Emotions on the Journey to Financial Independence

It’s been an interesting experience to be working up to and then beyond a reasonable designation of financial independence. Using the typical 4% rule, I reached FI a few years ago. However, I didn’t personally consider myself getting to true FI (including the buffer I wanted) until very recently. Part of this is because we have two young kids. Part of this the fact that investment valuations have been high recently. And part of this is my wife’s desire to have a large safety buffer in case our expenses rise in the future more than I am expecting. Regardless, I still felt I had a way to go but in the last year I actually feel like I can make a conscious choice to keep going at work or do something different. I’m not going to argue pros and cons of each choice in this article but it’s very nice to get to the point of truly feeling it’s a choice that can be made.

Some of the more useful articles I have read on FIRE have come from others who described their own conflicting thoughts and emotions on big and fundamental topics like work, freedom, purpose, and happiness. They are tackling nothing less than what is the best way to spend the one lifetime you have. Pretty deep and heavy stuff. I thought it would be worthwhile to describe some of the emotional and mindset journey I’ve learned from others as well as my own experience from the early stages of the journey towards FI to actually achieving it or getting close enough that it actually feels real.

While there are some writers pursuing FIRE that are many years away, and some more that are FI but working or “retired” to some new phase of their life, it seems most of the FIRE writers online are coming from the perspective of pursuing FI where FI is usually 1-3 years away.

For those that are really far away from FI, it’s more like a distant dream and likely not on your mind much. You probably aren’t reading about it all the time or thinking about it, both of which are pretty common in people that start writing about it. It may be something that interests you and you read about a bit but not something that dominates your life so much that you consider writing about it.

For those that are well beyond FI, I imagine FI simply becomes a non-issue and you start to spend less and less time thinking about it. It’s natural to lose interest in the whole topic at this point and you can see this in some of the blogs that wind down after their authors reach FI and “retire”. They likely find they have other things they prefer to spend their lives doing instead of thinking and writing about financial independence. I like to think they have transcended beyond the need to spend their life messing around with this stuff.

It takes passion and motivation to write online and these two are in high supply when a tough goal like early FI is within sight! It’s also usually a turbulent emotional time and it’s something that dominates your thoughts for much of the time. For those that will stop working and do something completely different (most of the writers out there), you are approaching and dreaming about a major life transition that will of course occupy a lot of your thoughts.  Writing is an outlet for these thoughts and emotions.

It’s also an unusual and lonely journey and the internet allows a connection to others that understand or at least can relate in some way. Some writers are also hoping that blogging could be a post-job activity, either for money or to help them feel a type of purpose when they have a lot of free time. In fact, the top bloggers that keep going strongly after FIRE, seem to be those that feel some greater purpose in continuing to blog and/or have built a nice blogging business that they enjoy growing, mainly based on helping others reach FI since they have already reached it.

There some common emotions and thoughts expressed by these writers.

There are feelings of excitement as you start to realize this is something you can really achieve. You start to dream more and more about what you would do without a full time job. There are so many aspects of life that open up. Where to live? What will a typical day look like? How will you spend your time? How will you spend time with family? Friends? Hobbies? Volunteer activities? Travel? Starting a business? What will your diet be? Is there an exercise regimen you are looking forward to? Books to read? Video games to play? Home projects to do? A new sport or skill to learn? Will you try to help others? How? And on and on.

To some this incredible array of options is exciting. To most, it is also stressful. It’s the same transition that everyone reaching retirement goes through, but it’s even more exciting and difficult for those that reach FI relatively early in life. There are more things you can do. There are more options. You have more health and energy. There isn’t really a roadmap to follow because there are so few examples, particularly in your own friends and family. You have the freedom but also burden to figure things out yourself. Of course this is a nice, first world type of problem to have.  Actually this is a “beyond first world” problem since most people in the first world don’t even have things this good. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy transition. Some really interesting work by Barry Schwartz has shed light on how we think about choices. In his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less he delves into the topic in detail. He focuses on the less-known downsides of choice. Corporate marketers have long known this when it comes to product choices but it’s non-intuitive and less well known to most people. Early FI leads to an incredible array of open possibilities and many people struggle with the sheer scope of choices available to them.  I don’t think this is surprising at all but online it seems as though many writers have clear dreams and are encouraging others to take a leap and “live their dreams”.  If you don’t have a clear vision, you can feel like you are lacking but I suspect most people are a bit fuzzy on how exactly they would live their life if a powerful directional boundary like the need to earn money was removed from consideration.

Some people feel a responsibility to make good choices because they are in such a privileged position. What is the best way to spend this kind of freedom? What is acceptable? What is not? Here at least we seem to have less of a problem. Almost by definition, those that reach early FI are a strongly independent group so the intolerant judgements of others are pretty easy to ignore. This also means the great FI community tends to be much more tolerant than average. After seeing so many other people suffer from intolerance and be really bothered by it, I’m really thankful for the tolerance of this community and that personally I can shake off the disapproval of others.

As a tangent, it’s interesting to see how people get upset when others think or behave differently than they expect. If you find yourself often upset with others, ask yourself the question of whether you should adjust your expectation instead of trying to get others to change their behavior or thinking. To give you a real-world example, this mindset shift is how I became more tolerant of my wife always being late. I just accepted this and decided not to be upset when we were late. We were usually late to something she wanted to do in the first place so why was I upset? Now that I’ve adjusted my expectations, it doesn’t bother me much but before it used to drive me crazy.

At the same token, don’t get upset with others if they don’t respond or treat you the way you think they should (within reason). It’s the other side of the same coin. You can’t control what other people do or think so don’t stress about it. It is not your responsibility. Limit yourself to working on your own thoughts and behaviors…..it’s a much more productive use of your efforts.

Since you are bucking a lot of conventions in pursuing FI early in life, you will face a lot of surprised or confused people that will respond in a variety of ways to your “behavior”.  Expect it and don’t let anyone’s response bother you.

Another common experience in the pursuit of FI is feelings of frustration with the passage of time, which seems to slow as whatever number goal you have is getting closer. This is certainly common for those that are going to quit their jobs when they hit their target. You visualize and dream about what you will start to do once you have a lot more time available. You get anxious to get started on your new life. Some people really look forward to a break to relax, particularly those with very demanding jobs with high hours and work travel. Some have big trips planned and want to start. Some will move or start a business. Either way, there is something (or set of somethings) that have been put on hold because of the lack of time and there is a strong desire to get started which makes the passage of time on the job slow.

On the positive side, once you feel like a short-timer, often people express that work becomes easier. The stress goes down. Things that upset you before start to seem less important and not worth getting worked up about. Work politics is less stressful. You don’t have to build a long career, working your way up the ladder. You’re going to be stepping off the current rung and off the ladder completely in a relatively short time.

You can delegate or say no to many parts of your job that you dislike, and the removal of unpleasant things is a good way to be happier as an excellent article from the Mad Fientist explains.

You can also take more risks at work once you lose the fear of repercussions. Ironically, once you need your job less, you often finally feel you can do the things that provide more value in your job. It’s not uncommon for people to report improved performance at work, often as they are working less and getting disengaged from the politics.

So I’ve described a lot of what I’ve observed from others. Let me describe my own journey, focusing on the time period before and up to FI.  I apologize to those that don’t want to much detail but I think it’s useful to many to provide more insight into to specifics to see what mine be useful them and what is not relevant at all.

Let me start with a very brief early background.

I grew up in a middle class family that was frugal and responsible but nothing extreme.  Basically a pretty typical middle class upbringing.   But money still significantly factored into my decisions on school, career, and where to live.  As an example, when I finished my undergrad degree I considered vet school or grad school in chemistry.  A major factor was the debt I would have to take on to become a vet, whereas grad school in chemistry provides a small stipend that you can live on, essentially making your education free.  I focused and did very well in school for a very long time, and ended up with a good job in materials research at a large company. From the start, I saved about 20% of my salary each year. Even so, I had some student loans, quickly added a car payment on a new SUV, and a mortgage payment like many other people. Over time, this debt weighed on me as my income grew, and I started to pay these down more aggressively while still maxing out my 401K contributions. I married financially well (meaning she was good with money, not that she brought any money into our marriage) and with our combined income, we started saving even more, despite a house upgrade and 2 kids along the way. Despite working in demanding jobs, mostly we liked the pressure and fast pace. We even rescheduled our honeymoon around an early leadership training course at work and didn’t think too much of it.

I think our mindset really started to change when we started having kids. We wanted to enjoy the early time with our kids but our jobs demanded a lot of our time and attention. I remember having to go in for a day of meetings (and yes, they were actually important meetings that I needed to be participating in) that first week when I wanted to be out on paternity leave with my family. We also felt torn and resentful when our son received a serious respiratory infection in the first week of daycare, requiring a 4 day hospital stay that scared us. We knew how vulnerable kids were in that first 6 months of their life but we could only keep them home the first 3 months before needing to return to work. We were living far away from family since we had prioritized education and career opportunities that took us to other places so there wasn’t anyone to help us. We also didn’t like the idea of a full time nanny. It felt too much like outsourcing our role as parents.

So this was really the first time that the dedication and sacrifices we made for our careers started to really feel like a burden. Even so, it never really occurred that there was an alternate path. We would have to change careers for something requiring less hours but it would mean a big pay hit and would seem like wasting our advanced degrees and accomplishments. And in many ways we still enjoyed being in challenging careers. The problem was, we also really wanted to be great parents and have time to enjoy our family. We also wanted time to exercise and stay healthy. We also had some hobbies that we wanted time for. There was a massive shortage of time to do all the things we wanted to do. We didn’t even have time for much sleep, as all new parents will attest. So it was mainly a prioritization between two items; work and taking care of our kids. And too often, work received the unfair portion of our time.

As time went on, I started to focus more and more on personal finance. We made good money, but it seemed to cost us so much time that I didn’t want to waste it. I didn’t want to spend money if it didn’t create a significant benefit in our lives. And I wanted to invest it well so that what we did save was working as hard as possible for us. Naturally, we got better at these things as we focused more on them. We were able to hold our costs steady, despite the addition of kids and later a move to a more expensive part of the country (for work of course). We also got better at investing the money we had (although this was a much more minor part of our financial progress).

We started saving enough that we decided to get serious about paying down student loans and our mortgage quickly. We were already in good shape, having taken out a mortgage that was only about 1.5x our annual income. Within a few years of dedicated effort, we were completely debt free. This felt really good. Although I have to say it didn’t feel as life changing as some people describe. We were still far away from true financial independence after all. But it was a really good feeling to be free from debt and it really did improve our monthly cash flow. This turned out to be even more of a benefit than I expected.

At this point, our savings started to grow much more quickly. Being debt free, we were saving around 50% of our after-tax income at this point. It still took time, but we saw a very steady increase in our net worth. Each year, we simply saved any extra income from promotions, annual raises, and bonuses. We felt little need to spend any of the increased income. We delayed big expenses like new vehicles or vacations. We were busy with our young kids, and our vacations were spent at home or with family. We both traveled for work so when we had time off, we just wanted to be home anyway. The kids were plenty happy building legos or collecting rocks or other inexpensive kid stuff. In fact, they usually only complained when we did something that cost money, like go out to eat or into the city. Our net worth really started to snowball and our savings rate kept going up as our income increased, all the way to around 70% of our after tax income.

At this point, the numbers were big enough that I started to really think about early financial independence as more than an abstract concept but something that was either already achieved or fast approaching. This is when I found the FIRE community online. I read Your Money or Your Life. I read the Millionaire Next Door. I started to dream about the possibility of having much more time to do all the other things I wanted to do.

I built many spreadsheets and analyzed lots of scenarios. I researched safe withdrawal rates, data on spending in retirement, costs of kids as they get older, private health care options, etc. As I did this, and reviewed our numbers, I realized this was really possible. There were still some things to worry about, particularly with two young kids and a high income job that would be difficult to return to if early retirement didn’t work out a year or more down the road, so I targeted a conservative withdrawal rate. As we achieved our targets, and then kept going, our emotions changed as well.

We always had felt that life was very difficult and competitive…….the classic scarcity mindset. More and more often, we started to feel the opposite. It seemed that all of a sudden, we were in this really rare and fortunate situation. It almost didn’t seem possible. The stress about money slowly disappeared, although our spending didn’t change. We bought a few more luxuries but our spending on other things seemed to decline in proportion so our total spending remained surprisingly consistent.

My feelings about work were mixed.

On the positive side, I took a more forceful approach in structuring what I did at work. I cut back on late-night overseas conference calls and unapologetically took time when needed to do something important with my family. This lowered some of the family sacrifices and associated resentment towards work. By focusing more on the many positive aspects of my job, and dropping or delegating the ones that I disliked, I started to enjoy my job more. Certainly I was less stressed, knowing that I didn’t need to push every day to build a long future career. My industry/company also goes through mass layoffs on a routine basis. Even really good people are let go.

At this point, I don’t have to worry about being fired at all, which is nice. In fact this might be the ideal situation since I would be forced to move on the next phase. I think there is a very high probability I would look back in 1-2 years and think that getting let go was the best thing. But I struggle emotionally with walking away from a job that has so many positives. When it comes down to it, the only “bad” part about my job is that it requires so many hours and there are other things I also want to do, even though I like the work I do as well.

On the negative side of reaching FI, I fantasize more about what I would do with the extra 50-60 hours every week I would get if I didn’t have to work. Most of these things seem more appealing than my work. This had made me less motivated at work and less tolerant of irrational politics and inefficiencies. It’s also made me less tolerant of making personal sacrifices for work.

The other important aspect of my job is that I have responsibility to others in the organization that I don’t want to let down. It’s not so much that I care what others think of me (I’m quite independent in that regard), it’s that I want to help others. This includes peers that I work with, where each of us contributes to an overarching goal and we all need to do our part. It also includes people that I am leading and coaching who want to have a long and successful career. These responsibilities prevent me from being too selfish, regardless of where I stand in terms of personal finance.

Overall, if I combine all the positive aspects of my job, including the money (which I still enjoy even though I may not need it), and the negative aspects, and factor in how my emotions and mindset has changed both positively and negatively about my job after reaching FI, for me right now I chose to continue working. If my job took a turn for the worse, I could always choose to leave, but right now the benefits of working are significant enough that I want to continue working.

Knowing that I’m doing it for more than money has made me notice and appreciate the non-financial benefits and I’m feeling more and more positive about my job. It’s also given me the freedom to push back so that I take some time to exercise during the week or leave early once in a while to get my kids early for a long walk home. I work with a wide range of hard working, very smart people that I respect. I love to deal with strategy and difficult problems and there is plenty of that in my job. I learn a lot. The fast pace is both fun and tiring but it’s something I know I would miss if I left.

In the end, if I could actually do this work in 20-30 hours per week with less travel (and more vacation) it would actually be ideal, even at much lower pay. Unfortunately in my field, particularly in more senior positions, you cannot work part time. In fact, a 40 hour work week would be considered unacceptable. This is why I am still conflicted. Maybe I’ll figure out some hybrid work/life system along these lines but I don’t have a good answer yet. Maybe I will figure something out while working, and then shape my job to something I will want to keep doing or transition to a different one. Maybe I will need to leave and then build a new system later, experimenting with different approaches once I have the time freedom to do so. My best guess is that it’s the latter and that I will need to time to figure out a new life. While not ideal, I like change and can deal with uncertainty pretty well so I’m okay with this option although the uncertainty will be much more difficult on my better half, regardless of our financial situation. This is the part that bothers me the most. It would be nice to have it figured out right now and be anxious to get started (several lucky FIRE folks seem to be in this boat), but it’s not the case for me or my wife.

In the end, and you can tell from this post, I certainly don’t have all the answers and am in a bit of limbo at this point myself.

However, I have to say it’s nice to be FI and be in the situation of dealing with this “problem”. For now, we are happy trying to enjoy our lives and young family and continue saving, while we think and plan around other options. I have a long list of things that I would do with extra time. I’m not one of those people who would be bored if they weren’t working. However, my wife isn’t as clear about what she would do and if she continues working, then early retirement is less exciting since we will still have many restrictions on our time. We are also restricted with young kids and the school schedule as well.  However, a tremendous amount of time would still be freed up if we weren’t working.

My hope is that more solid options/dreams start to crystallize in our discussions and then we really start dreaming about what’s next together. Having more clarity around exciting future plans for the both of us would be an ideal case and it’s one we are taking more time to think about. I realize we’re quite late for this step in the FIRE process but I’m okay with continuing to work and save a bit more while we figure this out.

In fact, I would argue it’s an ideal case to NOT be thinking about FIRE until you are already financially close to that point. Ideally you save a lot of your income from a basic desire to build financial security and not wanting to waste the money you earn on things that don’t truly make you happy. You focus on working hard, progressing in your career, and enjoying life, while saving a good portion of your income along the way. Then at some point (relatively soon if you are saving aggressively), you realize that you are close to actual financial freedom and start dreaming of what you could do with the options this gives you.

The downside of dreaming about FIRE very early in your career is that it’s a marathon that will take a lot of time and effort and you could get very frustrated early in the process. You could end up hating your job more than you otherwise would. In a marathon, you shouldn’t be dreaming about the finish line when you start. You should focus on going a step a time and getting into a zone where the miles fly by while you are enjoying the run.

Of course, the downside of not thinking about FI at all is that you may not be motivated to save a lot of your income since you have no goal. Maybe the best approach is to target FI and go aggressively towards that goal, but to not think about the RE portion until you get closer to achieving the FI part. If you can mentally compartmentalize these two different goals, I think it eases the journey to FI while you are working. It helps you focus on the present, a key tenant of happiness research and one that many in the FI/FIRE community have difficulty with. We tend to be planners and dreamers about the future but happiness is in the present moment. As they say, life is what happens when you’re planning for the future.

I apologize for the long rambling post here but I wanted to share some details of my emotional journey to FI and beyond. Many of the articles I’ve read from other bloggers show people who have it all figured out. They have some natural fears of course, but their goal of retiring early is quite clear. It’s not the case for me and I suspect is not the case for many others, despite how they come across online. If you are also conflicted in your own journey, you shouldn’t feel bad that you don’t have it all figured out. Life is a journey and the vast majority of us are figuring it out and evolving along the way. I wish you luck and as much peace of mind as you can achieve during your own journey.

Please share some of your own journey in the comments. Are you one of those who has is figured out? Did your thoughts or emotions on FI or FIRE change significantly along the way?




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