When I was a kid, all of the joy I got out of life came from simple things. Two of those things were a pencil and a piece of paper. I loved to sketch – I would sit on the couch in my living room with a TV tray and recreate the room. I’d often create concept art for video games – sometimes for games I played, other times for games I dreamed of creating. I’d spend hours creating comics with my own heroes and villains.
My childhood was not fraught with the newest gadgets. But don’t get me wrong: I had, and loved toys. It’s just that my parents earned modest livings. Some things I got – stuffed animals, action figures from yard sales, cheap matchbox cars every now and then. As for getting the expensive things – they taught me that I needed to save. I earned a weekly allowance by doing household chores – vacuuming, polishing furniture, and sweeping the stairs. It was only a few dollars per week, but I eventually saved up enough money to buy my biggest purchase in my life: a Super Nintendo.
What kept me going was my powerful vision of owning a video game console. When I closed me eyes and imagined it, I could feel it. Nothing was going to stop me. Sure, I wanted it now, but “now” wasn’t an option. Working was. Dreaming was. So I worked and I dreamed, continuing to create imaginary video game levels with a pencil and paper.
As kids, we find creative ways to keep ourselves entertained. We don’t always get exactly what we want, and we certainly don’t get it when we want it. We have to wait. We have to work. We have to have patience. And even then, sometimes our patience doesn’t pay off. But we move on.
Then we become adults.
We place value on the stuff we own. The difference is that stuff as kids meant fun. Stuff as adults means status. Think of it: the brand new, shiny black Mercedes. The five thousand dollar engagement ring. The brand-name suit or dress. Is it realistic to afford these things? For the average person, no. So companies offer payment plans, and accept credit cards. And we cough up the money any way we can, because we’re convinced that owning stuff is what defines success.
We all know the truth: people don’t die regretting never having gotten to own a luxury sports car. They don’t spend their final moments wishing that had bought a bigger house. People look back at their life and wish they had spent more quality time with loved ones. They wish they had spent less time caring about how other people saw them, and more time pursuing their creative passions. No one dies wishing they had owned more stuff.
It took me years to understand this. Throughout my twenties, I thought being successful meant being someone else’s brand of success. So I wasted money on expensive bar tabs, restaurants, clothes, and household items that became nothing more than clutter. None of it led to happiness…..it just led to tons of credit card debt. Until one day, I had enough. I cut up my credit cards, and threw them in a shredder. And that worked, for a while. Until I got new credit cards in the mail. I threw them in a drawer, “just in case.” It wasn’t long before I was back at bars and restaurants swiping the cards again. Not the “just in case” I planned for.
The reason I failed was because I hadn’t solved the problem. My problem was the entire way I was thinking about money and success. First, I held the semi-unconscious notion that superficial experiences at bars and buying things would pay for themselves (although I had zero notion as to when.) The second was that because I had graduated from business school I was now entitled to financial independence that I had not earned. The truth eventually hit me: those that have achieved financial independence don’t buy things and let them “pay for themselves,” they buy things, and they pay for them with money they already have.
This new mindset has allowed me to draw a clear line between what’s necessary, and what isn’t. And it doesn’t mean I have to sacrifice my lifestyle. I count myself fortunate to live in one of the most wasteful societies in the world. You’d be shocked at the things people literally just throw away: cherry cabinets, flat screen televisions, washing machines, wooden end tables, books, and more. All of which can either be used, or converted to cash, which can they be spent on something useful. The reason more people don’t take advantage of other people’s wastefulness? Two reasons: first, they aren’t trained to look. Second, they can’t swallow their pride. There is a shame that goes with being middle class and not spending money. It’s almost expected. The trick to getting around this is to remember this: your money, your choice. No one pockets money to make it sit there and collect dust. We do it to achieve financial independence.
We can’t be financially independent if we pay companies interest on overpriced stuff that loses half its value in the first year we buy it. We can’t be financially independent if we spend money because of others’ perceptions of us. These things are the opposite of financial independence. I’d even just call them “financial dependence.”
Financial independence begins with a mindset, and ends as accumulated wealth. You can begin enjoying financial independence today. How? Think about your budget. What can you give up now – something that is taking your money? The cable bill? The brand name cereal? Even if it’s only an extra dollar you keep in your pocket, that extra dollar is yours. With the mindset of financial independence – keeping more of your money, and spending less – that extra dollar will become lots of extra dollars.
If you’re scared, my advice is this: stop tying your identity and sense of self worth to the stuff you own. It’s a never ending game with rules that are constantly changing. At the end of the game, somebody else is rich, and you’re still working at age 70.
Being financially independent means not depending on what your financial status means to others. Again: your money, your choice. You earn it, don’t you deserve to decide what you’re spending it on?
A final note: you can’t undo yesterday’s bad spending habits. You (likely) can’t just erase all of your debt and have a million dollars in your bank account. But it doesn’t matter, because that’s not what financial independence is. To be financially independent, you just have to accept an obvious, but easy to overlook truth: money can’t buy happiness. You already know this. Now it’s time to live it.
Forgive yourself for your past mistakes, and fight to keep the money you bust your ass to earn. Enjoy the simple things in life – the ones that don’t require money (there are plenty!) Welcome to your first day of financial independence.
Do you agree? I’d love to hear your thoughts – comment below!
About the Author
Scot Whiskeyman is Founder and Partner of Providers & Families Wealth Management, LLC., and is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNERTM . His primary focus is on retirement planning for established professionals and estate planning for seniors. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.