The Public Slate

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High Income Is No Guarantee of a Rich Life

Two jobs ago I had a friendly competitor that would call me to compare notes and gossip about our industry. He’d ask me if I was headed to various conferences. When I said no, he’d say, “Must be nice not to have to get on the road to get business.”

Must be nice?

He was jetting off to San Francisco and Boston on expense accounts while I was stuck in the office or glued to my phone at home until 7 pm because of my workload and servicing huge accounts on the west coast.

You see, he had the assumption that because I was managing nearly nine times the amount of business that he had, my role was on autopilot and I got to spend all my time expanding my business network. Meanwhile, he was hustling around the country to drum up business.

The reality is we were working just as hard, toward the same goal, but at different stages of our organizations’ development.

I later became a consultant for him.

We landed one of my old west coast clients. Then he understood why I was never at those conferences. I was busy servicing existing business! He would acknowledge how difficult servicing that client was. I would remind him I had five such clients.

I start with this anecdote because many people believe that high-income earners are on autopilot on their path to financial independence. The snarky response I get when people ask me how I built wealth is, “So basically, earn a ton of money.”

Well, yeah.

But a high-income is no guarantee of financial independence. Just ask the Joneses.

And high-income is not a path to familial satisfaction or internal peace. Just ask the Madoffs.

This post discusses how I prepare for financial independence as a high-income earner. I think you’ll find the principals apply across income levels, which is a good thing because most of us experience low, middle, and high incomes during our careers.

And, this post goes beyond the basics. For example, wealth diversification is super important. But, what else goes into living a rich life?

Who Are We?

I suppose I should establish that my wife and I are high-income earners.

My wife is 30 and I am 39. We both have W-2 jobs that are challenging and rewarding in public policy and government affairs. My wife’s path to high-income was almost ten years quicker than my own – mainly because I was a bozo in my 20s and she had her life together from the get-go.

In 2018, my wife and earned $441,600.

Our 2018 income breaks down as follows:

  • W-2 Salaries: $310,000
  • Consulting Income: $130,000
  • Interest and Dividends: $1,600

Should you value what I have to say just because of this high-income? Absolutely not.

Let me give you another data point. Here is my Social Security reported earnings since I graduated from college.

Rich life: Social security earnings

My point in sharing this is to demonstrate that I have not been a high-income earner for very long. I know the difference between being a moderate income earner paying off a credit card and student loan debt while eating peanut butter off a knife to save money and being a debt-free minus mortgage high-income earner.

We have friends that earn about $1,000,000 a year. We’ll call them the Joneses. We have insight into their spending. It is no mystery why high-income earners fail to reach financial independence.

With that background, here is my advice as to what to do (and not do) to prepare for financial independence as a high-income earner who seeks a rich life.

Live a rich life without worrying about money

Find and Keep HIFI Jobs

The first thing we are doing is keeping and finding HIFI jobs. What is a HIFI job? I’ll get to that in a second.

Fundamentally, we are looking to create wealth to gain freedom. What does that mean exactly? Well, wealth is owning something of value that people will pay you for without a claim on your time.

Right now, most of our wealth is tied up in our ability to work for someone else and be available for time periods throughout the day.

While it is popular these days to abhor the salaried life, I find purpose in my job, enjoy the people I work with, and value the learning opportunities it provides. I also have a high degree of autonomy working from home.

I call this a HIFI job.

A HIFI job has three components:

  • High Income
  • High Freedom
  • High Impact

A HIFI job is one I can see myself in for ten years or longer. It provides a balance between working on a purposeful endeavor while getting to spend time with family and pursuing other self-directed (non-work related) activities.

In a HIFI job, I get to direct about 90% of my work schedule. The other 10% is mandatory meetings or work travel.

My HIFI job allows me to see my son whenever I want, exercise in the morning, and run errands while everyone else is at work.

I can work at 8 am, 10 pm, or both. Whatever is best for me.

This schedule of short bursts of activity works because HIFI jobs are made up of high-intensity sprints preceded and followed by relaxing preparation and planning (i.e. thinking).

Lastly, a HIFI job has meaning beyond a paycheck. In my current job, I am helping people access life-extending therapy while challenging myself, meeting new people, and growing my skill set.

HIFI jobs are rare but becoming less scarce due to technology – especially for those people with a positive track record and valuable knowledge and skills. HIFI jobs require you to be an accountable person and to work in a trusting organization.

The most important aspect of a HIFI job is that it is part of life rather than dominating life.

Does a HIFI job sound great? It is. But I put in a lot of time and struggle to get to this point.

You may be working towards a HIFI job yourself and not know it. Keep being highly accountable and valuable. And start keeping your eyes out for a HIFI opportunity. Better yet, become so valuable you can negotiate to create one.

Let the Joneses Leave You Behind

The second action we are taking to achieve financial independence is no action at all. We are simply letting the Joneses leave us in the dust.

We live in a neighborhood of Joneses. But not just any Joneses. These are the type of people who are descended from the guy who started Edward Jones Investments.

These folks have an army of people running their homes – nannies, housekeepers, gardeners, and landscapers. Plus all the projects they do to their homes from painting the house to adding whole rooms.

Let’s take a peek at what it takes to run a large home:

Yard Care and Gardening $300/mo x 12 mo. = $3,600 year

Cleaning Service $125/wk x 4 weeks a month x 12 mo. = $6,000

Nanny $20/hr. x $40 hr./week x 52 weeks/year = $41,600

Those are the big expenses at $51,200.

Think about the pest control, dog walkers, babysitters, home repairs and we are in the $70k to $100k range to run a Jones household.

I try to do my own chores to keep the expenses down. Yes, my lawn has a lot of weeds and the landscaping could use some work. The house won’t be spotless if you stop by for a beer. But I’d say we are saving about $10,000 a year by doing our own yard work and home cleaning.

And that’s okay because weeds or not, the Joneses will look down at us.

In the two years I’ve been here, I’ve noticed that similar homes at the top of our neighborhood sell for about $150,000 more than homes at the bottom where we live. Yes, the Joneses are both literally and figuratively looking down on us.

Heck, their kids in Land Rovers must think we are lost when my wife and I carpool together in our 2013 paid off Volvo.

Seek Value

Which brings me to my next point, we are looking both up and down to ensure we still value what we have.

To value what you have, you need to look at more economical options as well as premium options. My wife and I look at real estate and go to open houses a few times a quarter. We go to price points below us that would increase our savings and even way below us that could allow one of us to stay home and supercharge savings.

Then we discuss.

At this point, what we have found is that we still value our home and neighborhood for the price we paid. That’s an example of looking down and making sure you still value your premium item.

Here’s an example of looking up. My wife and I rented a Tesla for a day for about $120. It was so cool! But did it provide enough value to us to make a purchase? Not for us. We will stick with our paid off 2013 Volvo. We value its utility, safety, and reliability.

While renting a Tesla for a day is nice, so is staying at a resort for a couple of days on rewards points…but you don’t go buy a condo at the resort.

On the other hand, the Joneses lease a nice BMW for Dad and a top of the line Chevy Suburban for Mom and kids.

The BMW lease is $459/month or $5,500 a year.

The Suburban is $629/month or $7,550.

That is $13,050 a year we are saving by not keeping up with the Joneses.

You can recalibrate what you value every now and then by looking up and down.

Don’t Seek Status

Some Joneses love status symbols like BMWs, bags, jewelry, and watches. They also can value non-material status symbols like travel or political influence.

More than any other time in history, displaying and seeking status is a complete waste of time and money.

Why?

Low-interest rates and plenty of credit.

With low-interest rates, sneaky folks who want to be Joneses can drown themselves in debt for years without short term consequence. Oh yes, they have the same fancy houses, cars, clothes, and tuitions all financed by cheap credit.

The appetite to consume status symbols is at an all-time high with more credit available than ever. It’s hard to win the status game when everyone can access credit to finance it.

Pretty sure good life advice is, “Don’t play unwinnable games.”

Did you know the products in the middle of the bell curve are the best products? Those products have found the right mix between quality and price. That is why they represent the middle of the bell curve. A lot of people want them and can afford them.

Elon Musk has made a cool car, no doubt.

However, Toyota and Honda, whose products are in the middle of the bell curve, have made a lot more cars than ‘ole Elon. Therefore, while we think these cars are inferior because they have a lower price point, the cars are superior because of the experience the companies have of making lots and lots of them while driving down the price through scaled manufacturing.

You gotta look to the middle of the bell curve for the best products. Don’t try to compete with everyone financing status symbols with cheap credit.

Cultivating a Positive Mindset

The following is not obvious, but it is the truth: Financial independence will not solve your problems.

Financial independence may solve your money problems, but life is much more complicated than money.

I realize that getting to financial independence won’t change my outlook or relationships. That is why I am investing in my mental and physical health, my marriage and friendships, and my professional network.

Getting to financial independence without mental and physical health or strong relationships is a negative outcome.

My rule is we get to spend as much money as we need and want on healthy food, physical fitness, personal development, hobbies and opportunities with friends and family.

To be cliche, life is too short.

We must give ourselves the best chance at a healthy, meaningful life. An investment in that is a long term investment and pays greater dividends than the popular low-cost mutual fund that begins with a V and end with an X.

I would say the same about opportunities with family and friends.

Everyone is so busy. When a friend puts together a cookout, go – and bring something tasty to grill. Life events are not a time to be frugal.

“I Get To” vs. “I Have To”

Lastly, I’ve been practicing more gratitude for everyday opportunities by turning an, “I have to” statement into an, “I get to” statement. Here are some examples from my life:

I have to… I get to…
Go to a sales meeting Travel to Las Vegas and meet new people
Workout today Use my body in ways I couldn’t if I were not healthy
Have lunch with a consultant Socialize with someone that I can learn from and have a free meal
Go to work today Be paid for something I know or create which allows me to do other activities I enjoy

Framing your life in “I get to” will allow you to be content in any almost any economy, job, or life situation. The flipside is always needing things to go your way and to have complete control of your time.

Sorry, but that ended a long time ago in a far off place called childhood.

Financial Independence is Not a Destination

To throw out another cliche, “Life’s a journey, not a destination.” I firmly believe challenges produce competence. Competence breeds confidence. Confidence brings internal peace.

Getting out of debt made me a more confident person. Working two jobs I hated made me a more competent person. Being a competent person led to high-income jobs and a lifestyle where I feel a healthy balance between career and family.

Ahhhhhhh. Feels good.

So I will leave you with this advice. Whether you are high, middle, or low income, embrace life’s challenges, even seek them out, because they lead to a feeling of peace in some areas of your life. That gives you the freedom to embrace life’s challenges in other areas of your life, ultimately making you a richer, fuller person.

Good luck!

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