Although Jan and I are on course to achieve our initial phase of Financial Independence Early Retirement (FIRE) in June 2017, we could have done it much sooner had we not made a few financial choices along the way. Some may call these mistakes. We see them as choices: some well worth making, others less useful. I'd like to share them with you as a way to both expose some less-than-ideal financial decisions (some of which enriched our lives.) These did slow down our ability to FIRE, but in no way derailed it.
The most important lessons to take from this piece are:
We can spend money on things worth spending money on.
We can spend money on things not worth spending money on.
We can recover from spending money on things, but that recovery costs time and limits choices available.
If someone else already learned these lessons, it may be worth learning from them so you don't have to use up your time recovering from spending you could have avoided, unless that spending enriches your life.
Spending which delayed our FIRE
In Chronological order, here are the financial choices we made, which cost us time and limited our choices about jobs:
Coming to DC for school rather than going for free in CA - When I applied for college I gained admission and received scholarship offers for all three University of California schools to which I applied, as well as The University of Southern California. Instead of going to UC-Club Med (as I called UC Santa Barbara and UC San Diego) or focus on the international affairs I was most interested in at UCLA and USC, I chose to travel 3000 miles across the country to attend a school I had no ability to visit first because it was located in Washington DC. I refused to accept anything less than coming to the nation's capital to learn international relations. Instead of doing an internship in DC for the summer, I would do them the entire time I was here. I remember saying to my mom "I don't care how much debt I have to take out, I am going to Washington for school. I have to stop war, and this is the best way for me to do that.." (I can't imagine what my mom must have thought of that statement. I know what I think of it now!)
Related to the above choice, I had to take out student loans to come to school in DC. So, instead of graduating from a very good West coast school for free, I ended up with $35,000 in student loans for undergrad, and another $20,000 for graduate school. $55,000 in debt before I hit the age of 23. Not a good way to start life. -$55,000 (not to mention the interest I paid on these loans: 6.75% for 17 years = -$26,600.)
After finishing college I shared a very expensive apartment with some folks before moving into my own place. At the time I was making very little, starting to pay my student loans, and acquiring new debt (graduate school), I was paying over 1/3 of my money toward a way too nice place. I had friends in group houses, but I was living in an expensive studio, wasting money on having a place all to myself. This cost me around $1,000 a month for three years, when I could have paid as little as $300 a month for a room in a group house = -$25,200
After college I thought I was ready for the height of culture. My friends and I bought season tickets to The Washington Opera and The National Symphony Orchestra. I thought I could outsmart Columbia House by obtaining a very low cost CD collection of classical music. These crazy extravagances cost me about $5,000 at the time. -$5,000
Throughout college, graduate school, and well into adulthood (actually tonight!) I wasted so much time I could have used to productively write, create art, build a company, do a hobby, or run a side-hustle. What did I do with all of this time? Play computer games. I have a very crude method of valuing what this cost me. A gaming system (STEAM) tracks how many hours a game has been played. If I add the number of hours Steam tells me I played the games I have on it, that time comes out to over 900 hours. Since I did not have Steam before 2007, but started playing computer games in high school, I figure I have on average 100 hours a year of games. (Who am I kidding, I played A LOT in high school, college, and post college. I would spend whole weekends playing Civilization!) Ok, let's average 200 hours per year. Now, since the same time in high school, I've also been working. My average salary from my first job until now has been around $30 an hour (skewed far more toward today than when I first started at $5.15.) So, $30 * 200 * 23 years = -$138,000 in lost earnings
Therefore, my total losses alone = -$229,800 (WOW! That doesn't make me feel good!)
Jan (Not being as financially minded as Jeremy, I do not have monetary figures for my choices listed here.)
Student loans: My choice of undergrad was made solely on financial aid package. Now, I did luck out and have a GREAT college experience despite my lackluster selection criteria. But, it was a necessary criteria. I came out with some minimal student loans; but, as a sociology major graduate school loans were definitely in my future. My first graduate school degree came at a fairly reasonable cost. I was awarded an assistantship which paid my tuition and offered a small stipend and I worked close to full-time at a restaurant to pay my the rest of my bills (good thing I was young!). But, returning to school for my graduate degree in social work was costly. My tuition was completely paid through student loans. At that point, Jeremy and I were still in a hurry for, well, everything. So, I completed my MSW as quickly as possible by not getting paid for work for a little over a year. Simply going into debt.
Credit Card Interest: After college graduation, I used credit cards. I've never been an extravagant spender, but I was a "pay the minimum balance" kind of girl (see above: I had a sociology degree). The time between undergraduate and graduate school, I did work two jobs, but it was just not enough. These habits of both not spending extravagantly but only paying the minimum credit card balance continued through my early career (which, as you will see below, never paid a lot).
Choosing a low paying career: My career has been focused on non-profit work. For a few national non-profits (not my favorite, but they do pay a bit better) and for one community-level non-profit (much more enjoyable, but less pay). By no means do I regret my career choice or am I complaining about my income status, but I do recognize its impact on our financial plans.
Not focusing more on saving when I was single: I was very good about saving into my work's retirement plan, but that was really all I did. Financial planning has never been a topic of interest for me, so I just took advantage of the obvious and did not become curious about much else.
Jan and I learned a lot before meeting each other, but even so, we made a few mistakes together too. The key one was:
Overall money choices costs
Putting all of these costs together, Jan and I have spent an extra $379,800 we could have saved/earned. That's very close to what we currently have saved up. Therefore, our choices have diminished our savings by almost 50%. Isn't that incredible!
Add to that intangibles like:
Me leaving the government before I qualified for student loan repayment, a pension, retirement health benefits.
Jan leaving work to go back to school for a second Master's degree
Not all choices were made in the past. Even though we don't have enough money to FIRE in every part of the world, I will be leaving my job in 2017 to become a full-time author/podcaster/storyteller. I have no idea how much this will cost us, but it will cost us something.
What did we gain?
We can't just look at all of these expenditures as losses. They were trade-offs of time for other benefits. For instances:
I met and retain wonderful friends from my days in college. I may have met other people had I gone to other schools, but I'm very blessed with the friends I still keep from college.
I gained immense experience living and working in DC throughout college and graduate school I would not have gained otherwise. This taught me that I didn't want to be a part of the DC scene far earlier than I would have realized had I come to the city later in life.
Due to my education I was able to help stem the flow of the world's most dangerous weapons, remove residue of war from bomb ravaged countries, and potentially reduce the chance of war between some of the most powerful countries in the world while travelling across vast swaths of the world to places I would have never been able to experience otherwise.
I have an AWESOME classical music collection!
I've seen most of the operas I've wanted to see.
I got to see Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman play in person.
I can't tell you how many times I've conquered Nazi Germany in my favorite game Hearts of Iron (that has to have some value!)
Jan learned how to be a Social Worker and helped people when they needed help most.
We learned we never want to own a house again. (That is worth a fortune!)
Our spending choices have not always been optimal for FIRE, but they did not prevent it. At the same time, we walked away with some great stuff because of those choices. I doubt we would have left the workforce much earlier because we needed to learn we could do this before we do it. Jan and I did not learn about FIRE until about three years ago. Therefore, we were not even ready to FIRE much sooner. Concurrently, I did not know what I wanted to do with my FIRE time until about two years ago when I started writing in earnest.
All-in-all, yes we've been wasteful, but has it really all been wasted? In the end, we'll be able to achieve FI at a relatively young age, and will be focusing our lives on what we want to do while our kids are still young enough for us to have a lot of good time with them. We all make mistakes with money, even if we get worthwhile things out of those choices. Know that you can recover from past choices with money. You too can build to the life you want, rather than just the one you can currently afford. In the meantime, you can learn from the lessons of others so you don't make the same choices they made. May you learn from us and our journey, potentially buying yourself years back on your life.
What have your choices cost you?
What have your choices about money offered you in terms of experience?
Would you have been ready to FIRE earlier than you will?
We'd love to hear about your life paths toward your goals.