A Millennial's Guide to Gaining Financial Freedom
Developing healthy money habits can help protect anyone against uncertainty, especially in a time of economic unpredictability. But if you’re not sure where to begin, this simple step-by-step guide can help any South African millennial start the journey to financial freedom.
There’s not much reason to start saving unless you’re saving for a reason, right?
My journey to financial freedom began when I made plans to go to on a three-week trip to Morocco. As someone whose parents are not savers – or planners, for that matter – it was a big step for me.
For too long I had been told I couldn’t do something because I didn’t have enough money and this rhetoric was becoming boring. I wanted to change the narrative by having enough money to do all the things. So one evening I sat down and researched how much I would need to save to make my Moroccan dream a reality in six months.
Little did I know that this decision and subsequent change in mindset would be the beginning of something bigger. Starting the journey to retirement is much like introducing running into one’s life: once you get into the habit, it becomes a part of your daily routine and before you know it you’re standing next to thousands of people waiting for the signal to start the 90km journey from Durban to Pietermaritzburg wondering why you didn’t put it off for a year so you could run downhill instead of up.
And, just like the hurdles one needs to overcome to reach the finish line of the Comrades, so there are many barriers that prevent young people from saving. As someone who only recently begun thinking about what retirement looks like for me, myself and I, I wanted to share the most significant decisions and moments that might offer some support and guidance for anyone who has a mental block against setting and accomplishing financial goals and looking after their future self.
Step 1: I simply set a goal
It became exhausting not knowing what was happening with my money. Where did it go? Why did it go so quickly? Why was I needing to dip into my already low savings account to get me through to the end of the month? I was losing sleep over questions that I didn’t really want to answer, but I had had enough. So one day I made an active decision to change all that – and there’s nothing like an active decision to get you moving.
Once I had set my goal – to go to Morocco in six months – and figured out how to achieve it, I was ready to focus on every which way to make it happen. Realising how easy it was to save once I had a plan in place inspired me to see what else I could do with effective budgeting.
Want a tip? Download your bank’s app and connect all your accounts on one dashboard so you can quickly gain an overview of your cash flow and effortlessly transfer money between accounts. With this slight effort as well as a rough calculation of my expenses, I was able to estimate how much I could save every month and confidently began building my Morocco fund – but it just wasn’t enough.
Step 2: I got the right financial adviser
It’s said that to find the perfect match you need to spend time with the person to see if they fit into your lifestyle. I wanted to find someone who could mentor me on significant money-related decisions because as much as I love my parents creating wealth is not their forte.
To find the perfect someone I took the easy route. Instead of contacting and interviewing Google’s top results, I sought out recommendations; I asked friends, family, and random people I met on a night out and eventually found the right person for me, someone who is interested in growing my wealth, does not push product, and has a digital mindset.
These points were imperative as I:
a) don’t earn a significant amount and want someone who can use what money I have to make more money;
b) prefer advice to be agnostic without any hidden agendas when I ask which insurance / hospital plan / fund to sign up for / buy into / invest in; and
c) want to communicate effectively via email and know that investing processes are more efficient with fewer mistakes.
These days, rather than pestering my parents about matters they’re not well versed in, I pop my wealth manager an email or WhatsApp message knowing that the response I receive is personal as he’s fully aware about the people in my life, the amount I earn, and what my short- and long-term goals are.
Step 3: I got into detail about what I spend my money on
When you’ve been avoiding giving your expenditures a detailed look your whole life, this becomes the most daunting step of all. With a spreadsheet from my financial adviser on hand, I sat down for a couple of hours and went through every single item on three months’ worth of bank statements. It was exhausting, but by the end of it a few of my own myths had been busted.
For years I had been convinced that I spent too much on a night out, whether at a club or dinner with friends, but what I didn’t realise was the biggest culprits were books and shopping sprees at Clicks. Aware of my kryptonite, I became mindful about spending money on books I’d never read and avoiding Clicks.
Now, I use the same spreadsheet to prep for the upcoming month. I input my income and deduct all my necessary expenses and savings, as well as any upcoming once-off payments like a car service or flights to a friend’s wedding. I then take what’s left, divide it into how much I can spend per day, record this on the spreedsheet, and update it daily to track my progress. It’s a lot of effort at first, but soon becomes as second nature as replying to your mom’s daily morning WhatsApp message.
Step 4: I started paying myself first
For too long I lived with the idea that whatever money was left over at the end of the month was my reward to my future self. Shocking! We all deserve so much more than that. We are, after all, the ones doing all the hard work.
Paying yourself first is the easiest way to look after your future self. Once you have completed your budget, you can make your necessary payments like rent, car, medical aid etc, and begin decreasing any debt that I’m sure is eating away at your mental health. You can then work out how much you can put away without squeezing your lifestyle too tight.
After that, the rest of your cash is yours to have fun with because, well, you are still here to enjoy life.
If updating a spreadsheet is too higher grade, another way to ensure you don’t run out of money by month end is to either transfer or draw the cash you need each week. I have been able to get my expenses down to just under R2 000 a week, which includes groceries and petrol. I have also made a promise to myself that I can only buy new books when I have finished old ones, and clothes are mostly secondhand unless it’s an item I really need, like underwear or fresh work clothes. I try my best to stay out of Clicks, but a girl’s got to self-care.
Step 5: I changed the narrative
Once I had accomplished a monthly routine of putting away some money, little did I know that the next move was to start looking at retirement.
When figuring out your retirement plan there are two points you need to establish: the age you want to retire and how much you want to be paid each month once you have retired. When my financial adviser asked me these questions I couldn’t even think of retirement – 60 is just too far into the future to consider what kind of life I want to live. And why did I have to stop working at that age? Almost every person I know who is forced to take early retirement ends up twiddling their thumbs from boredom.
Then my financial planner said something that was almost spellbinding and immediately shifted my way of thinking. Instead of thinking of it as retirement, he told me to think of it as independence; at what age do I not want to have to rely on someone else paying me a salary? With the question posed in that manner the answer is easy: I want to become financially independent at the age of 40.
However, being 30 that is going to prove more of a challenge.
Step 6: I defined what financial freedom means to me
While it’s all good and well having independence to look forward to, it’s important to define what your idea of independence looks like so you can plan accordingly.
And the questions posed to me by my financial adviser got me thinking. For me, financial freedom means not having to go to work every day yet still having an income that allows me to potter around at will. I want an already-established business that keeps me going, something simple with longevity that lets me interact with people daily, yet allows me to leave it in capable hands if I want to travel to see family or friends. In an ideal world, this is happening while I live on a small plot of land that is self-sustainable. I can be a hippy like that.
However, knowing I will ‘retire’ in 2050 means I need to consider what the future holds and understand that technology will change the way we live as the Internet of Things and artifical intelligence are already prevelant in our society and are due to become even more so.
Step 7: I was made aware of the numbers associated with retirement
It was during that initial conversation with my financial adviser when I realised that if I were to retire at the age of 60 and die around the age of 90, I only have 30 years to build enough wealth to sustain 30 years of not working. That’s if I live to 90. With the way medicine is going, the first person to live to 200 has already been born – and that person could be me. (Probably not.)
A few weeks later I was sitting in a friend’s lounge when I received the follow up email from my financial adviser relating to my plan to financial indepence. Tongue in cheek, he asked me if I have R5.5 million to invest right now. Nope? Okay then, that means I will need to save R8 500 every month so I can retire at the age of 60 with a monthly salary of R40 000.
Sorry, what? Having those numbers
on paper in an email jolted me to the fact that I should have listened to the only money-related advice my mother ever gave me and started saving earlier. Being stubborn, I set a challenge to see how much I could cut down my spending to save more in a shorter amount of time.
Step 8: I got extreme and did away with the little (and some big) things
The real secret to saving for your future self is to keep living expenses as low as possible. Why are you paying R1 000 a month for a phone that’s just a little bit more fancy than the one that costs R500 a month? Does it add value to your life? Do you use it for work or does it just make you look cool?
There are many little things that turn out to be a lot, and you will discover them through the all-important third step. Just remember, every penny you spend on trying to impress your friends is a penny stolen from your future.
In order to decrease my expenses, I:
- refused to get a new car and fixed up my old one instead
- stuck to prepaid with an old iPhone 6 I got from my sister and unashamedly connect to available WiFi. I also call everyone on WhatsApp because who doesn’t have WhatsApp?
- have stayed in the same house for over four years so my lease only increases annually by 10%
- reward myself every three months by attending a music festival, buying the books I will never read, splashing out at Clicks etc.
- stopped buying clothes I’d never wear and cleaned out my cupboard so I know exactly what I have
- started buying lunch supplies for the work week every Sunday
- found other ways to earn an income by renting out extra rooms in my house or selling unwanted items at second-hand markets
But that was only the beginning.
Much like those who push themselves to participate in the Comrades, there’s a trend in town that’s taking financial freedom to the next level. Falling under the minimalist umbrella, drastically cutting expenses is the focus and includes quitting alcohol, downgrading your living situation and selling off every item that is not necessary – some members of this club say you only need 40 items in your life, but that’s extreme.
To make it fun, I played the 30-Day Minimalism Game, to make it easy I got inspired by Marie Kondo’s “does it spark joy” mantra, and to give it a South African spin, I read Sam Beckbessinger’s Manage Your Money Like a Fucking Grownup.
Now, I make an effort to:
- buy quality over quantity
- work on feeling satisfied with less
- buy things I need, not want
- identify what is important to me and understand why
- question society’s impact on my thinking
- take part in the world around me by exploring my neighbourhood
At the end of the day, it’s all about getting to know yourself better and falling into a routine so innate you can do it with your eyes closed. I know that some months I like to feel like I have more than I do so instead of putting away less, I admiringly look at the increasing amount in my savings account. It’s brilliantly satisfying.