When the FIRE movement (“Financial Independence, Retire Early”) gained critical mass in the US in the Noughties, it was founded on three principles: spend less, save more and invest in low-cost index trackers.
These axioms can certainly help you achieve financial independence, meaning that your income from investments is sufficient to live on, earning you the freedom to give up paid work earlier than most. But chatting to those who’ve done it and reflecting on how I got there myself, I think there are other steps you can take that will liberate you a lot sooner from the need to serve ‘The Man’…
Excel at Excel
Academics have shown that start-ups which create business plans are more likely to prosper than those that don’t. I reckon the same applies to life projects such as FIRE. The act of producing a document creates a set of commitments, and benchmarks against which performance can be judged.
I think two pages are needed: a profit and loss projection looking at income and outgoings — both today and going forward — and a balance one, listing your assets and liabilities today and projecting them into the future.
Producing such spreadsheets forces you to confront difficult questions such as: what you earn, and expect to be paid in the future; your spending; any debts; your asset allocation strategy and your expected returns on them.
It’s surprising how often obvious solutions get overlooked. If you’re intent on building up investment assets that will one day support you, your income must exceed your outgoings. If that’s the case then boosting income by, say, 10% will enhance your savings by more than cutting outgoings by the same percentage.
As the UK labour market tightens, many people who’ve been in their jobs for a while are earning less than they might if they moved. While there are risks attached to switching employer, presenting a compelling case to your current boss for a raise might yield results. Likewise, investing in your human capital by acquiring new skills and qualifications may generate a sizeable payoff in terms of future earnings.
The same principle applies to the returns generated by your investments. As I demonstrated recently, there are funds that have historically outshone the safe option of putting everything into a low-cost tracker ETF. So review your investments periodically, to ensure you’re getting the best performance.
You’ve probably guessed that I’m not an uncritical admirer of the early financial independence bloggers’ emphasis on frugalism: money invested in your skills, or paying the best active fund managers, is seldom wasted. Nor, in my view, is it reckless to pay for the things that make work bearable and hence safeguard that income stream for as long as you need it, such as moving home to reduce a commute or eating healthily to ensure you maintain stamina.
Some returns on outgoings are non-financial. Every year you spend in early retirement, not earning wages, carries the opportunity cost of the money you would have been paid had you worked. It’s all wasted, if you don’t use that hard-won time meaningfully.
Same goes for your leisure hours while you’re employed: no amount of money will bring back time. If there are things you want to do with your precious days on this planet that incur costs, such as travelling or pursuing hobbies, by all means find ingenious ways of doing them more cost-effectively. But always remember that the opportunity cost of not doing those things is immeasurable.
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