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!

Validation isn’t the goal but it sure feels good

When my friend, Eric, and I set out to develop our Two Sides of FI channel on YouTube, I wasn’t sure what to expect – in so many ways. Eric is a very experienced YouTuber, and his business channel has nearly 900K subscribers. On the other hand, I had no experience in content creation. So I have certainly leaned heavily on him on this journey in quite a few ways given his expertise, and I’m thankful for all his help along the way. One thing Eric has been consistent about is the value in keeping true to our “why” – that is, the reasons we were undertaking this project and what we hoped to gain from it. I’m more convinced than ever that this is the best guidance for anyone undertaking similar work.

Starting out on our YouTube journey

How did this project get started? If memory serves me right, we’d already been having conversations about FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) for a year or so. Eric had discovered the FIRE path through conversations with me, after which he dove in head-first. During one of those chats, he raised the idea of us doing a YouTube channel together, to capture and share the kinds of conversations we were already having. That would be great for us of course, but we earnestly hoped others would find value in it too. We didn’t see any channels like ours out there, so this seemed to be a good opportunity.

We certainly didn’t set out on this project as a business venture in which we hoped to earn lots of money. Sure, we know that once we crossed YouTube’s magical threshold (currently: 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 watch hours), our channel would be eligible for monetization via advertisements. But this was definitely a “nice to have”, and if it got to the point where a bit of ad revenue would pay for our podcast / website hosting and other associated fees, that would be great.

Rather, our goal was first and foremost, education. That is, sharing what we had learned: our mistakes, our successes, and our many (many) questions we still had about all things personal finance, retirement, etc. We do not claim to know everything, but with our pre-FIRE + post-FIRE perspectives, we thought we would offer valuable information and opinions. In the best case, this content would help other FIRE aspirants be better informed, hopefully avoiding some of our missteps, and be better equipped to ask great questions and take good decisions for themselves. Personally, I also hoped this would include building a community around our channel, one with whom we could engage and from whom we and others could learn.

Finding and engaging with an audience

I knew full well that putting yourself out there on a forum like YouTube means that you are open to feedback of all kinds: some earnest and thoughtful, while others would be negative or even downright nasty (don’t feed the trolls!). I’d been through this before both personally, and in the workplace where I’d played an active role in company social media. But I still hoped that this one-to-many video (and podcast) format would lead to productive 1:1 engagement.

Why? I guess it’s for a few reasons. First, that kind of interaction is fascinating to me. People are interesting and all of us are unique despite our many similarities. I truly love learning about the lives of others. Next, it can be very gratifying. Getting the feedback that someone else values the work you’re doing, and finds merit in it such that they take some of their precious time to connect with you, is really powerful. And lastly, it’s validating. Positive engagement is a measure that your time is being well spent, and that you are having the impact you desired.

Slow and steady wins the race

Given the time it takes to build an audience and for the almighty and mysterious YouTube algorithm to figure out to whom it should best serve your videos, I knew this wouldn’t be fast. And Eric has always been really honest about that with me, in efforts to temper my expectations. While he has made it super clear that our channel had actually grown fairly quickly relatively speaking, it felt rather slow until just a few weeks ago. We generally received few comments or likes, and our subscription rate seemed to be just “ok” to me.

Please don’t be mistaken – personally, I felt really great about what Eric and I were doing. I’ve always looked forward to our weekly filming calls, as I get so much out of our conversations. I also love how much I’ve learned about podcast production, video editing, and all the backend work required to run a YouTube channel. I’ve grown a ton since Eric has pushed me to improve my skills! And many times I have earnestly said that I’d still be making these videos with him even if we didn’t have any audience at all. I’ve truly enjoyed it and found the work personally very rewarding. This is the most important thing I’ve done since leaving the workplace, and I value this project tremendously.

Surprise!

And then over the last few weeks, things started to change. As one who watches the metrics more than I should – despite Eric’s clear and consistent guidance not to, I saw something different one day. Just like he and others had told me would happen, one of our recent videos started getting a lot more views than usual – a trend that then extended to all our episodes, and from there the ball really got rolling. All the metrics started climbing: views, likes, subscribers – and for me very importantly, viewer comments. As I write this we now have nearly 6,000 subscribers and 200K views. Small potatoes in the grand scheme, but pretty exciting for our little channel!

Suddenly, we were getting hundreds of comments. It’s been such a pleasure reading (nearly) all of them and responding. It’s so gratifying seeing what content resonates with viewers along with the questions our episodes raise. In addition, we get to learn from the experience of those who view our content and then share their own stories. This was exactly what I was hoping for – and it seemingly came from out of nowhere. Sure, we’ve had to ban a few trolls as well, but that comes with the territory. But this experience has been overwhelmingly positive.

Importantly, I know there’s no guarantee this trend will continue. In fact, I fully expect this crazy pace of growth to slow down. But in all honesty, it doesn’t matter one bit. We’ve got a great thing going, have started to build a strong community, and that feels really good. Eric and I have a ton of future show ideas (and are getting many more from our audience!) in addition to those we’ve already put out or have recorded but not yet aired. And I feel better than ever about the return I’m getting on the time we spend together working on this show.

Looking ahead and reflecting

What comes next for the channel? I have no idea. Eric and I talk often about other things we can bring to bear, modifications of what we’re doing now, and so on. Above all, it’s going to be fun, no doubt. And this work has already inspired an idea for at least one solo project for me. If nothing else, our experience to date reminds me that change is certain and it comes when you least expect it. Today I watched an outtakes clip from a recent episode where we talked about making this show. It’s super interesting for me to see what I was thinking about then. Much hasn’t changed over a few months, but some definitely has.

One of my favorite things about this project is we don’t need to do it. It’s not an assigned work project with deadlines nor will it be part of any future performance review. Put simply, Eric and I make Two Sides of FI because we love it. And it’s a decent amount of work – particularly for him, as he’s still running his business and bears the burden of nearly all of the video editing, which is the real heavy lifting of the channel.

We are proud of what we are doing with this project and that is the ultimate validation. As Eric and I recently discussed, it feels really great to produce this show. We are so thankful that others value it too, and are humbled by their kind words. Thank you all for your support and engagement to help make what we are doing even better. We appreciate you all tremendously.

Here’s to whatever comes next!

Financial independence and the freedom to choose…to work?

More than a year ago, I wrote an article titled “When can I retire?” That piece was largely about achieving financial independence (FI) – that is, when your assets can securely cover your anticipated expenses for the duration of your lifespan without reliance on your current employment income. That said, achieving FI does not mean you have to retire early (RE). It simply means you have the freedom to do so when you are ready. In other words, you have the option to retire. But that freedom gained from FI enables other options as well!

For the last few days I was visiting a college friend. We had a really great time doing all sorts of things, including going wine tasting as pictured here. Hanging out without other people around most of the time (weekday travel is the best, and a real benefit of me no longer keeping a “standard work schedule”) meant we got a lot of time to catch up and chat. Flying home earlier today, I realized his story was a worthwhile jumping off point for an article!

The freedom to pursue a new venture

Until about five years ago, my friend had a very successful career at a fast growing company. He was a business leader at a technology firm that was later acquired by a much larger company. At that point, given his many successes on that career journey, he could have stopped working entirely, just as many choose to do once they achieve financial independence. But he didn’t! In fact, he moved into another career entirely – in a totally different business and segment, at a company he’d helped to found five years prior.

Fast-forwarding to today, my friend is now the CEO of that company, one presently in its ninth year of operation. The business is growing well and he is still working full time. Wait, what? You read that right – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with his decision! The freedom to spend your time how you wish might including taking the opportunity to be an entrepreneur, to follow your passion, and grow a business. Yes, that may include taking on another job after you leave your primary career. Many people choose this path and find it incredibly rewarding. Sounds great to me!

Is he happy? By all measures I have at my disposal, absolutely. My friend is at a great company, enjoying making products he believes in, working with a strong team of talented people. He and his family are living where they want, and he is no longer traveling the crazy hours + frequency at which he did when he was in his former career. Talking with him, it’s clear that sometimes he misses the positive parts of business travel – as well as aspects of his former career. I can certainly identify with all of that. I loved much about my career! But it’s also clear that he is super happy to be around his family a lot more, helping to raise his kids. I can identify with that too! But wait – wouldn’t he earn more money if he stayed in his former field? 100% yes. And I could say the same thing. But we don’t need to, and we both elected to walk away from our highest earning years to take a different path.

“Yes, there are (at least) two paths you can go by…”

Led Zeppelin certainly wasn’t writing about the then not-yet-named FIRE movement in “Stairway to Heaven”. But that lyric is an apt way to frame the point I want to make: to continue working or not is just one of the high level choices to be made once you achieve FI. The first option can itself take many forms: many continue to work in their existing job for some time, post-FI. It may be because they love the work, or want to keep at it for some period of time. I worked a year longer after hitting my own number. There were several reasons for that, including wanting to finish working on a project of which I was a team member. Other people might elect to stay in their job but reduce their hours or number of days working. Still others may choose to work in a new field entirely, or like my friend, start their own company!

As regular readers will know, I haven’t yet elected to start working in a new career, and I don’t think doing something full time is likely anytime soon – barring perhaps at a business I start myself. Outside of the one day a week I pour wine at a local tasting room, I don’t have “a job” right now. Rather, I have spent most of the first fifteen months since leaving my career exploring different areas of interest to me, learning new skills – like content creation via this blog and the Two Sides of FI YouTube channel, volunteering, and essentially “random walk”ing through a wealth of different things. I’ve also written about and filmed a YouTube episode about all the things I have learned so far after more than a year since I left my career. See those links for more details.

Any of these choices are “correct” so long as they resonate with you and are aligned with your earnest interests. I fully agree with something that my friend told me a few years ago when we discussed my plans to retire early: “People need to feel that they are contributing to something that they are passionate about. Make sure you know what that is.” He’s right! My passions don’t presently include working for someone else, and certainly not in my previous field, but perhaps that will change should the right role with great people comes up! Or if my wife and I elect to start a small business in an area we are passionate about (yes, yes, I know some of you really want me to start a brewery!). Who knows? In the moment, what feels right is exactly what I’m doing: exploring!

What are your plans? If you’re not on the FIRE path but you suddenly won a $10M lottery prize, would you stay in your job or would you do something else? I’d love to hear from you!