This week I talk with financial writer Emily Guy Birken about overcoming financial anxiety and confidently pursuing mindful financial independence.
Having confidence in our finances can lead to a more fulfilling and productive life
I’m excited to share with you my conversation with educator, author, and (unlikely) financial researcher Emily Guy Birken as part of our Productive Living series.
Who is Emily?
Emily is a former educator, a self-professed lifelong money nerd, and a Plutus Award-winning freelance writer specializing in the scientific research behind irrational money behaviors. With a focus on helping people take their finances from stressful to stress-free, she is the author of five books including The 5 Years Before You Retire and Stacked: Your Super Serious Guide to Modern Money Management, written with Joe Saul-Sehy. I’ve been looking forward to talking with her about financial matters.
How Emily got started
Emily likes to tell people that she “tripped and fell backwards” into writing about money. Her background is in teaching high school English but in 2010, that ended when she and her husband moved from Columbus, Ohio to Lafayette, Indiana. She also happened to be pregnant at that time with their first child.
Emily’s plan was to take one year off of teaching (because she was unsure of who would hire her so far into her pregnancy). Since Emily and her husband went from two incomes to one, she decided to start looking for some freelance writing work. One of her first gigs was for a personal finance website called ptmoney.com. This type of writing may sound out of the ordinary for Emily but she had always had an interest in finances, especially when her financial advisor father would discuss his work. While writing, Emily was able to bring her literary sensibility and the base knowledge she learned from her dad. She was initially intimidated by the financial world but eventually found that financial writing was an excellent fit for her.
Her initial one year off from teaching has now turned into thirteen years. Emily has remained exclusively in the personal financial community this whole time and continues to enjoy it. She enjoys thinking about how money fits into our daily lives and how she can make the topic of money palatable to others.
A typical day for Emily
Later on in her adult life, Emily was diagnosed with ADHD, which put a lot of things into context for her. Emily realized that what worked for her as far as productivity goes may not work for others.
With that being said, a typical day begins early in the morning between 5:00-5:30, when she begins her day’s writing even before getting dressed. Emily has found that one of the most satisfying parts of productivity is when she feels like she’s getting a head-start on her day and her work. By starting this early, she feels she can work on things before her actual day starts and she is less likely to procrastinate.
Around 6:30 am, Emily will stop and walk around the neighborhood and is usually back by around 7:15, which is when her husband and kids are awake. They have breakfast together (which includes Wordle and coffee) and she gets the kids off to school.
Emily then focuses on work emails, working on her financial spreadsheet, and other admin work. By the time she is done with that it is about 9:30 am and she will return to her writing. She works continuously until her children are home from school at 3:30.
In the evening, Emily spends time with the kids, tidying up the house, making dinner, and getting everyone to afterschool activities. They might even have a family movie night if they can fit it in.
By 9:00 p.m., Emily is in bed.
By allowing herself to be productive in a way that works for her, and not conforming to what productivity may look like to someone else, Emily has found she is a lot more productive and has more self-compassion.
Productivity tools Emily recommends
Emily discovered bullet journaling about 6 years ago and has tweaked it to make it work for her. She doesn’t use it in the way typically recommended, but instead uses a page a day where she separates her activities based on what they are: errands, writing, coaching, podcasting, etc. She color-codes the activities and draws a small cartoon next to each category. This process is something she looks forward to. It’s fun and increases her productivity.
Mindful financial independence
The main purpose of Emily’s work is to help people take their finances from stressful to stress-free. Mindful financial independence is Emily’s response to the FIRE movement, which stands for financial independence to retire early. This new wave of financial independence, Emily says, is focused on finding a way to spend as little time as possible making the most money. The best way to do this is to be very frugal and invest wisely. The FIRE movement is heavily based on anti-consumerism but Emily feels that it also produces a sort of mindless accumulation of money. There is no focus on what the money means and how it can positively affect one’s life.
With mindful financial independence, though, the goal isn’t about the money but about creating a life that works for you, whether you’re working, retired, or something else. Money is just the tool we use to get there and how we measure our success. Emily discourages people from measuring themselves by how much money they have and encourages them to instead remain mindful about their financial success, thinking about what they need to make their lives better. There is no need to defer your life and happiness because you’re waiting to meet certain financial goals. Don’t put happiness on the other side of some artificially designated a finish line because you don’t know if you’ll get there. Be mindful about using your resources (time, money, attention) in a way that works best for you with balance in mind.
How can women achieve mindful financial independence?
Each woman’s life circumstances are different but we are actually in a much better position than men to achieve this independence because we are so good at multi-tasking. Women are also much better at recognizing the true value of money and are willing to use it if it will make their lives easier.
What achieving mindful financial independence will look like for you depends on how forward-focused or present-focused you are. Someone who is close to retirement will be more forward-focused. They will be thinking about money in a different way and what they will need for their long-term goals.
A young professional will be more present-focused because they have more time to let interest build and focus on their retirement account. There is time to enjoy money while still putting some back for the future.
A woman who is a stay-at-home mom may be focused on two futures: one for the time they are retired and the other for when her children no longer need her as much. Planning ahead for both futures is important because there are no guarantees. Independence sometimes does not come partnered. You need to have contingency plans and make sure to keep your skills updated.
Emily also thinks that it’s important to have a purpose outside of your family. Someday your children will grow up and not need you as much. It’s important (and possible!) to stay present in the moment while also planning for a totally different kind of future. This may seem unrelated to money but it’s actually an important part of what your mindful financial independence may look like.
The 5 building blocks of mindful financial independence
Emily built her program on the concept of mindfulness. The building blocks for mindful financial independence focus on paying attention in the present moment without reaction, without judgment, and with open-hearted compassion. As long as you do these things, it can prevent you from spending needlessly and staying more mindful about the decisions you make. You can create a life that feels good and one you can take ownership of.
How can we feel better about money?
If you are someone who gets anxious about money matters but wants to be more confident and competent, Emily encourages you to change the way you view things. Your greatest weakness can be your greatest strength. If you feel anxious about money, lean into it and think about what you can do to feel even a tiny bit better.
Emily also wants us to remember that money isn’t real; it’s a social construct that we as a society have decided is valuable.
With that being said, when you make this realization, you know that your financial status could change at any moment. Emily has drawn a lot of insight from a graphic novel called The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman, which documents an experience in a concentration camp and how a skilled businessman found a way to set up a business for himself and be successful despite the challenge of the Holocaust. When Emily read this book in her 20s, she realized that all she had could be taken away but it wouldn’t change who she is as a person. We all have unique skills and abilities and can rely on ourselves to survive and thrive, no matter what happens.
Emily’s last words for the listener
Remember that money is a tool, not something to measure yourself by. Money is simply a means to an end and the end is a meaningful life. Make your life what you want it to be using the tools at your disposal.
What do you think? Questions? Comments?
Connect with Emily
Help Spread the Word!
Tell a friend about The Productive Woman podcast. Share an episode using the social sharing buttons at the top of this post, and consider leaving a review on Apple Podcast
Thank you to our sponsor, Calm
If you’d like help in practicing mindfulness, remember that Calm is offering a special limited-time promotion of 40% off a Calm Premium subscription at CALM.COM/TPW. That’s 40% off unlimited access to Calm’s entire library of guided meditations, sleep stories, and more, and new content is added every week.
Click here to discover my favorite apps!
I would love to have your help!
Royse City, Texas