How Your Local Library Can Help on Your Path to FIRE

A big part of achieving FIRE is lowering your monthly expenses to a point where it would be sustainable to live off of your portfolio earnings/passive income. However, many of us have hobbies that we love, and part of being able to pursue those hobbies includes buying supplies for them. Do you love reading? There’s a good chance you love buying new (or new-to-you) books. Do you love building things? I bet there’s a Craftsmen set that you’re just waiting to go one sale. Do you love knitting? New circular needles would really take the crafts you make to the next level…

The list goes on and on. 

The good news is you don’t have to continue buying the tools for these hobbies. How so? 

Visit your local library.

Stacks on stacks on stacks. Image from pexels.com.

To me, this seems like obvious advice. I grew up poor, and as previously mentioned, one of my favorite free outings was going to our local library, getting cozy in some bean bags, and flipping through Calvin and Hobbes comic books (even though I didn’t quite understand the philosophical undertones when I was seven). The library was a part of my childhood.

However, this isn’t true for everyone. Some people may not have had access to libraries when they were growing up–time, transportation, or distance may not have made it possible to visit the library in person. Additionally, people may not have been part of a family in which going to the library was seen as a great way to pass the time. Or perhaps their families didn’t know about all the great free services the library provides. 

Someone recently posted on reddit that they didn’t realize joining their library was free*. They thought they had to pay and were shocked that they could just go in and borrow a book without money exchanging hands. Well, I’m here to tell you. Libraries are full of free stuff that they want you to take advantage of!

And there’s more than just books. 

Libraries these days are vibrant places that offer a number of resources and services to their uses. My local library offers the following physical items available for check-out:

  • Video games
  • DVDs
  • Magazines
  • Book Club Kits
  • Laptops
  • Museum passes
  • Seeds for your garden
  • Tools
  • Fitbits

Before I made this post, I didn’t even realize they had Nintendo 3DS games! The Nintendo 3DS is the only video game system I have, and I bought it several years ago. In my current stage of life, I have a hard time justifying spending money on video games (especially when that money should be going toward student loans). However, now I can finally try out Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer, because they have it at my local library! Now I don’t have to have some weird guilt-ridden discussion with my inner self about whether or not spending $20 on a game is an irresponsible idea. THANKS, LIBRARY!

I also didn’t know that we have seeds! Unfortunately, I don’t have any gardening space at the moment; but if I move somewhere else in this area, I’ll definitely take advantage of the seed program. All you have to do is write down in the binder what seeds you took, and if your plants are successful, you save a few seeds from your plants and bring them back to replace what you used. Hooray for sustainability and empowering communities to grow their own food (which can also help on your path to FIRE)!

They offer classes and services, too. 

Interested in learning something new? There’s probably a class for that. In addition to ESL and Citizenship classes, my local library offers free access to Mango Languages, an online language-learning program (which is great, because I am still trying to learn German. Am I good at it yet? Nein.). Want to learn how to research your family tree? Take a genealogy class (and get free access to Ancestry.com!). My neighborhood library also offers financial literacy classes and fitness classes!

Want to learn how to create a dang virtual reality (VR) experience? THEY MIGHT HAVE A CLASS FOR THAT! At least, my library does, although we are located in Silicon Valley so that probably helps. But your library might have something similar! I’ll be going this weekend to learn how to leverage Unity and other VR programs to create my own VR experiences (time to make my own google cardboard!). 

For those of you with kids, the library also provides a number of programs to keep you and your little one engaged and having fun. For instance, my local library has storytimes, teen craft nights, children and teen book clubs, and, from what I observed on my last visit, some kind of mommy and me yoga situation.

You don’t even have to go in person to take advantage of the library. 

Most libraries offer access to ebooks that you can download to your e-reader or read online. Many also have subscriptions with audio book services, so you can drop that $15/month Audible subscription and listen to books for free from your library. Some libraries allow for unlimited audiobook downloads, while others may limit to four or five a month. 

Will you have to wait sometimes? Yes. I’ve been on the waitlist for Michelle Obama’s Becoming for several months now. But that just makes me more excited to read it–anticipation is everything. And, frankly, there are way more books I want to read than I have the money to buy. Waiting is a small price to pay for unlimited access to any book I could ever want. 

Many libraries also offer access to some kind of streaming service, such as Kanopy or Hoopla. These streaming services provide free access to hundreds of documentaries, audio books, movies, and musical albums. Some libraries don’t even require you to go in person to sign up for these services–you can register online! 

If there’s something you’re interested in, there’s a good chance your library can hook you up with the right resources, without you paying a dime. 

If you haven’t paid a visit to your local library recently, I strongly encourage you to do so. There’s a wealth of resources, and all you need to do to access them is sign-up**.

*Although many libraries are funded with taxpayer money, so you’re already paying for it a little bit anyway!

**Some libraries require some sort of proof-of-residency, like a utility bill or photo ID with your address. However, I’ve never had to verify my information at any of the libraries I’ve signed up at in the last five years. Policies vary from library to library!

Ignoring Common Money-Saving Tips, or Things I’m Not Willing to Compromise On

A big part of the FI movement is streamlining your expenses and finding ways to increase your savings rate by either (a) increasing your income or (b) drastically reducing the amount of money you spend*. You should locate all the fat in your budget and trim it, leaving only the absolute essentials and squirreling away the rest into your FIRE fund. Common tips for doing this include things like cancelling monthly subscriptions, splitting rent costs, moving, getting side hustles, etc. Could I be incorporating some of those things into my life? Yes. Am I willing to consider some of those things? Honestly, no. 

Fancy gym memberships should be the first to go. BUT I JUST CAN’T QUIT YOU. Image from pexels.com.

Here are three things I’m not willing to compromise in order to achieve FI faster: 

Living without Roommates

Right now, I live alone, and I intend to keep it that way. I do have a serious romantic/life partner, but he is currently out of the country living his dreams, etc., which means he is not available to live with me and, erego, split my rent in half. Eventually, two will become one again, and rent will be easier to pay. As it is, I am living on my own.

I am not willing to compromise on that.

Here’s the thing: I have IBS. And what that means is that I use the bathroom a lot. Sometimes I have to use the bathroom very suddenly. And if someone strolls into the bathroom to take a nice long shower and get ready for their big night out, it can create a very uncomfortable situation for me. And while I (apparently) don’t mind explaining my embarrassing situations to strangers on the internet, I’m not looking to go into roommate interviews and having to reveal all the secrets of my bowels just to have people choose another roommate anyway because my bodily functions gross them out. 

Maybe if there was a situation in which I could have my own bathroom, I would consider getting a roommate. However, I also hate people and love quiet and cleanliness, so as far as keeping stress levels low, it’s not ideal. And while I live in a HCOL area, my current apartment is subsidized by my employer, which means I am essentially saving nearly the same amount as what I would save if I had a roommate, give or take a hundred bucks a month.

To me, the extra hundo is worth the peace of mind.

Once my lease runs out, and if I don’t get a renewal, I might be singing a different tune. But I have until June to worry about that. 

My Gym Membership

My gym membership is approximately $100/month, which I know may seem like an astronomically frivolous expense to a lot of people. However, it’s a specialty gym–a climbing gym. Climbing is one of my favorite hobbies, and other than hiking (which is difficult to fit in after a full eight to nine hour day at work), is pretty much the only real ‘active’ activity that I do to stay in shape. Gym memberships are often listed as one of the first things that should be axed when slimming down your budget (and, indeed, if I lost my job, would be something I would consider taking off), and it’s usually accompanied with such reasoning as (a) you can work out anywhere, (b) running is free, (c) there’s probably a park or somewhere with pull-up bars that you can just hop on and get in shape, and (d) you’re not really going that much anyway.

While those are all valid points, they don’t translate well to climbing. The only way to truly get better at climbing is to climb. There are definitely a lot of add-on and cross-training activities that can be accomplished–hang-boarding, pull-ups, etc.–but to be active in the sport, one needs to either have enough free time to go outdoors several times a week or keep their muscles moving indoors on plastic rocks. 

Additionally, I don’t really love basic workouts. I get bored. I have to watch a movie on the elliptical, because if I don’t, I just keep counting down every second until I can stop. And if I haven’t had fun climbing first, I’m not motivated to just go into the gym and hop on the treadmill or do my pull-ups. Climbing provides me with a mental puzzle to solve in order to successfully complete the exercise. And because I’m vain and want to solve all these puzzles**, I’ll try really hard to do it. 

What it boils down to is this:

  1. Climbing is fun
  2. I will not work out unless it is fun
  3. Erego, if I do not have the opportunity to do some climbing, I will probably not be very motivated to work out

One way to view the gym membership is as an investment–I’m making an investment in my current and future health, which will hopefully pay off by reducing the chance of any major medical issues that can be prevented by keeping myself in shape.***

Moving to a LCOL Area

Another way which is touted as a route to FIRE is moving to a LCOL area. However, this is not possible with all jobs–and my job in particular. I work in an education-adjacent not-for-profit sector, and jobs that pay as well as my current one are few and far between. If I moved to a low cost of living area, I would possibly be able to accomplish the same savings rate by percentage, but I would have far less money to save. My partner’s job is also relatively location-dependent–he’s studying language and cultural/refugee issues, and if he would like to actively pursue employment related to those fields, we’ll probably end up back in NY or DC (although he says he doesn’t mind going back to teaching, but once again, teachers make very different salaries in different places). If we moved before July 2021, I’d also lose my 10% retirement from my employer (it’s not even a match–they just give me 10% once I meet two years, back-dated to my first pay period. They just give it to me!!!!) and I’d have to pay back the $4,000 in moving money they reimbursed me. So, a move would currently cost us about $19,000 before we even shipped a single chair. 

I also have big expenses that I don’t want to compromise on–for example, my student loans. Once my grace period ends in January , I will have to start paying around $500/month to pay these off (although I’m making estimated monthly payments now). If I move to a LCOL area and make less money, I could change my repayment plan to be income-based, but I don’t want to spend 20 years paying off what could be paid off in nine. Additionally, while my debt amount feels high to me, it’s not high enough to grant me the freedom-after-twenty-years-of-payment perks that income-based repayment plans (IBRP) offer, nor am I confident that Public Service Loan Forgiveness will exist in ten years (nor do I want to limit myself to only working at nonprofits for a decade in the hope that one day the government will forgive my loans). 

Additionally, moving to a LCOL area generally involves some sort of compromise in regards to public transit and walkability. Right now, I can walk to work, to the grocery store, to a movie theater and mall (not that I go to the mall that often, but whatever), several bars and restaurants, etc. This means I use my car much less. Even though gas in California is currently over $4.00/gallon, I only spent $35 on it last month. I drive to the gym and to go hiking. That’s about it. And that’s something I would have to compromise if I moved. 

For now, staying put is worth it.  The benefits described above–the solace that comes with living alone, the health benefits (physical and mental!) gained from my gym membership, and the salary and perks of my current job–outweigh the potential benefits by compromising on these three issues. While I believe its important to plan for my future, I know that it shouldn’t come at a sacrifice to my current mental health.

How about you? Are there certain measures that may make you reach your FIRE number quicker, but would seriously compromise your quality of life? Feel free to share in the comments.

*A combination of both is usually advocated, but one is usually easier to accomplish than the other.

**And there’s definitely some self-esteem issues combined with wanting to smash the patriarchy and gender norms in here, etc. etc. etc. I AM SMART AND STRONG AND I CAN DO IT, SO GET OUT OF MY WAAAYYY!!!!
***Please note that this is a very able-bodied viewpoint. Not everyone has the ability to work-out, sign up for a gym, etc., and not going to the gym is a totally valid lifestyle, etc. etc. etc. For a much better/more eloquent exploration of the intersection between FIRE, personal finance, perceived health issues, and fat-shaming/fat-phobia, please view this excellent post on Owning the Stars titled ‘The FIRE Movement’s Fatphobia Problem.

The Thing About Money, Part 6: Reflection, or, So now what?

(This is the sixth and final post in a six-post series titled The Thing About Money. Click to read The Thing About Money, Part I.)

The last few weeks have been an exploration of my attitudes toward money (Part I), how they were formed (Part 2), the debt issues I am currently facing (Part 3), my fear of being forced to eat cat food in my old age (Part 4), and how tracking my daily spending helped control my money anxiety (Part 5). So what have I learned about myself over the past few weeks?

  • Wanting money makes me feel like a phoney because…
  • I view money as an evil that just makes people emotional/feel bad because…
  • I grew up in a household where money caused people to be upset.
  • I am afraid that my student debt will never be paid off and…
  • I will be poor in retirement because I don’t have enough saved up but…
  • Tracking all of my spending and income kind of makes me feel better, because the situation is not as dire as it seems.

Whew. 

Those are my truths. So where do we go from here? 

Is life really all about the Benjamins???? Image from pexels.com.

I recently stumbled across the FIRE movement, which, if any of you are into personal finance blogs, you will know as standing for Financial Independence, Retire Early. The idea behind the FIRE movement is that you save as much as possible until you have 25 to 40 times your annual salary worth of assets, and then you can RE — retire early — make your grand exit from the world of your nine-to-five, if you so choose. There are several variations of FIRE — fatFIRE, for instance, is for people who want to retire but still live a life of comparable luxury; leanFIRE is for those looking to retire at a lower income; baristaFI is for those who will supplement their income with a part-time job (usually the plan is to “work part-time in a coffee shop,” hence the name) after retiring from a career; etc. 

What particularly interests me is FIOR–Financial Independence, Optional Retirement. This mindset involves saving enough money so that if you wanted to step away from working, you could; but that doesn’t mean you have to. Some people have a weird vision of FIRE–if you do any type of work at all (blogging, building things, selling art, etc.), you haven’t actually ‘retired,’ and you’re somehow lying about your life experience by claiming about being retired (*insert extreme eye roll here*). To me, being ‘retired’ just means that you aren’t chained to a desk/warehouse/counter and unable to make any life-changing decisions because you fear dying in the street of starvation. 

I would like to FIOR, and I can certainly tell you I wouldn’t just put my feet up, sit on some imaginary porch with a glass of lemonade, and watch the world go by*. What I want from FIOR is the freedom to do whatever the hell I want, whenever the hell I want, and it just so happens that what I want to do involves things like volunteering at causes I care about,  enjoying and preserving nature, working on my art and writing, and spending time with people I love. 

What FIRE, FIOR, and all those other acronyms buy is time. Time to not only make the world a better place by serving others, but also by serving ourselves. For instance, I recently went to a volunteer information session about working at a local adoption center for my region’s humane society. I’ve submitted the application and am waiting to hear back on whether or not I’ll get an interview** for a three-hour-a-week shift. In the past, I’ve volunteered at museums and historic cemeteries–all worthy causes that I care about. If I pursue FIOR, I’ll have more time to dedicate to these causes without having to worry about whether or not I can feed myself. 

I would also have time to increase my relationship with nature and move toward a more sustainable lifestyle. I’ve mentioned previously on this blog about how the earth is dying; I’d like to do my part to prevent that. I love hiking, camping, and rock climbing; I love just being in nature and letting its awe and beauty wash over me. I love breathing and drinking without dying. These things–trees, fresh air, the ocean, birds–are worth conserving. FIOR would give me time (and money, depending on how I budget) to help lessen my own impact on the earth (i.e. growing my own food or having time to go to local farmers’ markets, as opposed to going to a grocery store which has had produce shipped in from elsewhere, wasting fossil fuels; stop purchasing/consuming clothes whose only value is to make myself look ‘presentable’ at a job, etc.) and volunteer for causes that help the earth.  

I would be able to pursue my own artistic interests, many of which I have had to stifle due to a lack of resources–both time and money. This may seem like a selfish reason; however, I’m a firm believer in self-care, especially when it results in the self having a more positive and kinder outlook. If you haven’t discovered already, I can get pretty, uh, wound up, which results in what I view as some not-as-kind-as-I-could-be behavior. Right now, after work, I feel so drained that when I come home, I just end up cooking dinner and watching netflix or youtube until it’s time to pass out and start the next day afresh, repeating the same cycle until the weekend. I feel that I have projects bubbling away inside me, but I don’t have the emotional energy to do anything with them (oh, the joys of working in a service-centered profession…).

And finally, I would have more time to spend with my family. I have a small family–my partner, and my mom and her husband***. Not working would let me spend more time hanging out with and supporting these people whom I love. I would have the freedom to move across the country to wherever my partner wanted to work without worrying about the geographic constraints of my own career; I could visit my mom when she goes to her doctors’ appointments. I’ve spent a lot of time in my life using work as the reason I can’t visit (I can’t get the time off, I can’t afford it, etc.). I know that time is going to run out before I know it, and I want to spend that time with my family. 

There are still some hard truths to swallow. For instance, I struggle with the issue of wanting more money when I know that it causes so many problems in the world. This is what I like to refer to as ‘crust-punk syndrome’–I claim that I want to live ‘outside the system’ of work/general economics, but if I’m investing in ‘evil corporations,’ I am still just as dependent on the system as before, but in a different way. Doesn’t this just make me a hypocrite? Is it better to be a hypocrite that can support herself than a hypocrite who relies on the support of others? Is the only effective way to change the system to work from within–for example, investing in ethical companies whenever possible and not spending my consumer dollars on fast fashion and gas guzzlers? Does taking the money I make off of them and using it for good cancel out how it was created in the first place? 

What this all boils down to is the existential dread of living an inauthentic life. I work anywhere from eight to ten hours a day in a traditional job that, while providing essential services to those we work with, also perpetuates a highly inefficient work culture. There’s a lack of innovation and challenging of the status quo in ways that could radically alter how we disseminate our services. Additionally, without being too specific, I am working for an institution that doesn’t reflect my personal values. There are ‘values’ that this organization claims to have, but there are a lot of different viewpoints and incidents that have happened in this climate that I don’t feel reflect my own ideas of what is ‘right’ or ‘just’ (although, to be fair, it’s certainly nothing like, say, an oil company or hedge fund). This, combined with the negative health effects of working a job that is heavily cubical-based, makes me desirous of a bit more freedom, including the opportunity to be able to work part-time in this field****. 

I still have a lot of unanswered questions. Perhaps it’s just my family-ingrained Catholic guilt speaking up; perhaps it’s a fear of being exposed as some sort of fraud. I don’t know, and I don’t know if I ever will know. But what I do know is that money would give me the time and resources to work on projects I care about and would give me the option of not working those that I don’t

So I guess the budget’s worth it. 

* But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and if that’s your dream, more power to you. I just know I would go bonkers with restlessness. 

** This particular organization gets a high level of volunteer interest, so the application process is pretty… intense. 

*** I have a brother and grandparents and aunts and uncles and a biological father and an ex-stepdad as well, but with all of those people, things are… complicated, and I haven’t spoken to any of them in years.

**** I actually quite like the job itself and the field I am working in; it’s just the incessant bureaucracy that really grinds my gears. 

——-
Thank you for reading this series, titled The Thing About Money. What’s your deal with money? Are you working towards FIRE? Do you feel that you are trapped in the capitalist machine with no real options about how to lead an authentic life? Are you just trying to free yourself from the grip of THE MAN? Or are you able to emotionally distance yourself from money? Feel free to tell me in the comments.

Medical Emergencies and FI

(Warning: this has some bathroom TMI, so if you’re not down to hear about nausea or other stomach and health issues, maybe you should skip this one.) 

For the past week or so, I’ve felt a strange pressure in my lower left abdomen. Not quite a pain, not quite an injury, it’s more of a tenderness that is causing an awareness of that area. I brushed it off when it started; I’ve been doing more ab exercises at the gym recently and assumed that maybe it was a strained muscle. 

What the hell is going on???? Image from pexels.com.

That all changed early Tuesday morning. 

I still felt the tenderness, but it didn’t seem any different when I went to bed. However, I woke up around 2:30 in the morning and ran to the bathroom. I sank to the floor in front of the toilet, seat up, trying to breathe deeply to control the nausea that had hit me like a wave. But the breathing just seemed to push the uneasiness elsewhere, and I transitioned to sitting on the toilet, to see if whatever ailed me would come out that way. I was covered in a cold, clammy sweat. It got even worse when I started to feel light headed. I stood up and walked over to the mirror. My vision was going in and out, and black spots were appearing in front of my eyes. I couldn’t see straight.

Something was terribly wrong. 

This is it, I thought. One of my greatest fears was coming true: I was going to die alone on the floor of my apartment, with no one to find me until I didn’t show up for work for the rest of the week, in my very oldest and most ragged pair of underpants

Even just thinking about it now makes my heart beat faster, and I feel a little sick. (Yay, anxiety!)

I sat back down on the floor and tried to get my breathing and pulse under control. The intense nausea I felt when I woke up subsided a bit. I found my phone and dialed the 24/7 nurse line for my insurance and was quickly connected with an advice nurse. 

How long had I been exhibiting symptoms? Did I still feel like I needed to vomit? Did I still feel dizzy and lightheaded? Was I bleeding from any orifice? Did my eyes have a yellow tinge? Was I experiencing any sharp, stabbing pains? 

Since I didn’t have any sharp pains, wasn’t shooting blood out from anywhere, and was starting to feel better, the nurse on the phone assured me that I probably wasn’t going to die in the night. She did, however, schedule me for an appointment with my GP for later that day, since I had been having those weird abdominal feelings for a few days. Slightly reassured, I hung up the phone. At first I intended to camp out on the floor of the bathroom just in case, but no matter how many pillows and cushions I gathered around me, the hard floor and side of the tub still made my ass go numb and my spine feel sore. So, I trudged back to bed, and tried to go back to sleep sitting up, legs stretched out straight in front of me, trying to position myself so zero pressure was exerted on my guts. 

After a restless rest of the night, I went to the hospital, where my GP listened to me describe my symptoms again and then felt around in my guts to see if she could figure out what was wrong. Hernia? Nope. Enlarged spleen? Nope, that seemed normal too. From this external exam, she concluded that none of my internal organs seemed enlarged or out of place. I left her office with the reassurance that my organs did not appear to be in imminent danger of exploding inside of me. However, we did schedule a pelvic ultrasound to see if there might be something like an ovarian cyst hanging out and causing trouble. 

I still don’t know exactly what happened that night. There’s been another huge heatwave where I live, and I don’t have air conditioning, so it’s possible that I was experiencing symptoms of extreme dehydration. However, the symptoms I exhibited were also symptoms of shock–but from what? 

So what the hell does this have to do with financial independence? 

Financial independence buys time–but it also buys freedom. The freedom to live where we want to with the people we love. The freedom to slow down and take care of ourselves if we need it. 

Financial independence would mean that, after I had received my external exam from my GP, I could have stayed at the hospital and gotten my ultrasound on the same day without having to fret about returning to work. Instead, it is scheduled for Monday–and I have been spending the last three days wondering if there is something inside of me. 

My partner is currently finishing his master’s degree in Germany. If I was financially independent, I could stay for a while over there with him. Financial independence would mean being able to stay with the person I love, as opposed to living alone. It would mean having someone be able to drive me to the hospital in the middle of the night if I desperately needed it. It would mean not dying on my floor alone because I have some fucked up idea that I am taking an ambulance away from someone who truly needs it. It would mean having someone there to reassure me that all would be okay–and what I can’t seem to communicate through this post is how terribly alone I felt in that moment

Financial independence would also give me the freedom to enjoy the things I like most in life–my family, my partner, spending time in the outdoors, cooking, creating–without having to spend half of my waking life at a job where I don’t even know if I have a meaningful impact. A job where everyone comes in for a certain amount of time each day, regardless of what actually does or does not need to be done. 

Reading this back, the Tuesday morning episode doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. People experience medical issues all the time (my bowels and I are no exception). But in that moment, when I couldn’t even see my face in the mirror, all I felt was a primordial panic. This can’t be it. 

This can’t be it. 

And that’s why I am pursuing FI–so that at the moment when the earth decides to shuck me off of its surface and send me spinning into the great unknown, I will know that I have led a fulfilling life.
And I won’t be left thinking this can’t be it.