FIRE

I’m looking into FIRE, the Financial Independence Retire Early movement, and there’s some weird maverick stuff out there, quite apart from the assertions that you can save 50% and more of your salary and retire in ten years, not thirty-five. I think of how I would have reacted to this hipster frugality only a short time ago; it would have sounded like a fad diet, or a sad, wistful dream, not for me.

But then the cap came off in June and suddenly I was crazy with anxiety and craving control over my finances, and now, three months later, I’m sat with a lot of new habits and tantalising possibilities. My savings are growing at an unprecedented rate (I was hyper-conservative on the math) and my cravings for reward lattes and emotional spending continue to not matter as much as showing my money who’s boss.

The lessons of the last three months have taught me how radically different a lifestyle of saving as opposed to a lifestyle of spending makes me feel and behave. It’s amazing and I can’t believe I saw no value in it earlier, that I missed such an obvious, such a tiny psychological switch.

What do you want to do with your money?

I don’t know. Spend it?

Is that all?

My parents separated when I was 17 and lost their financial footing over the course of the next ten years. On top of that, I chose animation as a career, for further fun times working myself to death for R10 000 a month and moving across the country every year. By the time my freelance career took off and I actually started having work and leisure-time in equal parts, I’d been through a decade of deep money-insecurity. I deserved to spend! I’d earned this goddamn money, I was going to enjoy myself!

That was okay at first, when it was early days and it only meant the difference between being broke and more broke. I was used to broke; broke didn’t scare me. It was almost — it absolutely was — a point of pride. At least I was never in high-interest debt to a bank, although my financial boundaries with friends might have developed a few frayed edges.

After five years of my personal finance graph climbing and crashing like Wall Street in the forties, of wishing I ‘had the willpower’ to save, of periodically enduring long, lean months where freelance work didn’t show up to save my ass (the last episode was the first five months of this year) I realised something.

There was no ‘enough’. Any amount of money wouldn’t have been enough for me to feel safe, because I didn’t have the skills to keep any of it. My habits had to change, and radically.

So I bought the book, Manage Your Money Like a F*cking Grownup by Sam Beckbessinger (it’s a life-saver of a book and I recommend it to anybody, particularly South African readers) and learned some shit. I left my bank for a cheaper one. I had coffee with my financial advisor and argued with him about passive index trackers versus actively-managed funds. For an hour.

I’m not even doing anything extreme or terribly fancy yet; I’m just saving. Steady work for the next eight months gives me a lavish hiatus from the uncertainty of freelancing, so I’m automating the process where possible. I’m stuffing money into my RA to let it build up a nice head of steam and earn baby earn. I’m going to keep emergency funds and assiduous tax records like it’s my new hobby. My spending is down to WWII-austerity levels and every freelance and passively-earned cent is saved or set aside for tax, and if not taxed, will be saved with glee. And I’m having the best goddamn time.

I don’t need willpower. I needed a vision, and then a plan. The vision is freedom from the hand-to-mouth cycle and to be financially-independent of my crazy industry in five to ten years. The plan is to choose my peace of mind over stuff and daily lattes every time.

It’s not been a perfect three months, but the difference in intention and focus is really all the difference in the world. Even if something dire happened tomorrow and I lost every rand, I’d be secure in knowing that I’ve the skills now to build that pot up again, and faster than I would have believed possible. I no longer have that disappearing-money-feeling or that urgent wish for a windfall to keep things going.

So I don’t worry too much about the kook stuff I come across while looking around on the FI sites. They’re a bit crazy, but then extreme frugality and financial freedom look pretty crazy to a rampant and bloated consumer culture. The basic habits and principles are sound and wealth-making enough, and if it had to be perfect, I’d be hopeless at it.

KC