As much as I talk a big talk about money and pretend I’ve got it all figured out (and if I could just get a damn 50% raise already I’d be good to go!), that’s not actually the case. Some days I’m internally screaming because while I’ve maybe started figuring out my shit, I feel like I’m sitting at the bottom of Mount Everest and financial independence is aaaallllllllll the way at the top. Y’all, I haven’t even done the math on how long it’s actually going to take to reach FI/climb the damn mountain because I’m afraid to.
You know what else? I tend to get hit hard by altitude sickness. It’s gonna be a long, hard slog to the top.
Tortured metaphors aside, you spend enough time on PF blogs and you’re bound to come across some amazing and impressive stories about how people are working their way towards FIRE. Take, for example, this post. I’ll give you a second to go read it.
Okay, you’re back. Inspiring, right? Like that makes me immediately want to go put every single spare bit of cash I have in my Roth IRA and taxable account (emergency funds be damned!). I’ve been fired (heh) up so many times by so many motivating posts and stories. Mr. Money Mustache in particular was a crucial help and the right kind of kick in the seat (or face punch) for getting started, even if I knew there was no way I was going to become that hardcore about frugality. But every time reality eventually reasserts itself: that’s really awesome, but that’s not going to work for me at the moment.
A lot of times the advice seems to be missing a crucial first step. Do you start laughing maybe a bit hysterically whenever you see the advice to max out your 401(k) and also your Roth IRA? Yeah, I’m right there with you, friend. I know that’s what I should be doing, but I literally cannot afford to do that.
Back to that fast-tracking early retirement post and the goal of saving $50 a day and working up from there. You know what I don’t have? Fifty extra dollars a day. To be fair, he does give the advice to just start somewhere and increase the amount from there, but I’m stuck on that $50 so the whole article seems a bit overly ambitious from where I’m sitting.
But that doesn’t mean I’m doomed to 40 more years of being chained to a desk for 8+ hours a day, or that I should just go ahead and give up because there’s no fucking way I can save that much money. There are baby steps I can and have taken to get started, and honestly getting those in place is going to set me up nicely for when I can afford to max out my 401(k). For example, if I’m consciously thinking about every purchase I make instead of spending mindlessly, that’s going to be a good habit to combat creeping lifestyle inflation with future raises.
It says it right there in the name: personal finance is deeply personal. What works for me might not work for you. I might be further along in my FI journey than you or I might be laughably behind, and that’s okay (in the latter case that won’t stop me from occasionally being a living embodiment of the “this is fine” meme, but really, it’s okay)!
At least for me, it’s easy to fall prey to the shoulds and to feel that if I’m not kicking ass on at least 15, but preferably 20, money fronts, I’m not doing so well. That’s ridiculous and doesn’t take into account my current situation in life and where I am at this moment. Kicking ass on even two things I can reasonably do right now is not a failure! I try to write with that in mind but I’m sure I’m plenty guilty (and will continue to be in the future) of giving prescriptive advice that sounds like a should. Feel free to ignore me if what I say isn’t right for you!
So, with that said, here are some of the things that have helped me to get started on the FI journey.
After I graduated and started working, I never stopped to keep track of what I was spending money on. I knew I didn’t have a lot to go around, but for some reason that didn’t prompt me to keep track of things until I actually started feeling like I was living paycheck to paycheck. It doesn’t matter how you track your spending: Excel sheet, pen and paper (currently I’m using my planner for daily tracking), or budgeting app. I’m a fan of using Personal Capital for the comprehensive overview (and no, they’re not paying me to say that). Once you actually know what’s happening, you can figure out where to go from there.
My problems? Mindless spending in general but especially on clothes (which is kinda weird because I wouldn’t say I care that much), and way too many happy hours out (although getting old will start taking care of the latter for you eventually. I am definitely, absolutely, totally not speaking from personal experience here, ahem). I’ve cut down on the mindless spending by being mindful of every extraneous purchase I make, and working hard at resisting the urge to put things in my online cart and clicking “buy” immediately instead of waiting even a day or two.
As for clothing, I got to a point where I was sick of paying that credit card bill. I had/have plenty of clothes, have donated some in the last few months, and could stand to donate more. I’ve cut way back, pretty much to the point of stopping because I haven’t wanted to destroy my zero balance (also, note to self and since the Bitches say it better than I could, fast fashion is fucking up our planet so chill the fuck out already, Erin).
For going out, it helps that both a) I’ve started noticing that drinking a lot does horrendous things to my sleep and usually doesn’t feel worth it the next morning, especially if I was out on a weeknight, and b) many of my friends have left DC so it’s a lot harder to grab drinks or dinner on a whim. I think I spent about $300 in the six weeks right before two of my friends left town last summer for grad school. I didn’t think about it then (especially because I wasn’t really tracking my spending), but that number makes me queasy now.
I’ve shifted to a mindset of starting the month assuming I’m spending zero on bars and restaurants and then approaching things on a case-by-case basis. Do I really want that fall-appropriate hazelnut coffee or to grab brunch with a friend? Sometimes the answer is yes, and that’s totally fine! (Case in point: the #DCMoneyNerds get-together last weekend. Mmmm, copious amounts of all-you-can-eat sushi!)
Once you’ve got your spending tracked, you have a baseline from which to start trimming your expenses if that’s a thing you want to do. Breaking things down by category also gives you a good idea of where you may be spending more than you want to (say, on clothes and going out…). I’m also a fan of gamifying not spending, for example with the Zero Day Challenge. It’s been a pretty common occurrence to ask myself if there’s food I can eat at home instead of running by the grocery store to pick up something and ruining what would otherwise be a zero day.
I’m reasonably sure I would’ve started saving for retirement on my own, but thank goodness my parents pushed me to once I got my first job so I didn’t have to find out either way. I’ve worked at two non-profits with fairly low salaries so even at a pretty aggressive percentage of my paycheck, there’s not a lot going into the account, but I’ve been lucky enough that those low salaries have been slightly (slightly) offset by a fantastic employer match. If you’ve got a job, you should be saving for retirement. If your employer offers a match, you should absolutely contribute enough of your paycheck to get that match. Free money! Don’t turn that down! (Do not feel free to ignore me on this one!)
Just start somewhere
I can’t throw $50 a day at my taxable Vanguard account (no, Vanguard isn’t paying me to say this either), but I can and do throw at least $5 at it each day (and $30 each Friday on payday because that’s a random number I just pulled out of the air one week and now it’s the thing I do). Actually I throw this money at my account once a week because my mother is the joint holder on my checking account, which was created before I was 18, and she gets emails (why?) every time money comes out of the account. So because I can’t find a way to unsubscribe her from emails on my end of things, I took pity on her and made it a once a week transaction/email instead. Same theory, slightly different in practice.
Figuring out how to invest is a big, scary question, and one that took me a while to answer for myself. Personally, I’m a fan of low-fee index funds. If you don’t know how to get started with investing, I’d recommend reading JL Collins’ stock series or his book, and go from there.
I’m a huge believer in investing, but the importance of having a robust emergency fund cannot be overstated. Start there if you need to. Throw $5 a day or $20 a week, or even $20 a month if that’s what you can do, into your emergency fund.
I’m also a fan of savings apps, some of which do the saving for you (I’m not advocating having them replace a scheduled monthly or weekly transfer to your savings account, but I am frequently impressed by the amount the apps pull out of my checking account that I barely notice). I’m planning on writing two more reviews for apps I use, one of which is an easy way to start investing, so keep an eye out for those.
Now that you’ve got all these steps for getting started and we’re all totally badasses with money, let’s go forth and max out our 401(k)s! Just kidding, here’s to small steps on the climb up that FI mountain.