The shuddering public transport bus slowly rounded the corner, back wheels drifting in the slushy snow. Gears grinding, it doggedly set off up the steep hill towards the distant bus stop.
Glancing at the route number displayed, I experienced major pucker factor. That was the bus I needed! On a route serviced once an hour, when it was serviced at all. The heavily pregnant clouds promised further heavy snow, making it highly likely this would be the last bus of the day.
Actually, that is a lie. Sprinting implies a certain grace and speed. Like a gazelle or a dancer.
Which in that moment, I was most certainly not.
Clad in hiking boots. Jeans. Every piece of warm clothing I owed. Pack strapped to my back, holding all my possessions.
Yet sprint I did. Unwieldy. Ungainly. Unbalanced.
Slipping on black ice.
Sliding around puddles of sludge.
Stomping through snow drifts.
I powered past the bus, legs pumping towards the bus stop at the top of the hill.
Arriving at the stop a good 50 metres ahead of the bus. Victory was mine!
Head down. Hands on knees. Chest heaving. Gasping in frigid night air.
I noticed my bootlace had come untied during the run.
Unthinking, I bent forward at the waist to retie it. In hindsight, not the smartest plan I’ve ever hatched.
My heavy backpack slid up, over my shoulders. The unexpected transfer of weight and momentum induced an involuntary somersault. Before I knew it, I found myself flat on my back, on top of my pack, scrabbling around in the snow like an inverted tortoise.
The bus driver saw my plight and gave an evil grin. Yanking the steering, he aiming the rear wheels at a vast puddle of dirty slush and snowmelt next to the curb. A wave of filthy water and ice cascaded over me as the bus fishtailed then surged away in a cloud of diesel exhaust. Bastard!
With a defeated sigh I glanced at the heavens. Trying to convince myself that no matter how cold, wet, and miserable I felt in that moment, things could probably be worse. Though I wasn’t sure how.
Above me, a sign decorated the bus stop. “All buses terminate at …”
I blinked. Did a double-take. Goldfished a little.
The destination wasn’t where I wanted to go. It wasn’t where any sane person would want to go!
I was on the wrong side of the road. Right bus number. Wrong direction.
I had run myself ragged striving for a goal I had no desire to attain. That takes a special kind of stupid.
I rolled onto my side.
Clambered to my hands and knees.
Struggling to rise on the slippery surface, burdened by the awkward weight of the backpack that I still stubbornly wore. An identical-looking bus crested the hill and drove past the bus stop on the other side of the road, before tentatively descending back the way I had come in a manner best described as a barely controlled skid.
My inner saboteur gave an evil cackle. Things can always be worse!
With a shrug, I shivered my way back down the hill to a dodgy-looking neighbourhood pub I had run past earlier. Walking through the door produced one of those clichéd Western movie moments, where all conversation stops and all eyes swing towards the new arrival who clearly doesn’t belong.
After a tense couple of seconds, pockets of conversation resumed. I sank into a seat by the open fireplace, beginning what turned out to be one of those random yet memorable backpacking nights spent in the company of strangers. Getting warm. Dry. Drunk. Laid. Robbed. And making a lifelong friend. Not necessarily in that order!
I was reminded of my public transport misadventure from a lifetime ago, when I recently read an excellent Money Flamingo story likening the quest for Financial Independence to taking a road trip.
Straight shot along a highway? Rapid. Optimised. Blinkered. But oh so boring!
Or enjoyable meander? Sampling delights found along roads less travelled. Taking longer to reach the desired destination. Leaving less time remaining once we eventually arrived. But producing a far more enjoyable and memorable journey.
Whether taking the long route or the short, only a minority of folks chasing financial independence will achieve it. Applying some combination of luck, patience, persistence, and managed expectations to reach a point where their time investment decisions are independent of financial constraints.
For some, financial independence will be fleeting.
A transient state of being along the happy path. No safety net. Little padding. All good, until one of life’s predictably unpredictable random events derails their best-laid plans and forces the decision to sell time for money.
Others will have put themselves on firmer financial foundations.
Recurring investment cashflows cultivated.
Capital growth curated.
Paying for today, while providing for tomorrow, and all of the known unknowns it may bring. The vagaries of inflation. Exchange rate fluctuations. Changes to tax rates and rules. Reduced or removed access to social security safety nets.
This second group has learned to make their peace with uncertainty.
Accepting there is no single right answer, but an infinite number of demonstrably wrong ones.
Understanding that a one-size-fits-all magic number doesn’t exist. The stuff of fairy tales.
Recognising that only charlatans and snake oil salesmen promise a paint-by-numbers script to follow, which guarantees a financially comfortable life of recurring contentment and frequent happiness.
Instead, there is just a subjective judgement of how much is enough.
Enough for them.
Enough to provide for their family.
Enough to support their chosen lifestyle.
Enough to fall within their risk tolerance, and their ability to absorb shocks from the unexpected.
The majority of people pursuing financial independence will fail to go the distance.
Some fall by the wayside, as circumstances change and life happens. Death. Disability. Divorce. Eldercare. Illness. Parenthood. Redundancy. Circumstances and luck conspiring to hijack their priorities.
A larger proportion will find themselves distracted or diverted. Misaligned words and deeds, pulling in contrary directions. Saying they want financial independence, but pursuing courses of action contrary to that outcome. Acting as the Bank of Mum and Dad. Keeping up with the Joneses. Maintaining a spendy spouse. The bottomless pit of consumer credit or home “improvements” that add no value.
Finally, there is a third group of people who start the journey towards Financial Independence, but who never arrive.
Not because they couldn’t.
Not because they wouldn’t.
Simply because they realise they no longer wish to go where that journey would take them. Much like my frantic dash for a bus headed in the wrong direction. Deciding it wasn’t worth it.
The effort and inconvenience.
The prioritisation and delayed gratification.
The living for tomorrow, at the expense of living for today.
Preferring instead to lead a life more ordinary, like those of their friends, family, and coworkers.
Paid employment. Working for someone else who takes the risks and retains the rewards.
Twenty-five year mortgage. Serviced from after-tax income. Potentially generating tax-free capital gains, though gains that are largely illusionary. Accessible only via debt or downsizing.
Living for today. Lifestyle costs expanding with income. Saving a little, but probably not a lot.
Choosing to believe.
Faith, that the state will honour promises of an age-pension and access to affordable healthcare. Providing sufficient support to avoid homelessness and hunger.
Trust, that workplace pension arrangements will prove sufficient to fill the gap between state pension subsistence and their desired standard of living expectations. As the London public transport system relentlessly reminds commuters: “mind the gap”.
Confidence, that the rules of today when their decisions are made, won’t change tomorrow. Betting their financial future that philandering politicians and short-termist corporate executives will choose to honour promises made long before their terms of office. Hoping those narcissistic sociopaths will act against every self-serving instinct that led them to occupy their lofty offices, and choose to look out for the little guy.
An approach that should work.
As it has largely worked for our recent ancestors, those involved in society’s 150-year social experiment that is retirement.
Harking back to the day Otto von Bismarck coupled the concepts of mandatory retirement at age 70 with that of a state funded age pension. At a time when life expectancy at birth was just 37-40 years of age, while those who made it to age 60 could expect to live another 12 years. The end result was the social contract of retirement being enjoyed by very few and not for very long.
A contract as generous as it was inaccessible.
An approach that is now as accepted and uncontroversial as conventional wisdom can possibly be.
Leaving no room for talk of recency bias, reversion to the mean, nor any of the cautions that calm heads and naysayers regularly use to dispel notions that sound too good to be true.
For what it is worth, I am a firm believer in enjoying the journey. With no certainty of whether we will reach our destination, nor how long we may enjoy it for if we do, to me this is the prudent course.
Enjoy today while planning for tomorrow. Do both, not either.
But more importantly, make the time to consciously assess if your direction of travel still leads where you wish to go.