How do you account for uncertainty?

In Buddhism, there’s a concept called the eight worldly winds. The idea is that these “winds” blow through worldly life in a way that is unpredictable and, ultimately, unimportant. Because they are fundamentally uncontrollable, fixating on managing or avoiding these “winds” is a source of suffering. The eight worldly winds are typically expressed in four pairs, the first of which, gain and loss, is central to financial independence.

The idea of financial independence is, fundamentally, a false premise. There is no such thing as “enough” money in the sense that there is no amount that guarantees that you will never run out. Uncertainty is a fact of life, and it is important to keep this in mind to help moderate our fixation on guaranteeing successful outcomes. For me, this is part of why I always look at FI numbers as a soft target. Safe withdrawal rates (i.e. the 4% rule) are guidelines, not guarantees. We do not know how the wind will blow. We can prepare as well as we can using the information we have, but the future is ultimately unknown.

This uncertainty can be frightening, but it can also be freeing. If it is impossible for me to prepare for every possible negative outcome, then I don’t need to obsess over trying to do this. Years ago, I found myself starting to veer into “prepper” territory, imagining all the different ways things could go sideways. In addition to saving money, I started gardening and learning about off-grid living. While there is nothing wrong with these interests in and of themselves, this was definitely not a source of happiness for me. The more I prepared, the more potential gaps in my preparation I saw. I’ve found much more peace accepting the uncertainty, and just doing my best based on the information I currently have at hand.

True financial independence, to me, means not worrying about money. This has something to do with how much money you have but, in my experience, it has more to do with your orientation to money. I found that, even after hitting our FI number, I continued to worry about money. In some ways, I worried even more because we were finally there and I didn’t want to lose it.

Reflections

There are a number of ways in which I try to cultivate a more financially independent state of mind:

  1. Remember that uncertainty is a fundamental fact.
  2. Remember that my wife and I are both competent, resourceful people who have handled challenging situations in the past and will be able to handle them in the future.
  3. Intentionally keep my material standards low. In other words, avoid hedonistic adaptation.
  4. Reflect on the fact that material things don’t bring happiness.
  5. Intentionally bring more non-material pleasures into my life.

Luck

The truth of uncertainty has other implications as well. Because gain and loss are fundamentally out of our control, we want to be gentle with ourselves and others in terms of how we respond to them. Part of the reason that my family has financial independence is hard work and good choices, but part of it is also luck and privilege. And even the hard work and good choices are the results of countless influences throughout our lives, rather than innate qualities that I can take credit for. And, of course the same is true of folks that are struggling financially or making “bad” financial decisions. In other words, luck is an undeniable component of everyone’s financial situation. Remembering that helps me be less judgmental, both of myself and of others.

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