The book, Your Money or Your Life is said to have introduced the term “Financial Independence” and offers a very specific road map for achieving it. I strongly advocate every person read this book. A large part of the program involves creating a chart. Let’s start with how to create your own chart and then talk about why it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. In Excel,* or on graph paper on the wall (I will argue for doing both momentarily), start tracking in a point-to-point or line graph form the following numbers:
- All incoming money – the book uses net income, I use gross plus all extra money found/earned/rebated, etc.
- All outgoing money – all of your well-documented expenses for the month – exactly how much it cost you to do everything you did.
- Your monthly investment income – This is the amount of money you could currently live on, assuming a 4% safe withdrawal rate, if you left all employment today. This is calculated by taking your total investments multiplied by 0.04 and then dividing them by 12.
- Amount of money you saved that month – I added this one to my personal chart and I include all 401k contributions (including employer match), Roth-IRA contributions, brokerage account contributions, and extra money put toward my mortgage. I think this is also an important number to keep track of because it will motivate you to increase this line as well.
The basic (and genius!) idea behind the chart is that you will see the monthly investment income line continue to rise until it meets up with your (hopefully lowered) expenses line. At the point where the two cross, you are financially independent because your monthly investment income can safely cover all of your monthly living expenses.
Reasons Why This Chart Is the Best Tool:
- It Makes No Assumptions – Other than assuming the 4% withdrawal rate, this chart makes no other assumptions. It doesn’t force you to guess your post-retirement expenses because the plan is built around your current ones. You don’t have to pick a good inflation rate, market return percentage, or include the estimated year of your death. You just have to know how much you make, how much you spend, and how much you save.
- It Requires Monthly Accountability – It’s easy to plug numbers into online calculators and say “that’s great” and move on. In order for this chart to be useful, it requires you to check in with it monthly. That means, at least once a month, you are taking a real look at every expense you had that month (every purchase, every meal cost, every cell phone bill, mortgage payment, and utilities bill), how much money you earned, and how much of that money you put towards your savings goals. Just like weigh-ins for weight loss help keep people motivated and accountable, this chart works as your monthly financial weigh-in to keep you on track.
- Having it on Your Wall Increases Your Motivation – It’s great to have it on my computer, so I can mess with possible future numbers, access it easily, and let Excel do my drawing for me, but having it on my wall adds more. I keep the chart on the back of my bedroom door (no, I don’t invite guests to come take a gander) and seeing it every time I wake up or go to bed requires a short, daily check-in. Did I do something that day to lower my expense line? Increase my savings line? Or increase my monthly income line? The book recommends making your chart twice as high as your current monthly income. That means my chart has two full empty pages up there. If someone says “You can’t do that. You’re dreaming!” it makes you want to secretly try to do it and openly rub it in their faces if you succeed. Those two pages taunt me. “I bet you can’t get your monthly income onto that first page! And you’ll REALLY never get your monthly income onto the top page! You’re dreaming.”
- It’s Hard to Ignore – Mr. T, who is not a spreadsheet geek (like myself), diligently enters all expenses on our digital budget and checks the numbers occasionally. It’s easy to overlook numbers on a spreadsheet, however. The difference between $4129 worth of expenses and $4912 worth of expenses looks pretty similar (“Yay! We’re under $5000!”). But when the big red line (our expenses line is red) on the back of the door goes up 8 boxes in one month, everyone notices. Mr. T also doesn’t pay much attention to how much I work (and I work on an hourly wage, so the amount I work directly impacts our monthly earnings), but when our green line (monthly earnings) shoots up (or down!), we all notice. Even the kids start asking questions, which leads to a family discussion about goals, earnings, expenses, and financial independence!
- It Works for All Timelines – Maybe you read a whole bunch of early retirement blogs because you want to GET OUT as soon as possible. This is the chart for you! Maybe you read those same blogs only because you’re interested in shaving off a couple years at the end and retiring at 60, instead of 67. This is the chart for you! Maybe you don’t care at all about retirement, but would like to get a handle on your finances. This is the chart for you! Maybe you want to get out of debt. Add a “debt” line on your chart and start tracking it down and this is the chart for you!
Should you start if your monthly investment income is nothing? Yes! It will still motivate you to improve income and expenses. We currently have about 40 boxes between our expenses and our monthly investment income, but the chart is a huge motivator for closing that gap! So go! Make your chart and then come back and tell me your favorite part about it!
*There’s a digital version available for download in the Mr. Money Mustache Forum – part of which is pictured in the header. You’ll have to add your own lines for debt and amount saved.