How is backpacking like personal finance?

“Backing” in the US started as a recreational pursuit primarily after World War II. While folks did camp out years before that, it was primarily car camping, or actual camping on your way to a new life (like the Oregon Trail, or the family in Grapes of Wrath). There was a wealth of excess equipment after the war, so it was easy to get some supplies, and with the post-war life came opportunity.

The standard for backpacking gear was best summed up by a series of books by Colin Fletcher, titled “The Complete Walker” (1968) in which he laid out and the equipment needed, and his opinion on what was necessary for each. The overall weight of this equipment could be 40-50 lbs + food. It was heavy, bulky, and you get hit it with a bazooka and still keep hiking. Kind of like our “work 45 years, put away 10%-15% and retire at 67” lifestyle.

In 1992, Ray Jardine, a mountain climber by trade and backpacker second, published “Beyond Backpacking: Guide to Lightweight Hiking.” In it, Ray exploded many of the ideas on what was necessary to go backpacking. Instead of an 8 lbs tent, he slept under a 1 lbs tarp, with his backpacking wife – even in sub-freezing temps. He got his base pack-weight down to less than 10 lbs + food/water! With this pack, he and his wife traversed the Pacific Rim trail, and the Appalachian Trail, each 2100+ miles and multiple months of hiking. They did 30+ mile days, in part because they had such light packs. The speed was impressive – like those who retire in less than 20 years because they live frugally and maximize their savings.

Ray concentrated on getting rid of all sorts of weight (he cut off straps from the pack and cut up maps so they only showed what he needed to know). Very similar to the “latte factor” folks who look to cut out many of the extravagancies of life. Yet his big contribution was in how he cut the big three heavyweight items – the pack, the tent, and the sleeping bag. By changing/making lighter weight items, he was able to dramatically cut weight (almost 20 lbs) from a typical 1970s/80’s backpacker.

In the FIRE world, our budgeting deals with three real heavyweights as well:

  1. Housing: Typically, the #1 cost for us. Be it homes or rent, this is the thing you need to look at in order to get your budget under control and reduced. That is why you see so many FIRE folks talk about downsizing, or living in sites much smaller than the average home. This is probably the best thing you can do in order to become financially independent.
  2. Transportation: Having multiple car loans, and purchasing top of the line cars every 3 years is a definite killer. While Mrs. 39 Months and I have had car loans for our vehicles, we have worked to pay them off early, and we have never bought a “luxury” automobile. Since paying off the last loan backin 2009, we have saved money in order to purchase our next one, and we have sufficient funds set aside to do that. While we tend to purchase new, we then drive the cars until the give out – literally. I have owned four cars in my life, counting my current one, and 2 of them I have had to have towed when they gave out. That was when I bought another one.
  3. Food: The third big heavyweight of money in most folks budget. In today’s world, I see an awful lot of people dining out, ordering in, or having someone else bring their groceries to them. While the convenience is nice, we tend to eat out only once a week (a treat for us on Friday) and cook the rest of our meals. I bring lunch to work, instead of going out, and Mrs. 39 Months makes breakfast for herself each morning, rather than getting it on the road. Our overall budget is rather large for two people in comparison to some FI folks ($400/month) but that is what makes us happy.

Note: I did not included taxes, which often ranks up there as well. While there are some tax strategies you can use to reduce this, I see this as primarily something you just have to “live with” and do what you can. It doesn’t count for me in terms of things you can have major impacts on.

I hope you are all working on your “top 3” and furthering your path towards FI.

Mr. 39 Months

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