Financial independence, especially early in life, is a very ambitious goal. The most reliable way to achieve this goal is through saving a lot of your income and investing it well. But this is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s a reliable get-rich-slowly approach that takes many years of consistent savings. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t really enjoy running and I certainly don’t want to run a full marathon (i.e retire after 40 years of work). How can we turn our journey into a half-marathon instead? After all, doesn’t 20 years (or less!) working sound much better than 40?
The only way to do this is to amplify our efforts, particularly our savings efforts. Unfortunately, we’re still talking about 20 years of hard effort. And this extra effort can be difficult. How do we keep our motivation over such a long period of time?
One way to help is to take a page from the gaming industry. They have perfected systems that hit upon fundamental human motivations to the point of creating very additive products. Many other fields are now trying to use similar concepts as they “gamify” various other products or offerings.
First, let’s touch briefly on fundamental human motivators. As we described in detail previously, human motivation can be distilled down to three specific categories; autonomy, competency, and belonging. Game designers know this.
Game designers understand human motivation well
For autonomy, non-linear and open world games are designed so that users can choose how they play the game, exploring the world and interacting with it. These games are more immersive than the old linear games. You can also choose the type of character you play, even customizing the look. Over time, you also make choices on abilities, items, spells, weapons, training, etc to develop a unique character.
They do really well in the competency category. As you play the game, your character earns equipment, weapons, treasure etc at a frequent pace. And the items get better and better at a frequent pace as well. Every new item gives you a little hit of pleasurable brain chemicals. And some randomness is thrown it so that it keeps the element of surprise (less hedonic adaptation!). Your character also gets better with experience, regularly leveling up and getting more powerful. This is addicting as your character builds competence and achieves more and more.
Finally, game designers have now masters the art of connecting others through the use of online gaming. Now you are part of a community. You can play with friends, or meet new people in the game itself. Plus there is a community of others playing the game that makes you feel connected.
I’m not here to argue about the benefits or risks of video games but there is no argument that they can be highly addictive. Players are very, very motivated to continue playing even after long periods.
Gaming lessons get applied all over
This is why many commercial enterprises are taking lessons from the gaming industry. Email, Facebook, your fitness app, and an endless list of other examples. They all provide frequent feedback on progress, encouraging you to make progress, hitting that need for building competence. Even something like email, which doesn’t really seem like you get better at, shares this aspect as every email you complete triggers the same part of your brain as any other accomplishment. And the accomplishments keep coming! There is usually a strong social element to many of these addicting new products as well.
So how can we use this information?
Let’s return to our objective of staying motivated over years to achieve our goal of financial independence. There is no company out there that will be doing this for us. There is not much money to be made in helping people save more of their money. Most companies are doing just the opposite and trying to convince you to spend more. So it’s up to us to motivate ourselves.
Create a motivational system for your journey
I like to think in terms of systems. How can we structure a system that will keep us motivated? Something that makes the journey to financial independence like a fun and addicting game, instead of a miserable slog. What kind of things can we think about to “gamify” our journey?
Autonomy seems easy. The autonomy part of human motivation is inherent in the goal of financial independence. Here, we need to be introspective and decide what we really want out of life, which then leads to the desire to own our future. While it seems easy, this is probably the most difficult parts and it’s one where you need to do the heavy lifting yourself. You cannot just follow tips from someone else. This is a highly personal vision and should be a driving motivation on your journey. If you don’t develop a strong desire, based on your personal goals and values, about financial freedom, then you face an uphill battle.
The importance of metrics
Metrics are important for several reasons. In management, a common saying is “you get what you measure”. This works. We pay more attention to things we are measuring and tracking and we progress better on the things we focus on. This is main reason metrics are key.
Metrics address the competence portion of motivation. Just like leveling up in a video game, we can build “levels” into our journey and get a burst of happiness as we level up.
I have built a number of metrics into my own journey that I will share here. Many of them are also used by others and a few I’ve created myself because I find them motivational. Everyone is different so my measures might not resonate as well with you so feel free to experiment with your own ideas.
Opinions are mixed on budgets in the blogging world. Some swear by them. Others hate them. I can see both sides. If you get to a mental state where every purchase is naturally frugal, meaning you naturally only spend money where you get maximum happiness, you don’t really need a budget. You’ll minimize spending naturally. Good for you! But I suspect this isn’t common.
For the rest of us, budgets are critical in creating awareness. You see where your money is going and you can then reflect on whether each cost is worthwhile. I personally like to use budgeting software as an easy-to-use way to keep aware of my spending and keep on track with my savings goals. By paying attention, I’ve more easily decreased spending in various categories without much sacrifice. Without this attention, I expect the spending would have continued with little personal benefit.
I recommend making this simple. I use Mint to track spending and have created spending categories mainly around costs that I can control (i.e. variable costs). For categories like property taxes, I don’t bother to track since I can’t make easy changes month to month.
In terms of total spending, I simply use my monthly checking account statements to find out how much was removed each month. Since all my spending comes from here, it makes it easy to track. It’s motivating to see that we’ve been able to live well and yet keep spending fairly flat over the years as I shared in a recent financial summary of the last 10 years.
Here is where the majority of my metrics are focused since the main goal is to grow assets until financial freedom is reached.
Metric 1: Net Worth. Here I include my net worth component that can generate money for regular expenses. I don’t include home equity and I don’t include a 529 plan for my kids, but all other financial assets are included. You can create net worth milestones like the first $100,000, $250,00, etc and celebrate each accomplishment.
Metric 2: Annual savings. This is a motivating one to track assuming you don’t succumb to lifestyle inflation. Most people early in their careers get raises and promotions that exceed inflation. If you’re saving the majority of this income increase, you’ll see substantial progress over a multi-year period that will keep you FIREd up (sorry for the pun).
Metric 3: Net Worth/Expenses. This is a common one. For those using the 4% rule, the target number is 25. For many of us that want our money to last longer than 30 years, 33 (i.e. 3% rule) is being used more commonly. The first milestone is getting to 1, where your net worth equals your annual expenses. From there, it’s nice when you hit double-digits after several years and then pick up a bit of speed as you get closer to the final target. Feel free to set targets along the way and celebrate each new “level”that you achieve.
Another nice way to track this is to plot the projected money your investments can generate. Again you use 4% or 3% as the amount you can generate yearly from your investments. You don’t want to use a projected investment return like 6% or 8% or whatever since you’re really trying to compare your expense to a “safe” withdrawal rate, not a long-term, and volatile, average return. At first, you’ll see this number is quite small, but over time, it builds nicely.
One key milestone is to reach enough savings where a minimal, but still nice, lifestyle could be funded. This varies by person but somewhere in the $20,000 to $30,000 range for the US is common, with the higher amounts for families and/or those paying rent. This isn’t a luxury lifestyle but it’s also not suffering. On this income you can have a decent place to live, food, clothes, a car, TV, etc without working. This is the point at which you are relatively secure financially. You realize that you can have a reasonable lifestyle even if you stop working for the rest of your life. This is very powerful psychologically. Additional savings beyond this just adds to the “wants” categories.
As an aside, I’ve also built a spreadsheet with spending categories where I take a particular expense and calculate how much of an asset base I would need to cover that expense. For example, if I spend $120 per month on gas, that’s $1440 per year and using the 3% rule, I need $47,520 (1440*33) invested to cover this expense for life. As your assets grow, it’s fun to check off additional expenses.
For example, you can mentally allocate a portion of your savings to buy groceries for the rest of your life without making any more money from a job. Later you can allocate additional savings to pay for a smartphone for life. And so on until your complete lifestyle costs are covered out of your investments and your are financially free.
As a side benefit, when you realize how much savings it takes to cover an ongoing expense, you may decide that it’s better to reduce this expense instead, which also gets you further on your journey.
Metric 4: Net Worth Gain per year as a subset of Metric 1. I look at both absolute values and % values. The % values are nice early in your journey because you see how your efforts to save money are really boosting your net worth on a percentage basis.
I also calculate daily amounts in absolute dollars. Even when the totals are relatively small it’s still very motivating. Even earning $10 a day with your investments is a nice feeling since it requires almost zero effort. Later in your journey, the daily amounts gained without any active effort become hard to believe. It’s like you found a cheat code in your game.
I also track progress vs projections. Over time, this has been nice because our household income has increased over the years and allowed us to save more and more, consistently shortening our expected financial independence date. I was actually building these projections back in grad school (yes, I’m strange) and had a long-term plan of financial independence at age 55. Over time, this kept dropping as we kept exceeding our goals and we ended up reaching financial independence a little before turning 40! This was despite the many changes over the years including houses, kids, promotions, marriage, and more.
Having a plan (adjusted as needed) and tracking against it through the use of metrics was key to maintaining motivation and progress.
Note that I didn’t include debt here but early in your journey, tracking your debt as you pay it down is also key. Calculating how much you’d save in interest payments motivated us to pay down debt, especially our house, faster.
The last of the three-legged stool of motivation is a feeling of belonging. Humans are very social creatures and we all feel some need to belong to a community, even the most independent among us. We are more motivated towards activities associated with a tribe. It seems to add some meaning to our goals.
This is where game designers have made good advances in recent years. It used to be that video games were mainly played alone. Now you see huge communities called massively multiplayer online (MMO) games. You can play with friends or strangers but everyone is highly engaged in that game environment. The motivation (addiction) level really goes up a notch. And there are endless other ways to become engaged as well in those communities. Online forums, YouTube videos, apps, shows, merchandise, etc all drive a deeper connection with that community. While many of us, including myself, dislike a lot of the addictive and commercial aspects of this, there is a lot we can learn from it. We just need to make sure we use the same psychological tricks “for good” by applying them towards healthy pursuits.
For early financial independence/retirement, “belonging” can be a problem . The vast majority of people are not financially independent, especially early in life. Retiring in your 50’s is still uncommon. Retiring in your 30’s or 40’s is extremely rare. If you’re counting on social support from the people you know directly (except your family which hopefully supports you), then you’re likely to be disappointed. You will feel like an outlier (because you are) and it will be more difficult to keep your motivation.
This is where the internet is great. There is a community of like-minded individuals out there and the internet helps you connect with them and gain a motivating sense of community even if these people are a small % of the total population. Stories of people achieving financial independence from working regular jobs and saving a lot, in their 30’s and 40’s will seem more “normal”. Don’t get me wrong, the people who do this, statistically speaking, are still freaks (in a good way), but it won’t feel like that as much.
There are several ways to reach out. The easiest is to regularly read (and comment) on various blogs that are aligned with your goals. There are also a number of online forums as well. Bogleheads is the most common one. MMM and WCI have popular forums as do some other blogs. You could even start a blog yourself. I often see bloggers and boglehead readers comment that their progress towards financial independence took a big leap forward once they joined a group and started connecting with a community through blogs. Feeling like we’re part of a group really helps our motivation.
So there you have it. Some key tips and actions you can take to “gamify” your journey to early financial independence. Metrics to track progress (competence), ways to join a like-minded community online (belonging), and the ability to create your own specific plan (autonomy). All three core elements of human motivation, rolled into your plans to keep you motivated during the many years of saving required. In fact, if you dive in, not only will you stay motivated, you’ll find the journey itself becomes more and more fun. And that may be the best accomplishment of them all.