In the personal finance world, we talk a lot, very openly, about achieving financial independence, retiring early, and being free to live our best lives. But what if I told you that I don’t think financial freedom and financial independence are the same thing?
I’ll just get right out there and say it: I’m 100% working toward financial independence (FI), but I’m not so sold on retiring early (RE). The reason? I’m working more toward location independence than financial independence, and I’d prefer to take the path of least resistance toward the former than struggle through more of the tough, miserable work environments I had to endure before to be able to retire early.
In this post, I will discuss the difference between freedom and financial independence, and how I’m hoping to achieve both. More importantly, I want to offer an alternative to the usual “work for the highest salary possible then live the most frugal life possible to achieve financial independence as quickly as possible” mentality. It’s an awesome strategy, but it’s not for everyone (and definitely not for me). So here goes…
So What Exactly is “Financial Independence”?
There is a consensus *generally* on what financial independence (FI) is. However, the true definition and boundaries of FI are a bit more blurred.
According to this article on The Simple Dollar, “financial independence means that you have enough money to survive without further income.” Basically, you pay off all debts and save enough money to live off the interest until you die. Sounds pretty simple, right?
However, according to Financial Samurai, there are varying degrees of Financial Independence:
- Budget Financial Independence
- Baseline Financial Independence
- Blockbuster Financial Independence
As you can see, financial independence *loosely* means having the freedom to quit your job or take a lower-paying one because you no longer rely on your salary to pay your living expenses.
My Struggle Between “Financial Independence” and “Freedom”
They say money can’t buy happiness, but I disagree. Money can buy happiness, in the form of freedom. Having enough money can help you buy your way out of a toxic job, can help you learn skills that help you improve your career and living standards, and can make life much more comfortable. In this money-fueled happiness, the ideas of “freedom” and “financial independence” converge.
So, as you can imagine, “freedom” and “financial independence” are not mutually exclusive, at least not on the surface. However, as a 25 year old with a mountain of student debt, they kind of are. For a long time, for me, it was either a) strap myself down in a miserable corporate job rife with politics and mistreatment, or b) find my location independence and personal freedom, but with a HUGE pay cut that will make financial independence much more difficult.
If you’ve read my past posts, you can probably guess which one I chose. And therein lies the choice I had to make between “freedom” and “financial independence.”
Right now, I feel TOTALLY free. I feel like I’ve truly achieved my definition of “freedom”, which is complete and total location independence. But yes, I’m still straddled with student debt that needs to get paid, and retirement accounts that need to be filled. Without my swanky corporate salary, those goals of financial independence (and maybe even retiring early) will be a LOT harder.
What Would Happen If We Chased “Freedom” First?
So, let’s back up. My definition of freedom is full location independence. I want to have full control over where and when I work, and I’d like for most of my freelance gigs to either be short-term consulting engagements or remote work.
And I’ve made a lot of sacrifices to achieve this freedom.
I don’t come from a background of money, but I do have the luxury of occupying a spare bedroom in my mom’s basement for free (for now). And I’m slowly and surely starting to fill my days with money earning tasks (side hustles and part-time jobs) in lieu of working on my blogs, which I hope will one day earn me enough to live off of but today…not so much.
But here I am, not making plans just yet to return to the corporate world after this year-long career break because I’m hustling HARD to maintain my location independence and, therefore, my freedom. I’m still living off of my savings. Admittedly, some days I make less than $10 in pre-tax income. But I’m willing to fight for my personal freedom, even if it means having to work 1,000 times harder in a much more uncertain and ambiguous environment.
Sure, it’s terrifying at times. But for me, it’s worth delayed financial independence for freedom. And this experience is simply teaching me to hustle harder (and smarter) even more than before.
…And Then Tailored Our Financial Goals Around That Idea of Freedom?
I know that I’m probably not going to retire at 30. Or even 40.
Honestly, I maybe could have come really close, if I’d continued working in my line of business until then. (Assuming I got promoted/raises at the rate that I did while I was in the corporate world.) But I also would have been totally miserable, haggard, and down on my mental health. So no, not an option.
Instead, I decided to tailor my financial goals and savings strategy around the life I wanted to live. I calculated exactly how much my monthly expenses should cost, including my minimum (refinanced) student loan payments. Then, I saved enough “F-You” money to take the leap, maxed out retirement while I could, then quit my job cold turkey to travel for a year without anything lined up.
Some might say this behavior means that I suck with money. To that, I say…*shrug*. Sure, I’m going to continue marching down this journey to financial independence, but not at the expense of my mental/physical health or my personal freedom, which I worked so hard to achieve. And that’s the difference I’m trying to highlight here: IT’S OKAY to prioritize personal freedom over financial independence. I sure don’t regret it.
We’ll All Find Our Freedom and Financial Independence at Different Times, in Different Places, for Different Reasons
For some people, financial independence is their freedom. And that’s totally admirable and cool! All I’m saying is that maybe, just maybe, that’s not the only path to freedom. Maybe freedom is having 6 weeks of vacation instead of 3, even if it means taking 3 extra unpaid weeks each year. Perhaps freedom is working only 5 hours a day instead of 8+, or being your own boss instead of having someone else dictate your work.
And for some people, they may not actually know what their freedom looks like.
Life doesn’t immediately change when you reach financial independence milestones. It doesn’t miraculously turn into a party when you pay off your student loans, or become a sun-kissed stroll on the beach once you achieve your definition of financial independence. You might feel the weight of financial stresses lifted, and you might find it easier to work toward your defined freedom, but reaching your financial independence numeric goals won’t necessarily make everything change overnight.
But life does change when you find your freedom. You’ll have the opportunity to live the way you’ve been dreaming of and working toward. Sometimes, after you find your freedom, life becomes more challenging. Or you realize your idea of freedom isn’t actually freeing at all. Or you actually will get to travel and do the things you deprived yourself of before. But undeniably, life will change with freedom, whether or not you’ve achieved financial independence along with it.
What does freedom look like for you? And how are you working to achieve it? Share your thoughts/story in the comments!