90 Is Still An A

90 Is Still An A

My former roommate and one of my best friends in university was the textbook example of an overachiever. She would study at all hours, survive on coffee and adrenaline, and exist only in a frazzled, constant state of imposter syndrome. At times I was so worried about her that I’d do her grocery shopping so she wouldn’t starve at her desk.

One night, we’d invited friends over to our dorm. She came out of her room, textbook in hand, and proceeded to continue studying while she ‘socialized’ with us. At that point, I had a bit of a moment. In front of everyone, I told her that she was pushing herself too hard, that she shouldn’t be there if she wasn’t going to be fully present, and that the additional effort she was putting in wouldn’t even show up on her transcripts.

It wasn’t my finest motivational speech, to say the least. I found out later that I’d made her cry, which was awful and something I still feel terrible about. I’ve never been the best at tactful communicating – I want nothing more than to see my friends succeed but sometimes my commentary comes out more judgemental than caring. I’m working on it. Fortunately, after my words had settled she did see the logic behind them. The extra hours of work she was putting in and the stress she carried to get 95-100% on exams and assignments were giving her diminishing returns. It doesn’t show on a transcript whether you received 91% or 100% – once you hit 90% it’s all the same grade: A+.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. My friend started to enjoy herself a bit more, still received stellar grades, won awards for her research, and went on to medical school where she tried (unsuccessfully) to encourage her new classmates to lighten up just a little.

90 Is Still An A

At some point I realized I’d fallen into the same trap of aiming for 100 when I really should have been aiming for 90. I’d read too many near-perfect expense reports from too many near-perfect spenders. You know the ones. Grocery bills less than someone else would spend on their pet food because they only eat oatmeal, lentils, and rice; one coffee in their meals out category but they’ll try harder to kick that vice next month; and zero other non-housing costs because walking and thinking are free. I admire these people, but I am not one of them and I never will be.

If you haven’t already guessed, I’m not naturally frugal. I’m frugal sometimes, in some categories, because I’m prioritizing other things, but I don’t naturally gravitate toward low spending. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that that’s okay. Just like I don’t need to aim to earn billions because I’m not interested in a life of luxury, I also don’t need to aim for minimal spending because I’m not interested in retiring that early. I love my job (when I don’t hate it), I’m finally at a place in my life where I’m earning enough to enjoy my success while contributing to my financial goals, and I do value some things that cost money.

In my life, for my situation, retiring at some point in my early 40s is what I’m aiming for and what I would consider a 90 in my books. I’ve limited my lifestyle enough to reduce my career by 20 years. Sure, I could try to cut more and reach financial independence even earlier, but I’d be trading things I truly value for the next 10-15 years just to reach a milestone a few years earlier. The last 10% isn’t worth it to me, because it wouldn’t change the transcript.

I’ll always fall somewhere in between, and above average is not failing. I’ll still be able to leave mandatory work behind on my own terms if I buy new things and travel and go out to dinner occasionally. I’ll still be able to save 50% of my net income when many Canadians who earn much more than I do are saving less than 5%. It’s okay to delay a milestone for a few months or years if you have other goals that you want to tackle first. It’s all about prioritizing – 90 is still an A!

…Except When It’s Not

I couldn’t talk about financial goals without acknowledging that sometimes, 100 isn’t even an A. Sometimes you’re pushing yourself to the limit, doing everything that you can, and you’re still not making it. I used to earn $10,000 per year while I was in university, barely enough to cover my rent even with two roommates, and no amount of budgeting or reducing my grocery bill would have made that math work.

At the time, I had to choose between having more debt, not spending time with my spouse, or less relevant work experience for my future career. I chose having more debt, because I didn’t want to sacrifice my relationship or the higher probability of a solid job after graduation. Fortunately, it all worked out. My experience at part time jobs, my success in university, and a significant amount of luck landed me a great position within a few months – and my relationship stayed intact. If I didn’t get that first job, my life with six figures of debt could look very different right now!

As much as I despise my student loans, I’m also grateful that I was able to use debt to attain my goals without giving up other things that were more important to me. I’ve had my cell phone cut off, my credit card has been declined, I’ve lived out of the pantry because the month lasted longer than the money – but I’ve never been in a long-term place of financial insecurity. I’ve always known that if I was in a dire situation I could ask family for help, or move back in with my parents. Living in your childhood bedroom again is often seen as an undesirable last resort scenario, but it’s also a major luxury that I’ve tended to take for granted.

Money is not as easy as we sometimes make it seem. Part of being on a debt free journey or pursuing financial independence is trying to stay motivated. We tell ourselves it’s easy and that we can do it and that anyone can do it because we need to tell ourselves that to be able to keep going. The reality is that it’s hard, and it’s harder when you have less of a safety net, or no safety net at all. I hope that if you have space to breathe, you take it. I hope that if you don’t have space to breathe, you find it. If you can, remember that it’s okay to aim for 90.

6 thoughts on “90 Is Still An A”

  • You make some very good points in your post. I also think in terms of being perfect or if not, I’m a failure. Not just in financial stuff but also in dieting or at work. It’s not fun to be so hard on yourself, so I’m trying to be kind to myself. I’m also OK with FI taking a little longer and not sacrificing everything in my life that costs money.

    • I think the perfect/failure dichotomy can be detrimental – we’re more likely to quit if we feel that we’re failing. Any success is still success!

  • You obviously didn’t go to my high school, where an A was 94% and anything below 70 was failing 😉

    But really, I completely agree with this post, and am living it. I cut back my hours to 80% which means giving up a good chunk of income (and ability for larger promotions in the future) in order to enjoy life now. We still should hit FI by our mid 40s, which is definitely on the later side of the FIRE community, but it feels like plenty to us. And yes, we buy some very tasty food with a lot of variety, though we are working on shrinking the food budget by a lot because it got out of control. It’s definitely a balance, and I would give us a solid 80% with our finances right now with a goal around 90% 🙂

    • Grading systems vary so much! I can’t remember what my high school system was, but in undergraduate studies 90+ was an A+. Law school was an entirely different story! We were graded on a curve and only the top 5-10% received an A-, maybe an A rarely. The numbers and letters are fairly meaningless but people give them a LOT of weight!

      I think enjoying life now is so important. Sure, 40s might seem late in the FIRE community because there are a few voices who did it in their 20-30s, but there are so many people who aren’t writing blogs or recording podcasts that aren’t heard. If you look at the thread for this year’s retired cohort on the MMM forums for example, out of 39 people who listed their age the average was 43 and the median was 42 – with ages ranging from 27 to 59. Now imagine everyone who retires early but isn’t in the media or on that one popular forum! The FIRE community is also a major outlier in itself – most people will be working very late into their lives. I hope that adds some perspective!

  • Hah at the schools I went to, 90 was only an A- and therefore not worth getting 😉

    I kid now since I’m in the recovering perfectionist stage, but boy was that not a joke back when I was in school. I killed myself way too much for perfect grades/beat myself up way too much when I didn’t get them. I’m definitely trying to keep myself from repeating that pattern when it comes to FI!

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