Mr. Zero and I are in pursuit of financial independence. If you’ve read his posts, you know that we have a timeline, a very well-defined plan taking into account FIRE (Financial Independence and Retiring Early), college tuitions, healthcare costs, etc. It’s all right to assume that every time we move forward within the plan, we get pleasure meeting a goal.
I begin this self-analysis as Part 2 of my post about Dale Carnegie. His remarks on the human need for feeling valuable had caused me to look at everyone around me to see how they derived pleasure. He said, “If our ancestors hadn’t had this flaming urge for a feeling of importance, civilization would have been impossible. Without it, we should have been just about like the animals.” Then, I wondered to myself, “How have I pursued the pleasure of feeling special?”
I didn’t always get our pleasure from transferring money into savings or buying investment products. I can remember times when planning for retirement was burden. Let’s go way back-way, way back-to the year 2000.
In the late summer of 2000, I got 2 pieces of excellent news within one week. First, I found out I was pregnant with my first son. Just five days later, I was finally offered a job teaching. I knew the school couldn’t renege, but all the same, I was quivering as I told the principal that I was expecting a baby the next March. He sighed with relief saying that he thought I was going to tell them that I had taken another job. I sighed with relief that I finally had my first professional job. My feelings importance and power had just skyrocketed as well. Soon I would be getting a PAYCHECK and sharing my love of English with young teens! We would be paying down debts and saving money to build a nest for our new baby.
Before school began, the school district sent me an benefits orientation appointment to sign contracts and forms. I ate a saltine to stave my morning sickness and drove to the orientation. Once I arrived, I settled with the other new teachers to find out about the wonderful benefits that we would receive.
As I signed my contract, the HR lady explained our benefits. We would become members of the State Employee Retirement System. I had been so distracted by all the other details of becoming a teacher, I hadn’t even thought about the fact that in 30 years, my career as a schoolteacher would end, and I would be getting a pension.
Then Mrs. HR Lady dropped the bomb. I would have 6.5% of my salary deducted out of every paycheck. A shock ran through my body as she said told my group.
“Is that optional?” I blurted. Everyone looked at me in horror. The HR lady replied, “Why, no, Honey, It’s part of being an employee of the state.”
“Well, what if I can’t afford that much?” I stammered. She looked at me sweetly and said, “You should just let your husband worry about the bills. I do. This job is for my pocket money.”
I felt tears in my eyes because I knew I couldn’t afford to lose even a penny of what I was making. Not only was it required, but I couldn’t choose how much I could put in. We were in debt, pregnant, and constantly checking our checking account to make sure we didn’t overdraw. And NOW they were going to take away 6.5% of MY money!
I wasn’t worried about retirement. I was hoping to pay down debt before our baby was born. Retirement seemed a lifetime away. My starting salary would be ~$25000. That meant about 2 months rent was going to be taken from my paycheck or around 16 weeks of groceries! I also learned that because I had virtually no sick days accrued, I would be docked for every day I stayed home on maternity leave. I learned that I was only allowed 6 weeks off for the birth of my child (which I couldn’t afford). Because I had not worked for the state for a year, I didn’t qualify for the Family Medical Leave Act. Ouch! Welcome to the real world, Mrs. Zero!
My naive righteousness was immediately blown away as the realization that I was a newby and few options and little power.
So-my first exposure to retirement planning was forced upon me. I perceived this future planning was at the expense of necessary and immediate security. I know that $1625 doesn’t seem like much money to “save” for the future. However, as lots of those little expenses began to pop up, there was a feeling that Mr. Zero and I would never get ahead. The future started to seem not so bright. In fact it felt more like heavy clouds spreading to the horizon-I’m not being hyperbolic-I was feeling pretty depressed and pregnant with an unknown future. Accepting my dues, I tried to focus on the more immediate challenges of teaching in a poverty-stricken neighborhood.
As a new teacher, I pursued the satisfaction of planning beautiful teaching moments, only to find myself disheartened when I realized my students were worried about who (besides me) was pregnant, expelled, home from jail. They identified with many of the characters we read about, but they weren’t inspired to analyze the texts further than identification with the disenfranchised. I struggled through this time period eating loads of ice cream and playing video games. These temporary pleasures held back the tidal wave of futility. Not only was I not able to see how to make a difference in young peoples lives, I felt the despair of not knowing how to improve my life (as well as Mr. Zero’s). My mantra became “ENDURE-You are a Steel Magnolia.”
The struggle for self-worth did not end there. I was thoroughly unprepared to nurture and care for Zero #1 when he arrived. He cried so often in those first days, I thought I would break in two-with part of me holding onto baby Zero for dear life as the other ran screaming into the woods. I was hypercritical of myself and felt that I probably wasn’t worth this gift of motherhood. And yet I kept going. Mr. Zero had more to do with that than he knows. When I looked into his eyes, I felt loved, accepted, and valued. And so I said to myself, “ENDURE-You are a Steel Magnolia.”
Just after the birth of Zero #1, Mr. Zero had begun the male form of nesting. We had paid down debts, and we qualified for a mortgage to purchase a home for our little family. We moved into our house, and I spent a wonderful summer getting to know my little baby Zero #1. Our relationship had bloomed as I became more confident of my mothering skills and his little digestive system settled down. It was with a heavy heart that I returned to work and Mr. Zero took up the responsibility of dropping Zero #1 off everyday at 6:30 a.m for 11 hours of daycare.
By this time, we had become more financially responsible, but there was little joy in saving. Quickly after we bought a house, we bought a little boat and prepared a garden. These were actually luxuries that we could pay for, but we could not afford. They gave us the feeling that we were on the right track for success-an external acknowledgement of our growing importance in the world. We had a baby, a house, a boat, one newish truck, and a garden. If we had looked at our bank accounts, however, they did not suggest that we were on the right track at all. In fact, as we gave ourselves the rewards of success, our debts began to accumulate again.
It was often easier to look out at the garden in the backyard than it was to check the bank account. Those sneaky credit cards begged us to make non-essential purchases (with no interest for 6 months!), but we kept our grocery bill at $100 a week. We needed only to keep an eye on those minimum payments on the credit cards to make sure we could make the bills every month. Month by month, ignoring the elephant in the room became more and more painful, sucking the joy out of all our stuff.
Around this time, we received two books for Christmas. We laughed cynically at The Millionaire Next Door, but we looked tentatively at Dave Ramsey’s Handbook called Priceless. Following some of Ramsey’s methods for getting into financial shape became a life changer. We finally looked fully at our finances and began to enjoy the game of getting ourselves out of debt. Instead of going out shopping, we stayed home and analyzed our budget. I will dare to say we derived pleasure from our new sense of purpose. We began to feel more empowered and positive about our trajectory. Yes, life still seemed difficult. But as we watched our debts begin to shrink once again and we started a small savings account, we started to really ponder our present situation and future situation.
Struggling to get $1000 in a bank account is a humbling experience. We had entirely avoided this feeling in the past by not ever trying to save. Now we had to scrape together a few dollars here and there just to get to $1000, and pinching every penny knocked us down a peg. Would this be what life would be like for the 30 years before us? How meaningless it can feel to work one’s ass off AND deprive one’s self of any material pleasures!
Lying in our hammock one evening, Mr. Zero and I began to talk about this difficult situation. This life was not what we expected. What were the options to escape it? We still had student loans and a slowly shrinking snowball of debt, so we couldn’t give everything up and go camping in the backwoods forever. We were the responsible types, hoping to repair our situation rather than run full-tilt away from it. That evening, we decided that we needed to begin exploring other possibilities.
We asked ourselves, “What do we want?”
We replied, “WE want to raise our son-not let a daycare do it, we want to start eating better, and we want to be financially secure.” One option would be to sell our house and move into a trailer. I could quit working… Almost half my salary went to work-related costs anyway. We laughed at the thought of moving into a house on wheels and made plans to investigate other housing options. We did begin to renovate our home though with the intention to sell it.
A few months later, Mr. Zero had the offer of a short expat assignment. We sold our house at break even, I quit my job, and we went for an 18 month adventure while we reset our spending once again and finished paying down our debts. During this period of financial security, we realized how awesome it was to split the family duties between bacon-maker and bacon-fryer. Then we had a second Zero! Looking back now, I wonder if our sense of value increased as our separate roles in the family became more specialized. We were happy in a way that we hadn’t been before. Mr. Zero focused on his career with passion, and I focused on becoming our chef and caretaker.
Upon return to the US, it became increasingly obvious that whether we enjoyed my “Stay-at-Home” mom status or not, I would have to get back to teaching. Our savings was slipping away as each month brought new expenses. Again, we sat down for a talk-a “State of our Union” analysis. I would begin my search for a job, and Mr. Zero would begin his own search to see what might turn up. By this point we had two children and a couple of years before public school would kick in.
As the last vestige of savings was disappearing, Mr. Zero found a new job with better pay and in a modest town. Not only would we be able to buy a bigger home, I would be able to stay at home and care for us. We would have the ability to restart our financial goals while doing what we loved. Did we continue to look at our financial goals as a source of pleasure then?
Nope-we kind of forgot about those with the exception of the 401K. I found my pleasure in going to Lowe’s to buy new shrubs and flowers or to the Gap to outfit the boys in adorable polo shirts with little bear insignias. We had a third Zero! Those pleasures seem moderate, not too indulgent, right? Wouldn’t anyone want to have a nice looking yard and precious boys in collared shirts? I found my value in the prestige of staying at home and taking care of us. I got involved in church and volunteering. I wandered to many hobbies and social circles looking for my worth, but instead I found envy and the desire for more. No matter how diligently I worked against it, I couldn’t help but wish to be more like everyone I admired (and just a little better). This niggly green-eyed monster steered me on a course of feeling less and less self-worth, and I started to wonder if this was all life would have to offer. Everyone else seemed basically happy, so what was wrong with me?
Because we couldn’t afford any type of real vacation, we decided to invest in loads of free vacations. With Mr. Zero’s annual bonus, we purchased two canoes, and we began taking weekends on rivers. Something magical happened on those hours of floating through serene pools of water and navigating through small whitewater rapids on our own. Our hearts became serene with satisfaction. We were experiencing a clean pleasure that would echo through our workdays. At all free moments, we planned new and exciting trips with an explosion of passion.
What was giving our lives this new sense of fulfillment? It was the same thing to which all Outward Bound programs aspire. We gained a sense of mastery and competence in increasingly challenging situations which stimulated a self-confidence that replaced the need for outward symbols. Value came from the inside.
When I was younger, I had felt this satisfying happiness after accomplishing challenging physical activities, but I always associated it with the pleasure of mastery. I had never thought of it in terms of how my intrinsic value was shaped by my self-perception. I thought that those outdoor activities were fun. However, I believed that my actual worth was directly related to my reflection in the mirror and in other people’s eyes. Our canoe adventures kindled a small fire of self-worth within me. Only now do I realize that those days of guiding my canoe into new waters would be influential in changing my mindset of what was important for me to be happy.
Since our canoe trips, we have received many opportunities to have more adventures as we re-entered life abroad. And not only that, we have had the opportunity to save. And as our savings became more than that $1000, we have had the realization that we don’t really need so many symbols of success. What we needed was the financial freedom to canoe or sail or camp any, and every, day we choose. Within that epiphany, we began to find pleasure in saving and investing. Feeding the sailing kitty monthly became a celebration-a fun challenge.
I must repeat. I cannot state it forcefully enough. Value comes from within. A beautiful, well-appointed home is still only a dwelling if the owner sits inside feeling an aura of discontent. Toys are fun for a while, but they become boring because they don’t have intrinsic value. Designer clothes may exude success, but the wearer may still be an unhappy a-hole. Finally a flawless haircut or perfect makeup may someone feel gorgeous (and even important), but it may be hiding a pitiful porcupine. A sustainable sense of meaning can only come from realizing and growing your REAL net worth-your self worth. Only then will it be easier to put aside the desire for material goods that make life “look” good.
Financial planning also comes easily when you have a clear goal in front of you. We want to be pursuing that pleasure we found paddling our canoes, adjusting sails on a sailboat, challenging our boys and each other cliff-jump (when appropriate). We want to continue to grow our net self-worth and we hope to help others along the way. But in order to have our choice of adventures, our first step is reaching that FIRE date.
What goal do you have in your life aside from financial security?