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Early retirement. So many of us have thought about it. But few of us live it. How can we spend the rest of our lives doing what we want rather than what we currently must? In other words, we wonder how to become financially independent.

Wouldn’t it be nice to finally spend your time writing that novel you’ve always wanted to? Or maybe you have a true passion for charity and service work and wish you could devote your life to the cause.

Maybe you just want to be really rich. Really happy. And retire early.

Yet as Financial Samurai reports, less than 1% of Americans retire before the age of 50.

The dream of financial independence is difficult to achieve. But it is achievable.

In order to do so, you have to put in hard work. AND you have to have a plan.

I’m here to help you create that plan. Here’s your road map to financial freedom:

  1. Taking Stock of Your Financial Health
  2. Deciding Your Long-Term Goals
  3. Creating a Rigorous Budget
  4. Starting an Emergency Fund
  5. Paying Off Your Debt
  6. Increasing Your Income
  7. Investing in the Market… and Yourself

Steps to Becoming Financially Independent

1. Taking Stock of Your Financial Health

To get where you want to go in life and reach financial independence, you first need to know exactly where you – and your bank account – are. The first step on your road to becoming financially independent is taking stock of where you are right now.

This requires being rigorously honest with yourself which – believe me, I know – isn’t always fun or easy. But here’s what you need to take note of in order to do a full-on financial checkup.

Does taking stock of your financial health sound like a lot of work? It can be, but there are plenty of financial and budgeting apps that can help make tracking and budgeting these items much easier. They can even automate part of the process.

Now that you’ve taken stock on where you are today, let’s take a look at your long-term goals and cultivate a path toward achieving financial independence.

2. Deciding Your Long Term Financial Goals

Becoming financially independent can mean different things to different people. Are you looking to pay off all of your debt? Retire early? Or maybe work the career you’ve always wanted to have but couldn’t because it doesn’t pay the bills?

Whatever financial independence means to you, it’s important to note your ultimate goal and even to visualize yourself living it.

But the end game is not your only goal.

You will have intermediate steps along the way. After you have taken stock of where you are financially, you should have a better sense of the steps you need to take.

Intermediate goals may include:

But you have to walk before you run. Meeting your smaller goals and challenges will help encourage you to continue to pursue the standard of living you truly seek in life.

3. Creating a Rigorous Budget

Living richly later means living frugally now. To do this successfully and become financially independent, you need to create a rigorous budget and stick to it, based on the data you’ve collected in the previous steps.

The worst possible way to do this is to try and track everything by hand. The day of balancing the checkbook is over. And you’ll save yourself some hand cramps.

In fact, you’ll want to use technology to automate this process as much as possible. Find an app that will do this for you, like Mint or one of the others in the article I linked to above.

While transactions can be entered manually, a better method is to tie your bank account and debit or credit cards to the system so that everything deducted or charged is automatically accounted for in the app.

An important point is not to create too many different categories of transactions. Otherwise the app can become inefficient and overwhelming. You might become even more stressed out, rather than less.

Here is how I’ve set up my app categories:

4. Starting an Emergency Fund

According to Bankrate, 28% of Americans do not have an emergency fund.

But unfortunately, emergencies happen. You might get sick and need to go to the ER. Your air conditioning might break down. Or, maybe worst of all, you might lose your job.

Having an emergency buffer is essential to being able to handle such situations. But how much money should you be saving in your account?

One personal financial expert recommends starting small with $1,000, the first of what he calls financial “baby steps.”

While this may not be enough money to handle many emergencies, at least it’s a starting point on your way to eventually becoming financially free.

Then, depending on how much high-interest debt you have, you can weigh and balance – stashing more cash in your emergency fund versus paying down your liabilities.

It is often recommended to have at least 3 to 6 months of your expenses covered in your emergency fund for that proverbial rainy day.

Make an effort to contribute to your fund every month. Refer to your monthly budget, cut down on expenses where possible and use automatic deductions from your everyday checking account to pad your savings.

Because this is intended for emergencies, you’re going to want to be able to access your cash quickly. Use a liquid account or investment to hold your savings.

This could be a savings account with a high interest rate, a money market fund, certificate of deposit or a similar type of financial instrument.

5. Paying Off Your Debt

The average American now has about $38,000 in personal debt. That doesn’t include mortgages.

That’s scary.

While building your emergency savings fund, you should also be making an effort to tackle your debt. Being debt-free is one of the most important aspects of achieving financial independence.

There are different methods you can use in order to pay down your debt. Conventional wisdom argues that you should start with your highest interest debt first.

This makes sense because the higher the interest rate, the more money it’s costing you. On the other hand, some recommend working your way up to your biggest debt outstanding.

This is recommended for psychological and motivational reasons. Think about a comparison with dieting.

Losing weight is daunting. But once you lose those first few pounds, you’re often inspired to keep going.

Debt works the same way. After you’ve paid off your first credit card debt or your car loan, you’ll be more inspired to keep hacking away at your liabilities.

Regardless, the sooner you can pay down your debt, the better off your financial health will be.

Moreover, avoid taking on more debt. Cut up extra credit cards. Don’t lease that fancy new car you want just to keep up with the Joneses. Perhaps even rent, rather than taking on a mortgage.

Debt – even so-called “good debt” like a home mortgage – can completely cripple your ability to become financially independent. So work hard at decreasing and eliminating it.

6. Increasing Your Income

It is often easier to decrease your monthly expenses than to increase your salary. After all, it’s often scary to waltz into your manager’s office and demand a raise.

Nevertheless, there are ways to increase your monthly income without needing to to make that ask.

For starters, there are often one-off income deals that can help you earn a quick spurt of cash. For example, you can fill out online surveys or participate in a focus group or psychology experiment.

If you know someone who is going away on vacation, you can offer to walk their dog or house sit for them. Freelancing as a writer, designer or other helpful role is a great way to make additional money.

Finally, you can consider the possibility of taking on a second job, which is difficult but not impossible. Perhaps settling for something in the gig economy, like driving an Uber can help you earn more money on top of your base salary.

Oh, and while this is a much longer-term play, make sure you are enjoying the benefits of any employer match program for your retirement plans or 401k.

7. Finally: Investing in the Market and Becoming Financially Independent

To really become financially independent, you’re going to have to do a lot more than work your job. You’re going to have to invest your money to earn high returns and enjoy the benefits of compound interest.

There are plenty of different modes and opportunities for investing out there. For example, you can do something as simple – though with less potential reward – as investing in some market index funds. This can be effective if you have acquired limited market data and knowledge but still want to earn that return.

But If you are or become a more knowledgeable or experienced investor, you can do your own financial planning and pick your own securities. Your portfolio could include stocks, bonds, commodities, options, currencies or any other combination of the many financial assets out there.

As your net worth continues to increase, you may even decide to invest directly in business ventures or become an entrepreneur yourself.

Finally, remember that your road to financial independence is ultimately an investment in yourself. You deserve the freedom that you crave.

I hope this article has helped you understand the basic steps of how to become financially independent. And if you’re interested in learning more about investing and growing your nest egg, I highly recommend taking a look around the Investment U website.

It’s chock-full of articles on everything from stock trading basics to investing in precious metals to tips on how to beat the market – even when it’s in steep decline.

Financial independence is yours for the taking. Don’t wait to start reclaiming the rest of your life.

The time to get on the path is now.

– Brian Reiser


Brian M. Reiser has a Bachelor of Science degree in Management with a concentration in finance from the School of Management at Binghamton University.

He also holds a B.A. in philosophy from Columbia University and an M.A. in philosophy from the University of South Florida.

His primary interests at Investment U include personal finance, debt, tech stocks and more.

This article was originally published on Investment U: