Choose Your Own (FI) Adventure

Want more options and time to do more for the people and projects you love? Learn how to create a path to financial independence that is flexible and fun!

Finding the Right Pace and Path to Financial Independence

As a kid, one of my favorite kinds of books to read were those choose your own adventure stories.

Do you remember those? No, it's pretty much began the same, but based on the choices you made you could go on so many different adventures.

Some of them had dozens of different endings. You could discover buried treasure, time travel, go to space, whatever the adventure was.

Fast forward a few years and now my favorite type of video game to play include RPGs. Why? Because you have some room to craft out your own adventures.

I feel like financial independence is like those books and games. You decide how you're going to go through it.

Yes, there is an end point, which is when you hit financial independence or financial freedom but in the middle, you have flexibility not just the goal but also the journey .You want it to make it work for you and your family.

It doesn't always feel that way though. There's this narrative that gets pushed, that there's a certain type of way to fi- specifically as fast as possible.

Yes, sorry, but no thanks.

I think that the journey is just as valuable as the destination. If you've been turned off by that segment of fi, or you just want to have more flexibility with your plan, I think you'll enjoy today's episode.

To help me out is Diania Merriam. She's the founder of EconMe who knows firsthand the joys and challenges of carving out your own FI path.

In this episode, we're going to jump into:

  • how Deanna paid off. $30,000 of debt and jump-started her FI path
  • how working towards financial independence opened up more options and allowed her to take risks to pivot her career plus more
  • we're going to get into how you can create a plan that fits you and your family.

Are you ready? Let's get started.

Handy Tools to Start Your FI Journey

If you’re looking to get ahead with your finances as a family and look at pursuing financial independence, here are some resources to check out:

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Financial Independence is About More Options

Elle Martinez: One of the joys to me about financial independence is that flexibility and freedom you have, but it's also a little confusing when you're first coming into the space.

There are certain voices that may be more popular or louder. So if you don't mind, could we kind of jump into what exactly does financial independence mean to you?

Diania Merriam: Financial independence to me is really about creating options. It's about having that financial security for you to explore what you want.

I think some people approach financial independence because, they know that they want a homestead, right? We were just talking about Frugalwoods.

That's the reason why they did everything that they did, or they know that they want to reach financial independence so that they can have kids and stay home with their kids. Some people have very specific goals of why they're doing it.

Other people I think – I fall into this camp – is like, maybe we don't know what we ultimately want. Maybe we're looking for financial bandwidth to explore.

I like to think of it as it's creating options. I'm very attracted to the idea of having full autonomy over my time.

And not really having to subscribe to the whole nine to five until you're 65. That's really exciting for me. Yeah, I think that that pretty much sums it up the way that I look.

Elle Martinez: I feel the same way. That was the initial draw for that. I know the idea of never having to work again is a pull for some people, but for my husband and I, it was like you said, having this bandwidth there, having these options available to us to see, Hey, is this something we want to do or explore.

Discovering Financial Independence and Dumping $30K of Debt

Elle Martinez: I want it go a little bit back in time, because I was looking at your journey and, the amazing accomplishments you had, especially paying off like $30,000 a debt in less than a year.

How did you, first of all, initially find out about financial independence and discover that?

Diania Merriam: Yeah. So it was the fall of 2015 and I was 28 at the time I'm approaching my 30th birthday, like it's looming.

I think 30 is one of those really reflective years where you're just like, what am I doing with my life? I actually ran a credit report on myself during that time.

It was the first time that I've ever done that because I knew I had debt, but I was just kind of paying the minimums on my credit cards and I had some student loans.

I never actually looked at my collective debt. That was like the real eye opening moment for me that oh, wow. I'm in $30,000 of debt.

I didn't realize like that just kind of slipped under the radar for me. I was trying to wrap my head around what to do about this.

A friend of mine had sent me a post from Mr. Money Mustache. It may have been the one where like your debt is an emergency. You got to treat this like your hair is on fire, but it really impacted me.

I think up until finding that blog, most of what I read about personal finance had this tone of struggle to it.

Like this is going to be so hard for you get to get out of debt. It's going to feel like deprivation to reduce your expenses.

When I read Mr. Money Mustache, there's just this tone of optimism to it. This kind of realization that I am so privileged and I really wasting my privilege. That's what really struck me.

You know, making my lunch every day to bring to work, that is not a hardship. That's actually a first world problem. I have a food, I have a roof over my head.

It made me really grateful for the things that I had and, and also to recognize that money is an incredible resource that can open up a lot of options.

Revaluating Priorities and Spending

Diania Merriam: I used to think that I was going to figure out my debt when I was making more money.

Right. I think the realization that I didn't have so much of an income problem, some people do, right. Some people really do need to increase their income.

I don't think that was my situation. I think my problem was the wasteful spending and being completely mindless about it. Recognizing that this isn't something that's going to get solved by increasing my income.

This is a money management issue. I had this realization that if I can't manage a thousand dollars, what makes me think I'm going to be able to manage a million dollars. Right?

Money management is a lot about habits and behaviors and so I really wanted to dive into that. At that point in my life, and I would say Mr money mustache really inspired me in that.

Elle Martinez: Yeah. I remember reading that article as well. It's funny how you say there's this undertone of optimism.

I would agree because on the surface level, though, he's very like blunt and direct and how he feels about certain situation, very strong feelings like, ‘Hey, your debt is like your hair's on fire, get rid of it. ‘

Kind of want to break it down a little bit further, especially like you said, $30,000 of debt. Was that like student loans, credit cards or a mix of everything?

Diania Merriam: So half of it was student loans, which doesn't sound too bad, right? Like $15,000 in student loans is nothing. However, I went to college on a full academic scholarship.

I should have had no loans, but the student loans were offered to me for living expenses. No one explained to me, you don't have to take this money.

I just thought like, oh, What I do, you know, like I'm just taking out these loans and so, yeah, that was half of my debt. The other half was credit card debt just from living beyond my means.

Again, I thought it was something that I would solve when I was making more money and I just didn't really worry about it too much in my twenties.

Getting Creative and Optimizing Budgets

Elle Martinez: Yes. Want to talk about that, how behind, you know, paying off that debt. Everyone has the choices that they make. Like where do I cut back?

You mentioned it wasn't an income problem. It was more your expenses with that financial independence mindset. When you were reviewing your budget, what were some changes that you made? So you're able to one, tackle that and then two, start making progress towards your FI goals?

Diania Merriam: Yeah. I would say probably my biggest area that I cut back on was going out. Like I was partying a lot in my twenties. I was going out nearly every night, spending money on meals out and drinking and partying with my friends. Right. So that was probably the biggest area that I cut back on.

I did adopt this kind of process, whenever I was thinking about spending money. So if I wanted to buy something, I would kind of pause and have a moment to think, is this a want, or is it a need? That's probably the hardest question, right? Because a lot of us think that we really need something when it's actually much more of a want.

So really meditating on that was like a whole new way of looking at spending for me. So I spent a lot of time thinking about that kind of stuff. Then I would ask myself, okay, if this is an actual need, Is there a more resourceful way for me to meet this need?

Can I borrow something from a friend? Can I repurpose something that I already have? If I'm going to buy it, can I buy it used at a lower cost? I would go through this mental process and then ultimately, we'll get to if I was going to spend money or not. I think that really helped open up my creativity and resourcefulness in a way that I had never experienced before.

For example we all have clothing needs, right? We need to close ourselves. During the time that I was getting out of debt, I wasn't spending any money on clothing, but what I did is I would host these clothing exchanges with my friends.

So we'd all clear out our clothes. We'd spend an afternoon in my apartment, like drinking mimosas, listening to music and trying on each other's clothes.

I walked away from that with like a full closet of more fashionable clothes than I would have ever bought for myself. Not only was that a more resourceful way of getting my needs met and that I wasn't actually spending any money, I would say that that solution was far superior than mindlessly swiping a credit card. It was more fun.

I got to spend time with people. I walked away with clothes that I probably wouldn't have thought to buy for myself. And I had a lot of experiences like that.

Example, I had a new neighbor that moved in the apartment below me and, I just see them passing in the hallway. I welcomed them.

They said, we're waiting, we're trying to get our internet set up. Do you mind if we just use yours for like a couple of days until they come and, and get our internet installed?

I said, sure, just figured, Hey, if they abuse it, I could change the password. Like no big deal. Right? So I give him the password to my internet. They lived right below me.

I just noticed that it didn't affect the functionality of the internet for me at all. It didn't slow it down for me. It was like, I didn't even notice that they were using it.

So I said to them, Why don't we just split my bill? Like, why don't you just stay on this? Don't get your own. Let's cut that bill in half for both of us, you know? That is probably not something I would ever think to do if I didn't discover financial independence in this mindset of really being mindful about spending and figuring out ways to cut back.

Exploring Options Because of FI

Elle Martinez: Yeah, I love that because the examples you've given, I think also speak beyond the financial benefits of looking at the FI lifestyle, which is one being more mindful and conscious of any spending that we're doing and then too, like you mentioned, with that clothing exchange, it's beneficial for the environment.

We're not producing, more goods. We're reusing in the best way, what we already have so I'd love that.

I know for different people, financial independence opens up opportunities either professionally or personally. You've paid off the dead and saving up like 60% of your income.

Yeah. Significant amount. What changes or opportunities now became available that you took advantage?

Diania Merriam: Oh, my gosh, my life looks completely different than when I was in debt. So a big motivator for me is that when I started this process is I really wanted to walk the Camino for my 30th birthday. And the Camino is a 500 mile Trek across Spain.

It was something way outside my comfort zone. Not only was that trip kind of intimidating, then the financial aspect of it was really intimidating, but wanting to do that trip kind of propelled me to figure this stuff out.

I was able to negotiate with my employer to take a leave of absence, to take a sabbatical that was unpaid. So I didn't get paid for two months. Plus I had to fund that trip. It, it probably cost me around six or seven grand to be able to go and do that.

But that was an incredible life experience that I wouldn't trade for the world. So that was kind of like my initial opening up an option that I don't know that I would have ever had the courage to even ask for that if I didn't have a financial safety net.

I like to say that if they would have denied my request for a leave of absence, that, I would have just gone anyway. Who knows if that was true, but I told myself at the time that my financial resources and the savings that I was doing would have made that option possible if I wanted to exercise that option.

So not only asked for the two months off, but I also asked for a remote working arrangement, which was not the norm. This was in 2017.

So now let the pandemic, it's a lot more common to look for opportunities to work remotely but I was in New York city and I just felt like I wanted to try something else.

I felt like, look, I had no debt, no man, no kids. I had the kind of freedom that people dream about and I wanted to go explore and do something with this.

I had a friend who I was really close to in New York and she went to school in Cincinnati and then ended up moving back to Cincinnati.

I visited her like three times in 2016, and I just really liked it. Cincinnati is obviously a much smaller city, but to me it has all of the benefits of a big city with like none of the downsides.

It just felt like time slowed down when I got here and not in that maddening way that new Yorkers hate where there's no sense of urgency. Like it wasn't like that. It was like a good slowing down.

I just thought I want to try this. So I negotiated with my employer to let me work remotely. So let me take the two months off. Then after I got back from the Camino. Working from home allowed me to I've always wanted a dog, you know? And so I adopted my best friend. He's like the love of my life dog named, buddy.

And I also bought a house, which is something I never thought that I would do.

Led to funding my own business, which I know we'll talk a little bit about the economy conference and ultimately this year I actually quit my job in January. I quit my full-time job without being financially independent.

I think that FI opens up a lot of doors when you're separating, like your need for your livelihood to come from your work. That is like the ultimate right. To reach FI.

But I actually think there's a lot of freedom that opens up along the way that I don't think is talked about enough.

I think at a certain level of savings so I reached coast fi which means that I have enough money in my retirement vehicles that I no longer need to save for traditional retirement. That's a level of opening up a level of the game, I guess you could say.

I also have something I like to call peace out money for the polite among us, which means that I personally have two years of living expenses, liquid that I could easily access.

So I've got a year in cash and a year in an after tax brokerage. When I came to this crossroads with my employer, it was like, okay, I still need to work, but I no longer need to work somewhere.

That's not ideal. Yeah. That is an option that is opened up to me even though I'm not yet FI.

I like to talk about this because I don't think enough people do that. I think people are waiting for five. Oh yeah. Take these risks. Right. Or to walk away from a job that no longer serves them, which I don't know that we necessarily have to wait that long.

Elle Martinez: I completely agree. I know again, there's like different flavors and they come up with different names, you know, in the five space, a slow where I believe I was talking Brad from ChooseFI about this. Like it's not an off on switch.

I think that's the misconception is like, okay, when I reached this, then all this opens up.

It's like, no when the debts paid off, you have a little bit of freedom here. You've built up that savings.

The FI Community and EconoMe

Elle Martinez: I want to talk to you a little bit about your business, because comes from this space of financial independence and spreading it.

Starting any business is a lot of work. Live events are like another layer up for me the way I see all the logistics and then to run a conference. First of all, why did you start economy and what was your reason behind it? What do you hope people can get from it?

Diania Merriam: Sure. Well, economy originated from me dreaming up, like what would I want to do with my time if I no longer needed to work for money?

I mean, When people would ask me, like, what is your, why for five? And like, what are you going to do when you reach five? I used to say, I'm going to create this party about money. Like, that's what I thought that I would do. I just got so excited about it that I couldn't wait.

That's why I did it sooner, but I'm actually really glad that I didn't wait because I think starting a business has a lot of risks to it.

There were a lot of things that I couldn't anticipate like a global pandemic. And so I ended up taking a huge loss on the business in the first year. And I think if I didn't have my 60% savings rate and my good income. It would have probably been too much of a risk for me to handle if I didn't have that.

I was able to really kind of self fund this startup phase because I had an income while I was building this.

I would say really what inspired me is I love to go to in-person events. There's this one event that I go to every year called the world domination summit, which sounds crazy right?

Like who produces that pinky and the brain, but, but actually Mr. Money mustache spoke at it one year and that's how I found out about.

For someone that's as frugal, as I had learned to become through getting out of debt, you know, a ticket to a world domination summit is like $700. I will tell you that it is worth every penny.

I don't think the pursuit of FI is about right. Not spending money or spending as little as possible. I think it's spending it on things where you get the most value and just being very critical about where those dollars are going.

Every time I would go to world domination summit, I would leave feeling like my life is so full of possibility. I would meet these incredible people that were living very unconventional lives and being surrounded by that energy. Just, it has an effect on you and you start to like, think more expansively about what, what you could do with your time.

I wanted to create something that gave that feeling to other people, but about their money. That was really exciting to me.

I think economy and what people get out of it. Now as far as tactics and how to manage your money and how to pursue fire, there are so much many blogs, podcasts. There's so much out there for free that, that you can learn how to do this. Like you don't need to go to a live event for that.

I think the live event is much more about inspiration and community. One of my favorite quotes is if you look at your inner circle and you're not inspired, then you don't have a circle. You have a cage.

I think a lot of people feel this way on their pursuit to FI. They can't talk to their friends and families about this. People don't understand them.

When I was first getting into this, I was making my own facewash and laundry detergent. Like people thought it was so weird. Right? And so to be able to connect with other people that have a similar interest on this taboo topic, I think is really important for the journey.

I look at the people that I've met from going to like camp fire, camp mustache, and even world domination summit, like my social circle today, or like all people that are pursuing fi and there are some of the smartest, most generous people I've ever met. And I just feel like my journey is richer because of the people that I've surrounded myself with.

First of all, if I could say like, there's any kind of dream for EconoMe, I would love for someone to meet their spouse there, honestly, like that would just thrill me that like either someone met their best friend or their spouse at economy, that would be so much fun.

But yeah, we have main stage speakers that are talking about FI from the tactical side of things. What do you do about student loan debt? How do you approach credit card hacking? What do you do when you get a big medical bill?

There's those kinds of tactical topics, but then there's also a lot of inspiration, like the most popular speech. The first economy, which was last year, one week before everything shut down was from Jackie Cummings Koskie and she was a single black mother who found the fire movement at 38 and she never made six figures and she was able to retire before.

She did it in like a decade and her presentation was called the real numbers behind firing and she showed all of her numbers. Like she showed specifically how she did it.

I think it was really inspirational for people because fire can feel unattainable for a lot of us, but when you see people that maybe have similar circumstances to you doing it and succeeding and thriving in how they're able to save and invest, it just makes it feel more possible.

So yeah, all of that and more at the economy conference. Wow.

Elle Martinez: I know there's going to be those listening. They're like, I am ready to go plus after this year that we've had, they're ready to connect. So if they wanted to learn more, what's the best way they can do that?

Diania Merriam: Yeah. So if you go to economy, conference.com and that's economy with an M E not an M Y I, if you look at the spelling of that, Name you'll notice that I, I really enjoy misspelled words.

So anyway, economy with an Emmy. There you can check out the speaker lineup. You can buy tickets. They're on sale.

Now the event is actually happening at the university of Cincinnati on November 13th and 14th of this year.

You can also go to just search for economy conference on YouTube. And all of the speeches from last year, I put up there for free. I've got professional videography, just like Ted talks where you can watch a Ted talk on, on YouTube.

It's a similar idea. So yeah, you can check out the speeches from last year and kind of get a feel for the vibe.

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2 thoughts on “Choose Your Own (FI) Adventure”

  1. Hi Elle!

    Just wanted to drop a note and say hi and congratulate you for pivoting.

    Heard you in the P&B podcast.

    It’s been a while! Good luck with the new adventure! These were my favorite books growing up.

    Sam

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