Three Reasons Why Financial Freedom Is a Priority For Me

There aren’t many people in my life that know about my goal to retire by 45. While I love to talk about money and personal finance, only a few people know I’m spending most of my money trying to reach financial freedom (the point at which our investments produce enough regular income to cover our expenses). 

That said, when I get brave enough to share, one of the common reactions is incredulity. Some suspect I have a major trust fund (I don’t), or that Mr. Financier and I have inherited wealth (we haven’t); others are curious about the math behind financial independence; and others say, “Retire by 45?! Why would you want to retire so early - what will you DO with yourself!?”  

 The answer to that question is exactly why I’m so focused on financial freedom, so I’d like to share my perspective. I also recognize how lucky I am that my circumstances and hard work have put me in a position to consider leaving the workforce at a relatively early age. Here are three reasons why I’m so focused on this goal.

#1: I Need More Time for Hobbies

There’s a lot that I enjoy...reading, traveling, hiking, bicycling, volunteering, mountaineering, kayaking, discussing personal finance, bird watching, running, weightlifting, yoga, cooking, learning and taking classes, enjoying a nice glass of wine...to name a few.  With my current career, I am left with only two precious days each week - Saturday and Sunday - to focus on my hobbies. Realistically, those days are currently also filled with chores that get neglected during the workweek.

I get more enjoyment from a day that allows me to focus on the things that bring me joy. A day that starts with a morning yoga class, a post-class coffee with local volunteers to strategize about an upcoming campaign, followed by a hike in the woods and picnic lunch with my partner, ending with starting the first several chapters of a huge novel before a delicious home cooked dinner and glass of wine - that’s a dream.

If I’m lucky, I get 4 days like that a month.  If I’m realistic, it’s only 1 - and that’s depressing, to me. The idea that I might be able to escape the daily grind and have more time to spend on the things I enjoy is incredibly motivating, empowering, and liberating.

#2: I’m Sick of Working

I’ve been earning a paycheck in some way, shape, or form since I was 13. Before that, I babysat for neighborhood kids (I even had my own business cards and completed the American Red Cross Babysitting & Child Care Training) and did clerical work or physical labor as needed for my dad’s small business. When I was able to take a job outside the neighborhood at 13, I began earning paychecks. I’ve worked at a daycare center, served as a restaurant hostess, was a cashier at a sporting goods store, interned at a financial planner’s office, served as a lifeguard, and interned at a law firm...all before turning 21.

Since graduating from college, I have worked in consulting. There’s plenty to love about my career; the client challenges are fascinating, I work with smart colleagues, and I get to travel extensively. As most businesspeople know, traveling for work is both a pleasure and a grind; on the whole, I realize that I’m lucky to explore the world as part of my work. However, the massive time commitment and consistent stamina required of at a full-time job in management consulting is something I’d gladly leave behind. At the end of the day - it’s work. It's work I have to do because I need money to live.

#3: I Finally Realized That Experiences > Things

I think of 2011 as the year that the scales fell from my eyes around the value of material goods. I won’t tell you that I have sworn off beautiful things - I still salivate over a gorgeous pair of Louboutins. But, during the financial crisis, I was terrified I’d lose my retirement savings, job, and home. When the economy began to improve, I bounced back in a very financially counterproductive way. I rewarded myself with a lot of things. And those things weren’t necessarily making me feel happier or more secure. I’d often open up my credit card bills and feel nauseous about how much I spent on “stuff.”

That year, I started taking smaller steps to get my financial house in order. I stopped planning shopping afternoons with friends and instead suggested museums or picnic lunches. I canceled my recurring housekeeping service and began cleaning my own home. Mr. Financier and I started reviewing our budgets even more regularly and critically to look for areas where we were leaking money. We re-routed “fun money” that we had previously spent mindlessly towards investments. I got more serious about my career, knowing that if I grew my income, I’d have more to invest. Simultaneously I started exploring the FIRE movement and was very inspired by others that had saved enough to stop full-time work in their 50s, 40s, or earlier!

I began to internalize that, for me, life experiences will always deliver more value than material goods. And I’ve always been a fan of aligning money with your personal values. This series of realizations helped me put my money to work for my future, instead of on things I’d enjoy in the present.

As you can see by these three reasons, the goal of achieving financial freedom is so important to me because time is an incredibly precious asset and given the choice (which I’m grateful to have), I prefer free up time for experiences outside of work. I’m curious if you’ve contemplated financial freedom - either earlier in your 30s or 40s or later in life. If so, what drove you to explore the idea? Let me know your thoughts.

 xoxo, Ms. Financier

How To Create Your Retirement Budget

I get incredibly excited about the idea of creating a retirement budget. It is a chance to imagine my life at a point when I no longer have to work and can fill my time as I choose. I think about my retirement budget as a “financial freedom budget;" I aim to stop working a traditional job (or before) I reach the age of 45. Those that know about my goal of financial freedom ask about my budget. In this post, I’ll share how I think about my future spending.

I created my first financial freedom budget in 2013 when I started exploring the FIRE community (Financially Independent, Retired Early). Before that, I'd always thought, “Retirement is so far away, I can’t imagine what my budget will look like.” I had never considered how I’d be living when I stopped working; it was always “off in the future” and so “far away.” I could figure it out later, right?

My thinking changed once I was bitten by the bug to achieve financial independence. I became inspired to figure out exactly how much Mr. Financier and I would need to save to become financially free. A key part of that is how much we’d be spending, so modeling our future budget became critically important. 

At first, thinking about the expenses we’d incur for the rest of our lives was overwhelming. There are so many variables and assumptions. So, I began in the most obvious place - with our current household budget. I reviewed our annual expenses from 2012 and began making adjustments from there. The first adjustment was easy; I immediately deleted my two largest monthly expenditures. These were our mortgage (which we plan to pay off before we stop working) and our retirement savings. That change immediately reduced our monthly expenses by 59%.

Are you surprised that we were spending nearly 60% of our income on retirement and our mortgage?  Two things to keep in mind: First, we refinanced our generously-sized home (and associated generously-sized mortgage) into a 15-year loan that we pay extra on each month. Second, in 2011 and 2012 we had already optimized our budget to remove extra expenses in order to invest more our income.

Note that many mortgage payments include property taxes and homeowners insurance payments; these won’t disappear once your loan is paid off. If you plan to pay off your mortgage before retirement, include your taxes and insurance payments in your retirement budget.

Next, we reviewed our entire budget and made adjustments to reflect what we expected to spend once in the future. Like any budget, ours is a best guess and a living document that we keep coming back to and modifying over time. Here is a summary of the major changes we made.

Home Maintenance Saving: We added a dedicated line item equivalent to 1% of our home’s value to save each month for repairs, since we would not have salary and bonuses to help pay for any big expenses out of upcoming cash flows.

Health Insurance and Healthcare: We increased costs for health and dental insurance for us both, estimated based on visiting online sites and getting quotes (pretending we were 55.) We assumed we’d be paying more for healthcare as we age and increased spending in that category.

Auto Insurance: This line item decreased, as we’d sell one of our two cars in retirement (no more dual commuting) and we’d also be driving fewer miles annually, without the daily trip to work.

Travel: I love exploring, so this line item went up significantly. I increased our travel expenses three-fold. Right now, Mr. Financier and I are very time constrained and don’t travel as much as we’d like given our careers. I look forward to “slow travel” when we’re financially free - weeks or months in one location, living more like a local.

Clothes & Dry Cleaning: This went WAY down, as we wouldn’t need to be in our professional work gear every day. I still plan to buy shoes, but perhaps not quite as many new pairs each year!

Food, Wine, Dining: We increased these slightly; business travel subsidizes some of our fine dining today and we do plan to enjoy going out weekly in our financially free days. I’m also a wine enthusiast, and I’d like to explore it even more in the future.

Hobbies: We increased our hobby expenses, though not by much as we have pretty inexpensive hobbies (reading, running, hiking, camping, and yoga). I did add in additional costs for classes and seminars; there are so many amazing programs in the D.C. area and I regularly can’t participate because of my work schedule.

With these adjustments, Mr. Financier and ended up with a total monthly requirement that is far lower than our expenses today. When I did the math, I was stunned that we could have the lifestyle reflected in this retirement budget, for so much less than we were living on.

What about inflation? Many prefer to include inflation in their modeling. I do all of my calculations in today’s dollars.  Yes, inflation is real, but we never intend to move our entire portfolio out of the market, so we expect that keeping our money in the market will combat inflation - just like it does for us today.

Is my retirement budget perfect? Like any model, I know it isn’t. However, it is a starting point that allows me to explore how much income I’ll likely need to replace when I stop working full time. Many that approach financial freedom begin to live on their post-retirement budget a few years before they stop working. I like this idea as a way to reality-check and pressure-test the budget.

Have you built a budget that reflects your expenses post-career? If so, how did you do it? What feedback or suggestions do you have for me?

xoxo, Ms. Financier

The Magic Number Behind Financial Freedom

To me, financial freedom is the most glorious phrase - even better than free Manolos. What is financial freedom? It is the point at which our assets (investments and income from real estate, for example) produce enough regular income to cover our expenses. I find the idea magical! Financial freedom means we’ve invested so much that our own money has turned into our primary source of income. At this point, we no longer “need” to work for income.

At first, financial freedom sounds impossible. Only for the very wealthy, or for the tremendously lucky. I acknowledge that this magical concept isn’t accessible to everyone. However, the cold, hard math suggests that far more of us could achieve financial freedom if desired; it is a choice that requires us to prioritize growing our wealth.

You may aim to achieve financial freedom in order to retire in your 60s (or later). Or, you might be driven towards an earlier date; your 50s, 40s, or even 30s. I've shared that my goal is to reach financial freedom by 45 (or earlier). If the idea of a “work-optional” life appeals to you, there is one key number you need to understand. This number makes it possible to eliminate the need to work in a traditional career, or stop working all together! So what is it?

Four percent, which refers to the 4% safe withdrawal rate (also called the 4% rule). Why 4%? Several studies have confirmed that retirees can safely withdraw 4% of their nest egg every year, without the risk of running out of money, and without adding to their savings. While the returns on investments will vary (some years more than 4%, some years less than 4%), if you consistently withdraw 4% annually, you’ll avoid the risk of completely depleting your funds. Here’s a roundup of some of the most relevant research.

The most well-known exploration includes the Trinity Study, which originated at Trinity University. Professors explored market data between 1925 and 1995, seeking to understand what withdrawal approaches wouldn’t exhaust the retiree’s nest egg. They wrote, “Withdrawal rates of 3% and 4% are extremely unlikely to exhaust any portfolio of stocks and bonds during any of the payout periods [15- or 30-years].”

Even before that research, William Bengen’s 1994 study, Determining Withdrawal Rates Using Historical Data, analyzed and tested various withdrawal rates against historical market data. The maximum rate that retirees could withdraw without depleting their savings? You guessed it - 4%. One important assumption in this study is that 50% of the portfolios were in bonds. (It is common for retirees to place large amounts in lower-risk investments like bonds. I personally plan to have a longer retirement and will put far less than 50% in bonds).

Finally, Michael Kitces, a financial expert and lifelong learner who has many professional designations in the world of finance (see them all here), also examined periods of time going back to the 1870s - and he found that there isn’t a 30-year period in which a 4% withdrawal rate was too high. His fascinating post is here.

You can find endless information on the 4% rule and it is important to explore the studies, in order to understand the relevant assumptions. Importantly, if you believe the studies (which I heartily do) you can do some serious planning for financial freedom.

Let’s play along: if your living expenses are $75,000, you’d need to have $1.87M in order to fully cover your expenses. (You would withdraw 4% of $1.87M, which is $75,000.)

But, let’s say you spend some of that $75,000 on your mortgage (which you will pay off before becoming financially free), saving for retirement, and investing in a college fund for your niece (who goes to college next year). Then, these are expenses you won’t have to account for in the future; you might really spend only $50,000 each year! This lowers your investment requirement to $1.25M.

If you’re like me, you probably have lots of questions.

What about inflation? Simple answer: keeping some of your money invested in the market will fight inflation.

What if you want to spend more when you're financially free? That’s great; just up your budget appropriately and re-calculate the nest egg required.

What if 4% feels too risky for you? Change your withdrawal rate. Use 3.5%, 3%, 2.5%...whatever you feel comfortable with.

How can you know what your future budget will be? Short answer: create your best model based on your current budget. Longer answer: check out my next post.

In summary, the 4% rule gives you a tangible, specific number to work towards in order to achieve financial freedom. You may think the amounts required to generate income to cover your expenses sound impossibly big. You might ask yourself, “How the heck will I ever save $1.25M?!” I’ll tell you - one dollar at a time. The magic of compound interest will help you grow your money at a fast rate over time.

There’s plenty of discussion on whether the 4% rule still holds true today, as time in retirement lengthens. I encourage you to explore alternative models and determine what would work for you.

One thing I can promise? You’ll never get there if you don’t get started. Your path to wealth all depends on what you do with the space between your income and your expenses. If you grow that space, by increasing your income and reducing your expenses, you give yourself a greater opportunity to achieve freedom earlier.

I'm also a big fan of starting small and persistently increasing your investments over time. Figure out the best estimate of your target nest egg and get investing. I’ll see you in financial freedom!

Do you believe the 4% SWR? If not, what withdrawal rate do you prefer? Let me know!

xoxo, Ms. Financier