On the path to financial independence, or “FI”, it’s easy to become excessively focused on money. We stress about our investments, our retirement accounts and optimizing spending.
We are chasing that finish line at the end of the tedious race of the 9-to-5 and it’s no surprise why. The corporate culture has become toxic in some companies, and the average employee is exhausted trying to keep up with day-to-day life.
If you had a magic genie that was able to grant you one wish, what would you wish for?
I know, that’s the easy answer, that’s what most of us would wish for…I know I probably would.
But how much money…$1 million?
OK come on, who am I kidding, this is a magic genie we are talking about here…we can have whatever we want! Let’s think big now…One trillion?
There you go, that’s more like it! That ought to afford us any kind of lifestyle we could ever dream of.
Maybe you aren’t obsessed with money like the rest of us, maybe you would want to find the love of your life? That would be amazing right?
Or maybe it’s something much deeper….Maybe you would wish to repair your troubled marriage and live happily ever after with your spouse and children.
Whatever it is any of us can come up with to ask our genie for, what is the true underlying reason we want those things?
It isn’t rocket science.
Read: Here’s why you shouldn’t retire super early — even if you can
Our ultimate concern
The one thing that most people ultimately want is to be happy. You could stop any random person on the street, from the most crooked felon bank robber to the holiest Sunday school teacher and ask, “Do you want to be happy?”
Obviously, they will say yes. We all want to be happy, and that is why we do most of the things we do.
We are all in this constant pursuit of happiness. And the dream, our deepest hope, is that one day soon we catch up to happiness.
In the FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) community, we have found a cheat code. A life hack that buys us back our freedom. Once we hit this mystical FI number, we will essentially be free. We will escape the rat race and live life on our own terms.
Ask yourself, why do you want to be free?
Well at least free from your 9-to-5. Why do any of us want to escape the rat race and buy our time back?
I know, you want to escape the toxic corporate culture. You want to spend more time with your family. You want to travel the world. You want to be happy.
Read: Why early retirement is all it’s cracked up to be
The new FI equation
You want to be free because somewhere deep down you believe freedom will ultimately lead to happiness.
So in essence our new FI equation (at least the one we’ve cooked up in our heads) is:
FI = Annual Expenses x 25 = Happiness
Now that might be a little too black and white, but I think we can all agree, we are on the pursuit of FI in the hopes that it somehow leads us down a path that runs into happiness.
Let’s take that a step further.
Let’s look ahead to 10 years after you began this journey. Congratulations, you’ve finally hit financial independence.
When you buy back all your time, what are you going to do with all that time? Travel the world? You probably have a list of countries you’ve been dying to go to right?
Well you can probably knock that dream out within a couple of years. So what else? Are you going to travel the world, come back and stop being happy?
So what else are you going to do?
Spend more time with your loved ones? That’s another awesome goal, but after a while I’m sure that will cease to make you happy.
Personally after about two weeks, I need a little break from my loved ones (ha, ha), but you get the point, spending time with family is absolutely one of the reasons I am pursuing FI, but I really don’t think that alone will keep me happy.
So what is it? How do we plan to achieve this ever-elusive goal of happiness after we hit FI?
Read: What this early retiree would tell his 23-year-old self about money and life
Maybe you already have what you want
I heard a story once about a fisherman. This fisherman was one of the best in his town. He would spend most his free time fishing by the lake. He was so talented, he could catch tons and tons of fish…And give it away to friends and family.
Different sizes, different types of fish. His technique was so amazing, most people called it a gift from God.
One day, one of his close friends pulled him to the side and said, “Scott, what are you doing? You can sell all this fish you are catching and make boat loads of money. You could be so rich, and have so much money you don’t even know what to do with it.”
Scott said, “OK, so when I have all this money, what am I going to do with it?”
To which his friend responded, “Money buys you time, and with that time you can do whatever it is you want in the world.”
What would you do?
Scott stared off in space for a little while, as if he was pondering something really intense. He looked back at his friend and said, “I would fish. And give what I catch to family and friends.”
For Scott, he was already living the life of his dreams, and apparently no amount of money could change that. He was already happy.
Maybe we do not have to hit financial independence before we find happiness. Who knew?
Read: The Roth strategy we wish we’d built for early retirement
Understand what you really want
One of the biggest pitfalls we get into on our pursuit of FI, we fail to really define the end goal. Let’s skip the traveling the world for a moment and the spending time with loved ones (not like these aren’t important). I think we need to first define what truly makes us happy.
Not just what we think, not what everyone else is saying, but what would truly make us happy? And is it possible to be happy now?
Whenever I read other personal finance blogs with people who have already retired, I try to look very closely in their writing for happiness.
What makes them happy now? Have they finally found what we’ve all been searching for?
Most times, at least from what I can tell, they are still in the pursuit of happiness even after accumulating all this money and retiring early.
Think about celebrities for a moment. Surely they should be the happiest people right? They have all the money most of us could ever dream of. They can definitely afford to buy their time back, right?
But are they any happier than the rest of us?
Look at recent tragedies like Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade. Most celebrities aren’t any happier than the rest of us.
So isn’t it safe to say money alone or the lifestyle it affords us doesn’t / can’t make us happy?
Is this goal even attainable?
Let me tell you one more story.
Not long ago, I was driving to my sister’s house to watch the NBA finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors (didn’t end well for LeBron). As I approached a stop sign a few blocks from where she lives, I saw a homeless man.
He wore the most ragged clothes. You could see a few holes in his shirt.
Before I drove off, like I normally would, probably thinking, “Go get a job and stop begging others to help you when you can help yourself,” I decided to roll the window down. I can’t even say why I did. This isn’t something I normally do.
I shouted out the window, ”Is there anything I can help you with?”
He started to approach the car, and before we were face to face, I could already smell him.
In a friendly voice he said, “I could really use some food if you don’t mind.”
I gestured toward the gas station across the street and rolled the window up. I made a quick right and turned into the gas station parking lot.
After parking, our paths crossed as I walked toward the corner store.
He was very pleasant. I didn’t ask for his back story, I just let him share whatever he was comfortable with as we walked into the store.I told him to get whatever he wanted and I would be happy to take care of it.
I grabbed a few things for myself, and a minute or so later, he joined me at the register. He only got two things, a regular bottle of Sprite and a bag of Doritos.
That’s it? That’s all you want?
Obviously, I didn’t argue. He thanked me for stopping and offering a helping hand. Even though it wasn’t all that much, you could sense that this random act had literally made his day.
We said goodbye and I hopped in my car and drove off to my sister’s house. On the short drive there, I couldn’t help but think how fortunate I was to have the opportunities that led me to this point in my life.
I felt, for whatever reason, extremely happy, like I had played a small role in making someone else’s day a little bit better. And while that random act of kindness didn’t set him on the path of financial freedom, I know it meant a lot to him.
What’s funny, I think it did a whole lot more for me in that moment. I felt very happy to have impacted his life positively, even if it was just for a brief moment.
That’s when it dawned on me: happiness comes from a genuine feeling of fulfillment. Fulfillment can come from different avenues, like accomplishing big goals, buying new things etc. But those moments will be fleeting.
I think lasting fulfillment comes from having a positive impact on the lives of others. Obviously it doesn’t only have to be by giving people money, it could be sharing knowledge with others, or serving others in some capacity.To me this is why the richest people can’t give their money away fast enough. Whether it’s Bill and Melinda Gates or Warren Buffett. They’ve figured something the average person probably never will: Happiness does not come from money; it comes from doing good for other people.
I think it is still imperative that we build wealth, at least that’s my goal. But I understand that my happiness will never come from it. I hope it only widens my radius of positive influence in the world and I am able to affect more lives.
Happiness that lasts
We don’t have to wait for financial independence to be happy, we can do things that make us happy now. But we need to be cautious because pursuing the goal of FI can distract us from the ultimate concern.
It will feel like the only thing that matters, until you get there and realize there is a whole lot more to life. One thing I can guarantee is that being financially independent can’t make you happy.
Accomplishing the goal will surely make you happy for a while, but that’s just like buying a brand new Tesla would make you happy. In time, the feeling will wear off.
So how can we find happiness that lasts?
You can start living now, and start feeling happier now just by helping others whenever possible. Try to think beyond FI for a moment…what does true happiness look like for you?
Half Life Theory is a site focused on building wealth through personal development. This column previously appeared on ESI Money. It was adapted and reprinted with permission.