Do you have to be wealthy to be financially independent?

Going for home

Going for home

I’m such a bag lady. Not literally…but I suffer acutely from Bag Lady Syndrome. You can tell me till you’re blue in the face that I have plenty to get by, but I won’t believe it until the bills are paid and no one has carted me off to the poor farm.

Matter of fact, this morning after I’d run another Excel spreadsheet that showed, contrary to the present optimistic theory, an average shortfall in 2010′s enforced “retirement” of $740 a month, my financial adviser was on the phone, cooing in soothing tones, “You’ll be f-i-i-n-e.” Even though I don’t have anything like a million bucks in the bank, he says, there’s more than enough to supplement Social Security and cover all my expenses for about 50 years, at a 4 percent drawdown.

The other day Frugal Scholar, the professor with the penchant for thrift-store shopping, reported a delightful revelation: truth to tell, she and Mr. FS could rent their paid-for house and retire to Costa Rica. Today. Gone fishin’. Once and for all… If they so chose.

Ah hah! Financial independence: freedom to do as you please, absent the chains of debt.

Many of us, I think, assume that to enter that blessed state we need to have stashed enough in savings to make us wealthy by most anyone’s definition: a million bucks or more. But I beg to differ. With a reasonable standard of living and a paid-for roof over your head, you don’t have to be a millionaire to achieve financial independence and maintain a middle-class lifestyle. A much more modest stash can support you, given the right conditions.

The Scholars appear to be situated firmly in the financial middle class. With the exception of university presidents, certain deans, and the occasional patent-holding bioengineer, academics don’t earn much. At least, not in the larger scheme of things—compared, say, to the owner of a carpet-cleaning service, to a doctor or a lawyer, to a basketball player, or to a twenty-something kid on Wall Street. It’s unlikely that even between the two of them they’ve stashed a million bucks in their 403(b) plans. Yet they are financially independent. They could, if they wished, retire today with little or no change of lifestyle (other than moving to a tropical paradise…).

The first key to financial independence is to get out of debtAll debt, including the mortgage. You’ll notice that the Scholars had the initiative and self-discipline to pay off their house. In my own case, I’m especially grateful that I managed to do that a few years ago. Because I don’t have to come up with hundreds of dollars every month to keep a roof over my head, now that I’ve been laid off…hallelujah! I don’t have to get another day job!

And the other key? Come to terms psychologically with living within your means. Though I won’t be enjoying the Queen of Sheba’s lifestyle, neither do I expect to move to the poorhouse. The only real “sacrifice,” if you can call it that, is that I will have to drive my fully functional, very nice nine-year-old Toyota a few more years, rather than trading it in when it reaches the ten-year milepost. I will have to earn a few thousand bucks a year to cover my share of the house M’hijito and I are copurchasing, but that can be done  by taking on a couple of easy, part-time teaching gigs. Pay is low, but work is minimal and mildly entertaining.

Debt, particularly mortgage and automobile loans, racks up the largest part of most Americans’ month-to-month costs. Once you no longer have to pay an outrageous slug of interest to keep a roof over your head and wheels under your feet, your ordinary living costs are surprisingly modest.

Financial independence doesn’t necessarily mean not working. After you’ve attained financial independence—that is, your living expenses are low enough that the proceeds from modest savings and other forms of passive income will support you—you’re free to do as you please. If you want to keep working at your job, you can. Or you can take up a more interesting line of work, try to do something less profitable that you’ve always dreamed of doing, or devote your time, energy and skill to altruistic pursuits.

A friend retired from his medical practice with plenty of zing still left. He and his wife spent a year working pro bono at a hospital in New Zealand. Another friend passes his time working for Habitat for Humanity, as does my step-sister. A third decided to become an organist in her old age, an enterprise that led to a wonderful adventure in Australia. With the possible exception of the anesthesiologist and his wife (who by and large live modestly, by Seattle standards), none of these people are wealthy. They live middle-class lifestyles, dwelling in ordinary homes in decent neighborhoods, driving nice-but-not-gaudy cars, staying out of debt, and generally doing as they please…within their means.

Image by Gargoylepni, public domain, Wikipedia Commons

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frugalscholar October 3, 2009 at 9:59 am

Wow! Thanks. I’m simply basking in my celebrity. Seriously though: this was an illuminating exercise for me, because I realized we could live without liquidating any of our battered assets. Kind of a shock. In a good way.

FB @ FabulouslyBroke.com October 17, 2009 at 9:48 am

All fabulous points, because I feel as though I am on the way to becoming financially independent.

I have a good retirement account in place, good savings, a good job with high potential earnings and my basic living expenses are about $12,000 a year.

$15,000 if you include travelling.

$19,000 if you include my shopping ;)

I think that it all depends on what you consider wealthy. Having $10,000 is wealthy for people who live in third world countries. You could live on less than $20 a day if you wanted to.

And probably retire a lot sooner. But it’s your perspective on what you want your lifestyle to be, where you want to retire and what you think you need until you pass away.

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