By Darrow Kirkpatrick
Ronald Grant Archive / Mary Evans / Everett Collection
Every significant accomplishment in life requires trade-offs. It’s the law of cause and effect.
If you want to be an Olympic athlete, you’ll be training while others are relaxing. If you want to be a doctor, you’ll be grinding through medical school and long hours of residency while others are sleeping. If you want to be an entrepreneur, you’ll be working for years to implement the details and realize your vision, while others are spending more time with family.
It’s the same with financial independence and early retirement. Achieving those goals will require doing some things very differently from the rest of the population. To some, those differences will appear to be “sacrifices.”
Occasionally, I hear people express jealousy of my lifestyle. It is true that I enjoy enormous freedom now, thanks to the financial flexibility I achieved via saving aggressively and investing wisely throughout my career.
But it’s not true that I can do anything I want. And it’s not true that I have everything I could want in life. I gave up significant items that many of those who are still working take for granted. The important point is that those things weren’t as important to me as financial freedom.
To find out what I lost, and whether I have any regrets, read on….
There was a time when I had fancy executive titles at a growing software company, dominant in its field. The company looked to me for technical direction, and my views on the future significantly impacted our products and services. I had a half-dozen engineers reporting to me, and many more people looking my way for guidance. I made hiring/firing and technology decisions that determined whether we would succeed or fail. Our company became known as an innovator, a progressive source of new ideas. I wrote articles for trade publications and presented at conferences. We were well-known in the business.
That kind of corporate status and power are no more in my life. My impact on the software world is ancient history, held in dusty technical journals and occasional recollections by former colleagues.
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Many of those colleagues went on to senior positions in the corporation. I’m proud of them. As the company was acquired, expanded into new markets, and grew vastly in scope, they’ve exercised more power than I ever did.
I occasionally wonder what would have happened had I stayed. But holding an executive title in the corporate hierarchy of a mature company wasn’t my path. I thrived in a flexible, creative, entrepreneurial environment on the bleeding edge of new technology. The staid corporate world of hierarchies and policies, annual plans and endless meetings was not for me. And I left it as soon as I could afford to.
It’s been more than a decade since I controlled significant business resources. Personally, that’s not a problem. As a textbook introvert, not only don’t I crave that kind of worldly power, but in most cases in my life I’ve run away from exercising it.
Yet there is at least one purpose for which I miss power: the ability to make positive changes in the world. It’s harder to do that if you have little say over how groups of people spend their time and money. We are facing many problems as a society that would benefit from the wise use of power and leadership.
Fortunately, my blog and books have had some impact on the world. More than a half-million visitors encounter these pages every year. And my books have sold thousands of copies. That gives me some small say in worldly matters, even in retirement, and for that I’m grateful. I hope I’ve been a positive voice for reducing consumption, investing wisely, and pursuing your highest calling in life instead of a paycheck, once that has become optional.
And I don’t want to downplay the importance of achieving power over yourself and your own life. That kind of personal freedom is where positive change in the world can start.
Big beautiful house
What’s the largest single purchase that the average person ever makes? Their home, of course.
Since a key component in the financial plan of anybody focused on becoming financially independent and retiring early is controlling expenses, it stands to reason that you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck by economizing on your dwelling.
Some will argue that a house is an “investment” that can actually serve your long-term wealth-building plans. And that can be true for some people, in some markets. In particular, if you have the skill set and interest for cost-effective do-it-yourself home improvements, you can add significant equity to your ownership. And if you are fortunate enough to live in an appreciating area during a rising real-estate market, that can add wind to your financial sails.
But those conditions are far from being the slam dunk they were in generations past. And if you require a fancy house to be happy, the wealth it represents won’t do much to build your financial independence.
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There is no question that having modest taste in houses is a major asset on the path to financial independence. Fortunately, my wife and I are of that mindset. Only once in our married life of over 30 years now have we lived in a house that cost above the median or would be perceived as “fancy” by most people.
We rented that house for a year in tony Connecticut. I remember the initial buzz of moving into the beautiful new construction on a large lot in the country. Enormous rooms, hardwood floors, stone fireplace, high-end kitchen appliances and bath fixtures, beautiful trim everywhere. But as the year progressed, I grew disenchanted. The large rooms were impersonal. The location was inconvenient. And with work pressures mounting and the desire for financial independence dawning in my mind, the high rent looked like a drag on our eventual freedom.
If my wife and I could wave a magic wand and suddenly be transported to an upscale, perfectly decorated, three-bedroom green home with no maintenance, we would. But our daily priorities prove that we really don’t care that much. We are happy enough in our pleasantly worn two-bedroom townhome rental. We don’t miss managing renovations or fixing toilets, and we don’t have time for it. Over the years, we’ve found that house remodeling and maintenance are stressful and expensive for us. It’s questionable whether our quality of life would be improved by engaging in any more of it.
I know there are plenty of people out there who can easily drop $10,000 on furniture or $40,000 on a bathroom or kitchen remodel. Not me. I couldn’t possibly get enough enjoyment out of those things to justify the life energy (working hours) I would have to trade for them. I’d rather put some of that money into free time for camping and traveling .