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OPINION | SAVE YOURSELF: How much is enough? EconoMe offers many answers

by Sarah Catherine Gutierrez | November 23, 2021 at 1:58 a.m.

Is there such thing as enough money? Is it important to think about what that would be for ourselves? Last weekend I found myself immersed in a group of people at various stages of defining and living out such a notion and think many are worthy of passing along.

Last weekend I attended the EconoMe conference in Cincinnati. The conference brings together thought leaders who question assumptions about happiness, freedom and prosperity through the lens of personal finance. I didn't know what to expect, but what I found was a room full of 400 people from various stages of early retirement in their 40s to those questioning whether they really wanted to jump into the FIRE movement (Financial Independence Retire Early).

What is interesting to me about a conference like this is that it is unlike the traditional conferences I attend for work. First, it looks different. I remember attending a "retirement plan advisor conference" in Chicago and looking around at a room of about 100 attendees and seeing maybe five women advisors. "Financial planning conferences" tend to be a bit more diverse but remember that only about 15% of financial planners are women.

EconoMe had diversity in every sense. Many attendees were self-educated on personal finance topics and had near manifesto level beliefs on topics from savings rates to tax optimization to passive investment strategies to real estate syndications. The rest seemed eager to learn as much as they could. But none of this education was directed at a profession, nor did they want to become financial professionals. It was mostly for personal consumption and to be part of a larger movement crowdsourcing financial advice.

Some have viewed the FIRE movement as a way for spoiled millennials to quit their jobs and binge on Netflix all day. Funny enough, folks at the conference talked about doing just that. They saved most of what they made, walked away from their jobs in the prime of their life but then realized that they had the same level of happiness after they quit than before. They wanted participants to know "FIRE" really can't be about quitting day jobs.

Their stories were more about what they then did with their lives to find meaning and how financial independence was the vehicle.

I have had readers very kindly argue that not everyone hates their job and wants to stop working. I take their point and appreciate the perspective. The weekend for me clarified more about the FIRE movement.

Speakers challenged us to think about living lives that allow ourselves the freedom to ask very hard questions about the direction of our lives. Perhaps financial independence can neutralize "keeping up with the Joneses" or the golden handcuffs, two common themes I see over and over that hold people back.

But financial independence must be paired with a notion of "enough." There will always be more money to be made or accumulated, so defining enough at the beginning stages seems critical to recognize when we have arrived at the point of such independence.

I sat down with Diania Merriam, founder of EconoMe, and asked her about the vision for such a conference.

Diania was quick to point out that in many ways, yes, EconoMe has an aspect to it that is traditional. People there go to learn more about about getting out of debt and growing and investing the "gap." That's the difference between how much you make and how much you spend.

But there are deeper questions to ask ourselves. Extreme saving can create wealth, and then as Diania pointed out, that can lead to people spending their lives growing and protecting their wealth and even developing a sense of fear of losing that wealth.

She wants EconoMeists (pronounced economists) to spin that notion around and consider wealth as there to protect and to live their life as they were destined to live it. That is a big difference.

Personal finance without meaning can become this ever escalating cycle of saving, investing, compounding, saving more, growing wealth more, then creating ever more complicated ways to protect it. Instead, as Diania believes, "Money is only as valuable as your clarity on how you are going to us it."

Maybe accumulation of wealth early on in life can offer the freedom to dream bigger. Maybe more young people will start innovative and successful businesses or give in far more charitable ways. I sure saw a lot of that over the weekend.

But why did I have to give up a weekend, get on flights with layovers, book a hotel and come in person? Couldn't this have been a YouTube series? And this is where Diania gets animated.

She described the experience of being in person among all these people over the weekend as a similar experience to walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, (aka the Way of Saint James). The people she walked with there couldn't care less about what you did for a living. Instead, they wanted to know about your spiritual motivation for walking. People were there to answer their soul's bigger purpose and walking with these strangers on the same physical and spiritual journey deepened the experience.

In a similar way, Diania believes strongly that EconoMe is not just about personal finance and accumulating wealth. It is about connecting people who are finding their way to their authentic selves, bucking the trends and pressures of hyper consumerism along the way.

She believes people mistake personal finance for being just about money and quoted Ayn Rand, "Money is only a tool. It will take you wherever you wish, but it will not replace you as the driver."

Diania's own story on the surface might seem like it's about money and saving. She walked away from a successful career in corporate America where she was making six figures. An extreme saver, even cobbling together a few side hustles that brought in a third as much income, Diania didn't feel much of a lifestyle change.

But the story is more than having a large walk-away fund to leave a job when she discovered that she was compensated less than her male colleagues, and it was more than having a fully shored up retirement. It was about getting clarity on the life she was supposed to live and having the car to drive her there.

She recounted an analogy told to her that we are like trapeze artists. We can swing back and forth clinging with one hand to the old ring, or we can swing out, let go with both hands and grab the trapeze.

Building onto the analogy, I think about the role money plays in it. It's not the trapeze artist. It's also not the opportunity ahead. It's the net below. It's the rope tied around our waist. It's how we let go without fear.

I asked Diania what motivates her to let go and do such scary things. She responded, "I want my fear to be unrealized potential, not what can go wrong."


[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » arkansasonline.com/1123save/]


This Thanksgiving we have a lot to be grateful for. We faced incredible and unrelenting fear of the mysterious and erratic covid pandemic. This horrible virus appears to be in retreat, and we can start looking at living our lives unencumbered again. Covid artificially held us back in many ways, but it also shook us up for the better. Maybe we are starting to question the hedonic cycle of work, spend, work, spend that gives us the golden handcuffs to jobs or lives we are not destined to work or live. Maybe we have a greater purpose in life that we can't even see. Will financial independence and finding our "enough" offer us such clarity?

Saving money is lonely, but finding our life's meaning doesn't have to be. As Diania repeats over and over, "FI (financial independence) is better with friends."

I am grateful to you all for reading this column and especially to the folks who take the time to write to me and share your own thoughts. I save and treasure every note that arrives in my mailbox and email that brightens up my inbox. You are my FI friends forever. Happy Saving.

Sarah Catherine Gutierrez is founder, partner and CEO of Aptus Financial in Little Rock. She is also author of the book "But First, Save 10: The One Simple Money Move That Will Change Your Life," published by Et Alia Press. Contact her at sc@aptusfinancial.com.

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