Few things may sound as appealing as the idea of becoming financially independent. Though financial independence can mean different things to different people, it typically refers to being able to live comfortably off one’s savings and investments with no debt whatsoever.
In some cases, it may also mean the ability to retire early, though financial independence doesn’t necessarily have to mean leaving a career you love. It’s about working because you want to, not because you have to.
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Sound appealing? Achieving financial freedom could be easier than you think. The process of getting there often comes down to a relatively simple principle: Spending less and saving more. Below, we take a look at what it means to become financially independent and explore some practical strategies for achieving it.
What Does Financial Independence Look Like?
While there is no set definition for financial independence, the term often means getting to a point where you don’t have to work to pay your living expenses. Usually, financial independence is achieved by relying on savings, investments and other forms of passive income to pay the bills.
Though financial independence doesn’t have to mean leaving behind a job or career path, it can. In fact, the term is often used as a synonym for early retirement, and the two phrases are commonly strung together in the popular acronym FIRE, which stands for “financially independent, retire early.”
Benefits of Financial Independence
There are myriad benefits to becoming financially independent. One of the biggest perks is the ability to have choices. You can choose to keep working if you enjoy it or you can kick back and relax. You can save money to pass on to future generations or you can splurge on a trip around the world.
Becoming financially independent can also enable you to enjoy work more. If you’re no longer doing it for the money, you can structure your job responsibilities so you’re only doing the things you want to do.
It can also benefit your mental and physical health. Having the ability to work less allows you to exercise more and get more sleep. Financial independence may also allow you to spend more time with a partner, kids, family and friends. Having stronger relationships can lead to increased happiness in life.
How to Be Financially Independent
Becoming financially independent typically requires having a clear plan in place and being willing to roll up your sleeves and get to work. Here are some key steps that can help you get there.
1. Setting Realistic Goals
Being financially independent can look different for everyone, so a good place to start can be to define what being financially independent means to you. What do you visualize? Maybe you want to be debt-free by 40 or you’d like to retire at 50. Or perhaps you’d love to relocate to someplace warm and sunny in 10 years.
As you develop your goals, you may want to give them a reality test by consulting with a financial advisor or chatting with a trusted financial mentor. You may find that you need to re-jigger your vision based on your financial situation and how much time you have to achieve your dream.
Once you’ve honed in on some specific, achievable long-term goals, you can begin to figure out what you’ll need to do to make them a reality — whether that’s cutting your spending, boosting your income and/or saving and investing more than you currently are each month.
2. Understanding That Income Isn’t Everything
Many people have a tendency to fixate on how much money they are making. And while income is an important part of your financial big picture, it isn’t everything. Yes, it’s easier to amass assets if you have more monthly income, but one key to increasing your net worth is to spend less than you make.
For example, if you are making a comfortable salary but haven’t gotten into the habit of saving and investing, then you may not be leveraging your income to its full potential. Becoming financially independent often requires an understanding that the amount of money you make is just one piece of the puzzle.
The path to financial independence may become a little less daunting once you realize that a high income alone is not necessarily going to lead to sustainable wealth. There are several other factors that play a role in how much you can grow your finances, such as how much interest your investments are making and the rate at which you are able to save.
More than a high salary, financial independence typically requires foresight, long-term thinking and a holistic understanding of how your income overlaps with your expenses, lifestyle and future goals.
3. Building a Budget
No matter what your income level, one of the keys to getting ahead and achieving financial freedom is to spend less — and potentially a lot less — than you are earning. And doing that typically requires coming up with a budget.
Budgeting is the process of measuring income, subtracting expenses and deciding how to divert the difference toward reaching your goals. It’s often considered the essential first task in achieving financial independence.
You can set up a monthly budget by first assessing what you are currently earning (after taxes) each month. Next, you can tally up your actual spending by looking at the last three to 12 months of bank and credit card statements and recording your expenses on a spreadsheet.
Seeing it all laid out in black and white can help you identify unnecessary expenses you might be able to cut out. You can then put the difference towards your long-term goals instead. One rule of thumb is to try to put 20% of your monthly take-home income into savings or investments. Working couples might try to bank a substantial part of one salary if possible.
4. Establishing A Safety Net
Achieving financial independence also means thinking about financial security. Having a dedicated emergency fund that can help you weather a health emergency or another large, unforeseen expense means you may not have to run up credit card debt or dip into your investment or other savings account to cover these costs.
If you haven’t already started an emergency savings account, consider whether or not you would be able to afford a sudden car repair or if you could handle paying out of pocket for an unexpected dental procedure.
Experts often recommend having at least three to six months’ worth of living expenses set aside in an account that earns interest but can be easily accessed when you need it. The more effective you are at dealing with financial emergencies, generally, the faster your savings and investments can grow.
5. Putting a Debt Pay-Off Plan Into Action
Taking care of your debt is another important step to achieving financial independence. Today, debt can take many forms — whether it’s student loan debt, a home mortgage, a car loan or credit card debt. If you currently have debt, consider incorporating a debt reduction plan into the budget you create and calculate how you would need to tweak your current spending habits in order to prioritize becoming debt-free.
It can be wise to start with the debt that has the highest interest first since borrowing from those creditors is costing you the most money. If you have multiple credit card balances, you may want to target them one at a time. You can do this by paying more than the minimum each month on one balance (paying just the minimum on the others) until that balance is wiped out, then move on to the next.
6. Being a Smart And Savvy Investor
Becoming a smart investor is another key step you can take on your journey to financial independence. The world of investment can be confusing and carries risk, but it also has the potential to be lucrative. Because you earn interest not only on your contributions but also on accumulated interest, small amounts can grow over time.
You may want to first focus on tax-advantaged accounts. If you have an employer-sponsored plan, such as a 401(k), it can be a good idea to contribute some of each paycheck, especially if your employer offers to match your contributions. Depending on your situation, you may be able to open a traditional IRA, Roth IRA or SEP IRA, as well.
If you have children, you may also want to start a 529 plan to help you invest for their college educations.
If you’re able to invest additional funds, you can choose a financial firm you want to work with and then open a standard brokerage account. From there, you can put your money in a mutual fund or an exchange-traded fund (which bundle different types of investments together), or, if you’re prepared to do a fair amount of research, pick and choose your own stocks and bonds.
If you’re new to investing, you may want to consider opening an investment account through a robo-advisor, an investment management service that uses computer algorithms to build and look after your investment portfolio, and typically charges relatively low fees.
Not everyone inherits a fortune or makes a huge salary. But even if you don’t have those advantages, it doesn’t mean you can’t achieve financial independence. Getting there, however, can take work and spending discipline. Some steps that can help you get there include creating a budget, trimming expenses, building an emergency fund, paying off debt and setting up a smart saving and investing strategy that factors in your timeline and tolerance for risk.
Once you set up a plan to work towards financial independence, it can also be a good idea to check in regularly on how well the plan is working and to make adjustments when necessary.
Whether you decide to schedule quarterly meetings with a financial advisor, monthly money talks with your significant other, or use apps that help you track your expenses and investments, consider creating habits that help you stay on top of your goals.
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