We didn’t start the FIRE: The true history of financial independence

I used to be a collector. I collected trading cards. I collected comic books. I collected pins and stickers and mementos of all sorts. I had boxes of things I'd collected but which essentially served no purpose.

I can't say I've shaken the urge to collect entirely, but I have a much better handle on it than I used to. A few years ago, I sold my comic collection and stopped obsessing over them. Today, I collect three things: patches from the countries I visit, pins from national parks, and -- especially -- old books about money.

Collecting old money books is fun. For one, it ties to my work. Plus, there's not a huge demand for money manuals, so there's not a lot of competition to buy them. (Exception: As much as I'd love a copy of Ben Franklin's The Way to Wealth, so would a lot of other people. That one is out of my reach.)

One big bonus from collecting old money books is actually reading these books. They're fascinating. And it's interesting to trace the development of certain ideas in the world of personal finance.

For instance, there's this persistent myth of "lost economic virtue". That is, a lot of people today want to argue that people were better at managing their money in the past. They weren't. Debt (and poor money skills) has been a persistent problem since well before the United States was founded. It's not like we, as a society, once had smart money skills and lost them. The way people manage money today is the way they've always managed money.

Or there's the notion of financial independence (and the closely-related topic of early retirement). The standard narrative goes something like this:

When you read old money books, however, you soon realize that FIRE isn't new. These ideas have been kicking around for a while. Sure, the past decade has seen the systemization and codification of the concepts, but people have been preaching the importance of financial independence for about 150 years. Maybe longer.

Today, using my collection of old money books, let's take a look at where the notion of financial independence originated.

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“Playing with FIRE”, the documentary about financial independence and early retirement

In early October 2016, I flew to New York City to attend Ramit Sethi’s Forefront event, a weekend conference about entrepreneurship and excellence. As I always do when travling, I agreed to meet with a few readers and colleagues while I was in town.

One sunny morning in Madison Square Park, for instance, I sat on a bench and chatted with Travis Shakespeare. "I'm a film and television producer," Travis told me. "But I'm also into the FIRE movement. I just got back from the chautauqua in Ecuador."

The FIRE movement, of course, is all about financial independence and early retirement. And the chautauquas are annual gatherings for FIRE folks who want to dive deep into the subject. (I've now attended four of these myself.) Continue reading...

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How to supplement retirement income with a part-time job

Could you pay your mortgage, groceries, rent, insurance, medical expenses, and other bills on $2000/month? If you could, what kind of lifestyle might you lead?

Millions of retirees across America live it every day.

The Social Security Administration reports that 50% of elderly married beneficiaries and 70% of singles rely on Social Security for more than half of their monthly income. Considering that the average Social Security check is around $1361/month, this is a really tough place to be in for so many of these retirees.

And I’ve met them. Many of them.

Every year at my insurance agency, we meet thousands of baby boomers aging into Medicare at 65. We often see their shock, dismay, and confusion when they realize that the cost of their healthcare in retirement will easily eat up at least 20% to 30% of that Social Security check every month.

No matter how you slice it, even the best of the retiree budgeters out there are likely to have trouble making ends meet on Social Security income alone.

Sometimes when it comes to personal finance, budgeting isn’t the problem.

Sometimes income is the problem.

Fortunately, there's good news on that front, because we live in an age where there are more opportunities to earn extra money than ever before. Our digital world has made this possible, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

When you're on a fixed income and struggling to make ends meet, a side hustle that pays you even a few hundred dollars a month can be a tremendous help.

At Boomer Benefits, we polled our Facebook fans – largely baby boomers and seniors - to ask what kind of side-hustles they are rocking out there in the real world. What we learned is that there's a wide array of ways in which creative retirees are supplementing their Social Security income.

Polling people about working in retirement Side hustles in retirement

Today, I’ll share a few of their stories to give you some ideas for your own possible side-hustle that could potentially help to reduce financial worry and afford you a better lifestyle in retirement.

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Should I stay or should I go? Wrestling with the decision to quit a career

J.D.'s note: In the olden days at Get Rich Slowly, I shared reader stories every Sunday. I haven't done that since I re-purchased the site because nobody sends them to me anymore. But earlier this year, Mike did. I love it. I hope you will too.

Earlier this year, I sent my wife a text message: "On a scale of 1 to 10, how freaked out would you be if I quit my job this afternoon?"

My wife and I had only been married a short while, but she'd known since our second date that I didn't plan to work in my traditional job until normal retirement age. She also knew that I hadn't been very happy at work in recent months.

We're very compatible financially — both savers raised in working-class families that didn't always have a lot. We make a point of having what we like to call "Fun Family Finance Day" from time to time. On Fun Family Finance Day, we do everything from competitively checking our credit scores to discussing questions that get at the root of our money mindsets to help us create our goals.

But this question wasn't part of the plan. Not then.

And it was never on any of the lists of questions that we'd discussed with each other. It was like a pop quiz, a pothole in the smoothest relationship road I'd ever traveled...and I was the one putting it there.

Dreams Remain Dreams Without Doing

My wife and I rarely argue, but when we do it's usually about food. It's the kitchen and the grocery store that are our battleground. Our finances are fine. Thankfully, when you're confident in the life you've created and the person you chose to build it with, it's a lot easier to be honest about what's on your mind.

That still doesn't always mean you get the answer you want. Or the answer you were expecting. She responded: "Wait what. Kinda. What would you do?"

A completely reasonable and fair question. Not to mention one that I'd probably have to get comfortable answering from a lot more people.

I think my immediate reaction was: We talk about this stuff all the time, where is my, "No worries baby, YOLO!"? (I must have watched too many romcoms back before we cut cable from our lives.)

Being a grownup, it turns out, is actually really hard sometimes. I was about to learn that talking about something, and actually doing it, are a world apart.

Life is full of dreamers and doers. Sometimes those two personalities cross over. But there are plenty of people who go through life talking about so many things they'll never have the courage to try — or the discipline and determination to follow through with.

Which person was I? The dreamer? The doer? Or that fortunate combination of both?

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Early Retirement Extreme: The ten-year update

Today, I'm pleased to present a guest article from one of my favorite money bloggers of all time: Jacob Lund Fisker. Fisker founded Early Retirement Extreme in 2007. It quickly became an influential voice for the nascent FIRE movement. In fact, I think it's fair to say that FIRE wouldn't be what it is today with his work.

Fisker retired from blogging in 2011. Since then, he and I have exchanged long emails on sometimes arcane subjects. Occasionally I ask him for advice. Recently, I asked him if he'd be willing to update people on where he's been and what he's been doing for the past decade. He agreed.

Here, then, is Fisker's story of life after Early Retirement Extreme (and extreme early retirement). Be warned: His story is not short.

Early Retirement ExtremeStarting in 2007 (and largely finishing by 2011), I formalized a philosophical alternative to consumerism in the form of a 1000+ post blog and 100,000+ word book [J.D.'s review], which I mistakenly called "Early Retirement Extreme" (or ERE in acronym form). These days, I stick to the acronym form. :-P

Central to my philosophy was the renaissance ideal of spending your life mastering a productive level of competence in a broad range of subjects. This arsenal of "renaissance skills" would then be combined into a mutually reinforcing web-of-goals, which made living more interesting and balanced — but also more cost- and resource-efficient and resilient in the face of the growing complexities and uncertainties of the 21st century.

Being a theoretical physicist by training (and remaining one in spirit) compelled me to present all of this as a theory of everything, rather than the more typical format of a light non-fiction autobiography or overview. As I didn’t really figure on a general audience — it was fairly non-existent back in 2008 — that also meant using graphs and equations when applicable.

The benefit of that format was that others could use the ERE design principles to construct their own particular plan according to their own individual circumstances and goals instead of retracing the footsteps of one particular individual.

Retiring from blogging

Eventually, I considered the problem of "How to escape the earn-buy cycle in order to live a more interesting life" solved and sufficiently "communicated". In 2011, I stopped blogging. I continued to follow the ERE principles in the spirit of the renaissance ideal with the goal of solving other big problems. Being financially independent (FI), I no longer require any compensation even if I still appreciate it — if nothing else than just to keep score or divert the lucre towards more useful purposes (e.g. supporting people on Kiva or Patreon).

Career workers who don't know me typically ask me what I do for a living, expecting an answer in the form of a job title. (That tends to get awkward and I still don't have a clever response.)

Similarly, people in the FIRE community (and the media that now covers it since they discovered it a couple of years ago) expect a curriculum vitae in the form of instagram-friendly bucket-list of accomplishments. However, following the systems-based web-of-goals approach, it's really hard to answer that in a way that satisfies linear formats.

I follow many different leads and do many different things — often concurrently — and sometimes in ways where they combine and result in new, unexpected opportunities (the serendipity effect). It's therefore difficult to summarize the last ten years of my life in chronological order, so let me instead attempt it as a "skill" or activity-based resume in no particular order.

This format makes more sense since the ERE strategy is to learn something and add value to the process and its environment, a side-effect of which is that I usually don't have to pay to solve problems and that I sometimes get paid. As a consequence, my spending also remains ridiculously low. (I'll get to that near the end of this article.)

I apologize that this is long and boring, but ten years is a long time and one can get a lot done in ten years — not all of which might be as interesting to the reader as it is or was to me. So, for the sake of completeness and in no particular order, and perhaps with the hope that I don't have to write another autobiography for the next ten years, here's a first-hand answer to the question: "Whatever happened to Jacob Lund Fisker?"

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The £200 Millionaire: An early retirement story from 1932

J.D.'s Introduction
While reading an obscure book about retiring early to a life at sea -- Voyaging on a Small Income by Annie Hill (1993) -- I discovered a short story from a man named Joseph Weston-Martyr.

First published in 1932, The £200 Millionaire reads like "Mr. Money Mustache at Sea". It's fascinating. Because today I start a ten-day Mediterranean cruise, I thought it'd be fun to share this story at Get Rich Slowly.

This is a long story. It contains 8001 words, which is 32 printed pages. I've formatted it for web-based reading (I don't think you want to read a 500-word paragraph on your phone!), plus added images and hyperlinks. Please enjoy it as weekend reading!

Some images are obviously meant to illustrate the text. Others are from Michelle at Making Sense of Cents, who graciously agreed to let me use her photos here. She's been living on a sailboat since May 2018.

The £200 Millionaire

ZeelandMy wife and I were sailing a hireling yacht through the waterways of Zeeland last summer, when one day a westerly gale drove us into the harbour of Dintelsas for shelter.

A little green sloop, flying the Red Ensign, followed us into port. She was manned solely by one elderly gentleman, but we noted that he handled the boat with ease and skill.

It was blowing hard, and the little yacht ran down the harbour at speed, but when abreast of us she luffed head to wind, her violently flapping sails were lowered with a run, and she brought up alongside us so gently that she would not have crushed an egg.

We took her lines and made them fast, while her owner hung cork fenders over the side and proceeded to stow his sails. Urged by a look from my wife which said, "He is old and all alone. Help him," I offered to lend the lone mariner a hand. But he refused to be helped.

Said he, "Thank you, but please don't trouble. I like to do everything myself; it's part of the fun. But do come aboard if you will, and look round. You'll see there's nothing here that one man can't tackle easily."

We went aboard and found the green sloop to be one of the cleverest little ships imaginable.

Aboard the Green Sloop

It is difficult to describe her gear on deck and aloft without being technical; suffice it to say, therefore, that everything was very efficient and simple, and so designed that all sail could be set or lowered by the man at the helm without leaving the cockpit.

The boat was 30 feet long by 9 feet wide, and my short wife, at any rate, could stand upright in her cabin.

Her fore end was a storeroom, full of convenient lockers, shelves and a small but adequate water-closet. Abaft this came the cabin, an apartment 12 feet long, with a broad bunk along one side of it and a comfortable settee along the other. A table with hinged flaps stood in the middle, while in the four corners were a wardrobe, a desk, a pantry and a galley.

Abaft all this was a motor, hidden beneath the cockpit floor. A clock ticked on one bulkhead, a rack full of books ran along the other, a tray of pipes lay on the table, and a copper kettle sang softly to itself on the little stove.

"What do you think of her?" said our host, descending the companion.

"Before you tell me, though, I must warn you I'm very house-proud. I've owned this boat for ten years, and I've been doing little things to her all the time. Improving her, I call it. It's great fun.

"For instance, I made this matchbox-holder for the galley last week. It sounds a trivial thing; but I wish I'd thought of it ten years ago, because during all that time I've had to use both hands whenever I struck a match.

"Now I have only to use one hand, and you know all that implies in a small boat, especially if she's dancing about and you're trying to hold on and cook and light the Primus at one and the same moment. Then there was the fun of carving the holder out of a bit of wood I picked up, to say nothing of the pleasure it gives me to look at a useful thing I've made with my own hands. The carving brought out the grain of the wood nicely, don't you think?

"Now I'm going to make tea, and you must stay and have some with me."

In the harbor

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The spend safely in retirement strategy

Viability of the Spend Safely in Retirement StrategyLast month, the Society of Actuaries (a group I was born to belong to!) published a mammoth (84-page) report entitled "Viability of the Spend Safely in Retirement Strategy". Despite its opaque title, this report (written by Steve Vernon, Joe Tomlinson, and the estimable Wade Pfau) contains some interesting info about planning for retirement income.

On the surface, this report's advice seems stupid simple: To optimize retirement income, delay Social Security and make the most of required minimum distributions from tax-advantaged accounts. Isn't this pretty much what most of us plan to do? Maybe so, but I doubt that anyone else has crunched the numbers like this.

Plus, this strategy provides a specific plan for folks who haven't considered how to approach retirement income. As the authors note, most retirees fall into two camps.

  • There are the people who are scared to spend their savings, so they sacrifice current lifestyle.
  • There are those who "wing it", spending without a plan.

The Spend Safely in Retirement Strategy is useful for both groups. It shows the specific steps needed to maximize retirement income. Those steps might seem obvious to those of us who read and write about personal finance every day, but they are not obvious to our family and friends.

Here's a quick overview of the Spend Safely in Retirement Strategy (or SSiRS).

The Spend Safely in Retirement Strategy

Vernon, Tomlinson, and Pfau introduced the concept of the SSiRS in their 2017 report through the Stanford Center on Longevity: "Optimizing Retirement Income by Integrating Retirement Plans, IRAs, and Home Equity". (You can download a PDF of the paper from Stanford.)

"This strategy has a significant advantage," they wrote. "It can be readily implemented from virtually any IRA or 401(k) plan without purchasing an annuity."

That 2017 publication was mostly theoretical. There wasn't a lot of info on how to approach their strategy from a practical perspective. This new project is more about actual implementation.

They write:

The SSiRS includes two key steps:

1. Optimize expected Social Security benefits through a careful delay strategy; in this case, many middle-income retirees may have all the guaranteed lifetime income they need.

2. Generate retirement income from savings using the IRS required minimum distribution (RMD) rules, coupled with a low-cost index fund, target date fund, or balanced fund.

The authors stress that the SSiRS is meant to be a baseline strategy, a starting point from which retirees (and/or their financial advisors) can build a more customized plan. It's like a basic bread recipe that yields good results every time. If you want to make fancier bread, you're free to do so. But you don't have to.

Let's look at these two key steps in more detail.

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Playing with fire: Words of wisdom from Vicki Robin

During my recent two-week break from blogging, I wasn't just focusing on my mental health. I did a couple of television interviews. I continued to hammer out details for a potential major project (details soon, I think). And last Monday, I drove to Seattle to attend a screening of Playing with FIRE, the new film about financial independence and early retirement.

I was impressed with the turnout. I thought that maybe 100 people would show up. But the local Choose FI group stepped up their game. The theater -- which reportedly contained 278 seats -- was packed with an enthusiastic audience.

Although I've seen the film before, this was my first chance to view it on the big screen. I thought it looked great! (Even the parts with me.)

And again, I was impressed how the movie, which is ostensibly the story of Scott Rieckens' journey of discovery, really belongs to his wife, Taylor, who has to overcome her skepticism (and fear) in order to adopt a leaner lifestyle.

After the screening, I participated in a Q&A panel alongside Scott, Taylor, and Vicki Robin, who is one of my personal heroes. I was so interested in what Vicki had to say, in fact, that I whipped out my laptop to take notes!

What follows are some of Vicki's thoughts -- and my responses now that I've had time to think about what she said. Most of this is from the Q&A panel. Some of it comes from a conversation earlier in the evening.

Taking Notes

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Beyond wealth: What happens AFTER you achieve financial independence?

In their classic Your Money or Your Life, Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin argue that the relationship between spending and happiness is non-linear.

More spending brings more fulfillment — up to a point. But spending too much can actually have a negative impact on your quality of life. The authors suggest that personal fulfillment — that is, contentment — can be graphed on a curve that looks like this:

[The Fulfillment Curve]

Beyond the peak, Stuff starts to take control of your life. Buying a sofa made you happy, so you buy recliners to match. Your DVD collection grows from 20 titles to 200, and you drink expensive hot chocolate made from Peruvian cocoa beans. Soon your house is so full of Stuff that you have to buy a bigger home — and rent a storage unit. But none of this makes you any happier. In fact, all of your things become a burden. Rather than adding to your fulfillment, buying new Stuff actually detracts from it.

The sweet spot on the Fulfillment Curve is in the Luxuries section, where money gives you the most happiness: You've provided for your survival needs, you have some creature comforts, and you even have a few luxuries. Life is grand. Your spending and your happiness are perfectly balanced. You have Enough.

According to Dominguez and Robin, your goal should be to achieve Financial Independence, the condition of having Enough for the rest of your life. "Financial Independence has nothing to do with rich," they write. "Financial Independence is the experience of having enough -- and then some." This is achieved when your savings has reached a level that will sustain you at the peak of the Fulfillment Curve indefinitely.

As many Get Rich Slowly readers have discovered over the years, the exercises and advice in Your Money or Your Life can transform your relationship with money, helping to break your dependency on Stuff. It's a great book for learning how to align your spending with your values. It provides a roadmap to Financial Independence.

Where Your Money or Your Life is less good, however, is providing advice for what to do after you've reached this goal. What happens when you achieve Financial Independence? What happens when you have enough — and then some? Many people reach this place only to find themselves wondering, "What next?" It's an important question, one that's often tough to answer.

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What is money for? An evening with Vicki Robin

Your Money or Your LifeWhen I was a boy, my heroes were athletes and astronauts. I dreamed of playing pro football one day. Or, better yet, walking on the moon.

As an adult, my heroes are more mundane. They're the people who make personal finance accessible to average people. Long-time readers know that billionaire investor Warren Buffett is one of my heroes. So too is Dave Ramsey, who has helped countless people -- including me -- get out of debt.

But perhaps my biggest hero is an unassuming 73-year-old woman in cat-eye glasses who lives on Whidbey Island in Washington's Puget Sound.

In 1992, Vicki Robin (and her partner, Joe Dominguez) published Your Money or Your Life, a book designed to help readers transform their relationship with money. In 2004, the book transformed my relationship with money. It rocked my world. It inspired me to seek financial independence, which the book defines as "no longer having to work for money".

Fast-forward fifteen years.

Today, in 2019, I'm awe-struck to actually be exchanging email with Vicki Robin, discussing the past, present, and future of financial independence. And this week, when she came to Portland, I not only got to hear her speak in person, but also got to treat her to dinner.

Your Money or Your Life

Last night, Douglas Tsoi, founder of the Portland Underground Graduate School and the School of Financial Freedom, hosted a talk from Vicki Robin. A few dozen money nerds -- including some GRS readers (Hi, Scott! Hi, Brandon!) -- gathered to hear Robin's thoughts about financial independence.

For the sake of clarity, I've taken some liberties in what follows. I haven't changed any of Robin's ideas, but I've shifted some topics and quotes in order to create a smoother, more coherent flow for the blog. I've treated Robin's Q&A responses, for instance, as if they're part of the main talk. A real journalist would be mortified. I am not a real journalist.

Some folks in the audience were unfamiliar with Your Money or Your Life, so Robin started by briefly recapping the book's message.

The goal of Your Money or Your Life, Robin says, is to transform your relationship with money in order to liberate your most precious resource, time. The book's nine-step program is meant to help readers track the flow of money and stuff in their lives, guided by both self-interest ("does it work for me?") and higher values ("does it work for the world?").

It's natural that we act in our own self-interest. If we aren't right with ourselves, it's tough be of service to others. But Robin worries that too many people get stuck in the self-interest side of things and never move beyond that, never see how achieving financial independence gives them the freedom to leave a lasting, positive impression on the world.

Like me, she wants people to "live on purpose".

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