Whenever we travel, we’re always meeting lots of cool new people we can learn from and make friends with. They all have unique perspectives and different things to share. But usually, the start of each conversation is the same:

Them: Where are you two from?
Us: Florida. But don’t worry. We’re not all crazy 😅
Them: Wow — you’re a long way from home! What brings you all the way out to [wherever]?
Us: Right now we’re [touring North America / taking half the year off in Hawaii / trying to hit every National Park / whatever].
Them: Oh, that’s neat!

Typical stuff, no matter who we’re talking to. But if they’re like 15+ years older than us, they’ll tack on one more comment: “Gotta do it while you’re young…”

It happens almost every time. We try not to take it too seriously, but it feels like some people are almost a little bummed out when they say it, which is kinda weird. It makes us stop and think — what made them say that? What exactly does that mean? And is it really good advice?

The Three Stages of Life

Everybody is different. But for the stereotypical American, life follows a pretty standard timeline: 

You start out full of energy, with a good amount of afterschool free time on your hands to learn, explore, and have fun. The only problem is, you’re broke.

So you pour most of that youthful energy into a job, and eventually you might tack on some more joyous responsibilities, like marriage and kids. Regardless, five out of every seven days are spent at work, and it slowly wears on you. Your bank account grows, but your energy and free time dwindle.

Finally, if you’re lucky, you reach the goalpost of traditional retirement at age 65. You’ve got enough money to last the rest of your life, and plenty of time on your hands. But the stress of the last 40 years combined with the inevitability of your human biology have left your energy and physical abilities to wither away.

Graphic of usual life stages
The traditional life cycle. It seems like one critical ingredient is always missing.

Throughout our 20s, countless older people told us, “travel and have fun while you’re young.” The more I think about it, the more I believe that they’ve been leaving off the dark second half of that statement: “…because you won’t be able to do it later.”

If you’re on the traditional life path, there’s less and less room for fun and spontaneity once your youth is behind you. Work gets in the way, and before you know it, you’re old and tired. But we reject the idea that it has to turn out this way. You just need a running start.

Most people won’t be filthy rich in their teens or 20s. But those years can be spent avoiding debt, leveling up marketable skills, and investing money to get the ball rolling on compound growth early on.

If you graduate college around age 22 and keep your expenses low even after you score a decent job, you can make work a completely optional part of your life by age 30-35, all while taking some fun breaks along the way. You’ll have plenty of time, energy, and money for whatever you want to do in the many decades to come.

Saving money super early lets you buy back time while you’re still young and vibrant, so you can focus on stuff that’s actually important to you, like working on your passions or raising a family instead of sitting at a desk every day. And you can keep right on traveling and being spontaneous, too.

Leaving your full-time job behind also gives you some mental breathing room to take care of yourself by eating right and exercising more — things you might neglect if all your time was spent at work. This increases your chances of having more energy and more years left in old age.

Graphic of preferred life stages
Saving money early on and keeping spending under control lessens the need for work and leads to more free time. More free time leads to better self-care. And taking care of yourself leads to a longer, healthier, lower-stress life.

In fairness, not everyone can retire in their 30s. Some people get a late start. And others may have difficult circumstances or special hardships that set them back significantly. But one thing is certain: Making an effort to get ahead financially as soon as possible will have a positive impact on your life in the long run, no matter where you start from. If you’re curious about how to do that, check out our Financial Roadmap.

Because of the way compound interest works, the most likely financial result of saving money very early is that you’ll be left with a massive surplus when you’re old (potentially tens of millions of dollars). If luck is on your side, you may have the opportunity to be extremely generous toward the end of your life — a chance to pay it forward.

Seize the Day or Delay Gratification — Why Not Both?

With that said, maybe everyone telling us, “do it while you’re young” has a good point — a different point. Maybe they’ve seen a friend’s life taken from them unexpectedly, and they’re praising the idea of immediately enjoying life because we’re never guaranteed tomorrow.

Or maybe they’re implying that there is some special magic to your younger years that you’ll never feel again when you’re older. I hope that’s not true, but then I don’t have the wisdom of old age.

My dad claims that we should enjoy living out of the back of a tiny camper van while we still can, because we won’t be willing to “rough it” like that when we’re older. Maybe not.

@tripofalifestyle The best things in life are simple. #vanlife #camping #campervan #simpleliving #minimalism #travel ♬ Peace – Eric Godlow

Once, after giving a presentation about our National Parks trip, an elderly woman came up and told us how happy she was for us. She said she’d spent her own youth hiking across Alaska, and those memories are more important to her now than ever, because she’s physically incapable of doing the same things today. That definitely made us want to get out there and live life right away.

Photo of Lauren in Alaska
Lauren, as seen through our dirty old car windshield on the way into Alaska from Yukon Territory, Canada — age 22.

Life isn’t all about money, or self-deprivation, or “hustling hard.” It’s really important to enjoy every single year to its fullest. But realize that one of the best ways to do so is to buy yourself as many years of freedom as possible.

Save and invest money early in life — not by depriving yourself of all enjoyment, but by realizing that the best things in life are the ones that cost very little, and then simply foregoing the rest (at least for a little while).

The best part about your car is all the amazing places it can take you, not how it looks or how fast it accelerates. The best part of your home is the shelter it provides and the memories made underneath its roof, not the extra room or the crown molding. The best part about getting a round of drinks with your friends is really just the conversation.

Enjoy your youth. Do it while you’re young. But set yourself up to do it while you’re middle-aged, and do it while you’re old, too. Life doesn’t end at 29.

— Steven

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