I was raised around a lot of money—not my own, but other people’s. Granted, by any reasonable national standard my family was well-off, but growing up in New York City meant that my playmates were the children of media moguls and Wall Street titans, so my comparison group skewed upwards several tax brackets. For a while this environment created both a sense of longing and, unfortunately, entitlement. Everyone else has a summer home, why can’t we?! That feeling of financial inadequacy turned out to be a blessing in disguise however, because it taught me what those moguls and titans probably already knew, which is that the most satisfying wealth is the kind that you create for yourself, dollar by dollar by dollar.
Financial independence is certainly easier to achieve with a good income. But you can also get there, or at least come close to it, by saving and investing no matter what your salary is. (See The Millionaire Next Door.) And so at the most fundamental level, independence requires that you always live well within your means. If you are not living within your means, then you are not saving, and if you are not saving, then you are not creating wealth, you are creating the opposite: need. Financial independence means not having need.
There is no saving without delaying gratification, saying no when you want to say yes—not just every once in a while but pretty much constantly. Saying no not just to the big trips or a car, but also to the expensive haircuts and the overpriced appetizers and the ballet flats with the big logo on them when a pair from DSW will do just fine. It means being chronically cheap and enjoying it. Because every no is a yes to getting things that you really, really, really want and can truly fulfill need, no matter what stage of life you are in.
In my 20s and early 30s, my biggest need, after I had established myself on a career track, was to have a place of my own. I had bounced from illegal sublets to 4th floor walk-ups and had literally begun dreaming of “discovering” an extra room in whichever cramped apartment I was occupying, a dream that I later found out was shared in the collective unconscious of similarly space-starved young Manhattanites.
At the outset, buying my own one bedroom seemed an impossibility. But after a job switch and salary raise, I began automatically withdrawing money from my checking account into a house fund. After several years, I had saved $60,000, at which point several of my relatives generously gave me gifts to increase my down payment and create enough of a cushion to meet co-op board approval. Buying that apartment at age 32 was my first major milepost on the road to financial independence, but I didn’t do it alone.
They helped me, I believe, because I had shown them that I understood what building wealth entailed: being a good steward of your own money, understanding that you have to teach yourself the things you don’t know, whether that’s fixed-rate versus adjustable mortgages or the value of compound interest, and yes, delaying gratification. Granted, timing was on my side—I bought the apartment in the early stages of the real estate boom as was able to later profit not only on its sale but the sale of a subsequent, larger apartment.
But having saved for a purpose once, I know that I can do it again in the future, although not whenever I want but whenever I am able. I would love to be putting aside money to install a master bathroom in my house, but right now it’s more important that my children, with whom I currently share a bathroom, have good childcare, and that I increase my funding to my retirement accounts. The master bath will have to wait.
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So here’s where I’m going to get really preachy, because there’s actually another important lesson that all this delayed gratification has taught me. There will always be more and more things to save for: sleep-away camps, college funds, maybe even someday a summer cottage. Today, as I write this on a beautiful day at the end of June, I can honestly say that the path to financial independence also means being profoundly grateful for what you already have.
Ruth Davis Konigsberg, a fortysomething journalist and consultant to Arden Asset Management, writes weekly about retirement planning.