I found financial freedom in a chocolate bar.
Of course I did.
It’s not like it was an ingredient or anything. It’s more like it was a lingering effect (which is a vast improvement over the “what have I done!?” feeling). I’ve been waiting my whole life for chocolate to be a metaphor, and it finally happened.
If you must know–and really, you must–it was a piece of dark sea salt caramel chocolate. It is fair trade and costs more than $2 for five measly pieces despite the fact that it’s sold at Aldi.
It’s one of the first things I cut from the grocery list when I’m feeling particularly parsimonious. Most months, I wear that $200 grocery budget like a badge of honor. But sometimes, I want extra chocolate. And I buy it.
And that right there is how I know I’ve found financial freedom.
As our financial situation has improved over time, we’ve made different choices to engineer a kind of freedom in our day-to-day lives. While not every decision gets the gold seal of approval from everyone in the personal finance world and some people might take issue with my use of the word freedom…my blog, my rules.
Plus, I’m not sure there’s a better word for realizing that our lives can be full of all the choice and chocolate we want.
Gluttony. I suppose there is that.
Our E-Fund is Excessive
And by excessive, I mean perfect. One of the most frequent questions that I must not realize I ask (why else would I get all the unsolicited advice?!) on Twitter is related to the size of our emergency fund. It is delightfully plump.
It’s also been called wasteful and silly. There’s the fact that it doesn’t keep pace with inflation because it’s far too liquid. It’s both time and money removed from the market that I can never get back.
But there’s also this: work emails don’t bother me anymore. Not like they used to. You know what I’m talking about. The cryptic “See me for a meeting a x o’clock” summons from a supervisor.
As a naturally anxious person, those emails will never not bother me. But I’ve learned to care less. Why? Because I can. I don’t have enough money to consider myself financially independent, but I do have a enough money to hold us over until I get a new teaching contract.
You know. In case one of those emails actually is the life-altering scenario my worry-wart self conjures up.
Our Budget Has a Buffer
We are not rolling in dough, but our income is healthy. We both have graduate degrees, so things are looking better than they ever have on the income front. Things are good.
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While I do adjust our budget upward to account for raises, most of the money gets funneled straight into savings. Still, we do have a bit of wiggle room in the sense that we usually earn $100-$200 more per month than our budget requires.
Sloppy spreadsheet work, right? This buffer is actually by design. Anything that doesn’t get spent gets sent to savings. But I also let myself relax a little bit in the grocery lane now.
It doesn’t matter if we go a little over on groceries one month. And I’ll certainly never think twice about spending extra money on charitable giving again. There’s freedom in not thinking twice, and in going slightly over budget when it aligns with your values–whether that’s chocolate or kindness or both.
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And So Does Our Checking Account
First my spreadsheets are a mess, and now I’m going to reveal the same thing about our checking account. We always keep a couple hundred dollars extra in our account. While you could certainly argue that this is sheer laziness, I’m happy with this choice.
I want that buffer. I sleep better with that buffer. I could set up overdraft protection instead, but I’m not going to.
Because my husband and I are both teachers, that means that
we are both early-30s-going-on-90 our profession is a bit behind the times in terms of money. There’s no PayPal. There’s no Venmo. Actually, that’s a lie. Once, I suggested we use one of the newfangled apps to make money collection simpler, and it went over about as well as that one meeting where our boss gave everyone the bad news that the Scan-tron machine died and wouldn’t be replaced because that hasn’t been considered new technology since I was in 4th grade.
All that to say we write a fair amount of checks. I subscribe to the Celebrate Everything philosophy. That means that there is not a shower, a wedding, or a fundraiser that I don’t participate in. I never want to have to wonder if I’m dipping into our account the same day my husband is.
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It’s overdraft protection without the initial set up or feeling like I’ve done something really naughty. It works for me, and it reduces my stress. Let’s not fix what isn’t broke, mkay?
Our Income Streams are Flowing
For a long time, our multiple income streams were tied directly to our jobs. Enrichment hours, homework clubs, cafeteria supervision, coaching (my husband, not me, because I trip on flat ground).
While we still make it a point to pick up extra income through our careers, we also hustle on the side. From refereeing and painting to freelancing and ghostwriting, we’ve found side gigs that we love.
The real bonus comes from the fact that any of these side gigs would be useful in a worst-case scenario.
If we had to hold our budget over during a job loss and didn’t want to dip into our emergency fund, we could. These side gigs are also what allowed me to take the longest leave I could (A whole 12 weeks! Thanks, FMLA!) without worrying about the fact that it was unpaid.
As someone who is comforted by the expected and is even less flexible that Ross’s couch (not even yoga can make me bendy), I hope to never have to pivot. But there’s a great deal of freedom in knowing that I can.
The Concept of Work Doesn’t Bother Me
I spend a lot of time hanging out with people virtually who hate their jobs. That’s good and bad.
It’s good because it’s helped me realize that there is life beyond my profession. Teaching is part of who I am. It’s in my blood. It’s my passion, and it’s part of my identity. But it isn’t all of me. Spending time with people who don’t have this experience has made me realize that it’s OK and good and wonderful to find fulfillment in other things. I’m thankful for that perspective.
But I also know that misery loves company. So I think I spent a lot of time worrying about the fact that I’m still working for no real reason other than the fact that everyone else seems to.
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Do I have a FI date? Please. I don’t even have a net worth spreadsheet. You think I have a FI date? (I can retire with a full pension at 55, so I guess I do. 55 or sooner. Go math.)
I clearly don’t have financial independence on the immediate horizon, but the golden handcuffs everyone loves to hate? They don’t bother me. I’m glad to collect a paycheck, but I’m also actually really happy to go to work.
Having the freedom to do what I love is financial freedom. Even if it isn’t the highest paying field or even if I had to shell out big time to earn my raises, I chose my job because it’s what I wanted to do with my time. And I continue to choose my job for the same reasons.
I know we really love to celebrate people who were able to retire early at 50 or 40 or 30, but you know what? I’ve been doing what I love since I was 22, and now I’m getting paid well to continue to do it. So I’m going to celebrate that, too.
Final Thoughts on Financial Freedom Without the FI
I’m not financially independent. I don’t have a FI date. I’m not even sure how to pronounce FI if I’m being entirely truthful.
But I have financial freedom. I don’t have to worry about every dollar or every penny. I can make meaningful decisions based not only on financial considerations, but on values and needs, wishes and desires. I still go to work every week, but I feel pretty darn free.
So Tell Me…Have you ever gotten a taste of financial freedom? How did you do it? What did it look like to you?