The Best (and Worst) Advice on Think Save Retire According to Steve
No need to sift through thousands of pages. Steve walks Melissa through the most helpful things he learned while planning for financial freedom.
Five years and upwards of one thousand blog articles later, Steve has retired from both full-time employment in corporate America and full-time oversight of Think Save Retire. In those years, it’s clear to me that he learned what takes most people their entire lives.
While taking the time to learn the ins and outs of the most extensive, insightful and deeply intimate personal finance blogs there ever was, I realized I had A LOT of ground to cover and things to learn.
I’ve immediately found myself wanting to know:
- What were the most impactful lessons from achieving financial independence?
- What were Steve’s favorite parts of his journey and what were his favorite pieces of advice or articles?
- What were the pitfalls of the journey into early retirement? (Even given Steve’s success, there had to be a few missteps, right?)
- And similarly, is there any advice he’d go back and change?
I’m sure I’m not the only one who wondered about these things, but I do have a distinct advantage of being able to call Steve up and ask him these questions myself.
I knew what came from our phone call wouldn’t only benefit me, but would also provide readers with a behind-the-scenes-esque look at the Think Save Retire they’ve known and loved for so long. So, today, almost five years to the date of the first article Steve published on this domain, I’m sharing with you our conversation looking back on what led him to where he is today: A man and his wife who are literally living their dream.
Enjoy and share your questions/thoughts/or favorite memories and takeaways in the comments below.
Steve Adcock reflects on 5 years of writing Think Save Retire
MELISSA: I have to start with my favorite question which is, performance and public reception aside, what has been your favorite article or piece of content you published on Think Save Retire and why?
A lot comes to mind, but, if I had to just pick one, I would pick an article called Don't let early retirement box you into stupid corners.
The concept behind that article is, when we establish the goal that we want to retire early, a lot of times there are all these rules.
It seems like “you can't do this,” “you can't spend money on that,” but, really, it's not about that. It's not about simply not spending money or canceling your magazine subscriptions or getting rid of cable. Those are really trivial matters. The idea behind early retirement is you can still spend money on the things that make you happy and the bottom line here is to figure out what actually makes you happy.
Just because you're spending money on something now doesn't necessarily mean it makes you happy. So that process is really tough and it often takes a lot of time, but my favorite piece of advice is don't look at early retirement simply as a set of rules or a certain set of things that you can't do, rather, look at early retirement as a giant goal in the future that's going to require you to streamline your life.
So, it's more about when you are faced with a spending decision, not like not letting your eye drop from what the prizes which is early retirement.
I mean, early retirement should be a happy thing. We should think about it in terms of accomplishing a big goal rather than a set of things that we no longer spend money on. Blindly following “the rules” without an underlying understanding of your life and what makes you happy is going to just lead to more frustration than anything else.
In reality, just looking at early retirement as a set of rules doesn't bring smiles to people’s faces.
MELISSA: What do you think was your breaking point that gave you like this mental clarity?
There was a big turning point before I started down this path. I was standing in my garage and I was about ready to open my garage door, but something stopped me. I turned around and I looked from left to right.
I had my Cadillac on the left. I had my Yamaha R1 sportbike in the center and I had my Corvette on the right and I looked at all of that stuff in my house in the suburbs, and I finally let myself admit to myself that, even with all this stuff, something is still missing.
This “spending money for the purpose of spending money” is not working.
And from that point, I didn't immediately start making wholesale changes—that really happened after I met and married my wife—but I understood that just because I'm making more money doesn't necessarily mean that if I spend it, I'm going to get the same happiness that I did right out of college when I was spending half.
It was that one morning, I don't think I'll ever forget the understanding that if I use my money in a smarter way, I'll probably end up happier in the future through accomplishing big goals.
It was really that moment of still feeling that emptiness. I had so much but yet I felt so empty. It's not like I was depressed or anything.
But I really didn't feel like I was getting my money's worth. I didn't feel like I was getting happiness from the money that I was spending.
MELISSA: Right, like you were sold false happiness by the car salesman?
Yeah, like the expectation that, if I have this super loud, really fast sports car, I'm going to be happy.
Granted, that car was a lot of fun.
But, it really wasn't doing it for me and neither was the bike, neither was the Cadillac, neither was the house. Those things were just superficial objects in my life that I had a certain expectation would do something they didn't really do.
MELISSA: What’s one piece of advice you didn’t capture on Think Save Retire (at all or enough to do it justice)?
Be careful who you're taking your advice from. That includes people (bloggers) like me.
We're all blogging from our own perspective. What going on in our lives, what's happening with us and the things that worked for us, but it's just like nutrition or a gym routine. Eating broccoli is not going to do the same thing for every single person, lifting weights is not that do the same thing for every single person.
There’s nothing wrong with listening to so-called experts or listening to friends and family because everybody generally means well, but that doesn't necessarily mean that what works for them is also going to work for you.
I'm a big fan of experimentation. Try different things and see what works but don't expect expert advice to work perfectly for you. You can take it, see what works, see what doesn't. If it doesn't work simply ditch it and try something else. But if it does work, even if you have to modify and customize, that's okay too! It's just a step.
And it is a step-by-step process where you're taking advice and seeing if it applies to your situation and, if it does, keep it. If it doesn't, that’s perfectly fine. Just try something else but don't blindly take advice from so-called experts, especially when it involves your money.
MELISSA: How long do you like to test financial advice or different saving techniques out?
For me, it was a gut feeling. You definitely want to give it enough time where you know whether it’s working or not. I tended to err on the side of not long enough because I liked more immediate gratification, to be perfectly honest. So, if I didn't see major changes in two weeks, sometimes I was changing things up and that was really my mistake.
I didn't give things long enough to actually start working.
It depends on your situation, but if you sit down and think about what you're doing, most people have that gut feeling or intuition about whether something's working or not.
MELISSA: How do you make spending decisions now [that you retired early]?
Well, we usually talk about every single expense. My wife and I collectively talk and simply ask ourselves:
Do we need this? Is this a want or is it a need?
If this is a need, generally we [buy] it. If it's a want, sometimes we’ll buy it if we really honestly believe that it's going to make us happier.
We're at that point now where we can objectively determine whether something is going to provide happiness. And if we don't think it will, we admit to ourselves, “Well, this is probably an impulse buy or we probably don't need that.”
There's no real judgment. There's no argument.
It's definitely a team effort and that did not happen overnight. This is a process that we went through over the months and years of talking about different things and getting a feel for what's going to make us happy and what won't and we're just very honest about the smartest way to spend money.
But admitting when something didn't make you happy, that is the absolute key to not making a spending mistake again.
And I think that was probably the mistake that I made earlier on with, you know, buying all of these things. [Cadillac, bike, etc.]
Once you get over that hump, then I think not making those same mistakes again gets way easier.
MELISSA: What’s the simplest piece of advice you can offer for anyone who wants to be smarter with their money, save more and set themselves up for future success?
I would say you need to give your money purpose.
It’s as its as simple as that. So, established that goal.
Also, it's A LOT easier to save money every month when it’s automatically taken out of your paycheck so you never even see it if that money is going to some future goal. Rather than just saving because you think you need to save. That might work for some people but that certainly didn't work for me.
Saving [from what was leftover] enabled me to steal from that savings because there really wasn't anything that it was going toward. My money had no real purpose.
MELISSA: Definitely. At the end of the day, that's what we are taught as kids: Here's your allowance or here's you got a newspaper route for $10. The first thing you learn is to save up for something like an iPod.
Do you happen to remember the first thing you ever saved for?
It's probably a video game. I had a Sega Genesis when I was a kid.
I don't remember exactly but I would have to guess it was probably a video game, and, in those days, even a Sega Genesis game was like $50 or $60 back in the 90s. So that wasn't cheap.
MELISSA: I think mine was probably a Spice Girls CD.
I have to admit, I, at one point, bought a Spice Girls CD myself.
MELISSA: What are some of the things or what’s a piece of personal finance advice that you tried out but led to a dead end? Or saw other people try out and led to a dead end?
I would have to say just the assumption that things—like not upgrading your cell phone, or getting rid of cable, or canceling magazine subscriptions—will automatically mean that you're going to save more money. That doesn’t necessary just happen. And, that goes back to my earlier piece of advice.
Ultimately, when your money has a purpose, then it becomes easier to save than if you're just blindly getting rid of the morning coffee, magazines, or cell phone upgrades whatever it may be.
Trivial saving that doesn't have an underlying purpose or motivation behind it is not going to lead to anything.
MELISSA: Maybe what is a better question is, do you have a couple of ways or questions for articulating that purpose?
For you, it was early retirement, but we’ve talked before about how that’s really a misnomer for you. Instead, you’re more about leaving traditional work and being able to travel full time and spend that quality time with your wife.
Do you have any advice for defining that purpose beyond just a term or statement like I want to retire early?
That's a good question. And I’ve definitely written about this in some way, shape or form, but I believe the easier way to talk about your future goals is not necessarily money-related. It's not using terms like “financial independence” or “financial freedom” or “early retirement.” If we can break down what we want as very concrete specific examples, that's going to make this whole process a little bit easier to stomach.
For example, as you said, instead of “early retirement,” it's “I want to travel.”
If you start with concrete examples, then you can work backward from that ultimate goal to put the pieces into place to actually achieve that thing. And the more specific it is, the better.
For my wife and me, back when we worked full-time jobs making relatively good money, every single night after dinner, we would go outside to walk our dogs around the neighborhood and every single night we talked about the future.
Neither of us were all that happy with what we were doing currently and being tied down to a full-time commuting job. So, we hashed out what we wanted our future to look like irrespective of money.
We didn't use terms like “financial freedom. We just talked about what we wanted, and the more you talk about it with your spouse, the easier it's going to be to make sense in your mind of what's going to make you happy.
I haven't talked about that really but one of the biggest challenges I think that a lot of folks have when they do want to achieve these kinds of goals is the spouse is not necessarily on board.
You might be a saver but the husband isn't or vice versa. That's really tough. And I was lucky enough that my wife was always, always a saver.
Not an extreme saver. She didn't do couponing, but she was always just a natural saver. So for me, it was really easy.
MELISSA: That’s really awesome. I think that is the basis in any relationship. You should be able to communicate about those things and feel like you're supported in your goals and your life aspirations, even if they don't match up and hopefully at some point, they do to a certain extent where both people are happy.
Yeah, I don't really have advice for people whose spouse isn’t totally on board because, quite frankly, I have not gone through that.
Through my interactions with those in the community, I do know that the more you communicate and talk with your spouse about what's going on and what you’d like your future to look like, in most cases, there's going to be a happy middle ground. Maybe it's not a full retirement, maybe it's not sell the house and buy an RV and go off traveling, but maybe it's working part-time or taking more vacations.
Maybe it's taking more sabbaticals figuring out what works for both of you, and I think eventually you'll probably get to some kind of goal in the future that you're both going to be really happy with, but ultimately it all starts with communication and a lot of talking.
MELISSA: What would you say is the biggest misconception out there in the FIRE/related communities?
The biggest misconception, or at least one of the biggest misconceptions, is that once you early retire, you're done. There's nothing else in your life. You're going to be sitting in your rocking chair yelling at the neighbor kids to get off your lawn.
But that's really not the case. In fact, the earlier that somebody retires generally the more ambitious that person is because they made the decision to actually get there and they accomplished that huge goal.
They wanted to move on to something else and having that purpose for what's going to fill your time—whether it's a hobby or something else after early retirement—that's really what makes the difference of successfully retiring early.
If you were to retire early and then, suddenly, you have no hobbies, you have nothing to do. You're literally sitting there twiddling your thumbs. That’s incredibly damaging to your health.
I think just using the term “retirement” as a destructive factor in this whole process. I think that's really the problem because most people think about that as traditional retirement. You're 65 or 70 and you can't work anymore, therefore, you retire. But, this is proactive retirement. Maybe that's a better phrase. This proactive retirement means you're not done being productive.
It simply means you're done working a full-time job and you can consider everything else out there that might give you a little bit more purpose.
MELISSA: Is there a piece or pieces of popular advice that you wish you could go back and change?
I wrote a few things about how to save money by ordering water instead of soda at restaurants or by cutting that morning coffee. But how much is that?
The implication behind writing that is if you buy coffee every morning, that adds up over the years, but if you get genuine happiness, if you turn into a different, happier, more productive person by getting that perfect cup of coffee from that perfect coffee place before you get into work, who cares how much you're spending? Just do it because it's improving your life.
MELISSA: So you are pro avocado toast is what I'm hearing?
You heard it here first, everyone!