let’s start talking about money

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i started my old blog, the barefoot budget, three years ago when i took up the goal of financial independence in earnest. i wrote quite a bit about personal finance, a topic still dear to my heart. i don’t write about money much anymore, partially because my beliefs have been solidified but also because i felt unauthentic preaching about money, a highly personal topic, on the internet. as i work to migrate content from the old blog over here though, i enjoy re-reading some of my first posts, even if i do cringe a bit at my naive hubris. in my world, personal finance is as much a part of my mission as living in close connection with nature – it is a another facet of the lifestyle i choose, and one that is important and under-discussed outside of the personal finance community.

in that vein, i am going to write a series of posts over the next two months that will be a synthesis of content from my old blog and my current post-work situation. people often ask how i was able to walk away from my day job at 28 years old with no real plan, and the truth is my system of personal finance (along with the safety net of my supportive family) is the only way i made that happen. frugality is a huge piece of my story, and i am looking forward to starting to write about money again with a slightly more humble attitude.

to kick things off, i will start at the beginning, sort of a personal finance origin story.

i grew up in an upper-middle class household with two working parents who thankfully didn’t spoil us with allowances or material possessions. i entered the workforce at 16 and was taught to save money. i have never carried consumer debt and have always been meticulous at tracking my finances. ages 18-22 i lived in chicago, a high cost of living city. i worked pretty much full-time throughout college to afford living expenses and was lucky to have many amazing experiences such as camping trips out west and music festivals. i’ve always gravitated more towards spending money on experiences rather than things.

at age 22 i moved blindly to athens, ga to attend an ill-fated semester at grad school. i had no savings when i left chicago and i was living paycheck to paycheck. it is at this precise time that i learned about financial independence. i was googling ‘ways to get rid of student debt’ and through a chain of blogs stumbled upon mr. money mustache. i read every single post on his blog in about a week, and decided to fully dedicate myself to a life of debt-free frugality upon my arrival in athens.

i went through undergrad and one semester of grad school with the help of my family, and came away with about $12,000 in student loan debt at age 23. my parents bought out my debt as my loans were at a whopping 6.8%, and i proceeded to make interest-free payments to them. after i quit grad school, it took me six months to get back on my feet. i held three part time jobs for the next two years spending 50-60 hours per week at work. i was on a singular mission to pay off my student debt, which i accomplished at 24 years old.

i made a lot of sacrifices to pay off my debt, although they hardly seem like sacrifices anymore. i had immersed myself in the FIRE (financial independence/ early retirement) community through blogs like mmm, early retirement extreme, and frugalwoods. all these blogs preached using the tools of frugality to save money and achieve freedom. this manifested in my life superficially by cutting out expenses that i deemed extraneous, such as eating out, buying clothing/ home goods, haircuts, and nights at bars. i was looking to cut spending fast and did not have a coherent personal finance philosophy. i aimed to spend the least amount of money as possible and i would say i felt deprived at times. i bought the cheapest food i could, eating lentils and rice most nights. i even moved into a friend’s attic for five months as i was making the final push to pay off my debt.

two months after mailing my last loan payment to my parents, i was finally offered full time work at the rate of $38K which seemed like an unreal amount of money to me. i had just lived two years on $12K/ year plus loan payments and was at this point well conditioned to begin saving. as soon as my debt was paid off, i started squirreling money away. my first year of full time employment, i saved 55% of my post-tax income, living on about $15K.

debt-free and stably employed, i was able to start exploring frugality on a more integrated basis. i read your money or your life, the classic text of financial independence, which inspired me to think deeper about my relationship with money. instead of living on the cheap because i had no other choice, i took up the journey of learning lifelong skills that would enable me to live less expensively. the first of these was learning to cook meals that were more fulfilling than rice-a-roni. i think there was an entire 12-month period i did not eat at a restaurant unless i was with my or my partner’s parents. we both became proficient home-chefs and now feel that we can actually cook better tasting and healthier food than we can get at a restaurant. in this way, a choice that was originally based on cutting expenses (eating the cheapest foods available at home to save money/ feeling deprived) turned into a practice that both saves precious dollars and enhances our quality of life (eating whole-foods from local farms prepared deliciously).

i took up many other practices in this same vein – making our own toothpaste, laundry detergent, and shampoo; starting a garden; exercising. i was fascinated by the ability to self-provision. it felt like giving the middle finger to capitalist america, and it empowered me as an independent woman. of course, learning self-provisioning skills kicked off my homesteading journey. i developed a voracious appetite for all things self-sufficiency, reading books, internet articles, and listening to podcasts about homesteading. being as we still rent, i adopted what i could. my life became more about forging a lifestyle i felt good about than strictly spending less money. some of my endeavors during this time did indeed save money (growing food), while others were either just for fun or silly failures (brewing beer and worm farming).

one year into full time employment, i was promoted to an better job with a $10K raise. i spent two years in this position saving over 60% of my post-tax income every year. throughout this time, i kept up side-hustles of housesitting and market research, which earned me an additional $4K/ year. my lifestyle kept evolving and alongside i was forming an actual belief system about personal finance that was my own, not just something i had read on other people’s blogs. i longed to buy a house during this time, both as an investment and to expand my homestead. the market in our town did not cooperate however, and i was heartbroken. my financial planning revolved around home-ownership, and i felt like i would never achieve my goals. i was discouraged, but smart enough to open my first investment account in spring 2016. after three years of saving, i reached a point where i felt like i had “enough,” even though i’ve not achieved financial independence in the numbers. if i had continued to work and save at the rate i was going, i could have fully retired by age 35.

to conclude, i am 28 years old, unmarried but living-together-partnered, no children, no debt, with about six figures worth of assets spread across physical assets (car/ possessions), a personal investment account with vanguard (index funds), no-penalty CD’s where i keep one year worth of living expenses, a 457(b), and a well-funded HSA. i live on $16K per year, a number which has remained steady throughout the last three years. i track all my expenses carefully, as knowing your exact annual living expenses is key to smart financial planning. my $16K number is a cushy, comfortable number for me and no longer includes deprivation. i am currently unemployed and purchase health insurance through the ACA. i am launching my own small business, an online shop where i offer herbal goods that i use in my own life. this is the first step in my goal of building multiple streams of income so that i do not need to work a traditional full-time job.

finally, it’s important to call out that both myself and my partner come from upper-middle class families. even though neither of us receives financial support from our families, we’ve still both lived lives of opportunity and privilege, and experience the huge safety net of knowing that our families will never let us go hungry, live on the street, or suffer because we can’t afford healthcare. i just can’t stress enough how important it is to acknowledge this privilege in any discussion about personal finance, early retirement, or alternative lifestyle.

that’s a solid big-picture narrative of my financial journey over the last six years. i look forward to getting into more specifics in future posts that will be less about me personally, and more about aspects of personal finance, saving, alternative lifestyles, and money philosophy.

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