Ben, Father of 3 — Comfortable, but Not Free
Ben and I went to college together. He is married and has 3 young kids. He works full-time in real estate development. His wife works full-time in public relations. Ben and I connected the other day about fatherhood, work, family, and building a more balanced life.
Ben is in it right now. He knew it would be busy having three kids in a dual-career family, but he didn’t know it would be this crazy.
Ben’s concluded that American society — our workplaces, our school system, our lifestyles — are not built to accommodate dual-working parents with young children.
There’s too much stress and not enough time.
His sentiment is not for lack of planning. Ben moved across the country from San Francisco to be closer to family, and to be able to afford a nicer home. He and his wife recognized before having kids that coastal urban life was going to be too much — too fast-paced, with not enough balance. They rearranged their life ahead of having kids to make it more family-friendly.
Ben and his wife knew they couldn’t have it all, and in our conversation, Ben wasn’t complaining. He recognized his privilege — that millions of new parents have it much worse than he does. He feels grateful for his life, with all of its challenges.
And yet, Ben still feels like there’s not enough time or money to have any hope of leaving the rat race.
I asked him if my articles were helping him at all.
He offered a few words of encouragement, but then the truth came out: “Honestly,” he told me, “your articles just don’t seem that practical.” He was referring to my recent post about my strategy consultant friend who was about to quit her job to do some introspection.
“As inspiring as Nancy’s story is,” he told me, “it just doesn’t seem very relevant. I can’t afford to just quit my job.”
He’s right. I haven’t written at all about the practical aspects of building a financially free life.
Like most Americans, Ben counts on two incomes to support his life. But after talking to Ben for about an hour, it became clear that he is reconsidering the choices he’s made.
Right now, the future Ben envisions is one where he owns his time — where his life comes first, and he can dial up or down his work. He wants more flexibility. This wasn’t always his goal, but now that he’s seeing how much he’s enjoying being a dad, this has become more important to him. That’s his new goal.
Once he commits to realizing this vision, he will need to change his mindset. He’ll need to recognize that this new life will have significant tradeoffs. He’ll need to get comfortable with giving up the security of a steady paycheck, benefits, and the structure that a job provides. This can be a difficult transition, and a tough pill to swallow.
Along with this mindset change, he will start applying new rules to the way that he uses money and attention — as tools to fulfill his financial freedom goals.
Use Money to Increase Freedom
I asked Ben if he had heard of the FIRE movement (for the uninitiated, it stands for Financially Independent, Retire Early).
He said he had, but it wasn’t something he’d thought a lot about or followed closely. I gave him a bit of an overview of what it was. The key principle of FIRE, I explained, is to use money strictly as a tool to improve your life. All spending is evaluated with this goal in mind, and adherents aim to save 30–50% of their income.
“FIRE is complete freedom to be the best, most powerful, most energetic, happiest, and most generous version of YOU that you can possibly be.” — Mr. Money Mustache
Ben felt these numbers were unrealistic and out of reach, especially because he was having to spend money on things that would save him time in the short term. Time, he told me, was his most precious asset.
Once you add up all of the standard upper-middle-class purchases that make life enjoyable — housecleaning, yard maintenance, two cars — you end up selling all of your time, only to buy back a portion of it with what seem like necessary conveniences.
If you commit to saving 30–50% of your income, you need to dramatically reduce your standard of living in the present to enable your future self the freedom to choose not to trade time for money.
For some, this can be a big pill to swallow. It’s hard to break the cycle of spending. It requires significant sacrifices.
But once you experience the feeling of having 1, 2, or even 10 years of living expenses in the bank, it will change your life — much more than the feeling of buying a new car. It’s like a gigantic weight has been lifted. It’s the most freeing feeling. And it completely changes the way you see the world.
Drastic savings, when done in conjunction with optimizing how you spend your time, can help to lay the foundation for a better life.
The hardest part is changing your spending habits at the outset. Once you get going, you realize you don’t need as much as you think you did, and it becomes much easier to continue.
Use Attention to Increase Productivity and Fulfillment
Even bigger than money is the chance to harness your time toward more productive and fulfilling activities.
Taken in conjunction with an increased savings rate, making better use of time will allow Ben to eventually leave full-time employment for a more flexible career.
Ben is very busy with 3 kids, a full-time job, and his other commitments, but I’ve never met anyone who had their time fully optimized. Ben is no exception.
As it turns out, Ben’s best time savings opportunity was his sports and media consumption. While he told me he finds it relaxing and enjoyable, it was easy to convince Ben that reducing his time spent watching sports could significantly improve his life.
Let’s say Ben spends 18 hours per week watching Netflix and sports, which is significantly less than the 28 hours the average American spends each week. Given how committed he is to improving his life, Ben decides to cut his media consumption time to 2 hours of media per week, freeing up 16 hours per week.
Maximize Your Attention
By drastically reducing his media consumption, Ben has the time to envision the life he imagines for himself in the future, and create a plan to get from where he is to where he needs to be.
Ben plans to spend a whole lot more time thinking. He’s going to start writing in a journal. He reads a decent amount already, but he’ll kick that up a notch too — focusing on personal development, psychology, and biographies.
Ben sets new financial independence goals, skill-building goals, personal fitness goals, and mindfulness goals. He tracks his progress against them. He discusses his plans with family and friends. He reaches out to people who are living the life he wants and seeks their advice.
He recognizes that his plan is fully subject to change, and can always be improved, as long as he focuses on continuing to build his life around his future identity.
Ben may find himself with a side hustle. Or 2, or 3, and eventually maybe they’ll get to a place where he doesn’t need a full-time job anymore to pay the bills.
Of course, that may not happen. Maybe, despite all his effort, Ben is never able to replicate the income his full-time job brings in. That can work too, because he’s learned to live on so much less, using money only as a tool, and avoiding lifestyle creep.
For the rest of you — if Ben, with 3 kids under 5 has 16 hours to repurpose each week to build his future life, can’t you?
To be clear, we all need downtime, but it’s key that the activities sustain you and enhance your life. This is a higher bar than we typically have. Setting this higher bar on how we spend our time is the key.
I try to ask myself two questions to make sure I’m making good choices with my downtime: 1) Does this activity fill me up, or does it drain me of positive, productive, energy? 2) Does this improve my life?
If an activity leaves me with less energy and does not improve my life, I don’t do it. It’s a short-term sedative, a bandaid, and I don’t need that.
What I’m looking for is the building blocks to a better life. I’ve recently found that the most fulfilling activities I was missing were the ones that feed my creativity — things like writing, reading, drawing, and playing an instrument.
These activities may seem like a waste of time on the surface, but give me more energy and confidence in other aspects of my life.
Once you start to raise the bar on how you spend your time, you’ll find it harder and harder to spend it doing less fulfilling things like sitting out in front of the TV. You’ll enter a positive reinforcement cycle that enhances your productivity, your perspective, your output, and your happiness.
Warning: Don’t Take Financial & Productivity Optimization Too Far!
Five years ago, I started to stack a ton of commitments in my life — a full-time job, a part-time MBA, parenting 2 little kids, doing a home remodel, etc.
Many of my friends did similar things in their lives, but I took it to an extreme.
To survive this overcommitment, I cut out all “unproductive” activities from my life. Netflix — gone. Exercising — gone. Reading for pleasure — gone. Huge mistake.
Things like reading, exercise, and spending quality time with your partner are what makes life fulfilling and keep you connected to your internal compass. When you cut these out, you’re in danger of losing your center.
While I tried to be intentional about focusing my attention on the highest value activities, I took it so far that I was not fully living in the present.
I hope you take the time to carefully evaluate how you spend your time and your money and ensure that they’re aligned to the life you imagine for your future self. There are a ton of great resources out there just waiting for you to discover them.
Take the first step today. Your better life awaits.