This mom found that maintaining financial and scheduling independence rewards her with the chance to pursue her passions, especially the ones that stretch and challenge her the most.
When I was 17, I ended up being part of the Army National Guard for a year, despite the fact I hadn’t attended Basic Training. I was supposed to go to Basic the summer after my junior year in high school, but the day I was to board the plane, more paperwork was needed. So for a year I went to drill each month with the real soldiers in the Guard. I was never issued a uniform, so I wore my father’s. I was a 17-year-old girl playing soldier in her dad’s clothes.
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One weekend they asked for a volunteer to teach the next month’s class on cleaning and maintenance of an M16. I raised my hand. And they said yes.
So for a month I pored over the field guide. I studied and prepared to teach a room full of combat veterans about a weapon they had taken into war. A weapon I had never fired or even held. The situation was pure comedy.
Yet the military is different than most organizations. They want everyone to bring their best to the table. To push outside of comfort limits and grow. Because one day we might stand side by side in a combat zone, and they might need us to do things we’re not 100% sure we’re capable of or qualified for.
In most organizations, someone would have been quick to point out how unqualified, inexperienced, and foolish I looked while teaching others about equipment I had never used. At the National Guard, not a single person did. That day, all those soldiers patted me on the back and told me I did a great job. I walked out of that room feeling 10 feet tall.
Something else fateful came out of my experience with the National Guard.
One of the soldiers and his wife were foster parents to teenagers. Their example sparked something in me—the idea that one person could give the gift of family to a kid. A new passion was born in me.
A few years later, on my first date with my future husband, I asked what he thought of adopting. (I was never one to waste time.)
He said he loved the idea.
Then, with a bit more hesitation, I asked, “What do you think about adopting from foster care?”
He went on to tell me about how his parents had become foster parents after his siblings were grown. He thought it was amazing.
That was enough for me to say yes to a second date!
Three years later, when I was 22, we welcomed our first child into our home—a 12-year-old boy. Just as with teaching combat veterans about M16 maintenance, I was inexperienced and unqualified and looked ridiculous. Raising a teenage boy with Type 1 diabetes who had educational and emotional challenges pushed me outside of my comfort limits every single day.
It was so worth it. And it was just the beginning of the adventures Adam and I have had together.
As I kid, I never could have known that I would be able to experience as much as I have.
The Money Path Out
As I was growing up, my family life was chaotic and tense. In fact, when I was 12, I begged my mom to move out with me and my younger siblings. Home life was hard and I really thought we could do better on our own.
She looked at me as a woman of deep sensibilities and said, “Jillian, I simply can’t raise three kids on my own. It’s not an option.”
I ran up to my bedroom and cried hot tears into my pillow.
I wanted freedom. Freedom from the kind of life I was living. And if moving wasn’t an option, I soon realized that money could give me options.
So I started saving it $5 at a time. I took after-school jobs. And I squirreled the cash away.
On the surface, nothing seemed to change. But I had an escape plan. I was building a rocket in the basement.
I moved out when I was 17. Then, when I finished high school, I took the $8,000 I had saved up and moved out of state. I bought a 70s camper and started my new life.
My goal was never to become rich. It was to have freedom. The freedom to take risks, chase down dreams, and try things without the fear of not having enough food on the table.
When Adam and I were married, we had dreams, passions, and goals we wanted to pursue together. Some of them seemed impossible. We wanted to adopt, creating a family for kids who might never find one otherwise. We also wanted to travel. Financial independence would make the “impossible” possible.
But money is little good if you don’t know how to use it strategically. We found that to live our best lives, we had to learn what to make a priority. And what not to.
The Quit List
George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” We realized that, if we were going to make progress on the things that mattered to us, we would need to be a bit unreasonable. We were going to have to do some things differently with our money if we wanted a shot at our unreasonable goals.
So we wrote what we called our Quit List. We looked at all our spending, budget, schedule, hobby, relationship, and ownership decisions. Then we asked ourselves what we could…
- pause, or
- say “Not now” to.
The list we came up with proved so successful that now we do one every year. It is a process of trading the good for the great.
I think of it like a game of poker. There are some things we really want: our interests, passions, dreams, and goals. And we want to give those things the best possible chance of happening. So, what can we stop, pause, or say “Not now” to in order to push more chips into the middle of the poker table for the bets that we think are most worth placing?
People are often surprised by how much my husband I have accomplished. Here’s a clue: our progress is in direct correlation to the number of things we have put on our Quit List. Year after year, we pick a few things that are most important and go all in on those. Everything else goes in one of the three categories of the Quit List.
When we opened our minds and were honest, we could see that there were some things in our budget, schedule, and home that weren’t serving us well. They simply had to go.
For example, after we adopted a sibling group of three, we got rid of over 50% of our possessions. I needed to get back the time and energy I was losing to those possessions in order to be able to invest my resources in our newly expanded family.
We’ve made similar judgments for all kinds of activities, commitments, expenses, and pastimes.
There were other things that we didn’t eliminate entirely. We just put them off temporarily. I knew we wanted them in our life again at some point, but not this year. This year would serve a different purpose.
These weren’t bad things. In fact, they were things we loved and did add a lot of value for us. For instance, we gave away our ducks and sold our hot tub. One day those will come back. But for the time being, our kids needed travel and adventure more.
There are dreams we pursued sooner rather than later because they were time sensitive. Those dreams had expiration dates. Other things could wait before we circled back to them.
Saying “Not now”
Then there are things we’ve been wanting to get to but realize we need to put off still longer, because something more urgent is taking priority.
I’ve dreamed of self-building a custom home since I was 11. We have said “Not right now” for the last 16 years so we could have the time and resources to do those things that mattered to us: adopt, travel, create financial freedom. The things we have said “Not now” to might still happen.
We focused our money, time, and energy on what we wanted to see happen in each season of life. We couldn’t do or have everything at once. By 32, I had traveled to 27 countries, lived abroad, bought our modest home with cash, and achieved financial independence. We have been able to adopt four kids plus have two biological kids. We said “Not now” to a long list of things in order to make these things happen.
The three resources that seem to be in short supply for everyone are time, money, and energy. The best tool to free up those three resources is a Quit List.
It’s Your Choice
At each point in my life, I have pushed myself into the unknown and the uncomfortable to try to chase down the things I was passionate about. And even though it has often been uncomfortable to step off the expected path, it’s been so worth it.
I was reminded of this years ago, when Adam was in his early 20s and was a private in the Army. He came home one day and said, “My coworkers teased me today because I always pack my lunch.”
“What did you say to them?” I asked.
“I just smiled and said I was happy to pass on lunch out because we had managed to save our first $100,000 by doing things like that.”
That shut them up. His coworkers all had car loans and credit card debt and were living paycheck to paycheck. They couldn’t imagine a six-figure savings account.
Being deliberate with our choices hasn’t really been a sacrifice. It’s just been doubling down on creating the life we really want.
I love this quote by Mary Oliver:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Tell me, what’s your answer?
. . .
Jillian Johnsrud is a writer, creator, and mentor. She blogs at Montana Money Adventures.