I have a friend who has reached financial independence at the relatively young age of thirty-eight. He is completely debt free, having paid off his modest mortgage several years ago and owing nothing else. He has enough money invested to live quite comfortably, if modestly, from the earnings those investments produce. In other words, he no longer has to work to make a living. (If you want to learn more about financial independence and how it can be accomplished, I highly recommend the book, “Your Money Or Your Life” by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin.)
I’ve never considered him wealthy; he’s not a trust fund baby or a dot-com millionaire. He didn’t inherit millions. He does make a good income, but it’s not exorbitant for the area in which we live. He reached financial independence the old fashioned way. He works hard. He never buys things he can’t afford. He lives very low to the ground and stashes all the extra money in high-yield investments and savings accounts. Having been friends with this man since college, I can attest that he did nothing more than live significantly below his means for the last twenty years. At times he worked multiple jobs to pay the bills and still have some left over to save.
I can hear some people saying, “Well, that’s fine but he’s deprived himself all these years when he could have been living a better life.” Maybe, maybe not. He could have spent more money, certainly, but would it have bought him the happiness he has being debt free and free from work? I doubt it. He’s always had fun doing things that are cheap or free and I’ve never once heard him complain that he can’t have or do something. He made a decision years ago that he would achieve financial independence and he’s worked toward that goal. Even if most of us wouldn’t choose that path, it’s certainly admirable that he made a financial plan and stuck to it. That in itself is rare these days. And most of us would love to have his freedom, we’re just not willing to sacrifice in the short term to achieve a long term goal. Harsh, but true.
Anyway, the other day I was sitting on the porch with my friend having a beer and he told me he’d just quit his job that day. I wasn’t too surprised because I knew he wasn’t thrilled with the situation and, now that he had reached financial independence, he didn’t need to work there anymore. But I wondered what he would do now. He’s not the sort of person who will be content with a life of leisure for long. He has to be doing something or he goes nuts. So I asked him, “What are you going to do now?”
His answer surprised me. I thought he would say travel the world or work on the house. Maybe work part time. Something easy. Nope, not this guy.
“I’m going to volunteer full time.”
“Volunteer for what?” I asked.
“Whatever groups need me and I feel like I can help at the time.”
Now, this is a man who is in a position to simply donate money to organizations that he wants to help and leave it at that. But instead of the easy way, he’s choosing to actually give his time. And not easy desk job stuff.
I asked him what groups he was considering working for and he named off a few. Habitat for Humanity, some local conservation and environmental groups, some local literacy groups, and, my favorite, teaching some classes on finance at the local community college that serves the underprivileged areas of the city. He’s going to be building houses, cleaning rivers and roadsides, and teaching. This is not a life of leisure.
He said that he’d start off working for several organizations and then see if he wanted to specialize or keep working for whoever needed him. He’s exploring opportunities in other states and countries as well, so he can combine some travel with his volunteer work. He said he’d probably take some part time paid work in his field, as well, to keep him from having to touch his saving too much and to stay involved in his industry. “Just in case,” he added with a shrug.
I sat there drinking my beer and thinking how astounding this man is. I was exhausted just listening to his plans. How many of us (be honest), if we found ourselves in his situation, would choose this harder path? Wouldn’t most of us choose to indulge our travel habit, or work part time and spend the rest of the time in leisure pursuits, chasing golf balls around the green? There’s nothing wrong with that: When you’ve earned the money, you’ve earned the right to do with it what you will. But to choose to work for those less fortunate and, even better, to teach others the skills that earned you your money and your freedom, well, that’s something special.
I asked him why he made that choice. He said that he simply felt it was fair. He had so much energy, time and talent that it wasn’t fair to waste it on the golf course or let it atrophy by doing nothing. He felt like volunteering would give him what he needed to be happy: Contact with other people, a chance to make a difference, a chance to use his talents in the pursuit of something greater than money, exercise, time outside, and a chance to teach others some of what he knew. He said that he recognized that most organizations are short on people who can give a lot of time, are young enough to give physical labor instead of just money, and who are motivated to see something through, rather than just racking up hours to satisfy a community service requirement. He met those criteria and decided to give what he had: time, energy, and ability.
“Besides,” he said, “I’m never sure what these organizations do with my money when I give it to them. At least I know for sure what my labor is doing to help.”
“Wow,” was all I could say.
In the end, my friend gave me a lot to think about. Should I ever find myself in his position (and I’m actively working to get there by my mid/late-40′s), what will I do? Will I also do something that matters or will I waste my time and talents doing trivial things? I hadn’t really thought about it until I spoke to my friend. To be honest, my wishes to this point have been pretty selfish and not very well thought out. I always figured I’d work part time, but I have no idea doing what. I want to travel extensively, I want to pursue a lot of hobbies that get neglected, I want to be more social. I want, I want, I want. There’s nothing wrong with satisfying some of my wants, but now my friend has me thinking: Is that going to be enough? I doubt it.
What my friend opened my eyes to is this: We spend so much of our lives trying to get money, to achieve financial comfort or independence, and for what, exactly? So we can buy more stuff? So we can sit around all day and do nothing? That’s fine if it satisfies you, but I doubt it will be fulfilling for long. Assuming you remain in good health, you’ll probably want more. It’s a question worth considering. If you’re ever fortunate enough to reach the point where work is optional, what will you do? Will you keep working in your field, or will you try something new? Will you work part time or full time? Will you give something back?
I know I will spend the next few years looking for volunteer and part time opportunities that combine my interests and hobbies with the chance to do something meaningful. Volunteering can be a great way to remain active and involved in life, to combine your interests and hobbies with the chance to give something back, and to acknowledge your gratitude for your position in life. Or, as my friend says, it’s simply fair.
Image courtesy of Brandon Cirillo