What is financial independence (and why should you care)?

by Mar 17, 2021Money0 comments

March is a big month for dollar signs. Next Wednesday, March 24 is Pay Equity Day, a public awareness event to illustrate the gap between men’s and women’s wages, and last Monday marked International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate women’s achievements and raise awareness about gender equality.

Women, including trans women, and non-binary people, are behind financially when compared to our male counterparts. On average, women make only $0.82 for every dollar a man makes (even less for most women of color, according to recent data from American Association of University Women). As for trans women, the D.C.-based non-profit Center for American Progress highlighted a study that found female transgender workers’ earnings dropped by nearly one-third following their gender transitions.

I’ve worked since age 13 to try and prove I could be an “independent woman,” even at the expense of my health and happiness. It started to pay off in my late twenties, when I finally broke glass ceilings that my female family members faced throughout their lives and sped past personal income goals that I once considered pie-in-the-sky.

Yet, my net worth doesn’t reflect my hustle. I’d venture to guess that many Americans feel this way. If I were to count up all the hours I’ve spent working, thinking about work, losing sleep over work and even dreaming about work when I did sleep — the total cash value of my bank accounts pales in comparison. I’ve worked double-shifts, side hustles, day jobs and extra gigs to try and earn enough to fund my lifestyle, but I haven’t generated “real” wealth in the form of property and a diverse portfolio.

This is the unfortunate reality for many, especially women: When it comes to saving for the future, women’s average total retirement savings is just $23,000, whereas men’s average total retirement savings is over three times higher at $76,000. The average American debt, however, is over $90,000. Worse, womens salaries tend to peak at age 40, while men’s peak at age 55. Be it due to family illness, childbearing, caretaking, etc., women tend to drop out of the workforce more often and earlier.

So while I was thrilled to negotiate my highest salary to date by age 30 and bust through my limited notions of what was possible, this victory was followed by a stark realization: I had better start saving, and soon. With just one decade to capitalize on earnings (if I follow average trajectories), I still have student loans to pay off, an emergency fund to bolster and, not to mention, countless life dreams I want to experience before I have children and buy a house — let alone retire.

So how am I to accomplish everything I want and still have enough for the future?

Well, there are no guarantees, but I’ve decided that one goal I can look to is something called financial independence (or FI for short).

What is financial independence?

Financial independence is a concept popularized by the FIRE movement. FIRE is an acronym that stands for “Financial Independence, Retire Early.” People who are financially independent don’t always stop working or even retire early, but they have the option to. Another way to phrase this is “work optional,” like Tanja Hester’s book of the same name.

Investopedia defines financial independence as someone having “enough wealth to live as they wish for the rest of their life without having to work.” This might mean stopping work altogether or taking part-time gigs to earn spending money, but not stressing about retirement because you already have enough put away for the future (and it’s earning interest). Or being able to quit your 9-to-5 and start a business because your assets in the bank are large enough that you can handle the risk (and can still afford to eat).

Ever consider going back to school and getting that Ph.D. in linguistics? Taking a year off to learn an instrument? Going on a mini-retirement to live in a van for six months or more? I certainly do.

Sure, you don’t always have to quit your job to accomplish your dreams, especially if your employer offers personal development stipends or PTO to pursue just these kinds of endeavors — but gosh, it would be nice to have that option.

Outside the USVI Legislature

Two Octobers ago, in 2019, I went to the Virgin Islands to attempt to cover a story about the end of child marriage. I was still getting my freelance career off the ground, and it was a too-expensive trip to justify the cost. A Marie Claire editor was vaguely interested in the story, but not enough to comp my flight and send me on location.

Like most freelance journalists, I covered the costs myself. I told the bartender at my hotel that I was there on assignment, but I felt like the biggest fraud.

I ended up selling the story to a much smaller outlet, and I didn’t even mention anything about the Virgin Islands. I’d covered my own research costs for a pipe-dream story that I followed due to my own personal passions. My great-grandmother (who I’m named after) was a child bride. The story tugged at my heart strings. And, come on — it was the Virgin Islands.

Intrinsically, it was well worth it. Financially? Not so much.

freelance journalism, inconsistent income, financial indepdence
Me covering my shoulders (per USVI policy) with a scarf I’d purchased at a nearby market before entering the Legislature for the October 2019 hearing on ending child marriage

While I was there, I envied the bartender. She was in her fifties or sixties maybe, a corporate dropout who worked in the service industry because it was fun. I reminisced about my college years. When I was a server, I hated living on inconsistent income and feeling like I had to compete with my better-looking coworkers for tables and tips. But if I were to remove money from the equation, bartending and serving is actually one of my favorite ways to spend time. You’re busy, but not too in your head. You meet interesting people from all over the world (a writer’s dream) and you learn a lot about food.

Yes, there was that one time a table of drunk male clients shoved $20 bills in my hand, ordered Jager shots and laughed as their friend motorboated me right in the boobs (and the all-male managerial staff did nothing). But if my income hadn’t have been dependent upon their approval of me, I would have tossed them out of the restaurant myself.

I just want to be rich enough to afford to work as a server again, I remember thinking on my Virgin Islands trip. I could still pitch stories to editors and write on my days off like I do now with a full-time job, and if they didn’t want to cover my research trips I could just say “to hell with it” and do it myself (comfortably, without getting sweaty palms on the plane).

As it turns out, Investopedia has a definition for this kind of “FIRE”:

Barista FIRE: refers to followers who have quit their traditional 9-to-5 job but still employ some form of part-time work to cover current expenses that would otherwise erode their retirement fund

The benefits of financial independence

Most importantly, financial independence includes having the resources to handle life’s ups and downs without scrimping, sacrificing, or going deeply into debt.

When I have children (hopefully starting in about four or five years), I want to be well-prepared enough that I could take time off if my kid gets sick without it cutting into my ability to retire.

And what about life’s passions? As a multipassionate person, I would not put it past me to want to drop $50,000 on a Ph.D. at age 55 while putting two kids through college — I mean, isn’t learning implicitly valuable? I think so, and I’d like to be in a financial position that allows for continued learning, whether via an academic degree or by simply tinkering with projects that don’t necessarily need to pay my bills.

As many learned during the coronavirus pandemic, jobs come and go (especially in blue-collar and creative industries). Though the world is full of talented, skillful and enthusiastic workers, the people at the top unfortunately face difficult decisions and often have to let us go. (And let’s not even start with how capitalism’s scarcity mentality puts profit above most human interests.)

Like many Americans, I watched my parents deal with layoffs and restructuring. I watched my mother pivot endlessly to learn new skills to stay relevant in the job market while keeping up with the demands of new technology, budget cuts and more. I suffered while my father dealt with depression and anxiety that lasted for decades after he was ousted from his high-ranking VP position that he’d worked his way up to from an entry-level sales gig.

I’m not here to say that people can’t be satisfied with a 9-to-5 job. I happen to have one right now that is fulfilling and challenging in all the right ways. If things never changed, I could see myself staying with it for the long haul.

But things always change. I wasn’t always prepared in the past — I’m still paying off the student loans I took out from ages 22 to 27 when I went back to get my MA in creative writing (plus one semester of an MFA before the money anxiety became too much to bear).

It’s OK to make mistakes, learn from trial and error and pivot as you go along. That’s what most of us do because we are resilient. However, I now see the toll this takes on my mental, emotional and even physical health. Which is why I’ve decided to make financial independence my goal for the foreseeable future.

I don’t have a goal number yet, nor do I have a concrete plan. I have a basic outline, a year’s lease on a studio apartment, a steady 9-to-5, and endless ideas about where to start.

Stay tuned!

Megan Dematteo

Hi, I’m Megan!

I created Heal My Muse for the dreamers and the doers. Through Heal My Muse, my hope is that by writing honestly about my journey with money, creativity and the “hustle” (can we retire that word yet?), my story will serve up the right kind of humor, inspiration and advice to help this new generation of creative professionals thrive with the support of renaissance people like them.

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