FI Without RE

Back in November of 2017, a tired, burned out version of myself was pushed past his breaking point. After months of mandatory unpaid overtime, morning self pep-talks, stress-eating, and yelling at coworkers, the old Joel finally had enough. He walked up to his boss, and with a surprising, zen-like calm, gave his two weeks notice.

A huge weight was immediately lifted from his shoulders. Life felt, for the first time in a long time, wonderful. Hopeful, even. He wasn't fully FI yet, but that guy knew right then and there he would never work again. He was done. Forever.

…Until a few weeks ago, that is, when I accepted an offer for a new job.

Wait. Seriously?!

Why on earth would the guy who talked so much smack about work, and gave so much praise for being his own boss, slide back into the golden handcuffs? Is it for the money? Did sequence of return risk finally catch up to me? Were my FI estimates way off? Was it greed? Boredom? A desperate attempt to win a bet??

This is for real.

Nope. The simple truth is, I had enough time (sixteen months, to be precise) to really think about life, and learn more about myself. I had time to de-stress and recover from burnout. I had time to focus on things I actually enjoy, instead of simply avoiding the things I don't. And in that time, I learned something important.

It wasn't ‘work‘ I hated with a passion. It was lack of a work-life balance. It was mandatory unpaid overtime. It was the lack of control I had over my time and stress levels. I didn't hate work in general; I hated my specific job. It's easy to confuse the two when you're down in the trenches. I should have quit that old job months earlier. Or taken a sabbatical or leave of absence. There was no good reason for me to stay in that position as long as I did – it was unhealthy and unnecessary. I should have quit sooner. 

This is all interesting, sure, but it doesn't explain why I decided to go back to work. It seems to contradict what I said in the past about having enough. Didn't we already reach financial independence? Haven't we reached the proverbial ‘enough' point described in Your Money or Your Life?

FI Isn't Just About Me

The truth is, while I indeed have enough, I'm just a small piece of the whole picture. The Wife wants to reach more than enough – and that's one of the reasons she kept working even though she could afford to quit, financially speaking. She wants a surplus, so she can enjoy the benefits that come with having ‘more than enough'.

Like the ability to give generously to charity, and the community. The ability to treat friends and family when they come to town, without having to worry about the budget. And the ability to help when tragedy strikes, as we did recently when an (uninsured) friend suffered a stroke during surgery, waking up with no motor control of her extremities, and six figures of unexpected debt.

Our aging parents haven't reached their enough level yet, either. Most recently, my (uninsured) dad found out he needs five figures of dental work, and I want to be able to help him financially without being paranoid about its effect on my portfolio. In my hierarchy of life priorities, family is always higher up than money.

I'll make the hay. My cat will supervise.

And finally, though I may be FI, I still happen to be young and able-bodied. Unlike my friend I mentioned above, all four of my limbs still function. I'm lucky. And I realize now there's no better time to “make hay” then while the sun is shining, as the saying goes. The good luck streak my wife and I have enjoyed this past decade won't last forever. Our situation (and our parents' situations) can, and likely will change over the next couple of years, so I'm going to get while the getting's good.

Now, I should clarify, I didn't just have this eureka moment one afternoon and apply for a job the very next day. These are realizations that came gradually, over time, as my burnout faded. In fact, I had some sense of this even before I quit my job, when I said that my worst case scenario was everyone else's everyday scenario. But since I'm deciding to go back to work under my own free will, I get to learn from my past mistakes and do things differently this time around!

Instead of focusing solely on maximizing salary, as I would have done in the past, I found a job that respects work-life balance. A job where part-time and remote work is possible. Where “low stress” and “no overtime” are actual conditions of my employment. It's so important for me to have time for things besides work: like physical fitness, visiting family, and my numerous creative projects (like this blog, my podcast, and my music). This new job promises to give me this balance, as well as a few other perks…

Work Can Actually Be Fun!

Since so many of my past posts focus on the negative aspects of work, it's time I admit there are actually a few nice things about it as well (besides the paycheck, of course). For starters – I actually like this job! (I know, these words seem strange for me to say out loud.) But it's true – the technology, the people, the program goals, it all seems perfect for me.

In particular, I'm enjoying the social aspect of the office: running into friendly faces each day, conversations around the water cooler, and of course, afternoon coffee time. As an adult, making friends is harder for me than it was back in school, but work helps. I admit I always took this aspect of the office completely for granted. And I know there are plenty of ways to be more social without having a job, but since starting up this new gig, it's is a feature I'm truly enjoying.

Another thing I realized about myself during my sixteen months of early retirement? I'm not quite as self-motivated as I originally thought. Sure, I still accomplished a lot in my time off of work, but my day-to-day motivation was lacking. Why get up and get dressed early in the morning when you can lounge around in your pajamas until noon? I appreciate this on the weekend. But seven days a week? I don't know if that's for me.

What I do know is that it feels good to be dressed and out of the house early each morning. It feels good to plan my day over coffee and feel like I'm firing on all cylinders. And it feels good to learn new things during my day. Could I have done all this myself every morning without a formal job? In theory, yes, of course. Did I? No. No I did not. Go figure.

Yep. This looks about right.

Another benefit of working? I like to call it the “momentum of work”. Productivity in one area tends to rub off into other areas of your life. I've noticed that on my busiest days, when I have many things on my plate, I build up a momentum that makes it easier to tackle otherwise overwhelming tasks on my to-do list. For example, I updated this blog almost twice as frequently, on average, back when I was working full-time. So perhaps I'll have the momentum to finish off the dozens of posts that have been accumulating in the FI180 draft folder! 🙂

Here's the thing: everyone is different. Everyone has different motivations and behaves differently when left to their own devices. If you've never taken more than a few weeks off from work, and don't know how you'd act in similar circumstances, I strongly suggest you try it out! I learned more about myself during my year away from work than any other year of my life. Everyone should have a chance to try this.

Summary

Why'd I go back to work? Because a pretty awesome opportunity presented itself and I liked everything about it. The extra income to help me better support family and friends in need. The flexible schedule, remote work capability, and focus on work-life balance to help keep me productive in my many creative endeavors. And the position itself – this is one that genuinely interests me!

With perfect hindsight, I would have quit my old toxic jobs sooner. And more often! I needed a break from the grind every few years. Maybe you do too. Not only would my stress levels have stayed at bay, but there's financial incentive to switch companies every few years as well. Each time I've taken a new job, I've seen a salary increase in the 10% to 20% range. If you aren't close to FI yet, and feel like you need a break, I strongly suggest you save up your FU money and take a few months off while you look for that next opportunity.

How long will I stay with this new job? A few months? A few years? Who knows.  Whenever The Wife is ready to quit, or our parents have a nice safety margin, or I stop enjoying this job, I can easily transition back into early retirement. But this question sure seems a lot less important now that I know I'm in control! I chose this job specifically with work-life balance in mind. And I can (and will) leave if that balance ever fails again.

Now let's be clear. I'm not endorsing that you work any longer, or go back to work if you've already started early retirement. Nor do I think I need to go back to work with any financial urgency. Taking this job is simply something I wanted to do. It's an amazing opportunity, and it checked all the right boxes for work-life balance. It's what's right for me, and my family, right now.

This is the first job I've taken since reaching financial independence. The first job I picked willingly, without feeling obligated to work. I chose this job, as work is optional for me. This small fact makes working feel… surprisingly different than it's ever felt before. One friend described it as “putting the handcuffs back on while holding the key.” That's a fun analogy, but to be honest, it doesn't even feel like handcuffs anymore.

Because FI isn't about retirement. It never was. It's about freedom. The freedom to work, or not work. The freedom to spend your time doing whatever you damn well please. And the freedom to change your mind.

As many times as you like.

So Much Time & So Little To Do!

Wait a minute. Strike that – reverse it! I know, I know, I haven't updated this blog in months. What gives?! If things get any more sporadic around here I'll be on the Miss Mazuma publishing schedule! 😉 Maybe I should adopt the slogan of Wait, Buy Why and claim that I'll have “new posts every sometimes”?

But seriously, it's been a very busy (but exciting!) few months for me. Instead of publishing something for the sake of schedule, I'd rather focus on quality over quantity when it comes to these posts. I have a few new ones in the works, but I'd rather take my time and deliver the same standard you've come to expect from me these past two years…

Two years to the day, in fact! On this day two years ago, this crazy blog was born at CampFI in Gainesville, Florida. A lot has happened since I launched this blog: I sold a rental property, exercised my FU money, quit my job, and eventually reached financial independence! I watched this blog grow from an average of five readers per day to over five hundred daily visitors! And I met a ton of amazing new friends, many of whom I saw IRL for the first time at FinCon this past September!

So… what's been keeping this early retired guy so busy these past few months?

Creative Stuff

This Christmas, I collaborated on a really fun project with Scott of I Dream Of Fire and MSF of My Sons Father to create a FI Christmas video featuring Jonathan and Brad of ChooseFI, Scott from Bigger Pockets Money, and even Suze Orman! My brother and I created the music at my home recording studio, Listen Loud Music. And I performed those smooth crooner style vocals myself 😉 . Lyrics were written by Scott, and all the great Lego animation was created by ‘My Sons Father'. If you haven't watched the video yet, it's a real treat:

Speaking of music – my brother and I actually just completed an ambitious project we've been working on for a few years: we created the soundtrack for an original musical! Think Frozen meets Aladdin, but with a fresh sound- we essentially took a stab at creating a soundtrack for an imaginary Disney movie. It's called Cannetella, and it's based on an old Italian fairy tale of the same name.

My brother John and I at work in the studio

It was a TON of fun to make, and we finally published it online. The Wife and I had some fun laying down the demo vocals, so if you're into musicals, you can stream it for free right here:

And if you really can't get enough of hearing my voice, I'm happy to announce that I'm now a podcast host! My friend Lauren and I just launched our brand new podcast In Love and Money, which explores topics like combing finances, retiring single, prenuptial agreements, marital money disagreements, and much more! We're on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. We're aiming for new episodes every other week, and you can start listening right here:

And in a bizarre colliding of passions, my music life and blogger/podcaster lives are combining, as I've recently started licensing my original music for podcast use! That sweet theme music you hear in the In Love And Money into is the instrumental version of my song Juliet, and Cody and Justin on The FI Show are now using the instrumental from my song The Real Thing. A few other podcasts will be using my music soon as well, so this is turning into a pretty cool side hustle! If you know anyone who needs original music, send them my way!

Sweat & Hard Work

Alright, that pretty much sums up my “sitting in front of a computer” style work; now let's talk about some of the more physically demanding work I've been up to.

Mr. Money Mustache says that hard work is the key to happiness, and he must be on to something because I've been working harder and feeling happier than I have in a long time! One week per month, I've been traveling down to south Florida to spend time shadowing my dad, who owns his own home repair business. A third generation contractor, my dad is the handiest guy I know, but I never learned his trade growing up. My parents always insisted I study hard, go to college, and get a good degree, and so I never really picked up the handy gene.

Here's Dad and I pouring a new concrete slab in his back yard

But that's changing fast – each month I'm working on different jobs with him, trying to absorb as much knowledge as I can. Here's just a sampling of some of the things I've learned lately: Deck construction and replacement, fence repair, AC unit maintenance and troubleshooting, garbage disposal repair, installing outdoor electrical receptacles, roof repair… the list goes on.

All these skills are great, but being able to spend more quality time with my parents every month is one of the best benefits of being financially independent: I finally have time for the important stuff. I'm so thankful for this – I've gone from seeing my parents three or four times a year to seeing them once or twice a month. As an Italian, family is one of the most important things in life, and I'm so lucky I have the opportunity to spend more time with them.

Dad and I working together on a roof in South Florida

All this hard work with my dad increased my ambition for making improvements to my own home, so I recently started the process of re-landscaping (de-landscaping?) my back yard. The previous homeowners decided to put a large berm of plants and trees directly in the center of the back yard. While it did provide privacy, having a giant planter in the middle of the yard was less than ideal. So I've spent the last week clearing brush, transplanting mango and citrus trees, and leveling land. Check out some before and after photos:

Before: A ton of overgrown vegetation taking up the majority of our yard.
After: we have a yard again! I still have to fix up the fence and the sod, but it's a start!
Another angle showing how much more space we have now.

This was hard but rewarding work. And I had the physical strength required to do this project, thanks to the custom workout plan my brother made for me when I started early retirement. For the past year, I've been following his plan:

  • Mondays (Chest):  flys, bench press, incline press, and decline press
  • Tuesdays (Legs): extensions, curls, squats, and calves
  • Wednesdays (Back + Shoulders): pull-ups, rows, and shoulder press
  • Thursdays (Arms): close grip bench, skull crushers, dips, curls

This plan is perfect for me, as I get to frontload my workouts at the beginning of the week, leaving three-day ‘weekends' for travel, rest, and leisure. Most workouts take about an hour or so to complete. Since first starting my brother's program over a year ago, I've put on fifteen pounds of muscle mass, and increased my resistance on the bench significantly.

My brother shares a Google doc with me so he can set my goals for each week
My squat numbers have more than doubled. And I went from being able to do only six pull-ups, to doing four sets of fifteen pull-ups! This strength came in handy pulling out roots, moving trees, and lifting heavy bags of yard debris. My brother's taking on new clients, so if you think a custom-tailored workout plan might help you achieve your fitness goals this year, email me and I'll put you in contact with him.

Fun!

It hasn't been all sweat and hard work, however. While working on this daily exercise routine, I started listening to all of the Harry Potter audiobooks. I don't know how it happened, but I'm that guy that must have lived under a rock these past two decades because I missed out on the whole Hogwarts craze. But during my workouts, I ended up listening to the entire 125 hours of magic! According to the sorting hat on Pottermore, I'm a Ravenclaw, and this really resonates with me! Gryffindors are brave to a fault, and Slytherin are often too ambitious for their own good, so its no wonder my favorite character was Luna Lovegood.  I really, really enjoyed these books! 🙂

In other fun happenings… I got to sit down with Rita Skeeter… er, I mean CNBC reporter Anna Nova, along with Big ERN and the Physician on Fire at FinCon this past fall, resulting in this CNBC feature on early retirement. It was a lot of fun, and I love seeing positive news like this in the media.

Last but certainly not least, I just got back from CampFI Southeast in Gainesville, Florida, where I gave a presentation on how to think about money, titled “So You Want To Be Rich?!”. It was really well received, and you can watch the entire presentation right here:

If you've never been to CampFI or Camp Mustache, you really should go. I've been to four of them, and they are truly amazing experiences. I wrote a review about the first camp I ever attended here.

Summary

So there you have it. A new post that is essentially a well-organized list of excuses for why I haven't made a new post lately. 🙂 But you know what? That's part of the beauty of financial independence – I get to work on what I want, when I want to! Between my new podcast, my various music projects, and preparing for my presentation at CampFI, my post schedule around here has become a bit sporadic.

That's not to say I haven't been working hard on the blog… I have a dozen drafted posts, including an update on our current portfolio and allocation, our future drawdown strategy, and my take on the current sale going on in the stock market (hint – if you don't already front load your investments, now is the time). These posts will all be rolling out over the next few … well, we'll see.

Thank you, dear reader, for an amazing first two years!

Reaching for the Moon(shot)!

This week, I'm thrilled to be featured on Coryn Quester's “Discover What's Possible” Podcast! In the interview, we talk about everything from the ‘Why' of FI,  to the most challenging aspects of financial independence for those just starting out. But one of the more interesting questions she posed really got me thinking. ‘What's your Moonshot?'

Google's research labs refer to their ambitious projects as ‘Moonshots'. Moonshot thinking, so it goes, is the process of setting really large, ambitious goals that are usually orders of magnitude more aggressive than those set by SMART principles. Also known as ‘10x Thinking‘ in the business world, the logic here is that you shoot for the moon so that, even in a worst case, you can ‘land among the stars‘.

Thinking Big

This sounds nice and all, if a tad trite, but does it actually work? Shouldn't we all stick to the tried and true, safe and effective strategy of incremental progress instead? When I was in business school pursuing my M.B.A., this was indeed what was parrotted. Giant leaps, while possible, add more risk than shareholders would like to take on. Just focus on incrementally increasing profits and shareholders will be happy.

This is where I passionately disagree with mainstream business teachings. Just as we in the FIRE community scoff at the standard “save ten percent of your income” advice, so too I scoff at the idea of small incremental gains with small, easy to achieve goals. Instead, what I've seen is that ‘giant leaps' not only provide companies with key strategic advantages, but they also create entirely new markets with essentially unlimited growth potential. And having the audacity to reach for giant goals can pay off just as well to individuals as it can to companies.

When Walt Disney bet every dollar he had on the idea of a feature-length animated film, the world scoffed. Snow White was dubbed ‘Disney's Folly' in the years leading up to its premiere. Who would ever want to view a two-hour animated feature?

When Steve Jobs announced the iPhone on stage in 2006, other phone manufacturers scoffed. Who in their right mind would ever pay over $500 for a phone? At that, a phone with no physical keyboard?!

When Elon Musk set the goal of creating self-landing reusable rockets just a few years ago, people in both the scientific and business communities cast strong doubts. Surely if economical, self-landing rockets were possible, NASA would have solved it by now!

(Above: The reaction video for the first successful SpaceX vertical rocket landing. I dare you to watch without grinning from ear to ear… it's impossible!)

Long-term Thinking

Starting to see a pattern here? Setting big goals has huge potential payoffs. Each of the examples above created new markets and capabilities that previously didn't exist, cementing each of these as companies as major players in the global economy. Disney went on to create a previously non-existent theme park and entertainment empire. Apple became the worlds first trillion dollar company. And Elon? Well, he's just getting started.

The mission of Tesla isn't to create the best electric cars. It's to “accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy”. The mission statement of SpaceX isn't to create the best reusable rockets. It's to “enable the space capabilities necessary to enable a self-sustaining human civilization on Mars and make life multi-planetary.” Now THAT's a moonshot!

Sure, you could argue I cherry-picked the success stories and ignored the dozens of other failed moonshots of history. Fair enough. Moonshots are hard, by design. Only a small percentage of them succeed. But what about all the people who played it safe and never attempted their moonshots? Well, exactly NONE of them succeeded! This is why setting big goals is so important. The more who do, the more who succeed, and the more we all collectively benefit.

Certain CEOs are catching on. Virgin CEO Richard Branson was recently quoted saying the following:

“When positive, heartfelt values are instilled in your team, they will be empowered, they will feel appreciated and know they are part of a bigger mission than just making money. This will come across in the way they treat your customers, who in turn will prove to be more loyal to your brand and service. And, in the end, this will reflect positively on your profits too.”

Richard gets it. When you optimize solely for quarterly profit, you always put short-term thinking first, and you very well may lose out in the long run. Steve Jobs always reiterated that by making the best possible product, profits would never be a problem. And he's right!

Profits are a wonderful side effect to doing things right, but not the goal. In the same light, in the personal finance world, financial independence isn't the goal: it's simply a side effect of doing things right. So the goal shouldn't be to make money or reach FI. It should be something.. big, and full of purpose. This is where moonshot thinking comes in.

Having a Moonshot isn't just for companies and CEOs. It has the power to enact positive change at the individual level, too, and is a powerful technique we can all benefit from.

My Moonshot

In my interview with Coryn Quester, the moonshot I gave is relatively simple: I want to help millions of people reach financial independence! That's a lofty goal, but… why? So I can create a demand for lucrative financial independence courses I could sell? So I can make more money off of affiliate links?*

Nope! It's because I firmly believe that financial independence can bring about real positive change in the world. Skeptical? Consider this: When money is not a concern in someone's life, they're more likely to be happy. No more fights with your spouse about bills and debt. No more dreading the work week. No more participating in “the grind” because you need to make money. Instead, financial independence can help bring real meaning and purpose to your life, allowing you to focus on your passions, regardless of the paycheck.

Financial independence also has the ability to reduce crime and corruption. It helps people think clearly, without fear. If you never need to worry about money, you don't need to steal, and you become less susceptible to bribery and potentially malicious management. More and more people will be able to live according to their values and morals, without ever having to sacrifice these for money.

I really like the water analogy. If I have enough water, I really don't want too much more. I have running water in my house. I have the proverbial ‘enough‘ discussed in ‘Your Money or Your Life'. If an employer was offering me a two-ton pallet of water in exchange for my software engineering services, I'd laugh, and then decline their offer. But what if I were literally dying of thirst? I'd probably be willing to lie, cheat, and steal to get more water.**

Sure, there will always be greedy people who, no matter how much money they have, will still want more. But this is a small fraction of people; for the majority, if their financial troubles are resolved, they'd have the opportunity to live a life full of meaning in accordance with their values. This can lead to true happiness. And happy people are less stressed, less likely to have road rage, and maybe, just maybe, less likely to shoot people in a movie theater or nightclub***?

Wishful thinking? OK, let's bring it back down to earth with something concrete: The wealthy tend to donate orders of magnitude larger sums to charitable causes than the working middle class. Recently, MMM donated his first one hundred thousand dollars. That's HUGE compared to my measly United Way paycheck deductions I gave when I was employed.

I realized pretty quickly that many people pursuing FI end up having way more than they need thanks to the magic of compound interest, and their capacity to give becomes enormous. If more and more of us follow this path, we could have the power to make significant impacts on global problems like poverty and hunger. This makes our cities and towns, and in turn, the entire world, a much better place to live!

There's another positive in all this FIRE spreading business as well: a natural side effect of financial independence, saving money and reducing lifestyle inflation, is a significant reduction in resource consumption, which is good for the environment! It's for this reason that Mr. Money Mustache has said his not-so-secret moonshot is to in fact help save the world with his ironic cult.

Summary

So that's my moonshot: delivering the idea of financial independence to millions of readers. De-mystifying concepts like wealth accumulation, growth, and drawdown to help empower the next generation of free people. Free from the shackles of jobs they despise. Free from financial stress and pressures to act against their values. Free to pursue lives of happiness, purpose, passion, and creativity. And maybe, just maybe, with a side effect of helping reduce consumption, saving the environment in the process.

Is it ambitious? Hell yeah! But if I don’t aim big, what’s the point? Why get passionate about anything? Why do anything significant? When JFK addressed the nation in his famous 1962 speech, he summed things up moonshot thinking pretty succinctly, and, well, literally:

“We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”

So, what's your moonshot? What do you want to do to change the world? If you didn't need to work for money, what would you spend your time on?

Thanks again to Coryn for having me on her ‘Discover What's Possible‘ podcast, and introducing me to moonshot goals. If you haven't already, head over to her podcast and subscribe. You'll be glad you did! 


*Full disclosure: I did earn around $50 last month on blog monetization via affiliate links. This pretty much pays for the cost to keep things running, and I have no intention of turning this into a huge, profitable website. That would create wayyyy to much work for this lazy retired guy. 😉 Also I hate ads, and can't stomach the idea of peppering the site with them.

**I've actually seen insanity like this break out here in Florida in the hours before a hurricane hits. Trust me when I say it isn't pretty.

***The Pulse nightclub incident was close to home for us here in Florida. I'm not saying FI can solve all of the world's problems. But if it can reduce the occurrence of these type of events, say even by 1%, then I'll do everything I can to spread the word.

Early Retirement Fun!

It's been 250 days since I quit my stressful job in software engineering to dip my toes in the early retirement waters, so I wanted to give you an update on post-retirement life.

First, some big news: I was one of the winners of the FinCon scholarship program this year! If you're going to be at FinCon in September, I'd love to meet you in person. This is my first year going to the conference, and I'm looking for cool people to hang out with, so let me know if you'll be there. If you want to go but haven't signed up yet, use this link to buy your ticket before prices increase at the end of the month.

Oh and speaking of FinCon, did you know you can nominate this blog for a Plutus award? I'm in the running for best new personal finance blog, and the winners will be announced at the conference! If you'd like to nominate me, simply click here, enter your name and email, then scroll all the way down and click the submit button. The link automatically fills in my blog in the right spot, so you don't have to type anything else.

Other big news: A few weeks ago, Brad and Jonathan of ChooseFI interviewed their wives on an episode of the podcast, and during the hot seat, Laura chose my article “A Letter to My 22-Year-Old Self” as her favorite article of ALL TIME! I was beyond excited, as this is one of the articles I am most proud of. I wrote it as a guest post on the Fiery Millennials blog a while back; if you haven't already, you can read it here.

A (Semi) Productive Routine

OK enough shameless promotion, let's talk about some new lessons I've learned since my last lessons learned post. As it turns out, it took me quite some time to get into a groove after quitting my W2 job, but I think it's safe to say I am finally happy with my daily routine. Take a look at my average weekday:

  • 6:30am: Wake, coffee, breakfast
  • 7:30am: Daily goal setting
  • 8:30am:  4 hours of structured time
  • 12:30pm: Lunch
  • 1:00pm: Afternoon walk, phone calls
  • 1:30pm: 4 hours of unstructured time
  • 6:00pm: Weight training and cardio
  • 7:30pm: Dinner
  • 8:00pm: Relax and turndown
  • 10:00pm: Sleep

The first thing to notice is I get a lot of sleep – around eight hours every night. This is a luxury, and I'm enjoying every minute of it. I still try to start the day as soon as the sun comes out, so I've gone back to using the alarm clock (gasp).  As it turns out, my hatred of the alarm clock was unwarranted; getting up early isn't so bad when you get to spend the day doing the things YOU want to do!

After breakfast, I set my daily goals, and start a four-hour block of ‘structured' time, which is basically my terminology for focused work. Writing for the blog, producing music, doing important household maintenance, etc. Since I am pretty easily distracted, I use the ‘Forest' Pomodoro timer app to stay focused during this block. This is in contrast to my four-hour block of ‘unstructured' time that I have in the afternoons, which is basically flexible time to do whatever I want: run errands, play piano, read a book, or even play video games. This routine really helps keep me feeling accomplished while providing plenty of flexibility to work around life.

In the afternoon I start my fitness routine, which has been going great. My brother is my personal trainer, and with his help, I've gained over 10 lb of muscle and lowered my body fat by 5% so far. I still have a ways to go, but I'm extremely pleased with the results I'm seeing. Sticking to a routine is KEY – an hour-long workout can feel like torture if you don't have a solid plan. Consistency is what matters most here.

Staying Social

My routine isn't the only thing that's improved: so has my accountability. A few months ago, I joined an Early/Semi-Retirement Mastermind group with the bloggers from (name dropping time!) Fiery Millennials, Shift Upwards, Kiwi and Keweenaw, Dragons on FIRE, and I Dream of FIRE… It's a monthly conference call where we all share our transitional challenges and triumphs. This has been a great experience – having a group of people who understand your situation and can keep you motivated and accountable for your goals is a wonderful thing! I can't speak highly enough about this group – at times I feel like a slacker, because, well, I am. These people are really productive!

The Mastermind also helps with another realization I've made since quitting cubicle life: I miss chatting with coworkers. I totally underestimated the importance of socialization at work, even the small stuff. Stopping by a coworkers desk to see if they saw the latest movie, sitting down for a ten-minute coffee break, etc. I didn't realize how important these daily interactions were to my psyche until I left the workplace. Having the Mastermind is helping out quite a bit, and I've also been working hard to get over my introverted nature and reach out to more people. Justin from Root of Good recently wrote about the importance of staying social in early retirement, and it got me thinking about ways to make friends.

One way I've reached out is by joining a local hiking* group with some people in my area. Once a week, a group of us meet up at a new hiking spot and spend a few hours out in nature. It's peaceful, helps me get my steps in, and keeps me social.

One of the friends I made on a recent hike!
One of the friends I made on a recent hike!

All this time in nature has helped me realize that I didn't really hate my job, or work in general, but instead, I hated my lack of work-life balance. Now that my burnout has subsided, I'm realizing that – similar to my hatred of the alarm clock – my frustration was misplaced. Looking forward, I can see myself potentially taking on some future part-time work (especially if I can't convince The Wife to quit), not because I need the money, but because I enjoy feeling productive, useful, and social. The key is having a balance of work and life, and the LIFE portion is what was missing from my previous job. These past few months, though, I've been more than making up for it!

Time for Friends…

Remember the ‘important things' I mentioned in our about page? “We chose FI to have more time for the important things in life.” Well, here's a sampling of some recent adventures I've had time for since quitting:

This past April, I presented at CampFI in Virginia and had a blast hanging out with dozens of cool people on the path to FIRE. One night, I even got to sing Karaoke with Miss Mazuma, and started a backstreet boys revival band with Big ERN of Early Retirement Now! Sorry, no photos here- too incriminating for the internet.**

Last month, I spent a week in Sarasota visiting my old college roommate who I haven't seen in quite some time. It was great – we biked down to Venice beach, bar and appetizer hopping along the way. Next week I'm heading out to Connecticut to visit an old high school friend, and after that, I'm stopping in Atlanta to round out the friend tour! It's so nice to have time for this stuff again… last week some friends and I visited a new brewery in town that has classic arcade games, and I crossed a childhood dream off my bucket list: I actually beat the original Simpsons arcade game!

I waited almost thirty years to see this credits screen…

…and Family

Family is another big reason I wanted more free time. In the spring, I visited my parents for a few days and caught up with them. I slept in my childhood bedroom and reminisced about old times. My dad and I took the bikes out and rolled down a new bike and pedestrian greenway they built nearby: miles of ultra wide lanes, beach and park connection access, and best of all: no cars!

Biking trails are the best!
Biking trails are the best!

A few weeks later, for the first time in a long time, I took a trip down to the Miami area with my brother to spend a day cooking with my Grandma. She taught us her recipes for eggplant & chicken parmesan and stuffed Italian peppers, and we had the best time! This is the type of trip that I just didn't make time for when I was living in burnout land, but is so important. My Grandma won't be around forever, but now I'll remember this day every time I cook stuffed peppers. After dinner, Grandma showed us boxes of old family photos and told some pretty hilarious stories.

This is some legit Italian food right here.
This is some legit Italian food right here.

My goal is to start having Sunday dinners with family and friends every week. Spend the majority of the day cooking, then spend the night around the table telling stories and laughing – this is essentially when I'm happiest, and my goal is to make it a weekly occurrence instead of a monthly or yearly one.

Music

In addition to spending leisure time with friends and family, I've also been keeping busy in my home recording studio writing and producing new music. Songwriting is a passion of mine, and for the first time in a while, I have the bandwidth to really dig in.

My home recording studio
My home recording studio

Back in high school, I used to sell aspiring singers original songs for a thousand bucks a pop – it was the ultimate side hustle! I built up a pretty great network, and made enough money to build a sweet home studio. But, my parents were convinced I needed to “go to college and get a REAL job“, so I had to put my music on hold for a decade or two. Unfortunately, I lost most of the network I built up, but the good news is I have time again. And I'm slowly getting back into the game.

I've built up a new music website and uploaded a handful of demo songs across a few different genres: rock, pop, ballad, etc. If you are so inclined, check it out and let me know what you think! I sing vocals on the majority of tracks right now, but my goal is to collaborate with other talented musicians and singers, so if you know anyone with a great voice, point them over to me. 🙂

Writing

It's true that I've slowed down on the blog posts a bit lately, but I’m still writing! And not just music… I'm working on a FI book, though it's still in the early stages. I've been taking my sweet time on it, because, well, I have time. It's hard to stick to strict personal deadlines in early retirement for some reason.

But you know what? That's OK. As I've mentioned before, my goal is simply to write whenever I feel inspired. When I feel passionate is when my best writing flows! It's true for all my creative endeavors: blogs, books, music… and lately, I've been spending lots of time living life and getting inspired. One thing that has me motivated to continue working on my book is the recent ChooseFI episode on publishing with author M.K. Williams. I met M.K. at Camp Mustache SE in 2017 and was inspired by her writing. If you haven't read Enemies of Peace yet, get on it – it's a real treat.

Besides the book and blog, I've also been contributing content to FIology, an awesome online resource for everything you ever wanted to know about FI, organized into convenient lessons with lots of links to articles in the FIRE community. I actually just spent the weekend with David, who runs the site, and had fun hanging out at the beach and sitting around my backyard grill. It's a small world in the FIRE community: David is actually the twin brother of Stephen, who organizes all of the CampFI events. These brothers are so dang passionate about FIRE and spreading the word that sometimes I feel like a slacker. Hey wait – I already mentioned feeling like a slacker earlier in this post – is this the common theme of my early retirement lifestyle?? 🙂

You got a real attitude problem, McFly. You're a slacker!
You got a real attitude problem, McFly. You're a slacker!

HEY – WHAT ABOUT MONEY?!

OK, this is supposed to be a financial blog, and I haven’t written anything about money in this post! The funny thing is – I haven't really been thinking much about it lately. Since quitting work, I've found that money just isn't on my mind as much as it used to be, and actually, I find this quite refreshing. I'm really only checking up on my portfolio once a month, on the first, to update my net worth and track my spending for the month.

One cool money thing I made recently is a LEGO*** portfolio to help visualize things and show change from month to month. It's pretty cool: red blocks represent cash, blue are international stock, green are domestic stock, and yellow are bonds. Each individual LEGO block has four raised dots, and each dot represents one thousand dollars in our portfolio. Spreadsheets are great, but there's something really tangible about being able to hold your portfolio in your hands and add or remove a few blocks each month.

Our portfolio is colorful but blocky
Our portfolio is colorful but blocky

While I haven't been thinking about money as much lately, it doesn't mean I haven't been writing about it. There are still PLENTY of finance-related posts in my backlog: rolling over HSAs, avoiding deprivation in FI, some new reader requests, new interviews, and more! But no promises on a publishing frequency: to quote one of my favorite blogs Wait But Why, I publish “new posts every sometimes”. 🙂

Summary

So that's what I've been up to this summer! Between traveling to visit friends and family, writing a book, producing music, working on my physical fitness, and singing karaoke, I've been quite busy – busier than I ever imagined I'd be in early retirement. But it's not all non-stop action: I've learned to move at my own comfortable pace, and leave plenty of downtime for relaxation and reflection.

Don't confuse being busy with being productive – they are two different things. I struggled for a few months feeling guilty for not accomplishing more with all of my free time. I had to make peace with that and find a balance – that's where my four hours of structured work per day comes from. The equivalent of a 20-hour work week, this is the right number for me to feel accomplished while still leaving the vast majority of my time available for reading, cooking, and relaxing – as it should be! I actually discussed this on twitter recently with Justin from Root of Good:

Having free time available to spend on things that are meaningful to me is really what this Financial 180 was all about. As I've said before, time is more important than money. You can always earn more money, but you can't buy more time. So, you need to spend it on the people and experiences that matter most.

This is what FI is all about!


*Well, it's probably not considered ‘hiking' here in Florida because we have no elevation, but it's a nice outdoor nature walk that lasts a few hours.

**If you see me at FinCon I'll show you in person…

**I'm not the first finance blogger to do this: I remember seeing a picture of a LEGO portfolio on another blog, but I can't remember which one! If you know, let me know in the comments so I can give them credit.

FI is Hard

A common theme here in the financial independence community is simplicity. Mr. Money Mustache has his classic “Simple Math of Early Retirement” post, which took the FIRE world by storm. Jim Collins wrote “The Simple Path to Wealth”, which has become the de-facto starter kit for people looking to begin their own journey to FI.

The problem is, too many people hear SIMPLE but think EASY. There's nothing easy about FI: it requires hard work. The sacrifices you have to make to increase your savings rate are… hard. Testing out your frugality limits and going full on gazelle is hard too, at least at first, until you get into a good groove. For some, it's harder than others.

I like to use the analogy of getting into really good physical shape. Low body fat, visible muscles, maybe some six pack abs. It's actually quite simple: eat fewer calories than you consume, do about an hour a day of weight training, maybe sprinkle in some cardio a few times a week. For the more advanced you can watch your macros and supplement your protein intake. Simple!

But let me tell you, it's not easy. I've been working on my fitness for six months now, since quitting my job last November. I've put in over an hour a day, six days per week. And I'm still nowhere near the fitness level I want to be! Having discipline over how you spend your calories is HARD. Getting into a solid weight training routine is HARD. If it were easy, everyone would do it! It's simple, but it's still hard work. Reaching FI is no different.

When FI is even HARDER

I often hear feedback along the lines of “Of course YOU were able to retire early. You had no student loan debt. You and your wife had dual income! You have no kids!” And you know what? That's fair criticism! For someone without these advantages, FI is even HARDER. Your journey will take longer, and you'll have to become more of a financial badass than I did to hit FI in a similar amount of time.

Let's measure this badassity with something called the ‘frugality muscle', a term coined by Mr. Money Mustache that measures how hard you're willing to work to raise your savings rate. Before our Financial 180, The Wife and I were on track for a 40+ year working career, despite our above average household income, because of our poor spending habits and weak frugality muscles. Once we discovered how to strengthen these muscles, however, our journey shortened to under five years.

Anyone can improve their frugality muscles, regardless of income, but those who earn less are still at a disadvantage. If two different people have equally strong frugality muscles, the time to FI can still vary based on their income level. But didn't we learn that the length of the journey depends entirely on savings rate, not income?

The discrepancy is that you might need to work harder and apply more frugality muscle to achieve the same savings rate as someone with a higher income than you. This is compounded by the fact that at severely low-income levels, a significant percentage of your income goes to essential purchases like food and shelter. Because this concept of ‘frugality muscle' is still a bit vague, let's look at three concrete examples of how the wife and I strengthened ours.

A One Car Household

After the car accident that kickstarted our Financial 180, we decided to become a one-car household. Many of our friends and coworkers thought we were crazy – how can two adults working at two different companies get by with only a single car?

It wasn't easy. We would have to coordinate everything. Every day we'd need to plan out our agendas. “What off-campus meetings do you have today? I need the car for an errand at lunchtime. Can we do a car swap at 3pm for my after work activities? Oh, you need to work late? I guess I'll work late too. Can Jim give you a ride home today?”

There were some days where our schedules would line up, and things worked out nicely. But more often than not, our shared car arrangement was a pain in the behind. I was stuck at home some days with no car. Or The Wife had to stay at work a few hours later than she would have liked. This was hard, but we flexed our frugality muscles and stuck with it.

As I wrote about in my Car Problem post, the majority of drivers severely underestimate the cost of their cars. I estimate in the five years we've been a one-car household, we've saved around $30,000 in depreciation, insurance, registration and fuel-related expenses that we'd incur with a second car. And that's just over five years. In perpetuity, accounting for average market return on the difference, our savings would be closer to $200,000! By simply eliminating the second car, we were able to shave years off our journey to FI.

What if we earned less but still wanted to reach FI in the same amount of time? We would have needed to push our frugality muscles even harder to reach the same savings rate. We could have started biking to work. We could have carpooled with friends and split the gas. We could have moved within walking distance of the office. Some of these options are harder than others, but the financial reward is usually proportional to the effort.

House Hacking FTW?

As I wrote about in my Frugality vs. Sanity post, we house hacked by living with family for a few years to help us pay off our mortgage. We were able to simultaneously live rent free and rent out our previous home for a few years (albeit it still at a loss). This was frugal, but also tested our sanity and pushed our frugality muscles almost past their breaking point.

It's not easy living with family, especially when your lifestyles don't line up well. Navigating the murky waters of family favors, guilt, and indebtedness is painful, particularly if you're a bit of a control freak like me. Saying it was hard is an understatement. I bit my tongue so much I'm surprised it didn't fall off! It wasn't without its reward, however.

I estimate our four-year arrangement saved us around $50,000, and jump-started the savings snowball that led to our mortgage payoff. The accelerated timeline and larger up-front investments we were able to fund as a result are worth even more.

We could have saved even more if we had trained our frugality muscles harder. Instead of moving into a new single-family home after our house hacking journey, we could have moved into a small apartment with roommates. We could have bought a modest duplex and lived in one side and rented out the other. We could have AirBnB'd our guest room. The harder you work, the more your frugality muscles grow, and the shorter your time to FI.

Learning to Cook is… Hard

For years, The Wife and I ate most of our meals at restaurants before our Financial 180. This was one of our particular problem areas, and in 2012 we spent over $12,000 eating out! We knew we needed to start cooking at home to save money, but it was hard because we were bad at it, and didn't like our own cooking.

We spent the better part of a year learning to actually cook well. I'm going to be a complainy-pants for a minute and tell you – this process was the worst. There were so many secret shame pizzas ordered to cope with our many failures. But practice makes perfect, and through the hard work of persistence, we started to improve. Eventually, we got to a point where we preferred our own cooking to our favorite restaurants. We even optimized our grocery shopping, learning how to plan meals for the week in advance, and where to shop for the best prices.

When all is said and done, I estimate our frugality muscle saved us over $40,000 in food expenses over the past five years. In perpetuity, we've shaved well over $200,000 off our final FI number. And there's plenty we could have done to push this even further: we don't clip coupons, we don't have a big chest freezer to stock up on deals when they happen, and we don't even have a Costco membership!

How extreme you push in the savings direction is entirely up to you. If you're happy with your current lifestyle and savings rate and have a good work-life balance, there's really no need to go crazy. The stress associated with achieving extremely high savings rates can be daunting and throw you off course. However, if you want to accelerate your timeline, you can always push harder, as I've shown in the examples above. Work together with your family to figure out where your balance is, and tailor the journey to meet your needs.

No Pain, No Gain

Hard work is rewarding, and indeed, Mr. Money Mustache claims it's one of the secret ingredients to true happiness. But it isn't always fun, especially in the beginning. Everyone has different pain points and different levels of comfort. And some people just want all the things.

I miss having unlimited cell phone data. I secretly envy my friends with Amazon Prime and Hulu and Spotify premium. I intentionally avoid looking at the new iPhones to keep the desire to upgrade at bay! But these choices, while uncomfortable, added up to well over a thousand dollars per month! This is what it means to work your frugality muscles.

Becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable is one of the keys to our success. But instead, what do many people do when they discover something is hard? They make excuses! There are SO many articles like this popular one from The Outline that make it seem like only those with high incomes (in this case, the Frugalwoods) can reach financial independence.

Articles like these get me so fired up because they just aren't true! They seem to be some sort defense mechanism against the FI movement; in fact, this isn't even the first time I've written about this. Check out my “Why You Can't Retire” post for my a rebuttal against a similarly voiced New York Times piece.

Everyone wants a reason to believe that their inefficient, expensive lifestyles are justified. That way they don’t have to change anything. Because FI is hard! Reducing your expenses dramatically isn’t easy. Saving money requires work. You HAVE to get out of comfort zone. Just doing what's comfortable is what everyone else does. And living like everyone else doesn't make you wealthy.

The ironic thing about the above Outline article is that the Frugalwoods are actually some of the most transparent in the FI community. They fully acknowledge all the good fortune and privilege they’ve had thus far. But because the article only focuses on the income variable, they completely discount this concept of frugality as a muscle.

Increasing your frugality muscle is extremely effective at shaving years off your working timeline, in most cases significantly more so than simply raising your income. In fact, If you look at our annual spending vs. asset growth below, you can see how quickly a change in frugality muscle can turn around your finances. If this doesn't show the power of good financial habits, I don't know what will!

We drastically cut our spending
We drastically cut our spending
...and started a dramatic financial 180!
…and started a dramatic financial 180!

How Strong Are Your Muscles?

So, based on the potential savings we've discussed so far, the literal million dollar question is: what are you willing to do that most people will NOT? Where can you go to get out of your comfort zone and save money? Here's a sampling of some of the areas we've chosen to flex our frugality muscle thus far:

  • We stopped eating out every day, because, money
  • We worked really hard to get better at cooking
  • We did a TON of reading – probably 2+ hours per day – on FI
  • We moved in with family for a few years even though it sucked
  • We went down to one car even though it was inconvenient
  • We canceled a lot of fun stuff. We don't even have Amazon Prime
  • We moved closer to work to reduce our commute and fuel costs
  • We broke out of our unlimited mobile data addiction
  • We got used to warmer house temperatures in summer
  • We resisted the urge to upgrade our phones, electronics, cars, etc.
  • We dramatically reduced frivolous traveling, shopping, etc.
  • We said no to friends who wanted to do expensive things all the time
  • We installed low flow heads in all of our showers and sinks
  • We drove a small Honda instead of a larger SUV or Truck
  • We altered our schedules to avoid traffic
  • We reduced our meat consumption
  • We avoid expensive insurance options in favor of high deductible plans
  • We mitigate our driving risk by driving slower and less frequently

There's plenty of other ideas that our frugality muscles are still too weak for: renting out spare bedrooms, downsizing to tiny house, moving in with roommates, subletting out of someone else's spare basement, renting a place in walking distance to work, couch surfing, whole house pet sitting… and so many more. I met Scott Trench from Bigger Pockets at CampFI earlier this year, and he wrote an excellent book called “Set For Life” that really dives into some of these items in detail.

Most of these will really test the strength of your frugality muscles. Some of them may work better than others for your family's specific situation, but if you put in the hard work, your frugality muscles will grow. We're actually relaxing some of these now that we've made it to our FI point, which means we may have pushed harder than what was sustainable for the long term. But we did put in the work, and the results were truly dramatic.

Summary

The Wife and I hit FI in less than five years, and it was hard. Having only one car was inconvenient. Living with in-laws for a few years was unsettling. Learning to cook well was arduous. Giving up my unlimited data plan wasn't easy.

We still had it easier than others, however. We were able to avoid some of the more extreme savings scenarios because of our dual income. We didn't need roommates*, we didn't need to downsize into a tiny house, and we didn't even need to eat macaroni and cheese in the dark**!

Mr. Money Mustache often tailors his content to people like my wife and I. With our relatively high middle-class income, if we had chosen a ten-year period for our Financial 180, we could have done it with significantly less effort. Not EASY, but perhaps quite a bit more comfortable. But we chose a five-year turnaround, which made things much more challenging. We chose to go outside of our comfort zone to attack the heavy hitters in our budget: transportation, housing, and food.

Yes, we had a pretty good income***, and I'm so thankful we were able to turn things around as quickly as we did. I realize that others might have to work harder and for longer to accomplish the same thing. But given a good income, would you still be willing to make the choices we made? Would you still be willing to do what others won't to maximize your savings rate? Dave Ramsey has a quote that's always stuck with me: “If you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else.”

What are you and your family doing to work your frugality muscles??

 

*But we still had a roommate last summer! And it was an awesome experience I plan on writing about in a future post. Spoilers: Our roommate was also on the path to FI! 

**This is an expression I use when describing someone who might be pushing so hard to reach that FI finish line that they are no longer enjoying life. Don't actually do this.

***At least according to east coast, low cost of living standards. For transparency, if you average our annual household income across our working career, it comes out to about $150k a year.

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So hopefully this post helps inspire you to go out there and start saving! If you haven't already, the very first step is to determine your current savings rate, and compare it with your desired FI timeline. Then, start tracking all your spending and investments so you can follow your progress against the Milestones of FI.