The Truth About Financial Independence

Even before the FI/RE movement, the term “financial independence” had been thrown around in the financial planning profession for years. It’s a phrase that’s appealing in many ways, both as a promise of escape from the doldrums of work and an appeal to the independent nature of the American spirit. It engenders some sort of hybrid of Tim Ferriss and the Marlboro Man.

However, “financial independence” has no specific meaning. Independence from whom or what? You could argue that a hermit living off the grid in the wilderness is financially independent, but perhaps that’s not an appealing lifestyle unless you really love writing manifestos.

Generally, you achieve financial independence when you have enough income to cover your expenses for the rest of your life without the need for employment or assistance from others. This, of course, sounds like a wonderful aspiration if you’ve ever stayed in a miserable job because you needed the income.

I’d argue that many people’s idea of financial independence is actually more akin to financial escapism. In fact, what’s usually the first order of business once you’ve saved enough?

Pull A Johnny Paycheck

Does true financial independence culminate in telling your boss to take this job and shove it? For many, time independence may have more meaning than the ability to purchase material things. After all, the forty-hour workweek isn’t for everyone.

For others, it could simply be the desire to be able to walk away from a job should things take a turn for the worst. For example, let’s say your supervisor is replaced with a micro-manager. A huge component of being content in life is making progress toward meaningful goals; a toxic work environment can subvert this quite quickly.

Whether it’s the desire for time independence or the ability to escape a bad work situation, this defines financial independence by fixating on what we want to run away from. It assumes an inverse corollary.

So, what do you do once you’ve escaped your untenable work environment?

Buy A Vineyard

Do you remember those commercials from a few years ago that painted a picture of retirees happily retiring to own and manage a vineyard? Somewhere, a marketing agency must have pitched this concept and knocked it out of the park with consumer focus groups.

Of course, buying and running a vineyard in retirement is insane for anyone who isn’t Bezos-level rich. In fact, Schwab put out an ad mocking the idea, essentially calling out Brighthouse for jumping the shark. Have you noticed any retirement vineyard dreams portrayed in commercials lately? Of course not, because after wildfires ravaged swathes of California wine country last year, people suddenly realized that owning a vineyard comes with a tremendous amount of risk.

Over the years, it’s been interesting to watch these commercials and see their neatly packaged idea of #retiredlife evolve. Here are some common tropes:

  • Vacationing with the kids and grandkids. No one is arguing or complaining!
  • Walking on beaches. The ultimate retirement cliché.
  • Drinking wine. If you’re retired, 10:00 a.m. is the new happy hour.
  • Riding bicycles. Working people don’t have time for this.
  • Golfing. All golfers are rich, right?
  • Fly fishing. Definitely not bass fishing.
  • Spending time with grandchildren who interact with you. They’re never glued to their smartphones.

If you lived like this every day, people might mistake you for an alcoholic senior tour golf pro.

Our Johnny Paycheck financial escapism naturally results in an idealized fantasy of retirement.

The Truth About Financial Independence

While it’s important to savor the highlight reel moments promised to us in retirement commercials, all our problems will not be solved by achieving financial independence. Life will always give us challenging moments.

We’ll have to endure bear markets, replace the roof, and pay for unexpected medical expenses. We’ll still have to work on our health and fitness. We’ll still have to put effort into our relationships.

While stress related to your finances will generally be lower once you’ve reached financial independence, diligence is still required to manage the assets that produce your income. Some people can do this themselves. Many others hire someone like me to help them.

Outside of the high and low moments, most of your time will be spent in the realm of everyday life. You’ll still need to go pick up the rotisserie chicken, do the laundry, and take out the trash. In fact, many people struggle with free time after they’ve stepped away from their careers.

How will you spend your time between those made-for-TV moments?

Meaningful Pursuits

Of the many retirees I’ve helped over the years, those that focused on meaningful pursuits tended to be healthier and more content.

When I say, “meaningful pursuits”, I’m not necessarily talking about saving the whales or curing cancer, although solving the world’s problems is certainly fair game. Instead, I’m talking about activities that my clients have found inherently rewarding and challenging. There is an element of working toward mastery involved that continues to challenge them.

To be more specific, here are a few engaging activities that have challenged and rewarded clients I’ve worked with:

  • Volunteering at church,
  • Gardening,
  • Learning the piano,
  • Getting involved in animal rescue,
  • Woodworking,
  • Volunteering for Meals on Wheels,
  • Writing a book, and
  • Mentoring young professionals.

Ideally, a meaningful pursuit both engages the mind and makes the world a better place in some way. Those activities where skill is developed over time are even better for staying engaged and increasing contentment. The feeling that we are improving in some facet positively drives our life satisfaction.

An Open-Ended Question

You don’t need a lot of money to be content and focus on meaningful pursuits. It’s you who ultimately decides what is enough. If you can delay gratification, then you can reverse engineer financial independence more easily than you imagine. This is the allure of the FI/RE movement. All that is required is that you decide.

Remember, the Latin root of the word “decide” means “to cut away”.

Consumerism will trap us in gilded cages if we allow it. In the end, everyone who has achieved real financial independence on their own has made an intentional decision about how they want to live in relation to their finances.

Those that do not make a choice will have that decision made for them later in retirement.

No matter where you draw that financial line of demarcation, we must all tend to our assets just as we would tend to a garden. In truth, financial independence isn’t a life of permanent vacation. Someone still has to run the dishwasher.

Rather than promising the end to all our troubles, financial independence gives us the flexibility to follow our curiosity, focus on interesting challenges, and create more meaning for our lives. We’re free to advance our own agendas.

Even if that’s as simple as getting a glass of wine at the 19th hole.

If you’d like help talking about what true financial independence means for you, then click here to set up a quick, complimentary introduction call to see if Prana Wealth is a good fit. We do still have the capacity to take on new clients.

As a fee-only financial advisor in Atlanta, we can (and do) work virtually with clients all across the U.S. and we’re here to help you when you’re ready.

The information contained herein is intended to be used for educational purposes only and is not exhaustive. Diversification and/or any strategy that may be discussed does not guarantee against investment losses but are intended to help manage risk and return. If applicable, historical discussions and/or opinions are not predictive of future events. The content is presented in good faith and has been drawn from sources believed to be reliable. The content is not intended to be legal, tax or financial advice. Please consult a legal, tax or financial professional for information specific to your individual situation.
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