From a young age, most individuals are instructed to get an education and then a job. After landing a solid job, the recommendation is to save a small percentage of each paycheck for 40+ years until retirement.
The underlying assumption is that we should all follow the same linear path from elementary school until death, spending the majority of each day at work, trying to climb the ladder, to get a raise, to buy a bigger house, to fill it with more stuff that wasn’t necessary to begin with. Only after retiring is there room to explore, relax, or spend time with family.
You might call it the time-money paradox. Most Americans trade the majority of their available time for a paycheck, and then spend the majority of each paycheck on depreciating material possessions. As the spending snowballs, many individuals desire a larger paycheck, which requires longer hours and more responsibilities at work, which means even less time to enjoy the additional income. It’s a vicious cycle that often continues in perpetuity.
I can’t speak for you or anyone else, but the standard American lifestyle doesn’t work for me. Instead of material possessions, I prefer to have freedom. Freedom to change careers, start a business, take some time off, or travel the world. It’s not about what I choose to do, it’s about having the freedom to choose.
What is Financial Freedom?
Being free, financially, means you can maintain your desired lifestyle without a regular paycheck. In other words, financial freedom is the 21st-century definition of retirement.
Instead of defining financial freedom as a single point in time, I like to break the concept down into four stages.
Stage 1) No Freedom
Everyone begins the journey by relying on a monthly paycheck. At this stage, a job and reliable income stream is required to pay the bills. Without the ongoing paycheck, any savings could be quickly depleted and you could risk defaulting on your monthly expenses.
Stage 2) Temporary Freedom
To graduate into the temporary stage of financial freedom, you must spend less than your earn and create a pool of savings. Otherwise, you will be forced to continue working indefinitely because your lifestyle depends on your employment income. As you begin to save a portion of your income, you might invest your savings in a diversified investment portfolio to produce a regular stream of income. Or, you might start a passion business on the side, creating another stream of income.
Your freedom grows alongside your savings. Eventually, you will have enough money saved to feel comfortable switching jobs, starting a business, returning to school, traveling for a year, or any number of other activities that are impossible to achieve while working full-time. These can be major life changes, but they are not permanent. Your freedom is temporary until your income exceeds all of your expenses.
Stage 3) Permanent Freedom
At this stage, your total non-employment income exceeds your total expenses and you no longer require a steady paycheck from your employer. You likely have a reliable side business and/or a large investment portfolio producing a substantial amount of income.
Yes, a side business is still labor income. You are trading your time for money. However, my assumption is that your side hustle represents your passion. It’s something that you enjoy doing. Something that you find fulfilling or meaningful.
Fulfillment is the entire point of this article. Financial freedom does not require that you retire early to a life of leisure (unless that is your desire). It’s about having autonomy and independence in your daily routine, allowing you to design a better life while spending your time, money, and energy in a more meaningful way. If that includes starting a new business, great! Doing meaningful work while getting paid is my definition of a win-win.
Stage 4) Luxurious Freedom
This last stage is a concept that is rarely discussed or achieved. While I define permanent freedom as the point at which your income exceeds your expenses, such a definition is shallow and full of important assumptions. For example, if you know that you require $1,500/month to live a barebones lifestyle, and you can safely withdraw between $1,500-$1,600/month from your investment portfolio, you have technically achieved financial freedom. But have you?
What if a budget of $2,000/month would provide a significant increase in satisfaction? Perhaps the additional $500/month could be used for hobbies, entertainment, and travel. All of which make you far happier in your life. But $2000/month in expenses is more than your portfolio can support, which means you’re headed in the wrong direction (back to temporary freedom).
The tradeoff in this scenario is clear. You can continue working additional years to build a bigger pool of savings, which will provide additional income and flexibility for the remainder of your life. Or, you can leave your job as soon as possible and hope that a smaller portfolio will provide sufficient income. It’s all about finding the right balance given your personal situation.
When you have enough passive income to spend freely, that is what I call luxurious freedom. It’s the point at which your income exceeds your expenses by a comfortable margin, allowing you to increase or decrease your spending given your desired lifestyle. You might call it financial freedom 2.0.
Do You Desire Financial Freedom?
Ask yourself these questions (and ask your spouse if you have one):
Are you happy with your existing lifestyle?
Have you found a meaningful work-life balance?
Do you enjoy your job and find purpose in the daily routine?
These can be difficult questions to answer, but they provide a great deal of information about your desire for financial freedom. In my experience, responses can be divided into three categories.
1) Work is meaningful
Some individuals find purpose in their career and have no desire to stop working. That’s perfectly fine and respectable. You can continue working and be financially free – the two are not mutually exclusive.
Even if you have no desire to stop working, I still believe that financial freedom is beneficial. At the very least, saving enough to reach “temporary freedom” can provide peace of mind. There is always a possibility that your job could be eliminated, or your life circumstances change, or any number of concerns that might be partially remedied by financial freedom.
2) Work is meh, but necessary
Another group of individuals is somewhat indifferent about work. If you fall into this group, you probably don’t love work, and it’s not your burning passion, but it’s tolerable and it pays the bills. There are good days and bad days, but the overall trend might be described as neutral and necessary.
In this situation, your preferred level of financial freedom should be inversely related to your overall disdain for work. You should work harder to increase your savings rate and reach financial freedom if you find yourself increasingly unhappy at work, because financial freedom will allow you to change careers or quit the rat race altogether.
3) Work is boring, terrible, and soul crushing
If you find yourself in this group, financial freedom should be your highest priority. If you truly hate your job, you should be willing to make sacrifices to escape. That might include cutting unnecessary expenses, working a side-job, building your human capital, or moving somewhere with a much lower cost of living. You should be saving as much money as possible, so that you can change careers as quickly as possible.
By focusing on financial freedom, your perspective can be transformed. You can go from sludging through 40 years of dreaded employment, to designing the life that you desire. And you can find freedom quickly if you’ll devote your money, time, and energy toward that goal.
The point is this, time (not money) is your most valuable asset. If your time at work makes you miserable, save enough money to quit and go find a new job. Life is too short to be miserable on a daily basis.
Are you Pursuing Financial Freedom?
Given the various stages of financial freedom, and the differing opinions on work, I would love to know where you fall in the spectrum.
Is financial freedom a pressing desire? Or, would you rather continue working and spending your paycheck freely?
For Vanessa and I, financial freedom is our primary long-term financial goal. We appreciate the flexibility and freedom that accompanies a large pool of savings, and we would rather forego consumption than live dependent on a monthly paycheck. Although we haven’t yet achieved permanent (or luxurious) financial freedom, we are in a great position. We are completely debt-free, and have accumulated enough assets to purchase a prolonged period of freedom. And at this point, that’s all that we desire.
The media often portrays financial freedom as an insurmountable task that requires decades of saving and investing. That’s sometimes true, but it’s beneficial to focus on each victory along the way. For example, most people could pay off all non-mortgage debt, and accumulate enough savings to find a new career that is enjoyable. Those are huge accomplishments on the journey to financial freedom that should be celebrated.