Apr 24, 2017

Finances & Retirement

I remember bragging at 24 I was retiring: "Goodbye Corporate America! I'm off to see the world as a perpetual backpacker!" (Four years later, I'm recounting this as an accountant back in suburban Michigan.) At that time, I was leaving to be a teacher in Japan, so the sentiment wasn't that I was going to stop working, but that I was going to stop doing unfulfilling work. Did I fulfill that goal?

So far, yes — though I'm working in an office again, I like my job: I have a great boss and a sustainable work environment that have made a great difference in my quality of life. It's where I need to be now, but not for the next three decades. It would be a dream to make writing my focus and career without the panic-inducing terror of becoming a starving artist. I've been thinking, how can I accomplish this?

Minty Fresh Finances

For years, I've been using Mint to track my finances. The web-based application is made by the same team that created Quickbooks and Turbotax. Mint is like a window that allows you to view (without manipulating) all your accounts and investments in one place. I primarily use the program for tracking short-term savings goals and monthly budgets.

As you close in on a budget, the tracking bar changes
 from green to yellow, and ultimately red if you go over.
My expenses are fairly basic: rent, food, gifts, car insurance, gas, internet, cell phone, chiropractor, utilities, short trips, and miscellany. The perfectionist in me never wants a "red" mark, so when a budget creeps too close to the limit, I readjust the budget higher. That way, every month is green! Certainly looks prettier, but it means I'm spending more than I intend to.

In the past, I've saved for specific goals (i.e. graduate university debt-free, travel around-the-world) that kept my spending tight and controlled. Without one, I feel lax about how much I spend, especially when it comes to indulgences like eating out.

Retiring Early = Possible?

I recently read an article by a World Domination Summit speaker about retiring in your 30s. Like, actual retiring. It got me thinking about financial freedom in a refreshing way:

  • It's time to trim the fat
I already adhere to the golden rule: spend less than you earn. I also avoid all debt like the plague. But I wouldn't get very far if I was constantly spending 90% of my earnings. I want to further reduce expenses and save all that I can.

I spent a full morning calculating my income and spending projections to discover a solid, real retirement amount to shoot for. Now with a specific goal in mind, I marched myself right into my Mint account and set my budgets back to 67% of my earnings.

I cringed as many of my budgets turned red, but that just means I'll have to give them extra focus next month. Saving 33% of my income is the best I can do for now, and will no doubt be challenging. For example, to keep my food budget from going over, I've got a lot more meal planning and cooking to do!

  • Investing in stock index funds
Here is where my fear and paranoia speak out: while I've been investing in mutual funds for several years, the recent direction of this country (and the world) scares me, so I'm reluctant to put more money into the market. I'm going to do more research into investing in stock index funds and then raking in dividends before I take action, because I can't shake the feeling the whole shabang is going to come tumbling down.

  • Focusing on what brings true happiness
I don't need that much money to be content. It comes down to how you use your time and resources. Enough of my laments that I don't have enough time! Too many frivolous hours have been sucked away by Facebook, YouTube, and mind-numbing drives to and from work while listening to crap on the radio. So I'm suspending my Facebook account indefinitely (third time's the charm), limiting my video surfing time, and downloading engaging Podcasts to listen to in the car.

The first wail of protest I hear is: "How will you keep in touch with anyone without Facebook?" I'm going old school with an address book, a stack of parchment paper, and a calligraphy pen. Writing letters is something that brings me a lot of happiness and feels more intimate. Besides, there's always LINE and texting for instant messages.

As for resources, there's a fantastic library in my city — it's about time I use it to dig into all those books I want to read. With high-speed internet at home, I can continue to Skype friends from around the world, too. Books and friends = real joy.

Let's see how this experiment goes, and how much of a difference it makes by year's end.

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