There is an interesting discussion on one of the online personal finance groups that I am on about Gen Xers and how we are, as someone said, the “sandwich” generation: stuck between two much larger pieces of bread. The term GenX was popularized by a Canadian writer and artist Douglas Coupland. His book (and his visual art as well as his other books) had a profound and defining impact on my life, including that brief period of my life when I thought I would practice Shiatsu. And I am not alone.
Online, some people of my generation commented that they were doing well financially whereas other people reported their continued struggle. Their stories are diverse. Some are self-congratulatory, which drives me as nuts as the academic trend on twitter of people announcing they are a full professor by age 40. I am angry, jealous, envious. These are not nice colours to wear. I must tame them.
I had a financial independence struggle very early that had nothing to do with savings or retirement. Funnily enough, it was also somewhat self imposed and about my personal wellbeing rather than my net personal worth. I am truly a late bloomer because of early choices I made to be financially independent from my parents early, very early, at age 17.
I started university late, almost exactly 4 years after I started high-school. In the meantime, I worked in bookstores, restaurants, non-profit arts groups, and did a bunch of community theatre. The reason I didn’t go to university right away was because I had to prove to the government four years of independent living from my parents to be qualified as an “independent” or “mature” student and therefore eligible on my own for student loans. Without going too deep into the complexities of my financial relationship with my parents, relying on my parents or my parent’s income for assistance with my schooling was a non-starter for me, so I spent 4 years working and managing an apartment and having fun, but effectively waiting for the deadline to pass so I could afford to go to school.
Once the deadline passed, I started community college to get my grades up, then pursued an undergrad and masters degree at a top university in my home-country. I worked part time during school and full time in the summer. I then went on to do doctoral work, on scholarship, but I still worked to supplement the income, especially as my scholarship was paid only 9 months out of the year. I started my PhD again as someone much older than most of my cohort. And yet, despite all this working during school, I still graduated my PhD with an enormous student loan debt (about 33K pounds) that I am only now halfway finished paying off. Should I have saved and invested during grad school? Probably. Would it have been better if I didn’t postpone and let my parents help me (assuming they could, which I am not sure about)? Absolutely not, no matter the price.
Why am I telling you this? Because independence is often used in the context of do you have to work for a living (i.e. FIRE) but the ethos of independence means being able to choose for yourself the kinds of financial relationships you want or don’t want, either with your boss, your spouse, your parents, or your friends. In my case, as early as 17, I knew financial independence meant financially independent from my parents. Independence came with all sorts of psychological and emotional benefits, even if it meant my financial path was harder. The definition for independence according to the Cambridge Dictionary is:
the state of wanting or being able to do things for yourself and make your own decisions, without help or influence from other people
Of course, I still had health care supported by the government and my university, I still had transportation paid for by taxation. There is no way I could have achieved what I did without some dependence, including on my parents. But I think its the FI in FIRE that is really important. The RE is just the application of the goal to retirement, but the goal could be anything really. It is the agency that is liberating, the freedom, the being able to choose what you want and what you don’t want. It is also not about a savings rate or a net personal worth figure (though of course those things are tools, to get you where you need to be) but the essential part is learning how to take care of yourself, to parent yourself, to be prepared. I was lucky that I started parenting myself well early on, but it never stops. How can you parent yourself better? In my mind, that is the best financial goal.