The journey to financial freedom might seem insurmountable at first glance. After all, life is expensive. How are you supposed to pay your bills now and save up enough that you could pay your bills in future years without needing a job?
If you’re in debt, how are you supposed to climb out before interest rates bury you alive?
As with all big goals like this, it’s helpful to break it down into small, achievable steps. Here are seven things you can start doing (or working towards) right now, no matter where you are in life.
1. Think about what motivates you to pursue financial freedom. Write it down.
Everyone is different, which means that everyone has a different vision of financial freedom. That vision is what keeps us going when things get hard.
For some, it might be retiring early and having time to pursue hobbies or spend more time with friends and family. For others, it might be having the option to work because they want to, not because they have to. Some might want to travel the world; others might want to build a cabin in the woods.
There are some things in common, too, of course: everyone wants to simply be able to handle emergencies without worrying about covering rent. Everyone wants a fallback plan in case job loss or injury removes a source of income.
Nobody wants to be hounded by debt collectors and tormented by financial anxiety. These things are the base of the financial-freedom “hierarchy of needs” pyramid, if you will. Filling in the other levels is up to individual discretion.
It’s important to take some time to think about what matters to you, because someone else’s dreams aren’t going to light a fire under you when you’re looking at a budget spreadsheet.
But speaking of budgets…
2. Track your spending. Evaluate needs vs. wants and build a budget you can actually follow.
I know, making a budget is a pretty standard personal finance tip–but it’s also one of the most ignored. I think this is because often, the advice goes in the wrong direction: they say build a budget first, then spend your money accordingly.
My preferred strategy is to flip this around. Track your spending first to develop an understanding of your habits, then build a budget. This way, you’re not just making up numbers that sound good at the time–you’re fine-tuning your spending strategies based on your actual lifestyle.
Now, you could accomplish this via an online budget spreadsheet or even write things down in a notebook…but tracking your spending is easiest when it’s automatic.
Use a free tracking app like Mint or Personal Capital to view and analyze all your financial information in one place. It’ll do the work of breaking down your spending by category so you can assess your habits with clear eyes.
Once you actually know what you’re spending, it’s time to come up with realistic target numbers. For instance, maybe your “Grocery” category is low, but your “Restaurants” category is high.
In that case, you can easily tell that you’ll be able to save money by cooking more at home, and limit yourself to a budget that’s doable without feeling too restrictive.
Budgeting is great, but it doesn’t work in a vacuum. Spending analysis is the perfect way to get a sense of your own personal strengths and weaknesses before you sketch out financial goals.
3. Create a net worth statement to honestly assess your progress.
Knowing how much you spend is valuable, but you should also be tracking how much you save. Net worth is your financial assets minus your financial liabilities–in other words, savings/investments minus debt.
Some people also like to include assets like their house or car in this number, but since these values are changeable, I find it muddies the waters. Feel free to do what works for you, though!
The good news is, if you’re using one of those budgeting tools from above (Personal Capital or Mint), they’ll do the work of calculating your net worth for you and updating it as your account balances change.
Otherwise, it’s pretty simple to do it manually with an Excel sheet where you record your own account balances and the total amounts of any debts (car loans, student loans, credit cards, and so forth) to arrive at the final number. Go through this sheet to update your numbers once a month or so.
Once you know what your net worth is, you can start setting financial freedom mini-goals, which can do wonders for motivation.
Even getting to a net worth of zero is exciting if you’ve been in the negative for a while! It might also help to set up levels of rewards for yourself to celebrate–like getting your favorite takeout or planning a weekend trip.
This way, you have something to look forward to after the hard work.
4. Treat saving/investing just like you’d treat any other bill.
This is another thing that many people do backwards: they pay their mandatory bills like rent, car insurance, and utilities, then spend whatever else they want to during the month, and lastly save whatever happens to be left.
When you’re pursuing financial freedom, the first step should stay the same–you don’t want your electric shut off, after all–but the other two should be flipped. Treat saving like you treat your other bills by paying into it before doing any discretionary spending. You may have heard the phrase “Pay yourself first,” and this is what it means: paying your future self first in the form of savings.
In practice, this is easily managed thanks to automatic recurring deposits. Set up a high-interest savings account or a beginner’s investment account. Then, take a certain percentage of your paycheck and set up a recurring transfer from your checking account to that savings or investment account. Ideally, choose transfer dates that will initiate right after your paycheck gets deposited, so you don’t even have a chance to spend those funds before they’re sent on their way.
If you have debt on credit cards or student loans, you can apply the savings amount there instead. Once the debt is paid off, continue to save the same amount in your own account–you’re already used to living off what’s left, so it shouldn’t impact your life.
5. Actively prioritize career development.
When it comes to saving money, there are really only two parts of the equation: spend less and earn more. A lot of people focus on the first one, but the second is just as valuable, if not more.
No matter what kind of job you have, seek to constantly add new skills to your arsenal. Take courses through respected schools on edX or Coursera. Learn to code. Learn to use Excel sheets. Take a leadership training course. Think of skills that complement your current career or future goals.
If you’re traditionally employed, let your boss know you’d like to grow in your role and ask what you can do to climb the ladder. Many companies like to work with their employees to advance their careers. If yours doesn’t and you feel stagnant, check out job listings, because you can often get a better salary increase by moving companies than by waiting for a raise.
If you work for yourself or hope to start a business in the future, start learning the ins and outs now. Teach yourself small business accounting, sketch out the equipment you’ll need and its costs, take a marketing class so you can promote your trade, and so forth.
Don’t let yourself look back after a year, or 5 years, or 10 years, and realize you haven’t learned anything new or challenged yourself.
6. Start a side hustle.
While growing in your chosen career is great, relying on just one source of income can be dangerous. Just like you should diversify your stock portfolio to protect yourself from being ruined if one company goes under, you should do the same when it comes to income. Certain industries and jobs are less future-proof than others, especially with the rise of machine learning and automation.
Side hustles are a great way to diversify your income streams. In the short term, they bring in extra money, increasing how much you can save or invest. In the long term, they allow you to gain experience with new types of work outside your day job, and provide a fallback option in the event of a career crisis.
Get good at a side hustle and you can turn it into its own business. Here are 115 side hustle ideas to spark your imagination.
7. Be patient and keep soaking up knowledge about financial freedom.
The thing about saving and investing is…it takes time. Compound interest is magical, but not magical enough to make you a millionaire overnight. Your small choices every day might not feel like much at the time, but with consistency and patience, they can mean quite a lot after a few years.
There’s a lot to learn on the road to financial freedom, so continue seeking out as much information as you can. Read blogs and books, listen to podcasts, and brainstorm ways to keep growing your income and cutting expenses. Saving money might not be everyone’s favorite task, but the freedom, security, and flexibility it brings is worth it in the end.
Kate is a writer and editor who runs her content and editorial businesses remotely while globetrotting as a digital nomad. So far, her laptop has accompanied her to New Zealand, Asia, and around the U.S. (mostly thanks to credit card points). Years of research and ghostwriting on personal finance led her to the FI community and co-founding DollarSanity. In addition to traveling and outdoor adventure, Kate is passionate about financial literacy, compound interest, and pristine grammar.