Are You Moving Closer to or Further From Financial Independence?

This is a classic post from The White Coat Investor that addresses the fact that Financial Independence, and your progress towards achieving it, can be a fluid situation.

Some people feel you should focus solely on your income, particularly if you’re a high-income professional.

Dr. Jim Dahle looks at the flip side and the double impact of increasing or decreasing your annual spending as it relates to the amount of money you actually need to call yourself financially independent. This is an important concept to understand as you progress to becoming truly financially independent.

As per usual, this post previously appeared on The White Coat Investor.


Are You Moving Closer to or Further From Financial Independence?


Most financially astute physicians have a goal of becoming financially independent at some point in their lives. Financial independence is typically defined as not having to work for money. A financially independent doctor may still continue to work, but would be able to live and support her family for the rest of their lives off of savings and completely passive income sources.

Financial Independence = 25 X (Annual Spending – Annual Guaranteed Income)


The formula for financial independence is relatively simple. You take how much you spend on a yearly basis, subtract the amount of guaranteed income you have, and then multiply the rest by about 25 (since the 4% rule of thumb suggests you can spend about 4% of your portfolio each year and expect it to last indefinitely).

If your portfolio is larger than 25 times the difference between your spending and your guaranteed income, congratulations, you are financially independent!


closer to FI
am i coming or going? i can barely decide


3 Situations that Move Us Away From Financial Independence


The usual direction of our financial lives is to move gradually toward financial independence. However, there are three situations where we may find ourselves moving away from financial independence.

#1 Portfolio Loss


The first is rather obvious – when the size of our portfolio falls. This may be due to spending a bunch of it, but may also be due to market losses, divorce, inflation, confiscation (government or a creditor), or devastation. If your portfolio was $1 million last year, and it is now $500,000, you are probably further from financial independence than you were a year ago.



#2 Loss of Income


The second situation is where something happens to your guaranteed income. Obviously, some guarantees are stronger than others. Your Social Security or pension income could go down with the death of a spouse. Income from an annuity could decrease in the event of an insurance company going under, although that may be backed up to some degree by a state guaranty association.

Income sources that you thought were guaranteed but really aren’t, like real estate rents, can also fluctuate significantly. Like with a decrease in portfolio size, this situation is also generally readily apparent.


# 3 Increase in Spending


However, the third situation in which we become less financially independent is far more insidious. This occurs when our spending goes up due to lifestyle creep. It is a rare physician that hasn’t experienced lifestyle creep at some point in his life, most notably upon leaving residency when most new graduates succumb to a lifestyle explosion as their income quadruples.

However, even a careful physician, who lives like a resident for two to five years after residency in order to stabilize the rest of his financial life, can still be caught out unknowingly later in his career. What most don’t realize is that even a millionaire’s portfolio cannot keep up with even a moderate rate of lifestyle creep.



An Example of the FI Math


Consider a physician with a $2 million portfolio and no guaranteed income. She is spending $10,000 per month or $120,000 per year. Financial independence for this doctor is therefore a number of approximately $3 million, and the gap between what she has and what she needs is $1 million.

Let’s assume that her portfolio made 6% this year ($120,000) and that she added another $100,000 in new savings. At the end of the year, her portfolio would be worth $2,220,000. Surely she would be closer to financial independence than she was a year ago, right?

Not so fast.

If she also increased her spending by 20%, from $10,000 per month to $12,000 per month, then her financial independence number also went up by 20%, and is now $3.6 million. Despite a portfolio that increased by over 10%, she is now even FURTHER from financial independence, since the gap increased from $1 million to $1.38 million. At this rate of lifestyle increase, she is unlikely to EVER reach financial independence no matter how well her portfolio does or how much she saves.

However, if the increase in spending is a one-time increase, then she has merely delayed the date at which she reaches financial independence (from four years to six years), not put it off forever. Obviously, the math also works in reverse. If you can cut spending (such as by paying off your mortgage) you can shorten the time to financial independence.

The other consideration when increasing spending, of course, is whether the purchase is a “one-time” purchase, or an ongoing expense. For this example physician, spending $10,000 on a very nice trip to Europe would have very little effect on the financial independence date, unless it becomes an annual event.

However, too many high-income professionals mistake an expensive one-time purchase for what is actually a habit of purchasing something expensive every year. It might be a boat one year, a new car another year, and a major home remodel the third year. It might feel like these are all one-time events, but in reality it is a new, higher level of spending that will, at a minimum, delay financial independence significantly.

So what is the solution for a doctor who wants to enjoy all that life has to offer but also wishes to reach financial independence well before traditional retirement age? Like with most of your financial life, the solution is multi-factorial.


How to Enjoy Life AND Achieve Financial Independence


1.  Front Load Your Retirement Savings


Getting a big chunk of your nest egg in place relatively early in your career not only gets you in the habit of saving, but the growth on that portfolio also decreases the effect of later lifestyle inflation on the financial independence date.


Related: Top 5 Reasons to Front-Load Your Investments


2.  Put Your Money Where Your Values Are


As a doctor, you have enough income to do anything you want, but not everything you want. You cannot spend nearly as much of your high income as you imagine due to the progressive tax structure, usual student loan burden, and high savings rate required to maintain your lifestyle in retirement.

Prioritize what matters most to you and follow a written spending plan of some type to ensure you’re spending on what you care most about.


3.  Keep Fixed Expenses Low


Fixed expenses generally have a greater effect on your financial independence date than variable expenses, so minimize them as much as possible.

You can do so by purchasing a smaller house, having a larger down payment, using a 15-year mortgage, paying off your student loans rapidly, living close to your place of employment, and purchasing with cash whenever possible (which should be almost always as a high income professional).



4.  Use Extreme Caution Loosening the Purse Strings


When you do decide to spend more, approach this decision with the serious caution it deserves. Weigh the joy you will get from the spending with the increased amount of time (and possibly work) required to reach financial independence.

Honestly assess whether the increased spending is a one-time purchase or an ongoing commitment. Also consider whether a one-time purchase will increase your fixed expenses (insurance and maintenance for items such as a second home, an expensive auto, or a recreational vehicle).


Related: Your Money or Your Life? Both, Please.


5. Protect Your Portfolio and Guaranteed Income


Invest in a reasonable manner, purchase appropriate insurance against financial catastrophes, and prioritize your marriage. Consider increasing your guaranteed income through the purchase of Single Premium Immediate Annuities (SPIAs), but keep annuity amounts below the state guaranty association limits.

Financial independence can be a moving target, particularly for those who inadvertently increase their ongoing spending commitments. Following these tips will help you to enjoy as much of your high income as you reasonably can without committing you to stay in the “rat race” any longer than you wish.



What do you think? Are you moving toward or away from financial independence? When was the last time you moved away? Why was that? Have you ever monitored this? Comment below!

12 thoughts on “Are You Moving Closer to or Further From Financial Independence?”

  1. Does this calculation take in to account inflation? $120k per year may be this year’s budget but in 10 years the purchasing power erodes immensely. A more sophisticated calculation would be to do a net present value calculation with 5% annual inflation incorporated to the calculation. The decades of low inflation we have experienced is an exceedingly rare outlier event. Our government debt to GDP ratio is now 123% of GDP. The only government policy choice is to inflate the dollar.

    • When determining your anticipated retirement expenses, you need to account for numerous changes from the present, and the present value of a dollar is among them.

      The further away you are from retirement, the more challenging this estimate becomes.


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  4. Divorces and inflation are some of the things that mess up with people’s FI goals. However, by adopting less spending and more saving habits, they can recover from the situation and find themselves financially independent.

  5. Great tips indeed! Couldn’t agree more than saving from the start is the very crucial step to begin with before you have a plan to grow your money to reach your financial goal.

  6. This is good. You have to look at the whole picture. Just focusing on making more money or being frugal is not enough.
    We’re in a good position right now, but that can change. I’m most afraid of portfolio loss because it will be a big loss when the market corrects. However, the real danger is really lifestyle inflation. That’s a lot more insidious and it’s very difficult to downgrade once you’re used to spending.

  7. This points out some good reasons why you should never retire early if you just barely passed your financially Independence numbers. There are too many variables involved. Best if you surpass your future need by a good safety margin before you actually retire. I took a belt and suspenders approach to retirement. I had both a cash flow requirement outside of my qualified retirement plans and a total portfolio number in mind inside the plan. Since either one of them would sustain me, I felt secure when I pulled the trigger and retired.

    Dr. Cory S. Fawcett
    Prescription for Financial Success

  8. My net worth took a temporary hit when I was divorced, as I had to refinance and take out equity to buy him out. But the combination of aggressive savings and lifestyle reduction remedied that quickly. I recovered in less than five years. Then finances took off and NW rose quickly.

    I’m already FI, but being somewhat paranoid about a market drop screwing up my plans have continued to work on a reduced hours basis to pad savings. It’s been nice to work less but I’m reducing hours even more to make time for things I’d rather do. I’m still improving my FI situation as income still exceeds spending.

    Health insurance costs were the big downer. I hear they go up to double what I currently pay for someone who is 64. I thought $652 was bad for a $6K deductible plan.

  9. The one big thing that can derail anyone’s financial independence is the portfolio loss, especially the sequence of return risk (SORR). If you happen to retire right before a market crash, you can severely impact your portfolio’s ability to survive your full retirement. I was fortunate to have the great Gasem do several guest posts on my blog addressing this situation and ways to counter it (I have 2 posts by him already on my site and another coming up in a couple of weeks).

    I’ve already got hit with one of the biggest reasons of portfolio loss which was the nasty divorce I have also written about (estimated 1 million dollar hit to net worth). Fortunately I have since financially recovered but I would be so ahead of the game if it never happened in the first place.

    The two variables that weigh on me are the rising costs of education for my daughter and the medical insurance coverage unknown costs that I will need to address when I am in the “danger zone” which is the period between my early retirement and when I qualify for Medicare. This could potentially be a very large expense and a lot of these health share ministries that people use would exclude me because of faith restrictions.

  10. Great insight on how both sides of the equation work (saving & spending). 20% increase in spending seems crazy to me, but then again, it might be just what the doctor ordered. Don’t ask me though, I’m not a doctor.

    Also – bit blown away about how long that increase in spending delays FI.


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