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The 5 Stages of Financial Independence

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Jamila Souffrant was talking about financial independence: “The perfect world is when you love what you do, but you can choose not to do it,” the founder and host of the podcast “Journey to Launch” told ThinkAdvisor in an interview.

Souffrant’s mission is to help people wipe out debt, save more and eventually reach financial independence.

In contrast to FIRE — Financial Independence, Retire Early — the goal of “Journey” isn’t to save enough money to retire at a young age. It’s to luxuriate in the flexibility and options that financial freedom can bring. 

The enterprise, which now includes a Budget Bootcamp and the Money Launch Club, originated as a side gig in 2016 with a blog in which Souffrant chronicled her experiences on the road to financial independence.

Next came the podcast, which this year boasts more than 2 million downloads. 

In 2017, Souffrant quit her six-figure job as a real estate asset manager to focus full time on “Journey.” 

At the same time, with “Journey” now their “main gig,” as she puts it, she and her husband, teacher Woody Souffrant, significantly changed their saving and investing strategies. In two years, they had saved $169,000.

In the interview, Jamila, 38, explains “Journey’s” five stages to financial independence and how people can “unlock” a wealth of options as they become better at handling their finances.

ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed the money coach, who was on the phone from Brooklyn, New York, her base. Part of this entrepreneur’s success lies in a steely resolve to go for it.

“I’m never going to deny myself opportunities,”  she says. “Self-doubts are “almost nudges for me to keep going.”

Here are highlights of our interview:

THINKADVISOR: How does “Journey to Launch” differ from “FIRE — Financial Independence, Retire Early”?

JAMILA SOUFFRANT: I’m focusing on the first part of that acronym: Financial independence is the goal. The goal isn’t to retire.

On your way to financial independence, you can unlock more options because you’ll start getting better with your money. You don’t have to wait five, 10, 20, 30 years to have all the money you’ll ever need and experience that freedom. 

Does financial independence mean you’re not working for someone else?

It doesn’t mean you can’t work for other people or that you can’t work ever again. It’s just having the option not to. That’s where the power lies: You can walk away from a situation. 

The idea of financial independence is about having that option.

Lots of times people wanting to reach financial freedom are running from something —  their job, say. 

The perfect world is when you love what you do, but you can choose not to do it. If you’re financially independent, you can still work and bring in money.

Who would mostly benefit from your program?

Anyone can, depending on their starting point. I “limit” my message to anyone who wants to achieve freedom financially and have more options.

Women and people of color are drawn to me and my message because they can relate to me. I’m a Black woman who was born in Jamaica, who understands the complexities of the experience of being a Black woman in the U.S. and of being an immigrant. 

But I’m always surprised at how diverse my audience is. I don’t limit my message to only people like me.

You conceived “Journey to Launch” as analogous to the stages of a rocket launch. Please explain.

You travel through five stages to reach financial independence. Each stage allows you to unlock another level of financial freedom.

I call the big, lofty goal “The Moon Goal.” But along the way, you’ll be doing some amazing things with your finances to get there.

Stage 1 is the “Explorer” stage: financial stability. Someone may not be able to pay all their bills; they may have to put things on credit cards. They’re trying to reach stability so that they’re not in the red every month. 

In this stage, they’re targeting financial stability to cover their bills and get a budget together.

What’s Stage 2?

The [“Cadet]” stage. You’re working on getting out of consumer debt. So, when you reach Stage 3 —  the [“Aviator”] —  you don’t have as much debt. 

You now have more money to save and invest and work toward other goals. Stage 3 is about having financial security and building up your money.

Then you move to Stage 4. What does that entail?

The “Commander” is the work-plus-stability stage.

That’s the one I’m currently in. I can choose what I do. If I want to take a break for a month, I can; or I can turn down things that don’t feel good [for me].

If I don’t want to do my podcast with a sponsor or take something out of my budget from another place to put it toward, say, extra [household] help, we can make that work.

That’s the kind of freedom and flexibility I have, but it took work to get to this position.

Finally, what does Stage 5 bring?

You reach financial independence. I call it the “Captain.” If you don’t want to work again, you don’t have to because you’re going to live off your investments and passive income.

At which stage do you begin to invest?

Even if you have debt, I believe in investing. It’s important to start investing and not wait until you’re debt-free, because sometimes getting out of debt can take years. 

It’s important to get started investing as early as you can, even if you don’t invest a lot of money.

For people who are lucky enough to have a 401(k) with [a contribution] match, it’s important to at least take advantage of that. Or you should look at a Roth IRA.

What about people who are only in Stage 1?

If you’re there and can’t pay your bills, you should just work on getting financial stability.

At the stage you’re at, what would it take for you, Jamila, to become financially independent?

I would need to save and invest more money. My concept of financial independence is to live off my investments or passive income, which could include real estate. But I’m not at that point yet.

At age 22, you bought an apartment and have been renting it out. Is that a big help?

I have the equity, but the cash flow isn’t necessarily secure because of the market.

It’s helpful to my overall net worth, but it’s not something that brings in a ton of money to our household.

What prompted you to create “Journey to Launch”?

I started it as a side thing. When I realized it was picking up steam and had lots of potential, I said to myself, “I can’t do all this: I have kids, I was commuting [from Brooklyn to New Jersey] to a full-time job, and I had “Journey to Launch.” 

So when we were deciding to have our third child, something had to go, and we decided I would do “Journey to Launch” full time [and thus leave my corporate job]. 

I would become a full-time entrepreneur, and “Journey to Launch” would be our main gig.

What was the job you left?

I managed a portfolio of assets for one of the top holders of real estate. I worked on the corporate side managing million-dollar assets.

How did quitting that six-figure job impact the way you saved and invested?

I was walking away from income and salary potential, so we needed more money to cover our expenses. My husband’s income [as a teacher] doesn’t cover everything. 

He has a healthy income; but when we decided I was going to leave my job, we knew I had the potential to earn more than he does.

So the strategy switched from investing aggressively in our investment account to saving up enough so we could feel comfortable financially.

That money went into creating what we call an “F-you fund” — a buffer — one that would help cover our household expenses.

What happened when you reached Stage 3?

We didn’t have as much debt anymore, apart from mortgages. We saved $169,000 [by saving and investing in index funds] in two years. Most of our money, other than for expenses, could be put toward that goal.

Did you get to be an asset manager by climbing up the corporate ladder?

Yes. I had an internship in college through Inroads, a great program that helps put minority kids into Fortune 500 companies in their college years and get paid while working.

I always wanted to work in investments, because that’s where the money is. But when I first started at the company that hired me, they had me in the IT department. I had to advocate for myself to get into the investment department.

Did that happen?

Yes, but they first put me in the role of analyst in portfolio management. I wanted to go into real estate management.

I did that, but in an admin role — not the role I wanted. So I worked my way up.

While working full time, I took classes at night to get my master’s in real estate because I knew having that was key to getting the position I wanted. When the job opened up, I eventually got it. 

But I had to show them [what I could do] and network to make my way into that role. 

Did you encounter any obstacles because you’re a woman?

Of course. However, I can’t tell you that someone looked at me and said, “Because you’re a woman, you can’t do this.” 

But working in corporate America, in certain situations, people have made comments. Or there were microaggressions [because] I’m a Black woman. That has happened.

But if I focused on that and made it the reason I wasn’t going to succeed, I wouldn’t be where I am. Yes, there have been obstacles, but they weren’t going to stop me from reaching my potential. 

I’m not going to let someone else’s ignorance and/or limits they put on themselves project onto me what I can [or cannot] do.

Broadly, what’s the secret to your success?

I take calculated risks. I’ve always said to myself, “I’m never going to deny myself opportunities. Someone else will have to deny me those. And if they do, I will persist.” I don’t tell myself no.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have doubts and insecurities. I just don’t let them stop me. I look at them as almost nudges for me to keep going. 

I draw on that from my upbringing, watching my mother, who was a single mom who had me at 19.

You have quite a popular podcast. What advice can you give people who are just starting one?

It’s a great medium to get out there and build an audience. But it’s not something that will take off and [bring in] a lot of money [immediately]. It takes a lot of work.

I launched my podcast four years ago, and I’ve put out an episode every Wednesday. Consistency is key, and content is key. 

And of course you need to have a unique voice and point of view so you can stand out.

Overall, once people find you, you want them to fall in love with you.