How to Be a Firefighter and Not Be Broke
Money is a tool.
How do you make a tool or piece of equipment firefighter proof?
You make it simple, effective, and durable. This same principle applies to how you manage your money.
I always like to remind myself to KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID! And you should too!
Money shouldn't be complicated (the simpler, the better).
As Leonardo Da Vinci says, "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." That could not be truer for how you manage your money.
"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."
Leonardo Da Vinci
When I started in the fire service, I made $35,000 a year. I was fresh out of college, and I was newly engaged.
At the time, $35,000 was nothing to sneeze at, but I knew I needed a system. I wanted to get out of debt. I wanted to start investing. I wanted to be a good steward of my money.
So in this post, I will share our personal money management system. Our system helped us pay off $25,000 in debt in one year, pay cash for Elena's RN degree, buy a home, invest consistently, and, most importantly, not worry about money.
And it all starts with…
You can see a firefighter's eyes glaze over when you talk about budgeting. I'll keep beating that horse as long as I've got hot air in my lungs, though.
Elena and I budget on a biweekly basis. We both get paid biweekly—or every two weeks—so we budget in two-week increments. Initially, we tried monthly, but we found biweekly to be more functional.
We utilize a zero-based budget spreadsheet that I created. It's quite simple.
You start with your income and subtract your expenses until ZERO is left.
Seeing the zero at the end, means you've given every dollar a job.
Creating a budget—and then following it—is the quickest way to gain traction on your financial goals.
We are adamant believers that once you are married, you are one entity. There is no more yours and mine, it's ours.
And that goes for money too.
So, we have two shared bank accounts—one checking and one savings.
Both of our paychecks get direct deposited into our checking account.
We maintain a $400 buffer in our checking account, so we don't worry about over-drafting.
When we budget, we log in, look at our balance, subtract $400 (buffer), and the remainder is what we have to work with.
We maintain a six-month emergency fund in our savings account. We also save for vacations and other large purchases in this account. Within our budget workbook, we have a worksheet that tracks our savings account.
For example, currently, our savings account is split into 3 sub-accounts:
Our emergency fund (6 months of expense)
The human fund (our baby fund—it's a Seinfeld joke)
Our vacation fund
The total of those three sub-accounts equals our total savings account.
Debt is normal. And you don't get abnormal results—like building wealth—with normal actions.
Our only debt is our home. But that wasn't always the case.
When we got married, we were a typical young couple. We had student loans and credit cards, just like everyone else. But, we made the decision—before saying I do—that we would get out of debt and stay out of debt.
In our first year of marriage, we paid off two credit cards and four student loans—about $25,000 worth.
How did we do it? We gave every dollar a job in our budget and utilized the debt snowball method.
The snowball method is super easy, and it works.
You list your debts from smallest to largest. Then, pay the minimum payments on all but the smallest debt. Then, you put as much as you possibly can towards the smallest debt. Once it is knocked out, you snowball that payment into the next smallest debt.
Rinse and repeat until debt-free.
When Elena went back to school, we were debt-free, we had an emergency fund, and we were saving for our down payment. It would have been easy to use student loans to pay her tuition, but we made the decision to avoid debt.
So, we saved and paid cash—every semester.
There is such a thing as a student without a loan. You can save and pay as you go. It takes discipline, but what's the alternative? Being undisciplined?
That is not the kind of person I want to be.
After paying off our debt and building our emergency fund, we increased our retirement savings.
Up to that point, we only invested enough to get my employer's matching contribution.
We opened Roth IRAs and began systematically investing in those accounts, along with my employer-sponsored plans.
Our goal was to invest 15% of our gross income, and we had finally done it.
When Elena made the decision to go back to school, we stopped investing in our Roth IRAs because we were investing in her future earning power.
Once she was able to graduate debt-free, we went right back to it.
Now we are back to investing 15% of our gross income into low-cost index funds.
This is where firefighters think money gets complicated. But it shouldn't be. Remember, keep it simple stupid (KISS).
I keep my investing very simple...
An S&P 500 index fund (50%)
A Small-Cap US Index Fund (25%)
An International Index Fund (15%)
An Emerging Markets Index Fund (10%)
Every two weeks, once our budget is finalized, we transfer funds from our bank account to our Roth IRAs and invest them into four index funds.
We check-in quarterly and rebalance to the desired percentages if necessary.
If you don't know where to start with investing, a target-date fund can be an excellent simple investment.
Money and marriage are all about communication.
Our budget meeting is when we discuss our goals, fears, hopes, and dreams. Sometimes we bicker, and sometimes we don't.
But, the important thing is, we talk. We talk about our financial goals. We talk about how to accomplish them. We talk about the obstacles.
These talks help us to stay, what we call, paging. That's a slang term we use to denote when we are on the same page about something.
We don't always agree on every detail, but we always come to an agreement. And then we move forward.
If you don't take aim, you significantly lower your odds of hitting the target. Once you know where you want to go, you can map out the journey.
Goal setting doesn't have to be perfect. It's your best guess at your desired future. So, don't get too anxious over this.
Define your goals, create a plan, and take action. As General Patton says, "A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week."
"A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week."
General George S. Patton
So, these are some of our long-term goals:
Pay off the house early.
Increase investment percentage to 30-40% of income.
Pay cash for lake home by age 40.
What are yours?
Some might say, "well, those are lofty goals there fella." And to them, I would say, "so was paying off $25,000 of debt, building our emergency fund, saving for a home, and paying cash for an RN degree."
But we got it done.
The point is, big hairy audacious goals are attainable.
Success doesn't happen overnight, and even if it does, it can leave as quickly as it came.
Time is the most important test of all. Will you be able to retire? Will you always have to worry about money? Will you let those debts hang around forever?
Time will tell.
If you want to accomplish your financial goals and build wealth, you don't need a complicated financial plan. You need simple and effective solutions that you can execute repeatedly.
So, please, keep it simple stupid. :)
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