One of the best parts of blogging about FIRE and living in ‘Stashtown is the parade of interesting people that pass through our lives. A couple of weeks ago, Elisabeth and her family came to visit all way from Hoosierland. She’s a professional writer with Standford credentials (the opposite of my hack-writing), so when she offered to write a guest post, I said “yes” with great enthusiasm. Take it away Elisabeth!
A Thanksgiving Pilgrimage to the Land of FI
The ordinary moment, to me, was epic: four adults outside sipping craft brews as our daughters raced through snow and unearthed dormant lawn chairs. The conversation was casual – Chicago neighborhoods, Colorado weather. Yet the presence of our hosts Mr. and Mrs. 1500 on the hallowed ground of Mister Money Mustache World Headquarters had moved this low-key gathering into life-changing territory.
Here, at what Mr. 1500 described as “the epicenter of everything,” it was clear to me at last that FIRE was not an artifact of internet hyperbole. Though I had been devouring FI blogs and podcasts, I had until then felt my emerging plans were at best precarious and more likely naïve.
If this is possible, why do so few people do it? I fretted. And, Am I restricting my family’s lifestyle only to see our savings crumple under a bear market or evaporate in a medical emergency?
Faced with Mrs. 1500, my doubts were banished. “One plus one always equals two!” she insisted, emphasizing each staccato syllable with a pointed finger. “It’s just math!”
My husband and I had made the journey for this purpose – to see what FIRE looked like up close, and to ask someone in a position to answer whether we could in fact pull it off. The notion is far removed from our ordinary Midwestern lives, where our friends are upgrading to larger houses and seem both insulted and scandalized when we broach the topic of finance.
“I can’t imagine myself retiring,” one woman told me, the word curdling in her mouth. “I’m always going to want to work.”
I will too, I’m sure, but the fact is we have lived 15 years in a place not of our choosing due to my husband’s job constraints. Though my science writing career is mobile – most of my clients are overseas – he is an academic, not easily transplantable, and we rely on his employer for health insurance. Financial independence would allow us to relocate and pursue the as-yet-unpaid artistic and literary projects we have long cherished and neglected.
Until recently, however, we had no consciousness of what we were spending, let alone what we could save. As with many in the FI community, it was Mister Money Mustache that opened my eyes to our astonishing wastefulness and shortsightedness. My husband, however, was not immediately on board.
At our recent rendezvous with the 1500s, he recalled his early reaction to my newfound frugality.
“The way she was talking, I kept seeing us living in a hole under a tarp. And what I feared most was that she would then look at me and say, ‘Do we really need the tarp?’”
Despite his resistance, I made some initial improvements, notably cutting the cable cord and eliminating impulse purchases. I also developed a beautiful budget spreadsheet based on my analysis of two years of credit card statements. Though it didn’t cut our costs substantially, it ensured we’d no longer be surprised by things like veterinary bills or car repairs. Lastly, I opened a SEP IRA and dutifully sequestered 10% of my self-employed earnings into it, matching the percentage my husband got at his job. I knew it wasn’t much, but it was better than we had been doing, and without any co-conspirators or real-life role models my ambition waned.
Then I discovered the ChooseFI podcast.
Hosted by Jonathan Mendonsa and Brad Barrett, the podcast aims to walk listeners sequentially through the steps toward financial independence. I learned from them and the Millionaire Educator about 457 tax-advantaged plans, for which my husband is eligible as a state university employee. I discovered the Wealthy Accountant, who in a subsequent consultation helped me understand why treating my business as an S Corp and opening a 401K would be a much more effective tax optimization strategy. Best of all, I encountered many other FI enthusiasts on the ChooseFI Facebook page, including the shockingly hospitable Mr. 1500.
Buoyed by these newfound strategies and supportive strangers, I showed my husband the tool that would finally secure his buy-in: Nicholas Marrone’s “Time to Financial Independence” calculator. It demonstrated that if we could save approximately half our combined income, we would reach FI in nine years, when our daughter graduates from high school.
“That took the discussion from one of fear – we are going to be destitute in old age if we don’t start saving – to one of excitement and adventure,” he later told me.
We began to buzz with the prospect of a foreseeable future of freedom. Still, it felt like a fantasy. Surely our escapist daydream would soon revert to the everyday staleness of our surroundings.
It was in this tentative state that I booked a trip to see my father in Boulder for Thanksgiving. Soon after I got the tickets, I happened upon a Facebook thread in which Mr. 1500 stated his willingness to meet with people in the area. I pounced.
And now, here I was, imbibing hibiscus cider from a tap in the MMM HQ. Mr. 1500 had appeared, a real person, exuding a calm confidence I had never seen in my job-dependent peers. His gentle kindness and genuine interest had a dismantling effect on my skepticism, accelerated by his joyful descriptions of his new and continuing ventures.
The real surprise, however, was Mrs. 1500.
Here I need to say that the media has got her completely wrong. In the coverage Mr. 1500 has received, she is minimally mentioned as “still working,” leading to the predictable comment-section criticisms that Mr. 1500 is not financially independent so much as reliant on his wife.
That perception entirely misunderstands the 1500 household dynamic. Not only is her job unnecessary from a monetary standpoint, it is also a clear demonstration of her ability to tailor her situation to her preferences.
“I love it. I just love it and I don’t want to stop,” she said of her employment. “But I’m doing it exactly how I want to do it. I go into the office twice a week, which gives me a chance to listen to podcasts on the commute and connect with my coworkers face-to-face. The rest of the time I work from home on my own schedule.”
She speaks with such wide-eyed conviction, each carefully enunciated sentence assembling like a geometric theorem, that I was utterly mesmerized and swayed. The yang to Mr. 1500’s yin, she provides a portrait of FI that captures my need for belonging and purpose, yet demonstrates infinite flexibility and self-determination.
If he is serenely independent, she is fiercely free.
This embodiment of uncompromising autonomy catapulted me past my worries. As we spoke, my calculations clicked into place as an unshakeable foundation rather than a timid hypothesis. I hadn’t been able to trust in a vision of not-working, but her example of selectively working rang tantalizingly true.
I imagined, for the first time, how it would really feel to reach FI. It would be not just a practical achievement but an existential transformation, decisions shifting from the service of survival to the fullest expression of our individual personalities, desires, and goals. What might I become, I wondered, if I wasn’t always anxious about my family’s wellbeing? What might I contribute, advocate, or build?
At the end of the evening, my husband and I left Longmont in a glowing daze. Though reluctant to say goodbye to our new friends and the certainty they imparted, we felt ready to commit to our plan.
Fellow pilgrims, I have seen the FI realm of peace, generosity, and possibility. I have spoken with its open-hearted inhabitants. And now I truly believe we all can make it to that promised land.
Thank you Elisabeth for a wonderful post! I especially enjoyed these words:
What might I become, I wondered, if I wasn’t always anxious about my family’s wellbeing? What might I contribute, advocate, or build?
I love this passage because I’m here on the other side and have experienced how great life is post-job. In the 20 months since I left, I’m having an inordinate amount of fun and my life has moved in directions that I never anticipated.
Not knowing what I’d be doing in 5 years used to scare me. I was deeply uncomfortable with uncertainty. Now, it’s the best part. Life would be boring working towards becoming a middle manager or software architect. I have no idea where my days will take me, but I’d have it no other way.
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