I never thought of myself as being bad with money. I usually had an extra month or two of rent in the bank, I didn’t rack up charges on my credit card, I lived frugally enough to enjoy life on my small salary, and I kept my fixed expenses well within my means. I hoped I’d make more money at some point, but all in all, I felt like some major pieces of my financial puzzle were in place.
But 2011 was a shit year. I left graduate school with a bunch of debt and entered a terrible job market with sky high unemployment rates. I had health issues that complicated looking for work, and I watched my friends with shiny new masters degrees take soul crushing jobs that didn’t cover the bills. When I finally found a job, I jumped at it and felt grateful to have any work at all.
Turns out that job totally sucked. I worked crazy hours in a cinder block office that took me over an hour to commute to, where I was frequently mistreated and sometimes berated. I felt forced to tolerate a toxic work environment because I was afraid I couldn’t replace it with something better. Worst of all, the thing I slaved away at wasn’t meaningful to me, and often felt unethical. I looked forward to drinking after work way too eagerly and decompressed from the stress in increasingly unhealthy ways.
Luckily, I recognized that I wasn’t going to be able to survive like that forever, and I made my first financial plan.
The plan was pretty simple: I would rage work until I had an FU Fund. Since I was paid by the hour, I’d take every hour offered to me and work as much as I could. I’d figure out exactly how little I could live on and save the rest until I could support myself without working for a few months. When the day came when I couldn’t take it anymore, I could leave and be ok for a while, loosely defined.
My plan wasn’t sophisticated, but it did give me an escape hatch and some confidence that I could survive quitting.
What happened instead was NOT in the plan, but it turned out to be exactly what I needed, existentially and financially. I’d expected to work up until the day the job broke me and that I would leave in a fit of righteous anger. I figured I’d have a freedom-fueled bender followed by a couple of weeks of loungewear and Netflix and then get my resume out there.
Instead of having a breakdown and a bender (which was literally what I saw as the best case scenario at the time), I started volunteering for a cause that I believed in. It gave me purpose, had a positive impact, and, perhaps most shockingly, made me actually want to get out of bed before 6 in the morning for the first time in my life. Then, I realized something: I had saved enough money that I could leave my job and spend all of my time doing the work I loved doing, at least for a while. I called my boss, quit, and spent the next 3 months working for free at something I loved. This led to some freelance gigs, which stretched my savings, and I was ultimately able to spend almost a year doing some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.
Today, as a Financial Trainer, I realize that my first financial plan was far from perfect, but it was still transformative. My FU Fund allowed me to escape an unhealthy situation and save my sanity, which showed me the power of having some degree of financial independence. It also inspired me to create bigger financial goals, which I continue to work towards.
For me, a few things have been crucial to sticking to this path. I found a financial coach who helped me to align my money with my goals and stay accountable. I learned about the FIRE movement, figured out how to invest, and realized that I wasn’t the first person to think, “Hey, if I can live on less I’ll have a lot more freedom.” I read Your Money or Your LIfe and The Simple Path to Wealth and found a supportive community of women who were learning how to build wealth in order to have more freedom to live life intentionally.
Financial independence means different things to different people. It’s most often referred to as the point at which your savings and investments can support you without working, and associated with retirement. But in my perspective, financial independence exists on a spectrum. You can become financially independent from debt, from a toxic job, a relationship, or working for money in general. And it even might mean different things to you at different times of life. For me right now it means independence from the fear I won’t be able to survive an emergency situation and the freedom to choose my work not only because of how much it pays but also because I am on board with the mission and vision of my employer. I’m working hard so that one day I am completely independent from having to work, but if history is any indication, I’ll use my freedom to continue to do work that I love, and to me that freedom IS financial independence.
How I Left a Toxic Job and Discovered Financial Independence is written by Terri Bennett, A Certified Financial Trainer for financialgym.com