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Working Toward Financial Independence While in Debt

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The Financial Independence Retire Early movement (FIRE for short) has become pretty popular over the past few years, and it’s easy to see why. Who wouldn’t want to leave the workforce years early with a comfortable nest egg and spend the rest of their days traveling and pursuing their passions?

Debt and FIRE may seem like they don’t mix. After all, it’s hard to save and invest a large chunk of your income while you’re contending with tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt. For a while, I was discouraged and felt like I’d never achieve FIRE if I wanted to become debt-free. I considered giving up my FIRE goals and just focusing on paying off my mortgage and retiring at 67. 

But you actually need a lot less money than you’d think to achieve certain types of financial independence—more on that later. I’d even argue that people who have the discipline to pay off a significant amount of debt are in a better position to FIRE than the general population. 

Here’s why I think it’s possible to achieve financial independence even if you’re in debt now. I’ll also give you an overview of my FIRE plans as an example. 

Why People Who Have Paid Off Debt Are in a Good Position to FIRE

I think that paying off debt is great training for FIRE because it teaches you how to delay gratification. Those of us who are committed to paying off debt know how to live modestly and work hard toward a goal that often feels far away. We’ve learned how to cut down on discretionary spending and skip eating out and vacations for years at a time to accelerate our financial progress. 

That mindset is a huge asset when it comes to achieving FIRE. Once your debt is paid off, you’ll be able to funnel all the money that used to go toward loans into your investment accounts. If you maintain a high savings rate by living like you’re still in debt, you may be able to achieve FIRE even with a later start. It also helps if you’re able to contribute to your 401K while you’re paying off debt, which is a smart move even if you’re not aiming for early retirement. Investing just a couple hundred dollars a month during your debt payoff journey will shave years off your FIRE date. 

My FIRE Plans

You’ve probably heard of the standard version of FIRE, which involves saving a large percentage of your income (usually 50% or more) to build enough wealth to retire early. But there are actually a few different types of FIRE you may not know about that are easier to achieve. 

Lean FIRE

Lean FIRE is a type of financial independence that involves living on less than $40,000 per year. If you can get your average annual spending down to $20,000 or $30,000 (or supplement your investments with a part-time job), you can retire with less than $1 million in today’s dollars. 

Coast FIRE

Coast FIRE is even more achievable. People who have reached Coast FIRE have invested enough money in their 401K to retire at regular retirement age without making any further contributions. This means that they only have to cover their living expenses until age 67, which gives them a lot more career flexibility and ability to take risks. 

This is the type of FIRE that I’m currently aiming for because it’s easier to balance with my debt payoff goals. Trying to save 50% of my income and pay off my mortgage at the same time just isn’t realistic. But to achieve Coast FIRE in my late thirties or early forties, I only need to invest about $550 per month, which is completely doable even while paying off my mortgage. If you want to figure out how much you need to invest each month to achieve Coast FIRE, play around with this awesome calculator

Based on my early mortgage payoff schedule, I’ll be debt-free around the same time I achieve Coast FIRE. Getting rid of my mortgage will lower my expenses significantly. Because I won’t need a lot of income to cover my living costs, I’ll have a lot more financial freedom and career flexibility in my forties if everything goes to plan. 

FIRE Is Still Possible

If you have early retirement dreams, you don’t have to give up on them just because you started life with student loans or got into credit card debt. I encourage you to play around with some FIRE calculators and see what might be possible if you save diligently once you get out of debt! 

Do you want to retire early? If so, what kind of FIRE are you aiming for? Let me know in the comments section below!

Read More

Elective Medical Procedures While in Debt

A New Mortgage Payoff Strategy

Why I’ve Relaxed My Debt Payoff

Elective Medical Procedures While in Debt

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This is my second year with a Health Savings Account. Last year we only had routine doctor’s appointments, and I had banked a decent amount of money into the HSA. Our family out-of-pocket-max is $7,000 so that’s the amount I invest.

This year, and another $7,000 being invested, I knew I wanted to take the plunge on a couple of elective medical procedures I’d been thinking about for quite some time.

Why now? HSA vs FSA

For the first several years at my job (where I started work in 2015), I had a Flex Spending Account. The reason I’d opted for an FSA initially is that it allowed for more coverage with our insurance (lower deductible). That was important to me at the time, given that some of our medical expenses were variable and unexpected (helloooooo, kidney stones!)

The big down-side to an FSA is that the funds are use-it-or-lose it. As a result, I would contribute less money annually since it didn’t roll over from year to year. The “pro” for both FSAs and HSAs is that the money is deducted from my paycheck pre-tax, which is a nice tax advantage.

I switched to an HSA after tracking medical expenses for several years (so now they’re more predictable!). Also, being in a relationship with my now-husband helped because I had more stability in terms of income and living expenses, etc.

The down-side of an HSA is that you must use a high deductible plan and you pay for most medical care 100% out-of-pocket until your deductible is met. That’s why I have chosen to invest our out-of-pocket max ($7,000/annually) so we have a nice buffer just-in-case of catastrophic event. That said, we’re now into year 2 and haven’t hit our deductible, even with my routine specialist visits (due to chronic kidney stones I see a urologist and nephrologist every 6 months). We have a nice little stockpile of money growing in our HSA.

Long-term, the plan is to invest that money and watch it grow. It will be there for any medical expenses and, ideally, will grow to a substantial amount to help us in retirement with medical expenses. But on the short-term, I’ve had a couple elective medical procedures I’ve been really itching to get taken care of. Since we had the money sitting in our HSA either way – why wait?! I dubbed 2022 the “Year of Elective Procedures.”

Elective Medical Procedures

Big caveat – you can NOT use HSA funds for elective cosmetic surgery. My elective procedures do not fall into that category.

LASIK

The first procedure I had completed early this summer – I got LASIK eye surgery! I was very nervous about this procedure, but had been wanting to get it done for years. As I watched our HSA funds growing, I knew I wanted some of the money to go toward my vision. I do not have vision insurance and was paying out-of-pocket for annual eye exams, contact lenses, and glasses. I was spending approximately $1200-1500/year for eye expenses. My LASIK surgery cost $3700 and I was able to pay for it entirely out of my HSA. It cost me nothing from my regular paycheck/checking/savings and I figure it will pay for itself in 3 years’ time! Money well spent and it’s been priceless to be able to wake up and instantly SEE!

Salpingectomy

The second procedure is actually occurring later today. I’m having a bilateral tubal with salpingectomy. In layman’s terms, I’m having my fallopian tubes removed. This procedure is one-part elective and one-part medical necessity. The conversation started with my doctor because I want to have a hormone-free permanent birth control. I do not want any devices implanted in me and I cannot risk a pregnancy. Due to my health background, a pregnancy could be fatal (I had HELLP syndrome with my twins and am at increased risk of recurring HELLP syndrome if I were to get pregnant again). I don’t want to take any chances.

In speaking to my doctor, it was recommended that I have my tubes removed due to a family history of ovarian cancer, which originated in the fallopian tubes. By removing my tubes, I get the permanent hormone-free birth control I desired, and also lower my risks of ovarian cancer down the road.

This was a tough and personal decision for me and I don’t really want to talk politics or debate different birth control options. If you vehemently disagree with my choice, that’s your right. But this was the best choice for me and my family. That said, I didn’t make the decision lightly. I’m afraid of going under general anesthesia. I actually had this appointment scheduled for November 2021 and cancelled when I got cold feet. It’s happening this time though. If you are a praying type, I appreciate any prayers (or good vibes, well wishes, etc.). I’ll be going under the knife at approximately 3pm Arizona time today! I’ve been assured it’s a quick and easy surgery (as easy as major abdominal surgery can be), but I’m a big scaredy cat so I still have anxiety about the procedure.

Costs

Jury is still out about how much the salpingectomy is going to set me back. Google tells me that they cost approximately $11,000 and my insurance has me paying 10% copay, approx. $1,100. But the U.S. health care system is pretty messy, in my opinion. It’s been really tough to get exact costs. My doctor’s office says this procedure is 100% covered (just like my birth control pills are 100% covered by insurance). But I would be shocked and amazed if I didn’t receive some type of bill afterward. I received a bill from the surgery center for $350 and have already paid it. Basically – I don’t really know what to expect in terms of cost, but I have no doubt that I’ve got enough in our HSA to cover it, whatever it may be.

Controversial?

Is it controversial to be paying for elective medical procedures while still in the depths of debt-payoff? IDK. To me, I’d still be investing the same amount in my HSA regardless of whether I had these medical procedures or not. I feel like I might as well be taking care of my medical needs – after all, that’s what the money is for!

As I said, I do have a long-term plan to let this money grow, invest it within the HSA, and have it help as a buffer throughout retirement. But for now….why not use it if I’ve got it? Especially since it doesn’t impact any of my take-home pay.

 

What are your thoughts? Would you be open to completing elective medical procedures while still deep in debt?

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