My mom died this year.
She was diagnosed with lung cancer on New Year’s Day in 2016, outlived her prognosis by two and a half years, and died on January 25th of this year. She was 58.
When she was diagnosed we were estranged and she was in and out of homelessness. At that moment, she had a tiny studio apartment she hadn’t paid rent on for a few months, and before that she’d been mostly figuring things out, except when she couldn’t, in which case she’d been sleeping in her car.
My sister and I had long before chosen to save ourselves and sever our ties with our family, but despite it all we weren’t willing to watch her die homeless and alone.
My mom’s illness played a huge role in my FIRE journey.
Not long before she was diagnosed, my partner and I had experienced a spike in our income, and after a period of lifestyle inflation, were just starting to learn about FIRE and reevaluating our priorities. We’d also started thinking about buying a house, so we were saving aggressively. Because of this, we had money to pay for our newfound responsibilities. Because of the newfound responsibility, we redoubled our commitment to saving.
My childhood made me a natural saver. We were really poor and it was really chaotic. We moved 13 times before I was 5, either because we couldn’t afford rent or because we thought we could afford rent on someplace nicer, mostly to find that we could not. On Thursdays before payday we ate stale bread with gravy, which we pretended was a special recipe my grandma’s family had brought with them to America. We later lost a house to bankruptcy. For most of high school I lived with a friend’s family, because my own could not afford to take care of kids.
I grew up terrified of being broke and scared of the chaos that ensues when the money runs out at the wrong time, and I became an adult with the same fears, regardless of my income.
The refrain of “we can’t afford it” made its way deep into my vocabulary. It mostly served me. I’ve spent a lot of time being poor and the fact that I didn’t indulge in expensive things very often meant that I avoided consumer debt and other financial setbacks. (It also meant that I wholeheartedly took on lots of student loan debt, which is another story.)
However, things got more complicated for me as the question of whether I could afford things became more complex. I don’t need the money for this month’s rent, so can I afford it? I have an emergency fund, so now can I afford it? I still have student loans, so can I afford anything at all? Throw a FIRE goal into the mix and it only gets worse. The concept is too malleable and up for debate depending on whose wielding the word.
Spending time with a person who is dying when they have not achieved their hopes and dreams is devastating, to put it lightly. Spending time with someone who has lived almost their entire life lacking basic necessities was also a huge learning experience for me, somehow, despite growing up in poverty.
My mom was the most financially comfortable she’d ever been in her whole life in the 3 years before she died. She lived with my sister in a nice house with a big backyard and a garden. She ate nutritious meals multiple times a day. She got flown back and forth between our cities and had money in the bank to feed herself during layovers. She had some of her first real vacations and hotel stays and went on a train for the first time.
She qualified for $1,000 per month in disability, so she also had the most disposable income she’d ever had in her life. Still, when we tried to get her to go somewhere, see someone, enjoy herself in almost any way, she told us she couldn’t afford it.
I’ll never really know if my mom really believed she couldn’t afford it, if it was just a reflex, or if she felt like she didn’t deserve it because of her past. What I do know is that she missed opportunities to live even when she knew she was dying.
In the time since she died, I’ve been acutely aware of my own mortality, the passing of time, wasting time, and missed opportunities. I’ve also been very committed to stopping saying that I can’t afford things and using language that reflects my principles, intentions, goals, and power instead of an arbitrary and false concept of what I can and can’t afford or insinuating that there are things I’m not capable of. Lots of things don’t fit into my budget and aren’t in alignment with my goals, but technically I can afford almost anything I want.
I am fortunate to have a lot of choices. So I’ve been saying yes to lots of things.
After coming to terms with the fact that I had been complaining about my job everyday for years, I got a new one, even though it pays less. (Spoiler alert: I love it.) I went to visit family abroad, extended my trip, and added in amazing once-in-a-lifetime experiences like being behind the goal while we won the Women’s World Cup Final (!) without worrying too much about how much it would cost. I visited old friends in faraway places, often, and whether or not the trips “made sense,” just because I could (and honestly that’s what life is about). I took vacation time from work and didn’t worry about what people thought. I went to FinCon to see what it was like, and went to Cents Positive to meet likeminded people who share my financial goals. I’m travel hacking my way to Morocco for a couple of weeks next month, and sneaking in a few fun times with friends in between.
Basically, whenever an opportunity arose that I really felt would enrich my life or satiate some longstanding curiosity, I said yes. I acknowledged that I could afford it and made it fit into my budget. I figured out ways to save in other areas or hack some things when I could, but most of all I did things because I wanted to, because I can, and because spending on those things aligns with my values.
I am very committed to FIRE and my early retirement goals, broadly defined, play a role in all of my choices. I certainly didn’t just say “fuck it” and throw a bunch of money around. But I also loosened my purse strings a little to have what I think of as healing adventures after a rough couple of years.
What I started calling my Year of Yes has taught me that all of these “side trips” are actually the main course. I want a life where I am able to indulge my interests and spend time with people I love and see more of the world and witness the beauty of new places, whenever I want. That’s a big reason why I want to FIRE. But these things are actually nonnegotiable for me along the way, too, and they have a place in my budget.
Here’s to this and more Years of Yes. Will they extend my timelines to FIRE a bit? How much is hard to say in the middle of all this change. But what I do know is that living this way reminds me of what I’m working for.