At the time, I never tied a critical component of my lifestyle to my ability to walk away from traditional jobs. That prerequisite that made it all possible was paying down debt.
The instructor was Dave Ramsey, whom I discovered on the radio in 2008. In just the one year prior to this valuable shift in perspective, I managed to refinance my condo to pay for a wedding, pick up a fully financed second rental property, and lease a Mazda CX-7.
These types of behaviors sound pretty normal to most folks.
In fact, a lot of people complimented us on thinking ahead and investing in real estate for our retirement. We felt pretty good about our decisions.
I was 22-23 at this point and had just begun my very first real job at around $37K, which felt like a lot of money compared to $10/hour. All told, by the time I got married, we had more than $386,000 in debt, all tied up in real estate, a car, a family loan, and student loans. That’s a mountain of debt for a brand new family in their twenties.
If we had remained on this course, we would have joined the ranks of millions of Americans in living two to three paychecks away from the brink. Folks call this “living within their means” and are proud when they aren’t paying bills with credit cards, despite the fact that they will be if anything goes wrong, like the AC and water valve did in the last week.
I’ve learned the hard way that common sense finance is about living well under my means, pushing hard to expand my “means” while I still have debt, and stashing cash for emergencies…and freedom.
As I mentioned, I didn’t make this last connection right away.
I paid off that stupidly extravagant (and quite small) $20K car and sold it in exchange for a more reasonable, gently used vehicle, purchasing it in cash.
Then saved up another $8K, and bought another vehicle in cash as I finally escaped my leased Mazda (which is basically the equivalent of renting a car for years at a time).
Then paid off another $23K in debt over the course of a bazillion extra payments while paying down a couple of the mortgages and stashing a large bit of cash for emergencies.
I did all this for the sole purpose of early retirement. The goal was always to continue working my tail off so that I could leave the workforce early, around 50, and live comfortably on a bit of property for the rest of my days.
What a stupid way to live life. Using up the best of my years, and potentially my only years, to hopefully one day draw down my savings so that I don’t have to work.
I actually departed from the Ramsey baby steps, much to my chagrin at the time, saving up 3-6 months in expenses long before I paid off our debt.
Turns out that this extra security blanket is what emboldened me to walk away from salary and benefit packages.
At the end of the day, the traditional 9-to-5 lives on because folks are anxious. Deep down, they know they need that job. This not only sours everything about working just enough to cause heartburn and insomnia on Sunday nights, it ensures that even if you have an opportunity to work and live differently, you won’t take it.
Frugality is a challenge. As with most behavior changes, it can be seen as an enormously stressful burden, or you can have a bit of fun with it.
First, you must change your objectives. I have to admit that, in order to get control of the beast, you truly must have a singular focus on killing your debt and budgeting like a master for a period of time.
Every single extra dollar you can squeeze out goes toward gutting the monster that is eating your freedom. I highly recommend taking Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University at this point. The debt payoff class is very motivating.
Second, you must budget. You can’t get control of your spending if you don’t know where your money is going. Write down all of your income and expenses and then assign all of the extra to debt payoff and savings…before the month begins. That way, you can’t justify an impulse expense mid-month.
Revisit, adjust, and grow that top line investment in freedom.
Third, you must trim your beastly budget. Cancel the cable. Sell the car. Clip coupons. Reuse towels. Pack a lunch. Make eating out mean eating outside.
At some point, the only spending that you will get to play with are the groceries, household supplies, and gas. This is when you get to have a little fun and make some strangely satisfying memories.
A few of my personal favorites:
- The family outing to Wells Fargo where we handed over a stack of cash to the 16-year-old behind the counter, making the last payment on the ill-conceived dream car (financed on a 15-year HELOC).
- Arguing (many times) with the checker at various grocery stores over piddly amounts, like the notorious ranch dressing that was marked down to $1 in the aisle, but rang up $1.85. This was while household income was $100K+. I still do this, it’s just a whole lot more necessary now.
- Saving Crisco for repeated reuse. I haven’t been burned, either literally or culinarily (not a real word), yet.
- Trying desperately for several years to whittle family members down to a half sheet paper towel for meals. Costco perforates their towels long (I know they do this on purpose). I gave up finally. Family peace comes before financial independence.
- Quietly taking a few extra plastic shopping bags whenever I went grocery shopping for lunches and garbage can liners.
- Paying off a chunk of debt with insurance money when one of the company vehicles backed into my car at a corporate gathering. I rigged the bumper back on with a few well-placed bolts. Easiest cash ever.
I did these things to pay off debt because I wanted to retire one day, a bit sooner than most. I never even considered the real wealth that I would attain so quickly in being able to live my life authentically.
I now write, coach, and consult full-time. I get to work from home, where my kids happen to be located.
I’ve had to buckle down like never before to stay on track to finish off that student loan debt, pay off the house, and fund retirement. Every dollar I squeeze out of that budget carries much more meaning now. It’s blood money. It’s freedom money.
Could you walk away? Have you already ditched the traditional security blanket in exchange for self-sufficiency – how did you do it?
Note: The shared opportunities for frugality at Mr. Money Mustache’s blog as well as Man vs. Debt are not only helpful, but motivating. You gotta join a community of frugal folks. Lord knows that most of the people in your life are only going to encourage you to spend.
Update: Mr. Money Mustache was recently featured in a 4-minute video introducing his method for successful early retirement – at 30, in his case. Check it out:
Thanks for sharing your story. We’re taking a different path and continuing to work the traditional job for the salary, 401k, benefits, etc. and using that as our main tool for financial independence. I admire those who take the leap early and start living the life they want right away, but I’m okay with our sprint to the finish. I find the corporate life to be pretty enjoyable now, anyway — I work from home, I’m good at what I do, and love the regularity of the pay.
Who knows though…maybe we’ll get bit by the freelancing bug. 🙂
Early retirement is an incredible heading, especially if you love your job! I admire quite a few of my mentors whose passions result in working in traditional salaried environments. The important thing is that you have the choices that financial freedom allow.