Financial Independence Without Delayed Gratification

Contentment is important. Learning to be satisfied with what you have, to not feel impugned by sacrifice, is a crucial skill in life satisfaction.

I’m reminded of Kurt Vonnegut who wrote this for The New Yorker in May 2005.

 

 

A misconception is running around the financial world – that great sacrifice and delayed gratification is required to reach financial independence. This is simply not true.

The reason so many feel becoming financially independent is a sacrifice is a misguided notion that spending anything less than all you earn is somehow a great sacrifice. If I net $200,000 a year as a physician, I might feel I am making a great sacrifice if I live on only $150,000. The $50,000 I could have spent but chose to save for my future is classified as a sacrifice. We worry about all the things we gave up by not spending that extra $50,000 on stuff each year.

Worry should be saved for something that matters.

The median household income in the United States in 2020 was $67,521, according to the US Census Bureau (that is gross, not net). Imagine the reaction I would get if I told those US households who earn less than the median US income of the great sacrifice I was making by only spending $150,000 a year on my lifestyle. 

 

If I saved that $50,000 a year ($4,167 a month) throughout my 30-year career in medicine and earned an average of only 8% interest compounded monthly over those 30 years, I would have $6,251,730 in savings. If I then took the money out using the 4% rule, I could withdraw $250,069 a year to live on. 

We must stop deluding ourselves into thinking we are living a less-than-satisfactory life when we don’t spend all our income and borrow additional money to purchase cars, boats, vacations, and houses. Learn to be content with what you have and you will never feel like saving is a sacrifice.

Here is my story as an example.

When I graduated from my residency I was doing just fine on a resident’s salary. My wife also worked and earned about the same income as I did. But we made the conscious decision to live on only one of the incomes, and we saved the other. During residency, we lived in a nice apartment, had two paid-off cars, and took one nice vacation a year. We also had the food and clothing we needed.

Frankly, our life would not have been better if we had spent the other half of our income. We would have had more expensive cars, more expensive vacations, and more expensive clothes. But I can’t imagine it would have made us any happier. We never felt as if we were sacrificing anything by living on less than we earned.

Then I became an attending and my income jumped. We bought a house and increased our lifestyle to roughly an $80,000-a-year spending level. We also borrowed $500,000 over the next four years on things that we felt we needed, now that I was an attending physician. After acquiring this large debt, we felt the need to pay it all off. You can read the full story of our journey to becoming debt free in my book, The Doctors Guide to Eliminating Debt

During our journey to becoming debt-free, we continued to live a nice lifestyle without feeling like we were sacrificing anything. More expensive cars would not take me to the hospital any quicker. Spending more would only have meant each item we bought cost more. We already had a home, two nice cars, and a motorhome, and took great vacations. 

We set our lifestyle at the $80,000 – $100,000 budget level. Anything I made above that was available to do anything we wanted. We could spend more on our lifestyle, we could invest it, we could use it to become debt free, or we could give more to charity. 

There was never a feeling of sacrifice even though we were not spending all we earned. Earning more money does not mean we need to spend more money. Those two line items are not linked; they are independent. 

Once you have determined your lifestyle, don’t increase it when you get a raise. This trap that many fall into should be avoided. The trap is the feeling that if I get a $1,000-a-month raise, I need to increase my spending to match. NO! Don’t do it!

 

 

You see this with so many professional athletes. They sign a $25,000,000 contract and think they need to go out and spend all of it. They begin living a lavish lifestyle that can only be supported if they continue to play their sport. Once their professional athletic career ends, so does their lavish lifestyle. 

Johnny Depp has recently been in the news and is someone who has a high income. I googled ‘Johnny Depp Spending’ and learned the following: 

  • He spent over $30,000 a year on wine 
  • He dropped $108,000 on suits during a trip to Singapore
  • He blew $5,000,000 to shoot his friend’s ashes into the sky
  • He purchased 14 homes
  • He bought 45 luxury cars
  • He employed 40 staff members to the tune of $10,000,000 a year

Just how many luxury cars does it take to make someone happy? Would Depp have felt like he was sacrificing if he only had four luxury cars? What if he only owned three houses? He told a court in London that he had spent all of his $650 million in earnings and was $100 million in debt. I have lived a very nice life spending less than 1% of his earnings.

His story may sound ludicrous and you might think it doesn’t apply to you. Yet the concept is the same whether you earn $650 million or $65,000. Spending all your money is never the right answer and saving some money for the future is not a sacrifice. 

 

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Set a reasonable lifestyle and stick to it. When you make more money than what is needed for your lifestyle don’t spend it. When you already have a $100,000 boat, earning more doesn’t mean you need to trade up to a $200,000 boat. The $100,000 version is still just as good as it was when you bought it and was probably more than you needed to spend for the same level of fun.

Moreover, consider a holistic approach. Practice contentment. Save money every year. Help others in need. If you do these things, you will live a long and happy life. If not, you will always feel you are sacrificing and you will never have enough.

When John D. Rockefeller was one of the world’s richest men, he was asked how much is enough. His answer was, “just a little bit more.” If the richest man in the world could not find satisfaction in his income, what does that say for the rest of us?

When you learn the concept of enough, you will never feel like saving money is a sacrifice. It will simply be your lifestyle. You will also automatically become wealthy and financial independence will be inevitable.

 



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