In those heady days when first out of college, many of my friends rented expensive beachfront apartments, bought BMWs, gorgeous clothing and spent every evening out at cool restaurants. I didn’t.
While I joined them at a few happy hours, they were spending every dime they earned and then some. That made me uncomfortable. It was hard to articulate why at the time, but in the back of my mind, I realized that building up debt and a lavish lifestyle put someone else in charge. By spending more than you earn, you cede power to your boss, your creditors and/or whomever you’ve convinced to pay your bills. The person with the pocketbook is the one with the power. I wanted that to be me. I wanted to call the shots on my own life. So I lived on less and built up savings instead of debt.
It was tough at first because the amount I could save seemed so piddly, which made me feel both poor and deprived. But, after a while, I got used to living on less than I earned, and my savings kept growing. It grew particularly fast in my 401(k) retirement plan that my employer matched at a rate of 25 cents for every dollar I contributed. Better yet, my 401(k) contributions were tax deductible and came straight out of my paycheck, so I hardly noticed them. Within a few years, I had tens of thousands saved and invested; and then hundreds of thousands. Now my money normally makes more money than I do in any given year. Nice.
The first time I got to truly enjoy what it meant to be financially healthy was when I had my first child. I loved my job, but as a reporter for a daily newspaper, my schedule wasn’t my own. I figured that the only way I could work without completely abandoning my daughter was to work from home. No one did that at the time. My boss made that clear. Fortunately, I had the freedom to quit and told him so. The balance of power shifted.
Suddenly, “No” turned into “Maybe we should try it.” I’ve never had to work in an employer’s office since. And I can’t count the number of times in the past 25 years that I got to call the shots on what I did and how I did it because I was financially healthy enough to decline work arrangements that didn’t suit me; loans that didn’t offer favorable terms; and everything from investments to living arrangements that were less than ideal. I have choices — seemingly infinite choices — on how to live my life.
I quit my day job at age 48 and went to work for myself. I’m now 56 years old, enjoying a sabbatical that has allowed me to pursue projects that are fun for me (including this website) that have no immediate income potential. It’s not a stretch. In fact, I realize that I could quit work now and do whatever I want forever.
I still love my work. But I also love being in charge of my own life. I can’t think of any luxury that I would enjoy more.