Financial Independence Not As a Number, But Creating a Content Lifestyle

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If you’re reading this, then financial independence is probably a goal of yours. Yet, most people who accumulate a pile of money big enough to retire upon keep on working if they are able. Why? They may truly love their job and be willing to work for free, they may worry that they won’t have enough, they might decide they’d rather have nicer things, or they may simply not have fully considered a life after paid work.

The problem is that reaching your “Number” is like finally buying that big house or fancy car or 100,000th social media follower. There is never a point at which you can say “I’m here! I’ll be forever happy and satisfied from now on.” It is always tempting to keep reaching for more. As the saying goes: If all you care about is money, you’ll never have enough money. If all you care about is social prestige, you’ll never have enough social prestige. You are forever stuck on the hamster wheel.

The article Redefining Success So It Doesn’t Crush Your Soul touches on many concepts related to this puzzle.

It’s high time to redefine success. Success is not something that you reach—not something that is outside of yourself, just down the field. Success is creating a life you want to live in right now. The great tragedy, Fromm writes, is that “man misses the only satisfaction that can give him really happiness—the experience of the activity in the present moment—and chases after a phantom that leaves him disappointed as soon as he believes he has caught it—the illusory happiness called success.”

According to decades of psychological research, a successful life is one in which your basic needs for food, shelter, health care, and income are met and in which you have a sense of autonomy, mastery, and belonging. A life that is not about enduring means you can’t stand in order to reach ends you are supposed to want; but rather, about selecting pursuits based on how much you’ll enjoy the process of doing them.

Happiness is not a goal. It is a side effect of how you spend each day. Imagine a day where money is not limitless, but it also doesn’t matter to your wellbeing. You can pick to “work” on something you both enjoy and find meaningful, while also spending time with people you love. What would that look like? I completed a similar Dream Day activity in 2005, and the improved clarity definitely helped.

Starting out, I thought of financial independence as a race to a fixed goal. Track numbers, plot them on a chart. I’d work hard, save hard, reach my net worth target, and finally turn in my resignation letter and disappear.

Looking back, what worked better was a gradual transition between two versions of the same sustainable lifestyle. To build up your assets, you have to enjoy your daily process so you don’t burn out, while also maintaining a gap between your income and expenses. Invest that excess money into productive assets (building a private business, buying stock shares of public businesses, rental real estate, etc), and over time your choices expand. You can work the same job but less hours, work a different job with lower pay/lower stress, decline promotions, or simply do nothing (much rarer than you think). Part of this is the ability to be content with your non-work lifestyle and expenses. Life should just keep getting better and better, instead of you simply wanting more and more.

But it all starts with that work lifestyle, which requires something meaningful, moderately enjoyable, and pays well. Even with an aggressive savings rate, you’ll need to work for more than a decade, so invest money into yourself first! Get a job that is more interesting, more enjoyable, or just pays better. Use your money to take time off, switch to a entry-level job in a different industry, go back to school full-time, or spend nights and weekends working on new skills. Perhaps find a government-based job with a secure pension agreement if that fits you.


I plan to advise my own kids to spend their 20s in this manner. Live cheaply and invest in yourself. An emergency fund is important, but after that – What are you willing to spend 80 hours a week doing? Take the job that opens up future opportunities. Work with a great mentor. Study hard and don’t settle until you finally get into your target professional school. Work 80 hours a week because you (and maybe your friends) are building a business from scratch. Take asymmetric risks with big upsides and minimal downsides. Find your joys, and don’t waste money on the rest.

I’m still working on improving my own daily routine. I look back onto my 20s as a special period because time felt so abundant before you have others to support (partners, kids, parents). Having dependents also makes it harder to take risks and change your life. These two factors help explain why life satisfaction is lowest in your 40s. Yet harder doesn’t mean impossible. My father went back to school in his 30s and didn’t finish his schooling until I was already 10 years old. I constantly remind myself that I will eventually think of today as “back when I was young”:

Bottom line. Financial independence is not simply a faraway number like accumulating $1,000,000 in 30 years. Most important is figuring out how to enjoy the process by creating a content lifestyle that is meaningful and aligned with your values so that saving regularly doesn’t feel like a constant struggle. You want life to keep getting even better as you go vs. simply wanting ever more.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and may receive a commission from card issuers. Some or all of the card offers that appear on this site are from advertisers and may impact how and where card products appear on the site. does not include all card companies or all available card offers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

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  1. You addressed many things that are on my mind at the moment. My job pays quite well as far as I’m concerned, but it’s not particularly exciting nor fulfilling. I could “retire” now with what I have, but I think I would stress over finding health insurance for my family at affordable prices plus it would be nice to have a little extra spending money in my yearly budget. Also, I’ll be vested in a gov’t pension in 4 years, so I already feel those golden handcuffs. I realize these are great problems to have and I do my best to practice gratefulness, but when I think of doing this for 4 more years, it weighs on me heavily. Thanks for another excellent post, Jonathan.

    • I can see how a government pension would be pretty hard to let go; I know of many people who live a low-stress retirement as they know that check is coming every month. I never hear them worry about the stock market, their rental tenants, or anything like that. I hope you find peace in your decision.

    • J–is there a way you could “downshift” into a different government job that you would enjoy more than your current role? That might be worth considering. Spend a year or two trying to find something and then a couple more years doing that and then ride off into the sunset.

  2. On my own journey to FI I’ve discovered similar ideas. Stoic philosophy seems a bit cliche in the FIRE and tech communities, but it has some universal principles applicable to living the good life today.

    As personal abundance grows, I wonder if working for others might become more of a motivation. We are so wealthy in the West compared to the rest of the world. You could build a well for $10,000 in a lesser developed nation to provide clean water for an entire school or village. Or save 100+ lives from malaria like Derek Divers recently did:

    • I definitely see compassion and helping others as a source of meaning and ongoing motivation for many people, including myself. I am also an annual supporter of the Against Malaria Foundation after reading GiveWell’s research into its cost-effectiveness, although giving $250k in one shot is quite impressive. I’m sure there are many other worthy charities in light of the current pandemic. Thanks for sharing.

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