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  • Writer's pictureGary Grewal

How a Lifestyle that Embodies Sustainability can Help You Retire Early

If you’ve been following the FIRE movement, most certainly you’ve come across the term ‘minimalism’ while reading about the lifestyles and spending habits of frugal FIers. What does it mean? Did that impact their ability to reach Financial Independence?

As the FIRE movement becomes increasingly popular and readers look for ways to escape punishing days at work, while achieving the freedom to pursue other interests, climate change has also remained at the forefront of the news and topics at events around the world. Who hasn't heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

Many of the original influencers of a minimalist lifestyle include the obvious ones, such as name-implying The Minimalists, but also those who have focused on Financial Independence, such as Mr. Money Mustache (MMM).

He is one of the most popular FI influencers, and for good reason. He doesn't flaunt his wealth or boast about all of his decision-making. He has an approachable demeanor and has been known to be generous with his time, advice, and skills.

I remember watching the interview of him and other FIers on PBS, and how he claimed his blog is also really meant to help people become more environmentally friendly. He is a big advocate of biking places, DIY, and not buying things unless they provide utility and ongoing value in his life. Noble advice to live by if you ask me.

As an example, biking everywhere you can or becoming a one-car household is going to save you significant money over time (transportation is typically the 2nd largest expense of a household budget). Plus, biking takes no gas, has no separate insurance, registration, or parking costs.

Personally, I love biking because yes it’s good exercise, but also because you pretty much never have to build in a cushion for traffic. If Google Maps says it will take 17 minutes to get there on my bike, I’ve never really experienced much of a delay. Have you ever seen a “traffic jam” backing up in the bike lane? Also, parking is always free, and usually right upfront. Talk about being a VIP!

Back to Pete, for someone with a plush financial cushion, he doesn’t get distracted from the constant pull of consumerism to make futile purchases. He can certainly drive a nice car, buy a boat, shop as a means of leisure, but that’s not where he derives value in his life.

Why waste your hard-earned dollars on stuff that's just going to end up in the landfill after it's lost its sparkle?

In the product cycle, it goes something like --> Resource Extraction, manufacturing, transportation, purchase, landfill.

Or take a look at the teachings of Vicki Robin, from the ever-popular book Your Money or Your Life.

One of the questions that she proposes asking yourself when looking at the categories of your monthly spending, and one that’s had a profound impact on me is “Did I receive fulfillment, satisfaction, and value in proportion to life energy spent?”

If you’re not familiar with the concept of life energy, please go and read the book. It will be well worth your time! Your local library surely has it, or you can probably find the ebook or audiobook version on a library app like Overdrive.

Oftentimes, we buy products or services because we think we need them. We’ve grown up buying them, or seeing our circle of friends and family buy them, so we don’t think anything of it. Not until you live without something can you usually tell if it actually means something to you in your life.

Doing an Audit of Your Money’s Job

When I stopped buying paper towels, disposable mop wipes, parking passes, dry cleaning, and premade meals from the grocery store, it took just 3 weeks to get to the new normal.

Embracing sustainability and minimalism, I realized that life is better when I don’t have to buy things that are going to end up in the landfill, or otherwise aren’t great for the planet either. It's less stuff to deal with.

You might laugh and say “Ok, so you save 10 cents each time you bring your own mug to Starbucks or your own bags to Whole Foods. Not life-changing money”.

Sure, and you’re right. It’s not life-changing money. But that’s the wrong way to look at it. Taking these small steps gradually changes your mindset to reconsider every area of your spending, both for time and money. You might get rid of some online subscriptions, then your $250 air-fryer, and then eventually your workout equipment in the garage that’s collecting dust.

You start to feel free and lighter, not to have to worry about so many things or deal with clutter and find where you left something.

You see, sustainability, kind of like minimalism, isn’t just a trendy topic of 2021. It has just gained traction as being adopted more mainstream, and the benefits are becoming more well known and widespread.

It used to be thought that hipster coffee shops and Sierra Club protesters were the only ones associated with sustainability, yet just like people are now finding out the attainable benefits of FI, they are also finding out about the benefits of sustainability.

Using Sustainability as a Business Edge

To give you a personal example, I started my own zero-waste moving boxes side hustle back in the old days (2012 for you Gen Y readers). The reason behind this was primarily selfish (I wanted to earn more money outside of my day job) but also socially driven (I was horrified at the sight of mountains of cardboard boxes after move-in day at college).

Many companies have done something similar, as in becoming a for-profit enterprise but having a socially-minded impact as well. In fact, a corporation can be certified as a B-corp, meaning that they must be for social and environmental impact, not just financial.

Now, no one is expecting you to start the next Patagonia or Endangered Species Chocolate. I used my own example above to demonstrate that the same mindset of doing good while making money is helping me reach financial independence.

If you watch any number of minimalism or sustainability-themed YouTube channels (I really enjoy the message of Levi Hildebrand) you’ll see a theme there. Buying only a few quality items, not filling your home with disposable items you “1-click” bought online, and not buying a $35 bedframe from some opaque seller on Amazon that you’ll have to replace in 2 months.

In addition, you might be surprised to find out that sustainable-focused funds have been outperforming their peers while reducing risk at the same time. Why might that be? Hmm, I’ll just take a guess and think long-term supply chain consideration, sustainable resource management, prudent governance, and mindful risk reduction might have something to do with it. (Sorry, the sustainable mindset sometimes gets the best of me).

Eventually, the fewer things you have, the less you drive, and the more manageable your housing costs, you’ll start to have more money to invest (hopefully some of it in sustainable funds). This is also how sustainability will lead you to financial independence faster.

Even once you get to your number, you might realize you don’t need that much from your portfolio anyways. Your reduced carbon footprint translates into a spending footprint.

The more I’ve adopted a zero-waste lifestyle, the more I’ve paid attention to the concept of waste and trash, and what happens at the end of a product's life. How many times have you gone to Target and seen people pick up a product, give it a quick glance, shrug, and toss it into their cart?

Do you really think the average person thinks about the environmental cost of bringing that product to the shelf for them? Or if that product was manufactured with recycled materials and in a sustainable manner?

How about that fact that after a few weeks they’ll decide they don’t really want that electric foot massager and put it in the garage among their ever-growing collection of consumerism culture.

Changing Your Mindset Without Giving Up Happiness

Once you start looking for products that were made in a responsible way, and you start realizing your personal impact on the world of trash, water pollution, and overall climate change, you become more mindful of your spending. You patronize brands that build sustainable, high-quality items in a responsible way. You start to come up with alternatives or homemade fixes for things you think you need, but don’t desire to acquire or have laying around the house.

Driving a gas-guzzling car that just keeps you working more hours won’t appeal to you. Living in a house with a yard that keeps you busy all weekend maintaining it won’t appeal to you. Spending $150 buying clothes for a “weekend trip” from a cheap retailer won’t appeal to you.

Maybe you’ll realize how much water you’re wasting on a thirsty lawn, and rip it out for some drought-tolerant desert landscaping. Maybe you’ll realize how much waste the last contractor created after the kitchen remodel, and decide to sell some old cabinets or appliances rather than send them to the dumps.

You will start to save money on products and services you no longer value. You’ll start to see things differently than friends who like keeping up with the Joneses and find a new circle.

You’ll realize your time is more valuable than you thought and vouch for a raise or change jobs, or maybe even start a business that has an impact on our world. And then maybe that employer will offer sustainable investments as part of its retirement plan!

Once you’ve found your footing, maybe you’ll start reducing your energy and water usage. Looking for ways to bike around, celebrate milestones with experiences rather than stuff, and realize you don’t really need to buy so much decor or disposable plates for your next party.

The point is there is no one-size-fits-all, or holy grail of advice to follow in living a sustainable lifestyle. The beauty is that there are many options, and you have the ability to start with the ones that make the biggest impact on your mentality and your life. It’s easier than ever in our sharing economy to make do with less, and not have to deal with large purchases. It’s more acceptable now to not own 15 bottles of wine at home just in case you have company.

Sustainability is more important now than ever, and by implementing it in the right way into your mindset, lifestyle, and spending behaviors, you’ll reach financial independence faster and be more confident with your money as well.


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