If life is about choices, how is it fair that so many are determined by someone or something else? We’re all born into an unwilling set of circumstances predetermined by someone else. Were you raised by a stable family? Two parents? Did you have access to high-speed internet or was finding clean water the priority?
Did you struggle with a disability, something that might hold you back? Or were you gifted with tools you need to succeed fully formed in your very flesh?
We have no control over the environment we begin with. You might be raised to value every dollar—every penny. Or maybe it flows through your hands like water—seemingly unlimited at the twist of a tap.
Today, I want to talk a little about how your life is about choices and where those choices will lead you to financial independence with the option of early retirement.
Life Is About Choices
Personal relationships, creations, experiences, and riches add together to form your life’s wealth. Your choices are connected to where you begin in life which both shape your wealth.
Your beginnings form the denominator of your life. The hardships stack up to raise the difficulty while advantages might even bring the denominator below one. It’s your social environment or milieu.
But it’s the numerator that you control in your life. It’s built up by all the choices you make, forming your determination. Every time you choose to do that extra set in your workout routine, delay gratification, and save instead of spend—you add to your life’s numerator.
What you control in this equation is your choices and your will to complete them. That’s your determination. Most of this article will focus on this—your life’s choices—and the circle of control in which they’re found.
The normal path to life
But first, I need to get a little hard pill to swallow out of the way.
This is a hard truth—the choices you make to create the life ahead of you are less driven by your own internal, natural motivations than they are by the society and environment around you.
Think about it.
Why do most of us generally do the same thing? Is it purely a coincidence that most of us accept being choiceless children until age 18, at which point we should form the desire to earn a living, raise a family, and repeat until about age 65?
Is that really just the natural progression being human dictates?
You, the other people in your household, your neighbors, your family—they follow this same progression. As did your recent ancestors and so will your descendants.
Life doesn’t just happen
But that’s not to say you’re an automaton following orders from cradle to grave. No, you’re a being with free will. Life doesn’t just happen.
So why is it that so many of us in modern society follow a similar, predictable timeline and progression to life?
The answer is in the question.
From the start, we’re taught what we “need”. We’re pressured to accept a vision of what we should want. It’s in the marketing and ads beaming at you from one step to the next.
If you’re like me, you might think “ads don’t work on me!”. And they might not, at least on the individual product level. But the constant pulse of marketing across categories of consumption creates an illusion of what an idealistic life should represent.
It’s not necessarily the fancy vortex-creating-vacuum in the foreground. Rather, it’s the starkly clean living room with modern lines in the background. It’s not so much the brand new rolling couch with a bowtie on the front grille, as much as it is the notion of improved safety and active cruise control.
Marketing might not get you to buy the car featured in the ad, but it might plant the seed for you to buy a car.
The cycle of consumption
Your subconscious doesn’t know it needs the thing until it is told it does.
And if you still don’t believe marketing works on you, well, it works on just about everyone else around you.
The most valuable company in the US is nothing if not a marketing powerhouse. Their products and services almost certainly surround your daily life—whether you use them or those close to you do. It’s not because they make everyday necessities—toothbrushes or glassware.
It’s because they showed you what to want. You might have heard this quote before, which is attributed to their founder:
People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.
Apple’s Steve Jobs was a master marketer who understood how to create desire in the consumer’s heart for something they never even knew they wanted. That vision is what propelled the company to today’s $2T value.
And as those around you are influenced, so, too are you. It’d be silly to not think your closest friends and family don’t influence your decisions.
Our capitalist, consumer culture thrives on a never-ending churn of new and better. While that churn has undoubtedly led to the prosperous, advanced society we have today—it can also be a dangerous tumult that’ll drown you in debt as you leap from one want to the next.
If you want freedom from the consumer cycle and 9-5 drudgery, it’s your choice. While there’s pressure from auto manufacturers to buy their oversized, high-margin vehicles—it’s your choice to accept it.
Marketing will try to convince you that extra marginal safety—frequently an illusion—is worth you trading another year or two of your life working. But it’s your choice to hunt down the used, high-efficiency hatchback with the depreciation already built-in.
“Money is cheap right now, so finance a new vehicle, finance a new construction house!”, they’ll tell you.
It’s not inaccurate to say that interest rates are low, money is dirt cheap. Given equal circumstances, I’d rather carry debt at 3% and invest the balance.
The trick is in the framing
But circumstances, objectively viewed, are rarely equal.
Salespeople frame the decision between paying cash or financing with cheap money as if the choice is already made to buy new. Really, it’s the third choice—buying used—that often makes the most financial sense.
The cheap money argument is made to convince you to buy the $40K cabin-on-wheels-with-a-bed you’ll rarely use instead of considering the high-efficiency hatchback for $10K. Set aside a grand and rent the pickup on the rare occasion you really need it. Or better yet, use your friend’s utility vehicle when you need it and cover some of their bills as thanks. You both win.
New car marketing today is similar to housing.
Money is cheap so buy the most expensive house your financing qualifies you for. Build so you can get just what you want and spend months learning about all the options as you’re slowly convinced to spend more. You’ll need this particular stone, a certain kind of floor, multizone AC, and on the list goes.
It’s financial death through a thousand paper cuts.
And all that extra housing means two things:
- It’s more space to heat, cool, and maintain
- There’s more furniture required to fill and decorate each room
The more energy and money you put into housing and vehicles, the more you identify with them. As the old minimalist saying goes, your stuff starts to own you.
When you’ve sunk so much of yourself into attaining and supporting these things, will you be as willing to divorce yourself from them if an opportunity arises that would create more wealth or fulfillment in your life?
“Putting down roots” like this is often framed as a positive thing. It means stability. But virtually by definition it also means limiting your choices.
What if you had the choice to live your life as you please?
The thing is, if you live any sort of middle-class Western lifestyle, you almost certainly do have the choice.
In this rich world, the hardest decision is to say “no”, to not succumb to the pressure of your social circle and follow them over the ledge.
No one wants to be alone or to feel they made the wrong decision, so consciously or subconsciously, they’ll want to drag you into the same wasteful, hamster-wheel-driven lifestyle they have.
Here’s just a few random examples I can think of:
- It’s $200 tabs on the weekends instead of backyard grilling. Socializing and coming together where everyone pitches in can be more intimate and interesting than a loud bar, if less flashy.
- New release media and gizmos instead of waiting a year for the hot new to cool off. You survived for however many decades you’ve lived without it, why not wait just a bit longer and get it for half the cost? Once you start doing this, you wind up with a buffer of entertainment and gadgets ahead of you at a much lower cost while still adding novelties to life.
- Those insidious Joneses and their “keeping up”. People often think this is obvious and clear: “my neighbor bought a BMW, I can avoid doing the same thing!”. But it’s more subtle and from more direct connections. You watch your friends and family slowly upgrade their life and you get a little jealous if not outright feel embarrassed by what you lack in comparison.
And of course there’s countless other examples of purchasing and lifestyle decisions throughout life that will contribute to limiting the choices you have with your time.
McMansions and Lattes. You know the drill.
But what you might miss in this dead horse of personal finance is nuance.
A sustainable path
For most of us, it’s not avoiding everything. Rather, it’s avoiding most of it. It’s making good financial decisions most of the time. It’s O.K. to spend lavishly on what you truly care about—what leaves you a content and satisfied person within your own life.
But cut what you don’t care about ruthlessly. Focus on what matters.
Reaching financial independence doesn’t require you to make 100% perfect decisions. Every time you step up to the plate doesn’t have to be a home run. You just need to be consistent and Pareto principle your way to financial freedom.
Aim for 80%. Hit those singles.
The strongest piece of advice I can offer that explains how Jenni and I became millionaires in 10 years, answered how much money is enough for us, and began the trek towards early retirement is to set up a sustainable path to financial independence.
The key is sustainability.
Are Coach purses kind of dumb purchase? Yep.
Are in-game micro transactions for video games an absurd use of money? Uh huh.
But if that’s the thing that lets you live dramatically below your means and save 50% of your income, happily, then a $500 purchase once a year isn’t going to significantly impact your trajectory.
But you know what will affect your path to financial independence? Overcommitting to saving and living a dull, unsustainable life that leads you to pull the plug only a few years into your progress. It can’t feel like deprivation.
Don’t miss the forest for the trees.
Being frugal vs cheap is knowing what’s valuable and willingly spending there. And sometimes what’s valuable is subjective. Don’t be cheap with what matters to you.
Life Is About Choices and the Decisions We Make
Much to life outside of your control: the place you’re born into, how you’re raised, the social environment you exist within. Your personal milieu is predetermined.
But there’s much you can control. The decision points throughout life serve as guide stones laid out on the history of you. It’s your personal tapestry of life’s risks.
An intentional decision to forgo the destructive nature of gambling or addictive substances adds just a little dose of willpower for your next challenge.
Each time you take the hard road to build up your frugality muscle, each intentional decision to plan and prepare—they form your determination.
It’s the part of life you have distinct and personal control over.
That determination will aid you in reaching financial independence and building life’s wealth.
You’ll open up a new set of choices few others reach:
Would you work if you didn’t have to?
What’s the best way to spend your time?
Would the act of bringing new ideas into the world even be “work” anymore if money didn’t matter (I’d argue the purpose of work is to create)?
And how will you give back to enable others to achieve the same?
Life is about choices. And you make them.