When you’re in the weeds of a long term goal, like paying off six figures of student loan debt or saving enough money to reach financial independence, motivation is EVERYTHING. One of my key motivators is my FIRE (Financial Independence / Retire Early) playlist. There’s […]
The first post I ever wrote for Debts To Riches was Above Average, At Least In Student Loan Debt on July 11, 2017. At the time, I was writing almost entirely for myself and only partially for a vague potential future audience. I had been living […]
The rest of the world only has to worry about keeping up with the Joneses – in the FIRE (Financial Independence / Retire Early) community we have the Mustachians. Mr. Money Mustache retired in his thirties after nine years of saving a large portion of his income and investing it in index funds. There are now hundreds of personal finance bloggers who are pursuing or have already reached financial independence, with thousands of like-minded followers. We’ve replaced the archaic success markers of yachts and McMansions with bicycles and 50%+ savings rates.
At various times in my life I’ve stumbled on some pretty revolutionary ideas. Experiences are more important than things. Time is the most valuable resource. Personal finance is largely behavior. I’ve tried on more personas than hats. I’ve floated along on a spectrum from maximalist to minimalist. I’ve been a consumer, and a creator.
Whenever I discover an idea like financial independence, I feel like I’ve found THE idea. The new approach that will solve all of my problems. If only I could save up enough money to pursue my passions, I’d finally be content.
At first glance, the financial independence movement seems to be the answer to questions we’ve all been asking. We’re exhausted, overwhelmed, and surrounded by excessive consumption. Instead of a high income, the model wealth metric is now the ultimate luxury purchase: freedom. What could be a more fulfilling pursuit than that?
Since I found the FIRE community, I’ve cut my spending in half and paid off almost twice as much debt as I did the previous year. I’m in a much better financial position, but I’m still at about the same level of contentment. I tell myself that when I have a positive net worth, I’ll be happier. When I’m debt free, I’ll feel successful.
Actually, if I could fast forward 15 years from now and be financially independent, I’m not sure that I’d feel any more accomplished than I do today. In fact, I imagine that with all of my distractions stripped away, I’d be left searching for the next grand design. I suspect that some of you might have a similar experience, because I’ve seen it play out with many early retirees already.
The metrics may have shifted, but the mechanism is the same: we’re still looking to external sources for validation.
Instead of peering inside our neighbor’s garage at their shiny new BMW, we can read about the latest blogger who pulled the plug on their 9-5. We’ve traded scrolling through a feed of debt-fueled consumption for scrolling through a feed of debt payments and net worth graphs. I don’t even have to leave my apartment to compare myself to thousands of people who are undeniably smarter, wealthier, and better than me at everything.
I’m not denying that the Mustachians are a healthier aspirational model than the Joneses – they’re certainly better prepared for retirement! The Mustachians are still regular people though, and so are all of the other bloggers and their readers. They have flaws and insecurities, and they’re probably way less face-punchy than you might think. Sometimes we can get in the habit of pursuing the level of perfection portrayed online, forgetting that this information has been filtered and curated. We don’t often get to see the experiments leading up to the big invention, or the drafts before the final post is published.
Mustachianism – or any -ism really – isn’t going to change your life if you haven’t done the internal work too. Don’t distract yourself with the pursuit of social status or wealth and then wake up one day to discover that your insecurities are right where you left them, loyally following along regardless of your success. It’s important to pull back occasionally and ask ourselves if we’re striving and hustling and comparing too much.
Contentment is an internal marker, and depends almost entirely on our own perceptions of ourselves. It’s not about savings rates or net worth. It’s not having everything, or wanting nothing. You can’t math your way to contentment. It doesn’t depend on your job, the amount of money you have in the bank, the car you drive, the contents of your wallet, or your f*cking khakis.
On my debt free journey I’ve learned that motivation is everything. If we want to see progress we have to engineer our environment to bump ourselves along to success. Gamify, Automate & Habitify (GAH!) are my watchwords! Support is a major component of achievement, so […]
What is the most efficient path to sustainable behavior change? Die-hard willpower devotees will tell you to suck it up, flex your will muscle, punch yourself in the face, and crush your goals through sheer strength of mind. Me? I don’t believe in willpower. Do […]
One of the common excuses for not being able to save money is living in an expensive city. Well, I’m here to tell you that I live in the most expensive city in my country – Vancouver, Canada – and I’m STILL making it work.
If you want to pay down your debt, become financially independent, and maybe even quit your job earlier than 65, you need to have a plan and be consistently working to make it happen. Increase income, decrease spending, or both. Nobody’s coming to bail you out, you’re not going to win the lottery, and no get rich quick scheme in the world will magically turn things around. No matter what kind of situation you’re in right now, you can do something to improve it. I know because I’ve done it, and I see other people do it every single day.
If a cult survivor can come to a new country, work two minimum wage jobs while finishing high school, graduate university with $160,000 in debt, and STILL be on the path to financial independence by 45, you can achieve your goals too. If a homeschooling mom and her husband can pay off $86,000 of debt in 5 years – with 7 kids! – you can achieve your goals too. If two 30-something schoolteachers can save a million dollars and quit their jobs to travel the world, you can achieve your goals too.
I wasn’t born with this attitude. I was absolutely guilty of letting my circumstances dictate my life, for much too long. I made so many excuses during my first year of paying off debt:
- I come from a small town and a single income family.
- I live in an expensive city.
- Housing costs are high.
- I have six figures in student debt and no six figure salary to go with it.
- I have a long commute and no time to meal plan or cook.
- I was in university for 9 years and I deserve to enjoy myself now.
- I should be able to have fun in my 20s – I’m only young once!
- I’ll never be able to afford a house here anyway, so why bother?
I’m exhausted just reading about that defeated, pessimistic past version of myself. It’s a wonder that I got anything done with that mindset.
I’ll be upfront with you – I do also have some advantages (mostly preferences!) that make living in Vancouver somewhat more affordable.
- I live with my spouse and we don’t need a lot of space, so we can comfortably share a small one bedroom apartment.
- I take public transit so I don’t have parking, insurance, gas, maintenance, or any other vehicle costs.
- I don’t spend on the usual vices like coffee, cigarettes, or alcohol.
- My spouse’s employer pays for our MSP (health coverage) at $75/month each.
- We don’t have children or pets.
- I make about 15% more than the average in my city – but I also spent 9 years in university and $130,000 to get there.
You want to know something interesting? Even with all of these advantages I still wasn’t gaining any traction. My mentality set me back to where these benefits weren’t even enough to give me momentum.
By the way, if my situation is so far from yours that you’re already tuning out, that’s cool! I really don’t mind. You’re not going to get anything out of reading this if you think what I have to say wouldn’t apply to you. Check out the Rockstar Finance Directory to find someone a little more like you who is crushing their goals. Otherwise, keep reading to find out how I hit my 50% savings rate!
Even with the advantages I’ve had based on my life choices, it can still be tough to save money in Vancouver. I know this, because my first year living here I think I saved negative dollars. I pass about 4,385 restaurants on my commute, and sometimes it’s a struggle not to pick up something fast and delicious for dinner. It also seems like there’s always an event happening – every day I’m potentially missing out on at least one festival or concert or craft beer harbour cruise.
So how do I do it?
Let’s start with my basic spending. I try to keep my regular total on bills and groceries to $1,500 monthly or $18,000 annually. A few notes:
- Rent: my half of a one bedroom, 550 square foot apartment downtown that I share with my spouse. We save space by minimizing our stuff, and having a folding kitchen table and folding chairs for hosting.
- Transit: my bus pass. We are a public transit only couple. No vehicle expenses here.
- Cell phone: my plan, with 6GB of data so I never have to worry about running out on my commute! I could probably lower my plan but I’m too attached to it right now.
- Internet, electricity, and insurance: me paying for the household. I check a few times a year for lower rates on some of our bills, and try to negotiate with the customer loyalty department whenever possible.
- Groceries: my half-ish. My partner doesn’t like to budget, but we keep separate finances so that I don’t have to care that he doesn’t like to budget. We shop at Costco quite a bit – bulk steel cut oats, rice, and pasta are great for the food budget. We also make most of our meals at home.
Here’s how that $1,500 breaks down:
My net income is about $48,000, so if I spend $18,000 on the basics that leaves me $30,000 to work with! Obviously I’m not saving ALL of that because I’m not a robot and if you’ve seen my F*CK YES Budget, you’ll know that I do enjoy spending money on some things: restaurants, entertainment, travel, and the other extras. Even if I spend an additional $6,000 per year, or $500 per month, I can still save $24,000 per year or 50% of my net income. At this point I’m putting all of that on my student loans, but later I’ll be able to invest it instead!
If you don’t net $48,000 a year, is it game over?
No! You may not be able to save 50%, but you can try to save something! Let’s look at the potential savings rate of someone who makes an average income, approximately $39,700 in British Columbia. Even if they spent the same amount as me, they could still save $15,700 per year or 40% of their net income! That’s massive! Who do you know that’s making an average income, and saving 40% of it?! Probably almost nobody, because our national savings rates are garbage. The average savings rate in Canada is a miniscule 4.3%. We can do better! Even 20-30% would be an amazing achievement compared to most Canadians.
Why the f*ck would we want to do better? Isn’t it all about enjoying life now?
You must be one of those rare souls that doesn’t complain about their job every workday, or live for the weekend, or fantasize about winning the lottery.
Enjoying life is fantastic, and I highly recommend continuing to do that, but you know what’s even more amazing? Freedom. Having enough savings to be financially independent means spending your scarce time and energy working on projects because you want to, not because you have to.
If we want to experience financial independence, like ever, let alone early in life, articles such as This is how much it costs to live as a young person in Vancouver in 2017 and Breakdown: This is the minimum amount of money a young professional needs to live in Vancouver should not be our benchmark. Look to people who are making it on less, and do what you can to emulate them.
Instead of accepting our averageness and welp-ing away our problems, we need to think creatively. Live outside of downtown, try to find a bachelor suite, share a place with roommates, check out housing co-ops or leaseholds. Call your telecom service providers and threaten to switch to a competitor if they don’t lower your bill. If you’re a foodie, learn to cook your favorite dishes at home, meal plan, and shop at less expensive grocery stores. If you need more social interaction, invite friends over instead of going out or opt for free or inexpensive activities. If you want to work out, try doing it at home or outside.
I know I have advantages and I’m very grateful for them, but I couldn’t save a dime until I stopped letting the disadvantages take over. I quit blaming external factors like my location for all of my problems, and suddenly I started making real progress. Most of us have advantages and disadvantages, but our situations can almost always be improved by dropping the excuses and stepping out of our comfort zones.
What are your tips for saving in an expensive city?
August was pretty standard as far as debt payments go. I’ve settled into a routine where I pay $600 on my student loan at the beginning of the month, and $1,300 on my student line of credit in the middle of the month. My current […]
I’m sure by now we’ve all read an infinite number of articles about saving money. The standard cut your cable bill and stop eating out so f*cking much is still great advice, but what if that doesn’t work? The math is simple, but that doesn’t […]
Are you on schedule to achieve your goals? A key component of motivation is tracking and evaluating your progress for consistent feedback on your behavior. We tend to get lost in our day to day, feeling like we’re not getting anywhere, so it is essential to look back over a few months or years to reinforce how far we’ve come.
I’m always searching for new tools to track my progress, so I was excited to come across a new financial independence / early retirement (FIRE) metric called The FIRE Prowess Gauge from JW at The Green Swan.
Here’s how it works.
FIRE Prowess = Change in Net Worth / Gross Income
Simple, eh? (I couldn’t help myself, I’m Canadian.) Let’s get right into some numbers. For comparison, I’ve added my savings rates as well.
|Net Worth +/-||Gross Income||FIRE Prowess||Savings Rate|
What does this all mean?
If over the last 5 years your FIRE Prowess is:
- Negative or 0.0x – Not even on the path toward retirement, let alone FIRE. If you aren’t saving and investing any money and your net worth isn’t growing then it is time to make some changes and develop positive financial habits. It may be a change to a frugal lifestyle or getting an advance degree to take the next step in your career.
- 0.0x to 0.25x – You’re conscious of your retirement and know you should plan for it, but early retirement may not be on your radar at this point.
- .25x to 0.50x – You’ve got the ball rolling and you’re certainly trying! Keep investing wisely, perhaps add a side-hustle or few lifestyle tweaks to lower expenses and FIRE can be within your grasp.
- .50x to 0.75x – You’re working hard toward your retirement goals! Early retirement is definitely possible. Keep working hard and that investment snowball will be rolling (compounding) in no time!
- .75x to 1.0x – FIRE is on your mind and you are performing in overdrive right now!
- 1.0x and over – You are killing it! Don’t make any stupid mistakes and FIRE will be within your grasp in no time. In this scenario, your net worth is more than your lifetime earnings.
Unfortunately I only have net worth data from 2016 forward (prior to that I was definitely in the negative!). Based on the data I do have, I went from ‘certainly trying, FIRE can be within your grasp with some changes’ to ‘early retirement is definitely possible’ in about half a year! I’ve been really focusing on paying back my student loans, and my retirement account is steadily growing on the side.
I’d give myself a solid B- in 2016 and maybe a B+ in 2017 (so far).
The next goal is to get to the ‘overdrive’ level at 0.75! Considering I met the ‘certainly trying’ level when I was still a spendypants consumer by FIRE standards, ‘overdrive’ should be in my grasp soon. I’m very early on my financial independence journey, with six figures of student loan debt to pay, but so far the FIRE Prowess Gauge seems accurate. When I’m debt free and the magic of compound interest is working for me instead of against me, I expect my number to keep rising!
Also, as you can see, even a 38% savings rate (WELL above the average household savings rate in Canada – 5.8% in January 2017) is not enough to secure early retirement. If you’re serious about pursuing financial independence earlier than the norm, metrics like the FIRE Prowess Gauge can be a great tool to track your progress and keep you motivated.
If you want to read more about this metric, check out the post that started it all The Swan’s FIRE Prowess Gauge and Retirement Manifesto’s post that started the chain. The Rockstar Finance Forum is also tracking the chain.
Here are some of the other posts about the FIRE Prowess Score. How does yours measure up?
The FIRE Prowess Score Chain:
The Green Swan – The Swan’s FIRE Prowess Gauge 2016: 132% Lifetime: 93%
The Retirement Manifesto – Is Your Wealth Building On Track? 2016: 57% Lifetime: 44%
OthalaFehu – My Swan FIRE Prowess Numbers 2016: 72% Lifetime: 61%
Budget On A Stick – My FIRE Prowess Score 2016: 52% Lifetime: 55%
Shnugi – Calculating My Savings Rate 2016: 71% Lifetime 54%
Dads Dollars Debt – DDD’s FIRE Prowess 2016: 26% Lifetime 32%
Adventure Rich – The Adventure Rich FIRE Prowess Score 2016: 45% Lifetime 47%
Freedom Is Groovy – The Groovies FIRE Prowess Score 2016: 163% Lifetime 90%
Working Optional – Calculate Your Progress To Financial Freedom 2016: 97% Lifetime 75%
Budgets Are Sexy – My Total Lifetime Wealth Ratio:1 2016: 135% Lifetime 60%
Life Zemplified – FIRE Prowess Score for Life Zemplified2 2016: 78% Lifetime 76%
Physician’s Wealth Services – Physician Wealth’s FIRE Prowess1 2016: 43% Lifetime 46%
Married And Harried – Married And Harried FIRE Prowess Score1 2016: 32% Lifetime 14%
Ms. Liz Money Matters – Introducing the FIRE Prowess Score1 2016 279% Lifetime 72%
Actuary On Fire: The Swan’s FIRE Prowess Gauge – My Results1 2016: 61% Lifetime: 59%
Trail to FI: FIRE Prowess Score, Trail to FI Edition 2016: 34% Lifetime: 53%
Maximum Cents: Maximum Cents’ FIRE Prowess Score 2016: 94% Lifetime: 70%
Retiring On My Terms: ROMT’s FIRE Prowess2 2016: 119% Lifetime: 57%
Minafi: The Minafi FIRE Prowess Score 2016: 74% Lifetime: 94%
Military Dollar: FIRE Prowess Scores and How to Correct for Military Paychecks 2016 81% Lifetime 83%
Finance Yo Self: FIRE Prowess Score for Finance Yo Self 2016: 44% Lifetime: 44%
The 7 Circles: FIRE Prowess Gauge 2016: 246% Lifetime: 219%
Money Metagame: The Good, Bad & Ugly of the FIRE Prowess Gauge 2016: 108% Lifetime 68%