Financial Pilgrimage: Creativity at Work Interviews

Accurately claiming to be a left-brained analytical thinker, Mark at Financial Pilgrimage has found his blog to be an unexpected creative outlet exercising parts of himself he hopes to never neglect again.

Below you will find powerful insights about his desire to empower young families with financial literacy.  His message comes from a wise space challenging his readers to question everything in order to live an authentic life on their terms.

He has creative ideas for battling lifestyle inflation, organizing work-life balance, keeping track of thoughts, and making budgeting doable.  

Take it Away Mark!

Please give us a little background along with where we can track you down on the web.

Hi everyone! My name is Mark and I write a personal finance blog at financialpilgrimage.com. Our goal at Financial Pilgrimage is to help young families to pay down debt and live financially free. We are a family of four who recently became completely debt free including our mortgage after paying down nearly $200,000 in debt since 2011. 

Do you consider yourself creative?

This would be a big NO! I’ve always been much more of a left-brained thinker, relying on my analytical side. I am a natural over-thinker and have to work hard to get out of the analysis paralysis stage. Creativity is something that I’ve really had to be intentional about. More on that later. 

Are there times when you feel pulled between traditional success and creative ideas that just won’t leave you alone?

One of the reasons I started Financial Pilgrimage was because of a strong inclination to be more of a creator than a consumer. Additionally, too often I witnessed family and friends making poor financial decisions and I wanted to be a voice to help spread financial literacy. What I didn’t realize was how much of a creative outlet this blog would be for me. 

Working in the financial services industry for 12 years, I’ve had what many would consider a successful career. While I am proud of the work I do at my day job, starting a blog has allowed me to fill a void that was missing. My blog has not only given me a creative outlet, but also made me feel like I’m making an impact by helping people, specifically young families, make better financial decisions. 

What role has creativity played in your working life? Private life? Finances?  

I’ve always been someone that challenges social norms and I look for the “why” behind everything. I entered the workforce right before the great recession and was able to hang onto my job during the downturn. I had a front row seat to see how the recession completely destroyed many families. 

Several people I knew experienced a job loss that resulted in bankruptcy, foreclosure, or even divorce. Some of these people had been in the workforce for 20 or 30 years and had little to show for their efforts besides a bunch of stuff financed by debt. Early in my career I vouched to never get stuck in a job that made me miserable, and to never put my family in a situation where a job loss would completely ruin my family. 

I’ve mostly lived this out during the past 12 years. While a job loss would be challenging to overcome, being completely debt free including our mortgage gives my family space to find other opportunities. I believe that simply thinking differently than others and challenging social norms is a great exercise in creativity. We could have fallen into the trap of lifestyle inflation like many others we know, but instead we have chosen to take a simpler path by paying off debt, living in a smaller home, buying less expensive used cars, and more. This has allowed my wife to quit her teaching job to stay at home with our two children for several years. No amount of stuff can replace that extra time with our young children. 

Are there any areas of living you approach in an especially innovative way?

When we first started paying down debt back in 2011, we quickly realized that budgeting wasn’t our thing. I know it works great for a lot of people, but not for us. Instead we used what is now called the anti-budget approach. The anti-budget approach involves paying yourself first, then bills, and then spending whatever is remaining. It’s more inexact than budgeting, but it has been an effective way for us to manage our finances. 

Whenever we’ve been fortunate enough to receive income increases over the years, we’ve immediately adjusted our automated savings deductions. Usually, about 80% goes to increased savings and 20% to our monthly spending. This has allowed us to make gradual increases to our lifestyle while still pouring the majority of new income into savings. In reality, the increased income just goes to the rising costs involved with having two children. 

One other way we’ve been innovative is through side hustles. In college I made spending money by playing online poker and flipping items on eBay. More recently I spent time as a freelance recruiter helping a friend with his small business. These were great ways to make extra money during college or outside of my day job. 

Do you have a system for keeping track of ideas?  For example, do you use a series of notebooks or certain apps?

I’ve found over the years that if I don’t get ideas out of my head immediately they will likely never return. This results in a bunch of unorganized lists and spreadsheets throughout the house. I do keep a running list of blog posts on my phone in the notes app as they come to mind. After 20 months of blogging, I would have thought that I’d be out of ideas by now, but they just keep coming. Blog ideas usually hit at the most random times -  in the shower, driving, walking around the block, or sitting at my desk at work. 

I’ve found that the key is getting those ideas out of my head and onto paper or my phone immediately. Even the simple exercise of writing ideas down is beneficial to help remember even if I never refer back to the original list. 

What systems do you have in place for mastering and tackling your finances?

I’m all about automating your finances as much as possible and keeping things simple. As mentioned earlier, we use the anti-budget approach. We’ve set up our finances so that after a few days of getting paid, money goes into my 401(k), into our Vanguard brokerage account, and all bills are paid. Whatever is left in our bank account is what we have to spend for the rest of the month. 

We aren’t always perfect and sometimes we have to pull money out of our brokerage account when we run over, but for the most part, we spend what we have in our accounts. I wouldn’t recommend this approach to anyone without an emergency fund since this is a less exact method. If you are starting out and living paycheck to paycheck, having a detailed budget is best until you can build up savings and pay down high-interest debt. 

Do you mind sharing if you were formally identified as gifted in school? (Keep in mind, many extraordinary individuals are missed).  Do you have any positive or negative thoughts about gifted education or gifted psychology?

I don’t think anyone has ever put me in the gifted category. 

Honestly, I was perfectly fine being a solid B student in school. I was always looking for ways to put in the minimum amount of effort to get an A or B. Rarely did I ever do homework outside of school until my senior year in college. I can’t remember actually reading a textbook until graduate school. At the time it felt like I was a slacker, but in hindsight, I think what my college experience taught me more than anything was how to be efficient. I’ve taken these skills into the workplace where I think I’m pretty good at focusing on the highest value-add priorities and ignoring the unimportant to get the best result. 

Do you mind sharing if you’ve had any mental health struggles?  If so, did those struggles impact your finances in any way?

I’ve been fortunate to not have any significant mental health issues. Like many, I’ve struggled with anxiety but have found effective ways to manage it without seeking professional help or medication. Meditating, working out regularly, eating healthy, limiting social media, and getting regular sleep all help to reduce anxiety. When I’m not doing these things regularly there is a significant change in my behavior and attitude. Going back to church has helped with my mental health quite a bit as well. Church helps me to focus on the things that are really important in life and allows me to realize that our day-to-day problems are usually small and not worth stressing over. 

What is your favorite DIY hack?  Did you come up with it on your own?

Since I’m a financial blogger, I was going to go with the way that we manage our finances. However, I think I’ve addressed that throughout this interview already. 

Something I’ll mention that I don’t think I ever have on my blog or any others is my workout routine.

Back in 2012, I had major knee surgery after blowing out my ACL/PCL in a baseball game. I believe one of the reasons was because I was lifting weights a lot but didn’t balance it with stretching or cardio. Ever since then I’ve come up with an annual routine that includes:

  • four months of high-intensity training working out almost every day
  • four months of lifting heavy twice per week balanced with one day of stretching
  • four months of only working out on occasion (during the summer) while playing in baseball leagues

This routine is well balanced and keeps me motivated to work out during the year. I’ve never worked with a personal trainer outside of my lifting coach in college so I guess you can call this a DIY hack. I won’t go into all the details of the routine here, but if anyone would like to learn more please let me know. 

What role (if any) has art and music played in your life?  Can you tell us some favorite bands?

In my teenage years, music played a much bigger role in my life than today. Some of my favorite CDs (remember those?) were Nirvana, Green Day, Aerosmith, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, and of course being a St. Louisan, Nelly. I was an awkward teenager (and still am kind of an awkward adult) and music was a great outlet for me. I remember driving around by myself or with a friend just blaring music to get my mind off other things. Today if I’m listening to music it’s usually either Country or Christian music on the radio. With that being said, even that is limited as much of my radio time in the car is spent listening to podcasts.   

Michelle Again…

It was interesting to learn more about Mark in this interview.  I appreciate the unique angle he took with the questions.

Concerning the education question, recent research discusses how more self-made millionaires were “B” students than "A" students in school.  His answer about efficiency and prioritizing what actually matters align well with that research.

Also, we’re glad you worked out the ACL/PCL issues while maximizing your DIY skills in a different way Mark.  Thanks again for the write-up!

Do you have any more questions or thoughts for Mark?  Feel free to comment below.

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