Financial Independence is a Journey, NOT a Destination

Many people are under the impression that financial independence (FI) is a number or a destination. For example, once I have a net worth of ‘X’, I will be FI and life will begin. 

I encountered this attitude during a dinner conversation I had at a conference last weekend with a doctor who is two years away from retirement. He spoke as if his life would finally start in two years. He stated he was not getting enough sleep, did his charting at home, and was even taking work phone calls and emails while we were both attending a non-medical weekend conference at the beautiful resort. He was convinced that none of these issues could change until he retired.

It is a shame to see someone waste a perfectly good life while seeking FI. Think of achieving FI more like the way my wife and I traveled route 66 trip a few years ago. There are two ways to travel on route 66. The first is to conquer the 2,400 mile trip. This attitude results in statements such as: “Made it in three days,” or “Those stops are overrated.” The second option is to enjoy the entire journey, which is what we did. Our trip spanned three weeks; driving less than 120 miles a day. 

Both options get you to the same destination. But the second option lets you arrive rested, having enjoyed the journey with memories and pictures that will last a lifetime. If your goal was to get to Chicago as fast as possible, it would have been a lot better to fly. Likewise, don’t waste your life rushing to FI. There is a better way. 

When you make the mistake of treating FI like a destination, much of life gets pushed aside, sacrificed to your goal of saving money for the future. (Scrooge had this problem.) When on this journey we tend to avoid fun things that will cost money, because if we spend the money on fun things now, it will lengthen the time it takes to reach our FI goal. So, we don’t buy the kids the all-day ride passes at the fair, opting to save money by only purchasing one ride for everyone or better yet not going to the fair at all. We don’t get tickets to the theater, opting instead to watch a version on YouTube for free. Or we don’t spring for the money to see our favorite music group in person because we can listen to them on the radio for free.

Just what are we saving the money for, if not to spend it on a great life? I suspect the great life was the real goal and FI was assumed to be the best way to get there. Some people on their FI journey will never reach the great life as they will die before reaching FI. In their case, what good came out of being on their FI trajectory. 

Others will take this journey because they feel their current job is ruining their life, so they want to reach FI in order to never work again. This is yet another mistaken path. If you hate your job, the best course of action is to get a job you enjoy, not spend many more miserable years working a job you dislike saving enough money to quit working. Don’t let one mistake, picking a bad job, lead you down the path of another mistake, chasing FI in order to retire early.

Let’s look at a better option, living a great life while seeking FI. I do believe that everyone should be seeking FI, while doing so in a balanced and joyful fashion. Arriving at FI a few years earlier, at the sacrifice of not having a joy-filled life along the way, is not the right answer. 

Ask yourself this question: Why am I saving so much money? Fully understand the purpose of achieving FI. If the answer is what the doctor gave me last weekend, quiting medicine to get enough sleep, then you are on the wrong track. You can get enough sleep right now. You don’t need to wait until you reach FI. This is a good example of striving for something for the wrong reason.

Take a few minutes right now to get to the root of why you are saving so much money. Keep asking yourself why until you get deep enough to hit the real answer/find the problem that needs solving. 

Why am I saving money? To retire. 

Why do I want to retire? So I don’t have to work. 

Why do I want to stop working? So I can get enough sleep. 

In this case you are mistakenly thinking that it requires reaching FI in order to get enough sleep. If what you really want is to get enough sleep, solve that problem right now. It is not associated with reaching FI. If you hate your job, solve that problem right now either by changing jobs or changing the parts of your job that you dislike, don’t keep working at a job you hate.

Once you identify the real reasons you are seeking FI, you can usually find a solution quite quickly through other means. This is what living life well looks like: Discover what you really want and get it now.

The desire to travel is another great example. If travel is important, don’t wait until you retire, start traveling now. Make a bucket list and every year move one of the destination from the bucket list to the calendar. 

Many people believe that retiring will solve many issues that they dislike. If we simply take the time to identify the issues and correct them now, then we often find that we now enjoy our work and don’t need to retire at all.

Another way to combat the problem of postponing your happiness until you reach FI is to build fun into your current budget. Don’t use the premise that you need to save all you can. Set a reasonable savings goal to reach FI at an appointed time and use the rest of the money to enjoy life along the way. 

I know of someone who struggled with spending money on anything other than essentials before reaching FI. He decided to set up a fun category in his monthly budget and allotted a sum of money to it. If there is $400 every month in the budget for fun, he felt that his family could spend that amount of money on doing fun things, and it will not hurt his plans for reaching FI. There is no guilt involved in spending the allotted money for fun. It has worked well for him, and he and his family started having a lot more fun together. His wife was really happy when fun was added to their family life. 

So do what you can to make FI a journey, not a destination. Don’t try to reach FI so fast that it ruins your chances of having fun along the way. Blowing ALL your working years so you can get to retirement quicker and finally start having fun is a horrible plan. It would also be a horrible plan to blow ALL your money on fun while neglecting saving for the future. Stay away from these two extremes.

Figure out what things make you happy and work on getting them into your schedule and your budget. It can almost always be done without first achieving FI. 

For those of you who still think you must wait until you become FI before you can spend some of your money on fun, I can assure you your retirement will not be as green a pasture as you think. The problem you will face is the many years you have spent avoiding spending will have become a habit by the time you retire. It is very hard to suddenly change from saving mode to allowing yourself to spend your money on fun, so you will likely be in much the same boat as before you retired. 

By making good sustainable habits that create happiness along life’s journey, you will have a great life. Putting all your efforts into saving money in order to stop working is almost never a good goal. If you need help with finding balance in your life, look here.

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2 thoughts on “Financial Independence is a Journey, NOT a Destination”

  1. Financial independence is a continuous journey, not a final destination. It’s about the ongoing effort to manage and grow your finances rather than reaching a specific endpoint.

  2. Great post. Well said, and worth the read as you give it your unique perspective. I lead a life of fun for the most part, ignoring saving. Then my began my third career as a physician in my late 40s and realized I didn’t have anything saved for retirement. Fortunately due to a physician’s salary I am looking pretty fair in that regard in my late 50s, with a 40% savings rate. Though having moved to an area where all the fun things I like to do (mountain biking, fly fishing, snowboarding, etc) are not possible (from mountains to coastal plain), I need to inject more fun back into my life. LOL! Thanks for the reminder!


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