1. Pay off debt. Yes, even the mortgage. I can hear the mathematicians screaming now – “PAY OFF YOUR MORTGAGE?” What about the tax deduction? What about all-time low interest rates. I don’t care about either one. To reach financial independence I’m all about reducing monthly expenses. A mortgage represents the highest monthly expense in most family budgets, and ours is no exception. Knock out credit card debt, car debt, student loans and the mortgage and you’ll owe a monthly payment to no one, which puts you on the fast-track to financial independence.
2. Quit buying crap. And while you’re at it, quit signing up for crap. The other day I sat down to try to tally our monthly expenses. Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? Problem is I kept forgetting little expenses we’ve signed up for. Oops, there’s the Netflix charge; then the gym membership fee. The other day the TiVo bill hit. I enjoy all three of these examples immensely, but altogether they represent about $50 a month. Talk about being nickel and dimed! Of course, there are other things I’m forgetting to list here. You can see how challenging it is to come up with a total monthly outgo figure these days!
3. Forget about trying to impress people. Do you have any idea how much money is wasted in a lifetime trying to impress other people? Just think of the things we buy, and the options we choose, for show rather than for practicality. Flashy cars, big houses and expensive jewelry matter little to those working towards financial independence, because we recognize you’ll be paying for that stuff long after we hang up the employee badge.
4. Make savings a top priority. If I had a financial do-over, I’d start saving half of my income from the very first day I started working. I can think of no faster way to accumulate wealth, build financial discipline, and expand your creatively frugal way of thinking to make things work on a meager income. Trouble is, very few of us ever thought to do this, so right out of the gate we needed more like 90% of our income just to pay for all the goodies we accumulated. To make it happen, talk to your payroll office and elect to have 50% of your paycheck deposited in an online savings account (I’ve reviewed a few of the best online banks in the past), separate from your primary checking account. Now, live on what’s left. Every year you pull this off you are essentially buying (saving) a year of freedom from earning an income.
5. Be aggressive early on. I’m a conservative person by nature. I don’t like to take big risks – with money, or life in general. But if I could talk to my 20 year-old self now I’d tell him to live a little. Invest a little money (10% of your portfolio or less) in that stock you just know in your gut will be a winner, because you know the quality of the people in management, or you believe in their product. Don’t be afraid to invest in that “aggressive” portfolio in your twenties, and early thirties. You’ve got time for ups and downs. You’ll win some, and you’ll lose some, but at least you won’t have any regrets.
6. Be conservative as you near financial independence. As passionate as I am about taking risks when you are still young, I am equally passionate about being conservative in the last few years leading up to reaching your “number.” That’s the time to start dumping the risky stuff, and start gearing down into low-risk investments. Some of your nest egg should be in cash, a little in bonds, or if you like simplicity, maybe something like a LifeStrategy Income Fund that takes the thinking (and emotions) out of investing your nest egg, or at least a portion of it. Be sure to check recent returns on such funds, as many billed as “conservative” lost their shirts in the recent downturn. At this point in your journey to financial independence you should be fairly immune to market swings, and more concerned with protecting the principal you’ve worked to accumulate.
7. Determine your own “number.” Speaking of your “number,” don’t let some financial egghead across a desk look down his nose and tell you that you need exactly $1.4 million to “maintain your style of living in retirement.” Garbage. Most of these guys immediately follow this with a sales pitch for an annuity, or a scare tactic about clients living to 90 years-old and running out of money. If you are dedicated to living frugal, paid off all your debts (see step 1), and built a comfortable nest egg based on your individual needs, you should be just fine.
Financial independence doesn’t have to be a mythical place we only visit in our day dreams. There are enough people out there living it, writing about it, and experiencing the joys of being free from the requirement to earn an income to survive. Learn from them. Model your behaviors after them. But be careful who you follow.
As author Thomas Stanley proved in his book, The Millionaire Next Door, most self-made millionaires look a lot different than the Paris Hiltons of the world. They probably drive a two year-old car (or older), shop where you shop, and live in a modest home. They don’t wear flashy jewelry, have a string of letters after their name earned from a decade of schooling in the Ivy League, and their idea of a fun family vacation probably looks like a week-long trip Disney World, not Paris or the Mediterranean.
The real secret to financial independence is to start living your life with that goal at the forefront of all your financial decisions. The longer you put it off, the worse your chances of ever succeeding will be. But for those who start early, and stay passionate about their dream, the payoff at the end is one of the more freeing experiences we can ever enjoy.