The Cheat Codes of FI

For those of you following along, you know I've been a bit busy lately. In addition to my own music, podcast, and software projects, I've also been popping up on other people's podcasts. A few weeks back I sang a few bars of Michael Bublé on The FI Show with Justin and Cody, and I just appeared on the What's Up Next podcast with Paul and Doc G as well. But being away from the blog has given me some time to reflect on FI, and the length of the journey itself.

It took The Wife and I roughly 5 years to reach financial independence. For others, it can easily take 10, 15, and even 20+ years. We know that the only variable that actually matters in terms of the math is your savings rate, but there are a ton of factors that influence this figure. How much debt are you starting off with? What career do you have? What's your income? How big is your family? Where do you live? How hard are you willing to work?

We all have individual preferences and constraints that guide our decisions. Some people want to go slower, easing their way into the financial independence journey. Others want to go faster. Some have the resources to go VERY fast but choose to go slowly out of comfort or family priorities. Others really DON'T have the resources to go as fast, but work like crazy and make it happen anyway!

But what, dear reader, if you want to get to FI as quickly as possible, throwing all caution to the wind? What if you could somehow apply a few ‘cheat codes' to your life and really jump ahead in the game? The truth is, such codes actually exist! There are five heavy-hitting areas of your life you can optimize to radically increase your income and decrease your spending, giving you the most bang for the proverbial buck.

The Cheat Codes of FI

Allow me to introduce the “cheat codes” of financial independence. I didn't coin the phrase; other bloggers in the FI space have written about cheat codes before. The problem is most of these posts are too short, vague, click-baity, or philosophical to be helpful.

I wanted something concrete and actionable, just as when I wrote my Milestones of FI post. When you Google video game codes, you don't want someone describing something obvious like “avoid taking damage.” You want to learn that you need to press A-B-A-C-A-B-B during the opening credits, or hold down on a white block for five seconds to find the next whistle.  This is what this post attempts to achieve.

But first, a word of caution: just as in video games, cheat codes aren't for everyone. Some folks are completionists and want to explore and collect every item along the way. Others want to take it slow and enjoy the journey, and I'd argue that this is the healthier option. But for those of you who want to reach the end credits of your traditional working career as fast as possible, this is the post for you!

Get ready, because we're about to skip straight to world 8!

There is a catch, however. When people ask me if there's a sure-fire (FIRE?) way to ‘get rich quick', I usually hesitate and respond with “yes, but… you're not going to like what you have to do!” No, I don't mean robbing a bank or anything like that. It's just that the cheat codes we're going to discuss here are hard to execute, and absolutely not right for everyone.

But boy, can they skip you ahead in the game! If any of these seem too extreme, simply ignore and move on to the next cheat code, until you find one that works for you and your family. Are you ready to level up?

House Hacking

DIFFICULTY: Moderate to Advanced

SAVINGS POWER: 5/5

DATE JOEL UNLOCKED: March 2014

ABILITIES ACHIEVED: Transformed housing from the most expensive budget line item into a source of income

TOTAL VALUE SINCE CODE UNLOCKED: > $100,000.00

Housing is usually the largest line item in most people's budget. For many, it can make up 30% to even 50% or more of their total expenses. House hacking attempts to flip this convention on its head, and take those expenses down towards zero. Or, better yet, earn you money instead of costing you each month!

My favorite part of walking through IKEA is getting ideas on how to live effectively in smaller spaces!

The Cheat Codes

  • The Family Man: move in with parents, siblings, or extended family to reduce or eliminate housing costs.
  • The Roomie: Move in with multiple roommates to reduce housing costs.
  • The ‘Be Our Guest': Rent out a room (or two) of your house and make enough money to cover your housing expenses. (Airbnb and VRBO are perfect for this)
  • The Multi-Family Man: Purchasing a duplex, triplex, or quadplex, living in one of the units, and renting out the others for a profit. (Your tenants pay the mortgage for you!)
  • The Live-n-Flip: Move into a home that needs some TLC, stay a year or two fixing it up, and move out, selling for a sizable profit.
  • The Landlord: Manage one or more traditional rental properties to increase your passive income. (Just be sure not to rely too much on leverage, as it can come back to bite you!)
  • The Small & Mighty: Downsize into a small apartment or tiny home to reduce housing expenses.
  • The Road Warrior: Ditch the traditional house concept completely and live in an RV like my friends recently did!
It's less traditional, but RV living could shave years off of your working career.

What Cheat Code(s) Did WE Activate?

The Wife and I lived with family for free for a few years while we rented out our own home (The Family Man). Some friends thought we were crazy, and it did test our sanity a bit, but it was well worth it in the end. This hack shaved YEARS off of our time to FI, allowing us to live rent-free AND pay off our (then underwater) mortgage at the same time.

Our property made for a pretty terrible rental, missing the 1% rule by a mile, but this hack was still effective (The Landlord). On most properties, this strategy should bring your cost down to zero, or even earn you a monthly profit. Figuring out how to live for free, even for just a few years, can really speed up your savings! Anything to reduce living expenses goes a long way.

Years later, we sold our rental and used the profits to pay off our primary residence. We now pay an ‘equivalent rent' of only $300 per month, covering taxes, maintenance, and insurance. Our latest cheat code? Serendipitously, a friend we met at CampFI years ago recently moved to town for work and needed a place to live. We happily rented out our guest room for a few months, making a small profit to live in our own house (The ‘Be Our Guest')!

Housing costs before cheat codes: $1600 per month.

Housing costs after cheat codes: $300 per month (we actually profit $200 per month when renting out our guest room).

Interested in-house hacking? Here are some links to get you started:

A word of caution, however. Getting into real estate can be a very effective way to house hack, but it's not always a cake-walk. I've posted here on the blog about our adventures in real estate and our house purchase fails, so I'm not here to sugar coat anything. Was it an effective cheat code? Yes. Was it a pain in the ass? Also, yes.

Transportation Hacking

DIFFICULTY: Moderate

SAVINGS POWER: 4/5

DATE JOEL UNLOCKED: December 2014

ABILITIES ACHIEVED: Reduced automobile, fuel, and related costs by over 50% while simultaneously reducing commute time

TOTAL VALUE SINCE CODE UNLOCKED: ~ $30,000.00

Most people severely underestimate what they spend on transportation. As I lamented in my post The Car Problem, the average car costs $10k per year just to own, not even counting the cost of the car itself. It's not just cars, either: if you live many miles from where you work, other public and private transportation options can be just as expensive. Most Americans pay between 20 and 35% of their take-home pay on transportation, making it second only to housing in terms of opportunity for hacking. It’s no wonder finding money to save for investing is hard!

Traffic jams cost you a lot more than time…

The Cheat Codes

  • The 5K: Move as close to where you work and play as possible. Aim for a morning commute of 3 miles or less!
  • The ‘Every Day is Leg Day': Walk or bike to work instead of driving. MMM is a big proponent of the magic life-changing habit of bicycling.
  • The Carpool: Consider carpooling with friends and family, and reducing the number of cars in your household down to one, or even zero!
  • The Uber Cool: Consider up and coming private options, such as Uber and Lyft's new monthly subscription plans that could save you money over traditional car ownership.
  • The Man With The Plan: Plan and consolidate your trips into weekly or monthly outings when possible.
  • The Home Body: Negotiate with your employer to work some (or all!) days from home, or a closer location to home. Depending on your job, this could save significant money!
  • The Smart Car: If you must buy a car, be smart and research car buying on Fiology before you buy.

What Cheat Code(s) Did WE Activate?

After the car accident, The Wife and I decided not to buy a replacement vehicle and instead became a one car household (The Carpool). Reducing down to one car eliminated the insurance, registration, and maintenance costs associated with the second car. Carpooling also helped reduce our fuel consumption as well, as at least 5 miles of our commute was in the exact same direction every day.

A few years later, we moved much closer to work, reducing our commute to less than 15 minutes and shaving even more off of our fuel and maintenance costs (The 5K). We also found significantly cheaper auto insurance, dropped collision and comprehensive coverage, and raised our deductibles to the maximum allowed. Here's how we did:

Transportation costs before cheat codes: $600 per month

Transportation costs after cheat codes: $160 per month

We discuss these cost savings in more detail in our Savings Snowball post. Transportation and fuel costs are significantly larger than most people realize. I'm convinced the assumption that middle-class households ‘deserve' two new cars in the driveway is the very thing preventing the average American from accumulating significant wealth.

If you drive a car to commute to work, take a look at the sprinkling of fuel and car-related costs on your monthly statements. Is there any other expense category with so many transactions, each so expensive? The only one that even comes close is perhaps… food.

Food Hacking

DIFFICULTY: Advanced

SAVINGS POWER: 3/5

DATE JOEL UNLOCKED: October 2015

ABILITIES ACHIEVED: Learned to cook restaurant quality meals; cut grocery budget in half, and total monthly food costs by a factor of five

TOTAL VALUE SINCE CODE UNLOCKED: ~ $35,000.00

Food is usually the third most expensive category, after housing and transportation (in our case it happened to be even more expensive than transportation, but we'll get to that in a minute).

The Cheat Codes

  • The Special: Limit eating out at restaurants and fast food to once per week, or even once per month, primarily on special occasions.
  • The Chef: Learn to cook food you actually enjoy. This took us quite a while to learn…
  • The Day of Cooking: Make Sunday a “cooking” day, and prepare lunches and dinners for the entire week. The 8-quart InstaPot has helped us with this significantly!
  • The Potluck Master: Don't use eating out as a way to curb boredom! Opt for potlucks at home with friends instead of nights out at bars and restaurants.
  • The Part-Time Vegan: Consider reducing your meat consumption. Meatless Mondays are a great way to start!
  • The Smart Foodie: Switch grocery stores to cut your food bill in half! Check out this Fiology lesson on food for even more hacks.

What Cheat Code(s) Did WE Activate?

Before our turnaround, we spent a ton of money on food- well over $1000 a month! Coffee shops, bars with friends, eating at restaurants twice a day, convenience foods from luxury supermarkets… if the game was spending money, we were winning. But, this just meant we had a TON of low hanging fruit to work with.

When we turned things around, we switched from Publix to Aldi for our grocery shopping and cut our bill literally in half (The Smart Foodie). We stopped eating out at restaurants every day, and learned to meal plan for lunches and dinners throughout the week (The Day of Cooking). We started keeping emergency pizzas in the freezer for days with low motivation, and carefully tracked our food waste to try and become more efficient.

The grocery store you choose matters!

We also started hosting weekly potlucks, brunches, and game nights with friends at our house, with our own food (The Chef), which was significantly cheaper than frequent nights out on the town (The Potluck Master). In addition, we reduced our meat consumption (The Part-Time Vegan), which was a significant win for our wallets as well as our waistlines. So, how'd we do?

Food costs before cheat codes: $1000 per month

Food costs after cheat codes: $400 per month

We discuss these cost savings in more detail in our Food Savings post.

Let me clarify something here. This process was NOT easy. Of all the habits we’ve changed over the years to become more financially fit, this was the hardest. As a couple who didn't know how to cook well, it took a significant amount of practice, patience, and teamwork. The rewards, however, speak for themselves.

Travel Hacking

DIFFICULTY: Moderate

SAVINGS POWER: 3/5

DATE JOEL UNLOCKED: March 2016

ABILITIES ACHIEVED: Reduced travel costs by more than 50%, BOGO flights, more free hotel stays than we can use

TOTAL VALUE SINCE CODE UNLOCKED: ~ $50,000.00

Of all the cheat codes on the way to FI, travel hacking gets the most coverage in the blogosphere. This is likely because many bloggers receive payment for recommending certain credit cards, but travel hacking is a legitimate way for you to save tons of cash on travel every year.

The Cheat Codes

The Giant Wallet Dude(tte): Take advantage of sign-on bonuses. Many credit card companies offer generous bonuses to get you to sign up, sometimes offering between $500 and $1000 in incentive when you meet certain sign on conditions. Most commonly, you need to spend a few thousand dollars on the card within a few months of opening the account. Depending on the type of account, rewards can be applied to airfare, transportation, hotels, parking, and more.

The BOGO Flyer: The Southwest “Companion Pass” – lets you bring a designated companion along on every flight, for free! For couples, this effectively cuts your airfare costs IN HALF, and if done correctly, you can alternate earning the pass with your spouse every two years so the pass can last essentially forever!

The Slow Ride: The concept of ‘slow travel' – where you wander the world slowly, living like a local in exciting new locales. Depending on the country, your cost of living during slow travel can be considerably cheaper than where you currently call home. Even better – often times you can rent out your home while away, potentially paying for the entire trip!

What Cheat Code(s) Did WE Activate?

Before we knew about travel hacking, our plane tickets were often purchased at full price, on a whim a few days before traveling. This is not an affordable way to travel! These past few years, The Wife and I have gradually reduced our frequency of travel, and started credit card hacking to travel smarter (The Giant Wallet Dude). We also plan trips at least a few weeks in advance to help avoid the premium that often accompanies short notice travel.

I was initially pretty skeptical about signing up for a bunch of credit cards, but I decided to get into the game slowly by adding one card every few months. The Mad FIentist actually has a travel hacking email course that does exactly this, and I get an email every few months telling me which card to get, and when. It's pretty fantastic, and reduces decision fatigue on my part. You can sign up for this email list in the 'email series' section of this post.

I've also started opening new cards a few weeks before large expenses occur, when I can predict them. A perfect example: property taxes are due every November here in Florida, and are usually a few thousand dollars. This is the ideal time to search for those outstanding sign-on bonuses! And I recently found that American Express now gives a ‘temporary line of credit' for the 1 to 2 week period where your card is in the mail, so you could theoretically use this tactic even for unexpected large expenses.

The Southwest companion pass. It's kind of a big deal…

One of the best cheat codes in this space is the Southwest Companion Pass, which gives us buy-one-get-one-free airfare for almost two entire years. And if we time it right, when my two years are up, The Wife can earn another companion pass and we can keep the process going indefinitely (The BOGO Flyer)! With just a little expense planning, you can cut your airfare expenses IN HALF. How's that for a cheat code?

Just make sure you are responsible and PAY THESE CREDIT CARD BILLS IN FULL at the end of every month. If you can't, or worry you won't be able to, skip this cheat code completely. The second you pay interest on this stuff, you lose the big boss battle to the credit card companies. GAME OVER. (You remember my rant on debt, don't you?)

So how effective were these cheat codes for us? Let's look at the savings:

Travel costs before cheat codes: $1000 per month (average)

Travel costs after cheat codes: $150 per month (average)

Because these savings are dependent on specific deals available at the time, as well as the frequency that you travel, your mileage (pun intended) may vary. We discuss these cost savings in even more detail in our Savings Snowball post, so check that out if you want to dive deeper.

Ready to give travel hacking a try? Here's everything you need to get started:

Income Hacking

DIFFICULTY: Moderate to Advanced

SAVINGS POWER: 4/5

DATE JOEL UNLOCKED: September 2014

ABILITIES ACHIEVED: An 18% raise, two free graduate degrees, a (brief) stint in the six-figure club

TOTAL VALUE SINCE CODE UNLOCKED: > $100,000.00

On this blog, I tend to focus more on lowering expenses than increasing income, and that's what this post has focused on as well. I usually tell people: if you have an annual household income above $50k, lowering your expenses is usually more effective than hustling for more income. The four big cheat codes we've discussed so far (housing, transportation, food, and travel) can theoretically cut your expenses in half in only a month or two… it would be hard to find a side hustle that can double your income in a similar amount of time.

If you have a household income on the lower end of the spectrum, however, it could certainly be worth the energy to hack the income side of the equation.

The Cheat Codes

  • The Horizontal Tango: What do you do for work? Can you shift into a parallel field that has higher earning potential? Is there a related industry you could shift into? Have you browsed the jobs section of your local newspaper, Craigslist, career fair, etc? MMM has some great tips on how to stand out compared to others when interviewing for something new.
  • The Side Hustler: Can you add a side hustle to increase your income? Preferably something you're good at and enjoy doing.
  • The Social Butterfly: Can you network with others who have careers with higher growth potential? Can you become a more essential member of your team?
  • The Hopper: Can you switch to a competing company in the same field? It's been shown that switching companies every two to four years can have a dramatic impact on salary growth (and your résumé).
  • The Smarty Pants: Could you go back to school (perhaps night school) or get a certification that could make you more valuable? If you already have a low income, continued education might be completely free thanks to need-based grants, such as the Pell grant. With the right degree or certification, you could potentially double or triple your income. Is there any way to get your current employer to pay for your continued education?
  • The Tax Ninja: One straightforward way to give yourself an effective raise is to max out all available pre-tax investment accounts, lowering your taxable income and therefore letting you keep more of your gross income
  • The Ramblin' Man: Could you move somewhere new? Geographic arbitrage, both domestic and international, can significantly improve your income. Are there lower cost of living areas you'd be willing to work? Moving to a LCOL area is a quick way to give yourself an “effective raise”, even if your salary doesn't actually increase.
  • The Money Chaser: Another variation of ‘The Rambling Man', but this time with the strategy of following the highest salary instead of the lowest cost of living. Are you willing to move somewhere new to grow your paycheck? I have a family member who was a bank teller and decided to move wherever there was a need, as long as there was a pay premium. He lived in interesting places: New Orleans, Miami, North Carolina… After a decade of this strategy, he was making six figures.

A Note on Cost of Living

I have friends and family who live in very high cost of living areas like the DC Metro Area, LA, the Bay Area of CA, and Manhattan. I understand the appeal, but the cost to live in these areas is really high! If I wanted to live in California, I'd have to work many additional years, because I just wouldn't be FI there.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing if you love your job and working a few extra years doesn't bother you. But if you're trying to reduce the number of years to FI, moving to a lower cost of living area is a GAME CHANGER. As a point of reference: I live in central Florida. My ~2000 square foot house cost ~$200k, and it's paid off. Gas here costs ~$2.40 per gallon. Eggs are about 60 cents. And there's no state income tax.

What Cheat Code(s) Did WE Activate?

Income hacking is an area The Wife and I excelled at even before our Financial 180. We both worked really hard in high school to earn scholarships for our undergraduate degrees. We also chose to attend state schools, so our scholarship money went much further. (This, combined with the fact that we are extremely lucky to have parents who pre-paid our college meant we had no student loans after graduation).

We decided to pursue degrees in software, as it is currently in extremely high demand, and the pay is competitive. After graduation, we moved to a low cost of living city within a few hours drive of family (The Ramblin' Man), and got software jobs with great benefits, including company paid graduate education. I ended up completing two graduate degrees (Industrial and Systems Engineering, and an M.B.A.), all on the company's dime (The Smarty Pants).

“The Hopper” in action. Notice the effect of my last two job hops, in gold, on my salary.

I've also hopped between companies a few times in my career, on average once every five years (The Hopper). Not only is this beneficial from an income hacking perspective (each hop netted me a ~18% raise), but it also helps build a stronger résumé and gives you fresh new experiences along the way. You can see the effect two job hops had on my salary in the figure above. And remember: if you find yourself with an offer from a competing company, negotiate!

Additionally, I've kept my eyes open for opportunities to grow my salary whenever possible. During my working career, I'd work hard and do a good job, rating myself highly at review time. I'd network, and then solve problems for people to make their lives easier, making myself a more valuable, and subsequently well paid, employee (The Social Butterfly). And I took the opportunity to max out my 401k, IRA, and HSA in order to reduce my taxable income and give myself more of my own gross income (The Tax Ninja), effectively letting Uncle Sam give me a raise.

End Credits

TOTAL YEARS WITH CHEAT CODES ENABLED: 5

AREAS UNLOCKED: HOUSING, TRANSPORTATION, FOOD, TRAVEL, INCOME

CHEATS ENABLED: The Family Man, The 'Be Our Guest', The Landlord, The 5K, The Carpool, The Man With The Plan, The Special, The Chef, The Day of Cooking, The Potluck Master, The Part-Time Vegan, The Smart Foodie, The Giant Wallet Dude, The BOGO Flyer, The Side Hustler, The Social Butterfly, The Hopper, The Smarty Pants, The Tax Ninja, The Ramblin' Man

TOTAL VALUE OF CODES SO FAR: > $500,000.00 (WITH COMPOUNDING)

Housing, Transportation, Food, Travel, and Income. These are the five heavy hitters, and with the proper cheat codes applied, they can potentially double or even triple your savings rate in one fell swoop, getting you to that magic 50% savings rate, or higher. The thought process behind every one of these cheat codes is essentially the same: How can I take something expensive that I need or want and flip it around so that I somehow MAKE money instead?

Remember that none of these are easy. They are simple, but hard. Most of these strategies will require you to sacrifice something you don't want to sacrifice. But they will help you get rid of your debt and start saving money quickly. These strategies, while hard, are very effective. These cheat codes have saved The Wife and I over half a million dollars on our journey!

Note that you don't need to leave these cheat codes enabled forever if you don't want to. Some of them can be turned on temporarily to help you get out of debt quick, or skip ahead a few levels early on in the game. For example, after five years with all the codes enabled, we started eating out at restaurants once a weekend instead of once a month, and The Wife got a second car. Don't worry – we know the codes well and can turn them back on if we ever need to.

As I said at the beginning, this is all optional! If you like your job and your work life balance, you don't have to change a thing. I recently sat down with a couple at Camp FI who felt stuck at a 40% savings rate and wanted to ‘breakthrough' to something higher. After reviewing all of these cheat codes with them, they looked at each other and realized they weren't willing to try any of them. They had a pretty sweet work-life balance already, and didn't need to raise their savings rate any higher! They left understanding that a 40% savings rate was right for them, and that they didn't need to raise it just for the sake of racing others to the finish line.

I hope these codes are helpful for those of you on your journey who do want to speed things up, however. It's taken me years to curate all the info packed into this post. If you know other major cheat codes that I've missed, let me know in the comments and I'll add them in. That way, this post becomes the go-to resource for people who say they want to “get rich quick”.

Good luck playing the game. Let me know which boss battles you get stuck at, and which of these codes have worked for you in the comments.

Early Retirement Fun!

It's been 250 days since I quit my stressful job in software engineering to dip my toes in the early retirement waters, so I wanted to give you an update on post-retirement life.

First, some big news: I was one of the winners of the FinCon scholarship program this year! If you're going to be at FinCon in September, I'd love to meet you in person. This is my first year going to the conference, and I'm looking for cool people to hang out with, so let me know if you'll be there. If you want to go but haven't signed up yet, use this link to buy your ticket before prices increase at the end of the month.

Oh and speaking of FinCon, did you know you can nominate this blog for a Plutus award? I'm in the running for best new personal finance blog, and the winners will be announced at the conference! If you'd like to nominate me, simply click here, enter your name and email, then scroll all the way down and click the submit button. The link automatically fills in my blog in the right spot, so you don't have to type anything else.

Other big news: A few weeks ago, Brad and Jonathan of ChooseFI interviewed their wives on an episode of the podcast, and during the hot seat, Laura chose my article “A Letter to My 22-Year-Old Self” as her favorite article of ALL TIME! I was beyond excited, as this is one of the articles I am most proud of. I wrote it as a guest post on the Fiery Millennials blog a while back; if you haven't already, you can read it here.

A (Semi) Productive Routine

OK enough shameless promotion, let's talk about some new lessons I've learned since my last lessons learned post. As it turns out, it took me quite some time to get into a groove after quitting my W2 job, but I think it's safe to say I am finally happy with my daily routine. Take a look at my average weekday:

  • 6:30am: Wake, coffee, breakfast
  • 7:30am: Daily goal setting
  • 8:30am:  4 hours of structured time
  • 12:30pm: Lunch
  • 1:00pm: Afternoon walk, phone calls
  • 1:30pm: 4 hours of unstructured time
  • 6:00pm: Weight training and cardio
  • 7:30pm: Dinner
  • 8:00pm: Relax and turndown
  • 10:00pm: Sleep

The first thing to notice is I get a lot of sleep – around eight hours every night. This is a luxury, and I'm enjoying every minute of it. I still try to start the day as soon as the sun comes out, so I've gone back to using the alarm clock (gasp).  As it turns out, my hatred of the alarm clock was unwarranted; getting up early isn't so bad when you get to spend the day doing the things YOU want to do!

After breakfast, I set my daily goals, and start a four-hour block of ‘structured' time, which is basically my terminology for focused work. Writing for the blog, producing music, doing important household maintenance, etc. Since I am pretty easily distracted, I use the ‘Forest' Pomodoro timer app to stay focused during this block. This is in contrast to my four-hour block of ‘unstructured' time that I have in the afternoons, which is basically flexible time to do whatever I want: run errands, play piano, read a book, or even play video games. This routine really helps keep me feeling accomplished while providing plenty of flexibility to work around life.

In the afternoon I start my fitness routine, which has been going great. My brother is my personal trainer, and with his help, I've gained over 10 lb of muscle and lowered my body fat by 5% so far. I still have a ways to go, but I'm extremely pleased with the results I'm seeing. Sticking to a routine is KEY – an hour-long workout can feel like torture if you don't have a solid plan. Consistency is what matters most here.

Staying Social

My routine isn't the only thing that's improved: so has my accountability. A few months ago, I joined an Early/Semi-Retirement Mastermind group with the bloggers from (name dropping time!) Fiery Millennials, Shift Upwards, Kiwi and Keweenaw, Dragons on FIRE, and I Dream of FIRE… It's a monthly conference call where we all share our transitional challenges and triumphs. This has been a great experience – having a group of people who understand your situation and can keep you motivated and accountable for your goals is a wonderful thing! I can't speak highly enough about this group – at times I feel like a slacker, because, well, I am. These people are really productive!

The Mastermind also helps with another realization I've made since quitting cubicle life: I miss chatting with coworkers. I totally underestimated the importance of socialization at work, even the small stuff. Stopping by a coworkers desk to see if they saw the latest movie, sitting down for a ten-minute coffee break, etc. I didn't realize how important these daily interactions were to my psyche until I left the workplace. Having the Mastermind is helping out quite a bit, and I've also been working hard to get over my introverted nature and reach out to more people. Justin from Root of Good recently wrote about the importance of staying social in early retirement, and it got me thinking about ways to make friends.

One way I've reached out is by joining a local hiking* group with some people in my area. Once a week, a group of us meet up at a new hiking spot and spend a few hours out in nature. It's peaceful, helps me get my steps in, and keeps me social.

One of the friends I made on a recent hike!
One of the friends I made on a recent hike!

All this time in nature has helped me realize that I didn't really hate my job, or work in general, but instead, I hated my lack of work-life balance. Now that my burnout has subsided, I'm realizing that – similar to my hatred of the alarm clock – my frustration was misplaced. Looking forward, I can see myself potentially taking on some future part-time work (especially if I can't convince The Wife to quit), not because I need the money, but because I enjoy feeling productive, useful, and social. The key is having a balance of work and life, and the LIFE portion is what was missing from my previous job. These past few months, though, I've been more than making up for it!

Time for Friends…

Remember the ‘important things' I mentioned in our about page? “We chose FI to have more time for the important things in life.” Well, here's a sampling of some recent adventures I've had time for since quitting:

This past April, I presented at CampFI in Virginia and had a blast hanging out with dozens of cool people on the path to FIRE. One night, I even got to sing Karaoke with Miss Mazuma, and started a backstreet boys revival band with Big ERN of Early Retirement Now! Sorry, no photos here- too incriminating for the internet.**

Last month, I spent a week in Sarasota visiting my old college roommate who I haven't seen in quite some time. It was great – we biked down to Venice beach, bar and appetizer hopping along the way. Next week I'm heading out to Connecticut to visit an old high school friend, and after that, I'm stopping in Atlanta to round out the friend tour! It's so nice to have time for this stuff again… last week some friends and I visited a new brewery in town that has classic arcade games, and I crossed a childhood dream off my bucket list: I actually beat the original Simpsons arcade game!

I waited almost thirty years to see this credits screen…

…and Family

Family is another big reason I wanted more free time. In the spring, I visited my parents for a few days and caught up with them. I slept in my childhood bedroom and reminisced about old times. My dad and I took the bikes out and rolled down a new bike and pedestrian greenway they built nearby: miles of ultra wide lanes, beach and park connection access, and best of all: no cars!

Biking trails are the best!
Biking trails are the best!

A few weeks later, for the first time in a long time, I took a trip down to the Miami area with my brother to spend a day cooking with my Grandma. She taught us her recipes for eggplant & chicken parmesan and stuffed Italian peppers, and we had the best time! This is the type of trip that I just didn't make time for when I was living in burnout land, but is so important. My Grandma won't be around forever, but now I'll remember this day every time I cook stuffed peppers. After dinner, Grandma showed us boxes of old family photos and told some pretty hilarious stories.

This is some legit Italian food right here.
This is some legit Italian food right here.

My goal is to start having Sunday dinners with family and friends every week. Spend the majority of the day cooking, then spend the night around the table telling stories and laughing – this is essentially when I'm happiest, and my goal is to make it a weekly occurrence instead of a monthly or yearly one.

Music

In addition to spending leisure time with friends and family, I've also been keeping busy in my home recording studio writing and producing new music. Songwriting is a passion of mine, and for the first time in a while, I have the bandwidth to really dig in.

My home recording studio
My home recording studio

Back in high school, I used to sell aspiring singers original songs for a thousand bucks a pop – it was the ultimate side hustle! I built up a pretty great network, and made enough money to build a sweet home studio. But, my parents were convinced I needed to “go to college and get a REAL job“, so I had to put my music on hold for a decade or two. Unfortunately, I lost most of the network I built up, but the good news is I have time again. And I'm slowly getting back into the game.

I've built up a new music website and uploaded a handful of demo songs across a few different genres: rock, pop, ballad, etc. If you are so inclined, check it out and let me know what you think! I sing vocals on the majority of tracks right now, but my goal is to collaborate with other talented musicians and singers, so if you know anyone with a great voice, point them over to me. 🙂

Writing

It's true that I've slowed down on the blog posts a bit lately, but I’m still writing! And not just music… I'm working on a FI book, though it's still in the early stages. I've been taking my sweet time on it, because, well, I have time. It's hard to stick to strict personal deadlines in early retirement for some reason.

But you know what? That's OK. As I've mentioned before, my goal is simply to write whenever I feel inspired. When I feel passionate is when my best writing flows! It's true for all my creative endeavors: blogs, books, music… and lately, I've been spending lots of time living life and getting inspired. One thing that has me motivated to continue working on my book is the recent ChooseFI episode on publishing with author M.K. Williams. I met M.K. at Camp Mustache SE in 2017 and was inspired by her writing. If you haven't read Enemies of Peace yet, get on it – it's a real treat.

Besides the book and blog, I've also been contributing content to FIology, an awesome online resource for everything you ever wanted to know about FI, organized into convenient lessons with lots of links to articles in the FIRE community. I actually just spent the weekend with David, who runs the site, and had fun hanging out at the beach and sitting around my backyard grill. It's a small world in the FIRE community: David is actually the twin brother of Stephen, who organizes all of the CampFI events. These brothers are so dang passionate about FIRE and spreading the word that sometimes I feel like a slacker. Hey wait – I already mentioned feeling like a slacker earlier in this post – is this the common theme of my early retirement lifestyle?? 🙂

You got a real attitude problem, McFly. You're a slacker!
You got a real attitude problem, McFly. You're a slacker!

HEY – WHAT ABOUT MONEY?!

OK, this is supposed to be a financial blog, and I haven’t written anything about money in this post! The funny thing is – I haven't really been thinking much about it lately. Since quitting work, I've found that money just isn't on my mind as much as it used to be, and actually, I find this quite refreshing. I'm really only checking up on my portfolio once a month, on the first, to update my net worth and track my spending for the month.

One cool money thing I made recently is a LEGO*** portfolio to help visualize things and show change from month to month. It's pretty cool: red blocks represent cash, blue are international stock, green are domestic stock, and yellow are bonds. Each individual LEGO block has four raised dots, and each dot represents one thousand dollars in our portfolio. Spreadsheets are great, but there's something really tangible about being able to hold your portfolio in your hands and add or remove a few blocks each month.

Our portfolio is colorful but blocky
Our portfolio is colorful but blocky

While I haven't been thinking about money as much lately, it doesn't mean I haven't been writing about it. There are still PLENTY of finance-related posts in my backlog: rolling over HSAs, avoiding deprivation in FI, some new reader requests, new interviews, and more! But no promises on a publishing frequency: to quote one of my favorite blogs Wait But Why, I publish “new posts every sometimes”. 🙂

Summary

So that's what I've been up to this summer! Between traveling to visit friends and family, writing a book, producing music, working on my physical fitness, and singing karaoke, I've been quite busy – busier than I ever imagined I'd be in early retirement. But it's not all non-stop action: I've learned to move at my own comfortable pace, and leave plenty of downtime for relaxation and reflection.

Don't confuse being busy with being productive – they are two different things. I struggled for a few months feeling guilty for not accomplishing more with all of my free time. I had to make peace with that and find a balance – that's where my four hours of structured work per day comes from. The equivalent of a 20-hour work week, this is the right number for me to feel accomplished while still leaving the vast majority of my time available for reading, cooking, and relaxing – as it should be! I actually discussed this on twitter recently with Justin from Root of Good:

Having free time available to spend on things that are meaningful to me is really what this Financial 180 was all about. As I've said before, time is more important than money. You can always earn more money, but you can't buy more time. So, you need to spend it on the people and experiences that matter most.

This is what FI is all about!


*Well, it's probably not considered ‘hiking' here in Florida because we have no elevation, but it's a nice outdoor nature walk that lasts a few hours.

**If you see me at FinCon I'll show you in person…

**I'm not the first finance blogger to do this: I remember seeing a picture of a LEGO portfolio on another blog, but I can't remember which one! If you know, let me know in the comments so I can give them credit.

The Car Problem

I recently got into a disagreement on the “Mustachians on Facebook” group with a few people who were trying to convince me that driving is an essential part of life, and for some people there is simply no way around high monthly car costs. No matter what ideas I proposed to reduce their costs, they responded with something similar to “I already thought of that, but it won’t work because… (I’m not willing to budge on some lifestyle preference).

These commenters were so busy thinking up excuses that they used up all the energy they could have used to come up with actual solutions to their personal situations. This got me fired up, so I decided I would write another “educational venting” post, as one of my commenters coined it. Before long, the post ballooned into what follows, which I am calling, “The Car Problem.”

What Problem?

Cars are pretty dang cool. Shiny, high-tech and powerful, cars provide a sense of freedom and even independence to billions of drivers around the world. But personally, I can’t wait to stop driving. In fact, one of the things I’m looking forward to most about FI is the reduced time in my car. Due to a complicated number of factors, I still have to drive my car to the office every weekday. I still have to sit in traffic each morning and evening, as aggressive drivers dangerously weave in and out of the lanes around me, perpetually late for their next appointment.

I drive the speed limit, and occasionally need to be in the left lane for a turn, which is apparently not OK in Florida. I’ve seen my fair share of one finger salutes in my time on the road, mostly from angry, unhealthy drivers. Luckily, with our FI window closing in rapidly, these clown car escapades should be behind my wife and I in the next year or two.

Across the world today, there are over 1 billion passenger cars on the road. In the United States, there are 1.3 people for every car, which means that nearly EVERY adult in the U.S. drives a car. While the shining example of successful assembly line mass production, cars are actually making us poor, sick, and miserable.

Your Car Runs On Money

As hinted to in our post “Why You Can’t Retire”, most people severely underestimate the total cost of a car oriented lifestyle*. Let’s do some math. Suppose you buy a shiny new car. The average car price in 2016 was $34,000.00, so let’s go with that. Assume $4k down payment, dealer financing of 4% for 60 months, and we get a monthly payment of $550 per month, with about $50 going to interest, on average. Now, let’s assume you live in suburbia and drive a 70 mile round trip daily commute to work (as is the case with one of my family members). You work 262 workdays per year and this gets you to 18,340 miles. Then assume on weekends you drive 50 miles per day and our total miles driven for the year have reached 23,490.

How often do you fill up?
How often do you fill up?

If we trust the IRS rate of $0.535 cents per mile, we get a total operating cost of $12,567 per year for wear and tear, fuel, car insurance, registration, and depreciation. That’s $1047.26 per month. And this is just one single car. Many homes on my block have three cars these days!

Sure, we can play financial games to bring the monthly numbers down… we can take out an even longer loan (72 months is the new 60) and pay even more money in interest. We could even be responsible and get a smaller car with better gas mileage. But it doesn’t actually fix the problem. There’s no way around it: The total cost to drive a car is really expensive. A brand new car is even worse. Two or three cars in your driveway? It’s no wonder finding money to save for investing  is hard! The average car costs $10k per year just to own, not even counting the cost of the car itself. Most Americans pay between 20 and 35% of their take home pay to these mechanical overlords…

OK, let’s make the math simple and use $1000 per month total cost to drive. Now, let’s look at the opportunity cost of a $1000 per month cash flow. If we invest it in the S&P500 index earning 7% interest, we’d have over $1 million saved in thirty years! Instead, if we just use it to pay for an additional car, we have… an additional hunk of metal sitting in the driveway. Instead of appreciating, like the investment, the car depreciates over time. And it is an extremely inefficient resource, sitting parked, completely unused, over 23 hours per day on average.

Oh- I almost forgot to include the cost of car accidents! Growing up in the South Florida area, things are pretty bleak. Car accidents happen to most families every few years. It’s big business for the attorneys, insurance companies, and medical community. Everyone gets paid when you have your inevitable crunch. Except for you, of course. Given a population of almost 7 million people driving longer commutes to work than ever before, statistics ensure your next accident is only a few years away if you live in the Miami metropolitan area. I’d wager there’s a number of other metros across the country in a similar position.

Your Car Makes You Sick

This isn’t really a surprise to anyone anymore. Cars pollute the air, contribute to climate change, and use up what remains of our limited natural resources. If the price of gasoline included the cost to our environment in the sales price, it would cost well over $10 per gallon. But gas is cheap, so it’s easy for us all to look the other way and keep on with our usual daily driving routine.

But forget about the environment. Forget about those joggers and bikers and their dreams of clean air for a second. Did you know that driving is actually making you sick? Sitting in traffic is one of the most unhealthy activities you can do. It increases your blood pressure, anxiety, cholesterol levels, and more. Not just for the duration of your commute, either. These changes accumulate over time and lead to premature death.

And let’s not forget about mental health: over time, the stress of traffic accumulates, leading to poor decision making on the road. Like the time a family member decided to try and overtake a slow moving van at the last second before their lane ended, only to have the van hit the accelerator. This person literally risked their life and the lives of everyone in our car because they were tired of waiting behind a slow van. This aggression causes others to in turn drive more aggressively, making the roads more dangerous and increasing the likelihood of accidents. In extreme cases, this accumulation of stress culminates in road rage, where people are injured or even murdered because someone didn’t like someone else’s driving decisions.

Me after more than 15 minutes of driving
Me after more than 15 minutes of driving

The icing on the cake is that cars also keep you sitting on your ass, burning zero calories, wasting both your free time and your mental energy. If you didn’t already know, sitting for extended periods will absolutely shorten your lifespan, even if you try to exercise vigorously every day to compensate. And it also helps keep you lethargic. We rely on our motorized comfort bubble clouds to keep the temperature at precisely 73 degrees year round and protect us from the dangers of water falling from the sky. In modern car-centric life, we very rarely need to work our muscles. So some of us drive our cars halfway across town to a gym, which we pay for, so we can simulate working them as we would in our days before cars. Others drive a few hundred feet for even more ridiculous reasons.

Here’s a funny example: each day at work, I go on walks around my building to stretch my legs from a long day of sitting. Every few hours, I notice a line of five or six cars parked on the street just off of company property, a few hundred feet from the building. All the cars have their engines running, music playing, A/C running full blast, and windows rolled down. What’s going on here?

As I went in for a closer look, I realize that all the people sitting in their cars are smoking cigarettes. This is the new, anti-social, climate controlled smoke break of the twenty-first century, fueled in part by my employer’s strict ‘no-smoking on company grounds’ policy and in part by the sheer laziness of my coworkers. If you can think of a more ironic example of simultaneous damage to health, wealth, and environment, I’d like to hear it.

Your Car Is Not Safe

Safety is another issue. There’s no denying that driving is inherently unsafe. It’s actually the most dangerous activity most people engage in on a day-to-day basis. In 2015 there were 1.25 million traffic fatalities across the world, yet everyone is perfectly OK with this fact. We collectively freak out about terrorist attacks that killed 28,328 people worldwide that same year, yet we don't even blink before getting behind the wheel each day for an activity an order of magnitude more dangerous. In fact, did you know 93% of drivers think they are better than average at driving? Do you see anything wrong with this statistic?

A few years back, my wife was involved in a very serious accident that totaled her car. A county sheriff's officer ran through a red light at full speed, with no lights or sirens on. My wife happened to be in the intersection at that moment. Many of us like to think our sense of control makes us a good driver. That it wouldn’t happen to us if we were behind the wheel.

But it has nothing to do with driving skill. As an engineer, I appreciate the statistics and probability at play behind the scenes here. Had my wife left the house a few milliseconds later, the impact would have happened directly on her driver’s side door, and she might not be here today. Had she left a few seconds earlier or later, it would have been someone else in the accident. How do you mitigate this risk? It’s quite simple: you drive less.

Car accidents aren’t the only danger on the road. Fatalities to pedestrians, bicyclists, animals, or anything else in the road is also a real concern. I'm not particularly happy about this, but my wife and I happen to live in the #2 most deadly city for pedestrians in the entire nation. In fact, just last week a 4th grader was run over and killed on his bicycle while riding home from school a few blocks from my home. This was the third student pedestrian death this year. Now, this news sounds horrible, but it happens so frequently in the headlines that I don’t even flinch anymore. I’ve been completely desensitized. Most of the time in Florida the drivers in these incidents don’t get much more than a fine, literally getting away with murder.

I’m not trying to talk you out of biking or walking: statistically speaking they are both still significantly safer than driving in a car. What I'm arguing is that many in suburbia today live in neighborhoods that are no longer built for human beings. The more people we can get out of cars, the safer and more friendly our cities will become. Part of the problem is that drivers just aren't paying attention to the world around them, and many have forgotten (or never learned) the rules of the road.

Instead of bike lanes, my city opted for bike signs
Instead of bike lanes, my city opted for bike signs

We could all do with a refresher on road rules. In my city, a major road near the airport was re-surfaced and sidewalks were finally added. But, there was no funding available for bike lanes, or even a small shoulder for bikes. Instead, the city decided to install these signs and display them every mile along the road, reminding drivers that because there’s no shoulder, bicyclists can use the full lane, a law which has existed in Florida for as long as I’ve been a driver.

However, I happened to overhear numerous confused coworkers in the cafeteria at lunch, unaware of the rules of the road. “Yeah, it’s new. Bikes can take up the entire lane now. It’s only where the signs are posted though. Yeah, I know, it’s crazy, bikes are so dangerous!” When I inform coworkers that this is nothing new, I generally get looks ranging from skeptical to confused.

This isn’t exactly surprising. Most people take their driving test when they are teenagers and never have refreshers again. No wonder so many drivers don't know the law. You can prove this to yourself whenever you see someone come to a complete stop at a flashing yellow light. Watch the person behind him go on to do the same thing, because they figure “this guy must know what he's doing”. Indeed, most drivers simply follow the lead set by those in front of them.

Your Car Makes You Miserable

It doesn’t have to be a car accident or fatality for cars to lower your quality of life. For example: A few years ago, my wife did her college internship here on the space coast of Florida. She didn’t have a car (or even a driver's license), so she rented at an extended stay hotel within walking distance of her work. On some days, she would try to cross a busy arterial road to get to her favorite lunch spot.

This road had crosswalks, complete with walk signs and pavement markings, yet some days she actually could not cross the street. With the walk sign on for her to cross, cars would continue to flow through the intersection making right turns without stopping. When she would eventually force herself into the intersection, she would receive a barrage of continuous honking and profanity, even though the white walk signal was on. Cars would begin trying to maneuver around her on both sides. It only took a few attempts for her to realize that this was not a street that could safely be crossed by a pedestrian, and retreated back to the work cafeteria.

It wasn’t always like this. One hundred years ago, most cities were designed around actual humans. Roads were shared by pedestrians, horses & carriages, and streetcars. Most neighborhoods could be navigated on foot, as there were no parking lots or highways to get in the way. Until cars became mainstream, pedestrians always had the right of way. This lasted until the automobile industry created a public shaming campaign to take rights away from pedestrians and give them to cars. The ‘jay’ in jaywalking was a derogatory word in the 1920s synonymous with ‘rube’, or ‘country bumpkin’.

The auto industry's propaganda campaign was quite successful, and soon it became illegal for pedestrians to cross the street in undesignated areas. Once more and more cars filled the roads, the idea of the streetcar vanished. The third episode of the first season of TruTV's series “Adam Ruins Everything” titled “Adam Ruins Cars” does a great job of telling this story. If you haven’t watched it, I highly recommend it. Just listen to this quote:

“Today, Jaywalking is a crime. In fact, most of our modern traffic safety culture descends from this type of blame shifting propaganda. Think about it: a group of private businessmen coined an offensive slur to promote their product, and it worked so well that today it’s a legal term.”

Parking Lot Oceans

Once the new norm became every family having their own vehicle, city designs changed to incorporate larger and larger parking lots, creating more distance between shops and residences, making it more difficult for pedestrians to navigate cities on foot. Today, parking lots take up over 1/4 of all available land in many cities.

Oceans of parking lots in downtown Kansas City
Oceans of parking lots in downtown Kansas City

Cars have ruined our cities and neighborhood design, and MMM recently wrote this great article on the subject. The space consumed by three large adjacent stores and their parking lots would have been room for dozens of walkable homes, businesses, and green space in traditional neighborhood design.

The more parking we build, the more we dis-incentivize carpooling, and the larger the percentage of our tax dollars goes to maintaining these parking lot oceans. In 2014, 76% of drivers reported their primary method of traveling to work as driving, alone, in their own car. Our cities are literally going broke so that driving a five-seater car by yourself and having ample free parking can be normal.

So Close… But So Far Away

Today, in the United States, unless you live in a pedestrian focused downtown area, businesses and residences can be so spread apart that it’s difficult to walk to anything. In the past decades, things have been getting even worse.

Let me give you a few examples:

The library is less than 1200 feet away... if you feel like a swim.
The library is less than 1200 feet away… if you feel like a swim.

A friend lives less than 1200 feet away from his local library. Unless he can jump the canal or hop peoples' back yard fences, he has to travel over 3 miles to get there.

200 feet in 15 minutes
200 feet in 15 minutes

If one of my in-laws wants to visit the other side of the town 200 feet away, they need to either swim, or travel 6 miles.  If this doesn’t discourage walking, nothing does! Clearly, this town was designed for machines, not humans.

It’s not just canals or sprawling suburban housing developments that impede walking, either. Highways that split towns in half have been built to alleviate inevitable traffic, but due to induced demand they are insufficient in alleviating traffic nearly as soon as they are constructed. Basically, no matter how many lanes you add (supply), they will still fill with traffic (demand). Widening our roads only incentivizes more driving and makes this unsustainable problem worse.

I'll meet you at the theater... I'm still a half hour away
I'll meet you at the theater… I'm still a half hour away

As MMM has pointed out numerous times, while cars are good at traveling hundreds of miles across countryside, they are TERRIBLE at moving you within a city. You can see this for yourself every time you have a line of cars waiting to park in a parking lot, or lined up in front of an airport or school. You can see it as you are waiting in traffic and bicyclists ride past you with ease.

This street sure would look a lot prettier without all that metal lying everywhere
This street sure would look a lot prettier without all that metal lying everywhere

These changes over time to our cities have made us less happy. We walk and bike less. We interact with our neighbors less. We put up with traffic noise and exhaust fumes everywhere we go, and pretend it's normal. Our quality of life has slowly deteriorated away as we continue to cater to automobiles. These two-ton metal beasts aren’t even fast within the city. According to this great interactive map, if you live in the greater DC area, you average only 19 mph on your hour long commutes. Denver isn’t much better, at only 22 mph. Plug in your city and see how you do. Hope you didn’t spring for the supercharged six cylinder sport upgrade!

Cars are so… Huggable?

You get it. Cars are a big problem we need to solve, particularly here in the states. But it’s an aggregate problem, not necessarily an individual problem. Within the next year or two, I will have solved it for my family by designing a lifestyle that isn’t car-centric. You can do the same. You no longer need to give up your cash or safety for cars.

You don’t need to wait for autonomous cars to solve the problem, either (though they will be very cool). We can ALL re-design our lives in such a way that we aren’t as dependent on cars. It’s not an easy thing to do, as cars are still the default in American neighborhood design, but just because it isn’t easy doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it. That’s one of the core principles of Mustachianism! As more and more of us change our driving habits over time, our cities will begin to change.

It's still a challenge, however. The automobile industry is a bedrock of American culture. It’s part of the American ‘DNA’, so to speak. And marketing makes things even worse. Did you know it is now perfectly normal to hug your truck? Check out this recent commercial from Chevy for an example of the ridiculousness of current car marketing campaigns:

Yup. Dude hugged (and kissed!) a truck. While I laugh and see right through commercials like this, the majority of us still don’t. The ideas behind these commercials stew in the subconscious, and before you know it, you want a brand new shiny giant white Silverado special edition. You visit the dealer and wonder why you feel a slight urge to hug a truck.

Is hugging cars really that strange? We already treat them as our mechanical overlords. We give these false idols the majority of our time and money, and  design our entire lives around them. I suppose it makes sense at this point we would hug them too.

Think Different(ly)

What I want is for more of us to see cars for the nuisance they have actually become. As creatures of habit, we humans sometimes need to be broken out of a routine to see the forest for the trees. When stuck in a routine all sorts of weird things begin to seem normal. Smoking. Slavery. Stockholm syndrome. You get the idea. Anything can become normalized given enough time, to the point where you don't even think about it anymore. I want you to think about it. Our current car situation is not normal. Or sustainable.

When enough people who understand these concepts take on roles of decision making in our communities, we can create real change. Don’t for a moment think “this is just the way things are, so this is how they'll always be… it’s too hard to change everyone’s mind.” Steve Jobs clears up this misconception perfectly, in what may possibly be the best forty-five seconds on all of YouTube:

 “When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That's a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact. And that is: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it … Once you learn that, you'll never be the same again.”

Elon Musk exercised this same philosophy when people told him you can't reuse rockets- NASA would already be doing that if it were possible. Two years ago that statement was still true.

FI/RE To The Rescue!

Why am I sharing this with the financial independence community? Because we tend to be a passionate group of thinkers who have already begun “waking up” from consumerism. We have the ability to see the world around us from a different perspective than the marketed masses. Financial Independence also gives us the free time to contribute to our communities and get more involved with local government, the same way Pete has been doing lately.

I look at how much our FI community has grown over the past few years and I am filled with hope and inspiration. I think the time has come to stop glamorizing car culture and car manufacturers. We need to realize cars make us less happy and end up controlling our lives. And we can all do something about it. A relevant gem from that same Adam Ruins Everything episode:

“What really kills me about all of this is the only reason we’re stuck with this cluster fudge is because we were tricked into building roads instead of subways 100 years ago! The dominance of the car is a massive cultural mistake.”

So what can you do to help? Stop driving so damn much! This has been a central pillar of Mr Money Mustache since the beginning. Figure out how to gradually transform your lifestyle into one that doesn’t depend on cars. It’s OK if you do it in stages, and it’s OK if it takes a few years to make it happen. Cars are a triple threat: they simultaneously drain your wallet, deteriorate your health, and diminish your happiness. Walking or bike riding, on the other hand, does the exact opposite.

When you absolutely have to drive, slow down to save money on gasoline. On the highway, get into the far right lane, set the cruise control a few miles per hour under the speed limit, and let people pass you by. Try it once! My wife tested this out a few years back when she realized the low fuel light was on during a long stretch of highway with no exits for over thirty miles. When I looked at the driving statistics from her trip log, I realized this simple change in driving style saved over 30% more fuel than she used on previous trips, and had the fringe benefit of reducing stress during the drive!

Need more ideas? Here's just a few, you can probably think of more:

  • Walk and use public transportation more often
  • Buy smaller, older used cars
  • Test out your city’s bus or rail system, if you have one
  • Stop congratulating friends on their fancy new car purchases
  • Support initiatives in New Urbansim and TND
  • Stop driving for every little task or errand
  • Plan and consolidate your trips into weekly or monthly outings
  • Carpool more!
  • Become a one car household
  • Move to cities that embrace walkability
  • Move closer to where you work
  • Change the rules in your community
  • Support reducing or removing parking minimums

Finally, realize that under no circumstances are hour long car commutes essential. You have the power to design your lifestyle in a way where you rarely need a car at all! And you don’t need to move to Manhattan to do it. For those who insist that car costs are essential- how did we, as a species, ever get by before cars? We walked. We ran. We used our bodies. The cost for this is food, so our food costs are essential. But car costs? Think again.

Cars Done Right: UF Example

When I moved to Gainesville to attend the University of Florida, I didn’t have a car, and I was in good company. The demand for the university had become so great over the years that the number of students far exceeded the parking capacity of the tiny one square mile campus. Rather than build additional parking garages, however, the university did something different. They took away the ability for undergraduates to park directly on campus or in dorms. Instead, freshman trying to park their cars were offered expensive parking decals that only allowed for parking a mile or two off campus. Bus service was provided to bring students to and from campus.

Within a few years the car culture at the university changed. Very few undergrads had cars. The Alachua county bus system became one of the most exceptional bus systems I’ve ever ridden, with buses arriving literally every five minutes with continued service running well past two in the morning. The school grounds became more beautiful, with very few cars having access to the main campus. Old on-campus roads were shut down and converted to green space and pedestrian paths.

These roads are for humans now
These roads are for humans now
These roads are for humans now
These roads are for humans now

I loved my college experience in Gainesville for a number of reasons, but looking back I realize the thing I miss most is that walkable lifestyle. I would walk five miles every day across a beautiful campus with almost no road noise or car fumes. It sounds counter intuitive, but all the crazy parking restrictions and ridiculously expensive parking decals actually made the city much more friendly to pedestrians! In general, the harder we make things for cars, the happier humans become.

The correct way to handle parking: don't provide it
The correct way to handle parking: don't provide it

This is quite the opposite of what most cities do. The city I live in now is about to spend $50+ million adding a third lane to an arterial road that passes right by my house. Imagine what else we could use the $50+ million dollars for?

Moving Forward

When you take space away from cars and give it back to the people, you end up with great places to walk. This increased foot traffic turns out to have a very positive effect on businesses. Turns out shoppers are more likely to pursue your store when they walk by on a casual evening stroll then they are when they are flung by at 50 miles per hour in a steel cage. Who knew? As neighborhoods gradually become more walkable, improved public transportation and a snowball of other benefits usually follow suit.

Although I just moved into my current house less than a year ago, I already want to move again. This time I’ve got my eyes on a small neighborhood within a few hundred feet of two public schools, two public parks, and a public library. It’s only about a mile north from where I currently live, so my friends think I’m crazy to go through the hassle of a move for something so small. But to me, to be able to walk out of the house and walk to the park or library in less than five minutes is something wonderful. Throw in a grocery store within biking distance and you have everything you need to avoid driving most days of the week.

In the future, cars will be fully autonomous, and there will no longer be a use for all the parking lots that litter our cities.

What will this become when cars are all autonomous?
What will this become when cars are all autonomous?

This can become a wonderful opportunity to accelerate the transformation of our neighborhoods back to pedestrian focused communities with tons of green space and natural beauty. Communities that encourage residents to come out from behind their metal cages and actually get to know their neighbors. What a novel idea.

*Update 12/30/17: The folks over at Transporation Evolved have created an excellent cost of commuting calculator that I've embedded below. I highly recommend you check out their related article here!

Calculator Created by TransportationEvolved

Our Savings Snowball

In our last few posts, we discussed our financial 180, and our strategies for saving money on food, shopping, and monthly recurring bills. So far, we’ve shown how we uncovered $3000 per month, and used that cash flow to douse the fire on our mortgage from hell. But even with these extra principal payments, the mortgage payoff seemed to be taking forever! We wanted to have the house paid off in under two years, and to do so, we needed to free up more cash flow every month. Let's look again at our annual expense and see if we can really get our savings snowball rolling.

Our annual expenses in 2012 vs 2015

Travel

Travel was a straightforward category to cut: we just had to stop traveling so damn much! Before our financial 180, we would often travel out of state once per month or more. But these weren’t leisure trips. They were guilt trips. With no kids and good salaries, most of our friends insisted we fly out to visit them every time. Our town was smaller and less interesting anyway, or so they’d say.

And fly out we did. Our work schedules gave us every other Friday off in exchange for longer (9+ hour) work days, so nearly every other weekend was spent in an airport. We didn’t know about travel hacking at the time, so our tickets were often purchased at full price, on a whim a few days before traveling. This is not an affordable way to travel!

After a few years, we realized this type of routine travel is actually a chore. We dreaded the airport lines. We hated spending two days of a three day weekend in transit. And we hated the stress of coming home a few hours before work on Monday, with no time to cook, clean, or even take care of ourselves. I was spread too thin, and paying hard earned money for that stress.

Reducing our travel was a relief. We knew we needed more time for cooking and household maintenance, so cutting back was a win-win. If people really want to see us, they can come visit. We have a guest room waiting. Cutting back on travel saved us over $10K per year. It also greatly reduced our stress levels, and gave us time to practice cooking!

Note that we didn't eliminate travel completely: we still budget for and enjoy slower, more relaxed travel. Instead, we cut the weekend obligatory trips to see out of state friends and extended family that never returned the favor.

Automotive

The biggest improvements we made in the automotive department were paying off our car loan in full, and becoming a one car household. This cut our gasoline expenses, and removed redundant registration, insurance, and interest costs. But this was only the beginning. Motivated to pay down our mortgage quickly, we decided to reduce our driving in general.

Instead of taking weekly 100 mile round trips to Orlando to visit Swedish furniture stores, we stayed local and looked to Craigslist and thrift shops for our furniture needs. Instead of driving to the next county to eat at the popular 4 star restaurants, we discovered a few hidden gems right in our own neighborhood. When possible, we began biking to nearby shopping centers for errands. We also started walking to the parks and library in our neighborhood, instead of driving, and the savings really began to snowball.

Once the savings snowball picks up momentum, it's hard to stop!
Once the savings snowball picks up momentum, it's hard to stop!

Gifts

Gifts are one of those areas where you need to tread carefully and make changes slowly. Every family and friend network is unique. Our strategy was to gradually go from being that couple that gave pricey, fancy birthday and holiday gifts, to being the couple that gives thoughtful homemade gifts or meals. For many people, delicious fresh baked cookies and a thoughtful card are probably preferable to yet another plastic gizmo or kitchen gadget, but know your recipients.

For the most part this strategy worked well for us, but again, this is a delicate subject for many people so move slowly. We still enjoy taking family out to dinner to celebrate special occasions. The trick is ensuring the frequency is once or twice per year, not once or twice per month! At our worst, every weekend had become a celebration for someone or something, and we were buying someone a drink or a meal on a weekly basis. This had to be phased out, and over time, we were able to reduce the amount we spent on this category by two-thirds!

Miscellaneous

Ah, the miscellaneous category. The area of Personal Capital where everything is conveniently swept under the rug! We knew if we were going to get serious paying off our mortgage, we needed to tidy up all areas of the budget, and the ‘misc' area was ripe with opportunity.

Entertainment made up a large portion of our miscellaneous spending, so we got out the red marker and started circling unnecessary luxury items on our monthly statements. What did we find? Weekly trips to the movie theater (complete with over priced theater refreshments), an XM radio subscription, and expensive season tickets to Broadway style shows.

These costs add up, so we cut them and replaced them with free or cheap alternatives. Redbox movies are only $1 a day, and pair well with home cooking for date night. Pandora and Slacker radio work well in place of XM. And instead of buying season tickets to shows in the big city 50+ miles away, we started buying tickets to local playhouses once or twice a year instead of once or twice a month. This has the added benefit of making these events feel more special!

Convenience and luxury was another problem area for us. We found tons of ATM fees, huge monthly dry cleaning bills, monthly spa packages and massages, fancy and unnecessarily expensive tax prep software, and additional credit cards with annual fees. While super expensive, items like these are easy to fix if you just tackle them one at a time. We stopped going to ATMs that charged fees. I changed my work wardrobe to one that didn't require dry cleaning. We did some research and learned to give each other better massages at home for free!

Hard Work Pays (The Mortgage)

These things really add up. Within a few months, our savings snowball had increased past $5000 per month, and kept growing. We used that cash fire hose and paid off our mortgage in under two years!

Hard work pays off!
Hard work pays off!

Once the mortgage was paid off, there were no required monthly principal and interest payments, and the snowball grew even faster. We were also able to lower our homeowners insurance coverage and increase the deductible higher than what the terms of our original mortgage would allow. This saved us even more. By 2015, our savings rate had surpassed 80%.

But what is the significance of savings rate anyway? And how did we use this savings snowball to accelerate towards financial independence? All this and more… on the next Financial 180.