Yup, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation...
This was just over one month ago, right before getting wheeled into the operating room for a total hip replacement surgery. Most people who get total hip replacement surgery are in their 60s or 70s, but unfortunately I needed one at the ripe old age of just 48.
I’ll probably never know how I developed such pronounced osteoarthritis in my left hip. I have no family history of it, and I’ve always been in good physical shape. Ironically, the cause may have been from too much activity -- years of planting and pivoting on that leg playing sports.
What I do know is that it became extremely painful to walk, climb stairs, or raise my leg over the course of the past 4+ years. I tried all the non-surgical options first, but nothing worked. I finally accepted the fact that the only solution was to get a full replacement.
Fast forward to today… While there’s still a lot of work to be done, the surgery went very well, and my rehab is right on schedule. The ultimate test is that my hip feels so much better than it did before the surgery. My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner!
As I’ve been thinking about this whole experience, I realized something very interesting. All the research, hard work, patience, and teamwork needed to get through surgery are some of the same challenges that Allison and I faced over the years achieving FIRE (Financial Independence / Retiring Early).
In fact, the more I considered it, the more similarities I found. Here are 8 pivotal lessons I learned from my hip replacement surgery that you can use in your financial journey...
1. Understand Your Situation
Despite being in pain for years, I had no idea what the problem was until I finally got an x-ray of my hip. Prior to that, I was just guessing -- could be overuse, one leg is longer than the other, maybe hip dysplasia, etc.
Once I understood exactly what was causing all my discomfort, I could evaluate the various solutions and come up with a plan of action.
Money Lesson: Your financial life works the same way. It’s very difficult to get to FIRE if you don’t know where you honestly stand at the moment. Start by figuring out your net worth and cash flow.
Calculate your net worth by tallying up all your assets and subtract your liabilities. For cash flow, look at your total monthly income and subtract your total monthly expenses.
These baseline metrics will help you formulate your financial plan. It might be paying off your debt first, finding another income stream, or cutting back extraneous spending.
2. Put Together a Game Plan
Once I understood the problem, I could start mapping out a course of action. I started by researching orthopedic surgeons in my health network. I found a doctor who had a lot of experience with hip replacements, and he even went to my alma mater, The Ohio State University.
Next, over the course of about a year I tried a variety of treatments, such as medication and cortisone shots. Since I was very young for a hip replacement, we wanted to exhaust all non-surgical solutions first. When those options failed to work, I started evaluating what surgery would entail.
I researched the different types of surgery, the possible risks, the recovery process, etc. I determined what options seemed best for my situation, picked a date that worked with our long-term travel plans, and scheduled the surgery.
Money Lesson: Once you’ve figured out your net worth and cash flow, it’s time to put together your financial game plan. Think about ways to improve these four aspects of your finances: Debt, Income, Expenses, and Investing.
Start with your debt. If you’re drowning in high-interest credit card debt and student loans, it’s going to be impossible to get to FIRE. Create a plan to get that under control first.
Next, look at your income. If you like your current job, talk to your boss about a plan to increase your salary. Look for ways to supplement your income with gig jobs or part-time work.
For expenses, look at your monthly expense report and consider ways to eliminate overspending. Maybe you don’t need all those subscriptions, meals out, or expensive gadgets.
And for investing, sign up for your company 401(k) plan or open an IRA. Invest in an inexpensive stock index fund to start. Do your homework, and work to build a diversified portfolio.
3. Don’t Be Afraid of Hard Work
It’s so strange to go from being strong and healthy one day to barely being able to move on a hospital bed the next day. I quickly realized that I had a long road of recovery ahead.
It’s easy to get discouraged in that situation, but I could see a sliver of light deep in the tunnel ahead. My goal was to to do everything my doctor, nurses, and physical therapists (PT) told me to do, no matter how difficult or painful it might be.
Money Lesson: When you want to accomplish something as significant as achieving FIRE, you can’t be afraid of hard work. Nobody is going to do the work for you, so you just have to put your head down and make it happen.
Early in your financial journey, it’s easy to get down when things aren’t going well. Maybe your new investment is tanking or you had some unexpected expenses pop up.
The key is to just do a little something each day to move forward. That might mean reading a chapter in an investment book, researching a new income stream, or taking the action to reduce an unnecessary expense from your budget.
Just make sure you also work smart and know that all that hard work will be well worth it in the end!
4. Embrace Milestones
A great way to help you with all that hard work is to set goals and embrace milestones when you meet them. One of my first milestones was to eat a meal without feeling nauseous from the anesthesia. Then it was to bend my left leg. Then it was to get from my hospital bed to the bathroom with my walker.
After I got home, I started working with a PT who gave me some very basic exercises to work on. I would improve by one or two reps each day. Then he showed me how to use a cane, and I slowly transitioned from the walker to a cane.
Five weeks later, I’m walking over a mile a day with my cane, working out in the gym, and swimming laps in my pool. Everyday I feel just a little better, and I’ve tried to savor every little milestone along the way.
Money Lesson: You are also going to reach many milestones along your financial journey. In the beginning, these milestones can be really small. The key is to be constantly working toward something and improving little by little.
If one of your first big goals is to pay off your credit card debt, set smaller goals each month to reduce it by X amount. Each time you hit that monthly goal, it will build your confidence.
Sure, you’ll have some setbacks, but you will also enjoy many successes as well. It’s important to identify and celebrate those milestones when you reach them.
5. It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint
Probably my biggest challenge in the recovery process has been to not rush things. I want to get back to full strength as soon as I can, but I know I have to be patient.
I keep reminding myself the importance of not moving too fast. While it may feel OK to push yourself at the moment, overdoing things can lead to setbacks or longer term damage if the body isn’t ready for it yet.
With hip replacements, there is a danger of dislocating your new hip joint if you move the wrong way, especially early in the process. So, the mantra is to work hard, but not too hard!
Money Lesson: If you want to achieve FIRE, you have to realize it’s going to take time to build up enough nest egg to live on for the rest of your life. We consistently contributed to our retirement accounts and taxable accounts for about 15 years before leaving our jobs.
If you put together a solid financial plan (managing debt and expenses, increasing income, and investing wisely) and follow through it with over the course of many years, you will put yourself in great position to FIRE.
Just be patient and don’t expect to accomplish everything overnight. Always keep your eyes on the long term goal and just take it one step at a time.
6. Don’t Compare Yourself to Others
One thing I realized during the recovery process is that everyone is different and heal at different rates. I was fortunate to be in good shape before my surgery, and I feel like that’s helped me progress well during the postoperative phase.
But just as I was feeling pretty good about myself, I talked to a few guys who had the same surgery and seemed to have recovered much faster. One said he walked two miles the first week with his walker! Another helped someone move a stove up a flight of stairs after one week. And the third person was off his cane and bending down to tie his shoes in his second week.
These stories made me feel like maybe I wasn’t doing as well as I thought, even though my PTs, nurses, and others who saw me seemed to be quite impressed with my progress. I had to pause and recognize that we all move through challenges at our own speed, and that’s OK. It’s not a race or a competition.
Money Lesson: Just as I needed to focus on my own recuperation and not worry about how quickly or slowly others recovered, you should focus on your financial journey and not worry about everyone else’s.
It can be inspiring to read FIRE blogs from people like Mr. Money Mustache or Mad Fientist, but if you’re then comparing your situation to theirs, you may feel like you’re way behind. What you don’t read about on most blogs are the long laborious years and hard work to get to FIRE. Sure, we bloggers may write about some of our challenges and struggles along the way, but it’s more interesting to write about the end journey and highlight all the major milestones.
If you concentrate on what you need to do and work your plan, you’ll stay focused and get to your goal that much faster.
7. Believe in Your Team
One of the biggest lessons from my surgery was allowing myself to literally put my life in the hands of others. I had to trust that the team of surgeons cutting me open and removing my old hip knew exactly what they were doing and would do everything in their power not to mess it up.
It’s not blind faith, because I did the research ahead of time. I made sure my doctor had lots of experience doing these procedures and felt extremely comfortable with the operation. I also spent an entire year meeting with him and his assistant, which helped me build trust and rapport.
Once I got home, I had to trust that I would be taken care of by Allison and the nurses and PTs who would help with my recovery. Allison, bless her, had to inject me with anti-blood clot medication everyday for a full month. She also had to do things like put my socks and shoes on, because I couldn’t bend over far enough. And most importantly, she supplied me with three delicious nutritious meals each day to help me get stronger.
You have to pick a good partner and a good team, and then trust that they’re going to help you succeed!
Money Lesson: No journey is solitary. On your road to FIRE, you will be working closely with your spouse, partner, family, friends, financial advisors, etc.
The key is to make sure you have a good team around you. Sit down with your spouse and family and talk about your financial goals together. It will be so much easier to achieve FIRE if you all agree on the plan.
Once you have your team and you’re all on the same page, believe in them to help you get there!
8. Know That Others Have Been Down this Road
When you’re undertaking a massive unknown journey, it’s helpful to know that you’re not the first person to do it. While I’ve never had a hip replacement surgery, I realize that millions of other people have done it before me and have enjoyed wonderful lives.
Prior to my surgery, I personally spoke to a number of people who underwent hip and/or knee replacements. They told me about the process, the challenges, and what life was like afterwards (most were thrilled). I also researched stories online, including famous people who had hip replacements (e.g., Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jane Fonda, Eddie Van Halen, and many others).
It helped put into perspective that I wasn’t the only doing this. If all these other people have done it and it worked out well for almost all of them, then it gave me more confidence it would be beneficial for me too.
Money Lesson: I mentioned above not to compare yourself to others. However, it can also be helpful to learn about the journey of those who have already accomplished the same goals you want.
If you see that other people were able to successful achieve FIRE in their 40s, then you know you can do it too. It’s not an easy journey, but it’s definitely not uncharted territory.
Remember that you can achieve FIRE or any other big challenge if you apply knowledge, perseverance, patience, and trust.
As for me, I'm looking forward to life with my new hip. I look forward to trips Allison and I will be taking later this year: FinCon in September in Washington DC, visiting family in NY and NJ, and traveling around South America for two months in the winter.
After years of traveling in pain, I can’t wait to be able to keep up with Allison as we trip around the cities and hike in the mountains. I'll definitely never take for granted the gift of health and well-being!