★ What’s in Your Golden Circle?

[Please welcome special guest Joe Mihalic of No More Harvard Debt today!]

Hello, my frugal friends. It’s been four years and one month since I paid off my loans after getting my MBA from Harvard. I destroyed $90k of student debt in seven months by living below my means and finding additional revenue sources. By continuing to live below my means, I’ve accumulated enough cash outside of my 401k to pay off my mortgage and be 100% debt-free, even while maxing out my 401k every year.

I apply Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle framework to many things I do in my life. The Golden Circle is comprised of three concentric rings: the inner ring asks “why”, the middle ring ask “how”, and the outer ring asks “what”. Every successful person and company starts with why they do something, then they figure out how they’re going to do it and what they’re going to do.

For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that there are laws made by a higher authority and laws made by man, and not until all the laws that are made by man are consistent with the laws made by a higher authority will we live in a just world.

This is a fierce belief that MLK held–it was his why–and nobody could make him change his mind. And he took this belief and he organized marches and protests (how) until his what was accomplished: equal rights.

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People and companies that fail, on the other hand, often start with what they’re going to to do and then figure out how and why they’re going to do it. To be successful at anything, figure out what your core beliefs are first. Then execute.

Definitely take 18 minutes to watch this video. It’s brilliant. It’ll provide an incredible amount of structure to the way you think, and it’s really handy for those strategic and/or existential questions that you’re encountering in your life and struggling to frame clearly in your mind.

Here’s the financial Golden Circle that I use to guide my spending decisions.


I believe financial freedom is a critical enabler to the pursuit of my goals and life dreams and to realizing my full potential.


I’ve sought financial freedom primarily by living below my means. Ever since I paid off my student debt, I’ve continued to live frugally. Here are just a few examples:

  • I shop at Goodwill to supplement my wardrobe. There are bargains galore.
  • I wear holes in the bottom of my work shoes before buying a new pair.
  • I still don’t have collision insurance coverage on my car.
  • When accommodations at my friend’s house fell apart when I traveled to LA last summer, I slept in my car overnight in a marina parking lot in Marina Del Ray. Seriously, I have the pics:
Seats folded down + backpack as a pillow = comfy accommodations
Seats folded down + backpack as a pillow = comfy accommodations
The next morning. That’s what a $200 smile looks like.
The next morning. That’s what a $200 smile looks like.


By living frugally, I now have enough cash outside of my 401k to pay off my mortgage and be 100% debt-free. Or start a business. Or invest. And leveraging any and all of these options will enable me to pursue my life dreams and realize my full potential.

Stepping Back

I think it’s important to step back at this point and point out that none of this would have been possible if I hadn’t figured out the “why”, the reason for paying off my debt. Lying in bed that one night back in August 2011 and realizing I wasn’t on the right path, that I wasn’t living my dream and wasn’t realizing my potential–and that my spending was largely to blame–helped me understand why I wanted to destroy my student debt. From there, it was a simple (and admittedly, sometimes not-so-simple) matter of executing the how and the what to become debt-free.

If you had told me in July 2011 that I’d be able to pay off my student debt and mortgage in fewer than five years, I would have laughed. However, if you figure out why it is that you want to do something, the how and the what fall into place.

I’m now working at a company I truly love, at a job that challenges me, and I’m making big plans for the future, all without the hassle of student debt (or credit card debt). I’m doing a much better of pursuing my life dreams and realizing my full potential than I was five years ago.

What is your financial Golden Circle? Why do you financially live the way you do? How do you do it, and what does it create for you?

Imagine if you determined a reason to pay off your debt and believed in it as fiercely as MLK did about the necessary consistency of laws created by man and those created by a higher authority. Imagine how powerful you could be in your own life.

Here’s an example: Do you believe that spending quality time with your children as they grow up is important? Is this a belief that you fiercely hold in your own heart? Is your lifestyle of consumption making you work around the clock to keep up with your bills? Is it taking you away from your children?

What if you adopted the following Golden Circle:

Why: I believe financial freedom is a critical enabler to spending more time with my children. These years are precious and I’ll never get them back if I miss out on them now.

How: I’ll stop living a lifestyle of consumption. I’ll start living below my means and I’ll pay off my debt.

What: By changing my lifestyle and paying off my debt, I’ll be able to work fewer hours and spend more time with my children.

No more excuses. Be real. Deep down in your heart, what do you fundamentally and fiercely believe in? Why is destroying your debt important to you?

Other Benefits to Being Debt-Free

While you’re figuring our your fierce belief, let me provide you with a few other personal benefits I’m experiencing to being debt free.

By living below my means, I can open my heart even more. In 2015, I donated my time and/or money to the following non-profits:

  • Angel House Soup Kitchen
  • Capital Area Food Bank
  • CASA kids
  • Shoal Creek Conservancy
  • National MS Society
  • Fundraiser for a memorial for my friend’s deceased brother
  • Michigan Rowing team

By living below my means, I can give some pretty good gifts. For example, in October, I’m flying my dad down to Austin (he’s a serious car and racing enthusiast) to attend the F1 race, and in a couple years, my sister and I are sending my parents on a cruise for their 40th wedding anniversary. If I were living above my means and doing it just for me, this isn’t something that would have been possible. The saying “giving is better than receiving” is very true.

By living below my means, I’m doing more. As I look around my condo, it’s impossible for me to identify anything new that’s been purchased within the past couple of years. The other saying that’s gaining more and more traction in everyday vernacular—that “memories are more valuable than things”—is also very true. Almost all of my spending beyond standard bills goes to experiences like meals out, events, and travels with friends. I have thousands of pictures and memories that still make me smile today and will supply me with smiles for years to come.

Living below your means to pay off your debt will be challenging at first and take you outside of your comfort zone. But eventually, as long as you’ve  clearly defined why you’re paying off your debt, you’ll adapt, frugality will become your comfort zone, you’ll pay off your debts, and you’ll be well on your way to realizing the “what” of your Golden Circle.

To freedom!

About the author: Feeling trapped by $90k of student debt, Joe Mihalic challenged himself in August 2011 to seek freedom and become debt-free in 10 months instead of 15 years. He started No More Harvard Debt to track his progress and paid off all $90k in just seven months. Joe lives a simple and balanced life of working, working out, and spending time with friends in Austin, Texas.

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16 replies on “★ What’s in Your Golden Circle?”

Completely agree that once you define why you’re paying off your debt, you’ll adapt and frugality will become your comfort zone. It’s mentally easier to make a choice between (1) purchasing something and (2) continuing on your path to pay down debt. Once it’s defined like that, you’ll almost always go with (2).

I’ve got a picture of my Uncle trying to push that golden circle in Savannah off its perch. At least it looks like he is.

The concept applied to my most recent endeavor (yes, another shameless plug)

Why: Physicians are burning out at alarming rates, and trying to spend their way out of misery. It doesn’t work.

How: Start a website combining wisdom from the FIRE community with personal finance info and personal stories that physicians can relate to.

What: Creating and promoting this resource will allow me to reach and inspire other physicians to make the necessary changes in their lives and begin to take control of their professional and personal lives. Site revenue will enhance its charitable mission.

I think it’s a brilliant route. Money is all the same up to a point, but being able to connect more to specific areas our groups of people are even better. And I only know like 2 or so other bloggers focusing on the medical professional field, so there’s def. room to grow and help people!

Thanks, J$. Most docs I know aren’t interested in learning how to live on $20,000 a year, or how to save an extra $5 or $10 a day. I approach FI from a freedom standpoint, as an answer to some of the pressures physicians are feeling squeezed by every day.

I do preach relative frugality as one way to achieve freedom faster, but focus on the big decisions that have the most impact, like thinking twice before looking for a second house, and avoiding mistakes that leave you looking for a second spouse.

This is a fantastic article and a great concept. I watched this TED talk a few years back and it definitely benefited me then – and again now. As I started the transition from my “regular” job to freelancing and entrepreneurship, the biggest motivator and the reason I’ve been able to pull through many challenges has been knowing my “Why”. Start there and you can change the world – as MLK did.

Thanks for the great read!

MDR has some great places to sleep in a vehicle… as does Malibu and Ventura.. Waking up ocean side is awesome!! Cheers my friend!!

Great concept with why, how and what. Understand the circle and it should be plain sailing. Kudos to being debt free and for being able to give back with your time.

OK, I do have a picture of my uncle pushing on a globe in Savannah, but it’s the wrong globe. I DO have a picture I took of the globe sculpture on this page from Trinity College in Dublin. My brain melded the two.

That’s all I have to say about that.

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