Buying My Freedom

A purple sunset behind a field with trees in the distance.

A lot of folks in the U.S. got some really great news this week, myself included. President Biden announced $10,000 worth of student loan forgiveness and $20,000 for those who received a Pell Grant (a program for low-income students) in college.

Unless there is some fine print I’m missing, I should fall into the latter group. As luck would have it, I paid my two remaining student loans down to a total of $19,924 last month. With 0% interest since the administrative forbearance went into effect in March 2020, I was able knock out a good chunk of principle in the past two years.

I prefaced this post with this bit of info because it is somewhat relevant to my journey. I am on track to pay off my car next month and had plans to wrap up the student loans in 2023. If and when these loans get wiped out, I will have a ton of financial flexibility. My remaining debt will be a 0% interest mower that I don’t owe much on and my sub-3% mortgage. I won’t be financially independent, but I can start building toward that goal a lot faster with the student loans out of the way.

Having the loans canceled is life changing to some degree, but I also know that I would’ve gotten there pretty quickly. I understand that it is a gift, and I have no plans to squander it.

In 2019, I essentially had a net worth of $0. Fortunately, I had an IP sale that allowed me to keep my head above water and had started a new job with a decent paycheck in the fall of that year.

I don’t recall how, but I stumbled upon YNAB (You Need a Budget) toward the end of May 2020. It was a zero-based budgeting system that I fell in love with. I was hesitant about paying for it initially, but I also disliked all the ad-supported “free” options elsewhere. Fortunately, YNAB offered a 34-day free trial. I spent a couple of days setting up a budget and waited for June 1 to start the next month on the right foot.

This was when my journey toward financial independence began. I didn’t learn about the FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) movement until much later, but I knew that it was something I wanted to do before I could put words to it.

It didn’t take me long to start racking up some serious money. I was long accustomed to a frugal lifestyle. I grew much of my own food and was living rent-free in a camper on my grandparents’ property.

But, I tried to take on too much at once. With a nice savings, I decided to buy a new house. My old car died during that process, so I went into debt getting my 2017 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport (I still love this car too). Of course, I needed a new riding mower for the 2.5 acres of land that would need cutting after closing my mortgage in December 2020. And, there was a host of other costs with setting up my life into the following year.

I wasn’t doing bad. I was just normal. I had a normal life with normal bills and normal debt. It didn’t take me long to realize I was sick of that last one.

It took me a while to start moving forward again and really stick to my budget. Budgeting software is only part of the equation, but it doesn’t work without the man in the mirror putting in the work. This year, I made up my mind, once again, to start doing the things I needed to do to reach financial independence.

I don’t eat avocado toast or buy Starbucks, but I did cancel Netflix and the Disney+/Hulu bundle (~$38/month savings right there). I did start budgeting for groceries again. It turns out that I’ve eaten pretty well on $50–$55/week for these past couple of months. Someone even asked me if I’d lost weight. I don’t know, but it’s possible. And, I’ve made a ton of these little changes.

Yes, you can absolutely make some big moves with minor cutbacks. I cannot remember who said it, but I remember hearing that it was easier to save a dollar 1,000 times than to try and save $1,000 all at once. There is a lot of wisdom in that. While I have a great salary and could get by fine on it, these other little things make a big difference.

That car I bought in 2020? Next month will be our two-year anniversary together. It’ll be paid for in full. And, yes, cutting out Netflix and a bunch of other things like it definitely played a part in that.

In the next couple of months, I am on track to be a hundred thousandaire for the first time. If the student loans get wiped before then, that will definitely push me over the edge. But, I will get there regardless of what happens with them.

I don’t say this to boast. Honestly, I am way behind where I need to be at 38 years old. However, I do want to share this to show that it is possible to budget your way to a nice chunk of change in a relatively short amount of time. And, I did this despite taking on some new liabilities. Realistically, I could be even further ahead. Remember that just three years ago I had a net worth of $0. Even my old, broken down car only netted me $200 when I sold it.

Lately, I have been thinking about starting a series on financial-related matters or living frugally. I tend to hesitate with this because I know that I still have so much more to learn. Who am I, a guy who barely had it together three years ago, to be doling out financial advice?

At the same time, I am the type of person who wants to share everything he learns, regardless of whether folks are ready to hear the message. I am in need of an outlet. Perhaps this is the first post in many. I have no clue where I’ll go from here, but we’ll see.

This post is, more or less, me publicly announcing that I am on a journey toward financial independence. I’ve talked about it with friends and family. Now, I am trying to grow more comfortable talking about it with others outside of my inner circle. It’s easy to feel vulnerable when discussing money. So, this is a first step. It is a way to hold myself accountable as I earn my financial freedom.