Choosing the FILE Lifestyle – Financial Independence, Live Early

Aug 28 / Jay Zigmont, PhD, CFP®

If the days of working 25 years to ‘get the watch’ and retire are gone, why are we still setting retirement as our goal? Living a life of Childfree Wealth means you have the time, money, and freedom to do what you want. Do you want to work for most of your life to retire? If so, that is great. If not, the FILE Lifestyle (Financial Independence, Live Early) might be an option for you.

Retirement can be thought of as an on/off switch for work. If your goal is to turn work off, then your financial plan is to work until you can afford not to work. That is overly simplistic, but the bottom line is that you are saving and investing now to live a different life in retirement. While there are alternative retirement structures, they all revolve around some goal of stopping work.

FILE is more of a dimmer switch for work. FILE represents doing the work you want to do, when you want to do it. FILE represents a balance that allows you to live the life you want to live now. FILE is not a YOLO (you only live once) approach to life. It is a deliberate choice to find a balance between work, life, and finances. Most likely, it includes making some sacrifices to live the life you want. You may sacrifice a ‘normal’ retirement for following your passions now. Each person has their own priorities in life, but in the end, FILE is about challenging the standard LifeScript™. We have chosen a different script by being Childfree, and the challenge is now to create a financial and work life that is also uniquely ours.

I interviewed Ryan A for my book “Portraits of Childfree Wealth”, and he may be the best example of living the FILE life that I have seen so far. Ryan is 47 and had retired for a while. He needed more stimulation. Now he runs his own marketing company, but with hard and fast rules. He never works before 10, never on Friday, and no more than 25 hours a week. To top it off, he works virtually, and when I interviewed him, he was booking a month in Palm Springs for him, his wife, and their cockapoo. He just grabs his laptop and goes.

There are those in the FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) community that may look at FILE as similar to Barista FIRE or Slow FI, or others… They are similar. At the core is still Financial Independence (FI). What is different is the approach to FI and what the end goal is. There are also components of FILE that might be unique to the childless and childfree communities. Not having kids does not automatically make us rich, but it does take away the $284k it costs to raise a kid until they are 17, and it does allow us to have the freedom and flexibility to make different choices.

Where to start

The hardest part of choosing to live a FILE lifestyle may be in the choice itself. Choosing to go the FILE path takes soul searching about what you really want from your life. We often keep ourselves so busy that we do not have time to reflect on what truly brings us joy. We may need to stop and Marie Kondo our life (Rule 6: Ask yourself if it sparks joy). We may need to take a sabbatical to have the time to reflect. The bottom line is we need to get to the hard questions:

  • What in my life brings me joy?
  • What would I do if I could do anything and not fail?
  • Is my goal retirement?
  • What can I change now that would make me happier?
  • What did I always want to do with my life? Why didn’t I do it?

When I lead classes, I love to use the ice breaker of “If you could do any job in the world, what would it be?” The answers are always entertaining. My favorites include; being the bartender at a swim-up bar, running an ice cream shop, being a travel writer, a woodworker, and many others. Think about your answer.

The follow-up question is: “If that is what you want to do, why aren’t you doing it now?” When I ask the follow-up question in a class, it usually gets a nervous laugh. Usually, people blame finances, but I can tell you as a financial planner that finances are rarely the true reason. The challenge is to paint a picture of the life you want and then make the finances fit (rather than the other way around).

There are limits, and we all can’t do our dream job or follow our passions right now. The key is to have a plan and make progress towards your goal. For example, if I had my choice, I’d be a boat captain for a living (think like Captain Lee on Below Deck). It is not realistic right now as my wife and I embrace the Gardener and the Rose approach to life. Right now, it is her turn to be the rose, and we just moved 1200 miles for her career. In 15 years, it will be my turn, and we will be on a boat traveling the world. It is a balance and a version of the FILE lifestyle that works for us.

If you find yourself still struggling to figure out what is important in life, try using George Kinder’s 3 Questions for Life Planning. Take time to go through each of the three questions and journal your answers. When you get to the end, you may find that you have a better handle on what really matters and your goals for life. If you are doing this with your spouse, start filling out the answers individually, then share.

  1. Imagine you are financially secure, that you have enough money to take care of your needs, now and in the future. How would you live your life? Would you change anything? Let yourself go. Don’t hold back on your dreams. Describe a life that is complete and richly yours.
  2. Now imagine that you visit your doctor, who tells you that you have only 5-10 years to live. You won’t ever feel sick, but you will have no notice of the moment of your death. What will you do in the time you have remaining? Will you change your life and how will you do it? (Note that this question does not assume unlimited funds.)
  3. Finally, imagine that your doctor shocks you with the news that you only have 24 hours to live. Notice what feelings arise as you confront your very real mortality. Ask yourself: What did you miss? Who did you not get to be? What did you not get to do?

With your goals in hand, what’s next?

The next step is to set up a plan towards financial independence. The basics are simple (but not easy):

  • Get on a budget. Budgets are like diets, there are a lot out there, and they all work. The key is to find one that works for you. I use a Money Management System that breaks things into Musts, Shoulds, Coulds, and Won’ts. The bottom line is you need to know your minimum monthly spending (focusing on your needs versus wants).
  • Get out of debt (and stay out). Debt is stealing from your future. If you want a different future, you need to get rid of debt. Make paying off debt a priority, and start by locking your credit cards and not taking out any more debt.
  • Save and invest. With a budget set and debt out of the way, you can make saving and investing towards your FILE lifestyle your focus.

The basics set the foundation for your FILE lifestyle. Your own goals will change the next steps in your financial plan. You may need to invest in yourself, go back to school, start a business, move, or do something else to achieve your goals. The key is to set a goal which includes a plan and a timeline for achieving it.

See if you are able to make small steps now towards living your FILE life. Can you start taking free classes online now? What about starting your new business as a side-gig?  Can you start volunteering, interning, or otherwise getting experience towards the life you want? Can you downsize now so that you can make that move?

You may need to find an accountability partner to help you move toward your FILE lifestyle. A good partner can both kick you in the butt when you need it and pat you on the back when you deserve it. We all may need some accountability at times just to keep moving. After all, the couch and Netflix are calling and sometimes can sidetrack our goals.

What about planning for when I’m old?

We all worry about running out of money in our elder years. You need a plan. You need to know how you are paying for long-term care. You need to know what social security benefit you may qualify for and if you can put it off until 70. You may need to set aside some cash for a cushion later in life.

The difference between the FILE lifestyle and retirement is that you don’t have to wait until an arbitrary age or amount of money to start living a better life. It takes planning, and if you want help, I’m we're here. We're a fee-only firm that specializes in helping Childfree people. Schedule a meeting with a Childfree Wealth Specialist® here.

Jay Zigmont, PhD, MBA, CFP® is the Founder of Childfree Wealth, a life and financial planning firm dedicated to helping Childfree and Permanently Childless people. Dr. Jay is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, Childfree Wealth Specialist, and author of the book “Portraits of Childfree Wealth.” Dr Jay is the co-host of the Childfree Wealth Podcast. His Ph.D. is in Adult Learning from the University of Connecticut.

He has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, MarketWatch, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Business Insider, CNBC, and many other publications.