A common theme here in the financial independence community is simplicity. Mr. Money Mustache has his classic “Simple Math of Early Retirement” post, which took the FIRE world by storm. Jim Collins wrote “The Simple Path to Wealth”, which has become the de-facto starter kit for people looking to begin their own journey to FI.
The problem is, too many people hear SIMPLE but think EASY. There's nothing easy about FI: it requires hard work. The sacrifices you have to make to increase your savings rate are… hard. Testing out your frugality limits and going full on gazelle is hard too, at least at first, until you get into a good groove. For some, it's harder than others.
I like to use the analogy of getting into really good physical shape. Low body fat, visible muscles, maybe some six pack abs. It's actually quite simple: eat fewer calories than you consume, do about an hour a day of weight training, maybe sprinkle in some cardio a few times a week. For the more advanced you can watch your macros and supplement your protein intake. Simple!
But let me tell you, it's not easy. I've been working on my fitness for six months now, since quitting my job last November. I've put in over an hour a day, six days per week. And I'm still nowhere near the fitness level I want to be! Having discipline over how you spend your calories is HARD. Getting into a solid weight training routine is HARD. If it were easy, everyone would do it! It's simple, but it's still hard work. Reaching FI is no different.
When FI is even HARDER
I often hear feedback along the lines of “Of course YOU were able to retire early. You had no student loan debt. You and your wife had dual income! You have no kids!” And you know what? That's fair criticism! For someone without these advantages, FI is even HARDER. Your journey will take longer, and you'll have to become more of a financial badass than I did to hit FI in a similar amount of time.
Let's measure this badassity with something called the ‘frugality muscle', a term coined by Mr. Money Mustache that measures how hard you're willing to work to raise your savings rate. Before our Financial 180, The Wife and I were on track for a 40+ year working career, despite our above average household income, because of our poor spending habits and weak frugality muscles. Once we discovered how to strengthen these muscles, however, our journey shortened to under five years.
Anyone can improve their frugality muscles, regardless of income, but those who earn less are still at a disadvantage. If two different people have equally strong frugality muscles, the time to FI can still vary based on their income level. But didn't we learn that the length of the journey depends entirely on savings rate, not income?
The discrepancy is that you might need to work harder and apply more frugality muscle to achieve the same savings rate as someone with a higher income than you. This is compounded by the fact that at severely low-income levels, a significant percentage of your income goes to essential purchases like food and shelter. Because this concept of ‘frugality muscle' is still a bit vague, let's look at three concrete examples of how the wife and I strengthened ours.
A One Car Household
After the car accident that kickstarted our Financial 180, we decided to become a one-car household. Many of our friends and coworkers thought we were crazy – how can two adults working at two different companies get by with only a single car?
It wasn't easy. We would have to coordinate everything. Every day we'd need to plan out our agendas. “What off-campus meetings do you have today? I need the car for an errand at lunchtime. Can we do a car swap at 3pm for my after work activities? Oh, you need to work late? I guess I'll work late too. Can Jim give you a ride home today?”
There were some days where our schedules would line up, and things worked out nicely. But more often than not, our shared car arrangement was a pain in the behind. I was stuck at home some days with no car. Or The Wife had to stay at work a few hours later than she would have liked. This was hard, but we flexed our frugality muscles and stuck with it.
As I wrote about in my Car Problem post, the majority of drivers severely underestimate the cost of their cars. I estimate in the five years we've been a one-car household, we've saved around $30,000 in depreciation, insurance, registration and fuel-related expenses that we'd incur with a second car. And that's just over five years. In perpetuity, accounting for average market return on the difference, our savings would be closer to $200,000! By simply eliminating the second car, we were able to shave years off our journey to FI.
What if we earned less but still wanted to reach FI in the same amount of time? We would have needed to push our frugality muscles even harder to reach the same savings rate. We could have started biking to work. We could have carpooled with friends and split the gas. We could have moved within walking distance of the office. Some of these options are harder than others, but the financial reward is usually proportional to the effort.
House Hacking FTW?
As I wrote about in my Frugality vs. Sanity post, we house hacked by living with family for a few years to help us pay off our mortgage. We were able to simultaneously live rent free and rent out our previous home for a few years (albeit it still at a loss). This was frugal, but also tested our sanity and pushed our frugality muscles almost past their breaking point.
It's not easy living with family, especially when your lifestyles don't line up well. Navigating the murky waters of family favors, guilt, and indebtedness is painful, particularly if you're a bit of a control freak like me. Saying it was hard is an understatement. I bit my tongue so much I'm surprised it didn't fall off! It wasn't without its reward, however.
I estimate our four-year arrangement saved us around $50,000, and jump-started the savings snowball that led to our mortgage payoff. The accelerated timeline and larger up-front investments we were able to fund as a result are worth even more.
We could have saved even more if we had trained our frugality muscles harder. Instead of moving into a new single-family home after our house hacking journey, we could have moved into a small apartment with roommates. We could have bought a modest duplex and lived in one side and rented out the other. We could have AirBnB'd our guest room. The harder you work, the more your frugality muscles grow, and the shorter your time to FI.
Learning to Cook is… Hard
For years, The Wife and I ate most of our meals at restaurants before our Financial 180. This was one of our particular problem areas, and in 2012 we spent over $12,000 eating out! We knew we needed to start cooking at home to save money, but it was hard because we were bad at it, and didn't like our own cooking.
We spent the better part of a year learning to actually cook well. I'm going to be a complainy-pants for a minute and tell you – this process was the worst. There were so many secret shame pizzas ordered to cope with our many failures. But practice makes perfect, and through the hard work of persistence, we started to improve. Eventually, we got to a point where we preferred our own cooking to our favorite restaurants. We even optimized our grocery shopping, learning how to plan meals for the week in advance, and where to shop for the best prices.
When all is said and done, I estimate our frugality muscle saved us over $40,000 in food expenses over the past five years. In perpetuity, we've shaved well over $200,000 off our final FI number. And there's plenty we could have done to push this even further: we don't clip coupons, we don't have a big chest freezer to stock up on deals when they happen, and we don't even have a Costco membership!
How extreme you push in the savings direction is entirely up to you. If you're happy with your current lifestyle and savings rate and have a good work-life balance, there's really no need to go crazy. The stress associated with achieving extremely high savings rates can be daunting and throw you off course. However, if you want to accelerate your timeline, you can always push harder, as I've shown in the examples above. Work together with your family to figure out where your balance is, and tailor the journey to meet your needs.
No Pain, No Gain
Hard work is rewarding, and indeed, Mr. Money Mustache claims it's one of the secret ingredients to true happiness. But it isn't always fun, especially in the beginning. Everyone has different pain points and different levels of comfort. And some people just want all the things.
I miss having unlimited cell phone data. I secretly envy my friends with Amazon Prime and Hulu and Spotify premium. I intentionally avoid looking at the new iPhones to keep the desire to upgrade at bay! But these choices, while uncomfortable, added up to well over a thousand dollars per month! This is what it means to work your frugality muscles.
Becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable is one of the keys to our success. But instead, what do many people do when they discover something is hard? They make excuses! There are SO many articles like this popular one from The Outline that make it seem like only those with high incomes (in this case, the Frugalwoods) can reach financial independence.
Articles like these get me so fired up because they just aren't true! They seem to be some sort defense mechanism against the FI movement; in fact, this isn't even the first time I've written about this. Check out my “Why You Can't Retire” post for my a rebuttal against a similarly voiced New York Times piece.
Everyone wants a reason to believe that their inefficient, expensive lifestyles are justified. That way they don’t have to change anything. Because FI is hard! Reducing your expenses dramatically isn’t easy. Saving money requires work. You HAVE to get out of comfort zone. Just doing what's comfortable is what everyone else does. And living like everyone else doesn't make you wealthy.
The ironic thing about the above Outline article is that the Frugalwoods are actually some of the most transparent in the FI community. They fully acknowledge all the good fortune and privilege they’ve had thus far. But because the article only focuses on the income variable, they completely discount this concept of frugality as a muscle.
Increasing your frugality muscle is extremely effective at shaving years off your working timeline, in most cases significantly more so than simply raising your income. In fact, If you look at our annual spending vs. asset growth below, you can see how quickly a change in frugality muscle can turn around your finances. If this doesn't show the power of good financial habits, I don't know what will!
How Strong Are Your Muscles?
So, based on the potential savings we've discussed so far, the literal million dollar question is: what are you willing to do that most people will NOT? Where can you go to get out of your comfort zone and save money? Here's a sampling of some of the areas we've chosen to flex our frugality muscle thus far:
- We stopped eating out every day, because, money
- We worked really hard to get better at cooking
- We did a TON of reading – probably 2+ hours per day – on FI
- We moved in with family for a few years even though it sucked
- We went down to one car even though it was inconvenient
- We canceled a lot of fun stuff. We don't even have Amazon Prime
- We moved closer to work to reduce our commute and fuel costs
- We broke out of our unlimited mobile data addiction
- We got used to warmer house temperatures in summer
- We resisted the urge to upgrade our phones, electronics, cars, etc.
- We dramatically reduced frivolous traveling, shopping, etc.
- We said no to friends who wanted to do expensive things all the time
- We installed low flow heads in all of our showers and sinks
- We drove a small Honda instead of a larger SUV or Truck
- We altered our schedules to avoid traffic
- We reduced our meat consumption
- We avoid expensive insurance options in favor of high deductible plans
- We mitigate our driving risk by driving slower and less frequently
There's plenty of other ideas that our frugality muscles are still too weak for: renting out spare bedrooms, downsizing to tiny house, moving in with roommates, subletting out of someone else's spare basement, renting a place in walking distance to work, couch surfing, whole house pet sitting… and so many more. I met Scott Trench from Bigger Pockets at CampFI earlier this year, and he wrote an excellent book called “Set For Life” that really dives into some of these items in detail.
Most of these will really test the strength of your frugality muscles. Some of them may work better than others for your family's specific situation, but if you put in the hard work, your frugality muscles will grow. We're actually relaxing some of these now that we've made it to our FI point, which means we may have pushed harder than what was sustainable for the long term. But we did put in the work, and the results were truly dramatic.
The Wife and I hit FI in less than five years, and it was hard. Having only one car was inconvenient. Living with in-laws for a few years was unsettling. Learning to cook well was arduous. Giving up my unlimited data plan wasn't easy.
We still had it easier than others, however. We were able to avoid some of the more extreme savings scenarios because of our dual income. We didn't need roommates*, we didn't need to downsize into a tiny house, and we didn't even need to eat macaroni and cheese in the dark**!
Mr. Money Mustache often tailors his content to people like my wife and I. With our relatively high middle-class income, if we had chosen a ten-year period for our Financial 180, we could have done it with significantly less effort. Not EASY, but perhaps quite a bit more comfortable. But we chose a five-year turnaround, which made things much more challenging. We chose to go outside of our comfort zone to attack the heavy hitters in our budget: transportation, housing, and food.
Yes, we had a pretty good income***, and I'm so thankful we were able to turn things around as quickly as we did. I realize that others might have to work harder and for longer to accomplish the same thing. But given a good income, would you still be willing to make the choices we made? Would you still be willing to do what others won't to maximize your savings rate? Dave Ramsey has a quote that's always stuck with me: “If you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else.”
What are you and your family doing to work your frugality muscles??
*But we still had a roommate last summer! And it was an awesome experience I plan on writing about in a future post. Spoilers: Our roommate was also on the path to FI!
**This is an expression I use when describing someone who might be pushing so hard to reach that FI finish line that they are no longer enjoying life. Don't actually do this.
***At least according to east coast, low cost of living standards. For transparency, if you average our annual household income across our working career, it comes out to about $150k a year.
So hopefully this post helps inspire you to go out there and start saving! If you haven't already, the very first step is to determine your current savings rate, and compare it with your desired FI timeline. Then, start tracking all your spending and investments so you can follow your progress against the Milestones of FI.