The most important thing

I’ll be turning 40 this year.

I’ve been fortunate; I don’t have any major regrets or feelings that I’ve missed anything truly important to warrant having the standard mid-life crisis that you commonly hear of in people approaching 40. Sure, there are some things that in hindsight I would have done differently, but nothing is perfect and overall I’m happy with the big life choices I’ve made.

As I gradually creep toward middle age, I’ve been reflecting on the past several decades; what I enjoyed, what I disliked, and in general attempting to prioritize things so that going forward, I don’t waste my efforts on stuff that doesn’t return anything positive, either short term or long term.

Which bring us to today’s topic: the Most Important Thing.

There are many very important things. Family and friends for certain are always near the top of the list. Good health I believe is essential to happiness. Also of importance is having enough money to provide for one’s basic needs and some extra to have some fun.

All of these things are great to have, but in my mind, the most valuable resource above all else is time. From the moment we’re born, each of us is a ticking time bomb, and (likely to our benefit) we have no idea when time’s up.

I’ve thought about this subject off and on over the years and how I can use this morbid knowledge to my advantage. Here are some observations I came up with.

Point 1. If there’s something I really want to do, I actively make plans for it and then I do it. The activity I enjoy the most, if you haven’t figured it out already from the rest of the blog, is traveling. So I make it a priority and I get it done. Even when I was a poor graduate student in my 20s, I still made it work financially by cutting costs elsewhere. Looking back, those trips in my earlier days were some of my best experiences and I’m so grateful to my younger self for sacrificing other areas of my life to make those travels happen.

One life experience that taught me the above lesson at a very early age was the unexpected death of my father shortly after he turned 50. He was a great man who worked hard and saved up a lot of his paycheck for our family. He had dreams of traveling internationally once he retired, but unfortunately never even came close to that because his time ran out way sooner than anyone expected. I know this can happen to me too, so if there’s any place in the world I really want to see, then I’m going to figure out a way to get myself there. I won’t see everything I want to over the course of my life, but even if I expire a year from now, I can look back with satisfaction that I spent my time on this earth well with no regrets.

Point 2. Even though I cannot add any more time to whatever my lifespan ends up being, I can improve the efficiency of the time I do have; especially the valuable years before I get super old. Throughout my 30s, my number one favorite thing to buy has been index funds. If you don’t know what index funds are, here’s a basic primer. Since I started working my first real job, I’ve intentionally saved a huge percentage of my income and invested it regularly into a handful of diversified index funds in order to achieve financial independence as soon as possible. For those unfamiliar with the lingo, Financial Independence = having enough money invested so that you can perpetually withdraw cash from your investments to cover all your living expenses with little risk that you’ll ever run out of money, even after taking inflation into account. This figure is generally considered to be between 25 to 33 times your annual expenses. In essence, once you reach this number, you don’t need a job anymore.

How does this relate to time? Well, once I reach financial independence and don’t have the need to work for money, all of a sudden I’ll have 30+ more hours each week available to me where I can do whatever the hell I want to. And by reaching financial independence earlier in life, all that extra time I get for myself will occur when I’m still relatively young and mobile, which is far, far more valuable than the time that most people have at the end when their health is failing, all their friends are gone, and life’s options are much more limited. Getting that extra time in the beginning is so important, because once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.

So when I save and invest, what I’m indirectly doing is buying myself time in my high quality younger years that I can enjoy on my own terms instead of sitting in an office all day.

Point 3. Having said that, keeping a balance is important. I could get to my financial independence number faster if I stopped taking vacations and worked harder & longer hours. But I don’t do this, because see Point 1 above. I don’t wish to make the mistake my father made in working too hard and then peacing out before enjoying any of the fruits of my labor. Hell no to that. So I’m constantly trying to maintain a good balance between work and fun.

The easiest way I’ve found to achieve both is to maximize the efficiency of my spending by not wasting my hard earned money on stuff that I don’t care about. Things like: big fancy house, big fancy car, boats, vacation houses, jewelry, inherently useless collectibles, excessive technology, multiple high maintenance pets, unnecessary subscription services, eating at restaurants all the time, etc. Intentionally living in a low-cost-of-living part of the country made a massive difference in keeping costs low, as well as choosing a profession that pays well. And perhaps the most important decision I made was having a spouse who shares my values and goals.

By minimizing my fixed expenses, I’ve been able to both travel extensively and save enough money to be able to hopefully stop working well before the average U.S. retirement age. One of the most commonly cited regrets of the dying is that they spent too much time working. I don’t want to be one of these people.

Point 4. A message for you younger readers: if you enjoy traveling, start early. I did at the advice of others, and it was one of the best decisions ever. Traveling at age 20 is very different than traveling in your late 30s, which I’m sure is very different than traveling when you’re 70.

The specific age where I personally noticed the biggest difference was 36. Even just a few years before that in my early 30s, I had no problem hanging out and partying with the 18 year olds in my various tour groups. Something changed abruptly in my mid 30s, and I noticed it on the very last Contiki tour I did at age 36. I suddenly felt old around all those younger people, and it became apparent that I was in a very different stage of life than them. I think Contiki absolutely nailed their age limit of 18 to 35. It may not be like this for everyone, but 36 and over for me feels very different than the sub 35 years.

In your younger years, your body is able to put up with a lot more physical stress. That’s the time to do stuff like camping at music festivals and road tripping across foreign countries in cheap, questionable hostels. If you’re like me, you won’t want to do that stuff when you’re older because you’ll gradually become accustomed to a higher standard of comfort.

20 year old me: “Camping at Bonnaroo for 4 nights? I’ll bring the beer!”

Late 30s me: “Camping at Bonnaroo for 4 nights? What the hell is wrong with you? I’m paying for a hotel package and sleeping in a nice big bed.”

The other reason to travel at an early age, especially if you have like-minded friends, is that life circumstances make travel much more difficult the further along you are in life. People get married and have kids. Good luck trying to go on a guys trip with your buddy once that happens to him. Other folks spend all their income on a big house and expensive car and have no money left over to do other stuff. Some people have high power careers that require them to work 60+ hours per week and forego any sort of time off (yuck). Whatever the excuse, it’s way easier to organize and execute a trip when you and your peers are in your early 20s and have minimal life responsibilities.

So that’s what’s been on my mind recently. A few of my best friends are also turning 40 this year, so we’re attempting to plan a trip somewhere fun to celebrate all our birthdays which I’ll be writing about in a future post. Some of us are more freaked out about this age milestone than others, but that’s the thing: regardless of how anyone feels, time keeps marching on and stops for no one.


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