Last month I attended the Chautauqua in Ecuador. It was an amazing experience for many reasons, but primarily for the amazing people I met. People I’d been reading for years, like JL Collins, Vicki Robin, the folks from Millennial Revolution, and Mr Money Mustache, as well as a collection of amazing attendees, each inspiring in his or her own way.
During MMM’s excellent talk (see photo above), he detailed his transition from full-time work. I chimed in with a question. He answered with something like, “You were 42 when you retired? That would be too late for me. You have too many habits from working that long.” I felt like a deflated balloon. I hadn’t done this FI thing right! What was I thinking?
To unpack this statement, we have to look at the famous slide where he shows how long you have to work based on savings rate. It’s a great way to think about life and a powerful communications tool. MMM worked ten years as a software coder, saved a bunch of money, and then left to build houses. The building houses thing didn’t work out, but he’s never gone back to full-time employment. He “owns his days” as he puts it.
Or as he explains, “If you save a reasonable percentage of your take-home pay, like 50%, and live on the remaining 50%, you’ll be Ready to Rock (aka “financially independent”) in a reasonable number of years.” In that case 16 years.
With MMM’s statement to me, he assumed I had been working since college and not saving much. I agree—if I’d been working full-time in my tech marketing career since I got out of college at 21, it would be difficult to do anything else. My identity would be so tied up with that career, I would probably never have left it. But my path to FI was not the straight ten year road.
I graduated from college and worked for three years, and then went to graduate school for creative writing. I had a scholarship so it was free for me, but I gave up my full-time job and worked ten hours a week for that agency to pay the bills. I also taught undergraduates.I didn’t save anything. No debt.
After the two years of graduate school, I planned on moving back to the Bay Area and going back to work for the same agency. My default expectation was that I’d have to go full-time. A friend said, “Could you live on part-time income and write the rest of your time?” Just like reading Your Money or Your Life, it was a Eureka moment. I couldn’t save much during that time, but I wrote a novel in a year, and felt balanced and productive. My savings rate was low, but again no debt. I kept my expenses low.
The novel didn’t sell, and so I went to work full-time for a start-up, imagining I would soon be retired from dot.com millions. Well, there were no millions. I saw the hand-writing on the wall right before the crash, and went to work part-time again as a contractor for another start-up. I started a new novel, and this time was able to save a big percentage of my gross income. (I had a good gig that paid much better.)
I kept the part-time work as I amassed savings and pages in the new novel. I couldn’t sell that one either, so I agreed to take a full-time position. (Notice a pattern?) This was in 2007. That full-time job became very busy, very productive and eventually paid well. I worked eight years until I hit my number and “retired.” Now I’m writing again, blogging, spending time with kids and doing a few paid projects because I enjoy them.
The moral of this trip down memory lane: there are many ways one can be intentional about their life energy and life’s work. I didn’t follow the dominant FI path of working ten years out of school as hard as one can, and then retiring. I meandered. I went to graduate school. I worked on my creative passion.
Would I have been better off, focusing, as MMM did, and then leaving in my early thirties? Perhaps. Instead of trying to do two things, I could have devoted myself to “just work” and then “just writing.” Had I followed that path maybe I would have sold one of those novels! Instead of bad-assing life, was I half-assing?
But I also may never have left the career had I not kept my creativity burning. Even though my “paid career” turned out better than I ever imagined, I never gave my identity over to it. I kept alive the idea that I was more than my job. It was still really difficult to leave it. Harder than I imagined. And certainly I paid a price in habits and health from working so much, traveling and having two kids along the way.
But I also made more money. By keeping part-time jobs, I moved forward with my skills. By the time I was in my late thirties, I was able to earn, and save well. Of course MMM would say I didn’t need to save up that much money, and he’s right. He may also say that had I invested and earned more earlier, the magic of compounding would have taken care of it for me. But for those of who aren’t software engineers, it can take awhile to earn a decent salary.
In this community, there are definitely “FI-police” who jump on people for still working part-time, or spending too much, driving a car or buying a house. MMM is so effective because his no compromises approach inspires people. It’s a clear and successful path, and he is the perfect embodiment of that path.
But there are all kinds of people. Some do well with moderation, while others need to abstain completely. Some are engineers, others are writers. I’m trying with this blog to show there can be many approaches to financial independence. As long as you’re intentional, question default assumptions and make clear trade-offs, you are on the right path, even if you retire at the old age of 42.