Building on my prior post, to achieve financial independence, meaning being able to live off your accumulated assets without any other income, you need roughly 9,000 times your daily expenses.

The 4% “safe withdrawal rate” rule means that you can generally withdraw 4% of your investment portfolio per year, in perpetuity, without running out of money. This should not be taken as 100% assured, but is more likely to result in a much greater portfolio balance decades in the future rather than running out of money.

Based on the 4% guideline we can say that you need 25× your annual expenses, or 300× your monthly expenses, or 9,125× your daily expenses (rounded to 9,000× here for simplicity). The bulk of this money should be invested in equities, such as the Vanguard Total World Stock Market index fund. This could alternately be split between their U.S. fund and International fund for the same result with slightly lower fees, or restricted to U.S. stocks only if you want to bet on continued prosperity in the United States.

The 9,000× rule means that if your expenses are $100 per day, you need $900,000 invested to be financially independent. If you buy a $5 coffee everyday, you need $45,000 invested to sustain this habit in perpetuity. If you average $25 per day on food expenses (eating out, groceries, etc.), you need $225,000 just to account for this.

The 9,000× rule is more useful when looking at day-to-day recurring habitual expenses. If you smoke two packs of cigarettes per day at $6 per pack, you need $108,000 to cover this. (You may need extra money to account for increased health insurance premiums, reduced life expectancy, and worse health.)

If you are considering monthly bills, the 300× rule is simpler. If your rent is $1,200 per month, multiply by 300 to see that you need $360,000 invested to be financially independent with respect only to this expense.

The 9,000× rule can be quite useful for putting into perspective how much those “little” daily expenses are actually costing you. When Alex Trebek peddles whole life insurance as costing “less than 35¢ per day,” actually, the cost is closer to $3,150 with respect to financial independence, which is bleak indeed for an insurance policy that may have a maximum payout of $5,000 or less. A habit like dining out for lunch instead of packing a lunch could easily mean you need an extra $50,000 invested just to achieve financial independence. This is why there is such an emphasis on frugality in the financial independence / retire early (FIRE) community.

The 300× rule is based on a generally accepted conjecture that withdrawing a maximum of 4% of your investment portfolio per year will result in a 95%+ probability of the portfolio sustaining itself indefinitely. Therefore, this means you need 25× your annual expenses or 25×12 = 300× your monthly expenses. In many cases the 300× rule is conservative and you will wind up with far more money decades in the future thanks to market returns. At the same time, it is also U.S.-centric in that it relies on the U.S. stock market and U.S. dollar as being exceptionally favorable as compared to many other countries’ stock markets and currencies (e.g., Japan’s “lost decade”).

How can you apply the 300× rule to your life as you move toward financial independence? Here are several concerns and principles:

  1. Frugality is key. If you are paying $100 per month for cable TV, you need an extra $30,000 (300×) invested to support this bill in perpetuity. If your monthly expenses decline from $3,333.33 to $3,233.33, cutting the cord means you can be financially independent with $970,000 instead of $1,000,000 invested.
  2. Investments, types of accounts, and management fees matter. Putting most of your money in index funds of the whole global or U.S. stock market is vital, while a bond market index fund is also an important component to reduce volatility. Even if you are retiring early, tax-advantaged retirement accounts are beneficial—they save income taxes (sometimes, payroll taxes too), and you will certainly still require U.S. dollars at Age 59.5 and older. Using index funds with management fees of less than 0.1% per year is much better than 0.5% or 1.0% per year.
  3. In the first decade of early retirement, being willing to adjust your lifestyle based on the performance of the stock market is critical, to minimize sequence-of-returns risk. If the next Great Recession happens early in retirement, your portfolio might be cut in half in value, requiring you to be more frugal and perhaps even partially come out of retirement. But, if this happens after 20 years of great returns, it won’t affect you as much.
  4. Financial independence means, by definition, not being required to earn money to sustain your financial needs for the remainder of your natural life. Conceptually, this is similar to an endowment that funds a university or organization’s operations through its investment returns, providing financial strength and long-term stability to the institution. This is why a whopping 300× your average monthly expenses may be required, rather than a more modest amount like five years living expenses or a six-month emergency fund.
  5. Although financial independence is often conflated with early retirement, the more flexible you are about having a “soft retirement,” the less money you need. For example, if you can continue working as a consultant, in the gig economy, or other part-time job, or acquire one if needed (i.e., when threatened by sequence-of-returns risk due to the next Great Recession happening in your first decade of early retirement), the probability of your success increases.
  6. Cost of living is vitally important. You cannot expect to continue owning a new car or living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Instead, driving a “beater” car and moving to a low cost-of-living country or lower cost-of-living U.S. state is desirable (preferably, one without state income tax). Every dollar you can trim from your monthly expenses is $300 less needed in your investment accounts. You can achieve financial independence far earlier if you “downgrade” to a smaller home and become accustomed to living with less space and fewer possessions.
  7. Many people think they desire to fully quit their job and be unemployed, but what you may really want is more autonomy and flexibility while working from home and/or working fewer hours per week. Rather than going from $100,000 earned income to zero earned income per year, consider going from $100,000 to $25,000. There are a plethora of massive tax tax benefits to having a modest earned income instead of zero earned income, particularly with children. You may qualify for a sizable Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) from the IRS. You could have your health insurance fully paid for by the U.S. federal government via the Health Insurance Marketplace and Advance Premium Tax Credit, and, due to having a high-deductible health plan, be able to contribute to an advantageous Health Savings Account. There are even stories of millionaires collecting housing subsidies, state benefits, and USDA SNAP benefits (food stamps) due to their low income, if these programs fail to look at accumulated assets. Although many consider this a social injustice, it may be in accordance with the terms of these programs. Because many benefits require some earned income but not zero earned income nor high earned income, quitting work “cold turkey” can have a high cost.

The 300× rule can be demoralizing due to the huge amount of assets required for financial independence. Even something as basic as a $13.99 monthly Netflix subscription costs a whopping $4,197 to fund in perpetuity. But, the flip side is that the 300× rule can motivate you to lower your bills and be more frugal. For example, if you can cut $1,000 a month from your housing bill, that is instantly $300,000 less you need to accumulate toward financial independence. This encourages a worldview oriented toward a more simple, austere life rather than costly, disingenuous displays of opulence. As we know, many people who appear to be doing well financially actually have a negative net worth and are up to their ears in debt.

This is a blog comment I wrote to a reader question sent to Alicia Adamczyk on Lifehacker’s Two Cents blog, titled “How Freelancers Can Save for Retirement Beyond an IRA.” The question is from a freelancer in animation or a related entertainment profession. This person is unable or can’t figure out how to contribute more to his or her 401(k), is contributing the maximum to an IRA, and has a “sizable” emergency fund but worries about income stability.

I would prioritize investigating and gaining online access to your current 401(k) to see what it’s being invested in, what the management fees are, and whether you can change to a low-fee index fund of the whole U.S. stock market or S&P 500.

You are already ahead of the curve to be contributing $5,500 per year to an IRA and by having an emergency fund. The two main reasons to start investing for retirement early are (a) compounding returns and (b) tax avoidance. You can’t go back years in the future to make an IRA contribution for the 2018 tax year, for example, nor can you make up for compounding returns.

With a time horizon of many decades, equities (stocks) are the best investment. You can divide your monies between index funds of the U.S. stock market and the international stock market (i.e., all other countries except the US) for further diversification. Investing in any particular stocks or market sectors is a bad idea.

As mentioned, an SEP IRA for self-employment income is an option. Another would be to get a second job just to contribute more to a 401(k) plan (the annual limit for employee contributions is $18,500, presently). For instance, Starbucks allows employees to contribute up to 75% of their paycheck to a traditional or Roth 401(k) plan, and matches the first 5% contributed.

As mentioned, a taxable brokerage account is also recommended. It can be invested in the same broad index funds at the same low management fees, and most of your gains and losses are “unrealized” until you start cashing out later in life. While the quarterly dividends you will receive are taxable, many of these will “qualified” dividends that are taxed at a lower rate, or not at all, depending on your income.

Although the traditional advice is to have an emergency fund of six months living expenses, as a freelancer your income is less stable so you may want to increase this to 12 months. The emergency fund should be liquid and non-volatile, meaning it should NOT invested in equities. As of May 2018, there are many savings accounts through reputable online banks (e.g., Ally Bank, Discover Bank) that pay 1.50% APY or slightly more, and your deposits are FDIC insured up to $250,000.

One reason to keep your emergency fund in a savings account, rather than plowing it into equities, is that stock market crashes often occur at the same time as tough job markets. You don’t want to be in a position where you must sell your stocks during a recession just to pay your bills.

Although most people will agree they should learn more about it, most people aren’t interested or motivated to learn about personal finance and apply the knowledge to their lives. There is obviously an overwhelming amount of information available online, yet seeking it out is a problem for many. At the same time, there are large communities of what we might call enthusiasts or “hyper-financially educated people,” such as Mr. Money Mustache.

The problem is: How do we bridge the gap between the financially illiterate and the financially hyper-literate?

The majority of people reading this website or others on personal finance probably have caught the financial “fever,” so to speak. However, to bridge the gap for the uninitiated, some strategies might be:

1. Being educated by a family member, mentor, or friend
2. Engaging in “information-seeking behavior,” which involves asking questions, searching online, and finding consensus from multiple sources
3. Reaching a tipping point where you are “fed up” with your financial life and actively seeking a change
4. Personal finance is eclectic and pervasive—it touches all areas of life. Therefore, many other skills are important to being financially successful, such as being organized, a good negotiator, and possessing both written and quantitative literacy.

Strategies of prime importance are to seek information, seek second opinions, and give oneself time to think when it comes to financial decisions. Personal finance is not “common sense.” For example, American credit scores work in a manner that is convoluted and arcane to most Americans. If you haven’t actually sought out information on this, you might think paying your utility bills on time helps your credit score (it doesn’t), or that spending a lot on your credit cards builds your credit (it doesn’t—owing more than $0.00 on your statement each month and then making a payment does).

Many Americans don’t investigate or put up a fight when getting a raw deal when it comes to their finances. For example, hospitals might over-bill you for services not received, or fail to process your insurance correctly, resulting in a higher bill at chargemaster pricing that ends up going to collections and damaging your credit. Although you can intercede by contacting the medical billing company to correct your insurance information, by negotiating a lower bill, or later on, by disputing the derogatory marks on your Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian credit reports if they are erroneous, many people simply don’t look into this.

Although knowledge is power, inquisitiveness is a prerequisite.

Many people focus their energies on working harder rather than smarter. If the options for using your time are (a) pick up over-time shifts at work or (b) call your credit card and auto loan issuers and get your interest rates reduced from 20% to 15% with a few simple phone calls, clearly Option B is the better use of your time. Yet, doing more of the same is the easier, more comfortable option.

The returns on becoming financially educated and putting this knowledge into action are huge. It is perplexing to me that so many people find it boring and unmotivating. For instance, many Americans are working extra hours to bring in more money, while failing to claim their tax refunds, and, in aggregate, leaving billions of dollars on the table.

It is completely senseless to work more hours to make $15 per hour when doing some financial reading might be worth $500 per hour, in the long run. If this insight alone is not enough to incite Americans to want to learn about personal finance, then the cause might be hopeless, and the efforts of financial educators might be better focused on taking those who are already financially literate to the next level.