My Death March to Financial Independence

My journey to financial independence hit rock-bottom in 2008:

  • My wife was busy taking care of our 1-year-old baby.
  • I was busy with a job that consumed more than 40 hours per week.
  • We were flipping a home and I was doing much of the work myself. I spent at least 40 hours per week swinging a hammer, hanging doors, installing cabinets, fixing plumbing, installing trim and setting tile.

I was always tired. I wasn’t spending time with the baby. I argued with my wife frequently. And then it got worse, much worse.

We had hired carpenters to frame out a second story on the home and they were careless. After removing the existing roof, they put tarps up to keep the house dry, but had not properly secured them. One evening, the wind blew all of the tarps off the house. A couple of hours later, bucketloads of rain started coming down. I tried to get the tarps back on, but it was futile. The rain started infiltrating the house any and every way it could: mostly by way of light fixtures and ceiling fans. I ran around the house, strategically placing buckets and salad bowls to catch the water. When we ran out of those, we used mops and towels to soak up the deluge before it damaged the hardwood floors. Only the baby slept that night.

But the wet house was really just a symptom of other problems and bad decisions. While I’m financially independent today, I didn’t go about it the right way. My journey was more of a death march. I’m telling you my story so you can learn from my mistakes.

Flip #1: $100,000 Profit!

Flipping homes consumed our lives from the year 2000 until late 2016. And it all started by accident. I had called a plumber to fix a leaky faucet in my home. I was angry when he didn’t show up, so I figured out how to do it myself.

This gave me confidence. If fixing a faucet wasn’t hard, I knew that I could teach myself other skills. Soon, I was tiling, hanging cabinets and fixing electrical issues. I learned these skills while rehabbing my first home. And then something amazing happened when we sold it:

$100,000 profit!

The fire was lit. My wife and I never planned to become home flippers, but after making big money, we were determined to find another ugly duckling and put our hammers back to work.

Flipping our Way to $$$ (and forgetting to live)

The home we chose next was a perfect candidate for a flip; cosmetically ugly, but solid otherwise. However, it wasn’t close to our jobs. We’d leave home at 6am and wouldn’t get back until 6pm. We’d then work on the home until 10 or 11pm. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

It wasn’t fun, but not terrible either. We made money when we sold, but looking back, we were incredibly busy (and again, tired) for 2 years. This didn’t stop us from trying it again. Profits are seductive!

Kitchen in flip #2

Our biggest flip was a lake home in Wisconsin that we purchased when the wife was pregnant with our first child. It took 5 years to fully complete and thousands of hours of my time. This is the one where it rained inside.

The project consumed our lives when we should have been enjoying our baby. Almost every weekend that we owned the home, we were working on it. We had taken on way too much.

Before and after

And we made mistakes with our current home too. We bought it in June of 2013 and it needed loads of work. At the time, our kids were 6 and 3. We bought with the intention of leaving it mostly as-is and then renting it when we found something better. However, we soon discovered that we really liked the area, so we chose to stay. Since we’d be living there, our plans for the home grew.

We decided to add a small second story on to the home. We paid carpenters to frame it out and then I’d complete the inside. Without kids, I could have completed the work in under a year. With kids, it took almost 4. It got even crazier when my wife, who had been been a stay at home mother, started a job in the middle of the rehab.

Current home, before and after

A major home remodel with working parents and two children is a recipe for exhaustion and stress. I didn’t want to miss out on any more time with the kids, so on weekends, I’d wake up at 5:00am. This allowed me to get work done before the rest of the family woke up. Often, I’d start working again after they went to sleep.

This home worked out well financially. We bought it for about $175,000, put $100,000 into it and could sell it now for $500,000. That’s a hefty profit, but there is more to life than money.

More than Money

I think often about how I’d do it all differently now:

We should have slowed it down. For much of this time, I was exhausted. Working 80 hours per week for years on end is insane. Looking back, I’m surprised that I never got burned out.

We should have thought twice before taking on major projects with kids. I missed out on parts of my kids’ childhoods because I was so busy working. This makes me sad.

We should have timed it differently. Life would have been much easier if I fixed up our current place after I retired. The home wasn’t nice, but we could have tolerated it for a couple years.

I should have assessed the contractor landscape, especially in the last home. Finding good help is difficult, especially in Colorado where there is a shortage of labor. My backup plan was always to hire a contractor, but finding anyone decent was impossible.

If I could sum up what went wrong in one sentence, it would be this:

We forgot to enjoy life.

I should have sat back and smelled the roses instead of the sawdust every once in a while. It would have taken a little longer, but what fun is life if you’re not living?

Financial Independence is a Worthy Goal

I’m in a wonderful place now. At 43, my net worth is over $1,800,000. I left my full-time job to work at my passion a short time ago. Because I have enough money to last the rest of my life, I can live on my own terms from here on out. Without that hard work, I wouldn’t have the big nest (freedom?) egg.

And please don’t take my tales of woe the wrong way. I told you my story today not to discourage you, but to remind you not to forget about the journey. Financial independence is a wonderful goal and I can’t recommend it enough. Live frugal, invest smart and before long, you’ll be living life on your own terms. Just don’t forget the wise words of Ferris Bueller:


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45 Responses to My Death March to Financial Independence

  1. I love the story!!! Money isn’t everything in life and there are definitely a ton of sacrifices along the way. It’s definitely something that I try to keep perspective on with a young child and making sure that I have the right balance. It’s not always easy but hopefully I can keep it up 🙂
    Mustard Seed Money recently posted…Is the Cost of a Financial Advisor Worth It?My Profile

  2. Wow, what a reminder to enjoy life each step of the way… not just at the “goal attained” phase. It can be so easy to get caught up in the busyness of life, especially with my husband and I both working full time. We have a 2 year old and while FI is a goal, we want to enjoy the journey 🙂

  3. FIREing is often a pay me now or pay me later kind of deal. I’m FIREd but l spent years working long hours as a freelance software programmer. And I also missed most of my young sons growing up.

    But overall it was a good tradeoff that I would do again!

  4. Apathy Ends says:

    Your remodels look amazing – usually don’t see many flippers do that kind of work to the exterior

    I just carried all the wood into my basement last night to start framing – hope it doesn’t take me years (we have a 5 month old) you scared me a bit! I am having some buddies come do the things I don’t know how to though, should save some time.

  5. Thanks for sharing your story!

    It’s a reminder that the price of freedom is hard work over a long period of time, but the fruits of your labour are well worth it. It must have been hard having little time to invest in your baby during the flipping days however you’ve set your family up financially *forever*.

    Thanks for being an inspiration that these sometimes hard and grinding daily steps are an investment in the future!

  6. We have definitely decided to take breaks throughout our working lives rather than go from working double time to nothing.

  7. Thanks for that rundown of a story! I’m not too handy of a guy (though I try!), but I’m always intrigued to hear about the whole flipping side of real estate.

    Flipping has always sounded like a great way in my mind to build enough equity that you can then use to invest in long-term rentals. It’s good to hear about the downsides of flipping as well… changes things in my head quite a bit!

    — Jim
    Jim @ Route To Retire recently posted…You’re Doing It Wrong! Your Personal Savings RateMy Profile

  8. I think that Charlie Munger said something to the tune of enjoying the process of getting rich. I believe that financial independence is a journey, not a destination. Of course, every journey hits some rocks from time to time…

    I want to thank you for your perspective. I struggle with taking on too much, and not enjoying any roses (and I think I am somewhat in a similar living situation as you were in 2008). I am wondering however, if you had not made those sacrifices, would you be where you are today?

  9. Mrs.Wow says:

    This post couldn’t be more timely (especially as a follow up to your last post). After a super long month(s) and the realization that I haven’t had much of a life outside of work, I need a good reminder to enjoy the journey. This was definitely a dose of perspective that was necessary for me at this time.
    Mrs.Wow recently posted…Busy is No Longer an ExcuseMy Profile

  10. Kyle says:

    Makes me feel a little better, in 4 years I haven’t done nearly as much to my home as you have. I’m constantly juggling seeing friends and family, work, fun, relaxation, and trying to fit in some home renovations. I see the pace to financial freedom is slow, just want to turbocharge it. For the last couple years though I’ve recognized my issues of taking on too much and trying to dial it back in areas, hopefully boost it in others. Now I’m very careful about what projects I decide to attempt.

  11. Wade says:

    Doing nothing and saying no is very hard.

    My sister should read this. They have 3 kids, work full time jobs and spend every other second working on flip houses. It consumes them. They are either working on a project or looking for the next project.

    Meanwhile, I value our time above all else. I invest passively in index funds and a small rental business where I am a silent partner.

    Save, control spending, keep investing costs low, be diversified and value your time.

    Flipping houses and owning rental properties is a second job and a business. As long as you know that up front, you can do ok. But it is work. It may or may not be more profitable than stocks/bonds/cash.

    Thanks for the insight and reminders.

    • Yeah, I hope that your sister learns to dial it back. Three kids, yikes.

      And this: “It may or may not be more profitable than stocks/bonds/cash.”

      I came out ahead of the stock market with the flips, but not enough to have made it worth it.

  12. It is true that, for every glory there is story. Most of the time, people celebrate the glory without taking time to find out the story. Your story will sure encourage others.
    Myfinancekits recently posted…How to get your personal loans approved quickMy Profile

    • The Roamer says:

      So true that was one thing I always wondered with not just Mr. 1500 but lots of successful people with kids.

      How the heck do they do it?

      But I guess this explains the not so rosy side of the equation. Mr.1500 you have seen great , great gains to all your hard work. No question about it, but like you said, you missed out on some family down time. And even now it feels like still trying to break the habit of running around all the time.

      I know that I can work harder than I am right now and get to FI sooner, but I’m trying really hard to find a good balance. We are moving forward at a much slower pace then you but I hope we are enjoying things more too. Of course it’s not a competition but MMM and I think even J.D.Roth have echoed the sentiment of enjoying the journey.

      I hope that is what our slower pace is doing. Helping us enjoy the journey.

      That’s why we decided to take the time off. A mini retirement to not just practice more travel but to practice more( and improve) our parenting.

      One thing I will say is your girls will hopefully take away with them some great lessons of working hard and reaping rewards later.
      The Roamer recently posted…Our San Francisco Vacation and other July ExpendituresMy Profile

  13. Your remodels look great – maybe a business in there somewhere?

    I have no idea how you did what you did for years – with the kids and the full-time job, but it shows that when you put your mind to it, anything’s possible. Of course, enjoying what you do is a critical aspect.
    Working Optional recently posted…The 8 Best High-Yield Savings Accounts in 2017My Profile

  14. Thanks for sharing. I always struggle with getting stuff done around the house and spending time with my 5 kids. Before I know it they will be grown up. What kind of memories will I leave them? Hopefully I make the right choices.
    Dividend Family Guy recently posted…July 2017 Stock PurchasesMy Profile

  15. Jason says:

    There are always changes you can make along the way. However, now you know your mistakes, which was to live more. To quote Dave Ramsey (not sure why I am) you lived like no one else so you can now live like no one else. In the end, it worked out. Congrats on coming to this point. It is well-deserved.
    Jason recently posted…What Does It Mean To Be Broke?My Profile

  16. Mr. Tako says:

    Funny enough, I used that quote from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off just last week on my blog.

    I feel exhausted just reading about your home renovations, but they did turn out really beautiful!

    There has to be an underlying passion for building renovation to drive you to do that Carl. It’s probably something you should embrace, but just not at a 80 hour a week level! 🙂
    Mr. Tako recently posted…Why I Bought LUVMy Profile

  17. I’m much too lazy to take on that kind of work. I worked 80+ hours/wk for about 18 months in the fallout of Enron (Sarbanes Oxley Act section 404 auditing) but slowed down considerably there after. I still retired at 40 (5OCT2017). You don’t have to overdo it to reach the FI goal.
    Financial Velociraptor recently posted…Tuesday Trades – ADM, EOG, CELGMy Profile

  18. I’m also addicted to the knowledge, power, and satisfaction that comes from learning a new home repair skill. Thanks for sharing the reminder to live in the moment a bit, it can be easy to always find more work in order to reach our goals, but I’ve got two small children now as well and I want to enjoy my time with them. Hopefully I can find the right balance.
    PedalsforPennies recently posted…The day the Bird flew in…My Profile

  19. Those remodel pictures make me think of the ads you see for “hair restoration” and dental implants. The before and after pictures kinda look like the same thing, but it could just as easily be a completely different one, too. Those are pretty dramatic. Nice work!

  20. Glad I read this post…
    I think in my current life stage (single, no kids), all my mind-space is taken up by building wealth; I’m forgetting to ‘enjoy life’.
    Will remember not to take the important things for granted for sure.

    On a side note, you do an amazing job on these flips!
    I’ve done a couple of live-in flips, but have yet to sell either property; choosing to rent instead.
    Mr. Smart Money recently posted…August 2017 Traffic & Income Report (My First Dollars Earned!)My Profile

  21. Excellent reminder.

    Once in a while I wonder why I’m not on fire to reach FIRE. It’s one of the few places in life where I catch a touch of envy and comparison shop lives – so many FIRE bloggers have a date and are well on their way. But. I have a small child we adore and I remember how I don’t remember anything but work from the years 2000-2010 because my life was 99% work and 1% life. I’m not making that mistake again even if it means FIRE doesn’t happen in two years for us like it will for many others. That’s ok, because we’ll still be enjoying the life we do have.

  22. Sean says:

    Interesting article that really makes me stop to think. You made $225,000 profit in 4 years and thousands of hours of your time at the expense of enjoying your life. Also, it begs the questions how much of that $225k is just from natural market growth? I know the Colorado area has been on fire. Regardless taking on a project like this has always been on the back of my mind, I am starting to think my time would be better spent on other pursuits, either furthering my career or with family. Thanks for the perspective!

  23. Thanks for sharing your death march lol. 🙂 I’ve heard of people making a killing by flipping houses themselves. You really can make a pretty penny, but it’s not without its hardships. I think, for me, it’s just too much to put up with.
    Mrs. Picky Pincher recently posted…What A Mega Frugal Weekend! September 4My Profile

  24. Joe says:

    I think you did great. Nice job. It’s easy to say enjoy the journey, but when you’re in the middle of it, you just want to push through. I did the death march thing too, but it was for just 3 years. It sucked and I wouldn’t want to repeat it. Life is great now so I guess it worked out. At least you got through it without sacrificing your health. Enjoy your retirement and slow down a bit. 🙂
    Joe recently posted…August 2017 Goals and Financial UpdateMy Profile

  25. Mr. Free says:

    I have been following you for a while and your life experience has been great for me to read about and follow. I am using Google Keep for notes, I meditate every day to the great work of The Honest Guys on YouTube, I really am now focused on what I need to do to FIRE and I have engaged my college age kids as well. Thanks for making the road a little smoother for all of us

  26. I never flipped, but I did renovate all the multi unit rentals we bought (and was also the handyman). Working 7 days a week doing it nearly killed me, to the extent it caused a bipolar episode and put me in the hospital for 3 weeks.

    You’ve done an amazing job and made wonderful progress. Congrats!
    The Side Gig Guru recently posted…I love dividends and I cannot lieMy Profile

  27. Team CF says:

    Still impressed that you were able to cope with all this and not have a (temporary) nervous breakdown (or worse: a burn out!). Guess we know our limits, that is probably why we never did what you guys pulled off, but that’s also the reason why we still are going strong to get to FI.
    Please do enjoy all the hard labor now that you can!
    Team CF recently posted…August 2017 Dividend UpdateMy Profile

  28. steve poling says:

    Bitch about Dave Ramsey about all kinds of stuff, but you can take one thing he says to the bank: Live like nobody else so that later you can live like nobody else.

    The guys who do challenging things for a living have a saying, “embrace the suck.”

    You did it. You won. You took some damage to your personal life and you’ve taken steps to repair same. Kudos.

  29. Charlie says:

    Mr. 1500

    Since you’re no longer working, how do you afford and pay for healthcare? Thanks

  30. I dunno, man. I don’t think you forgot to live – a path that has brought you to the position you’re in now (particularly with lots of youth left in the tank) is a tough one to criticize. Maybe you “missed” a few things along the way, but you have all the time in the world for your family now. Still, I think it’s good that you’re thinking about how to prioritize your life in terms of not taking on too much now that you’ve got options aplenty.

    That aside, real estate/renovation posts are among my favorite things to read. I’d love to see more of the start-to-finish transformation of your current house (the front shots look astoundingly dramatic in terms of change). I’ve got a rental property myself, with plans to pick up a couple more soon, so I eat up any/all information on smart renovation (your tile saw post made me itchy to hunt for one on CL).
    Giant Trash Panda recently posted…Jack of All TradesMy Profile

  31. Working more than 40 hours a week? Wow, that’s too much for me…Family should always come first. Work-life balance is a priority.

  32. Scott says:

    Good perspective. Now that we are FI and live full-time in our RV I am sometimes tempted to flip a house.
    Scott recently posted…Back to Pac CityMy Profile

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