In 2016, I began saving up for an experiment living as a digital nomad. It was the first time I had to seriously think about what my “runway” would be. How long would my money last if I were to have no income coming in, and I wanted to continue traveling?
I decided to take a small bets experiment, figuring that 2 months abroad would be a enough to gauge what this digital nomad life is all about.
I calculated my monthly expenses – rent, food, all the big items – and created a “travel fund” worth at least 2 months of expenses. Even if the South American countries I was interested in had a lower cost of living, I wanted a wider margin to account for unexpected expenses like flights, having to get an emergency AirBnB, and shenanigans.
I came back from that trip with a little more money leftover than I had budgeted…and it felt good.
I got my first taste of buying myself future months and I wasn’t going back.
Conventional financial advice promotes two extremes
The typical financial advice rest on two points:
On one hand, build an emergency fund. Experts like Dave Ramsey suggesting a starter fund of $1000.
On the other hand, think about retirement—which could be hundreds of thousands, or millions of dollars.
Fidelity Investments recommends that “a 40-year old should have a nest egg twice her annual income; by age 50, the egg should be four times income and at age 60, retirement savings should be six times current income.” (Zacks)
This super long term outlook is hard to relate to, especially for younger people starting out in the workforce, saddled with student loan debt and without much savings.
There needs to be an aspirational stage, something that feels more within reach between setting up an emergency fund (basic) and planning for retirement (advanced).
According to Bankrate, 21% of Americans don’t save any of their annual income.
On the contrary, “Four in 10 identify themselves as aggressive short-term savers, where they excel at putting money aside for a specific purpose, like a trip or wedding, but aren’t consistently setting aside money for the future.” (MarketWatch).
This shows that people are incentivized to save for tangible things.
Taking in those insights, we can apply the psychological trick of chunking:
Simplify things by breaking them down I into digestible chunks.
How the Future Self Savings Method works
Here’s what I found more motivating: buy myself one future month at a time. A rough calculation:
- Figure out monthly expenses. (I use the last 12 months’ average)
- Pad that number by 10-20%
- Every time you save that number, you’ve bought your future self a month!
Let’s mull over that last point.
Every time you save a month’s worth of expenses, you’ve bought your future self a month of freedom.
Say that your average living expenses is $3000.
Because we can’t predict inflation or how the value of the dollar will change, let’s pad that amount by 20%.
$3000 x 1.2 = $3600.
Now, every time you save $3600, you just bought your future self another month of worry-free expense.
The psychology of earning “financially free” months
What would it take to buy yourself a year of freedom?
Using our previous illustration, that’d look like $3000 x 1.2 x 12 = $43,200.
For about the cost of a new car, you can buy yourself 1 year of freedom to being a digital nomad, try starting a small business, or explore a career change.
It’s fun to model out: how fast can I buy myself future months?
Say that someone takes home $6000 a month after taxes, and sets her “future self month expenses” at a generous $3600. If she divide that budget by income, and multiply by 12, she would arrive at the number of months it takes to earn 1 year off.
Obviously it can be difficult to save that much money (that’s a 60% savings rate). But this type of illustration can be another guidepost in figuring out personal budgets, salary raises, or just aspirational numbers for increasing income and decreasing expenses.
Imagine that for every month you work, you’ve earned yourself a free future month.
Now imagine that for every month you work, you’ve earned yourself two future months. Whoa!
This idea becomes even more powerful when combined with decreasing expenses and investing your money.
That’s why I think saving for financially free months is a powerful idea.
Not an emergency fund, but a Freedom fund.
You might be thinking: “isn’t this just an emergency fund?”
A freedom fund just extends the idea of an emergency fund for aspirational purposes.
If you’re like me and don’t want to live a “deferred life” (nod to Tim Ferriss), then the Future Self Savings Method may be an motivating idea.
The Future Self Savings Method has the subtle effect of reorienting my relationship with money:
[BEFORE] “How much money do I want to save?”
[AFTER] “How much time do I want to make?”
Now, instead deferring my life decades out, I can more confidently plan on the order of months and years.
How much much freedom do you want to have saved?
I haven’t studied the FIRE (financially independent, retire early) movement that closely. Maybe this is just the same thing.
This article may feel the most relatable to those making $75k and beyond. But I think the Future Self Savings Method is still a lot more actionable than “I want to be rich / a millionaire someday”
This reorients my relationship with money from “How much money do I want to save?” to “How much free time do I want in the future?”
Saving for a rainy day and setting yourself up with a safety net is crucial, especially when you consider that nearly half of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and more than half do not have an emergency fund that can cover 3 months of expenses. That became devastatingly clear when Covid hit and the government starting sending out $1200 checks.
But psychologically, an emergency fund is not that motivating. Backup plans are important, but doesn’t create aliveness.