The Other Ben, or How to Retire at 33

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Ben is the most successful person I know. I’m actually embarrassed to be writing today’s post, mainly because I know I’ll never be as awesome as he is. Through sheer determination and innate frugality, he’s now on track to Retire For Good at 33. He’s 27 now, so he’ll be done in six years. SIX FUCKING YEARS. Here’s how he did it.

Those who have been with us since the beginning know there are two Bens: the dumb one – that’s me – and the smart one, Other Ben. Where I rack up Debt buying shiny things and drinking, Other Ben quietly drops thousands into his RRSP every month and doesn’t even blog about it like a tool.

He’s the kind of Ben I want to be when I grow up.

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Ben grew up in the woods, and never went to school. The year was 1999. He was living in a solar-powered house two hours out of Ottawa, and had no TV. City life was a foreign concept to him. At 11, he learned how to read, and how to code. With basic internet and online tutorials, he started learning HTML, JavaScript, CSS, and Flash. Within a few years, he mastered them, and started working on his own projects. He coded a chat system by 16. He became the webmaster for a local food co-op and started making $20/hour. He made Mac builds for The Battle for Wesnoth. He ported Frogatto & Friends to iOS. At 23, he moved to Vancouver. That’s when I met him.

Ben had many interests, but two stood out. The obvious one was software development. The second, quieter one was financial independence. He wanted absolute freedom from the rat race, and looked forward to a day when his investments generated enough passive income for him to Retire For Good and pursue whatever other project he wanted. He soon found work, and started making double what I do. He stayed there for four years.

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I messaged Ben last night. He’s in Brooklyn now, resting up before the first day at his new job. He’d just finished three months at Recurse, and I was asking him details for this post.

“What online resources did you use to learn code?” I asked.

“I started learning from people on IRC,” Ben said. “IRC was an interesting place, because often people were pretty rude and almost intentionally unhelpful when answering questions… But I hung out in the #web channel for a long time, and just sort of gradually absorbed knowledge…”

His new job makes him $100,000+ per year. His education was free.

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Ben’s not alone. I mentioned before he’s never had formal schooling. He hasn’t even been homeschooled. This isn’t really a surprise to me since I’ve always believed that modern academia is outdated in the internet age. Why bother memorizing history or doing equations longhand when you can bring anything up at the touch of a button? Mr. Money Mustache even posted an article recently where he mocked “fancy education” and simply suggested “Knowing how to Use a Goddamned Computer”. Ben figured this shit out early. I have diplomas worth tens of thousands and I’m just… me. Ben’s kicking my ass.

Formal education is the pits. In the internet age, you can learn anything for free. According to this article released by the Canadian Federation of Students, those “requiring a Canada Student Loan now graduate with an average debt of over $28,000”. Holy fuck, that’s more than I owe and I basically just partied for five years. Can you imagine what the damage would be if I were going to school too? “42% of Canadians under 30 years old still live in their parent’s home”. I got out and own my 99-year leasehold, and I don’t even have a bachelor’s degree. “In 2014, youth un- and under-employment among Canadian youth was 27.7%”. Well, that’s depressing. I have 2.5 jobs. What are these kids doing with their fancy degrees?

Being a self-starter will ALWAYS trump formal education. Ben is proof of that. Even I’m proof of that. The simple desire to get out there, make money, and be happy is NOT tied to academia. Ben will retire at 33. I take time off whenever I want. We both have a six-figure net worth, and neither of us have a degree.

Want success? Get out there and learn without paying someone to force you.

You’ll be a millionaire in no time.

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EDIT: The original version of this post was edited to hide personal details. Ben has also spoken up, and would like to clarify his goal is financial independence at 33, not necessarily retirement.

Hate Your 9-to-5? Start a 10-to-2!

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I was hungry in 2007. I had just given up on my childhood dream of becoming a film director, and I held a diploma in Motion Picture Production that I knew would never be useful. I’d just wasted two years, and all I had was an entry-level DSLR and no plan. I knew I needed to make money, and I sure as hell wasn’t gonna do it in a Burger King. Even at 19, I thought I was too good for that shit. I was a typical millennial, full of pride and not enough shame. I was on my way to being a fuckup.

One night, I opened Craigslist. At this point, I’d been a casual photographer for seven months and was halfway through Project 365. I always had my camera on me, and took at least one picture a day that year as a sort of visual journal. I thought to myself, “What the hell, I’ll try and make some money as a photographer. Everyone else seems to be doing it.” I was naïve, but Craigslist was the ultimate equalizer. Browsing through the postings, I discovered a couple: Sarah and Russell. They were eloping in Vancouver and needed a shooter on the cheap. I had no experience and asked for $60. They said yes.

From 2010 to 2013, I had bills to pay and had a day job in a high-end liquor store. By then, I was making equal amounts in both jobs. The only difference was my liquor store took up 40 hours a week – the proverbial 9-to-5 – and my photography was relegated to 10 PM and into the night, or what I called my “10-to-2”. A mental shift happened when I was fired in 2013. If I was making the same amount of money in 20 hours a week doing photography, what was stopping me from utilizing my other 40 hours doing the same thing and making even MORE money? Maybe I could even have time to myself! Holy shit. So I started doing that, and it all began with my 10-to-2.

This isn’t a new idea. Gary Vaynerchuk talks about working on your passion from 7 PM to 2 AM in his book “Crush It!”, but I don’t know how sustainable that is. Four hours a night after a leisurely dinner was what produced the best results for me, and I’m a night owl, so 10-to-2 was what stuck. Some people, in dire need of money, might suggest taking on a SECOND full-time job similar to their 9-to-5. I’m here to tell you that’s a great way to kill your dreams. 80 hours a week? Faced with that, I’d rather swan dive into a wood chipper. 80 hours a week at jobs you’re not passionate about WILL kill you. I used to do 40 hours at my regular job and 20 at my passion, so 60 hours a week. That was tough. Within three years though, I’d moved to 20 hours at a liquor store job I don’t financially need and 8 hours at photography. Hell, throw in the 2 hours I put in every week writing for this blog for an even 30! Where some people grind out 80 hours a week wanting to die, I work way less and work for fun! And the bills all get paid!

You don’t even need to do it for the money. I fully advocate that ANYONE should have a “10-to-2”, whatever the hours. If you follow your passion and have even an iota of business sense, you CAN make money, but that’s not the point. What matters is you’re finally realizing the potential inside you to do something you actually care about. Write that novel. Fix up that old car. Learn to code. Start that personal finance blog. You’ll even be happier at your day job, knowing you can work FOR YOURSELF later in the day! It’s exhilarating.

In the movie of your life, what would you like to see? Is your narrative arc really as a photocopy jockey, or do you see yourself building a startup in your basement that will take over the world? Do you want to make someone else rich, or do you want to strive for greater and eclipse your boss? The decision is yours. What will YOU do tonight?

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.

What I Learned by Retiring for 2 Years

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Realizing I didn’t need a day job anymore was pretty freaking cool. I figured this out in 2014.

2014 was a year of both awesomeness and shittiness. I lost my dad that year. I also inherited the money I needed to get out of my substantial debt – $25,000 at the time. Since I’m the Dumb Ben though, I wasted no time at racking up more debt. I owe $19,000 now. More on that later. I was also able to get my place sorted out. I’m now the owner of a 99-year leasehold property in Richmond, BC. For those of you unfamiliar with leaseholds, I basically own the property, just not the land underneath it. I have 72 years left before I get booted out. I’ll be homeless at 99. More on that later too.

The remaining 72 years are all paid off. It was $170,000. The strata fees and property taxes are 100% covered by the rent I charge my roommate. I’m super lucky, and as I type this, I can already hear the lynch mob forming. At 27, I don’t have rent.

That’s not to say I do nothing. I have a successful wedding photography business, and charge up to $4,400 for my packages. I hardly count it as Work though. I love every part of what I do, and outsource the stuff I don’t like, like editing. On my last $4,400 wedding, I outsourced virtually everything except the actual photography. Time investment: 1½ days. The lynch mob is banging on my door now.

So with my photo “work”, food was covered too, and then some. Now what? For me, the answer was Retire. Sure, I’m cheating a little bit, but I was “working” around 30 days a year, and was frugal enough that I could live off that. I don’t care what you say. I was fucking Retired.

No lies, it was great at first. I could get up at 4 PM, slam two beers, play Minecraft until 9, then hit the pub. I got to see my friends and family whenever I wanted. I’d go on adventures, disappearing into the US for weeks at a time. I even made it to the UK for my friend’s wedding, and made some great memories there. And then… I just sat on my ass a lot.

Like, A LOT. What I didn’t know was the first 40 hours of Minecraft are pretty fun. The next 200 hours are significantly less so. I started gaining weight. I developed a drinking problem. My mental health started to suffer. Getting together with my friends got more challenging, since they had work and families, and I just kind of had… nothing. My life, without Work, suddenly had zero Meaning. I was suddenly a depressed slob who couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a shower. Since I only ever worked at weddings, and was always too focused on taking pictures instead of interacting with people, I’d often go weeks without an actual conversation. I mean, it’s no wonder so many people die right after retiring. Read this. Without a purpose in life, even if that purpose is as silly as earning money, why go on?

I realize this sounds like the privileged whining of a 1%-er, and in many ways, you’re right. I have what a lot of people want. I thought I wanted this too. I want you to reconsider Retirement though. What would you REALLY do if money were simply not an issue? What would you do with your life if you had an extra 8 hours every day? If you’re the type of person who’s so hard-working that you can Retire early, what makes you think suddenly having NOTHING to do will make you feel good?

After two years of mild existential terror, I figured it out. Retirement wasn’t about doing nothing. It was about finding out what had Meaning to me. Meaningful employment is important, even if it doesn’t earn a bunch of money. I currently sell wine to people for $13/hour when I’m not shooting weddings. I don’t need the money, but it gets me out of the house. I don’t drink as much now. I shower more often. I have real conversations with people. I get to talk about fine beer, wine and spirits, which is a passion of mine. And to top it all off, the money I make goes into getting me out of debt, and profitable investments for the future. I had Meaning again. I was choosing to Work. Even though I’d “made it”, I needed Work to feel whole.

Rethink Retirement. You can Retire and work on something you love, and if it happens to make enough money for you to live on, guess what? You’re Retired! Get a job that doesn’t feel like Work. Get a job that gives you more Time. Get a job that has Meaning. I know it’s not as simple as all that, but make it a goal. All of this is better than the fantasy of never having to work again. Trust me, you’d probably hate it.

Oh, hey. That lynch mob is ringing the doorbell. I should probably let them in.