Challenges and CoastFire: My Story

Headshot of Holly Donaldson

My story: The following is an updated excerpt from the introduction to my book, The Mindful Money Mentality: How To Find Balance in Your Financial Future (Porchview Publishing, $20).

As a behavioral economist (in a field that studies the psychology of personal economic decisions), I have a keen interest in our relationships with money. I care about maximizing its usefulness as a tool rather than elevating its status as an end.

But for much of my life, I had those two reversed.

I did my own financial planning backwards. I put the pursuit of money first, life second, and myself last. In other words, I floated in a fog about my attachment to money, swept along by society’s encouragement and my own beliefs. My money mentality was not aware, awake, or intentional. It was unconscious. It was anything but mindful. 

Ironically, I was one of those successful savers. Starting when I was a teenager, I kept track of every penny I spent. I could not wait until my 21st birthday so I could start contributing to the 401(k) at work. 

Money as the Main Goal

In my 20s and 30s, I focused on money as an end, determined to define my success as a person by the amount of money I made. As a result, I made some choices that caused me, and those around me, to suffer unnecessarily. I fretted over how much essential things cost. It hurt me to spend on myself for anything nice, much less on anybody else. I now realize that having money was a way to feel good about myself. In my mind, my earnings defined my success as a person. This is the area where I was most imbalanced, and I regret some of the decisions I made then. 

After college, I joined a Miami bank training program. I saw that most of the trainees chose to live in a new suburban complex requiring a Metro commute. I chose to live in cheaper North Miami, only ten minutes from downtown, proud that I was saving on rent, gas, and Metro fares. The building was newly renovated but occupied mostly by taxi drivers who kept odd hours, and the crime rate was higher in my neighborhood. My car was broken into in the parking garage. I did not get much exercise because, as a 5-foot-3-inch 20-year-old, I didn’t feel safe going outside. 

Further, while my coworkers were discussing the fun evenings they had had at south Miami neighborhood restaurants, I thought, “Bah, humbug!” I was proud not to “waste” my money on frivolities. I ate mostly sauteed vegetables and microwave popcorn in my apartment. Over the seven-month training program, I not only did not exercise enough, I unconsciously distanced myself from the camaraderie of the other trainees. While I eventually fixed the exercise deficiency later in life, the friendships I might have made and enjoyed today are absent. 

A Vicious Cycle

It was not easy for me to accept that what you have is not who you are. I didn’t understand that if you looked to your net worth to find your self-worth, your net worth would never be high enough. It was a vicious cycle: I never felt good enough, so clearly I didn’t have enough; when I had more, I still didn’t feel good enough, so clearly I still didn’t have enough, and so on. 

The Turning Point

When I was 39 in 2005, my then-employer, a regional bank, merged with another one. The new bank had very different priorities. A startup division of a brokerage company had been trying to recruit me, so as part of the decision to make a jump, I ran a financial analysis to see how much risk my then-husband and I could take on.

I told him, “I have done these calculations six ways to Sunday. It appears that right now, if we do not save another dime, when we are 60 we are guaranteed a double-wide mobile home and early-bird specials at Denny’s.” I was being facetious, but it was clear to me that this was not good enough. We would need to keep working and saving for more. 

To my surprise, he said, “Sounds good!” 

I had always assumed that I would have to maximize my earnings as much as possible until age 60 because that was what everyone was supposed to do. Suddenly I had the space to step back and think: what do we really need? I thought: “I guess it’s not too bad to be nearly 40 and know I have at least what I have now. In fact, if I had to, I could definitely live with that.” Nowadays my story would be called “reaching CoastFIRE.”

I felt liberated. Suddenly I had a world of choices before me. 

New Choices

When I began to understand the meaning of “enough,” the pursuit of money ceased to control me. As a result of changing my money mentality, within a few years I was able to:

  • start my own business
  • write a book about money and mindfulness
  • realize I would rather be debt-free than live in a big house in the city
  • build a small house in the country
  • spend more time on my new porch.

From that point on, I made more decisions from a position of security and confidence, rather than pursuing the vague goal of achieving another dollar without knowing why. 

Sacrifices Without Regrets

As I near 60, I have no regrets about the decision to leave corporate life. Financially, I have made sacrifices. I have had to pay (a lot) more for health and disability insurance. I won’t have as big of a pension as if I had stayed for seven more years. (But oh, how long those seven years would have been.) I haven’t had an employer match to my retirement plan. On paper, becoming self-employed vs. staying as a corporate executive is not a move many financial advisors would recommend making.

But even with a divorce and remarriage in my story in the meantime, I’ll still be okay. Looking back, the best investment over the past nearly 20 years has been the freedom of time to work how I wanted, doing what I love to do in the way that suits me best. It’s also meant plenty of time for important people in my life, as well as for my physical and mental health. 

It’s Never Too Late

Money is not the destination; it is merely the vehicle. The hardest work for me has been to figure out what life I wanted to live to be happy. Once that became clear, the tough decisions fell into place. 

If I had figured out what I wanted first, I might have saved myself a couple of decades of unnecessary work and worry about not having enough. The irony is, those years probably shortened my life, which is one way to avoid running out of money!

CoastFire isn’t for everyone. But the principle of mindfully paying attention to the pursuit of money is. It’s a joy for me when a successful saver discovers that they might actually have a choice to hop off the savings hamster wheel and start enjoying what they’ve got.

Got a similar story? Share your thoughts below.

Holly Donaldson

Holly Donaldson, CFP® runs an hourly and fee-for-service financial planning practice virtually from her Tampa Bay, Florida office. She also works with clients throughout the U.S. (except Texas) interested in retirement and tax planning advice without product sales or investment management. Holly is the author of The Mindful Money Mentality: How to Find Balance in Your Financial Future (Porchview Publishing, 2013) and publisher of the award-winning monthly e-letter, "The View From the Porch."

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