September 26, 2022
Sometimes I write about things that excite me.
Other times I write about things which annoy me.
Today, it’s the latter 😉
And what’s bugging me is something that has lurked in the background in the personal finance space for a long time: the idea that to save, build wealth, and become financially independent requires a good dose of sacrifice.
I use to believe this was the case. I’ve probably even said it on this blog.
But it’s not the idea of sacrifice that bothers me. It’s the way most people think about the concept. I’ve come to believe that the way we frame sacrifice is wrong for multiple reasons.
When you think of the word sacrifice, what comes to mind?
For most people, I think it’s the idea that you’re giving up something.
To forgo or to deprive yourself of a certain thing, possibly for a greater cause or goal. But the core idea (and the main focus) is to forgo or give up something.
So, what’s wrong with this framework?
First, sacrifice tends to have a negative connotation. We generally equate sacrifice with hardship at the center. It often brings up feelings of “Oh no, I’ll miss out on X.” Or “I won’t get to do Y anymore.”
This is a common key objection to the FIRE movement and the idea of spending less so you can invest. It’s the biggest hurdle in starting a new diet or exercise regime. Countless things are like this.
If I can be bold for a minute, let’s redefine and reframe how we think about sacrifice.
Through our current mental framework, the focus is seemingly always on what we’re giving up. On what we’re losing. The negative side of the ledger. But this is only half the story.
What are we gaining in return?
This is a crucial puzzle piece which is missing from these mental equations. Because if what we’re gaining is incredible, then we might not care about the thing that we’re losing. And if that’s the case, then it’s a happy trade-off, and the idea of sacrifice is flipped on its head.
And if the benefit isn’t worth the sacrifice, then it’s simply a trade we aren’t interested in.
See, sacrifice is not about giving up. It’s about trading one thing for another. Not only is the idea of hardship and the sense of loss unhelpful, it’s not even accurate.
Sacrifice, in reality, means choosing something different, something more important to us than our initial behavior. Plus, you’re already sacrificing and don’t even realise it.
Say you currently eat a shitty diet and you want to be healthy. Are you really sacrificing donuts and chips in order to eat cleaner food? Or were you already sacrificing your health for donuts and chips?
If you’re currently in terrible shape, are you sacrificing couch-time to go for a walk? Or were you already sacrificing your physical fitness to sit idle?
Sacrifice goes in both directions.
With our more complete idea of sacrifice front of mind, let’s flesh out some other examples. We sacrifice:
— The single life for a relationship.
— Millions of additional dollars to retire decades earlier.
— Being decent at lots of things to be great at one thing.
— The stability of cash to invest in shares.
— The flexibility of renting for the security of owning.
— Netflix binges to spend time learning.
— Another decade of freedom for ‘a bit more’ wealth or a fancier lifestyle.
— All the things we could do for the things we are doing (I’m sacrificing time with my dog to write this article).
Of course, we don’t think of these things as sacrifice. Intuitively, we understand that we’re simply dealing with a game of trade-offs, swapping one thing for another.
Every choice has an alternative. We can flip these around and frame it the same way. We’re always sacrificing one thing for another. Our entire life is one big game of trade-offs.
People don’t suck at saving because they’re bad at depriving themselves of things. They suck at saving because they think that to save they must deprive themselves of things.
Saving becomes a painful experience. Something to endure. Again, the focus is on what they’re giving up. Never what they’re getting in return. Which, in the case of saving, means a cushion to fall back on, lower stress levels, the freedom to work less, and a greater sense of peace and security.
The fear-of-missing-out becomes like a bug under our skin… tormenting us for all the things we’re missing out on. But we fail to recognise that saving – like health, and skills, and studying – is just another game of trade-offs.
And because it’s all a game, like life itself, there’s no reason for us to feel pain about our decisions. You simply have to decide. Something is worth it or it’s not. We make a choice, roll with it for a while, and if we’re not happy we can adjust course as we go.
Which brings us back to sacrifice and saving. How can we make this as easy as possible?
Step 1: Make it enjoyable!
Step 2: Don’t forget Step 1.
Look, we are playing a game, but it’s not an all-or-nothing game. The common assumption, and I’m sure you’ve come across it many times too, is that to save a lot of money requires a high level of sacrifice and missing out.
To the masses who have different priorities, that’s definitely what it would feel like. But when you have a different set of priorities – like freedom, personal wealth and a more relaxed lifestyle, it doesn’t feel like that at all.
The nonsense of having a brand kitted-out Hilux becomes less important than having complete control of your time. And once you optimise the big stuff – housing, transport, travel, food – the rest is pretty flexible.
The truth is, most of us earn very healthy incomes in Australia. Enough that we can blow a fair amount of cash, while still being able to sock away a good chunk of change each year to our mortgage or brokerage account.
This means you can still have areas you spend on. The goal isn’t to make our spending as low as possible. The goal is to make our spending as reasonable as possible, so we can hit our financial goals while living an enjoyable lifestyle along the way. If the FI journey is making you miserable, you’re doing it wrong!
Even allocating an extra $5,000 to $10,000 per year won’t make that much difference. In ten years you might have missed out on an extra $100,000 of wealth. But at that point, your wealth is probably growing by that much through savings and investment returns!
So, you may delay financial independence by a year or so. That’s nothing in the grand scheme of things. And if this extra spending would make a big difference to your life now, then it’s probably worth it.
But instead, people create these fake hurdles in their mind: “Oh, the FIRE movement is all about sacrifice and missing out on things so you don’t have to work later – I can’t do that.”
It’s utter nonsense. A made-up barrier. And people do this because the status quo and dismissing ideas is vastly easier than change. But as long as most of your spending is moderate, you can still have an outlet for whatever costly habit happens to be important to you.
And I’m probably being far too generous, because most people’s personal finances are, as Mr Money Mustache once described it, “an exploding volcano of wastefulness.”
I hope I’ve shed new light on the discussion around sacrifice. The idea that this is all about missing out on valuable things for some future benefit is ridiculous.
The irony is, things always seem harder in our minds than in reality. The one thing I hear repeatedly from more advanced readers is they wish they started sooner. So if you’re on the fence about whether financial independence is worth the effort, there’s your answer.
If something is important to you, you’ll make room for it in your life and your finances – simple as that. Speaking of which, what trade-offs and choices are you currently making that look like sacrifices… but are really just swapping one thing for another?
Are you eating more veggies and less ice cream? Camping instead of hotel-hopping? Being more attentive with your kids instead of playing on your phone? Investing money rather than spending it? Making your own food instead of takeaway? Spending more time outside instead of on the couch?
The bottom line is, everything we do comes with a hidden list of benefits and drawbacks. When we ‘sacrifice’ something, we’re simply choosing a new, more desirable set of benefits and drawbacks.
And if that’s the case, then it’s not really a sacrifice at all.
By the way, I wrote an ebook with my favourite strategies that helped us save up to 70% of our incomes while still living a good life. It’s called Supercharge Your Savings Rate, and you can get it here.