Your Life: Off the Shelf or Made to Order?

lifestyle design

Achieving financial independence and freeing yourself from the need to hold down a job is a pretty big goal. For a lot of us it may well be the most ambitious goal we have yet pursued. The stakes are high, the path is challenging, and the rewards are, well, pretty much as rewarding as it is possible for a reward to be.

Ummm….yes? You say. That is hardly newsworthy. We don’t need to stop the presses do we?

Here is the thing though: it recently dawned on me that financial independence and early retirement (FIRE) is more than a goal.

Allow me to make my case.


Once Upon A Time

The year was 2016. I stumbled upon the ideas of financial independence and early retirement. I read blog posts and camped out at /r/financialindependence.

Frantic back-of-the-envelope math ensued. I convinced myself that achieving financial independence wasn’t a fantasy; it was something that we could have if we were willing to put in the work. I convinced Mr. BITA to get on board. We made a plan, and soon we were off to the races.

All through this process I kept thinking of this as a plan that we were executing to, in order to achieve a stated goal – to be in a position to retire when we turned 42.


Was I excited? Hell yes!
Did I check my Mint and Personal Capital accounts an unhealthy amount? You betcha!
Did I have altogether too much fun with all my spreadsheets? Probably.
Did I catch myself fantasizing about the life that I would lead once I got to be bayalis years old? Pretty damn often.


But was there more to it than these things? Yes. Oh yes.


Our lives started to change in fundamental ways. We had our first surprisingly frugal weekend and were shocked to discover how much fun it was. We went from a three car household to a two car household.

Our relationship with our money changed. No longer did we cluelessly bumble along stashing cash away in a Bank Of America savings account, only marginally aware of how much we were making or saving. Now we treat our money with the respect it deserves, and we make it work at least as hard as we do. We got more proficient at saving and upped our savings goals.  We discovered backdoors and mega backdoors and waltzed through them all.

I started to participate in my local Buy Nothing group, giving and receiving free items with gratitude and joy.


But was there more to it than that? Yes. Oh yes.


I had a new purpose and that changed my life. I found that I was watching much less mindless T.V. Why? I was much more excited about spending my time learning about personal finance, or reading blogs on the subject of FIRE, or writing for my own blog. I no longer spent time trawling Amazon and buying things for no particularly good reason.

The really cool thing was that these significant changes felt effortless to me. I wasn’t trying to improve my life or curb my spending – these things came about as a side effect of the new purpose that I had found in my life.


But was there more to it than that? Yes. Oh yes.


Having purpose gave me a new found energy, an energy born of feeling happy, of feeling in charge of my life and how it would shape up. I started to try to improve my life in other smaller ways. I started a happiness spreadsheet to track how happy I was. I am learning how to meditate. I started making time to walk every day. I started to journal regularly.


On the foundation laid down by my pursuit of FIRE, I have started to build my life. I am no longer a passive entity. Life doesn’t just happen to me.


And then it dawned on me:

This wasn’t just a plan that we were executing. This wasn’t just a goal that we would one day achieve.

What we are pulling off here is bigger than that.


What we are doing here is lifestyle design.


A Hack vs. A Design


I have heard of the pursuit and achievement of FIRE being referred to as the biggest life hack that there is.


I am a software developer.

In software we talk about hacking up a quick fix versus designing a piece of software.

A hack is what you do when you are strapped for time. A hack is something you throw together when your customer is raging because the system is down and he needs a fix now. It is what you cobble together as a proof of concept. A hack is a quick and dirty fix. It will do the job. It will stop the bleeding. It will put out the fire. It will help you get your foot in the door of a new customer or enter a new market post haste. It gives you something to dazzle investors with so that they will open their wallets and allow you to actually engineer a product that will last.


A piece of software that has been designed with a clear goal in mind is an altogether different beast. A hack is today’s headlines. A well designed piece of software is an epic novel that stands the test of time.

When we have the time, the know-how and the resources to design a piece of software, extremely good things result. We build something that not only achieves the stated goal, but does so in a way that is elegant. We build robustness into the design. We consider contingencies. We lay the foundation for more features to be added in the future. We make the product easy to use, to maintain and to extend. A well designed piece of software is a thing of beauty. It is also a rare beast.


This was my revelation: what we are doing here is designing our lives.


So far I have been prone to thinking: isn’t it crazy that more people aren’t trying to save aggressively and achieve financial independence? Now I think: isn’t it crazy that most of us just take life as it comes?

We have but one precious, all too brief moment under the sun. How can we let it slip through our fingers like so much sand? How can we afford to not design our lives with care?

The money in the bank is but one small part of it. We are imagining what we want our lives to look like, and we are building our lives to spec.


This, then, is not a story about a family who will achieve financial independence. This is a story about a family who are designing for themselves a life of purpose, of beauty and of joy.

FIRE is my rock. And upon this rock I will build my life.


16 thoughts on “Your Life: Off the Shelf or Made to Order?”

  1. This is great! I have also found that the quest for FIRE has had far deeper implications on how I live my life. On the surface it looks like it is essentially a money issue. But in addressing those money issues, we are pushed to think about what our real priorities and values are in life. How we really want to spend our time and our money. What truly makes us happy. These are all necessary for FIRE, but they’re also a huge part of living the best possible life.

    1. Exactly! The vast implications of this seemingly simple pursuit still blow my mind. This started out as a pretty straightforward goal – accumulate $X in Y years. But everyday I find the tentacles of this goal have spread to yet another area of my life.

  2. The journey of people that are serious about FI looks awfully similar. I also now hardly watch TV, When I do, it is because I am braindead and can no longer read on FI or related topics. And reading these things gives energy and inspiration. TV hardly does that. The downside is that people around me talk about series and shows I have no clue about… That is life…

    And now that I trust the system we have, gone are the days I checked the ETFs a zillion times a day.

    The changes start to impact life. I am more relaxed than ever about finances, because I understand the numbers.

    And that impacts now my wife. She starts to think about what here ideal life is like. we now discuss how she can put that in place. Even when that means we delay FI a lot. I prefer to be a happy, stable, joyful family, rather than a stressy one, burning out to be FI sooner.

    and do not mention quick fixes: as we go live any day now, we only do that. short term code entry so that I can close the bugs in JIRA and move on… NO fun at all. The results will be great!

    1. Like ripples in a pond. You throw in the FIRE pebble, and the effects spread out further than you would have thought possible. I love the mental image of you ‘infecting’ your wife, and then the whole family is gradually infected with increasing happiness. That is a thing of beauty.

  3. I started my own business because I hate the idea of being beholden to anyone. In school, I hated having to study what the teacher deemed important. Financial freedom isn’t just about the money – it’s about the freedom to live my life and work on what I want, not what society wants of me.

    1. As a business owner aren’t you still beholden to your customers, suppliers etc.? Does that somehow feel different than being beholden to an employer? I’ve never run a business myself, so I am curious about the difference. Is being a business owner ‘enough’ freedom for you or are you aspiring to eventually be free even of your business and live on one or more truly passive income streams?

  4. I was the same when I first started and I guess I still am. One of my bad habits that I am getting into is constantly checking my stock portfolio overall value. I shouldn’t be concerned with the day to day fluctuations but rather where they are heading in the long run. Over time I will learn to do this.

    1. It will come with time. There was a time when I obsessively checked my account balances even over the weekend, when the market was closed : /. I’m getting better though, and I am sure you will too. Honestly, there isn’t much harm in it unless it is causing you do something stupid – like sell in response to a dip.

      1. I like to try and hold my stocks for a long time so I am in no rush to sell immediately. Holding for the long term, hence the name. Cheers

  5. FI came into my life when I was pretty young (very early twenties) so I can’t relate to the revolutionary changes, but I can whole-heartedly agree with with the choice to design a life. I see so many people lament in one breath their finances, but in the next tell me they binge watched Game of Thrones will shopping online. And the next day are selling off a wardrobe of unworn clothes. It boggles the mind.

    Then again, I can’t be too smug, I spent the weekend playing video games, fishing and drinking beer. Top knotch weekending :p

    (I just googled Bayalis for the first time ever… I always assumed it was a play on the word ‘Bliss’ – I now see the Hitchhikers joke, well played 😀 )

    1. Lucky you, all those years of juicy compounding that I missed out on.

      That actually does sound like a top notch weekend to me. Every day can’t be productivity day, so if you’re going to indulge in some down time, that seems like a pretty damn good way to do it.

      I explained the Bayalis thing on the About page, but not everyone goes there. I’m a big HHG fan, so when I did the math and it turned out that I could retire at 42, I immediately assumed that that was a sign from the universe.

      1. Just read your about page – definitely can’t miss the million references peppered in there 😀 Not sure if a sign from a planet of hairdressers is the best one, but lets just gloss over that part of the story :p

  6. Ah ha! You’ve hit on exactly why I always grimaced when I heard that FI was a life hack. It shouldn’t be, not if it’s done in a way that’s lasting because that’s not the true nature of a hack. It might start out that way but if it’s absorbed, that’s just the beginning!

    And I much prefer my life to be an epic novel, rather than a short story.

    1. You and me both. *Raises a virtual glass in toast to the epic stories we are writing as best we can*

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