This is a Thing that Happened

Just this week we spent $2,050 fixing our car. It can be very easy to encounter expenses like these and feel like financial independence and early retirement (FIRE) will never arrive. “Oh man, we just spent six thousand dollars in a single month??” “We just obliterated our savings.” “We’re never going to be free!”

I realized something this morning, reading the most recent Frugalwoods post, which in turn reminded me of the classic Brave New Life post “The Waiting Place”. Early retirement is a milestone, not a goal. The real goal is living the life you want to live. A lot of folks seem to treat arriving at FIRE as a talisman where life will go from suck to awesome in 3.2 seconds. Does working a job suck? Often, yes, yes it does. But there are a myriad ways you can inject awesomeness into your life without entering the waiting place. In fact, the more you spend in the waiting place, the more the final destination can only hope to disappoint. Life is something that, like a garden, you cultivate – and gardeners don’t sit around all season and wait for things to magically be available to harvest. We journey alongside it the whole way.

There’s nothing wrong with the knee-jerk reaction of initial frustration at a large expense. Few people can control their instinctual emotional responses. But you are free to respond differently. Your second-order response should not be “oh man, it’s hopeless.” First, recognize that the frustration is a thing that is happening. Second, recognize the cause of the frustration is also a thing that is happening. That’s it. It’s something that has happened. What has changed about our life? What has changed about our interests, passions, and fundamental desires? Nothing. So you shrug your shoulders and move on. It’s only if you’re in the waiting place, focused on the future to the detriment of all else, that you get flustered at the goalposts getting moved out.

Looking at it further, dwelling in earnest in the waiting place becomes insanity. Just as every cumulative decision compounds to create the singular entity we call “I”, future goals – especially finance-dependent ones – are influenced by a dizzying number of factors. Every single dollar we spend pushes the goal away. Mr. Market capriciously moves the goal all over the map in any given time period. If all you did was sit in the waiting place, and see the end goal moving around, you’d drive yourself crazy. That’s no way to live.

Balance and mindfulness is the key. The converse of YOLO, living on blind impulse, is just as insane. A lot of human behavior makes sense when you realize our baseline biology is a hyper-advanced monkey. But we’re more than that. My core religious/philosophical belief is that agency sets us apart. Inside every human is a small piece of the divine cloud of unknowing, the impenetrable mystery of a free agent. We are free, even though we almost never exercise the radical freedom Sartre captures in the link above. Only someone who is free can be mindful of how she acts, how she responds, and ultimately how she chooses to live her life.

A financial setback is just a thing that has happened. It doesn’t change how we want to live our lives. Expressing frustration just gives the event power over us. We are free to reject that biological response, even as we acknowledge its presence. Today is a new day.


8 Comments on “This is a Thing that Happened”

  1. You must have been up early this morning to be commenting already on a FW post I hadn’t read yet!

    Anyway, thanks for this. I think it applies to a lot of different areas of life–you think that once x happens, you will be happy. But then x comes, and you are still the same person. I’ve seen more than one blog post by a person who had been very heavy, and worked really hard to get thin, and then was disappointed that most of their life didn’t magically transform along with their bodies.

    I spent a lot of my adult life fighting the waiting place–we always seem to be getting ready to move, or spending a year and a half trying to get pregnant. Fortunately, I’m getting better every time at waiting without dwelling the waiting place.

    Glad your car is up and running again!

    • David says:

      The car wasn’t broken, just some major maintenance (suspension and timing belt) that we kept deferring and deferring and finally decided we HAD to get it taken care of.

      Glad you’re getting better at avoiding the waiting place yourself 🙂 I think everyone is prone to it, but particularly us folks in the FIRE/frugality crowd, since we tend to be more future-focused than the general population.

      • Rob says:

        Agree maintenance sucks but it needs to be done, specficly regarding timing chains, had no idea an engine had one much less that it needed to be replaced, it was only after several friends had theirs break (and it causes serriously expensive damage) that I got it done. Engine happy wallet not

  2. MrRicket says:

    Thanks for your excellent articles as always, you truly inspire me.
    I have started out my own blog to document my journey to Financial Freedom.


  3. Laura says:

    Those issues don’t go away in retirement. I retired last December first, armed with a budget that (I thought) would allow us to avoid pulling funds from retirement accounts for anything other than planned large purchases. Between medical insurance premiums (higher than anticipated but not staggering this year, although they will be next year), out of pocket co-pays, dental expenses, homeowners and auto insurance, and vet bills (six pets), we’ve had several emergencies in addition to the anticipated home repairs we were already aware of. It’s hard not to feel like a failure when your plan ends up not working as you’d hoped; I’m very thankful we have a large cushion and strongly recommend you plan for the unexpected and check on all costs you’re likely to incur wherever you’re going!

    • David says:

      Yeah, we’re too far away from retirement to have solid figures, but the various FIRE numbers I’ve spitballed include categories for capital expenses (house, car, medical) and large amounts of fully optional spending that we could easily NOT spend.

      In our journey towards FI, I’m running our budget the same way, with:

      1) A defensive, unallocated cash buffer. (I treat it more flexibly than a pure emergency fund.)

      And ‘sinking funds’ where a certain amount of $ gets deposited, and carried over if unspent in YNAB, for:

      2) House
      3) Car
      4) Kids
      5) Travel


  4. moneycounselor says:

    Frustration is usually toxic. The remedy for me when I feel frustrated is to refocus on the bigger picture and how whatever the usually trivial matter that’s frustrating me fits into that picture.

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