Over $3,000,000 earned but still not FI

Most in the FI community will gasp at the headline. Many will judge me harshly for a lack of fiscal discipline and common sense. And some will simply recognize this as emblematic of our consumer culture. But let me be clear: NO ONE should feel sorry for me. 

At the end of 2019, I logged onto the Social Security website to review its estimate for my monthly earnings in retirement and discovered that early in the year 2019, my lifetime taxable earnings crossed the $3M mark. 

Granted it took 34 years, from the age of 16 to 49, to reach that milestone but I am aware of the reality that this is still more than the average earner makes in a lifetime (see chart below), and that makes me very fortunate.

The Standard Script

Yes, I worked hard and gave a lot of my “life energy,” as Vicki Robin & Joe Dominguez framed it in their excellent book Your Money or Your Life, to earn it. My work ethic has always been strong. In the years preceding my first taxed employment as a bagger at small grocery store when I was 16, I worked in bean fields, had paper routes, babysat and walked dogs for money. I worked my way through college, took $28K in student loans and qualified for needs-based grants, emerging with a BA in Communication Studies from a state university at, what felt like, the advanced age of 26. 

Throughout my 23 year professional career, I’ve been fortunate enough to land interesting jobs with increasing levels of responsibility at well-known companies, eventually eclipsing the six-figure mark the year I turned 33. In the intervening years I’ve continued to increase my income, and with it, my standard of living.

Following the standard script, I moved to better and better apartments, got married, had a child, then graduated to our first small home. As my salary and family grew, so did the size of the homes and their attendant mortgage payments. My cars got nicer and more frequent. I bought a boat. Purchased land. Built a custom home. Put in a pool. You get the picture. 

But it wasn’t just the big purchases. Because our bank account was “not zero”, we bought stuff, enjoyed nice restaurants, we gave to charities, subscribed to services, took fabulous family trips. At the grocery store, we didn’t compare prices, we simply bought what we wanted. We were living it up each day as if there were no tomorrow. 

Along the way, we built up retirement accounts but we’ve been negligent in both the regularity and amounts of our 401K contributions. And it’s not because we didn’t know better, or that we didn’t understand compound interest, or that we failed to recognize that this lifestyle was committing us to working at least until traditional retirement age. We were just living for the moment. Despite an anemic savings rate, thanks to the relatively high denominator of our household income, we have a respectable retirement savings, but not nearly what one would expect of someone at my age and income bracket – and not nearly enough for Financial Independence. 

But many outside the FI community would say, what are you worried about? You have another 16 years before retirement to earn and save. That’s certainly true and might even be comforting if I were still passionate about my career, still energized about going to work every weekday (and sometimes weekends), if I was satisfied to see my family for only a couple of hours each night and if I wasn’t sometimes stressed to the point of dysfunction after taking verbal abuse from senior leadership at work.

A Moment of Clarity

So it was that I found myself at the end of 2019 taking stock of our situation. We live in a 3,000+ square foot home with a pool on ten acres in a gated neighborhood in a top school district, with four cars and that boat. But we have a modest retirement, no emergency fund, a mountain of debt (mostly mortgage and three car loans). If I lost my job, my family would be in a precarious position and would need to take some dramatic steps to stay afloat. In a previous post I described the moment I learned that my family of three spent $154,775 in a single year (for the curious, $53.7K was mortgage & property taxes). That’s the moment I said enough

A moment of clarity is only as valuable as one’s willingness to take action and possessing the knowledge of what actions to take. Fortunately I had been preparing for this moment of reckoning. As it happens, in 2019 I was also exposed to the wisdom of the Minimalist and FI communities. And while I had yet to take any action on this new-found knowledge, these worldviews woke me up to a different script and provided me the roadmap to pursue a new path. 

A New Script

The Minimalists and Becoming Minimalist helped remind me what truly matters, and let me see that everything I owned, owned me. I learned that physical clutter is also mental clutter and that eliminating the excess frees up mental space to appreciate what I do have in both basic needs and more importantly, loving human relationships. Eventually I stumbled upon Mr. Money Mustache which inspired me to go deeper into the rabbit hole of financial independence. Then the floodgates opened. By the end of 2019, I had watched the documentary Playing with Fire, read the books Work Optional, Your Money or Your Life, ChooseFI, Meet the Frugalwoods, The Simple Path to Wealth, I Will Teach You To Be Rich, and Quit Like a Millionaire

Thanks to this generous community, I have a blueprint for my own unique journey to pursuing FI. I shared the knowledge and this inspiring vision with my wife and she’s genuinely on board. Just over a week into 2020, we’ve already taken the following actions: 

  • Paid off a credit card
  • Maxed out my 401K contribution ($19K + company match)
  • Began contributing the maximum into an IRA
  • Become more conscious of our spending
  • Set up a 360 Performance Savings account with Capital One
  • Began using Tiller Money to track spending, set budgets, monitor debt balances and calculate net worth
  • Got a Chase Sapphire Reserve card and set it to automatically pay the balance in full each month. 

Additional 2020 goals include:

  • Pay off the car loans
  • Sell the boat and invest the proceeds
  • Build up an emergency fund

Expressing Gratitude

The FIRE and Minimalist communities have been amazing. Their members generally meet you where you are, encourage and celebrate the small wins, share tips and advice and demonstrate a sincere desire for everyone to succeed in their journey. And it’s not just the financial advice. These resources have helped me envision a better and more conscious way to live. My future self will be forever indebted (pun intended) to this community for helping me envision a truly better way to live. 

Do I wish I had learned this mindset and these tools 10 or 20 years ago? Absolutely. I almost certainly would be retired from mandatory work by now. But ruminating on past mistakes is futile and it’s never too late. I’m not a millennial and missed my chance to retire in my 30s. But starting now at age 49, my new goal is to retire while still in my 50s. I’ve got 3,977 days. Let’s Gooooo!

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

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2 replies

  1. Welcome to the FIRE community — I look forward to reading about your journey!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Everyone goes through the process of spending and lifestyle inflation. The only question is if and/or when that moment of clarity happens and what you do about it. Welcome to the community and keep up the good work.

    Liked by 1 person

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