Working Toward FIRE Made Her Miserable, So She Changed Course

Gwen was one of the first “FIRE people” I met in person, and back in 2016, she was all about it. She was on a pace to retire in about 10 years from her position with a large corporation in Iowa.

That didn’t happen. She didn’t stay with that employer. She didn’t stay in Iowa. She moved out east and, as of a few days ago, is back in the Midwest, ready to start the next chapter in her FIRE  life story.

Since discovering the FIRE movement over a decade ago, she’s come to realize that the fast track to financial independence doesn’t work for her. Will she retire at a relatively young age? My guess is yes, but it will be on her own terms, without any urgency or substantial sacrifice.

This post originally appeared on Fiery Millennials.

 

 

I’ve been on the path to Financial Independence and Early Retirement for close to 10 years now. I don’t remember precisely when I stumbled onto Mr. Money Mustache’s blog but it was somewhere around 2011/2012. As a college kid, there wasn’t much I could do about accumulating assets, but it was incredibly helpful in avoiding debt.

I was listening to the Earn and Invest podcast hosted by my friend, Doc G. This particular episode featured J.L Collins, Jillian Johnsrud, and Brad Barrett and discussed whether the FIRE movement has evolved since it began and hit mainstream.

I think it was Brad that said something like “at the beginning, FIRE was mostly about earning a ton of money to save as much of it as possible to retire as quickly as you could.” As someone who was around the FIRE space then, I can definitely say that was the case. The biggest voices at the time were Mad Fientist, Mr. Money Mustache, and Jacob Lund Fisker. All 3 were earning lots of money, saving lots of money, and retired early.

If they could do it, so could I. I took a lot of inspiration from them at the beginning of my FIRE journey and you can definitely see it in my status reports from 2014–2016 ish. I was feverishly saving as much as I could, optimizing every aspect of my life, and counting down the days until I could retire at the age of 35.

 

One reason I started my blog 6 years ago (6!?!?!) was because I went looking for someone like me and couldn’t find anyone. They were all married male bloggers in their 30s and I was a single woman in my mid-20’s. They had a lot to teach me, but there was also something missing. I so wish I had had a community like the one Angela from Tread Lightly, Retire Early has created. (Ladies, check out Women’s Personal Finance! It rocks!!)

I think the thing that was missing was the voice of moderation. Yes, you can save 70% of your income, but are you happy? Or are you miserable today just to get to the promise of a happier someday once you save a lot of money?

One of the biggest pivot points in my FIRE journey was talking to Brandon the Mad Fientist. He told me he really regretted saving so much money at the expense of their happiness then. (He goes into way more detail in his podcast episode with Ramit Sethi that I highly recommend listening to.)

At the time, I was miserable. I was working for a big corporation with limited vacation time and an aura of fear about it. They were constantly reorganizing departments, aligning their workforce according to “agile practices”, and trimming benefits. Rumors abounded about the next division to face cuts.

I couldn’t see myself staying there for 40 years and there were no other big companies in the area that paid as well. Yay living in the middle of nowhere. So I saved and saved and saved to position myself better if I did get laid off or downsized.

But I wasn’t happy. I even managed to convince myself that investing in real estate was a good idea.

Narrator: It was not a great idea for me. Sure I was getting paid to live somewhere, but the stress of managing the property was making me so unhappy.

 

Timeline

 

2011: discovered the FIRE community
2012–2013: absorbed knowledge
2014: started working and saving
2015–2017: saved all the money
2017-now: ???

 

Moving Forward

After I sold my property and broke up with my partner at the time, I realized I couldn’t just go back to the working and saving world. I needed to stop hoarding all my money and live a little now while I could. I stopped calculating how much longer I had to work.

I reset my FIRE goal to something a little more realistic for my income level and partnership status. Instead of retiring at 35, maybe 45 or later. I also tried out changing my physical location. While this Midwestern gal learned she didn’t like living in huge cities on the East Coast, she still had a good time and learned a lot of valuable life lessons.

I learned I didn’t hate work. What I needed was a balanced work environment for a company that was doing good in the world that didn’t have this atmosphere of fear woven into their business model. I needed to be appreciated while performing a job that has me doing more work time than sitting around bored time. My current position fits this criteria well. It’s technically a non-profit so there are no shareholders to weigh in on business decisions.

Outside of work, I came to the realization that I like having nice stuff and room for all my nice stuff. I’m not going to go crazy, but I’m going to spend some money on hobbies. I bought a way nicer house than many in the FIRE world would say I need.

Our house might be huge, but it’s under 20% of our budget and we’re not trying to save every dollar. Living in a smaller space might save money, but having to keep my stuff in cardboard boxes makes me stressed out and sad.

 

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Coast FIRE

 

Now I am on the path to what some call Coast FI, or Slow FI. I believe Jess from the Fioneers was the first person to coin the term. With $300,000 in assets working for my future in the background, I don’t need to save more funds in retirement accounts to have a comfortable retirement. (I still save about 10% to fully get the match from my employer and cut down on my taxes but I’m nowhere near maxing them out anymore.) I “have” to work until I am 55.

Why “have” to?

Well, my employer offers both a traditional defined benefit pension plan and allows retirees to stay on the employee health insurance. It would cost so much more money for health care if I left before 55.

If you take my previous employer’s pension plan, this pension, any dredges of Social Security, and all my personal retirement accounts, I’ll be doing well in retirement. I just have to get there, first.

 

The Next 25 Years

 

I am 30 years old. I will turn 55 in 25 years. I don’t plan on working a full 9–5, 5 days a week schedule until I retire. My employer offers flexible working schedules — 4 10’s, every other Friday off, etc. I might even try to see if I can drop down to 32 hours if I can keep full benefits.

But, I also have my partner to consider in this. Just because I have to work until 55 doesn’t mean he does, too. His job is great but leadership in the office makes it a tough place to be sometimes. I would love for him to be able to exercise his FU money if it gets to be too much one day.

He’s in software development, so chances are high he’ll be able to get a job with more pay with little effort. Or, he can do a sabbatical and work on developing his own video game. Or, he can be a stay-at-home dad when we have kids.

So, all in all, I’m really grateful the FIRE community has evolved to allow a little bit more slack and a little bit more grace with regards to savings rates and going all-in on frugality. I think bike commuting has its place in the community. I think homesteading has its place. I think house hacking has its place.

And I’m even more grateful I was allowed to try all the different lifestyles to find the one that works best for me and my partner.

 



 

What will your FIRE journey look like going forward?

 

15 thoughts on “Working Toward FIRE Made Her Miserable, So She Changed Course”

  1. Subscribe to get more great content like this, an awesome spreadsheet, and more!
  2. Thank you for sharing! If you haven’t yet, you might consider checking out Paula Pant’s “Afford Anything” blog or podcasts. She’s good at “giving permission” to strategically splurge rather than be across-the-board super frugal. I’m with you rather than her on real estate ownership; it’s not for me. But you might otherwise enjoy her stuff.

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  4. I really identify with this and agree pretty much with everything Olaf said. I discovered MMM and ERE about 8 years ago. I loved the idea especially as I was often feeling depressed at work, and so DH and I pushed hard into getting frugal and saving money for several years. It paid off, and our investments grew very nicely. But then something happened. We reached 900k – MMM’s FIRE number – and didn’t feel ready. We decided to push the goal to 1.25. That came and went and we pushed it up to 1.5. That also came and went and now we’re creeping up toward 2 and still neither of us have found the nerve to quit. ‘Cause over the last few years, we’ve slowly loosened the purse strings more and more and have a harder and harder time thinking about going back to the way we were at the beginning.

    I discovered PoF very recently, but DH and I really liked the concept of Fat FIRE, and went ahead pushed our goal FIRE number up to much higher.

    And just now I discovered this guest post, and really like the idea of Slow-Fat-FIRE. Because I also discovered some other things about myself recently – I like my cash flow. I like being able to splurge on say, a fancypants bottle of wine or a nice vacation with all restaurant meals and not having to worry much about ‘drawing down too fast’. I don’t hate my job (I don’t love it, but it really is a pretty cush and relaxed low-stress gig for pretty sweet money). I’ve never been interested in landlording, neither of us (DH or me) is handy… I’ve also tried my hand at and eventually abandoned urban farming, cooking everything from scratch, and trying to find EVERYTHING second hand. (DH and I did however downsize from a 3-bd townhouse to a 2-bd condo and were all the happier for it; big house was never our thing.)

    All the things I learned from the FIRE crowd and tried out was a great exercise in both saving for the future, breaking us out of the overconsumption hamster wheel, and learning what does and doesn’t make us happy. And I’ve become quite confident that a super frugal retirement won’t make either of us happy.

    I’ll probably continue my savings rate (as I do still worry about some distant things like kiddo’s college and my own end-of-life care). But this year I’ll be focusing more on getting into things that do make me happy, and they won’t all be cheap or free hobbies. And who knows, maybe we’ll even stop keeping track of our number altogether.

    Reply
    • I like the concept of being able to retire when you want to. For me, I wanted to be able to leave my job by the time I turned 55. At that point I did not have a pressing need to retire so I kept working full time until the pressure of the job and loss of my parents caused me to go part time. During my 30’s 40’s and 50’s we travelled as a family to many places around the world and my family is better for those experiences. I sacrificed things not important to me- fancy cars and clothes. We had a good sized home for the 5 of us and I paid for 3 college educations. We recently sold the family home and moved into a smaller townhouse- and we love it. Smaller is better at this point in our lives.
      I ‘m currently 63 and can stop at any time. My nest egg is near 6 m with no debt and my expenses are about 140k per year. But I like working part time so I will continue to do so. I learned that malpractice risk kept me up at night so my part time job lowers that risk and helps me sleep better than having a higher income would. All thing in life are trade offs. You just need to know what’s important to you. I agree with the fire movement but for me I don’t think I could have quit my job in my 30’s or 40’s. I just was not ready to give it up yet even though I probably could have.

      Reply
  5. Nice post, thanks for sharing.

    This concept of taking a job knowing that you’ll be miserable so that you can make/save a ton of money is not new: Junior investment bankers…..working so many hours they can’t spend their money. Engineers working on oil rigs……where there is no place to spend their money. Etc.

    It very rarely works out. This whole thing of “life” is a marathon, not a sprint. Moderation is the key, as the victory goes to those that keep on running.

    Reply
  6. Gwen, this post hits close to home. Your quote, “I think the thing that was missing was the voice of moderation. Yes, you can save 70% of your income, but are you happy? Or are you miserable today just to get to the promise of a happier someday once you save a lot of money?” is how I felt when I was undergoing personal and professional changes.

    The FIRE community has evolved beautifully since its founding and now embraces slower or alternate paths to financial freedom, and I think these counterpoints provide balance.

    For me, I realized I was searching for financial independence and the freedom not to worry about money. I didn’t particularly care about retiring early, just the ability to live each day as I saw fit. So, I have backed off the throttle myself and have focused on living a more purposeful life where my relationship with money and everything around me is meaningful.

    Thanks for spreading the word, as anyone considering FIRE needs to hear this!

    Reply

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