Updated on 01.22.16

Financial Independence on a Smaller Income

Trent Hamm

While a good-paying job certainly makes things easier, it's only one piece of the puzzle.

Anyone who has read my articles on The Simple Dollar in the past few years knows that Sarah and I have set a personal goal for financial independence in the next several years. Our timeline for this is largely dependent on the maturity of our own children, as we’re timing financial independence on when our youngest one leaves the nest.

(Just for clarity’s sake, Sarah and I define financial independence as being a state in which we can live off of our investments and the income they produce for the rest of our natural lives, even if we never earned another dime.)

Sarah and I make a healthy income together and part of how we’re able to save for financial independence is because we bank the entirety of my salary and live on Sarah’s income. This is simply a matter of budgeting, as all accounts have both of our names on it. It just makes things easier if Sarah’s paycheck goes into our checking account for our living needs and my various streams of income go entirely into investing. Given all of our income sources, I would easily estimate that a majority of our income is set aside for financial independence.

That’s great, of course, but part of this picture relies on Sarah and I both earning a healthy income. Many people just assume that doing this is impossible if you don’t have a healthy income.

That’s not true.

Right now, our family spends significantly more than we would need to in order to have a happy life. We could make a large number of structural changes to how we live our day to day life and still be walking right toward financial independence even with much smaller salaries. I am very confident that, even as a family of five, we could continue on this journey at an income level substantially below the national average.

The reason is that although having a job with good pay certainly makes things easier, it is only one ingredient among many when it comes to charting a course toward financial independence. There are many other ingredients, and you don’t need them all to start charting a course toward financial independence. You can do most of these things no matter your financial state.

Here’s a big list of things that everyone who wants financial independence needs to be doing. You don’t have to be doing all of these things, but the more you do, the better. None of them have to do with earning a large income, and if you do enough of these, you don’t need a large income to chart your way to financial independence.

Get Serious About Frugality

Let’s look at a few facts. First, 76% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Second, family happiness peaks at a family income level of $50,000 a year – and in many parts of the country, the necessary number is quite a bit lower. Third, the average American earns noticeably more than $50,000 a year.

What does all of that mean? There are a lot of Americans earning a lot more than what it takes to actually be happy in their lives, and they’re still living paycheck to paycheck. In fact, even in the lowest case, that describes a good 30% of America, based on those numbers, and I’d say it’s much closer to half of Americans.

The root cause of that is simply not being smart with how you’re spending your money. The majority of American families have more than enough income to enjoy a great deal of happiness while still spending less than they earn. They don’t get to achieve that because they’re not very efficient with how they choose to spend their money, and that in itself can cause more stress and unhappiness.

It’s time to get smart. Start spending your money more efficiently and squeeze more value out of what you spend. I can list a hundred ways to start doing this, and 102 more, but here are five big ones to get started.

First, ditch name-brand products until you know generics won’t do the job. A lot of generic products are identical to the name brands except for the name on the box. Try them out – all of them – and stick with the ones that work. This goes for everything from ketchup to baking soda and from shampoo to laundry detergent. There’s no reason to be paying good money for a name on a box.

Second, eat at home as much as you can and take leftovers with you whenever possible. Meals eaten at home are virtually always cheaper than meals eaten outside the home, because meals eaten out require you to also pay for service and the physical establishment from which you’re buying food – it’s wrapped into the cost. Make meals at home. It’s really not hard, especially if you have a slow cooker. Many slow cooker meals allow you to simply drop some ingredients in there, turn it on low, leave for work, and come home at the end of the day to a finished meal. Plus, there’s usually plenty remaining so that you can take a container to work for lunch the next day, further trimming food costs.

Third, trim your home energy bill. Do things like installing energy efficient LED light bulbs, installing weather stripping on the bottom of drafty doors, caulking your windows, and adding insulation to your attic. These steps drastically increase the energy efficiency of your home, allowing you to live like you want to live but with a lower energy bill.

Fourth, whenever you shop for clothing or other small nonperishable items, start at a thrift store. You don’t have to buy something there. Just start by looking there with an open mind. Chances are you’ll find something that works and it will cost you only a small fraction of what you were planning on spending.

Finally, stop going shopping as a social activity. If you want to hang out with friends, do it in places that aren’t heavily tied to spending money. Have friends over to your home or go to a park instead. When you tie your social interactions to spending money, you essentially make it cost money to continue having friends, which is a terrible thing for your finances (and not the best thing for your relationships).

These are just tips to get you started. The key thing to remember about frugality is this: The most effective frugality tips are the ones that effortlessly save you money and you barely notice the change, if at all. The ones that feel like pulling teeth are not the ones that will bring you success when it comes to cutting small spending missteps from your budget.

Build an Emergency Fund

An emergency fund is simply cash that sits in your savings account that you tap when you need it in a genuine emergency, like a death in the family or a major car repair or a job loss. It’s not an investment in the typical way people think of investments, as your primary focus with an emergency fund is safety and ease of access.

It’s also an absolutely vital tool early on in the race toward financial independence.

Here’s the thing: Life hands all of us lemons sometimes. Just a few days ago, for example, I started up my SUV and when I turned on the heater it sounded like a chainsaw starting up. I examined what I knew of the heating and cooling system, but whatever is wrong is beyond my own automotive skills, and I’m not going to allow us to be without our four-wheel drive during an Iowa winter. So, it’s off to the repair shop, and that’s likely going to be expensive.

In the fall, my daughter had what seemed like an endless stream of medical emergencies. This meant we had a bunch of unexpected medical bills. Again, it’s time to hit the emergency fund.

Because of our emergency fund, we didn’t have to go into debt for those things. Those big bills really didn’t stress us out much at all. We just paid them and then switched our automatic savings plans around to refill our emergency fund over the next several months. Easy as pie.

But isn’t a credit card an “emergency fund”? For several reasons, it’s not a good choice, especially if you’re working on financial independence.

For one, a bank can reduce your line of credit or cancel your card pretty much whenever they want. For another, credit cards can be prone to identity theft, meaning you may not have it when you need it (and identity theft itself can end up creating an emergency). They’re also prone to being lost, often at inconvenient moments. For yet another, carrying a balance on a credit card brings a healthy interest rate along with it, interest that’s just drained out of your pocket.

One of your first steps in your financial journey should be to build an emergency fund. We focused heavily on doing so, building up about $1,000 in savings, and then we set up an automatic savings plan with our bank that transferred in a small amount each week ($20) and have never really turned it off. Whenever we take money out, we make an effort to recoup it in the coming weeks and get back to our previous balance as quickly as we reasonably can.

Chip Away at Your Debts, Especially the High Interest Ones

Believe it or not, 80% of Americans are currently in some form of debt. A very large portion of that group is carrying significant debt, usually from multiple sources.

Debt is the enemy of financial independence. The interest drains your financial progress, as the banks devour more and more of your money in the form of interest. The minimum payments also raise your overall expenses for the month, meaning that even in the best situation, you have less left over with which to build an emergency fund or invest.

While there are some arguments to be made in favor of low and zero-interest debts, the best approach overall is to simply eliminate all of your debt, as it minimizes your monthly expenses and gives you the flexibility to save more while lowering the amount of money you actually need to be financially independent.

The smart approach to tackling debt freedom is to start with your highest interest debts and work downward. Use the proceeds from the frugal changes above and some of the larger personal changes described below and make extra payments on your highest interest debts until they’re paid off. Then, take the minimum payment that you were using on that debt plus all of the extra payments and roll all of that into extra payments on the next debt on your list. Keep working down the interest rates until, some day, they’re all gone and your monthly bills are amazingly low.

At that point, you’re going to have a ton of money to throw at investments for financial independence each month. Your bills will be far less than they were before and you’ll be able to save and invest so much that you’ll feel like you’re on some kind of rocket ship toward financial independence. (I actually wrote about this not too long ago, describing that rocket ship as “financial momentum.”)

Earn Money in Your Spare Time

One way to accelerate these moves – building an emergency fund, paying down debts, making your home more energy efficient – is to use your spare time to earn a little more money. There are lots of ways to do this, but it boils down to diligence: The more consistent effort you put into it, the better the proceeds will be, whether over the short term or the long term.

For example, you can earn a few bucks doing things like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. There’s almost no commitment here and it’s not very intense either. You can log in and earn a dollar or two while watching television in the evenings and then never touch it again if you choose to do so.

If you have some specialized skills, you can earn a little more in a similar freeform way by participating in sites like Fiverr, where you can earn approximately five bucks for doing simple things that require a bit of skill, like simple sketches or a simple Photoshop job. Again, it’s one of those things you can pick up purely at your convenience.

If you want to earn more but with a bit more structure, you can take on a part-time job. This is a good option if you’re single or married without children, but can be really rough if you have kids.

A more intense option that will earn more money over the long run is to go to school in the evenings and weekends. Many jobs and career paths offer flexibility with this, as schools will work around the schedules of working adults or jobs will work around class schedules to make this work. This will almost always boost your income significantly, but it takes a while.

You can also start a side business, which was my preferred route along the road to financial independence. Side businesses can be extremely enjoyable as they often are manifestations of personal interests or hobbies, but they can sometimes take a long time to earn a decent income.

The most important thing when earning a side income is that when you start earning more money, channel that directly toward debt repayment and investment, not toward any kind of lifestyle inflation. Every extra dime you earn should be all about your long term goals. Use that money to make extra debt payments and pile it in with the money you’re saving from frugality. Then do the same with investing. It adds up quick.

Move Closer to Work

There are few strategies in life that save money and time more effectively than moving closer to your job. Doing so reduces the length of your commute both ways and also reduces the cost of that commute. Sometimes, it just shortens a car trip; at other times, it enables you to use mass transit or a bicycle or even your own two feet instead of using a car.

All of those things are money savers. Every mile less you drive in your car due to a commute is a surprising amount of money saved, not just in fuel costs, but in maintenance and wear and tear on your car. You can own a car for much longer this way, which saves you on car payments. If you live close enough, you can perhaps downsize and eliminate one car, which saves on insurance and registration as well.

Those things add up quickly. It doesn’t take long for the savings on fuel, maintenance, insurance, registration, and so on to have a huge impact on your finances, on the order of hundreds of dollars a month. Even if you change nothing else other than reducing your commute, your savings will still approach hundreds a month simply due to the reduced fuel, maintenance, and wear and tear.

Downsize Your Home

Another great strategy is to downsize your home. For many people, this is a shocking decision and one that seems to run counter to the idea of “financial progress,” but there are a lot of reasons why downsizing is usually a great idea.

For starters, most people have far too much space in their home for what they need to live. That extra space is almost entirely used for storing stuff. When we have a bigger house, we fill it with stuff, storing all kinds of odds and ends in closets and corners and shelves until our house feels full.

The thing is, we barely use all of that stuff. Much of it just sits there unused. It’s got a lot of good intentions associated with it, but it’s mostly just eating up space.

The first step is to start purging this stuff. Sell off everything you haven’t touched in a year, or if it doesn’t have resale value, chuck it. If you take that seriously, you’ll end up getting rid of the vast majority of your possessions, but the thing is that you don’t need all of that stuff. There’s no reason to hang onto stuff you haven’t touched in years and aren’t likely to touch again.

Once you do that purge, not only will you have a lot more free space than you ever imagined, you’ll also be flush with money that you can use either to move to a smaller space or to directly pay down debts or invest for the future.

Of course, now that you have a lot less stuff, it’s easier to move into a smaller space, one that will have lower bills and lower insurance, even if the new neighborhood costs a bit more. When your bills all drop, then living becomes much cheaper. If you can pair that up with moving closer to work, then you’re in really good shape.

Remember, the real goal of downsizing is to eliminate rooms you don’t use and to stop paying for storage space for stuff you haven’t touched in years. There’s no reason to hold onto all of that stuff – it’s just costing you money.

Save, Save, Save!

What all of these methods have in common is that they’ll cause more money to be in your checking account at the end of the month – and who doesn’t like that?

The key thing is this: You have to use that extra money productively. You can’t use it to inflate your lifestyle and buy extra stuff. You have to keep living the same life you’ve been living, even with more money in the bank. That is the key.

If you start arguing with yourself that you can “afford” to enjoy more luxuries and pleasures now, the battle’s already lost. If you start inflating your lifestyle, even just a little, you basically put financial independence out of reach.

You will be working and working for the rest of your years, period, because that’s the “reward” of lifestyle inflation.

Instead, you need to take every extra dime that your life changes produce and use it to get rid of debts, and once the debts are gone, you need to start investing it for the long term in things like stocks or real estate. If you do that and stick with it without inflating your lifestyle, you will reach financial independence. If you push hard and find more and more ways to spend less without misery, you’ll move faster and faster toward financial independence.

Almost everyone in America could do this if they tried, but the vast majority of Americans choose the short term pleasures and lifestyle inflation every time. And then they wonder why they’re miserable when they’re financially tied to a job that they don’t enjoy and the things they buy only bring a smile for a little while.

Break out of that. Use your money to buy your freedom.

Good luck.

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