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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I Want You To Half-Retire (HR)

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I worked this week. Well, kinda. Yesterday, I drove a few towns over and dropped off a wedding photo delivery I’d shot two months ago. Between lazy shifts at my liquor store and prodding at Lightroom edits for the past few weeks, I’ve been averaging 20 hours a week for a few months now. It’s enough to get by. Considering that a week has 168 hours, working 20 hours is only 12% of that. Not a bad trade, I figure.

Anyway, I know a lot of you work 40 hours a week, and that’s certainly smart. Everything you invest now is worth 10x more, so I can see why you’d want to put in your hours and aim for an early retirement. I mean, what’s better than never having to work again? Well, as I found out, the closer I got to No Work, the worse my mental health was. When I was working just 30 days a year, I was definitely less than sane. What eventually happened was the idea of Half-Retirement, or HR. Statistics Canada “examined data for more than 265,000 workers over 28 years” and “shows that of those Canadians who exited a long-term job at age 55 to 59, 60% were re-employed in some capacity within 10 years”. Based on that, it looks like Retirement is as ill-defined as ever. Even when shown Early Retirement, most people chose Half-Retirement instead! What gives?

Well, I’ve theorized that people need to actively work on something in order to feel truly fulfilled – progress equals happiness, after all – but after some basic digging, it turns out research backs me up. In the Netherlands, over “half of Dutch workers are on part-time hours” and they consistently rank as “one of the world’s happiest countries”. Meanwhile, this article suggests “people who keep working after age 65 tend to be much happier than their peers who are retired”. This was particularly interesting to me because full-on Retirement no longer seemed like what to aim for. The goalposts had been moved. If Half-Retirement was what made people happiest, WHAT’S STOPPING US FROM DOING THAT RIGHT NOW?!? All we need is basic frugality.

I certainly feel content with a light workload, and I’m confident my decision to not frontload all my moneymaking towards my youthful years is a good one. While I’m young and dumb, I want most of my weekdays off, and I’m honestly not just fucking around with them. I’m taking time to learn skills and meet people who will benefit me for years to come. This past month, I’ve taken time to hike with FI nerds, I’ve started work on a new garden, and I’ve expanded my writing opportunities by applying for an ACTUAL writing job that I can’t even tell you about yet! It’s all stuff I couldn’t accomplish if I were working a 40-hour 9-to-5, but here I am, financially stable (though admittedly, debt is an issue) and happy as can be.

I’d also argue if you take the time for self-care early on and use an HR mentality, your health won’t degrade as much and working part-time in retirement age would be more rejuvenating than torturous. Why not half-retire now by being frugal, AND EXPERIENCE THE SAME LEVEL OF FREEDOM AS SOMEONE WHO’S 65?

Consider that Tim Ferriss wrote “The 4-Hour Workweek” after presumably mastering a 4-hour workweek. He then wrote “The 4-Hour Body”, “The 4-Hour Chef” and “Tools of Titans”. IF A 4-HOUR WORKWEEK IS THE IDEAL AMOUNT OF WORK FOR A PERSON TO DO, WHY IS HE VOLUNTARILY TAKING ON A LARGER WORKLOAD? I humbly suggest a workload of anywhere from 20 hours (working for someone else) to 40 hours (working on your own projects). Maybe fulfillment isn’t just chasing Happiness. Maybe fulfillment has something to do with Usefulness.

If HR is the goal, WE CAN ACHIEVE THAT NOW WITH FRUGALITY. Then, we can coast our entire lives on a lifestyle that even retirees find preferable to full Retirement! As someone who’s lived it, it’s fucking wonderful.

Imagine this: Most of the week, I wake up without an alarm. I poke around in the kitchen and decide what I want to make for dinner. I make sure the gardens are okay, leisurely edit some photos and maybe blog a bit while having a beer, then shop for ingredients. Making dinner is a joy. If I’m feeling particularly adventurous, I ride my trike to the brewery and pick up a growler. I go to bed whenever I feel like after some screen time. If I work in the morning, I set an alarm. Even then, it’s usually just 8 hours at the liquor store for a day, or an 8-hour wedding. It’s good to know I’m needed somewhere. I can honestly say coasting like this forever is what I want. I will never tire of this. It’s goddamn magic.

If this all sounds too good to be true, it’s not. If rent is too high, live with someone. If you’re short on cash, you can always make a buck. If paying for gas is killing your budget, live closer to what you need. If you spend too much on events, don’t pay for them. If you drink too much, use smaller glasses. And so on, and so on. You can live HR now, and it’s better than full-on Retirement. It’s just frugality and part-time work!

I had trouble finding Unconbentional’s core message before, but this is it: HR is better than Retirement, and you can have this now. Build your wealth and optimize your situation until you can live on part-time work. Give yourself the gift of free time, especially while you’re still young enough to make some memories. Work isn’t a bad thing. You need it to live a fulfilling life. What you want is work-life balance. Don’t blindly sacrifice your youth chasing a day when you no longer have to work, but also don’t be a dumbass with your money. HR is the goal now. You can make this work, and you’ll be miles ahead of the modern workforce. You. Yes, you. You can do it.

I believe in you.

Am I nuts? Tell me on Facebook.