The profoundly important value of finding community

By nature, we humans are drawn to tribalism and community – that is, we like to gather in groups around shared interests. I’m not even an amateur sociologist so I’ll leave it at that. But I doubt anyone reading this will disagree with my statement. Some associations are incredibly close, such as those with our families, partners, and our closest friends. Others are rather casual and fun – fans supporting the same sports team and enjoying each other’s company, even if only briefly at a bar or a stadium. Most of the groups in which we find ourselves are somewhere on the spectrum between those two extremes.

When it comes to financial independence, retire early (FIRE), it can be difficult to find people with whom you can talk with full disclosure. The ideals of this path are rather foreign to some, and often merely suggesting your interest in FIRE to somebody can be met with confusion, derision, or even complete disgust. My YouTube show partner, Eric, and I have talked about this in several episodes on our channel (here, here, and here). Of course your spouse or partner is an active participant in the journey so they are a valued confidant. And perhaps you’re lucky enough to have a good friend on the journey like I do – these days, but I didn’t earlier on. But many people don’t have any of these. Where to turn?

The internet can be a positive place for discourse…right?

As one who’s been online since the early days of what we now collectively term as the internet, I’m the last person to claim that it’s a wondrous land of only positive interactions. But it’s also difficult to argue with the fact that there are topical communities of all kinds, across a breadth of platforms, where one can find like-minded folks. Groups of people with similar interests congregate in forums, in groups on Reddit or Facebook, on chat rooms + servers, in the comments sections of blogs and YouTube videos, and the list goes on. There’s certainly no shortage of options. But what is actually useful?

I think all of the above have their place. FIRE-themed blogs and YouTube channels tend to be very high quality content, since many creators not only have first-hand experience, but also generally take the time to research and perhaps even reference their content. So even from a purely informational source, there’s plenty of value. I would assert that similarly themed forums and groups are also pretty useful, while being less formal in nature. But the bar to content creation is much lower in these platforms, so you get the benefit of a diversity of experiences and a much higher volume of materials to take in. This can also lead to signal to noise issues, of course.

All of the above forms of content creation generally have a social aspect to them as well, in the form of comment sections and otherwise providing an ability to reply and engage with others using the resources in question. The quality of experience here differs by the specific group or forum, as well as based on what the topic is. Trolls can of course raise their heads anywhere, though there is often moderation in place to manage this. There’s also the challenge of those lesser informed or simply who have an axe to grind to disrupt otherwise productive discourse. There are good reasons why some people say “never read the comments” – though of course doing so means potentially missing out on really valuable – and personal exchange.

Enter Discord, and the benefits of live community engagement

I extensively used (and still do to a lesser degree) all of the above resources on my path to FIRE. In fact, I discovered that FIRE “was a thing” via the very same, after years of saving towards early retirement before realizing others had similar goals and a framework to get there! But once I achieved financial independence and left my career at 47, I found I was craving something more. When I posted on those forums I sometimes received appreciative responses from those earlier on their journeys, but it wasn’t very engaging. The experience was often rather one-way. But one day I stumbled across a Reddit post about a Discord server dedicated to FIRE (What is Discord? for more info). I’d used this chat service in an app coding class before, and my teen sure used it a lot to talk with her friends. But how would it be useful to me now? I was certainly intrigued!

It turns out it’s been really great for me in several ways. First and foremost, this community is filled with a diverse group of several hundred people, all of whom have one very important thing in common: they’re all on a FIRE journey. Some are still in the early exploratory stages, while a few are out the other side, post-RE. Most are very actively working towards achieving FI. That makes it a really safe space to talk openly about a topic that can be challenging to discuss with others not on the path. Some of these people haven’t yet shared their aspirations with close friends or families, yet here they can talk openly – and completely anonymously if that’s their preference. Importantly, it’s also an incredibly supportive and largely very thoughtful group of people.

I particularly appreciate that there’s a broad range of ages represented among participants, as well as a diversity of geographic locations. Admittedly, there aren’t too many 40-somethings on the server – yet (Discord being much more popular with younger people) but I was happy to see another “old guy” online yesterday. There’s also a much broader gender diversity than I typically find among the other resources I listed above. Not to put too fine a point on it, but nearly all of the most popular FIRE-themed blogs and YouTube channels are led by men, and those are largely white Americans in their late 30s to mid-40s. That’s definitely not the case on this server, which is hugely beneficial in my opinion. I learn so much by engaging with a more diverse group of people (hint: diversity and inclusion has real value).

Where I find value in participating

One thing I truly appreciate is the open exchange on the server. Because the platform allows one to be as anonymous as they like, information is shared with a huge degree of freedom. Many on this server share their full financial pictures, their goals, as well as their successes and challenges along the way. This is so valuable for others on the path who may have had no good reference points prior to joining the server. I sure wish I had so much data available, along with an ability to ask questions in real time when I was much earlier in my own journey! It’s impossible to overstate the value of that in providing education and actionable information to help you develop and refine your own FIRE plans.

Due to the channel infrastructure used on Discord (configurable by server) it’s also super easy to focus on (or ignore) topics that are (or not) of interest to you. Cryptocurrency not your thing? Mute that channel or don’t spend time there. Want to ask questions about your portfolio? Head on over to #investing and see what people think about your asset allocation. There are also wholly social channels to talk about hobbies, cooking, or travel – just to name a few. It’s pretty handy to have a “one stop shop” all under one roof and some use it more socially than others – it’s a personal preference. You can also DM with people.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the incredibly valuable feedback I’ve gotten from our server’s community on my own content creation. I know that whenever I share an article or a new video, I’m going to hear from at least a few of the folks I interact with most often. And their input is so helpful to me – and I probably don’t thank them enough (thank you!). True, comments on the blog and on YouTube come with increasing regularity, and those are also useful (thank you, too!). But there’s just something different about getting input from people you know a bit better – and understand their viewpoints more. I’m honestly so thankful for their willingness to help me improve my content.

Go find your people!

I believe we all need to find community, and also that it can take a variety of forms. For those on the FIRE path or who are interested in learning more about it, you have many options at your disposal. Personally, I still consume content from all of the different sources listed in this post. Of late, I’m certainly finding some of the most value in this FIRE Discord server. If it sounds like something you’d like to check out, this link is your personal invite! It’s a free service and (sadly) I get no kickbacks for referring you. I’m just happy to share a great resource! If you do stop by, please be sure to say hi to me when I’m on:

PS – I’ll take this post as a reminder that I really need to make a good Resources page for this blog so I can share all my favorite blogs, subreddits, etc. with you!

image source: Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Post-FIRE spending, tracking, and budgeting, oh my!

About 16 months ago, I left behind my 23-year biotech career and started writing this blog, and later started making videos with my friend Eric at Two Sides of FI. After I began talking more openly about my FIRE journey via these outlets, I quickly learned that a few questions came up very frequently. Some of the most common include:

What are you going to do next?”

Aren’t you bored?”

“How is living on a budget going?”

I’ve spoken to the first two questions in previous posts and videos but haven’t spent much time on the last. Perhaps it’s because it’s a rather mechanical question and I didn’t really think it was terribly interesting to write about. But as it’s come up repeatedly it seemed a good topic for an article.

Looking back: “The old days”

I’ve never been someone who was terribly interested in budgeting at home (unlike at work where it was required). But I have always analyzed our spending. Until the last few years, I tracked expenses in Excel or Google Sheets with the support of Mint.com. It always kept my mind at ease to know what money was coming in and going out. But I certainly didn’t have a detailed monthly budget of $X for groceries, $Y for utilities, etc. where I monitored our spending against each category and actively managed those funds.

Rather, pretty early in my work life, I began a strategy of “paying ourselves first”. In that sense, I first made sure we could meet our fixed and other essential expenses – rent or mortgage, utility bills, groceries, etc. Then, keeping our variable expenses in mind, next made sure we were meeting all our aggressive savings targets – contributions to our 401(k), IRAs, 529, and later on a taxable brokerage account. Over time, we steadily increased the savings goals in alignment with our income. We had a goal to retire early (RE) and that approach worked for us. All money remaining after that was for us to spend how we wished. So we didn’t really tightly control that spending at all. Surely this would have to change once I stopped working, right?

Pre-FIRE planning: “The goal is in sight”

About two years before my last day at work, Lorri and I got more specific about trying to nail down our “FI number” i.e. the assets required to achieve financial independence. We needed to improve the level of detail in projecting our annual expenses going forward. Using all the data we had accumulated over the years, we did just that. We made decisions about what was in or out. And then we started to zero in on the trickier aspects of post-career finances: how much would we like to spend on vacations each year? What will our healthcare costs be? Where will we live? Are there other expenses we haven’t thought much about to date that we now need to plan for? This wasn’t one conversation, but rather a series of them. Over time, we refined that model. But it was still just that: an untested model for our future budget.

I next entered our new budget into software form using You Need a Budget or YNAB (affiliate link – get a free month!), a popular budgeting package. I created a series of budget line items to correspond to all our expenses, and grouped these into high level categories:

Several category names censored here because I’m a nice guy and this is a family program!

For example, within “Entertain Me” you’ll find all the recurring subscriptions: things like Netflix, Hulu, and annual software licenses. Our emergency fund’s name reminds us that there is always money in the Banana Stand (SPOILER: Arrested Development)! Finally, “Coffee is for Closers” (NSFW audio) is where we capture our side hustle and other part time work income and expenses – more on that below. Since YNAB connects to our credit cards and bank accounts (similar to Mint), all our expenses are automatically categorized and “charged to” the correct budget items each month. It’s pretty simple, really.

This framework made it easy to make our expenses visible, and iteratively test and refine our assumptions. That also included the use of “sinking funds” for categories like our vacation savings (under “Quality of Life”), or our computer replacement fund (“Future Sh*tstorms”) to which we allocate money each month. This allows us to “save” for planned / likely expenses without having lumpy withdrawals later on – potentially at times when you wouldn’t want to take distributions, for example. This process went well, and we ended up with nearly 15 months of data prior to me stopping work. This really gave us a lot of confidence that we’d be stepping into early “retirement” with a good system in place.

Post-RE: “Where the rubber meets the road”

As soon as my last paycheck was deposited in the bank, the reality of the situation was upon us: We were drawing down and no longer saving. Our monthly “paycheck” was now an automated transfer from our brokerage Money Market account to our checking account. We’d been testing the budget for nearly fifteen months but was that enough data? With the YNAB system in place, we’d certainly have clear visibility on it.

Early in RE year one, I developed a practice of reconciling our expenses weekly. That took about 10-15 minutes once I got comfortable with the process. I ensured things were categorized correctly (like Mint you basically “train” the software), and paid any bills due that weren’t already on autopay. If we overspent in any categories, I moved money around in the budget and adjusted spending elsewhere if needed. This wasn’t super rigorous, but was rather a useful exercise to retrain our brains about spending and making good choices. Lorri is wholly uninterested in a regular “budget meeting”, and at this stage it’s not really necessary. We just check in with each other if there are decisions to be taken.

Earlier I mentioned that we have a small amount of employment income: Lorri does some tutoring and works one day a week at a brewery. I work one day a week at a winery tasting room. We don’t plan for that optional income in the budget as it’s not assured and our FI number didn’t contemplate it. Rather, we treat that money as a sort of “slush fund” in the budget, and mostly spend it on fun stuff outside our discretionary funding in the main budget – for entertainment, wine, special occasion dinners out, etc. Do we need to use that money because we can’t possibly ever go over our budget? Definitely not. We just view it as being responsible, particularly in these earliest years post-RE where the Sequence of Returns Risk (SRR) is highest (more on that in a future post!).

Beyond the mechanical: “How does it really feel?”

OK so the operational stuff is pretty basic. But how did it truly go? Well, early on I will freely admit I was a little anxious at times. I was scrutinizing expenses more than I needed to, occasionally to the irritation of Lorri. I didn’t mean to come across like I was micromanaging the budget, but I know it felt that way. My motivation was just to ensure I knew what we were spending to confirm that our budget was accounting for all our true needs and desires. Mapping unclear expenses (I’m looking at you, Venmo, PayPal, etc) to categories helped me understand our spending a lot better.

There were times were I worried that our discretionary spending was growing and that our optional “fun jobs” were at risk of becoming mandatory, because we wouldn’t want to curb spending back to purely budgetary levels. I’m keeping an eye on it but I don’t believe it’s a real issue. While we’re both enjoying the extra money we are bringing in, we know it’s not required. Our current withdrawal rate (WR) is below 3% given market performance. So we could certainly elect to increase that amount if we need to, as my target max WR is 3.5% presently. But as I mentioned earlier, it also gives me a lot of comfort knowing that in these first 3-5 years where SRR is highest, we are acting more conservatively.

Have there been any surprises? Not too many, thankfully. Our out-of-pocket healthcare expenses are higher than forecasted in 2021 vs. 2H20. It’s not a huge deal, but I have increased our monthly transfer a little to ensure we can pay these bills without dipping into emergency funds or cutting back in other areas. We’re still well within the guard rails around our withdrawal rate. We’ll soon be shopping for an ACA plan for 2022 as our COBRA runs out. I expect a little lower premium (but a higher deductible) based on last year’s research, so that will also help add some funds for OOP costs and perhaps we’ll lower our WR back down.

Current status + future plans

Largely, I’m feeling good about the budget at the present time. I’m a bit looser now about how I think about our expenses and I find myself asking very few questions of the family at this point. I definitely still think more about spending than I did pre-RE and I know that’s a good thing. Importantly, we have ample “fun money” and other discretionary funds available and that’s working out well. We don’t feel overly constrained like some of the folks in a recent Two Sides of FI video do!

The YouTube channel is also starting to earn a little money at this point given our channel’s growth. If that continues, it could lead us to further reduce our WR due to the additional income – or perhaps we’ll allocate more funds to travel. Both of those sound like pretty good options to me. I’m also definitely feeling more comfortable about increasing WR after a few more years, though this will depend on market conditions.

Will I keep budgeting? Honestly, my current approach is far closer to tracking expenses than it is to budgeting. I suspect that trend will continue and I see it as good benefit for little work. Will I feel as confident in the midst of an inevitable market downturn as I do now? Perhaps not, but the systems we have in place will certainly benefit us during those times. In addition, the asset allocation strategy we have in place is absolutely intended to ensure we can properly weather those storms.

To wrap up: while it’s still early days for us, tracking + budgeting is working well and helps me feel confident. The transition from saving to spending has largely gone pretty well, with only a bit of tension or concern at times along the way. YNAB has been a really great tool to help me organize and make our expenses visible. I’m looking forward to see how I feel a year from now about all this!

“When you’ve got so much to say it’s called gratitude”

When you are a content creator – writing a blog, producing videos, or sharing material of any kind online, you are by definition putting yourself out there for scrutiny. Neither this blog nor the YouTube channel I make with my friend, Eric, are runaway successes. But our content does receive thousands of views each month, and for that I am incredibly grateful. At this volume, we don’t receive mountains of feedback, but I am thankful for nearly all that does come in. It’s such a boost to learn that others value your material, and care enough to take their precious time to ask a question or share their thoughts. Of course like anything in life, it’s not all positive…

Occasionally, one receives truly awful feedback – nasty YouTube comments, spiteful podcast reviews (to which you can’t respond – thanks, Apple!), or hate email. This is rather different than constructive criticism or mere disagreement with a point you’ve made – both of which are wholly reasonable, and often worthy of a response. However, some of this feedback is obvious trolling and as such, is best ignored. But sometimes it’s hard to tell. We’ve received several comments on the same theme, which is essentially: “how dare you rich people complain about your ‘problems’ in early retirement while so many others truly suffer?” That emphasis is intentional as the word has come up a few times recently. It got me thinking – do I not come across as grateful for all that I have? Is it possible that my words are received by anyone as complaining about all the good fortune I have in my life?

I am profoundly grateful for all that I have

I’ve written about gratitude several times on this blog, and we’ve discussed it on the YouTube show as well. While indeed it did take a lot of hard work and perseverance to reach the place I presently find myself – one who “retired” early at 47, I’ve tried hard (and I like to believe, generally succeeded) to never take anything that I have for granted. I recognize fully that I am the sum total of my life’s experiences, which includes enormous amounts of positive influence and support from others along the way. I’ve spoken to this topic before, but perhaps in more of a high level manner. So on this morning’s walk, I decided I would be a bit more specific and call out some of the many things for which I am truly grateful. It is impossible for this list to be exhaustive, of course. Therefore, I’ll start off by apologizing in advance for all the unintentional omissions. Now, I’ll proceed in a semi-temporal order:

I am grateful…

  • for the advantages I have had simply by the very nature of my existence, over which I had no control. I am a Caucasian male who was born in the United States in the latter part of the 20th century. This has provided me benefits that I did not always fully appreciate but now think about often. That anyone can deny the leg up this provides is admittedly, astounding.
  • that while I was not born into wealth, I had a tremendous head start in life. I had two parents who cared for me, worked tirelessly to put a roof over my head in a safe neighborhood, and provided me with a good education, healthcare, clean water and nutritious food, and taught me the value of hard work and pursuing your dreams, whatever they were. They supported me fully until I was able to do so on my own as an adult.
  • for my extended family, who were a constant presence during my upbringing. I had + have many loving relatives, and was truly fortunate to know three grandparents and a great-grandparent into adulthood. I learned much from your examples and always appreciated the care you showed even if I didn’t say that out loud nearly often enough.
  • for the teachers who went the extra mile to ensure my education was both good and complete. Specifically, several of whom ensured I had access to advanced curricula and computers (not a given in my time) at an early age, and truly challenged me to learn at my level. To the teachers who inspired creativity, fostered true learning, curiosity and exploration, and helped my love of science bloom, I am forever thankful.
  • that my family bought me my first computer. The countless hours I spent as “an indoor kid” programming and learning absolutely provided a springboard for so many interests and skills built during those formative early years. I’m also thankful for my uncle who provided much in the way of instruction and fostered my love of computing.
  • to the people who helped develop my passion for scientific research, and provided me internship opportunities during high school, and later in college. Their patient mentorship and guidance was of immeasurable impact on my later success in my scientific career. Yes, I had to work hard too, but they took a chance on me and provided the opportunity needed.
  • that my (awful) high school guidance counselor told me not to apply to my university of choice, because “I wouldn’t get in”. I did get in, and while my degree program was indeed challenging, I would never trade my college experience for another. It was just one of many decisions made that produced the outcomes that have resulted in the enablement of my aspirations.
  • to those college fraternities who elected not to give me a bid, so that I kept looking for “my people”. I’m so lucky to have found my chapter and made the lifelong friends from our brotherhood that I did. I continue to count you among my very best friends. To all of you who dismiss fraternities, I’m sorry you missed out on what can be a great experience.
  • for my former colleagues in the volunteer ambulance squad and fire department, with whom I worked during summers in college. My worldview regarding the impermanence of life and the uncertainty of its duration was hugely informed by that experience. You also taught me much about compassion and care for others, known or unknown to you.
  • for my graduate school advisor and a number of my early workplace managers, for allowing me to chart my path, make mistakes safely, and who provided coaching and gentle course correction as needed along the way. The freedom and support they provided surely set me on the path to my career achievements. Without question, they helped make me both a competent and confident scientist.
  • that so many managers and companies took chances on me. While I was a hard worker and eventually came with a proven track record, there were many times where I sought opportunities for which “on paper” I was not qualified. Yet you believed in me and provided me the opportunity to grow and succeed so many times over the years.
  • to so many of my coworkers, employees of mine, and countless vendors and customers, who have positively impacted my life over my 23-year biotech career. From modeling positive behavior, to scientific and business education, coaching and mentoring, as well as providing me the opportunity to learn and grow in so many ways via our interactions – I can’t thank you enough.
  • for my dear friends, both long-term, more recent, and those who didn’t stick around for whatever reason. I have learned so much from you, and I am appreciative for the thousands upon thousands of memories we have made together. Life being what is, times were not all positive nor fun, but they shaped me into the person I am today. I am of course so thankful for the good times as well as your guidance and support. I never would have guessed I would remain close to so many of you 20-30+ years later.
  • that I am in very good health. Because I have been overweight most of my life, many/most people assume otherwise and often make it known that they do. Candidly, I enjoy watching doctors’ assumptions crumble when faced with the data. But I have (so far) shown ample evidence of winning the genetic lottery, and have experienced few health issues of note barring nasty allergies and asthma as a kid. Compared to many people my age, I’ve dodged a lot of bullets. I wish I could say it’s all been a result of eating healthily and staying active but it’s surely not the case. I’m so thankful for my health!
  • for the many amazing online communities that exist among the noise and chaos that is the internet. I’ve spent so much time over the past 30+ years with you. Specifically relating to FIRE, I have learned countless things of value from many of you via blogs, podcasts, Reddit, YouTube, Discord (hi guys!), and yes, occasionally Facebook, just to name a few. There truly are some wonderful people out there, and I only hope I have / am giving back in proportion to all the positive things I have received along the way – that’s my goal!
  • that my brilliant daughter came into my world. I don’t talk much about her online out of respect for her privacy, but I have learned so much about life during our time together. I’m so thankful for the perspective you bring each day, and for the positive contributions you make to others and to our world. I’m so excited to see all that is still yet to come for you!
  • most of all for my amazing wife – my constant companion, brilliant mother, travel buddy, all around remarkable person, and my very best friend. I am truly a better human due to your influence and constant encouragement. Your endless support – in so many ways – of me and my career path was an absolute enabler of where we find ourselves today after twenty years together. Here’s to all that is still yet to come for us!

In summary, I’m so thankful that the amalgamation of the above, along with everything I’ve neglected to include, made me who I am. The path I charted through life so far, including my career, led me to my success. Yes, that outcome was certainly not handed to me. True, I had to work hard, make difficult choices, and take a number of chances. The combination of all of this is how I was able to achieve the success I have realized, and be fortunate to live the life I do with the people I love. I take none of this for granted. I can freely state that I have no real problems nor complaints. I am very fortunate, and I am truly thankful for all that I have.

Finally, I’m also forever grateful that anyone is with me on this journey and takes the time to read what I’ve written or view our videos. I sincerely hope that you find value in it and that you feel your time is well spent. Please don’t hesitate to share feedback about how it can be made better and more useful for you. Mahalo ?

title credit: “Gratitude”, by Beastie Boys (1992)

image credit: Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash