MM Note: This is a guest post from Todd Kunsman, a 29 year old who started his FIRE journey 3 years ago. Given the success of his first guest post 8 Steps To Financial Freedom, I asked Todd to follow it up and share his personal challenges when starting to save and over the past 3 years as he works towards financial independence.
By the time I turned 26, I was frustrated with the lack of savings, a mediocre career, and an overall sense that I was just falling behind. It was late in summer of 2014 that I decided my finances needed a complete overhaul and something needed to finally change.
While I have accomplished a ton in the past three years, I’ve also encountered a lot of challenges from completely shifting my mindset and putting saving first. There have been some bumps, to say the least. At first, I made a lot of excuses about not getting started, then I felt like I wasn’t making progress fast enough, and then I started second-guessing many of my decisions. But here are five things I’ve learned over the past three years that can help anyone start really saving more money and start a financial independence journey.
1. Don’t procrastinate – get going today and learn as you go
One of the most challenging aspects after deciding to change my finances was getting started. How many times have we all said we wanted to do something, had an idea, wanted to read more, etc. to friends or family, but then never actually took the first step to do so right away? I’m sure the majority of people (myself included) have talked about doing so and so, but then never followed through. It’s human nature to procrastinate – it stems from our ancestors fear of the unknown. So we naturally do what’s comfortable, which for many people with money, is simply nothing.
Even after deciding to get my financial life in order in 2014, I still took an entire month to just get started. The first step was I forced myself to sit down and created a spreadsheet of all my bills, income, and where any extra spending was going. To be honest, seeing my whole life in a spreadsheet scared me a bit. I didn’t stop until everything was listed. Then once I knew where I was (meaning how much was I in debt?), then I opened my Vanguard account to start saving.
But I should’ve started as soon as I was thinking about this journey. I didn’t need to cram everything in that exact moment; I just need to get going. I was worried I was going to make a mistake, but quickly realized I could learn as I go and that I needed to start now or it might not happen.
2. Set alerts – make it a weekly habit
The day I started saving, I put a reminder on my calendar once a week to sit down for an hour and work on my finances in some way. It could include reading, balancing the accounts, optimizing cash flow, researching funds, etc. If a reminder isn’t enough, set up some kind of reward for yourself that keeps you on the right path and encourages you to work on it. Some couples make it a weekly habit to go out to a nice dinner and talk about money. Whatever helps you build and keep the weekly (or in Grant’s case, daily!) habit, do it. Trust me, that 1 hour every week will pay off big-time. It’s definitely my highest ROI hour every week.
There’s a lot of advice out there on how often you should manage your money – some people say 5 minutes a day, or a few hours a month, but I prefer to do it now a few times a week. For me personally, I learned that you don’t want to check your accounts everyday unless you have great self-control. This will stop you from being too impulsive. For the first 2 years, I only logged into Vanguard 1 time a week, which still may have been too much checking-in at the time. Now, I mostly check in a few times a week, usually via the app. But I also don’t have the urge to make decisions based on the news or market changes. I’m more calculated and trust myself to not be impulsive. I didn’t have this patience at first; it definitely comes with experience.
There is no right number of times to check on your account – some people may be better off only 1 time a month and ultimately that is your decision. But if you want to avoid making rash selling or buying decisions, limit how many times you look at your accounts and do not download account apps if you know you can’t exercise control.
Every week I sit down and open the free net-worth tracker Personal Capital, which allows me to track my account performance, spending patterns, and uncover opportunities for my retirement accounts. But it doesn’t actually let me do any buying or selling, so I can’t be impulsive.
3. Keep at it – growth can be slow at first, but then really adds up
Once I understood where my money was going and what I had left for savings, I still felt somewhat defeated. Based on income and the loans I had to pay off, the savings amount I could contribute seemed small. It left me sitting there saying, “That’s it?” How could I ever reach my goals based on such a small amount each paycheck? It is certainly a discouraging feeling.
It was slow the first few months, but then I was surprised by how much my balance grew in 6 months, 1 year, and beyond. After a year of consistently saving the same percentage each paycheck, I couldn’t believe that I had saved over $5,000 (this was not including my 401k). I had escaped living paycheck to paycheck.
Don’t underestimate the power of compound interest. If you have looked into anything with finances already or read other blog posts on Millennial Money, you have seen this term before. At first, you read and read about how over time the power of compound interest is what helps accounts grow exponentially, thus helping you reach your savings or retirement goals quicker just by contributing consistently.
I honestly didn’t really “buy” into compound interest at first. Crazy right? You see it in all the important investing books and from knowledgeable experts, yet I was still skeptical. Plus, based on what I was saving and the passing months, I really wasn’t seeing any great returns. But I kept increasing my savings rate when I could.
That’s okay though. You are starting off relatively small and the longer you contribute and hold specific funds, the better your returns will be. The growth is slow but does begin to accelerate over time.
Everybody wants to get rich overnight, but it doesn’t happen that way for most people. Just stay consistent with contributions and do not give up when it seems like you aren’t getting anywhere. There were times I definitely was frustrated, but I continued to remind myself to keep pushing forward, and I knew I was better off than when I started this journey. The most powerful motivator for myself was to have a note that stated what my accounts looked like before I started. It was enough motivation to keep me moving and to realize how far things had changed.
Now after three years of consistent contributions to my accounts, holding the same index funds but increasing contributions, I’m seeing investment returns over $1,500/year. Did I think I’d ever see that much in returns? Nope.
Sure, it is not groundbreaking money, but this is money that is extra to what I am already saving from my personal salary. And this number will only continue to increase year after year (although there can be some blips pending bear markets). However, that is compound interest and I’m in it for the long haul.
4. Don’t freak out with market fluctuations
A mistake I made (and most in investing do at some point) is by getting worried when the market starts turning red. Over the last three years, there have been a few corrections in the market, which just means stocks sell off, but then typically recover in few days, few weeks, etc. These at first scared me and I would end up selling funds after a day or two of losses.
So now, instead of buying low and selling high, I was doing the opposite which makes you lose money. There are times you may want to get rid of a fund or stock, but small changes in the market are no time to panic. Luckily when I was first doing this, I hadn’t really contributed a lot yet, so my losses were very small. But this is what happens with inexperience and not fully understanding investing.
So far in my financial journey, I have been lucky to not have faced a true bear market, like the more recent one in 2008. However, it is unavoidable and eventually will happen again. So in your reading and research, make sure to understand bear markets and protecting your accounts, and remember not to panic when markets downturn or face small corrections.
5. Keep reading, learning, and optimizing
I’ve mentioned a lot about getting started and being consistent, but one aspect I get asked about quite often is, “How did you learn all of this information?” Like I mentioned above, patience is a big factor. It takes time to learn and improve your financial IQ, but it’s not as hard as everyone makes it out to be.
When I first got started, I really needed to understand the basics. Once you already have a saving plan in place and your accounts open, you do not want to get too eager and start jumping into investing. You’re risking making beginner mistakes and losing your hard-earned money.
Google is definitely your friend when it comes to learning finances, but you do have to be careful as there are tons of websites that tell you the best funds to choose for your accounts. I highly recommend avoiding those, unless you do your research on given funds or stocks. Not all websites give bad advice, but remember it is your money and your future. I’d rather be in complete control and understand what funds I choose, rather than blindly mimicking someone else’s portfolio.
Instead, I taught myself the fundamentals and visited websites that provide basic information about platforms, financial terms, types of funds, etc. This includes places like Investopedia and some of the best money books. Also, asking any friends or family who may already know a lot about finances is also a good place to start, but also be careful since your friends or family may have outdated ideas.
I avoided jumping in random funds because an article said so, did not take any “expert” advice as to what my portfolio should look like, and stayed consistent with reading about investing. I’d consider myself pretty knowledgeable in finances currently, yet I’m still reading articles and books weekly and continue to learn a ton. Putting in the time to read will get you the right kind of results.
It’s funny for me to think back how I didn’t really know what an index fund or compound interest was in 2014, but now manage my own three investing accounts and write about it as well. You can too!
My journey so far has been a massive learning experience and while sometimes I felt the urge to give up, the last three years have proved what consistency and fighting through the negativity can do. I did not go to school for finance and never took a class on money, which goes to show you that anyone who wants to change the course of their financial future can do so with patience, time, and drive.
Have you started your financial journey yet? What have been your challenges or learning experiences so far?
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