It’s not normal to care about finances as much as we do. As a Monevator reader, you pay unusually close attention to your financial affairs. You’ve probably put a great deal of thought into building a wealth-generation engine that’s designed to secure the future for you and your family.

That’s not standard behaviour. The average bear doesn’t really care.

So what happened to you? What put you on the financial path you’re on now?

  • A shock to the system?
  • Your upbringing?
  • Complete luck?

What makes you different?

In my case I wasn’t different at all. Until the eve of the Great Recession, I was much like everybody else – a free-spending, live-for-the-moment, zero-savings kind of a guy.

I had no pension. I had an interest-only mortgage I wasn’t paying off. I had a ridiculous car that ate money.

I was dimly aware that something wasn’t right. Neither with the world, nor with my world.

One day a financially savvy acquaintance of mine said:

“The party is over.”

“This is a party?” I replied.

Reality dawned on T.S.H.T.F. Day at work in October 2008.

Plugs were pulled. Projects terminated. I was in a meeting with our main client when they got a call to turn off the taps.

We stopped hiring. We let people go. My inbox started to fill up with CVs from ridiculously overqualified people looking for refuge.

It was like the second act of a horror movie. We’d all been camping by the side of a beautiful lake. Now night had fallen and some maniac was taking a meat-cleaver to my compadres.

The world hasn’t been the same since, and neither have I.

Born again

My new religion was to save like Grandma.

Ditch that car. Pay off that mortgage. Slash outgoings. Crank up the pension. Learn about the stock market.

Like a balloonist heading for a mountain, I chucked the sandbags of my old lifestyle overboard.

Fewer people were needed in the post-2008 recession world. There weren’t other jobs to go to.

I needed to become one of the ‘invaluable ones’.

  • Flexible like a yogi.
  • Better value than Lidl.
  • As diplomatic as a pair of breeding pandas.
  • Harder working than, well, my competition.

I changed my clothes, I changed my hair, I changed my attitude.

I wasn’t getting any younger and digital disruption was spreading through my industry like ash dieback1. It was adapt or die time.

I used the early hours of the morning to learn new skills. I did online courses. I force-fed myself audiobooks on key topics. I took up a side hustle that helped me learn more about digital media. (Hello Monevator!) The last one also helped further my investing education.

A line-manager said, “If this place goes down, you’ll be one of the last ones left who has to switch off the lights.”

More was needed:

  • 2008 taught me the sky can fall in very fast.
  • Time felt short in a declining industry.
  • Redundancies hit the company like waves, throwing people overboard.

My thirties were peeling off the calendar and there was a scrum at the door for upper management. Not everyone was going to get in.

I had childhood memories of an earlier recession – the early 1980s in the north-east. I was left with an afterburn image of a friend’s dad, on the scrapheap in his mid-forties.

Plus a reverse role-model in an old boss. Once brilliant and at the heart of everything. He’d grown complacent. He’d become expensive. He refused to learn new tricks. He didn’t think it could happen to him until it did.

Others were plain unlucky:

  • Edged out in political battles.
  • Not enough allies at the decisive moment.
  • Skills unrecognised by senior management. 
  • Simply cheaper to dispense with.

I met plenty of former high-flyers who couldn’t gain purchase at their old level anymore. 

Escape velocity

Financial independence was the answer. It wouldn’t matter if I was knocked off the three-dimensional corporate chessboard if I was playing a different game.

If I moved hard and fast enough then I could afford to be unlucky, ill, or old – the kind of hand that gets dealt to ‘other people’.

You can boil the shockingly simple math behind early retirement down to:

A high savings rate + index trackers + time

The other 90% of the story is mindset.2

Without money to burn, the only way you’re going to achieve financial independence in a decade or so is by giving things up.

Here’s what I haven’t missed:

  • Believing that money equals happiness.
  • Tying self-worth to money.
  • High-status items: big house, flashy car, exotic holidays, big-boys toys. Anything where you’re paying over the odds to join the club.
  • Sky-high expectations: the notion that your job should be high-paying and fulfilling, you should regularly score promotions, your family life should be perfect, you should feel happy and confident most of the time.
  • Taking setbacks personally. It’s not the setback that defines you, it’s how you respond.
  • Resentment, envy, revenge, and self-pity.

The mental side is an ongoing battle for me, but the more progress I make, the healthier and more resilient I feel. Whoever came up with the dictum that ‘Happiness = Reality minus Expectations’ is a genius.

I did it my way. What about you?

My journey began on the eve of a global financial crisis. The shock changed me for life.

The biggest revelation I had was that once I was on the right path, the financial side could mostly take care of itself.

The vast majority of the effort needed lay in developing the mental toolkit to survive at work and improve well-being, while waiting for my financial independence day.

But what about you? How did you find your way here?

I love to hear about Monevator readers’ financial-life experiences and motivations, so please let us know in the comments whatever you’re happy to share.

Take it steady,

The Accumulator

P.S. I enjoyed the Swiss Cheese mental model that The Investor linked to in Weekend Reading.

The idea is to prevent disaster by shielding behind multiple layers of defence. The framework also shows how threats can defeat a system by sailing clean through holes that are carelessly aligned rather than mutually covered.

Here’s my Swiss Cheese Defence for my journey to FI:

  1. A virulent disease of ash trees. It is caused by a fungus, Hymenoscyphus fraxineus.
  2. Assuming you’re not among the top 2% or so of earners.

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