More RE to the FI

It’s nearly June, which marks our fourth FIRE anniversary. And I feel almost as exhausted as I did when I quit my job in 2015.  Why? Too much FI, and not nearly enough RE.

Too-much FI has taken two forms: paid work I love, and even more unpaid work I (used to) love. This year — and last year, if I’m being honest — I have allowed too much of both. Dear Husband, ever the wise one, doesn’t have this problem. He ONLY does paid work he loves. Everything else is fun stuff: gardening, cooking, rock climbing, video games, whatever.

Me? Not so much. “I’ve been so fortunate,” I say. “I can, should do more. I’m in the give-back phase of my life. I can give more.” The problem is that people will take everything you give them, and ask for more. I have been giving 2-3 hours per day to two nonprofits, gratis, and the list of requests and expectations from both only grows longer.

The upshot is that I now feel almost as burnt out on unpaid volunteer work as I once did in my well-paid job. Boo. Boooo. Who’s bad with boundaries and 100% responsible for this situation? Yeah. This gal. What was once employer-imposed is now self-imposed.

My punishment is depression at not spending enough time outside, staring around and learning to identify birds and plants and rocks. It’s sadness at days insufficient in gardening, travel, working out, reading, writing, craft, and friend time. It’s household projects piling up along with the mail.

My goal for the remainder of 2019 is to fix this. I have firmly decided that, once my two-year, voluntary board term is over at Organization A, I will not run for re-election for any board position. In line with a No New Projects rule, I have declined any and all new work this past week and will continue to do. I have put out calls for volunteers to take on more of my responsibilities, and announced that my board position is up this year in the hope that it may light a spark in someone else who wants to give it a go. Organizations benefit from new people and ideas.

I have practiced saying no to all of the people who will inevitably ask me to serve for “just one more year” (forever), so that I can be practiced and stalwart in my response when these moments happen. I have ASD, so this sort of social practice is critical for me. Otherwise, I tend to freeze, stare, or say yes to things I don’t want just to make the social discomfort end.

I have also started to hand off small but annoying tasks at Organization B, namely social media campaigns and event organization. I’ll still be involved, but will serve on just one committee and not in a leadership position. When my obligations at Organization A (the more demanding of the two) are as small as possible, the work at Organization B will go back to being fun.

Because both of these volunteer gigs stopped being fun about 8 months ago.

I already feel so much better, relieved, happier. Yes, I’ve been up a few nights worried about the future of this budget or that project, but ultimately, if organizations and social-change projects really do have legs, they will succeed — and may even thrive more strongly — without me. In my pre-FIRE life, I often said that work tasks needed to be role dependent, not person dependent, and I still believe it.

And — just like I did when I submitted FIRE notice — I have senioritis! I am way too excited about the end of this board term. I may even start Xing out dates on an app or wall calendar, just like people who are about to…retire.

I didn’t anticipate that, four years into FIRE, I’d be overcommitted and burnt out, again. I didn’t know that I was still at such risk of slipping into “productive member of society” habits. But it’s also a nice reintroduction to the magic of FIRE, the whole point of which is not having to do anything you don’t want to do, paid or otherwise.


Switching to Kaiser from Blue Cross

The cost of health insurance is a big one — perhaps the biggest — for FIRE folks in the U.S. We are too young (often by decades) to qualify for Medicare like traditionally retired people, and the Republicans have only sought to block, and subsequently undermine and destabilize, the ACA and state health insurance marketplaces since their inception. This creates rising costs for consumers.

Mr. Money Mustache put it best in his post titled When Your Shitty Health Insurance Doubles in Price, the difference being that he already has the provider we are switching to. Unfortunately, it’s the best we can do.

Every November, our health insurance renewal email comes from Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) of California. And every November, our monthly premium rises by almost $200/month ($2,400 year), on top of a deductible that rises by $1-2,000/year, for a total annual price hike of $3-4,000.Every. Single. Year. For the foreseeable future.

And all of that still does not mean we’re 100% covered. Oh, no. Some things are covered at 40%, some at 60%, and the mental energy is ours to spend figuring that out.

This cannot go on forever, obviously. Eventually, it becomes pointless for everyone to pay for debt insurance (which is what health insurance really is) rather than save this money, get a credit card with a high limit, and declare bankruptcy in case of astronomically high medical bills.

When we achieved FIRE 3.5 years ago, our monthly premium was $635 for two of us, with a $9,000 deductible. Now, it is $1,085/month with a $12,000 deductible. There are other hidden, higher costs on top of those: reduced coverage when traveling, etc. Every year we get less, for more.

The only thing that keeps this barely tolerable is the fact that we can deduct our monthly premiums as a business expense, because we are technically self-employed. But it’s no panacea: We’re still out $12k/year in premiums that we’d rather allocate to other expenses.

Of all the infuriating things about the U.S. insurance (because one cannot correctly call it “health care”) system, though, two things make my blood boil more than others. First, none of it hangs together, logically speaking: Monthly premiums in no way reflect anything quantifiable and sensible, like our risk. They increase because they can.

Second, as high as the costs are, they do not reflect the extraordinary amount of free labor every American has to do in order to manage the relationship between their doctors, myriad third parties (labs, radiology providers, medical supply companies, pharmacies, etc.), and the insurance companies.

If people were to account for their time spent project managing this crap system at a fair wage (say $20/hour), especially for seriously and chronically ill selves or family members, it adds an additional $4-$5,000/year to the tab, minimum. Americans serve as unpaid middleware to hold the myriad parts of this inefficient, ineffective system together, and that is time that they cannot spend earning money in other ways.

All a long way of saying that it is both monetary cost (a savings of $3,000/year on our premiums alone) and efficiency (streamlined, less painful care) that drove our switch to Kaiser for 2019. As an American, I did hours of research before making this decision, speaking with friends who have had Kaiser for many years.

My friends and neighbors described things that would count as straight-up miraculous in BCBS PPO land: Complete records online. (Oh, the hours lost to chasing those down and waiting for them.) On-site pharmacies, saving a trip and a long wait time there. Specialists called in right away to look at something beyond a GP’s expertise, no waiting 1-3 months to see some sort of specialist elsewhere. No need to obtain referrals to see those other doctors, and chase the referral. Many types of doctors at a single location. And for $300/month less.

I don’t expect anything to be perfect, but we are willing to experiment with something new that may be better and cost less. If we don’t like it, we can change again during open enrollment next year.

And with that done, we can shop around for new homeowner’s insurance, joy of joys. Even though we do not live in a fire zone, fires elsewhere in our state have most insurers charging more, and valuing homes for less. Every year, like magic, AAA tells us that it would cost less to reconstruct our home than the year before. In their detailed breakdown of this thinking, they assume things like $600 to replace windows. Cute.

Onward in insurance shopping. How I wish Black Friday deals extended to this.

Still FIRE, Still Happy

After not posting for most of this year, I’ve gotten a few comments and emails asking if we’re still FIRE and what’s up in general.

June 2018 marked our three-year FIRE-nniversary. We love it more than we did in the beginning, which was still new in sometimes terrifying, transitional ways. The longer we’re free, the more unimaginable traditional employment becomes, not that it’s something we think about anymore.

Our spending for this year has held steady at $2,800/month for everything, including travel (airfare, gas, mileage), property taxes, groceries, wine, dining out, and so on. This puts us on track for $33,600 in annual, San Francisco Bay Area spending.

I published a book that is doing quite well, which is another reason I have not posted much here. Publication is a wild, agonizing, fun and, frankly, mind-blowing process for someone who never worked in either the publishing or media industries.  I won’t identify the book on this pseudonymous blog, but can definitely say having more time in FIRE made writing, editing, and publishing possible (though I started it before I quit my tech job 3.5 years ago). I’m curious to see what, if anything, the book adds to our annual income. It hasn’t been out long enough for me to have a good sense of that.

Despite the hysteria and anti-FIRE hate coming from Suze Orman, the FIRE waters are as wonderful as ever. In the 3.5 years since we made the leap, FIRE has only become more important and meaningful. We’ve been able to take care of sick and elderly family members, and some of our young friends with shitty, horrible, unfair diseases. The time we got to spend with our beloved people before they departed this mortal coil was the greatest possible gift.

The extreme weather effects of climate change become more severe with each passing year, whether you live with hurricanes, drought, floods, sea level rise and high tides, or (like us) wildfire. We don’t know what the future holds, but don’t think it will get much better during our lifetimes, and is probably likely to get worse. In retrospect, we are so unbelievably glad we did not spend too much more of that time working than was necessary. Suze, we have no regrets.

How We Spend Our Days

Long ago, as a 19-year-old undergraduate, a friend gave me a copy of The Writing Life by Annie Dillard as a birthday gift. Recently, during the KonMari process of going through my books, I reread (and kept) this inscribed gift. I came across a passage that has become quite popular:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing… There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life. A day that closely resembles every other day of the past ten or twenty years does not suggest itself as a good one. But who would not call Pasteur’s life a good one, or Thomas Mann’s?”

The Writing Life changed the course of my life. That quotation haunted me, especially when wasting time on social media or at miserable jobs: “What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing,” I’d realize, painfully, as I closed another technical support ticket or walked toward the HR wing to report that my vile manager had rubbed my shoulders and smoothed my hair.

For more than 20 years now, that single sentence has been all the reminder I needed to be careful and judgmental about how I spend my time.

Almost equally striking was: “The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life.” 

It is no coincidence that I adopted habits of frugal abundance at age 19, shortly after I finished my first read of this book. Dillard’s words sang out to me: Yes. That. I want a lot more time spent reading, and a lot less in cubicle farms.

Dillard’s call was stronger than the value mainstream, capitalist, industrial culture puts on reading vs. working, and the inner critic they create: “Reading is lazy. Being a worker, a productive member of society, is the very best thing you can be.” (Ignore, for the moment, the parties who have a stake in our enacting their particular, consumerist beliefs).

Dillard’s words were the very first that sounded like anything I actually wanted. I never wanted a big house, but a solidly made, cozy, affordable one. I never wanted a fancy car so much as a reliable one, with good gas mileage and without expensive parts.

During this 19-year-old time, I was absolutely content with a lifestyle other people referred to as “scraping by,” because I wasn’t. Yes, outwardly, I lived in a scarred and blighted Detroit neighborhood with abandoned, collapsed houses next door and across the street. Our “dangerous” neighbors were actually lovely, kind people who sold drugs for lack of other options (now totally acceptable behavior by white people who engage in the exact same behavior, but from a nice looking dispensary rather than the sidewalk).

I made $16k/year working full time. College cost me $9k/year out of pocket (plus $9k/year in loans for the difference). I had $7k to live on, so I learned, rather quickly, to make Mustachian choices to create a less stressful life. My share of rent in that spacious, 1920s, well maintained “ghetto” house was $160/month ($1,920/year) and I had a beautiful bedroom of my very own, as did each of my four roommates. Importantly, that $160/month included heat, in the form of those awesome-when-they-work steam heat radiators. Indeed, these worked so well that we often needed to crack a window because the house was too hot.

I could make that $160 in two to four nights of waiting tables or bartending. (Never mind that my being a bartender was illegal because I was not yet 21. Never you mind.) A lot of my food was free, dishes the cooks screwed up and saved for workers to take home at the end of the night. God love and keep those cooks: They always seemed to screw up more on slow nights, when our tips were lower.

Yes: I could have lived in a slightly nicer place, but lower rent meant more homework and sleeping time, and less working time. Time was already a calculus, even when each additional dollar was more precious than future dollars would be, because I had so few dollars at all.

I remembered all of this while doing the KonMari process (against the rules, because I was listening to a podcast). The Mad Fientist podcast introduced me to The Happy Philosopher, and his mind blowing post about the marginal utility of money. Don’t you just love people who put words to vague feelings and notions, and name them? Happy Philosopher’s post did just that. As with Dillard, I read “marginal utility of money” and thought: Yes. That. That is what I have been trying to say when I try to explain that, after a certain point, more money was not nearly as valuable to us as more time.

Without actually knowing or being all that conscious of it, Best Husband and I had completed Happy Philosopher’s steps (this is a direct quote from his post):

  1. Figure out how much money you need to fulfill your basic needs: food, shelter, transportation, etc.
  2. Think deeply about what in life brings you happiness (not pleasure, but happiness) and how much money above what is needed for basics you need to provide for this. This will take time and tinkering and will change over time, as what makes you happy will change as you evolve.
  3. Cut out all spending from your life that does not bring you joy. Examine everything you spend money on and ruthlessly eliminate or downgrade. Optimize everything that is left over.
  4. Use the saved money to buy your freedom.
  5. Use your freedom to do the work you love, or do less of the work you hate.
  6. If you are still working reassess and see if the trade makes sense, if not go back to step 1 and repeat until satisfied.
  7. If you don’t have enough money to get past step 1 you need to figure out how to make more money.

I think I’ve mentioned this before but, as soon as we paid off the house (and I mean within days), work became unbearable. We had bought our freedom. What had been, one week prior, “not always a terrible deal for the money” instantly became a “waste of a day,” time that kept us from spending time in other ways.

Now that we’re comfortably in step #5 (I’ve written in detail about our part-time self-employment, FIRE-for-us lifestyle), I wanted to return to Dillard’s big question, 20+ years on: How do we spend our days?

Every day, we wake up naturally, usually between 7:15 and 8 AM, though it occasionally ranges from 6:30 AM to 9 AM. I have not figured out why those swings happen for both of us when they do: Why, for one week, do both of us wake up naturally at 6:30 AM instead of 8 AM?

We do not set alarms unless we have a flight or something, and we rarely have a need to be on an early vs. later flight. I make coffee for us every day, and we have coffee in bed for an hour or so while we chat and read. I read the New Yorker and High Country News, he reads the Guardian and some other things from his phone.

This is the best part, by the way. This was all we wanted: more sleep and time together. You can probably stop reading right here, or I can probably stop writing. Our mornings are the highlight of my life. When, God forbid, death separates Best Husband and me, I will miss our mornings the most, but at least we will have had years of quiet, beautiful morning hours.

Then, we will either do some work (whether paid client work or volunteer, this is usually computer based work but may take the form of a call or meeting), or we will work out. We’ll walk to the gym to lift weights, or go to the climbing gym, something like that.

After 2-3 hours of either work or work-out time (or a combo), we’ll cook and eat lunch and head out to the garden to have a cup of tea, weed, plant, pick food, etc. We might also take a long walk or hike, or run errands (while everyone else is still at work – very important), or spend time on some of our hobbies – sewing, writing, brewing beer, woodworking, etc.

Sooner than we think, it’s time to cook a good dinner from scratch, which we do together while listening to podcasts. Evening time is, rarely, going out (to see a play or similar) but, more often, is time for more hobbies, maybe the occasional movie or PBS show. I usually knit or sew; Best Guy may play a video game or read a book.

We go to bed around 10 PM and read in bed until 11 PM or so, until lights out.

I would not trade a minute of it: “time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life.” 

I can say with certainty, 20+ years later, “There is no shortage of good days.”




Update, DIY, Savings Rate in FIRE, and Frivolity Vs. Generosity

This post contains a general update, a brief rumination on savings during FIRE, and acknowledgment of some anti-Mustachian behavior: paying professionals for home improvements and treating folks to too many dinners out because hey, we can. Is that so wrong? Where’s the line between frivolous and generous?

Life in FIRE Update

I apologize for scant posts, not that anyone is hanging on my every word. We’re just plain not online much these days. Once Best Husband and I bid eternal farewell to office environments, the appeal of online distraction plummeted.

We spend a good part of the day outside, gardening and hiking. We do a lot of what could be labeled pro bono business and volunteer work, with neighborhood groups and the like. When we’re inside, we’re cooking, sewing, beer brewing, knitting, and doing other offline stuff. There is a positive, direct correlation between the amount of time we spend outside and our happiness.

FIRE is better than I ever could have conceived. Coming up on three years now (June), we cannot remember what day-to-day office life really felt like. That feels like healing. We do not take for granted having our weekdays back, though. Recently, Best Husband and I headed up to the Nor Cal coast to see some friends midweek: no traffic, no tourists, low midweek room rates. While there, Best Husband said “Remember how little time you used to get off?” I shudder to think.

Insufficiently DIY Mustachians

We have spent an eye watering, yet quantitatively insignificant, amount of total savings on home improvement projects (outdoor landscaping, a deck, new windows to replace the ones from the late 70s). Life in FIRE means we’ve actually had time to deal with these.

I don’t know if it’s my mild autism, visceral dislike of shopping and consumerism, or both, but I found it impossible to deal with home improvement choices and contractors when Sweet Husband and I were traditionally employed. That additional mental overhead tipped my cognitive balance from “holding on, if barely” to “hell no, too much.” When you work a ton of hours, you do not want to spend precious Saturday hours in the noisy aisles of Lowe’s, trying to evaluate window samples over beeping cash registers and announcements, or dealing with a salesperson in your living room. I did not…could not.

Lest you think too highly of our FIRE ways, allow me to own the fact that we’re not as DIY as other Mustachian types, including Mr. Money Mustache himself. We have a lot of DIY hobbies, and we built and landscaped our entire garden ourselves, but I am happy to pay professionals to do things the right way, once.

We did not DIY our new roof, or our windows, or the earthquake safe, cement and rebar foundations for our garden shed and decking. And because we did not, they were done in a day, and done well, and all that chaos and noise was gone ASAP.

Could we have figured out how to do all of these things? Yes. Would we have saved money? Maybe. Upfront, yes, but over time? I don’t know. It did not make sense to invest a ton of our time learning how to do something we plan to only do once. If you’re a DIY Mustachian who plans to parlay your newfound window installation or roof laying skills into an FIRE side gig or hobby, great. That’s not us. The gardening? Yes. Laying rebar and pouring cement? No.

FIRE is different for everyone, and Mustachians the world over make different decisions on where to save money and where to spend it.

Our next project will be a gray water system. If we’re going to stay in California and have a garden, it’s the only responsible thing to do. Our water usage is low compared to most, but our shower water still creates a clean, high quantity of gray water.

We’d like to add a pipe to take shower gray water into the garden, solar pump it up various, terraced levels of our San Francisco hillside, and send it into a storage tank and irrigation system. The design part of this will be fun. Fortunately, it’s legal here and the City even subsidizes classes about it at Urban Farmer and such.

We may do another gray water line (the easier of the two) from the laundry to an industrial tub in the garage. I’m one of those people who likes to buy raw sheep fleeces, wash them, and spin or felt them. Most wool requires at least two or three wash cycles, so–given our drought–I’ve stopped washing wool at home altogether.

Fortunately, a very inspiring fiber neighbor of mine (there are quite a lot, interestingly) described how she uses her laundry gray water for this, and I want–for the very first time–to keep up with the Joneses. She lays a fleece in the wash tub, washes a hot load, and that’s also the first fleece wash; and so on until the wool is clean enough. The only clean water my neighbor uses is for the rinse.

Savings in FIRE

What should savings, if any, look like when you’re financially independent and retired early (FIRE), and why? I realized I had not thought about this at all, in the nearly three years since we left our jobs. Were we still saving money? Because we bring more than enough in, we do not use our dividends to cover costs of living; we reinvest them.

I took a look, and came to a simple, obvious conclusion. In FIRE, we still save 20%, in pre-tax, tax beneficial savings. That’s a good minimum, and I think a simple rule for us to follow: As long as we have income in FIRE, we should take advantage of tax beneficial savings vehicles that drive our income level and taxes down. Duh. Technically, we do not need to save anything else, because we have so much cash, but we can if we want to.

Here are the numbers: In 2016, we made just under $89k. In 2017, just under $95k (officially; there is a few thousand extra dollars of cash income in there). These are gross income figures, before expenses, deductions, etc.

We contribute to an HSA each year, which is $6,750/year for our household. We can still make SEP contributions as well, $11,708/year for our household in tax year 2016. Altogether, that’s $18,458/year, more than 20% of our 2016 income and just about 20% of our official 2017 income.

Frivolity Vs. Generosity

We do need to get back to our Mustachian principles a bit. In 2018, I’m going to focus on the grocery bill and eating out. Because we’re home a lot now, getting out for dinner has been a way to see friends and have a change of scenery. Most of them work all day, and dinner is a convenient way to spend an evening out.

This habit is reflected in our Mint tracking. Womp womp. Looking at the past three months of grocery, dinner, and booze spending in Mint, we see: $1,598 in December, $1,355 in January ($338.75/week), and–hold the phone–$1,255 in February ($313.75/week), and it’s only February 17!There are almost two full weeks left in this month.

Granted, about $200 of that was groceries for friends who have four kids and are going through a tough time, financially, after the wildfires a few months ago. And you know… Our net worth is just under $2 million, and there is no way I’m not buying groceries for friends because of some grocery bill targets we maintained before we even reached FIRE. Uh uh. I’m buying friends as many groceries as they need. This is just one of the many joys of being FIRE and able to give.

We can, however, be a bit more careful about our food spending. We can have more folks over for dinner and Costco bottles of wine in the garden, for example, rather than go to a restaurant.

Two-Year FIRE Check-In

Our second FIRE anniversary passed without so much as a post, four months ago. So, how are things? In a word: great. We’re hopeless. We cannot conceive of spending entire days in someone else’s building, doing work that benefits that someone else. Better yet, the memories of our former corporate lives fade by the month. Otherwise…

2017 Numbers: FIRE Transparency

Everyone does FIRE differently and “retired” means a lot of things. For us, Financially Independent and Retired Early means we do not need to work to survive, but still do paid work we enjoy. We do this without intention or any sort of plan. We take work (or don’t) as it comes, and set no financial targets for annual income.

This year, we have not worked many billable (i.e. official self employed) hours: 600 between the two of us from January 1, 2017 through today, about 66 hours per month (33 hours per person) per our bookkeeping software. This does not include hours spent on all paid work we do, like casual side gigs for cash or trade, but it’s reasonably accurate.

Income wise, we’ve earned $85,000 so far. This is about the same as 2016, which was $90,000. We’ve done different sorts of work for an entirely different set of folks than we did last year, and yet our income is the same.

Spending wise, we’ve used $22,000 of that $85,000 to live on. Being 75% of the way through the year, this seemed low. Before we entered FIRE (and in order to achieve it), we spent $32,000-$34,000/year. Since FIRE, we haven’t altered our spending. Then I remembered that our property tax bill hasn’t arrived yet! Property tax in full, plus basic expenses for the remainder of the year and some year-end charitable donations, will bring our 2017 spending total over $30,000 to what’s normal for us.

Related to this, FIRE life has a consistent, seasonal cadence. July and August have little to no work, because everyone else is on vacation. Things pick up a bit in the fall before slowing down before Thanksgiving. January through May/June are slammed.

Can’t Stop the Entrepreneurship

When we entered FIRE in June 2015, the six months that followed were a revelation in brain space, time, and creativity. Without corporate work occupying our valuable thinking time, we got all sorts of ideas for new businesses, or ways to help existing ones. We loaned money to one small business at 2%, got it back, and are now re-investing that full amount in another small business, in which yours truly might become a very part-time partner. I’m not sure. Even that still feels like too serious a commitment in my FIRE life.

I’ve written business plans for numerous small businesses, gratis, and may also continue a relationship with one of those, likely as a board member.

This work has been a LOT of fun.

Mental Overhead = Automatic Frugality

I love the phrase mental overhead, also known as cognitive load or emotional labor. It’s the mental cost of stuff, and of acquiring and managing the stuff. This mental cost prevents us from spending any actual money. 

New windows? We could use them. Ours date back to the 1970s and we have very few windows, so replacement costs are low. Ah, but there’s the mental overhead: Researching all the types of windows available. Learning what the city of San Francisco will and will not permit. Visits from people to measure the windows. Reviewing estimates from said people. The communication: phone calls, blah blah. People not showing up when they say they will.

I literally cannot bear the thought. Another year passes without new windows.  Likewise cabinet facings, a built-in shelf, and house painting, though the latter looks more pressing. Sorry, neighbors across the street. I can’t even.

In FIRE life, mental overhead decreases over time (unlike at work, with managing a new hire, for example), but feels higher at the outset. Fortunately, this non-monetary cost has the benefit of translating to money savings!

Eldercare Emergency

I saved the best part of FIRE for last. Earlier this year, we became primary caregivers for an elderly family member, following their emergency hospitalization. If we’d not already entered FIRE, this incident would have forced our decision. There is no way we could both have fulltime jobs and properly care for our family member.

I have a LOT more to say on this that I’ll save for later. The short version is:

Holy Mother of God, the U.S. has the most expensive, vile, ineffective, wasteful, and fraudulent “care” system on the planet. I mean, holy s**t! This is like the Communist “make work” system, with 15 people who all do one thing vs. one person who can do 7-15 things! We cannot age in the U.S., uh uh, no way in hell. We’ll have to do what so many retired Americans have done and look into overseas living at some point. Glad we have family in Europe… Will that help us?!

Caregiving is a full-time job, especially in the mental overhead department. As eye-wateringly expensive as the U.S. system is, those costs do not include the free labor, by millions of people like us (and with far fewer resources), whose unpaid work sustains this s**t system, managing appointments, prescriptions, supplies, visits, caregivers, bills, bank accounts, the insurance, literally everything. Something’s got to give.

Conversations With Tax Man

The 2016 tax year was the first full one we spent in our FIRE-and-limited-self-employment life, making 2016 our first FIRE tax return. Ah, milestones!

Our income was over $90k, for a net income of $63k after business and other write-offs. We used no savings. We still had to contribute to IRAs.

Now, we think a $63k net income between two adults with a paid-off house, bought-in-cash car, no debt, no kids, and no other dependents is–even in the San Francisco Bay Area–a princely sum, so much so that we gave a lot of that $63k away. Our donations to charities haven’t changed since we entered FIRE, and they were already high. We also took some family and friends on vacations that may seem simple, but it turns out that free airfare and a house by the ocean for a week still count for something to our nearest and dearest.

Yes, where we live, $63k is not much to get by on if you do have to pay for housing, a car payment, debt, kids, child care, and more. But as I said: That’s not us. And perhaps nobody knows that better than our tax accountant, with whom we’ve worked since 2007 (I later brought him into to our marriage, aww).

Let’s call him Tax Man Dan, since that rhymes.

Tax Man Dan was, understandably, surprised by our drastically reduced income (even though I think earning almost $100k before taxes is a great first year in business by any standard, even for people who are not FIRE). He asked, with sincere concern, if we thought our income would be the same for 2017. Based on what we’ve earned since January, we sighed and said “Yes.” And then he asked if both of us would remain self-employed for the entirety of this year, or if “at least one of us” planned to get a job.

We had to smile. Tax Man Dan, concerned father figure type that he is, thought things were pretty dire for us at $63k net, while we recalled a 2016 of living like kings, what with our organic coffee and wine from Costco, abundant beach frisbee time, and taking friends on vacation. We realized we hadn’t really given Tax Man Dan our FIRE context.

Me: “Tax Man Dan, you know how much money we’ve earned these past 10 years. You know we no longer deduct mortgage interest, all that.”

TMD: “Of course.”

Me: “Then… How much more money do we need?”

TMD: “Ah, well… All depends on what you want to do with it, I guess. Buy a second home, maybe? Get a Tesla, like so many other people seem to be doing?”

Me: “That’s the thing. We just can’t get motivated by stuff. The only thing that motivates us is staying out of offices and job interviews.”

TMD: “Really! Well… That is really something… I mean, I suppose… It’s just, not a lot of people do this.”

Me: “We know.”

TMD: “I mean, they really don’t. And they could. They absolutely could. I, well… You know some of my other clients. They referred you. Many of them have earned far, far money than the two of you. Some earn more in one year than you have in 10. And they keep working, keep buying houses… a house in Tahoe, a house in Hawaii. They keep getting divorced and remarried, too, now that I think about it! I guess I’ve just never seen people do this, certainly not at your ages. But, you’re right. If you don’t have a strong reason to keep working…” 

Me: “And we don’t…”

TMD: “And you don’t, then… Well, why not?”

And then Tax Man Dan got a lot more interesting.

TMD: “I mean, look at our family, even. You don’t know them but let me tell you, we have far, far more than we need. More than enough house. College was paid for ages ago. And I’m an accountant, we’re pretty frugal, but… When we bought our house in this area, that was the late 80s, prices were starting to rise, but it wasn’t as desirable as it is now… It cost us what… $70k? Maybe less? That was a lot compared to the rest of the country, but it was something you could pay off in a lifetime of work, and we did that some time ago. But I have never personally thought about retiring early. Just always assumed I’d work until full retirement age. Huh. It’s really something.”

Now we’re wondering if Tax Man Dan will still be working next year. Will our FIRE values end up depriving us of our beloved tax accountant?! Stay tuned for the next few hundred days until tax year 2018!