Can’t Handle FIRE? Try To HEAL!

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It’s 6 in the morning and I’m on a SkyTrain headed into Vancouver. From the looks of it, I’m the only one not on his way to work. The suit next to me is reading Bloomberg articles on his phone, and half the passengers are nodding off. I can’t imagine most of them want to be here. I’m listening to Taylor Swift on my iPhone and enjoying the ride because I have nowhere I need to be. My only goal for today was to write this, and I can do it from anywhere! This is the story of how I found freedom and lifelong happiness at 29. Hopefully, by the end of this post, you’ll be on your way too.

If you haven’t heard of FIRE before, it’s an acronym in personal finance writing that stands for Financially Independent, Retired Early. The Physician on FIRE guy? Not actually on fire. He’s just a family man who achieved financial independence at 39. You see “FIRE” kicked around a lot on the MMM forums too, and it’s a goal of many. It turns out most people don’t actually want to work for a living! I mean, given the choice between lounging by a pool in Guadalajara and a lifetime of office drudgery, most of us would be marching out on our bosses and guzzling Corona in no time! Well, I’m here to tell you things aren’t actually that simple. You might not actually want FIRE! To understand why, let’s take a closer look at its definition.

FIRE is generally defined as the stage a person reaches when the return on their investments is enough to cover their living expenses. A quick bit of math you can do to figure out your FIRE number is to take your annual expenses and multiply by 25. (If you spend $25,000/year for example, your FIRE number is $625,000. Start saving.) The reason for this is 4% interest is a generally accepted estimate of how much you can reliably make off the average portfolio. It’s somewhere between too-safe 2% GICs and somewhat-risky 7% index funds, and 4% just kinda became the default number. At any rate, I have no reason to dispute its logic. 4% certainly makes sense to people far smarter than I. However, FIRE is no longer a goal of mine. Part of the reason is the numbers are outside my grasp — I’ve done the math and I have no delusions about my ability to save — but I’ve also grown up a bit and experienced a different view of retirement. I now know what it’s like to barely work at all, and what I’ve found is it actually totally sucks! I needed to create value in the world to feel fulfilled, and sometimes, people were willing to pay me to create that value! Why wouldn’t I take the money? So what if someone might define that as “work”? Retirement sounds great on paper, but do you never want to work for anything ever again and just lie back and consume? Fuck, no!

With this in mind, I started optimizing my lifestyle. I needed freedom whenever I wanted, some work to feel useful, autonomy in my professional life, and enough money to have fun. FIRE wasn’t the solution because many FIRE followers try to frontload all their earning towards their early years working brutal hours, then they putter around not knowing what to do with themselves as soon as they retire! The Mad Fientist retired at 34, spent months travelling, then “realized it wasn’t making him happy”. Mr. Money Mustache basically went back to work doing construction and managing rental houses. If FIRE is so great, why are so many success stories plagued with ennui or employment akathisia? Well, it’s because full-on, work-hard-now-to-never-work-again FIRE is just too extreme. Fundamentally unbalanced, it takes too much effort in early life and too little effort in later life. In theory, it’s a great goal to work towards, but maybe there’s a better solution that can give you the good life now. I call it “HEAL”.

HEAL stands for Half Employed, Adjusted Living. It’s my way of describing a balanced lifestyle that involves half or less of a typical 40-hour workload, and adjusting your lifestyle to afford that freedom. You can achieve HEAL in a variety of ways, even if you’re young. For example, you can bump your income up so you only work 20 hours a week and spend the same as before, or you can go frugal so you can live off 20 hours of regular pay. For most, going frugal is easiest. Part-time work and frugality are key to HEAL. Some people even bump up their income and go frugal, and those people have it made. Though they might even achieve FIRE, they know “no work” isn’t the goal. What you want is the freedom to only work when you feel like it.

Here’s my situation: The last time I calculated my monthly spending, I arrived at $1,948.18. I’m bringing on a second roommate in a month or two, and the rent I charge him will cover my entire Bills category, eliminating at least $447.29. This puts me at just over $1,500 I’d need to cover in income. Working 20 hours a week at my low-pay liquor store job would net me about $1,100, and the remaining $400 could easily be covered by any photography booking! In fact, since I bill $400/hour to shoot weddings, even a single 8-hour booking covers me for 8 months! (The photography work is spotty, so I’m hesitant to provide monthly numbers. It fluctuates from $0 with no bookings to months like April 2016 when I somehow earned $6,353.41 without even shooting a wedding.) Naturally, any excess income from photography goes straight into paying off my debt, and once that’s taken care of, I’ll be trying to max out my TFSA! I’ve got this whole “HEAL” thing down! I’m “Half Employed” and my “Adjusted Living” made ~20 hours a week work for me!

If HEAL sounds good to you, here’s some recommended reading. First off, if you’re still unconvinced that you might actually want to work for the rest of your life, check out our previous blog post, “I Want You To Half-Retire (HR)”. Finally, consider picking up the Marcus Arce book, “HALF RETIRE – How to Escape the Rat Race Without Waiting to Win the Lottery!” At a cursory glance, the math in it checks out. I’m using strategies from it already.

By realizing I wanted HEAL and not FIRE, I’ve freed up my younger adult years to do whatever I want while working just the right amount to be even happier. Click the links in this post and all over this blog, and read them. People need work, and yes, I do intend to work even when I no longer have to! If you think of Work as a dirty word, it’s because you need a better job!

At 29, I’ve found the lifestyle I intend to have forever, and I didn’t even have to worry too much about retirement. What the heck is stopping you?

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What I Learned Working a “Regular Job”

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As some of you know, I have a Regular Job in retail now. Living the Retired life wasn’t working for me, so I’m not ashamed to say I spend three days a week bumming around a liquor store for $13/hour. The hilarious irony is $13/hour only covers my Drinking Expenses, but let’s get back to the point: Working in retail again has been a very enlightening experience.

As is customary in retail, I greet everyone by asking how their day is going. “Hi, how are you?” As people get off work, I’d hear the same thing over and over again. “Good, I’m done now.” I can’t believe how shitty an answer that is. WTF.

“I’m done now”? REALLY? Do people simply stop functioning the moment they don’t have Work? (I mean, I kinda did, but let’s forget that for a moment.) How about “I’m done working at my fantastic job now, and I’m going home to have a great night with my loving wife and kids”? I’m sure that’s what SOME of them mean, but you should hear their tone. Their “I’m done now” sounds like “Oh, thank God I’m away from my shitty job for another 16 hours”. Suddenly, I remembered there are people out there who hate their jobs. I wonder what that feels like.

Somewhere in all this, I remembered I was standing behind a counter, bagging a customer’s wine while they got to go home and relax. I looked at the clock. Yep, I was “stuck here” until 11:15 PM. I then realized I didn’t feel the need to be “done”. This was fine. I remembered I was here voluntarily. I know some finance bloggers kick around the idea of Fuck You Money, but this was a little different. I had no intention of burning the place down and telling my Boss to go fuck himself because I respected him as a business owner. He put trust in me, and as a Decent Human Being, I was going to do a good job whether I had Fuck You Money or not. I found myself grinning like an idiot. “Have a great day! See you again soon!”

I’m always grinning like an idiot at Work, whether it’s the store or my photography career. It’s really not as simple as an Attitude Shift because I know some people really are in shitty situations. I get that. The reactions I get in retail are astounding though. I’ve had coworkers who only ever frown. Customers assume they’re the manager. I’m as happy as a pig in shit. Customers assume I own the place. This isn’t an isolated occurrence. In all things you do, if you’re actually happy, you end up looking like the Boss. It’ll get you further than you can imagine.

On the other hand, I know a guy who works at Safeway. Let’s call him Joe because that’s his actual fucking name. He HATES his job. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him smile once. He makes that Safeway feel like a Sartre play, and he doesn’t hide it. He rolls his eyes, sighs loudly, moves like molasses. DO NOT be like Joe.

A weird thing happens when you have some security in life. Since this is a finance blog, we can narrow it down to Financial Security, which is different from Financial Independence. Other Ben is approaching FI quite fast – he’s still on track to Retire For Good at 38 – but I have Financial Security and that’s good enough for me. I love what I do, my bills are covered, and I have enough Money to get a little silly from time to time. Without FS, you end up like Joe. You spend every day waiting to be “done”. That’s like waking up every morning and simply waiting for the icy grip of death. Don’t live like that.

Strive for Financial Security. FI is too scary, and the numbers are too big. For now, let’s define FS as a lifestyle where Work feels effortless and Money just rolls in. You’ll know you’ve reached that point when a paycheck arrives and it just seems like a pleasant surprise. For fuck’s sake, have a great time, all the time. You spend 8 hours at Work every day. When you consider that’s 50% of your waking hours, if you’re miserable, GET THE HELL OUT NOW. If you’re only doing it for the Money, you’re doing it for the wrong reason.

One last story: A woman came up to me tonight wanting to impress a few guests at a dinner party. Her guests were wine snobs and she wanted only the best, but she’d heard “good things” about a major winery here in BC. Knowing what I knew about the quality of THAT wine, I steered her to what I would pick: Burrowing Owl. Stubbornly, she bought one bottle of Burrowing Owl, but her second bottle was from the crappy winery. I thanked her and sent her on her way. She came back three hours later to return the second bottle. Her guests wouldn’t even drink the stuff. “How did you know? Did you take a course in wine?” I did. I looked at the clock and I had four more hours to go. I wasn’t “done” yet.

And I was still as happy as a pig in shit.