

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