When I was in Ecuador last year, Mr. Money Mustache came up to me and said he was pissed off.
Someone had been asking him questions about FI but when the discussion started getting into the numbers, the person said that they’d just save those questions for me.
MMM jokingly asked me if that means he’s lost his edge? Has writing about happiness and more philosophical topics resulted in him not being viewed as a financial mastermind anymore?
Obviously he was just messing around and wasn’t really angry/concerned but this topic actually came back up a few days later.
After I finished my presentation to the group, Mr. Money Mustache raised his hand and said, “Fientist, it seems you too are turning soft in your old age. Do you not care about money or numbers much these days either?”
Turns out, my presentation had nothing to do with numbers. No graphs. No math. Nothing even close.
I laughed and said, “Yes, it’s weird but I don’t think about numbers much at all now and I’m starting to realize that money is the least-interesting and least-important aspect of this whole journey.”
I’ve built my whole blogging career on numbers so it’s been an unexpected turn of events, to say the least!
After the presentation, I was chatting with some of the other attendees and was saying how I wondered why I stopped focusing on money as much. Thankfully, one of the attendees offered a perfect explanation for it – Maslow’s hierarchy.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs shows what motivates humans, the relative importance of each need, and the order in which the needs are generally fulfilled.
At the bottom of the pyramid, the first human needs that have to be met are those necessary for human survival (e.g. water, food, etc.).
Once a person’s physiological needs are met, focus then turns to safety.
It’s obvious safety is less important if you don’t have fresh water to drink so you’d need to focus first on finding water before then getting somewhere safe from predators.
That doesn’t mean you’re not on the lookout for hiding places or shelter when you’re searching for water, it just means water is your first priority and the other things are less important.
So that’s a really brief summary of how Maslow’s hierarchy works.
I’d say a similar hierarchy exists for financial needs as well.
Here’s what I came up with:
At first, you need to pay for all the things that you need to survive. If you have to use debt to do that, it doesn’t matter because you need to buy food to stay alive so that’s what you do.
That is not sustainable though so eventually you’ll need to make enough money to pay all your expenses.
You could live quite happily at the Sustainability level for a while but you’re not necessarily safe there.
One small injury or unexpected expense could derail everything so ideally you’ll soon reach the Accumulation level. On this level, you make more than you spend so you are able to save for future unplanned expenses.
The next level is Independence. Since it’s unlikely you will be physically able to work your entire life, you eventually need to get to the point where you can pay all your expenses without working.
Finally, you reach the Utilization phase. This is when you know you’ll never run out of money so your sole financial focus is aligning your spending and giving (to charities, heirs, etc.) with your life’s purpose.
Usefulness of the Pyramid
The Hierarchy of Financial Needs is useful when talking about finances with other people because it allows you to be more understanding of different situations and more empathetic.
For example, it’s easy for someone on the Accumulation level to say, “Payday loans are bad and you should never use them” but if you are at the Survival level and have no other way to put food on the table for your kids, it may be something you are forced to consider.
And although we’d all like to think that Independence is what everyone should be focused on, someone who is at the Sustainability level may be too stressed to even think about something like that because they’re just one unexpected expense away from big problems.
So they first need to focus on increasing their income and/or lowering their expenses so they can reach the Accumulation level and then once they’ve built up a bit of a buffer (i.e. an emergency fund), they can think more about investing and pursuing FI.
When I started writing this blog, I was on the Accumulation level so my primary focus was getting to the Independence level as quickly as possible.
The problem was, I don’t even think I realized there was a level above Independence that I should have also been thinking about and planning for.
In hindsight, this was a big mistake.
Because the real goal isn’t to have a lot of money.
As the idea of FIRE becomes more popular, it seems people are becoming more obsessed with FI and all they want to do is talk about FI, read about FI, and hang out with others pursuing FI.
This is useful for improving your finances but may cause you to miss the real point.
Financial independence isn’t life, it’s just a tool you can use to help you live a life that’s most meaningful to you.
It’s a means to an end, not the end itself.
The more you think about the top level of the pyramid while you’re on the journey to financial independence, the easier and more enjoyable that journey will be.
After achieving FI and accumulating more money than I had planned, I can now see the Utilization stage more clearly.
Is it the top of the pyramid? I’m not sure but it’s the level I’m focused on now and it’s what MMM has already been brilliantly writing about for years.
What is the Meaning of Life?
Before we can figure out how to best use our money for our life’s purpose, we have to figure out what that is first.
So what is the meaning of life?
That’s the big question and I’m still not exactly sure but I have a few theories…
At first, I thought the point was to achieve some sort of immortality.
If you’re immediately forgotten after dying, isn’t that like you were never here in the first place and isn’t that pretty meaningless?
To achieve immortality, or at least lengthen your impact on the world, I thought there were a few options:
Having kids seems to be the default option.
Of course your kids are going to remember you and then you have the added bonus of passing on some of your DNA to future generations.
Kids don’t guarantee immortality though.
Do you know anything about your great-great-great-great grandmother? No, me either.
Doing Something to Be Remembered
What if you instead do something memorable?
Einstein has been dead for over 60 years but he still lives on due to the things he accomplished when he was alive.
I thought this was the answer for a long time because it seemed like the best way to achieve something close to immortality.
But even that plan isn’t great either.
Memories fade. Civilizations die out. Planets are consumed by their suns.
Does it really matter being remembered for slightly longer than the average person?
Ignorance is Bliss
So if immortality isn’t the point, what is?
I’m not sure but I know one thing…these are very heavy things to think about!
I hate to admit this but at times during the past year, I’ve actually been jealous of people still in the daily grind because they’re too busy and preoccupied with normal life to think about stuff like this.
Everytime I think that though, I remind myself that it’s actually an incredible priviledge to face these big questions while I still have so many years (hopefully) to make adjustments and change course, if necessary.
Because I think everyone faces these questions eventually but unfortunately, many people face them on their death beds, when they are out of time and options.
There is No Point
The conclusion that I eventually arrived at was that there may not be a point.
It’s likely our existence is just a happy accident so the only point is to enjoy it as much as possible and help others enjoy it too.
If I was religious, maybe I’d think there’s a higher purpose or more to come after this life on Earth but I’m not, so I don’t.
At first, this conclusion may seem sad or anticlimactic but it’s actually very freeing.
No pursuit is more noble than any other so when you achieve FI and have the power to do whatever you want, you can just try to live the life that makes you happiest (assuming it doesn’t infringe on the happiness of others).
Any external pressures that have influenced your life in the past can all be ignored because no lifestyle is better than any other so just live the life you want to live.
What Life Do You Want to Live?
Figuring out what that life is though is also very tricky!
Just like people don’t know what makes them happier, they also don’t know what they want out of their lives.
For example, I thought I wanted to travel all the time after leaving my job but I tried it for a bit and realized that long-term travel isn’t as fulfilling as I expected.
What I’ve now realized is that the reason traveling didn’t make me happier is because it didn’t align with my own personal purpose.
What’s Your Purpose?
So how do you figure out your purpose?
Can you boil down what you want your life to be in just one sentence?
After a lot of thought, I was able to come up with a sentence and here it is:
I want to learn and improve my skills so that I can create things that have a positive impact on my life and as many other people’s lives as possible.
Looking back at my past and reflecting on some of the best and most rewarding things I’ve done, they all seem to fit that one sentence.
This is why travelling wasn’t as fun and fulfilling as I thought it would be.
Sure, I had a great time experiencing new cultures, eating new food, seeing interesting sights but I wasn’t improving my skills (besides maybe my travel-hacking skills), I wasn’t really creating anything, and I wasn’t doing anything that positively impacted a lot of other people.
The Mad Fientist, on the other hand, does tick all those boxes and that’s why I still work so hard on it and get so much pleasure from it 6 years after I started it. I’m constantly trying to improve my writing/interview skills/etc., I frequently create new articles/podcast episodes/web applications/etc., and all those things hopefully help millions of other people improve the quality of their lives.
If the personal-mission-statement approach doesn’t work for you, another way to figure out your purpose is to identify something you’ve done in the past that was particularly fulfilling and then ask yourself why it was fulfilling and then keep asking yourself, “Why is that fulfilling?” until you can’t answer the question anymore (thanks to Vicki Robin for sharing this tactic with me when we were together in England last year).
Here’s how it works…
As I mentioned, the Mad Fientist has been incredibly rewarding so I’ll choose that (since you’re all obviously familiar with that project as well).
Why has the Mad Fientist been fulfilling?
Because it has allowed me to develop my writing skills, interview skills, and programming skills while helping myself and thousands of others reach financial independence sooner.
Why is that fulfilling?
Because it’s allowed me to learn new things, improve my skills, and help myself and others start living lives that are more enjoyable and purposeful.
Why is that fulfilling?
Because it’s allowed me to learn new things and improve my skills while also making my life and the lives of many other people better.
There it is! Asking “Why?” eventually got me to that mission statement I mentioned above.
Once you have a defined purpose, you can judge future plans against that purpose and figure out if what you plan to do has a high probability of improving your life or not.
I’ve actually been working for the past year on a secret project that I’ll share with you soon and luckily, it fits my purpose so that’s why I know it’s worth the effort and will likely be more rewarding than simply doing something fun like traveling around the world.
Moving to the Next Level
So that’s where my head’s been lately.
I definitely don’t have everything figured out and as I continue moving up to the next level of the pyramid, I’m sure there will be new challenges to face and interesting questions to try to answer.
As always, I’ll share what I learn along the way and don’t worry, I still love numbers so expect plenty more of those in the future as well :)
How about you? What kind of life will be most rewarding to look back on? What do you plan to do after you retire? Do those plans align with your purpose?
These are important questions to answer, no matter where you are on your journey to FI, so give them some thought and if you come up with your own personal mission statement, please share in the comments below to help inspire others!
Happiness Through Subtraction
Although financial independence isn’t the answer to all your problems and won’t bring complete happiness, it can increase happiness through subtraction.