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  • Jessica McAtee

Fix Your Gaze

Updated: Jan 6, 2020

I decided in my early twenties that I didn't want to work full-time for someone else until I was in my sixties. I wanted my time to be my own, not on loan to my employer. More than that, I wanted freedom to travel, visit loved-ones, create and study butterflies. Identifying what it is that makes me happy, keeping my gaze fixed on that and then putting all my energy into pursuing it fueled my ambitious journey.

It was more about what I was moving towards than what I was running from. Now that I have that freedom, I can summarize the steps in this oversimplified blog post.

Step 1: I had to get clear on what I wanted my life's major categories (spiritual, relationships, health, work, money, giving, recreation, and self-growth) to look like. Money is certainly not the most important part of the plan, but it is one that provides more options. Learning to manage it was key. When I took off at the starting line, I was single with recurring bills, a six-figure mortgage, a full-time job and no savings. This was going to take some serious strategy.

Another HUGE piece of the puzzle was being intentional about who I spent my time with, especially when it came to dating (which can lead to a husband). My friends thought I was crazy to have such a specific list. He didn't come along until years after my plan had been formulated, but it made it so much easier to recognize him when I had clarity about what I wanted my future life to look like.

The ancient book of Proverbs sums it up. "Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you. Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. Do not turn to the right or to the left." (4:25-27)

A single monarch butterfly can fly from Canada to Mexico by picking up cues from the environment and constantly re-calibrating the journey. That's the focus and determination I want.

Step 2: I read every personal finance and planning book I could get my hands on (this was before blogging was a big thing, so I was trail-blazing). Learning about money and investing was important. I had to figure out what to do with all the money I was going to save to leverage it to my greatest advantage. Some of the books that most impacted me were Your Money or Your Life (Dominguez, Robin), The Power of Focus (Canfield, Hansen), and Rich Dad Poor Dad (Kiyosaki).

My detailed plan involved tons of learning from smart people who I wanted to emulate. Freebie: Don't take advice from people in specific areas unless they are what you want to be in that area. It also considered everything from extra ways to earn income to creative ways to lower expenses. Making decisions was easier when I would first consider my list of how I wanted my life to look (from Step 1).

The basic framework didn't change but the specifics of the plan have morphed a thousand times, always recalculating to the desired coordinates. Life is fluid with surprises and curve balls.

Step 3: I completed a detailed evaluation of my current expenses. The plan was to minimize the largest ones, which are typically taxes, housing and auto, often in that order. Eventually, I made my way down the list through insurance, groceries, utilities and other necessities. Finally, I sorted through categories like phone, memberships, clothing, fun-money and vacation spending.

That last paragraph took seconds to read, but in real time, this overhaul took months and is still an ongoing process, though much easier these days. In some categories I had a vague goal but it took time to find out how to get there. Some of the major hacks that instantly helped were house-sharing, increasing insurance deductibles where it made sense, monitoring electricity usage and capping my weekly grocery bill by meal planning and shopping with a list. It occurred to me that watching hours of t.v. a day was not aligned with my desired trajectory, so I cancelled my cable cold-turkey. I never regretted that because loafing on the couch was never something I aspired to. It was fun to rent rooms to friends for a win-win at affordable rates and challenge myself to get creative about entertainment.

Step 4: Integrate the plan as a new way of life. This process of regularly assessing my expenses and optimizing them is habitual. After continuing on the path for about 13 years, we were able to quit our full-time jobs and reach financial independence in 2017 at age 38. Most categories are now non-existent, strictly monitored or on automatic but things change. It pays to check up at least every 6 months to make sure we are still on target.

My husband and I have semi-annual finance meetings where we review how things are going, whether or not we met our goals, how we want investments balanced and where we are headed next. He puts together a power-point presentation and we make a geeky but hot date night of it. I dress up like someone who is a working professional and we always go out to dinner after the meeting like real-life executives. It's fun.

As we discover new hacks, we apply them. This blog will continue to reveal them but I will list a few that had major impacts saving thousands of dollars.

  • When we still had a mortgage, we refinanced to lower rates

  • We rent out rooms in our home or the entire home when we are away traveling

  • Shopping at ALDI grocery stores has reduced our grocery bill by 30% (we know this because all of our expenses are tracked on a spreadsheet). They are not nationwide (yet) but finding an outlet store may be comparable

  • Health is a priority. We cook most meals and we exercise daily at home for free.

  • Opening a tax-free Health Savings Account has allowed us to stash more money in retirement funds and have cash for unplanned medical expenses

  • Republic Wireless phone service allows me to have a smart phone for less than $20 a month

  • We spent less than $3,000 on our wedding and we are just as married as everyone else and possibly happier

  • We only buy used cars and then we keep them for a long time (think 15 years or more)

  • We allow for no automatic recurring expenses. They can be sneaky. This includes gym memberships, clubs, fees and monthly gift-boxes. We choose services that we can pay one time so that we don't forget or stop using the service and still pay for it forever

Steady you go. Keep your gaze fixed and your feet on the path.

One day, all of these little things will add up to a great reward.

I hope you got some ideas from this and I will happily answer any questions.

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