Comfortable in Your Own Shoes

“What this is really about is learning to be comfortable in your own shoes,” the pastor said across the desk.

These words would stick with me through the years. You see, early in my twenties, some of my greatest fears and anxieties collided in the same semester. It was a nightmare. There were too many forces at play. And there were really only two options for handling that: lose my mind, or figure out what in the hell was going on inside of me. I was an angry and self-righteous person, and I struggled to understand where I really fit in to the world, struggled to understand why I never seemed to identify with people or feel any true sense of self-worth. I had a pretty strong ego-shield that had kept me afloat for years, but you can’t outrun your insecurities.

It’s been almost a decade since those office conversations. I like to think that I’ve learned a lot and have gained some significant insight not just into how I think but into how others think as well. I wouldn’t push that latter claim too far, but I enjoy sharing about my life because I think it encourages others to look into theirs.

Mis-identity is very prevalent. It’s rare that I see someone going through what I went through, but there are some predictable ways that people behave under similar circumstances.

For example, people enjoy taking sides in order to establish their identity, to feel comfortable with themselves. You see this when people vehemently subscribe to sports teams, or political opinions, or product preferences. They can all be part of our identities, but they also make easy rafts to cling to in the ocean of our minds. You become defined not so much by the position itself as by the position as it stands in opposition to another team, or opinion, or product. These are easy examples, but this also happens with ways of life and is the whole source of the “culture wars”. It’s the belief that there is only one way to do this or that. One way to go through life, one way to make or spend money, one way to do church, etc. If only you can see your way of doing things as the only right way to do things, then you can rest easy, believing there is something good about you. But this fails the moment the symbol fails.

When we aren’t taking sides, we may be standing too strongly on our own ground. You see this with the claim, “That’s just who I am”. As opposed to external identity found in symbols, this sort of identity is internal. It requires no rhyme or reason and operates on the assumption that who we are is fixed and is somehow in-tune with nature or our “destiny”, if you will. This allows for a sense of independence but falls short because when you fail you must face the fact that who are you are isn’t enough, and all you can do is return to the greater question of your identity.

“Am I valuable?” This is the question at the heart of our identity seeking. But it’s a trick question. The fact that you are asking it means you are uncertain that the answer is yes.

I’ve heard for years that our true identity and our true value come from God. While I believe this is correct, it is also a very churchy answer and doesn’t really communicate any explanation for itself. I think it’s important to realize that having value to God is different from being able to climb a tough mountain, or deserving a promotion, or standing any chance with that really attractive girl. I think we conflate the two perspectives (intrinsic value vs. acquired value) because as human we go through life with associations, abilities, and achievements, which dramatically shape us and influence our lives. But we hold to this, struggling to see our value without it all. I believe this is why the wealthy and successful sometimes struggle more than the poor: they experience some great blessings in their lives, but they confuse this for the message of the blesser: you are valuable!

I’ve been thinking lately about what this looks like in practice. I think it helps to cultivate a perspective where you put less stock in both your successes and your failures. Both are teaching agents, but if you can laugh at both then you’re in a good position to see that they don’t scratch the surface of your greater identity. Secondly, when I feel pressured to be someone I’m not or to live a style of life I don’t want to live, I can refocus on what God has put in front of me, who he has made me to be, and on what my goals for the future look like.

 

The Feasibility of Financial Independence for Missions Work

Several years ago, the thought occurred to me that it might be possible to replace my salary with income from investment dividends. I was excited by this thought, but the sheer numbers required to do this made the task seem impossible. I had also not done any investing at the time, so I quickly surrendered my fantasy.

There are many good and bad ways to invest your money. I am by no means an expert, and have thus far subscribed to the simple, passive model of investing that uses index funds and growth-based mutual funds. So far this strategy has been working, though I can still expect plenty of volatility. What this strategy has done more than anything is convince me to spend less money, to waste less money, and to decrease my needs. My current pre-tax 401k contributions are 35% of on my income, but because I have cash savings goals to reach and my sanity to maintain, I have stopped here, though I could perhaps reach 40%.

Now, I talk about these things frequently. I’m probably boring many of my friends to tears. But one thing I haven’t talked much about is why I think the pursuit of financial independence can have such a powerful role to play in Christian missionary and volunteer work.

 

Preparation

In searching for a good graphic, I found a map of the most expensive countries to live in. You’ll notice that the cheapest places to live are right around that 10/40 window. The whole idea behind financial independence is that you fund your cost of living through investment returns, and the lower your cost of living, the lower you need to invest. Going overseas to cheaper countries makes this significantly easier than staying in the United States. Depending on your target region or country’s average cost of living, you may be surprised how quickly you can amass the requisite capital to support yourself overseas.

Now, I believe that when God calls you to go, you go. As far as we are aware, the disciples didn’t sit around after Pentecost and run calculations to see whether they had the money to go out and make other disciples. They just went. And they frequently relied upon the support of churches, just as most missionaries do today. I don’t ever want to downplay the importance of those church relationships either. But those of us in the United States live in a world where a $50,000 per year salary is average. Sure, the cost of living is high, but I love reading Jacob Fisker’s blog because he challenges the cost of living to an extreme level, which will challenge just about anybody, and this has helped me to understand how I can decrease my expenses not just from a budgetary perspective, but from a deeper philosophical perspective as well.

A standard rule in finance is that you can safely assume a withdrawal rate of 4% in order to maintain your principle and survive market ups and downs. Paranoid people mark this lower, optimistic people mark this higher. You can just search google and find some good debates. I personally use the 4% rule.

Now, the average wage in Nepal (for example) is the equivalent of $200 USD/month. $200 per month is $2,400 per year, is 4% of $60,000. If you want to support yourself at the average wage of a working Nepali individual, using the 4% rule, you would want to invest $60,000, not bad at all considering that’s how much many people owe on their student loans! I am assuming you do not have debt, as you will definitely want to pay that off before you start investing too much. Now, I don’t think many of us could hack the average wage in Nepal, so you would probably want more invested. For some this may be difficult but for many this will be easy, especially on whether you are married and both of you work. Maybe you want to serve in Thailand, where the average wage is about $400/month? Then you will probably need $120,000 to supply that $400/month.

“You’re talking crazy! Nobody can do that!” Well, let’s say you’re married and don’t yet have kids. One of you makes the average of $50k and the other makes a bit more, $60k. Let’s say you both can live comfortably off of that $50k, then you can invest the entire $60k from the other spouse’s salary. At this rate, and giving some credit to taxes above your 401k limit, it would take less than 3 years to have $120,000 invested. In less than 3 years you could potentially maintain the average Thai income indefinitely! There is amazing potential to living in the United States and planning to serve elsewhere.

Now, again, I know not everybody is married (I’m not), and not everybody makes that much money. This will always depend on your situation. But I know plenty of couples who make good money together, or some where one person makes above average and the other person makes below average. You can work with what you have. Maybe you will have to rely on some support to do missionary work. That’s perfectly fine, and I’m sure there are plenty of resources online to strategize how best to do this. Having the money invested also doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be in contact with a church or organization.

 

In the Field

One thing I want to talk about that is very critical to all of this. In your quest to invest as much as possible, you learn tricks for saving money, you find that there are things you can do without that maybe you didn’t believe was possible before. This is so important if you want to volunteer in developing countries! As you begin to live on less, as you pursue this goal, your lifestyle begins to approach those of the people you will be working with. I’ve been learning to incorporate rice and beans into my diet and to cook my own food. This is going to make life so much easier when I do go overseas! It may be difficult to witness to people who might have serious life struggles when all you can do is complain about the things you no longer have, or if your house is always chock full of what may be extreme luxuries in those people’s eyes. (Does your life reflect what you believe is important? Do you really believe that Christ is our greatest need? Does your lifestyle reflect this?)

Having money invested can also allow you to more fully dedicate yourself to God’s work. If you can avoid the worry over money, then you should. I love the idea of serving a worthy cause and not being paid so that the organization can reach more people, or hire those who need the money. How great would it be to even teach another programmer to replace me in my role and make a good salary? That has to power to change families for generations!

Also, maybe you cannot reach an investment amount that can support you. If you find work in your target country or have adequate support, then you should still invest as much as you can beforehand so that the principle grows while you are overseas. If your money is growing for you, it can seriously ease the difficulty of adjusting when you return.

 

Coming Home

Returning missionaries face some very serious obstacles: the working world changes during those 10 years you may be away. Employers want your job skills to be fresh, and there are too many applicants for most companies to consider somebody even if they have a great work or learning ethic but no relevant skills from the past decade. Ideally, the work you do overseas keeps these skill up-to-date, but this is frequently not the case. This is why I would advocate investing much more than you need to maintain your target income. The more invested that you don’t need, the greater the effect of compound interest on your principle. Let’s say you haul butt and invest $500,000 in 10 years before launching off. If you only need a tiny fraction of this to live overseas, you could still see this grow to well over that in another 10 years! You could return to the States and expect closer to $3,000/month (if your investments reach 900k), which can buy you plenty of time to re-adjust to society here while updating your skills and getting back in the workforce, if you need. A 7% annual return on $500,000 is going to net much more than a 7% annual return on $5,000, so focusing on boosting that number beforehand to allow it to grow and outpace that 4% while you are overseas will make a big difference. Or you could cash some of that out to buy a house outright and save yourself rent and mortgage payments, an incredible feat given that you spent 10 years away from your home country’s workforce.

 

Final Thoughts

Well, ‘final’ being related to this post :). Some may be called to serve in countries more expensive than the United States, and very many are called to serve here. These are cases where our economic position does not help as much, and there is nothing wrong with that! Paid work is still fine in the cheaper countries, but it may be necessary in a more expensive country, and it may force you to lean on a network of people or churches. I don’t doubt there are many blessings associated with this. The financial independence community is held together by the general assumption that you are spending most of your time in your native country. I would argue it is still worth pursuing if one stays here, as it is still very achievable and may convince you to scale back on your excesses, and we all have those.

Since it’s been on my mind lately, I want to add a few thoughts on serving in the US. The most common strategy for massive investments involves renting to avoid the total cost of homeownership. This generally keeps expenses more predictable as opposed to house repairs which can be very unexpected. But, this is not the only strategy, of course! Many find that a lower, locked-in payment and serious elbow grease still allow them to invest massive amounts of money. Renting out extra rooms is another great way to produce extra income. I used to think that the smartest thing to do was pay off your mortgage quickly, but if the interest rate is low enough, your money will probably fair significantly better in the market as long as you are smart about how you do that. There is a lot of debate on the strategy here, of course, but what almost everyone in the FI community has in common is a dedication to living below their means and investing the difference. Also, houses are generally larger than their rented counterparts on a cost-per-square-foot basis. Using your house as a place of fellowship can be great, just don’t let your emotions convince you to overspend for this reason alone 😉

The Unpopularity of Financial Independence

I don’t have any friends who are interested in financial independence. A few friends have encountered Mr. Money Mustache’s blog through the course of their financial searches, but I don’t know anybody else personally who is pursuing FI.

Largely, I don’t think anybody knows it is an option. I certainly didn’t. I once had the off thought that it might be possible to earn my income through investments, but the sheer size of the required money intimidated me, and I basically gave it up as unrealistic. Now I know it is very realistic.

Just yesterday some friends at church (good people, I might add), were laughing at how a friend had gotten a high-paying engineering job in the midwest, rented a 2-bedroom 2-bath apartment for $500-600/month, and was putting 35% of their earnings into retirement, with an employer match of 10%. In speaking about this person, one friend laughed and said, “Does he want to get married anytime soon?” All I could think of was how his friend could do even better if he downsized to a 1-bedroom 1-bath apartment and invested even more!

My first paycheck came in today with the changes I made for health insurance, which saves me a decent amount of money. This inspired me to put 2% in my roth 401k on top of the 30% I’m putting in the traditional 401k. You know, tax diversification.

It’s very popular if you are in your 20s to travel, and it kind of kills me thinking how fast I could save up for travel if I weren’t contributing all this, but the power of compounding is real, and I know I will thank myself later. I have left just enough money in my take-home pay to afford my standard budget and still have some left over for the car, for travel / personal development, and cash for giving or investing outside of the retirement accounts. But if I really want to hit my goals, pushing myself to 35% would be ideal. I am planning on getting creative with rent so I could boost this higher, since it is fairly low compared to most others in the FI community. Living alone is a luxury that probably costs me around $600/month. I should write it like that in the budget. Rent is what I would expect to pay if I split a place. That extra $600 should just be a budget item called “personal luxury”. Ouch! That’s a dose of reality I need!

A co-worker once asked me what my plans were for marriage, kind of as a joke in response to my story of pursuing FI. Average women want a large house with all the accoutrements, new cars, etc. They want to see your status. See, though, I want to BE my status, free to pursue what really matters to me in life. Now, when you hang around churches a lot you find more women who want to do missions work and aren’t as concerned about having things. To be fair, I had a really long conversation about all of this with a (rather attractive) girl who received it well a few months ago, but I think most people in the church are still gunning for that middle class life of consumption, as long as the family can dutifully give 10% to the church, of course. It is what is. I’d honestly rather be single than spend my life chasing the American dream. The best you can hope to do with excess possessions is share them, and that’s probably the only smart way to approach that dream: to not over-consume, but to do things like open your house up to others, to make food for them, etc. But that really is a huge can of worms I can’t cover in one post. In all reality though, almost everybody I know will choose “lots of stuff, just shared” as an out for giving up things in general. Honestly, I’m just going to have to let go of this. It seems rather dumb on my part to worry about other people’s decisions.

It’s not popular but it’s definitely my cup of tea. My copy of Jacob Fisker’s “Early Retirement Extreme” arrived today and it’s chock full of great philosophy. I want to volunteer full time overseas, to make those small differences in the world, to experience new cultures, and to be able to do it all without a timeframe stamped on it. That’s what FI means to me. It may not be popular, but I think when my friends see that in action they may think, “Hey, you know maybe that’s wasn’t such a bad option, afterall.” Unfortunately, it may be rather late in their game, so I keep discussing the subject. Let’s make this more popular!

The Pernicious Lie

“It will always be tough.”

Several years ago, I experienced a significant pay raise at my job and found that my money was melting away and I wasn’t sure where to. I was living with my parents to avoid paying rent and was using a large part of my paycheck to pay off my student loans, but I began to question why I wasn’t making faster progress despite the pay increases.

“You know, it will always be tough,” my mom told me.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying my mom is trying to spread pernicious lies. But I am trying to say that my mom’s reaction that day is characteristic of a broader social problem, this belief that life is so difficult and there is never enough money. I have read articles about families making $200,000 per year and complaining that “it’s just so hard to make it.” A cursory look at their expenses basically revealed that people are not naturally intelligent creatures.

Scarcity is an old and neglected economic term. One major and influential economic theory states that human desires are infinite while resources are finite, thus producing scarcity. In a scarce environment, supply and demand rule, and thus is born the market economy. The whole Occupy movement was created to protest the lack of capital among the “99%”, blaming this on misconduct by the “1%” who have hoarded capital (I’m not going to take a position on this here). We see this in political movements, but we all see this in personal finance contexts, where people lament just “how hard it is to get by” and how “you just can’t support a family on $X per year”.

A common theme, something I discovered within myself that day, was no matter how much one earns, the money never seems to be enough. But how was it that at lower pay, I had everything I needed, and at higher pay, I still had everything I needed but didn’t know what had actually happened to the difference?

We all know I was spending that extra money. It’s not rocket science. We humans have this amazing proclivity to increase our expenditures when we increase our income. We have more money, so we spend more money. After all, human desires are infinite. I can sit down at any time and make a list of things I would like to own if I either had the money or money weren’t a factor.

Now, I have read that wages have not increased with the cost of living. Especially here in Denver, I’d say most of people’s expenses are being dumped into overpriced houses and overpriced apartments, and many jobs do not earn enough money to cover these expenses and most other necessities. And that sucks. But I also want to explore this more.

The market is not your friend. Technology tells you how much it can improve your life and increase your creative juices, and help you to make money from your own innovation. Car companies tell you to treat yourself to the new car smell and gain prestige for the good hard work that you do. Cereal companies tell you that you are a good mother for feeding your kids a nutritious breakfast. Insurance companies tell you how secure you will feel knowing your money or health is protected. The problem is that we believe this. Because of scarcity, because of supply and demand, everyone wants your money. And you’ve been raised to spend that money on the products those people are selling. You go to work and depend on your company to sell things so that you continue to have a job so that you can continue spending. We all know this cycle. It’s not good, and it’s not evil. You could potentially extrapolate this message from the “labor” Adam is forced to perform in Genesis. Nonetheless, we spend because we believe it will make us happier, that it will satisfy x or y desire or “need.” This becomes ingrained in our understand of what “base subsistence” even means. Dave Ramsey has a great story about how, when he was going bankrupt, he absolutely refused to give up his Jaguar until the choice stopped being his. “But I need this!” we all say. “How can I live without this?”

I also want to approach one major objection to Financial Independence. People love to criticize it when they have kids. “Haha, yeah, I’d like to see you live like that once you have kids!” Clearly, kids cost millions of dollars, despite the fact that humans have successfully raised them for hundreds of thousands of years before the market economy existed.

When I was a child, I really wanted these flip-head Power Ranger action figures. You pressed the belt and the head flipped from mask to no-mask. I thought it was super cool. But my parents refused to buy me any for the longest time. Do you know what I did? I had these large Power Ranger marbles that stood-in for the action figures, took on personalities and went on adventures all the same. I wouldn’t have even cared if I hadn’t known the action figures existed (demonstration-effect theory, anyone?). Those marbles probably cost a few bucks compared to much more for even just one action figure. Spoiler: I did eventually receive one for my birthday, if I remember correctly.

I’ve always been fascinating when reading ethnographies to learn that many indigenous children grow up making mud or baked cow-manure figures to play out social roles they see around them. Cost $0 USD??? It sounded like they were happy. I guess you’d probably get a call from social services if you baked some cow patties and your neighbors saw your kids out playing with them, but while I’m joking I’m also not, and that’s just a reflection that society is not a perfect representation of reality, and cultural norms can be flawed. What you can derive from this is that your kids don’t need expensive masses of toys to be happy. We’ve shuffled them into an immaculate toy world where everything is about toys. It’s just sad.

Also for the record, toys are only one category of overspending on children, but I’m beginning to suspect I could fill a whole post with more. “You don’t have kids, you can’t talk!” No, but I’ve seen what parents and family members buy for kids and it’s proof that people can be idiots in their rush to give those kids a perfect consumerist childhood.

Going back to the pernicious lie, you also see people buying new $30,000 vehicles in order avoid a major $1500 vehicle repair and a day or two getting rides to and from work. Many believe car payments are essential to life. People nearing bankruptcy refuse to cancel their satellite TV service to save money. Having an iPhone is considered essential living “because of my fine taste.” I’m starting to feel negative so I’ll cut this off here, but this is a small sample of what happens.

We just are not very smart. We are so not smart that I’m planning to write about the sorts of not-smart things I have done with money.

Several months ago I was putting 12% of each paycheck into my 401k, and the stretch to 15% made me question if I could hit my other savings goals. Then I moved it to 20% and found out that I was fine and had plenty left over. So in January I will be taking the plunge and giving 30% a shot. It’s amazing how stupid I was being before, how much floating money I was leaving outside of any budget bucket, “just in case”. My goals is 50%. Currently I could reach 40%, but this would wipe out the money I plan to put monthly into my car maintenance savings and the money I would like to save for things like travel and visiting friends across the country. Most of it will be saved, but won’t be invested, per se. The easiest way to reach 50% is to get creative with living situations or find an apartment that costs less than my current (this is somewhat difficult in Denver).

Lest we feel too negative over the “it will always be difficult” maxim, there is another maxim that is also popular: “live below your means.” Many people do not like this because it forces you to assume responsibility for your actions. Yes, there is injustice. Yes, there are difficulties. Yes, some people have extreme circumstances. I hate feeling like I have to qualify everything all the time, but people hate you if you don’t. If you’re helpless, then ignore me. If you are in any control of your life, challenge yourself to live below your means. Build a budget. Understand where your money goes and why. Do you shop to feel better? Do you believe that car payments are a good thing? Are you paying people to do things you can do yourself? Do you use the things you have purchased in the past? Have you ever had buyer’s remorse? If so, how can you avoid that in the future?

If it feels I’m leaving this post incomplete, I am. I think I can really dig into more specifics by detailing my experiences and what I’ve seen other do. This applies to both good and bad.

The pernicious lie does not have to apply to you.

 

 

Assessing the True Cost of Things

Ignoring costs can lead to poor purchasing decisions.

One of my pet economic theories is that all items you can purchase can be analyzed from three cost perspectives: the initial cost, the inherent cost, and the extended cost. I’m certain I’ve picked this up subconsciously from real economists or economics classes, but it has proven quite useful in my purchasing decisions.

 

Initial Cost

The initial cost is typically the most obvious, and is the price or amount of money you pay for an item. If I’m buying a chair from the department store for $60 or a lawnmower from a neighbor for $100, the initial cost is $60 and $100 respectively. Initial costs are the only thing I record in my ledger when keeping track of my budget balances, and the great danger to initial costs is that they make it easy to ignore the other costs.

Inherent Cost

Inherent costs are those costs that are accrued in the course of utilizing or operating an item. The inherent cost of a car is typically the cost of gasoline, the inherent cost of an apartment is the cost of utilities, the inherent cost of Netflix is the price of internet service. You get the idea. Whatever relies upon the purchasing of an additional item or service is bound to an inherent cost. We are usually aware of inherent costs, but we tend not to calculate their magnitude over large periods of time. Because my commute is so long, I tend to budget around $150 per month for gasoline, but don’t want to think about how this will cost me $1,800 per year.

Extended Cost

Most pernicious and evasive is the extended cost of a thing. Extended costs are additional expenses that complement the item being purchased, and are often established by cultural norms, expectations, and habits. Most televisions or monitors either do not have speakers or come with “crappy” speakers built in. You could argue that manufacturers do this to encourage you to buy a sound bar or sound system to increase the audio quality of your television experience. Most of the people I know have a sound bar for their televisions, and this would be considered an extended cost to the purchase of a television. You may be very excited about your new 60″ television, but unless you have a sound bar, the idea may start to grow in your mind that your new television would really be better off with a nice new sound system to go with it. This is often how extended costs work.

For example, I have considered buying an XBox One S so that I could play games with two of my close friends who recently moved to different parts of the United States. Yes, Black Friday sales approach, but generally these consoles have cost $300, and I have been extremely leery of making this purchase for several reasons. First, although the console may “only” cost $300, the service to play online costs $60 per year. Moreover, in order to make the console more useful, I would want to buy additional controllers so that I could have friends over to play as well, and each controller typically costs an additional $60. Because I don’t like going through large numbers of batteries, I would probably want to purchase the rechargeable controller batteries, which cost around $25 each. So really, for a system with two controllers – and that certainly isn’t enough for having more friends over – I would be paying around $530 to get started*. Oh, and I forgot about the games. Ultimately, though, my long-distance friends don’t have the time or the access to play online, and all of these things have convinced me to set the desire aside completely. I also don’t play video games enough to justify the purchase in the first place. Many friends have decided it is worth it to them, and that is perfectly fine as long as you know what you are getting into.

Although I will be writing about houses and apartments another day, I would like to mention here that having too much space can generate extended costs. Who wants an empty room? Most people will add a guest bed, perhaps a few items of furniture, or perhaps paint the walls. Just having empty space tends to fight very strongly against our cultural expectations of interiors, and will often lead us into spending more money than we planned in order to satisfy those expectations in our minds.

I should perhaps also mention that time and opportunity cost play into these as well. The true cost of a book includes the time you spend reading it, and the true cost of pretty much anything non-essential could be the well-being of your car if you know it has issues and are trying to ignore them by purchasing something “fun”. Nothing is fun about paying for car repairs, but not doing so will cost you in added stress and strain later.

The moral of the story is, don’t just look at sticker price (the initial cost). Consider the ramifications your purchases will have in other areas of your life and across your wallet. When you understand these costs, you are positioning yourself to make better decisions with your money.

 

* I forgot that most consoles already come with one controller, so this total may be $470 instead, or maybe you decided to buy an additional controller without the rechargeable battery 🙂

Fear and Keeping the Things We Hate

Does your room look like this?

Most of us have a possession or two of which we think, “Ugh, I hate this thing.” It can be anything: clothing, books, kitchen utensils, tools, appliances, decorations, gifts.

This past year I’ve reduced my collection of shirts from around 60 to 36. It required a significant amount of mental effort, but I frequently came across shirts that some deep part of me really hated. Why had I kept them all those years? This was also the case for other items, such as camping gear I never used but which was always cluttering my storage spaces. Sometimes it was technical books that had the potential to boost my career but which I despised owning.

I began to realize that fear was my primary motivation for keeping things that I hated. I kept work shirts because I feared I may need them if I lost my job. Sometimes I would keep shirts for the simple fear that I may want to wear them in the future. I’ve kept Christmas and birthday cards out of the fear that one of my relatives may pass and I would regret not having kept their kind words, symbols of their love. I have feared that if I got rid of some of my programming or cyber security books that there would come a time when I desperately needed them and would have to shell out top dollar to get them back.

To describe to a fuller extend how much fear has dominated my physical realm, for a long time, my primary reason for keeping a decently large movie collection was the fear that I would have a girlfriend and she would be bored because there would be nothing to do. Forget that I have, historically, never been interested in girls who wish to spend all their time watching TV and movies, I let my fear force me into the “library” mentality of hoarding entertainment. Over the past few months I have finally identified the true nature of this fear, so I gave away around 50% of my DVD collection, with plans to get rid of more. My friends thought I was crazy, but I feel much more like the person I have always wanted to be. I also found that less entertainment gets me out the door more often and has significantly increased my happiness.

Here are some more case studies:

  • I had a large stack of photos from the days before cheap cameras and smartphones. I had ordered duplicates for many of those pictures, at the advice of my parents and sister at that time, and years and years later I still had the duplicates to protect them from loss! I shredded all the duplicates, and also shredded the pictures I didn’t care to keep, which was most of them.
  • I had a programming book that was a Christmas gift from my dad several years ago. I had specifically wanted this book and he had spent a decent amount for it, but the concepts were more related to IT than software development, so the material ended up not being as interesting as I had thought, and I never made much progress past the first few chapters. I kept it because it was a gift from my dad and I had wanted it so badly, but I ultimately had to accept that keeping it around wasn’t doing me any good and was only making me feel guilty for not reading it. I gave it away and haven’t regretted it.
  • Like most people, I finally liquidated my CD collection. I had chipped away at it over the years, but I kept the most sentimental albums. I now only have one because I need to stop being lazy and copy it onto my computer. This CD collection had also included obscure driver software, programs I would never use, and even a DVD of my high school band performances. This did not occupy a ton a space, but the box I kept them in has been a “hold-out” box which just refuses to die because of the slight value of its contents. I’m actively in battle with this box, and need to find a way to get rid of more inside of it.

Here are the things I plan to get rid of:

  • High school yearbooks. I may keep my senior year book, but I suspect my reasoning there is also flawed. I’ve never really looked back through them, and I know how to contact the friends from that time who still matter to me.
  • More DVDs. My local library allows you to check out a huge selection of movies. I’m moving into an experimental time in life where I want to see what I can go without.
  • The headboard to my bed and the bed frame. They aren’t necessary at all, and I’m kind of drawn to extreme simplicity.
  • More books. Still hard for me to do, but I love playing the mental game of “if I could only keep ten books, which would I keep?” I guarantee you they’d be only the best in my collection.
  • My small coin/currency collection. I guess seeing what people pay with in the Bahamas is kind of cool, but really it just sits there.
  • The final 3 stick-piece hockey cards from my old collection. I honestly do kind of hate these, I may have to drive to a card store and donate them. Supposedly they’re “valuable”, which means you may be able to finagle $10-20 for each on ebay, but my job pays much, much better.
  • Miscellaneous stuff. It’s all been simplified to one large and one small plastic container, but I want it all gone, all of it!

There are many other stories to tell, but these are positive illustrations.

What I love about minimalism is the intellectual challenge that it posses to the individual. Because we live in a society that values quantity and convenience, it takes considerable effort to challenge those assumptions and escape from them. Although I’ve been reducing my possessions slowly for the past decade, I’m realizing just how far I still have to go. Fear is not the only reason we keep things (pride and self-image come to mind as somewhat obvious alternative motives), but I think we would all find that reducing the fear in our lives necessarily comes with the reduction of our possessions.

The Importance of Tipping Well

It’s a warm, breezy Saturday afternoon, so I took a trip to one of the nearby pizza joints for lunch. It had been several years since I had gone there, so I had forgotten that it was more of a sit-down restaurant than a grab-a-slice-and-go restaurant.

I’ve set myself a monthly food budget of $200. I have a separate budget for food with friends, but since I have a pretty terrible track record with my grocery and person food money, I decided I could shoot for $50 per week. I’m sure more frugal people can do much better than that, but you have to crawl before you can walk, and I just need to get that food budget under control.

My first thought was to get the old special, a slice with some breadsticks and a drink. But when they sat me down and gave me a menu, I was tempted by all sorts of delicious meals, almost all of which cost more. I don’t like dropping money on solo meals like this, unless I’m exploring new restaurants and don’t want the hassle of getting other people on board, so my waistline thanked me when I ordered the $5 special.

Then it hit me: this is going to cost more than $5 because I have to leave a tip! That was a real bummer because I was excited to get a small but delicious meal for cheap. “Well, at least the tip won’t be as much this way than with a larger meal,” I thought. Sure, but who wants to be the tool who leaves a $1 tip?

My waitress was actually very friendly, and made sure to refill my green tea. I thought about my job, and the inroads God gave me for software development, and how so much of this I could never have done on my own. I had several days at work this past week where I was between projects and was basically being paid to study. And what I make in one day is a lot. So I thought of this waitress probably making minimum wage and hoping for decent tips, in this expensive city, while I spend a decent amount of time plotting my route to Financial Independence.

So I paid $10 and left the extra as a tip. There is a price to spending money on food, but what is the price of being cheap toward your fellow humans? I still have money left in my budget for the rest of this week.

This will probably be an ongoing theme on this blog, too. How can we, as Christians, pursue financial independence while still being rich toward God? Scaling back on my personal expenditures seems the best option, but scaling back on my giving is probably the wrong direction to take. One of these days I’d love to leave a $100 tip to a good waiter/waitress and make somebody’s day.

Who are the Joneses?

I had never actually heard of the Joneses until I began reading Dave Ramsey nearly a decade ago, and I have mostly only heard the expression “keep up with the Joneses” in financial settings. My family has never, to my knowledge, purchased anything to keep up with their neighbors or friends. I could be wrong, but if they did it certainly wasn’t anything like a boat or ATVs – you know, anything large and expensive.

When I first read about the Joneses, I felt pretty smug about myself. I certainly didn’t have any problem like that. In fact, to this day, I’m not certain any of my friends have been Joneses, and, to my shame, I can’t actually say I know my neighbors in this apartment building.

But then I had to ask myself: who actually are the Joneses?

I’ve decided the Joneses are anybody who have something that I don’t have. What I mean by this is that anybody who has something I don’t have can, intentionally or unintentionally, influence my decision to purchase said item.

And here’s what often isn’t mentioned about the Joneses: sometimes they actually can afford the swag they buy. The great danger is assuming they can’t and writing yourself off as a smart cookie while you criticize their lack of financial discipline, but this simply may not be true. The Joneses are who we perceive them to be. They could be your friend who bought an iPhone X, or a neighbor who bought a ten-year-old Maxima  which looks so much nicer than your rusting twenty-year-old Accord. They could be your friends who always invite you to join them at expensive restaurants. They can even be your parents who decided a sleep number bed would help them get better sleep. Or they could be an acquaintance who has a massive gun collection. Whatever.

There’s no point calling out the Joneses – the Joneses are in your head. They are the status and the utility that you crave. They are either the things you covet or the things you feel pressured to buy.

Despite the highly inflated housing market here in Denver, many friends have bought-in, and I often feel the current  whispering to me, “You should buy in, too!” My financial disagreements with homeownership, and my desire to leave within the next 3 to 5 years don’t make this a tempting prospect, but I can say that I definitely feel the pressure. I also wonder what sort of message I send to my friends when I try to persuade them to join me at various restaurants, a great weakness of mine.

If you want to make smarter decisions than keeping up with the Joneses, you have to understand your desires for what they are. Are you trying to be accepted? To fit in? Are you trying to present yourself in a certain light (“I’m an extreme off-roader!”, “I’m a Mac guy!”, “I’m a nature lover!”, “I do humanitarian work!”)? You have to understand whether that’s something you truly want or if you aren’t just kidding yourself and trying to fill-in your insecurities. When you are happy with yourself, you won’t strive so hard to keep up with who you think you want to be.

Why I Pursue Financial Independence

My quest for financial independence and minimalism go hand-in-hand. My quest began in high school.

I did not grow up in a wealthy household. We were not poor, but we were not rich. Having also grown up in the Church, I believed that contentment was a virtue, but I still had a room packed to the brim with Lego sets, sports cards, and video games. I had, like most children, gone through life completely clueless about money, and I didn’t receive much advice about it from my parents.  This all changed in high school  when I had a crush on a girl whose father was an engineer. They lived in a large house and enjoyed expensive hobbies. In the back of my male brain there was that self-esteem switch, shouting, “You won’t measure up! You’re too boring! You don’t have enough money! She’ll never be okay with you!” Fortunately I didn’t find out her dad was an engineer until after I had asked her out (twice!), but it was my first introduction to how self-esteem and money melded together in the human spirit. When things turned south between us, I established my mountain of war, bunkered down on my commitment to becoming a great writer, and praised the simple life. I became a pious asshole. But I suspected part of my equation was wrong.

I had seen the race for money. I saw friends maxing their schedules and stressing themselves to death with extracurricular activities, all to get into a good school to get a good job. Most just landed at State U. What had they been so terrified about? I thought everyone was nuts. Again, I was getting half of the equation wrong. So of course, I ran off to a private Christian school and before I had even had my first job, watched my net worth go red to the tune of $18,000 over three semesters. This began to freak me out when my paychecks came in with maybe $150 each time. How was I ever going to pay that money back? I woke up, I even got a little crazy. I found that community college cost around $300 for an entire semester after grants, so I played some transfer games, I even paid off several small loans while I was in school, but this didn’t stop me from finishing my social science degree with $28,000 in debt.

I made the final payment on my student loans in December of 2015, only a few short years after graduating. Staying out of debt and reducing my possessions had become a real passion over time, but I was still languid, longing to figure out exactly what I wanted to do in life, especially concerned because I feared I would have to pick one thing and be stuck with it for the rest of my life. I thought of applying my software development skills to Christian missions or international development, but I had heard how this often ruined people or placed them in rather difficult positions. As a Christian I wrestled with this, believing that when God calls you to go, you go, and learn to trust. But deep down I kept thinking that there had to be a way I could game the system to support myself while I was overseas. Not that my faith was weak, I had just seen too much mismanagement of funds in the church, and rarely saw people winning with money when they had so many resources right in front of them. We were taught that possessions were not evil, but all I saw around me were people buying and hoarding, more and more. This didn’t seem to be the heart of Christ. I didn’t like the hassle of having too many things, anyway.

Enter Mr. Money Mustache, whose blog showed me that simple living and money could be combined to produce some truly amazing things. I had played with the idea of living off of investments before, but when my calculations started reaching a need for $300,000 , I gave up. MMM taught me that the math was shockingly simple, and I caught FIRE. If I could use the resources that God had given me wisely, if I could scale back my ridiculous need for stuff that had nothing to do with my goals and dreams in life, then I, too, could become financial independent and dedicate my life to those causes that so stirred me. You don’t need a master’s degree in something you hate or later get bored with in order to do what you love. And there’s a whole community dedicated to this pursuit. I’ve been yapping economics with my friends for ages, so I decided it was time to join the fray by starting this blog.

There are so many stories to tell between these paragraphs, but I’m excited to start contributing to the conversation. I love reading all the stories of the people who have made it, especially those courageous souls who pulled it off in their mid or early 30s, and I believe this conversation has been tragically missing from Christian circles. I write this blog fully knowing I will probably receive serious hate messages (once I open the comments up!), because, unfortunately, people tend to use their religion as a battering ram against others to make themselves feel better. Most people do not want to hear how you are winning with your money if they are not winning with theirs, but I write to inspire and encourage all readers, but especially Christians, so they can truly reap the rewards that come from this awareness to what truly matters.