“31 Days to Financial Independence” is an ongoing series that appears every Thursday on The Simple Dollar.
One of the earliest collections of articles to appear on The Simple Dollar shortly after its launch was 31 Days to Fix Your Finances (you can read it in full here), which was a culmination of everything I had learned about personal finance up to that point, organized in a series of posts that walked people through the organization of their finances in a way that was centered around their own personal values with a goal of being able to achieve one’s life ambitions.
I was extremely proud of that series and I still am.
Today, I’m launching a revision of that original series. This time around, it’s entitled 31 Days to Financial Independence, but it still has the same main goal as the original: to help people organize their finances in a way that’s centered around their core values and helps them achieve their life ambitions.
This begs the question: if I’m so proud of the original, why am I revisiting it?
For starters, some aspects of the world have changed since I originally wrote the series. There are many specific points in that series of articles that are very much locked into the world as it was in the late ’00s. While some elements have the “timeless” quality that I look for in great financial writing, other elements rely heavily on things that existed at that time but don’t necessarily exist now, like online savings accounts that offered 6% interest.
Another reason is that I’ve learned a lot in the last eight and a half years since I wrote the original series. I’ve experienced countless things. I’ve explored countless avenues of personal finance. I’ve read countless books and studied countless whitepapers and research briefs. I’ve interacted with literally thousands of readers in one-on-one conversations (probably tens of thousands). I’ve learned some things along the way, and I believe that many of the things I’ve learned can really only make this series better.
The goal of this series is simple. It’s a series of practical and philosophical exercises that can help anyone who is dissatisfied with their financial state in any way to improve their financial path going forward, orienting it closer to their personal life goals and getting rid of plenty of unnecessary baggage. It’s helpful to the person making an entry-level wage and juggling student loan debt. It’s helpful for the overly busy person juggling a career, children, and aging parents. It’s helpful for people who are looking ahead toward retirement and wondering what that means.
When this series is finished several months down the road, I hope that it will be on par with the quality of personal finance books you’d find on the shelf of any bookstore or library, except that it’s all freely available for anyone right here at The Simple Dollar.
Let’s get started!
Day 1: The Shallows and the Deep
Tell me if this sounds familiar…
You have a lot of interests and distractions on your time. You have a bunch of hobbies that you’d love to spend more time on – some that you actually do spend time on but not as much as you like, and quite a few more that you don’t devote time to but you have stuff in case you ever do find the time.
You follow a ton of television shows and perhaps online video series, so you have a healthy home internet connection and a cable package and/or subscriptions to a bunch of video streaming services. You read a bunch of different websites and constantly find cool stuff on them. You follow social media, too. You like to eat at nice restaurants. You like to have good foods in the fridge. You like to have nice clothes. You have a nice car – or dream about having one. You have a nice house – or dream about having one – and you want to fill it with amazing decor.
Yet you rarely have time for all of this stuff. Often, in the evenings, when you’ve taken care of your work, your sleep, your personal care, and keeping up your home and other personal responsibilities, you don’t have very much time at all for those things, so you fall into just one or two things you do in the evenings. Maybe you watch television, or browse the web, or read a book. And then the cycle repeats itself.
You have a closet or two and/or a garage full of scarcely used stuff, and yet you sometimes add to it. You have tons of channels and infinite online resources, yet you just watch one or two channels and return to the same few websites over and over. You have tons of books and movies on your shelves, but you accumulate them faster than you read.
Does this sound at least something like you, at least in parts? This is actually an amalgamation of the internal lives of a lot of people in America today.
The above text is a frighteningly accurate look at my internal daily life in the years before my financial turnaround. Take my personal journal entry from September 23, 2005, in which I describe a typical day.
That typical day was filled with interests and distractions and responsibilities, pushing and pulling me in a lot of different directions. In the end, though, it left me feeling deeply unhappy.
Why? In the process of chasing the infinite things that I might care about a little, I left myself little time, money, and energy to feed the things I actually cared about a lot.
Because of that, I was financially broke and my life felt pretty empty. I felt deeply unhappy, yet I kept moving through the same cycles – going out to eat constantly, buying more and more things for my hobbies that I often wasn’t really using or deeply enjoying, and burning time and energy in ways that were spread out over lots of things, many of which I didn’t care about nearly as much as others.
Here’s the truth: Every single one of us out there has a set of values by which we live our lives. Most of us have a lot of values and a lot of things we deeply care about and we try our best to spread ourselves across all of those things.
The problem is that when we spread ourselves wide, we become shallow. The phrase “an ocean wide, an inch deep” comes right to mind. We’re able to touch gently on all of the things we believe we care about, but there’s no depth there. The things we really, truly care about – the ones that deserve a lot of depth and attention in order to bring us joy in life – are treated in a shallow fashion just like everything else, because there’s only so much time and energy and money to spread around.
What’s the solution? The solution is to recognize the points in our life that deserve depth, then drain the ocean a little. In other words, we walk away from all of those things that we care about in only a shallow way and leave our money, time, and energy just for the things we care about in a deep way.
The first step, of course, is figuring out what those areas that deserve depth in your life really are. I find that, for most people, there are really just a small number of areas in their life that deserve authentic depth – things that they genuinely care about and want to give significant amounts of time and attention and energy and money to.
I’m going to list a few of them. Some are hobbies, some are life elements, some are artistic passions.
Getting in great physical shape
Reading books, or perhaps reading a specific subgenre of books
Watching movies or television shows
Achieving complete financial independence and retiring early
Playing video games
Cooking gourmet meals
Getting involved in a religious organization
Building your own spirituality
Being a good spouse
Writing computer programs
Volunteeering for a specific cause
Learning about a specific topic
Playing board games
Debating current events
There are probably two or three things on that list that chime with you, or maybe just one. Reading through it, though, you probably came up with two or three more that really matter to you. You also probably read through a lot of things and discovered you just didn’t care about it. For me, raising children, reading books, learning about a specific topic, playing board games, and being a good spouse stand out, with being a good spouse and parent and reading bubbling to the very top.
Here’s the interesting part: there were also probably some that you thought were mildly interesting and that you could see yourself devoting time and energy to. Quite a few stand out to me in this way: getting in great physical shape, watching movies, playing video games, building spirituality, hiking, writing novels, writing computer programs, and debating current events are all what I would call mildly interesting. I’d come close to elevating “hiking” to being one of those core things.
I’m going to make another list. When you read through these, ask yourself how many deeply, truly matter to you.
Driving an expensive car that wows the neighbors
Buying name-brand food items at the grocery store
Wearing expensive clothing
Shopping at the upscale grocery store
Owning and using the latest tablet computer
Owning a huge house to impress all of your friends
Wearing expensive perfumes
Buying name-brand household items at the department store
Traveling all over the world
Owning and using the latest smartphone
Eating out at fine restaurants
This list likely has a number of things that you’d describe as mildly interesting – and they’re all deeply expensive. There are probably a few that you just shrug your shoulders at because you don’t care. Maybe one of them really hit a nerve with you as something you deeply value.
Here’s the thing, though: All of us find ourselves devoting time, energy, and especially money to those things that we would only call “mildly interesting.” We spend money on name-brand food items. We eat out at fine restaurants. We wear relatively expensive clothing. We spend money on name-brand items of all kinds. We likely have a fairly new smartphone or tablet, with the services that such a device requires of us. We dabble in tons of hobbies.
Yet, by doing that, we leave behind some of those core things. When you look at those core things – the two or three or four things that really, really matter to you – you’re probably feeling a strong sense that you don’t do those things enough, that you don’t spend enough time or energy or maybe even money on those things.
We end up spending a lot of time and money and energy spread across things that we only mildly care about at best, and we end up spending not enough time or money or energy on the things we care about most.
That, in my eyes, is the absolute core of why people find themselves in financial trouble today, wondering where all of the money and time has gone while also feeling that there are big empty holes in their lives. They’ve spread their money and time across things of low importance in their lives and then left a big deficit of money and time and energy for the things that are truly important and fulfilling for them, which leaves that big, empty, gaping hole.
This brings us right back to that generalized solution I mentioned above: choosing a few areas to go deep on and leaving the other areas high and dry. To put this in simpler terms, it means focusing in on a handful of areas in your life with your time, attention, and money, and simply walking away from the multitude of areas that you “somewhat” care about.
So, what are those areas that you do care about? Here’s my recommendation.
Exercise #1: Making Your ‘Deep’ List
What you’re essentially going to do here is consider all of the things that you spend money or energy or time on in your life and ask yourself how important they really are to you. Do you spend enough time/money/energy on those areas? Not enough? Too much?
The easiest way to do this is to simply make a time diary for a week or two in which you keep track of how you spend your time. I find a pocket notebook really works well for this. Every so often – say, every hour or so – make a note of what you’ve been doing for the last hour, breaking it down into little pieces. This means even keeping track of mundane things like brushing your teeth.
At the same time, keep a grip on your bank and credit card statements.
After you have a week or two of entries in your time diary, sit down with your current bank and credit card statements and figure out where all of your time and money is actually going. Go through your bank and credit card statements and group them all into sensible activities. Did you spend this money on basic food items? Gourmet food items? Household supplies? You might have to break some of the entries apart a little bit – just do your best. Break things like food and household spending into basic essentials and “name brand” or gourmet expenses. Group money spent on hobbies or entertainment into groups that make clear sense to you.
Do the same thing with your time budget – you’ll have a lot of time spent sleeping, some time spent on basic personal care, and likely some significant time spent working. What about the rest of it? What did you do with that time?
When you look at all of that, what stands out to you? What things do you feel like you didn’t spend enough time or money on? What things did you spend too much on?
What you’ll probably find is that you’ll feel as though you didn’t spend enough time (and perhaps money) on the things that really matter the most to you, and there will be several areas that you’re shocked you spent so much time and money on.
I’ll use myself as an example. When I’ve done this in the past, I have lamented the time I spent being a focused parent and on reading books (not as much as I would have liked). I spent too much time reading random websites and watching useless television. I was really shocked as to how much money I spent on gourmet foods and extra junk foods (like energy drinks from the convenience store nearby). Those were the big standouts, but there were lots and lots of little realizations in that process.
After doing this, make a formal list of the three or four core things you want to be doing in your life. What are the core things that really matter to you, the ones you really should be spending more time on and don’t begrudge the money you spent on it? For me, it’s being a good husband and father, reading, learning new things, and playing board games. Your list is going to almost assuredly be different than mine.
After that, make a list of five or so things that you would also like to devote some time to, but relatively limited amounts of money to. These are minor interests – our lives aren’t monolithic, after all. For me, that’s hiking, writing, getting in better shape, having a rich network of friends, and being involved in a couple of community groups. Again, your list is going to be different than mine, and that’s fine.
You should minimize your spending and time use in virtually every other area of your life.
If you didn’t include wearing nice clothes on that list, then your clothes shopping should revolve around a minimal functional wardrobe and should take up minimal time.
If you didn’t put “buying name brand household supplies” on that list, then you should be buying store brand items from discount stores unless there are very specific reasons not to.
If you didn’t put owning a huge house on that list, then you should be living in a fairly small modest home in a modest neighborhood.
If you didn’t put eating out on that list, then you shouldn’t eat out unless it’s heavily tied to something else you value (we eat out rarely, usually tied to a family activity where it simply allots us more family time).
If you didn’t put gourmet coffee on either list, you can still drink coffee, but it shouldn’t be at a coffee shop. Make it at home or at work, as inexpensively as you can and as quickly and efficiently as you can.
If some element of life isn’t part of the key things that you value, then you should be devoting absolute minimal time and energy and money to it.
This can be hard, especially at first. Just because they didn’t list something as being one of the core things that they care about doesn’t mean that they don’t care about it. What you’ll find, though, is that when you start exploring some of the things you do care about more deeply, you’ll find that you don’t miss a lot of those other things.
The key thing is to be honest with yourself and listen to yourself. The things on your list might seem silly to others and you might feel “ashamed” to share them. Don’t. Stop worrying about what other people think. This is about building a fulfilling life for you. You may feel that you need more space in your life for
Now, over time, people do change. They have new experiences. They grow in new ways. It’s fine to rethink those core things you care about and shift them over time. The trick is to not add to the list, but substitute. If you want to find adequate room for something new, something else is going to be starved for money or attention, so what are you stepping back from?
The purpose of all of this is to ensure that you have the time, money, and energy for the core things you do care about, and you harvest that from the time, money, and energy from the things that you care about less than that. It’s actually a pretty radical change from modern life, which tends to overstuff us with minor interests and distractions, all of which pull money out of our wallets and pull us away from the things we care the most about, leaving us dissatisfied and unhappy and even more prone to spending time and money in less-than-sensible ways.
A lot to think about on day one, eh? Don’t be afraid to take some time and really think about these issues and really cultivate your list of the core things you care about. Give it time and real thought.
Next time, we’re going to take a look at goal setting. These goals won’t necessarily be hard and fast ones, but they’re meant to really dig into those things you care about as well as find ways to really support those things in a meaningful fashion (which is going to set the stage for the real nuts-and-bolts financial material we’ll get to later on).