** NEW SERIES – Financial independence has far-reaching effects on our lives, and for many the pursuit of independence and the obtaining of it has impacted us in profound ways. Today, we hear from Jessica from The Fioneers, who recently quit her job to become a full-time entrepreneur! If you are interested in writing for series and answering the question “How did financial independence change your life?” please reach out! **
I Started By Asking "Why?"
When I was a senior in high school I decided that I wanted to spend the summer before college volunteering at an orphanage in Mexico.
At this particular organization, volunteers would commit to volunteering “full-time” in exchange for room and board. You’d share a room with another volunteer or staff member and eat meals along with the children. The only costs I needed to cover myself were transportation or any kind of food or activities I wanted to do outside of the orphanage.
Other volunteer programs cost a lot more money. I didn’t have much money, so this seemed perfect.
But, my parents didn’t want me to go.
I tell you this story to share more about how I respond to setbacks. I’ve always been one of those people who ask “why?” about everything.
I didn’t ask “why” in a confrontational way, like “why do you always try to keep me from doing what I want?”
Instead, I asked it in a curious way. I wanted to figure out why they didn’t feel comfortable with me going. If I could uncover the underlying concern, we might be able to figure out a win-win solution.
What I learned was that they felt most uncomfortable about the actual international travel. They didn’t feel concerned about me once I was actually volunteering because there would be plenty of people and volunteers. They were most concerned about me, as an 18-year-old, traveling to Mexico by myself.
Once I figured out why, that’s when I could start asking, “What if…?” What if we could find a way for them to feel comfortable so that I could go?
After gaining an appreciation for their “why” (even if I disagreed), I could come up with a plan of action. I found a local volunteer group that was traveling to this orphanage to volunteer, and I was able to travel with them. All I needed to do was get on the same flight!
This only left the return trip. After some thought, I invited my dad to come down to Mexico for the last week that I would be there. We could volunteer and spend time together sightseeing before traveling back to the US together.
This is only one specific example of asking “what if…?” Taking this approach allowed me to have a lot more unconventional experiences. A few others included:
- Going to college 700 miles away from home
- Traveling internationally to volunteer every college summer instead of doing internships
- Deciding to work in a nonprofit organization even though I knew I’d get paid less
- Doing AmeriCorps, where I made $11,000 in a year living in the NYC metro area
Within a few years of starting my career, though, my rebellious spirit got stamped out.
Life was hard. I could barely make ends meet. I needed to increase my income.
So, I prioritized building a higher-paying career. I focused on climbing the corporate ladder, and I convinced myself that I didn’t have any other options.
I needed to make ends meet. This is what I had to do. As much as I wanted to live unconventionally, I ended up fully embracing the traditional narrative of career success. My identity and worth became tied to my career and my income.
At the same time, I was deeply miserable. I felt like I had betrayed my deepest goals and dreams. I wasn’t being true to myself and what I wanted.
But, I had tried to live unconventionally, and it didn’t work.
Then, I learned about financial independence.
Learning about Financial Independence Allowed me to ask “Why?” and Debunk Traditional Narratives
When I learned about financial independence in 2018, something shifted.
I started hearing stories about people who:
- Retired early
- Were starting their own passion-based businesses
- Chose to work less and set better boundaries
- Had a clear vision for that their idea life looked like
After being exposed to FIRE lifestyles, I started questioning traditional narratives and expectations once again.
Debunking Society’s Traditional Expectation of Success
As I wrote above, I fully bought into society’s traditional narrative of success. Success meant career mobility and a higher income. To be successful, I focused on achieving the next promotion and raise.
After I learned about FI and experienced debilitating burnout, I started asking, “Why?”
Why was success defined as having a higher-level, higher-paying job?
For me, more responsibility meant more stress. More stress meant more time spent in the office rather than doing the things I wanted to be doing. It also meant that I was less present in my day-to-day life and relationships.
Why was the goal more money?
Having more money only made our lives better to a point.
For example, having enough money to live in a place that had a washer, dryer, and dishwasher was a game-changer for us. Having the ability to go out periodically to do fun things with friends added a lot of value to our lives. Not having to constantly think about every dollar freed up our mental space.
Once we got to a certain point though, having more money didn’t actually make our lives better.
For those pursuing financial independence, money wasn’t the end goal. The goal was to have more time to focus on the things that you value most.
People were retiring early and choosing to focus their time on a whole variety of things, such as:
- Volunteering in their local community
- Creative Projects
- Spending time with family and friends
- Focusing on health and well-being
All these people had figured out what enough meant for their lives. They figured out the level of spending at which they would be happy and not feel deprived. Then, they saved and invested the rest of their money.
This resonated with me. I didn’t need to continue to make more money year after year. I just needed to make enough to cover my expenses (while not feeling deprived) and to save. These savings and investments could then be used to buy back my time (retire earlier).
I no longer needed to buy into society’s traditional narrative of success. Success no longer meant climbing the corporate ladder.
Success now means that I have enough to stop climbing.
Debunking the Narrative that All Women Should “Lean In” to Their Careers
After debunking the traditional success narrative, I began to evaluate the feminist narrative. This narrative said that women should “lean in” to their careers and climb the corporate ladder so that they could help other women do the same.
Why did I see this as the definition of feminism?
This was my first question. I no longer believed the traditional success narrative about climbing the corporate ladder. So, why did I still see feminism in the same light?
I realized that I was still rooted in the oppression I had experienced throughout my career. I had experienced sexism from college professors and previous bosses. As a result, I felt like I needed to prove that I could do my job as successfully as a man could do.
This meant that I was still using the traditional narrative for success (i.e. what men traditionally do) as my yardstick for success.
Why did I assume that what men did was the correct path?
Somehow, I had assumed that this traditional narrative was the correct path. From this question, I realized that most people – men, women, and non-binary people – who are pursuing this traditional definition of success are often busy, stressed, and unhappy with their lives. Many numb their emotions with substances or shopping. I suspect that this is why 2/3 of workers in the United States are either disengaged or actively disengaged. These are workers who don’t feel emotionally connected to their work, are doing the bare minimum, or, worse, might be actively undermining their colleagues.
Climbing the career ladder was not the definition of success I wanted to aspire to.
As I learned more about what success meant for me (i.e. understanding what I value most and having time and energy to focus on what I value most), I realized that feminism was more about flipping the script than by playing by the traditional narratives.
Feminism meant that I could define success for myself and help other women do the same. I didn’t need to stay within the bounds of someone else’s definition of success, and if I did, it kept me rooted in oppression.
Debunking Early Retirement as the Purpose of Financial Independence
After only a short time, I started applying my rebellious spirit to the traditional FIRE (Financial Independence/Retire Early) narrative as well.
I am incredibly grateful that I was exposed to FIRE. I now understand that people are creating their own definitions of success and living differently.
Given my general skepticism, I’m not surprised that I quickly started asking “why?” questions about FIRE as well.
To be clear, my skepticism wasn’t that FIRE wouldn’t work out. I understood the math and our own timeline. I’d heard stories of people who had retired early, and I even knew some early retirees.
My questions were more philosophical.
Why do I need to save enough money to retire early so that I can do what I want?
After hearing so many stories of people who had reached FI/Financial Independence, the overwhelming majority of them ended up earning income after “retirement.”
Some had experienced burnout on their FIRE journey, so they took a few months to a few years off of work. After recovering from burnout, many realized they wanted to get back to work. Although most didn’t go back to full-time, 9-to-5 work, many started their own businesses or began working on passion projects.
Many of them generated significant income from these endeavors. Some were able to cover their full expenses and others made more income than they ever made during their traditional career.
I realized that, like many who had reached FI, I’d likely continue to generate income as well. At the very least, this meant that I could take a semi-retirement approach. I could start drawing down investments while still generating active income.
What if I could generate income doing the same things I’d want to do after reaching FI anyway?
My next question focused on the kinds of things that I could do to generate income. What if I could generate income doing things I truly enjoy?
This question led me through a process of discovery.
The key question that helped me answer this was, “If I didn’t need to work for income, what would I do with my time?”
This one can be hard to answer, so I also thought about it this way:
- If I could take 3 months off of work, what would I do?
- If I could take 6 months off of work, what would I do?
- If I could take 1 year off of work, what would I do?
- If I could take 3 years off of work, what would I do?
I started to experiment with things that I was passionate about. I started my blog to share things that I was learning. I started running coaching on lifestyle design because I absolutely love helping people figure out what they want.
If I could make money doing things that I love doing, I wouldn’t need to wait until I reached FI to leave traditional work.
Within 6 months of starting my coaching business (i.e. what I’d want to do anyway after FI), I had already replaced half of my income from my part-time job.
My most conservative projection shows that I will match my 2020 salary with business income in 2021. I now realize that it’s a totally viable option to fund my lifestyle with passion projects. So, I quit my job and took the leap to entrepreneurship.
Why should I rush to retire early if I’m enjoying my life?
There were a number of things that we realized to be true:
- When we work less, we are less exhausted and burned out. Because of this, we spent significantly less money on convenience and escape after I started working part-time.
- With reduced expenses, we can work less to cover our expenses and still save.
- Working less enabled me to start a passion-based business doing the things I’d want to do after reaching FI anyway.
If I’m already doing what I’d want to do after reaching FI, I definitely don’t need to rush to reach FI in the next 5-10 years. I’d be happy to reach FI at the age of 50 or 55 so that I’d be secure financially in case I can’t (or no longer want to) work.
For us, this means that we can slow down our path to FI and enjoy our life now. If we kept pushing, we could reach FI within the next 5-7 years (before the age of 40).
If we’re able to transition to a life that’s much closer to our post-FI vision, it doesn’t make sense for us to rush it.
This idea led to the concept of Slow FI, the ability to design your life along the path to FI.
The Culminating Question - "Can I live my ideal post-FIRE life before reaching financial independence?"
My answer is “yes.”
This is my vision for my ideal life. I want to:
- Be a location-independent entrepreneur
- Slow travel for a few months each year
- Work part-time hours on projects I’m passionate about and that have an impact on the world around me.
- Have ample time to focus on my health, relationships, and fun!
Over the last two years, I’ve taken so many steps toward that vision.
- I took a part-time job at a nonprofit in early 2019. Originally this allowed me to focus on my mental health. Even after my mental health improved, we realized that our life was so much better with me working part-time. I also had time to focus on my passion projects.
- I’ve set strict boundaries around my traditional work time. Career success in that field was no longer my goal, so I set clear boundaries around my time so that I could focus on building my own business.
- After building my business on the side, I recently decided to quit my job and become a full-time entrepreneur. I am now in charge of my own schedule. I get to choose when I work and the projects I want to work on.
Each step has taken us closer to our vision for our ideal life. I am confident that we will continue taking steps to reach our ideal vision long before we reach FI (and long before we could reach FI if we were pushing hard toward the finish line).
Over the next 1-2 years, I’d like to grow the business to a place where my husband, Corey, could also choose to quit his job and become location independent. This would allow us to travel a lot more frequently and do it together. This is our ultimate goal!
Flipping the script on success, feminism, and FIRE has allowed me to embrace Slow FI. I now have full confidence that I can design my ideal life long before reaching financial independence.
Jessica is a Co-Founder of The Fioneers, a financial independence blog focused on the intersection between financial independence and lifestyle design. Jessica is a writer and lifestyle design coach. She provides coaching and courses on career discovery and lifestyle design for people who want to take unconventional paths and design lives they love.