I’m sure many of you are familiar with FIRE and hopefully some of you are also striving towards that goal. My personal FIRE outlook has always been slightly different and likely falls more under the abbreviated term FI. I personally didn’t care to be retired at thirty. When I left to go sail around the world at twenty-nine, I probably could have put in another three or four years and retired in FIRE fashion. And that would have been great, no doubt, but it wouldn’t have allowed me to reach the other goals I had for myself—sailing the world’s oceans and driving its roads, wherever all those different paths would lead.
I like to think that there are other ways to achieve financial independence and happiness. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. Life can be a series of mini-retirements. Work, play, work, play.
Before my wife and I left to sail, we were pretty normal as far as spending go. We lived fairly simply, though looking back at our Pottery Barn furniture and JCrew wardrobe I’m certain we could have saved considerably more than we did. But this is beside the point, and was also before the entire internet was talking up the FIRE movement anyway.
I should mention right here that I realize my situation is not normal. I was twenty-nine and could afford to buy a boat and sail around the world for four years. My early twenties started off normal enough. I graduated college, took a minimum wage foot-in-the-door trading clerk job, moved close to work, sold my car to fund a trading account, and within five years of that was bobbing around in the Bahamas. Some good choices, and some good luck, all came together for me. That said, the things I learned about personal finance in the ensuing years were extremely valuable to me over the long-term. Sixteen years have gone by since I first left the trading pits, and because of the way I live I’ve been able to sustain my travels and wanderlust through all of that time.
It’s interesting what my initial years of cruising did for me that maybe wouldn’t ever have been crystallized by sticking to the working life I had been. Living on a sailboat for four years drilled home the things that are important, and caused me to be hyper-focused on putting my money towards only those things. It instilled the attitude that there is a vast difference between wants and needs. And I’m sure that being able to distinguish between those two will make an immediate difference on your wallet.
I hesitate to even write articles like this, as they can seem condescending, and very much “no duh” to many of us, but I realize that it took a pretty incredible experience to drill some of this into my head. So forgive me any clichés or for pointing out the painfully obvious, it’s not at all my intention.
The very first step I think anyone should take on their trek towards financial independence is tracking their spending. I’ve yet to meet the person who has done this and not been shocked by at least one item on the list at the end of a month or two. When my wife and I first started doing this in 2003 it wasn’t because we wanted to learn about our own spending, it was because at the time we wanted to show others what it costs to sail around the world. We kept notebooks and wrote down every dime we spent each and every day. At the end of each month we would put those expenses into categories, and before we knew it we had a very good idea of where exactly our money was going, and could then make informed decisions about where we could cut back.
These days there are tons of programs/apps that can do the legwork for you. Most programs sync up with your bank and credit card and automatically do most of the legwork for you. Check out Mint, Personal Capital, Albert, and YNAB and pick one that works best for you.
What I found most useful from tracking my expenses wasn’t so much the shock value of seeing exactly how much we spent on food, or beer, or boat parts, it was that we became reluctant to spend money because there was the physical act of later writing down that expense. It was like every purchase suddenly had a backup thought process to it. If we made an unnecessary purchase we’d be reminded of it later, and could then recognize it for what it was—a silly or frivolous purchase. When a similar opportunity to spend money came up again, it was easier to forgo it because of past experience. Pretty soon we were questioning every purchase. “Do I need this, or do I want this?”
Sometimes just as useful for new budget trackers is knowing exactly what their income is. For some it’s as easy as looking at their pay stub. What you brought home is what your income is. But others might have investments in dividend paying stocks, or a rental property, or a youtube channel, or any number of other income streams. Maybe you’ve been telling yourself that income is an extra $200 a month, but in reality it is $158 a month. Seemingly insignificant differences in numbers can add up to big money over time. So, just having exact numbers laid out in front of you can help you make better overall decisions.
So how do you go about saving money? For me it really comes down to recognizing the difference between a need and a want. There is a big difference, but somehow many people don’t seem to realize it. Sailing around the world was an eye opener for me in the needs versus wants category. When out on the ocean, or in a bay on some small island, there is no way to buy anything. So, everything is a want, because no need can be met.
What would happen is a list of wants would materialize. A month would go by, two months, maybe three, and we’d finally pull into port somewhere. By this time, those wants were long forgotten, and only the real needs would remain—things like a part to fix the engine, or replacing a line that was about to break.
Over time I developed a system that really worked for me, and has stuck with me ever since. It’s nothing original. I had to want something three times before I could let myself buy it. Maybe I wanted a new underwater camera because I was snorkeling at a beautiful reef and wasn’t happy with the pictures I was getting from my current camera. I might think about it again at the next reef, but then I might fiddle with some camera settings and realize I could take decent pictures with the camera I had. By then I’d be happy with what I had and would forget I’d ever wanted a new camera. By delaying gratification I could eliminate most purchases, and virtually all impulse purchases.
What saving really comes down to is realizing what is important to you. Make a list of things you want to do and focus on reaching those goals. When you do, you start to realize that twenty bucks here, twenty bucks there, can add up quickly. And then it becomes addicting. How can I save more to get from A to B quicker? You start to consider the bigger expenses. What if I moved to a smaller place close to work? What if I quit watching television? What if I buy a used car instead of new?
There are at least a hundred things, big and small, that anyone who is working towards financial independence can do to get there.
At Wanderer Financial we’re going to work with you to get you where you want to be. Taking control of your spending and saving is just the first step.