Close your eyes. If I say the words “financial freedom,” what do you picture? Diving into piles of gold, Scrooge McDuck style? Quitting your job, buying an RV, and embarking on a cross-country adventure? Big fat zeroes where your student loan balance used to be?
Ask 100 different people and you’ll get 100 different answers about what financial freedom looks like to them. But most definitions tend to share an underlying formula: “I’ll achieve financial freedom when [insert benchmark].”
I would argue that you shouldn’t have to wait to hit a certain savings goal or income threshold in order to enjoy financial freedom.
We all come from different financial backgrounds and may be operating with wildly different present circumstances. Thanks to the realities of healthcare costs, wage stagnation, the rising cost of living, and the student loan crisis (to name a few of the cards stacked against us), we don’t all have the same amount of wiggle room in our budgets. Hell, we won’t even have the same amount of wiggle room at different points throughout our own lives—life will make sure of that.
If and when you do find yourself with some wiggle room to work with, I encourage you to seize that unicorn of an opportunity and make the absolute most of it.
You don’t have to be a Silicon Valley programmer or even an expert in personal finance to experience financial freedom. You can achieve a version of financial freedom right where you are in life—with the means and the wiggle room you have right now—simply by rethinking how you structure and prioritize your budget.
Yeah, I’m using the words “budget” and “financial freedom” in the same sentence. Hear me out.
Budgeting inspires dread for a lot of people. It conjures up notions of restriction, penny-pinching, spreadsheets. And for good reason—traditional budgeting takes the fun out of earning money by telling you how you should (or, let’s face it, shouldn’t) spend it.
Nothing steals a sense of freedom more than feeling bound by someone else’s rules. And there are plenty of them.
Nothing steals a sense of freedom more than feeling bound by someone else’s rules.
The 30% rule says not to spend more than 30% of your take-home pay on housing. The 50/20/30 rule instructs you to devote 50% of your income to needs, 20% to savings and investments, and 30% to whatever you please. I could go on. In short, most budgeting guidance prescribes what your priorities should be, what responsible spending looks like, and what’s a waste of money.
This formulaic approach to budgeting is very one-size-fits-all. It ignores context. In reality, none of our financial circumstances are the same, no matter how similar our lifestyle factors—income, student loan status, relationship, location, etc.—appear on paper. There are always intervening variables. More importantly, none of our priorities are exactly the same. So why should we all follow the same boilerplate budgeting templates?
Forcing yourself to fit your life and priorities into a formulaic budget is a recipe for overspending in categories the budget deems unimportant, failing to reach financial goals, and feeling generally overwhelmed at the thought of trying to wrangle your spending habits into any kind of responsible shape.
So don’t do it. Instead, build your budget around what you value and what your priorities are.
I have spent up to 55% of my after-tax income on housing, in flagrant disregard of the 30% rule. The mere thought of spending that much might give some of you a stomachache.
Why did I sign a lease that ate up more than half my income? Because I care deeply about where I live. I value feeling at home in my surroundings more than I do most other things. In buying the freedom to indulge my homebody tendencies with a nice apartment to live in by myself, I was more than happy to make trade-offs in spending categories I don’t care much about to balance it out.
We all have to pay for certain necessities in life: food, shelter, healthcare, transportation. It’s easy to feel like these expenses just happen to us, that we don’t have much choice in the matter. But you actually have a lot more control over each discrete category in your budget than you might think—even the necessities.
For example, you have to live somewhere, but you can choose to live alone in a newly-built apartment or you can choose to rent a single room in a house shared with roommates. You have to feed yourself, but you can choose to eat out/order in five times a week, or you can cook for yourself and pack lunches for work. Even debt has flexibility, intractable though it may feel. You can’t control what your monthly minimum is—that alone will eat up a larger percentage of income for some people than others—but you can decide whether to stick with the minimum or whether to funnel any and all extra cash into making those negative balances disappear ASAP.
I think you get the idea.
None of these choices is inherently good or bad, responsible or irresponsible. But recognize them for what they are: choices. Choices that come with an opportunity cost. If you sign a lease on the nicer apartment, you’ll have fewer funds leftover for shopping trips, savings, or extra student loan payments.
Being disciplined in areas you care less about gives you the freedom to spend more extravagantly on the things you do care about.
The key is to make sure your spending decisions reflect what you actually value. If a certain indulgence or expense isn’t making a real contribution to your happiness, figure out how to scale it back so you can redirect that money into a category that will make you measurably happier.
When you start to think of your budget as elastic, not rigid, you realize you have the power to weight it toward what’s important to you. Being disciplined in areas you care less about gives you the freedom to spend more extravagantly on the things you do care about.
So how does this philosophy work in practice?
Any good budget starts by tracking your spending for a month or two without making any changes to your habits. Find out where your money is really going. This might be eye-opening.
After a couple of months, sit down and look at the data you’ve collected. Interrogate every category, asking whether your spending reflects how much you actually value those purchases. Maybe you discover that you’re buying lunch out multiple times per week and it’s adding up. Is that something you value enough to trade freedom in other areas?
Once you know where your money is currently going, it’s time to formulate a plan for where you want it to go. Before you start, you should know exactly how much money you have to work with every month. If you don’t already know, now is the time to calculate it.
First, write down what’s most important to you at this stage in life. It could be housing, becoming debt-free, saving for a child’s college fund, or planning your wedding. Rank each of your spending/saving categories from most to least valued.
Take your top priority. How much would it cost per month to satisfy your goals and/or desires in this area? $1,000/month toward your student loan balance? $800 toward daycare so you can go back to work? $1,200 toward a down payment or rent?
From there, start working backward. If you’re allocating, say, 35% of your income to priority #1, you have 65% left to work with. Determine how much funding your #2 priority requires. Keep going down the list. Adjust as needed until you’ve accounted for 100% of your monthly income. Your money should take care of you both now AND in the future, so please allocate some percentage toward saving, if that’s at all feasible for you.
Congratulations, now you have a budget that reflects what you—and no one else—value most!
You may not be able to implement your new budget right away. Maybe you’re a renter and you realize you’re paying more for your apartment than it’s really worth to you. You’ll likely need to wait until your lease runs out before you can move somewhere less expensive. Change can’t always happen overnight. But now you have a roadmap for the changes you want to make.
Remember that whatever budget you come up with is not set in stone. Your priorities will change constantly throughout life as you enter new phases and confront new obstacles, and your budget should change with them. I’d suggest going through this exercise at least once a year to make sure your current spending reflects your current values.
Budgeting might not seem like the most obvious shortcut to financial freedom, but structuring your spending around what’s most important to you takes guesswork out of the equation. Instead of feeling like your money is sand slipping through your fingers, you can feel confident in knowing without question that you’re funding the goals and priorities you value most. With that confidence, you create a sense of financial freedom that has nothing to do with income and everything to do with building a lifestyle you love using the resources you have.
Molly is a writer, reader, and personal finance enthusiast living in Saint Paul with her two feline dependents and several overflowing bookshelves. She can usually be found with her nose in a book and her head in the clouds.
BY Molly Geipel - September 16, 2019
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.