Financial freedom through half-assity

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.

About Satisfied Ghost

I’m the Chief Ghost at Satisfied Ghost, a blog tackling financial independence mindfully.

13 comments on “Financial freedom through half-assity

  1. Well said, SG! There is definitely more than one path to FI. The most efficient path (work really hard, accumulate as much as you can, invest, and then retire) isn’t going to work for everyone. Becoming FI takes discipline and patience, and it’s a lot easier to stick to something if it suits your personality. If you love something, you can do it forever. It looks like interspersing writing into your journey has worked out great for you! I can completely see where you are coming from, because to me, not writing is like not breathing. Writers gotta write.

  2. When I was walking the path, I didn’t even know there was a path. 🙂

    I stepped to the side periodically, just because I wanted to and I could.

    Who knows. Maybe if I had been shown there was a 10 year intense path that resulted in full FI I’d have done that. But then, maybe not. I enjoyed the journey I took.

    Sounds like you’ve enjoyed yours and that’s what counts.

    Plus, in my book, 42 counts as a win!

  3. Oh dear. the FI police. I know them well. One reason I got out of the Your Money or Your Life work for over a decade was because I wasn’t living up to other’s projections of who they presumed I was, nor did I want to, and absolutely I wanted my freedom to evolve into who I’ve become. I love coming back into the community to affirm the multiple pathways to financial freedom. MMM is right. Stay in any cubicle long enough – mental, professional, hobby – and it becomes your identity and it grips you like a hungry ghost. Keep writing. Bring your voice to the chorus. One day someone might even think they didn’t do it right because they didn’t do it your way…:-)

  4. If I’ve learned anything while on this path, it’s to make it your own. Everyone will do it a little differently and what works for them, may or may not work for you. Some people believe real estate is the answer, others live only lentils to keep their expenses down. Learn from what others have done, but just because you don’t/didn’t do it their way, doesn’t mean that you are wrong. Whatever your path is embrace is, its yours.

    I was at the first week of Chautauqua, what an amazing time!

  5. If 42 is late to the retirement party, then I’ll be joining you in your failure to retire in your 30’s. I think it’s inspiring to hear of people who retired from regular work so early, but I don’t think there is a “right age” or even a “right way” to retire.

    I think it’s important to set goals and achieve your goals in a way that brings personal satisfaction and fulfillment and to live intentionally. I’m trying to stop comparing myself to others except when I find it helpful or motivational. I was really inspired by all of you at the Chautauqua and really enjoyed my time there. I’m excited to head out in the world in the next couple of years and may have to meet up with a few of you guys as my family worldschools around the globe.

  6. Good for you. Thanks for sharing about this experience. We all have our own approach to reaching financial independence and should not judge others. There are many different paths to financial independence. The best approach is the one that you can follow and enables you to reach your goals.

  7. FI may be the ultimate goal, but it sounds like you’ve been living a rich life along the way. Writing novels, raising kids, working in different careers and traveling… From what I gather, many people want to achieve FI just so they can travel or write a novel! So your half-assed approach seems like a winner. As for my own journey to FI, I made several career moves that did nothing to increase my net worth – and I had kids, which isn’t exactly the fast-track to FI. But here I am today with the experiences that made me who I am today and I’m not sure I would change a thing. 🙂

  8. “retire at the old age of 42.”
    That cracks me up. I’m 44 and have 7 years (working until we get our pensions.) You’ve done pretty well. Don’t beat yourself comparing yourself to legends like MMM.

  9. Love this post and sharing your story! It is easy to say work really hard at the start and then retire super young. I went to grad school too, and loved my time and the critical thinking it encouraged. I know I could have been making a lot more money during that time, but I’m so glad I wasn’t stressed about my salary those years.

  10. Found you through Rockstar–think this is the first time I’ve been here and absolutely love it!

    I’m sorry you were made to feel that way–even if just in the moment. I think “inspiring” to some people can be “degrading” to others. There are a lot of paths in life, and different opportunities presented to us. (That’s meant to be either a surplus of said opportunities or lack thereof.)

    I think it’s amazing that you pursued your passion while furthering your career. And look where you are now! There is no way in heck I’ll be retiring at 42, and I’m okay with that. I have experienced different life events and as a result I’ve chosen to prioritize some other things before exiting the work force. But I think it’s awesome and amazing that you’ve met yours, and done it on your own terms.

  11. The best part of this journey is that each person finds their own way to do it. There is not a one size fits all or an “absolute” approach to financial independence. Each person’s personal situation, each person’s habits/interests, and each person’s finances/risk tolerances are different. Who knows, if you try to force FI in a method that makes you miserable or makes you unhappy, you may end up choosing a different rout all together. Find what works best for you and go for it. That’s how you will be the happiest, most satisfied, and have the best early retirement possible.

    Thanks for the read.

    Bert

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