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At the time I entered the workforce, the economy was struggling to pull itself out of the Great Recession. Most entry-level jobs were scarce. I accepted the first job offer that came with benefits, including health insurance and a retirement plan, and a wage that allowed me to pay my bills.
While I appreciated the opportunity to earn an income, I hated the job. My responsibilities started and ended with manually entering data — and I was bored out of my mind.
I continued applying for different positions throughout my first year in the workforce and got absolutely nowhere. At that point, I started to panic. What if I was stuck at this miserable job I hated?
I started looking for alternatives and considered various escape plans, including moving to Asia to teach English to schoolchildren. But in all my searching, I came across another idea that sounded even better: early retirement.
Early Retirement as an Escape
The math behind the concept was simple: The more of your income you saved and invested, the faster you could reach a point where you could safely draw down your investments for your income ... and stop working entirely. This sounded ideal to me.
At the time, I was so determined to do anything to get out of that job that even the version of early retirement based on my income sounded better than anything. It meant living off $30,000 or less per year.
However, I thought if I were 100 percent free from work, I could manage it. I'd become a nomad, or live out of an RV — or move to a tiny house in the middle of the country and live the rest of my days as frugally as possible.
When I set my early retirement goal and determined to retire from work at 35, I started reading everything I could find on how to save and invest more money. In many cases, the answer I found was to become extremely frugal.
I reworked my entire budget and slashed every cost that wasn't a requirement or necessity. I hunted for coupons to further reduce the cost of things I needed to purchase and spent hours comparing prices in various stores to find the lowest one. If it wasn't entirely essential (even if it cost less than $5), I didn't buy it.
Saving & Investing (Almost) Everything
Living frugally became my new standard. Here's what else I did to save and invest even larger percentages of my earnings:
- I "gamified" my savings efforts. I would do no-spend weekends — or go an entire week without spending anything. Other times, I'd see how many days I could go without spending anything at all.
- I tracked every purchase I made and kept my budget manually in a spreadsheet. Doing this (instead of using a budgeting tool) made me hyperaware of every single transaction.
- I accepted hand-me-downs anytime the opportunity came along, or just did without a lot of stuff.
My savings strategies boiled down to "spend as little as humanly possible." I needed about half my income to pay for things like my mortgage and other bills, but at the height of my days chasing early retirement, I invested the other half.
Finding Financial Independence
Eventually, I couldn't cut any more costs — and I started feeling deprived long before I hit that wall. Two years into my journey toward early retirement, I started questioning how I was going to live on so little for another 10 years (only to continue living that way, since my early retirement plan was based off a $30,000 per year budget after I quit working).
My solution was to focus on earnings. My research turned from "How do I save more?" to "How do I earn more?" Those questions marked the start of an entirely new journey after I realized my earning potential was theoretically unlimited if I could make my own living instead of relying on a paycheck.
I started trying my hand at freelance writing and realized I could create my own career around my passion for sharing stories and educating others through my words. The first summer I spent freelancing on the side of my day job, I made $600. It was a small sum — and not nearly enough to warrant leaving my job for a new career right away — but it was a start.
I continued freelancing over the next year. I started a blog and found new ways to make money from writing, including marketing and copy writing. Eventually, I quit my day job and became a full-time writer.
As I developed my path toward self-employment, I realized I didn't want to scrimp and save for the rest of my life. Nor did I want to quit working after my job turned into something I loved so much. I wanted to balance living fully in the present while still being responsible about investing for the future.
Slowly, my goal shifted. I still wanted to be financially independent one day. But I wasn't going to achieve that by hoarding my pennies and counting down the hours until I could walk away from a job forever.
Instead, I created a career of my own that I never wanted to retire from — a career in which my income potential was unlimited and based solely on my work ethic and willingness to innovate. Now that I'm approaching 30, I'm much happier with the balance in my life and with the improved financial situation that comes with being in charge of how much I earn.