The views expressed in this guest post are those of the author and do not express an editorial position of the Masculinist.
Aaron introduced the FIRE movement – Financial Independence, Retire Early – in Masc #46. FIRE advocates have reacted against modern consumerism, saved drastically, and built up enough of a stash to give them independence from any need to earn. You might disagree with the goal of early retirement but learning from them on how to build margin into your life is worthwhile – whatever you use that for.
I’ve been following the movement for five years now and I wanted to share a few of the lessons I’ve learned with you. For those of you who read the latest newsletter or the excellent recent Masculinist guest post and thought “but how do I do that?”, hopefully, I can help you get started.
Let me be straight. A Christian man is not going to retire at 35, in almost all cases. Doing so requires a savings rate of seventy to eighty percent. That is hard to achieve with giving as a top priority, more children than the average FIRE advocate, and more commitments preventing us from working non-stop.
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But what FIRE gets right is the advantage of margin. If you can live on half your income or less, you can give generously and still provide for your family into the future. If you use your margin wisely, it compounds and over time you can build more margin. You’ll have more antifragility, more scope for serving others, more space to give, more freedom to speak up, and more flexibility for the future.
So where do we start?
The Problem: The Lifestyle Escalator
Hedonic adaptation is the most devilish trick the world plays on the unsuspecting consumer. Human beings are made to be adaptable. If you ramp up your lifestyle, your brain adapts. A few months down the line you won’t be happier than you were, and you’ll need to ramp it up again to get the same happiness boost.
For 5 years I’ve been using the same Motorola Moto G 3rd edition that set me back the equivalent of around $150 USD in 2015. A few days ago, I sprung for a new phone which cost me more than twice that much. It brought me a lot of happiness. So sleek! So smooth! So snappy!
Four days later and it’s old hat. The only change is I am more worried about breaking it than I was about my old one. Now, I bought well within my price range, but if I’d bought a top-end iPhone at nearly $2,000, I would have had the same emotional arc. But with that expense, I’d have to drop my giving or dip deep into my savings to afford it. And every time I bought a new phone, I’d have to spend at least the same again or it would feel like a downgrade.
Take the same attitude with your car, your house, your gym, your clothes, and soon you end up in debt and desperately dependent on your job because if you lose that paycheck then your house and your car could be repossessed. You have no margin. You’re harvesting right to the edge of your fields and beyond, to use a biblical analogy.
The most helpful lesson I learned from FIRE is not to play that game.
Step off the hamster wheel. Every time you get a pay raise, allocate almost all of it to giving and saving instead of spending more. Set up an auto-transfer a few days after you get paid so that you don’t even see that money. This one step will change your life for the better in the long run.
Don’t harvest to the edge of your fields, build in margin.
The Roadmap to Building Margin – FIRE
Creating margin, avoiding lifestyle escalators, etc. It sounds great, but how do you actually do it? Consider this a miniature game plan for starting to get your finances in order. It isn’t financial advice, because I don’t know your situation. Take what is helpful and adapt it to your circumstances. But here are four things to consider.
1. Start Tracking Your Spending
Budgeting is optional. I don’t budget. I find it a mental drain with little benefit. But tracking where your money is going is not optional. If you can’t see the leaks, you can’t plug them. If you don’t know what you’re doing with the resources God has given you then you can’t steward them well.
There are many ways to do this. I prefer manually copying my expenses from my credit card and other bank statements into a spreadsheet and grouping them into categories (grocery, entertainment, giving, etc.). Some do it by hand or use a service like Mint to do it automatically. Here is one take or another or another.
It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it does need to be done.
2. Cut Your Transport Costs
Do not buy a car with debt. There may be exceptions to this rule but they are vanishingly rare. And never, ever buy a new car. As soon as you drive it off the lot its value plummets, and it only ever goes down.
Live as close to the church and work as you can, and seriously consider biking for a free workout while saving money on car costs. Live with one car if possible. Maintain it well and save up for the next one so you can buy it in cash. Trent Hamm has a good game plan here.
2. Live in a Smaller Home
Housing should be 25% of your take-home pay, max. Ideally, it would be a lot less. I’ve been on the other end of this and it is rough. We ended up paying rent and two mortgages at the same time for a few months last year. It was more than my entire salary and we lived off my wife’s income. Bad news. Both our jobs are secure, and we had savings, but it was still stressful to know that if one of us lost work we couldn’t meet our living costs.
You need less space than you think. Here in the United Kingdom, our houses are much smaller than in the US and we do just fine (see the graph below comparing housing sizes by country). And when it comes to houses you should always buy less than you can afford. Even if you’re married and both working, your housing costs plus your key bills (utilities, etc) should always come to less than one salary, in case one of you loses your job.
All you need in a house is a location with minimal commuting (see above), space for everyone to sleep, a working kitchen, and a space for showing hospitality. Consider anything above that an optional extra and be grateful to God if you can afford it while keeping housing costs low.
4. Learn to Cook
Learn to cook. That’s it, that’s the advice. Look, there are a thousand blogs already telling you how and why to do this. It’s healthier, it’s cheaper, it’s more hospitable – and it is not that hard. Honest.
I can’t speak for the USA, but over here eating out would set us back £10-15 per person for a meal I could make at home for £2 each. Even at half the price that adds up. And with young kids, it’s not like eating out will save on time and stress!
One of the best things I ever did for our finances was learning to master my favorite meals at home. It kills the motivation to eat out if you know you’ll just be paying more for something that will probably disappoint. The fact that I know I can make a better burger at home than any I could order in is a powerful motivation to eat at home.
Pack lunch. Don’t snack. Fast more. Drink water instead of soda, make your own coffee. All of this adds up to plug those leaks.
If you start tracking your spending, then nail transport, housing, and food, you’re most of the way there. Pick one, right now. Brainstorm a few ways you could cut those costs. Commit now to living with enough margin to make a difference.
After you’ve done that, you can check out more information on the FIRE movement from the links below. It tends to be largely secular, and like all online media, often exaggerated. Use discernment.
Monevator – This site is UK based and investment focused, but they do a good “weekend reading” post which covers a lot of the US sites too and serves as a good springboard into other finance sites.
The Escape Artist – UK based
The Simple Dollar – I would only bother with the articles by Trent Hamm and skip the rest.
Morgan Housel – Morgan focuses on the psychology and philosophy of money and is incredibly insightful, but won’t help with practical tactics. The best introduction would be his book “the psychology of money” but you can read his blog posts as well.