The FIRE movement – tactics versus principles

In case you missed it, there’s been a lot of recent press about the “Financially Independent, Retire Early” or FIRE movement. The news is a mixed bag with many strong criticisms about the idea. Amidst all this varying sentiment is a lesson for all of us on taking the time to separate tactics from principles as we communicate ideas.

While the “retire early” part of the name is provocative (and seems to be drawing most ire), the central principle behind the FIRE movement is to become financially independent by being conscious about our financial well being.

Financial independence doesn’t mean not working – it just means being able to build a career and life without worrying about money. This is done with a strategy based on 3 simple tenets – i) Save more by living simply and cutting costs, ii) Invest aggressively in low cost index funds, and iii) Increase your income.

Would anybody argue against these principles? I’d posit that we should all be part of this movement.

The deeper learning here is that it is human nature to lose sight of the principles as we get caught up in the details. So, as we work to communicate our ideas every day, it is on us to obsess about sharing principles versus tactics.

Managing expenses on Google Spreadsheets – follow up

I wrote about managing expenses on Google spreadsheets earlier this week and offered to share a template. I was admittedly blown away at the response. Unlike other posts where I tend to hear from a few folks I’ve come to know well, long time readers sprang out of nowhere asking about the template (read: it was a delight meeting you all). It is no wonder good blogs on personal finance build up large and engaging readerships. Anyway, I digress.

As promised to those of you wrote in, please find the template here. You should just be able to download the Google sheet as an excel file on your computer or copy the Google sheet. Below are a few notes that might help.

First, I’ve added a few notes on the Google sheet to make the flow of sheets intelligible. The main principle at play is consciousness. We consciously enter every expense on the sheet using the “Sheets” app by Google. We also ensure we track all our subscriptions in one place so we’re being intentional about shutting subscriptions we don’t use. The yearly math sheet just ensures we have a macro view of what’s going on.

Second, we don’t use a budget anymore. The 2012 version had budgets – but, we shelved them a few years back. We realized that we don’t make frivolous spending decisions if we’re conscious about our expenses. So, we didn’t see benefit of the overhead involved with setting and maintaining a budget. That doesn’t mean we haven’t made dumb or and the occasional expense we’ve regretted. But, thanks to this sheet, we discuss it and aim to learn from it. Our biggest lesson from these reflections is to simply pause 24 hours before making a large expense.

Third, while there’s a tab for investments, we don’t use this sheet to manage it. We are fans of the app “Personal Capital” and use the free version to get an overview of how things are going. An important complementary document is a living document called the “Finance Thesis Sheet” that I’ve written about before. I’d co-created a “learnographic” a few years back that synthesizes lessons learnt on personal finance and investing – those principles, for the most part, inform our approach to investments.

Fourth, the paycheck sheet is a very lightweight version of the finance thesis sheet. We’ve tried to maintain conscious boundaries about how we think about our money. The key here is to assume we earn far less than we do, not increase our expenses as our income increases, and to make sure most money goes to longer term investment accounts.

Fifth, as you can tell, this is all (relatively) low tech. We’ve been recommended many fancier apps from time to time. But, the key feature of all these apps is that they do the work for us. And, that’s a problem where we’re concerned. We spend a few mins every week going through our accounts, talk about any anomalies, and look at trends annually to see how we’re doing. Doing the work to understand how we’re spending our money is a feature for us – not a bug.

Hope you find this useful. Look forward to hearing your notes and lessons learnt.

Managing expenses on Google Spreadsheets

There are many personal finance tools that help automate managing our expenses with fancy graphs and stats on our expenses. Mint, for example, uses data from your credit cards to generate graphs about your spending across categories. Each of your credit card apps likely do so too. But, if you’re in it to be on top of your expenses, I’m still a big fan of managing expenses on a Google Spreadsheet.

I’d shared a simple Google spreadsheet template in a post on calculating expenses 6 years back. We still use an evolved version of that template (happy to clean up + share an updated version if it is valuable to you). And, managing our expenses involves entering each expense. This process has friction built into it by design because the friction inspires consciousness.

We get all the other benefits – we always know exactly how much we’ve spent across major categories. And, we have a wealth of historical data cut in a way that makes sense to us.

We recently compared notes on how we do this with a couple of friends and they tested the “old fashioned” spreadsheet approach as well. Their first reaction after switching was that their spreadsheet made them acutely aware of the areas where they wanted to minimize expenses. This is so true – it is effective to the point where you soon realize you don’t need a budget.

Every technology tool creator’s goal is to make our lives more convenient. But, it is on us to both find the right tools and add the necessary amount of friction to use these tools consciously.

And, as far as topics that are as important as personal finance go, the more the consciousness, the better the long term outcome.

High yield savings accounts

A simple and useful piece of personal finance reminder I received recently was to move saved cash from an ordinary savings account to a high yield savings account. Where I am, that instantly changes the interest rate from ~0% interest to ~1.9%.

Of course, a “high yield savings account” is just a fancy name for an account that ensures your money keeps up with inflation. But, if you maintain an emergency fund in your savings account, for example, it is worth finding a savings account that at least ensures you don’t lose money to inflation every year.

Over time, that is worth a lot – literally. :-)

Compare purchases to put them in context

We think of money differently depending on the context. For example, we may fight for a three hundred dollar discount when buying a new car. But, the same discount when buying a house would feel ridiculous. It is still the same three hundred dollars, isn’t it?

The downside of this approach is that we may be biased toward making certain kinds of investments over others. And, one tool I’ve begun to find helpful is to compare purchases to put them in context.

Let’s imagine you want to spend $100 on a hobby. It is tempting to think you’re rationally evaluating the cost/benefit of the $100. But, we’re not rationally evaluating anything – instead, we have a certain dollar amount threshold tagged to hobbies. So, I begin asking myself – what are other areas where I’m spending $100 or more? Let’s say I’ve got a vacation coming that’s got a budget of $1000. How would I think about adding $100 to the vacation with a new, cool add on? How much does that compare with the added benefit from the hobby?

Or, what about that gadget you’re considering buying?

After two or three such comparisons, it becomes obvious as to how much you value the expense you’re considering. In my case, for example, I found myself biased against making a couple of expenses that had some short term hassle and longer term benefit. I also realized I had a bias against annual subscriptions over one time payments.

My goal with expenses is to do so consciously. And, comparing purchases helps with that.

I hope it helps you too.