Welcome to Unconbentional!

UNCONBENTIONALFINAL

Hello.

If you’ve found your way here, you must be someone who cares about personal finance, self-development, minimalism, and frugality. You might even be someone from the FIRE movement, looking to achieve financial independence and early retirement. If you’ve read many FIRE blogs, you should know that we’re a little weirder; unconventional, even. For instance, one of my beliefs is that people shouldn’t fully retire at all, but don’t let that dissuade you from reading us. In the three years I’ve written for Unconbentional, I’ve filled this blog with insights on money, work, happiness, goal setting, and purpose.

We might not be everyone’s cup o’ tea, but Unconbentional is the story of two Bens. There’s me, the low-earner who never intends to retire, and The Other Ben, a massively successful software engineer who will achieve FI at 33. The best way to read Unconbentional is to start at the beginning, and click through one post at a time. Though I’ve occasionally changed my viewpoints (like on this controversial article), I’ve decided to preserve the blog as a whole. Everything now is the same as when I wrote it, even if it makes me look bad. My early posts were rough, but I believe that reading this whole blog’s 77,419 words will make you more savvy with your money, and smarter about how you spend it.

We kept this up for three years, but we don’t post anymore. I hope you find value in what we’ve written here! We welcome comments – we actually read them – and if you’d like to contact us live, my Twitter remains active.

If you’d like a quick taste of Unconbentional, read this and this. If those two articles jive with your sensibilities, you’re gonna have a great time here. Thanks for visiting!

We hope to add value to your life. This blog has added value to mine.

Happy reading.

All the best,
The Bens

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The Other Ben and FIRE, or One Final Note About Income

Do not wait; the time will never be 'just right.' Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along.

“What’s your FIRE number?” I asked.

“$600k CAD. And yeah, it’s based on my spending when I was in Vancouver. $24k CAD.”

We both knew Unconbentional was wrapping up, so Ben and I were having one last chat on Facebook Messenger. I couldn’t help but feel dwarfed by his success, but I was also happy a peer had made it as far as he did. In his updates, he told me he’d switched companies and was now working in One World Trade. He sent pictures. The view was spectacular.

I think he caught the tone of my recent posts though. I certainly didn’t feel very successful, though I was apparently okay at setting goals and making progress. That was better than nothing, I posited. Ben typed back.

“Mostly I’m just saying, don’t be too hard on yourself or too impressed by me, since I don’t feel like I’m being very disciplined. But also, it shouldn’t be about discipline very much anyway; mostly it’s figuring out what you actually value.”

He sent numbers. His spending was up, but he was saving 55% of his income to reach FI. Moving to NYC for a better job helped him double his monthly savings, but I was surprised to see he was spending more than me after converting USD to CAD. He wasn’t “thrifty”. Meanwhile, I was saving a comparatively paltry $250/month, but I’m not making six figures a year.

“A huge part is earning a lot,” he said. “You have much lower expenses, but like… having a high salary really makes it easier. I think I’m still on track for my goal by 33.”

We said our goodbyes and I signed off. I wouldn’t see him in person again for at least a few months, but it was nice knowing I could always get him in a chat box.

Ben will reach FI at 33. I’ll never retire, but I’ve learned that’s okay. We were on different paths. And yet, for three brief years, we were able to meet in the middle. We had the blog. It made us better friends, and I’ll be forever grateful. To YOU though, thanks for joining us on this ride. Coming up with new ideas to blog about made us better people and more financially savvy. We wouldn’t have done it without you. I hope I’ve helped.

But wait! One final thing needs to be said, and this might be the most important piece of advice yet if you’re pursuing FIRE. Read on, and goodbye.

*****

Income matters a lot. The best thing you can do to guarantee financial success is to earn as much as possible. I know that sounds super obvious, but consider BC’s average hourly wage for 2018 is $26.76. Now, look around. I know Ben, but I also know people working for minimum wage. My liquor store job pays me $14/hour, and I’m only able to make that work with other sources of income. I should aggressively seek a raise or find something better paying! Your wage is your responsibility! In a world where dropshipping or blogging can make enough for a person to thrive, the Internet has given us a level playing field and you should use it! Here’s 50 jobs over $50,000 without a degree. Guess what: Ben doesn’t have a degree either. He learned everything he knew from the Internet.

Think of the Internet as your ever-present personal employer; one that works for you around the clock as an endless source of money as long as you do your part. Use it to look for a better job. Do what I do and find clients for your side hustle. (I sell wedding photography packages up to $4,995/day.) Network with productive, frugal, financially savvy people. Learn how to boost your income!

It’s possible to get there by saving – read this on how to live in Vancouver on $18,451 for 2 – but you’ll always kick more ass as a higher earner. Ben gave me permission to publish his 2018 spending: $44,278.98 USD, and that’s for one person in NYC! The people in the link above, Steph and Cel, can live for 3 years together on Ben’s 2018 spending, and Ben’s still banking 55%! (FYI, a large portion of Ben’s recent spending has been for travel. $7,607, to be exact.)

Go to Google and look up the average salary in your area right now. Now, match it. Exceed it if you want. We’re playing for keeps. If you’re there already, go ahead and push a little further. A lot of us are too comfortable where we are because we’re afraid of change. I’m here to tell you if you’re reading this, you have Internet access and thus, all the tools required to substantially increase your income and savings rate.

If you’re finding it difficult to save, don’t relax. Not yet. I’m following up on wedding leads and asking the right people about furthering my liquor career, and it’s my “day off”.

Don’t get comfortable. Keep climbing. Work harder if it’s healthy for you to do so. Increase your income. You can control how much you save, but Ben lives a big life and banks cash like a champ. Do you want to be him… or never retire like me?

In three years of Ben vs. Ben, there’s been a clear winner.

Thank you for reading Unconbentional.

Let’s Start a HouseFIRE!

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You already know about FIRE (Financial Independence, Retiring Early). Heck, you might even know about LeanFIRE and FatFIRE — retiring with the expectation of spending <$40,000/year or >$100,000/year, respectively. You probably even know about CoastFIRE! Well, allow me to add more fuel to the FIRE! This post is all about “HouseFIRE”, and why you should care.

So what is HouseFIRE? Simply defined, it’s the stage you reach when you can retire from work just by utilizing your available real estate for money. That link has loads of tips, but if you’re a Vancouverite, you might have to get more extreme. Since I wrote this post, Vancouver’s average rent for a 2-bedroom unit has ballooned to $3,130, and landing even 1,000 square feet for that is near impossible! If you want to attempt HouseFIRE, you’ll need actual space. For that to happen, high-cost-of-living areas won’t work great, but nearby neighbourhoods might. You may find yourself with lots of space for the same housing cost just one town over! Here’s how I do it.

My $170,000 99-year leasehold is paid off, and it’s mere minutes from Vancouver. I have it until 2087, and the total from strata fees and property taxes amounts to $650/month (which I know is high). It’s a 3-bedroom condo, but one bedroom is currently an office for my photography business. I have the master bedroom, and a roommate lives in the remaining room. His rent covers the $650 I mentioned. My plan now is to relocate my office to our underutilized living room, and I’m turning the old office back into a bedroom I can rent out. When that’s finalized in March, I’ll be collecting $600/month on both rooms for $1,200 total. My strata obligations will most likely be near $700 by then, but I’m still looking at $500+ in profit! If I could live like “A” did, I’d be HouseFIREd! (“A” was living on $700/month, and paying $200 for rent. $500 for her other expenses covered it all!)

There are even people in my family who could be HouseFIREd. Mom, for instance, lives alone in a 4-bedroom townhome. If she took the master room for herself and rented the other three rooms to students, that could mean $1,800/month! If they chip in for utilities, that reduces her expenses even more! I think $1,800/month is perfect to live on. That’s about in line with what I spend now!

This is a great strategy for empty nesters. Instead of downsizing, they can maintain the value in their appreciating property, and have a source of extra income. Instead of thinking about retirement in just dollars, consider HouseFIRE! Can you retire on square footage alone? I bet some of you already can. Do it.

Working Forever Might Not Be So Bad

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Taken from a previous post:

FIRE [Financially Independent, Retired Early] 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.)”

You can read the rest of that post here, though my description of FIRE isn’t as accurate as it could’ve been. For one, since this is such a huge topic, I didn’t exactly account for inflation. The truth is if you’re 30 now, you want to aim for $1M by 65 if you want to Retire For Good (RFG). This is because $1M in 35 years only amounts to $500,000 of today’s spending power, or $20,000/year in returns based on the 4% rule. This also assumes you can live off $20,000/year. Some people can’t. From this point forward, please note I’ll be using a tilde (~) to denote future value, and no tilde to denote today’s value. Here’s a post to help you math out your saving goals now, based on ~$1M/$500K/$20K. Read those links, and the math should all make sense.

In any case, I now advocate working in some capacity forever. Here’s some of the reasoning as to why, but this little bit of math should convince you that working forever might just be the way to go. (Trust me, it’s not as bad as it sounds.)

If $20,000/year is the goal, it’s very possible that someone at 65 could make that without too much effort at all. Remember, that’s only $1,667/month. In Canada now, what you can receive from Old Age Security ranges from $526-$874. Let’s aim for the low figure of $526, and subtract that from $1,667. (OAS is considered taxable income, so keep that in mind. Also, not everyone qualifies, so read this.) You’re now left with $1,141. Let’s also assume you have some savings. Let’s say you missed ~$1M by a wide margin and only landed at ~$400,000, or $200,000 of today’s value. Going by the 4% rule which spits out $667/month, that takes you down to $474. Now, I don’t know about you, but making $474/month, even in old age, seems entirely manageable to me. When retirees somehow watch 6.2 hours of TV a day now, making $474 per month working is a better use of time and will help you retain your health. This would only mean 31.6 hours per month at $15/hour. If that sounds bleak, it shouldn’t. At $20/hour, that number’s 23.7, or only 3% of your month! That’s only if you’ve completely messed up your retirement savings! If you’ve saved ~$1M, you’re done! You can coast! But if you’re like the rest of us and see yourself only reaching ~$400,000, you should understand you can work after 65 in a way that will actually be flexible, easy, and good for you, and you’ll still be perfectly fine!

Obviously, planning for old age can be kinda scary. There’s always the possibility poor health makes it impossible for you to work. This is why you should aim for ~$1M.

Society teaches us retirement is black-and-white. It’s not. Loads of retirees continue working to supplement their income. If you save properly now, you won’t have to work at 65, but you’ll probably want to anyway. I know I will. And even if you fuck up and don’t save ~$1M in this lifetime, a little bit of work after 65 can go a long way.

6.2 hours of TV time a day is 186 hours per month. Can you use <24 hours to plan yourself a more secure retirement, or are we crazy?

Let us know on Facebook. We’ll put any feedback in a future article.

Screen Time Is Ruining Your Retirement

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*ring*

“Snffxughphlbtfuck…”

*ring*

I opened one eye. I’d slept diagonally again. Jesus, what time was it? What day was it?

*rrrrrrrrring* 

“Ugh… Hello?”

“Hello? Ben?”

I sat up groggily. “Oh, hey, Grandma. What’s up?”

“I don’t know what’s happened. The TV won’t work. I don’t know how to fix it. Can you come fix it for me?” She sounded sad and helpless. I guess when you’re retired, watching TV is a pretty big deal.

I looked at the clock. I was hoping for a leisurely office day, but so much for that. Sudden errands tend to derail hours of productivity for me.

“Sure, Grandma. I’ll be over at 2.” I hung up, and rubbed my eyes.

Man, fuck TV.

*****

It turned out to be a simple fix. Unplug the cable box, wait ten seconds, plug it back in. Too bad it took me almost an hour to figure out. Asking my Chinese grandma what settings she usually had her TV on turned into a linguistic nightmare.

As I drove home, it kinda bothered me how reliant she was on her TV. I mean, I know how bad TV can be for people, but especially seniors. Only three weeks ago, I posted on Facebook, “It’s happening again. Free time is turning into screen time, and I’d honestly rather be working.” Did you know the average American watches over five hours of television a day? And that the “average retiree spends 43.5 hours per week” (or 6.2 hours a day) watching it? This is especially troubling for us because, if you’re reading this blog, early retirement is something you’ve been thinking about. I don’t want to retire just to watch 6.2 hours of TV a day! Do you? I’ve lived it. It sucks.

But then, I realized there was an amazing opportunity here. If, in retirement, the average person could change their 6.2-hour TV habit into something more productive – maybe even something crazy like work – they could find themselves with more health and money! Read this. Choosing to continue work in a quality vocation is obviously better than binge-watching “Friends” for the sixth time, so why not just work? Work is good, as long as it’s quality work. (Think more “entrepreneurship”, less “being a cashier”. Loads of successful entrepreneurs are actually in their 50s or 60s.)

Now obviously, I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t prepare for a complete retirement. You should still prepare for FIRE (or at the very least, HEAL). All I’m saying is retirement tends to go only three ways: 1) You create a retirement in which you thrive, do all the things you’ve ever wanted to do, and are never bored, 2) you create a retirement that seems fun at first, only to settle into a purposeless existence where you’re bored, or 3) you go back to work. What if I told you #3 isn’t actually a bad thing, and can help cancel out the ennui of everyone who feels stuck at #2? Almost all the people I know thriving in retirement are still working in some way! The retired industrial design teacher I know found funding to write a book. The retired professor of psychology I know is wrapping up a year editing a psychology journal. Another retiree I know is building a house and continuing to add to his net worth! What I’m finding more and more as I get to know successful retirees is work is good for retirement. It opens up opportunities for personal enjoyment and enriches lives, but TV doesn’t. STOP WATCHING TV IN RETIREMENT.

Working past traditional retirement age keeps your brain sharp and “may even help stave off dementia”. Also, any decrease in sedentary activities like watching TV is a good thing. If you spent even 16 hours a week doing an entry-level job you enjoy – like what I do now for $13.50/hour – the ballpark math of it is you’d add ~$10,000 to your annual retirement income just to stay mentally and physically active through work. I think it’s a no-brainer. Sell the TV, and get a job doing whatever the heck you want! By this point, you’re financially stable enough that you’re retired, so even that ~$10,000 is secondary! And you’re most likely so experienced in your field, you could earn way more! You’re just looking after your physical health and mental wellbeing, and getting richer because of it!

The bottom line is if you’re retired and have a TV, that TV could be robbing you of the longevity and prosperity you’d gain from casual work. Even at 29, I see that happening to me now, so I’ve cut weekly TV time down to 4 hours. I’m choosing to work more, and invest more energy into my business. From now on, Netflix and PlayStation have no power over me. I sincerely doubt I’ll be 65 and wanting to play The Last of Us: Part XLIII.

Whaddaya think, TV-watching retirees? Is it time to go back to work?

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?