By:Chris Gragtmans 

(Author’s note- I am not a Financial Advisor, and I am not certified to offer financial advice. Below are just a few opinions based on experience…) 

Growing up as a whitewater kayak addict, money was always a very simple thing for me.  I worked seasonally and generated as much income from my sponsors as possible, and then translated those resources directly into kayaking trips, cameras, and toys.  Money in, money out- I became a master of stretching a dollar, but spent every dollar that I earned. 

I could sleep in my car for weeks on end.  My kayaks and bikes generally equaled 3x the value of said vehicle, and I could survive off of very little for an entire summer of paddling.  My international trips were fueled by ramen noodles, oatmeal, and peanut butter, and I have memories of going to prize money competitions needing to win in order to eat.  It’s interesting how a sport that you love can teach you the art of frugality, and I know many climbers, mountain bikers, and skiers who have very similar mindsets.

This is an extremely fun way to live, but a few years ago I had a bit of a paradigm shift.  Several positive influences came into my life.  Some were young people who were on the financial fast track, and others were the older generation who regretted not getting on that track, and were willing to share their lessons with me.  I started absorbing knowledge- reading and discussing personal finance, and my eyes opened to the incredible power of compounding returns, and the importance of saving and investing from a young age. 

I started thinking about two divergent paths- how my life would look in the future (say 25 years) if I started taking these things seriously, and how it would look if I didn’t.  There were examples of both of these paths in my life, and the disparity in their situations was sobering.  I realized that the people who hadn’t planned ultimately had far less freedom.  By not making a few small sacrifices in their younger years, they didn’t have savings to lean on as life commitments hit, and this restricted their options and made them feel trapped in careers that they maybe didn’t enjoy. 

“Money is a great servant, but a bad master.” –Francis Bacon

These observations spurred me to think about what money actually represents, and this is where things really clicked.

What is money to me? I realized that, to me, money simply represents freedom.  I could care less about the super flashy cars and big houses- intelligent personal finance simply gives me the means and freedom to experience spectacular natural places and have as much fun as humanly possible in the outdoors for the rest of my life.  It also means providing for my needs and those of my loved ones/future dependents without hesitation or strain. 

I realized that of course money should never be the main focus of life, but until you get above a certain level of basic needs, it actually needs to be the main focus… it is far more difficult to be truly happy and fulfilled if you’re struggling financially.  This transcends to relationships and other areas of life as well- scraping by paycheck to paycheck puts incredible strain on all areas of life.  For me, it often also meant that I had an energy negative (for lack of a better term) relationship with the world around me.  I was taking from the world more than I was giving to it… 

So to me, in order to live the life that I want, have the relationships that I want, and eventually achieve financial independence (no longer need to work), I need to be calculating with my financial decisions.

Fast forward a few years to the present…

After diligently applying everything that I could learn (and striving to constantly learn more), I am in a very happy place in this department.  I am 28 years old, I have an undergrad degree in Marketing, and I have received $0 in financial support from my family since graduation.  I’ve paid off the $15,000 personal skin in the game for my education (an investment well worth it), and I love what I do for work.  I am a professional kayaker, editorial contributor to several magazines in the industry, and a public speaker.  I travel about three months out of the year (my personal sweet spot), and I have remote work capability.  All of these things translate into an amazing lifestyle.

On the financial side, I make an income that isn’t extravagant, but is completely sufficient for me.  I own an LLC that absorbs all of my contract revenue.  I make no more than 40% of my income from any single source, and since I keep my expenses low, a high percentage of my income goes into savings and investments with Parsec Financial, a wealth management company in my hometown. 

It’s extremely motivating to me to think that I will retire wealthy, and that will occur without a trust fund or family money injection, without sacrificing my incredible lifestyle, and even if I don’t ever increase my income (which I certainly intend to do).  

It will happen because I got serious and planned for it from a young age. 

That is honestly the only thing you really need to do to be wealthy.  I’ve learned from observation that our world loves the instant riches stories, but that is not how it happens 99% of the time.  Wealth is a slow and non-sexy process of adhering to a few very simple rules.

“Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it… he who doesn’t… pays it.” -Albert Einstein

The sad thing is that these rules are not taught in school, and they really aren’t talked about very much.  Money is a taboo subject in our culture, and I perceive that those who know what they are doing somewhat keep to themselves about it.  I am far from an expert, but here are 10 things that have really helped me.  

This is my Dirtbag’s Guide to Personal Finance… 

(in no particular order)

1)   Create an emergency fund.  This should equal 3-6 month’s living expenses, and should be kept in liquid form in as high yield a savings account as possible for a rainy day.  Having this safety net in place allows you to make the big plays.

2)   Get rid of credit card debt.  Credit cards are a great tool if used properly, but they are one of the biggest financial anchors dragging Americans down.  Pay that thing off every month and never carry a balance again.  It’s ok to carry some other forms of debt such as student loans- that helps your credit.

3)   Don’t sweat appearances.  For most of us, we are faced with a very simple decision (although we may not be conscious of it).  We can choose to either appear wealthy now, or actually be wealthy later in life.  If we buy the high-class cars, clothes, and toys, and don’t focus on putting money away, we’ll have nothing to show for it later.  This is the critical difference between focusing on income versus focusing on net worth.  Net worth is a far more important number.

4)   Monitor your credit score. Having a good credit score will save you tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars through the course of your life.  Guard it.

5)   Start saving and investing as early as possible.  The power of compounding returns is staggering.  The classic example is that if a hypothetical person saves for a retirement goal, they will need to save twice as much per month to arrive at the same place, if they start at 35 years old versus 25.  This number only gets more exponential beyond that age.  Start small- put 5% of your income away.  My bet is you won’t even notice and you’ll be able to bump it up considerably. Pay yourself first.  

6)   Set goals in all aspects of life, including financial.  Long-term and intermediate goals really keep us focused and on track, and are incredibly powerful.  See Fidelity’s retirement goals.

7)   Take advantage of all possible employer-provided retirement benefits.  Use all of your 401(k) match- it’s free money!  If you’re like me and you’re self-employed, open a Roth IRA and do your best to max it.  Roths are incredible because you put in post-tax dollars now, but there are no taxes deducted after your money grows and you take distributions later in life.  If you can max your Roth, check out a SEP IRA or Individual 401(k)As far as what to invest in within these accounts, I would recommend reading I Will Teach You to be Rich by Ramit Sethi.  It’s really not complicated at all.

8)   Take advantage of every legal tax strategy.  This is an obvious one.  Taking the time to gain a working knowledge of tax law can really change the game, especially if you are self-employed.

9)   Get health insurance if you don’t have it.  This one is really important for adventure sports athletes like myself.  The key factor for me was realizing that my parents would bankrupt themselves if I ever had critical health issues without health insurance.  Health insurance is inexpensive under our current administration, and it’s a huge liability not to have it- just do it.

10) Give back.  One of the beauties of intelligent personal finance is the ability to be a philanthropist.  Pick a percentage of your income (no matter how small) to devote to charity.  Obviously it’s not done for these reasons, but it’s funny the opportunities that present themselves once this becomes a focus.  That positive energy absolutely circles back.  

(Bonus) Spread your knowledge.  As you expand beyond these points and my very limited knowledge, share your findings with those around you.  You will change their lives.

So that’s it- the Dirtbag’s Guide to Personal Finance. 

These are just my humble beliefs, and the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.  But I am fascinated by this subject, and I am constantly amazed at how little focus our culture places on it.  The reality is that as “dirtbags” (i.e. hyper-frugal adventure sports athletes), we already know how to stretch a dollar.  That is an extremely valuable skill, and if we can use these skills to keep expenses low while income grows, some very exciting things start happening. 

Personal finance decisions will have a huge impact on the trajectory of our lives, and are the single most important thing that we can do to keep “living the dream” forever.  

Hopefully this has been helpful, and see you on the river!


PS- Here are a few resources on this subject from people who are far more intelligent than me:

I Will Teach You to be Rich

The Four Hour Workweek

Early Retirement Extreme

The Millionaire Next Door


Rich Dad Poor Dad

Comments (4)

By sandalboy 6/6/2014

THANK YOU SO MUCH for writing this! That was much needed, heartfelt advice. Keep on keeping on, my fellow Chaconian!;-)

By jake 6/4/2014

Loved this article. I'm recently retired and I still learned stuff. I'm forwarding it to my twenty-something daughters and their husbands.

By TriciaToes 9/17/2014

This is an awesome (and much needed) read! Thank you for sharing this! I'm just setting up my life and have been struggling to learn how to budget and get myself ready to be a (sort of) functional adult so these resources and the story are both a comfort and a helping hand!

By puddlejumper 6/2/2014

Great article,Chris!,so true we live in a free enterprise society but information or mentorship in business ownership or financial management is rare.kudos to you for hearing and sharing about it. Love to see this is not an, if handled correctly it can provide freedom for you and others. Hard to help.someone in need if you have no resources.

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