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.

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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!

Businesses Someone Else Should Start

Somehow, almost two years have passed since Best Husband and I quit our tech jobs and achieved FIRE. Lately, we’ve been more self employed than FIRE, which is a problem we need to fix. In 2016, we accidentally earned $90k working incredibly part time, an average of 50 hours/month between the two of us.

Strangely, it doesn’t feel very part time, due to what I’ll call mental overhead. Even when we’re not actively working on and billing hours toward a thing for a client or a friend, we still know we owe a thing to a client or friend. Even when we’re off the clock, it’s difficult to prevent ourselves from mulling and noodling on a problem we’re trying to solve.

Since we still have more work than we want, then, I figured I would pass on some ideas for businesses that someone else should start. The below are either things we’re asked to do as paid work, or work that we know others need and do not want to do ourselves, and very much in the spirit of Mr. Money Mustache’s 50 Jobs Over $50,000 series.

  1. Intelligent, grammatically robust PR work – Now. I have never done PR work and have no connections in this field but, apparently, this matters not. I abhor business speak, write clearly, and can spell, and this is more than enough for many businesses. If this sounds like you, for the love of God, open a PR agency (or just start a side gig) and watch your business grow and grow and grow.

    Former colleagues, clients, and friends will send me something a PR agency wrote about their company, product, book, etc. with messages such as: “The one pager the PR people created is attached and will make you throw up in your mouth a little. PLEASE help!” and “The grammar on this is horrible, but I care so much less about the grammar than it just sounding like SOMEONE who understands computers POSSIBLY wrote it.”

    If you can write jargon-free marketing material that manages not to sound like every other terrible press release out there, go forth and be rich.

  2. Ghostwriting – This is a service in which people who either cannot, do not like to, or or do not have time to write something like a book, or even Medium posts, hire and pay someone else to do it for them. The writing is then published under that person’s name.

    Again, as an engineering director, this is not a skill I ever claimed to have or a service I ever claimed to provide, but just sort of happened because I write well enough. I was doing some technical writing for a client and, because I was already there, the client asked if I could ghostwrite a few blog posts. And then the client’s friends asked about “that amazing post on Medium” and the client gave that person my name, and it grew, and grew.

    Now, you could try to do Intelligent PR (feel free to name your business that, too) and ghostwriting, but I believe you will soon be too busy to do both. Best have a contractor lined up.

  3. Agricultural labor of various types: I did not grow up on a farm but my husband did and there are all sorts of outdoor agriculture jobs that need doing and pay a lot more than you might expect. Some of these may be specific to California, but I know for a fact that some of them are not. If you want a side gig to reach FIRE sooner, or are just sick to death of sitting in an office, you should consider some of these.

    A friend of ours also achieved FIRE about two years ago, and word of his hobby of fruit tree pruning and grafting has gotten around. He cannot keep up with demand. Apparently, all sorts of people need this, including people who are moving and want to take parts of the old house or farm with them. He says he could have another business devoted entirely to helping people identify what’s growing in their gardens, labeling it, and telling them how to take care of it. 

    Some friends-of-friends do what’s called contract grazing. They take their sheep to vineyards and orchards to graze weeds down (without more expensive use of mowers, fuel, and humans) and manage fire risk. They do not advertise, add 1,000 sheep/year, and turn down work. Everyone from wealthy folks with large acreage to park districts to farmers wants their services. There are infrastructure costs involved, like livestock trailers and animal shelter, but I believe you could easily start small, with just a few sheep. If you already have a big truck and like livestock, think about it.

    The same friends-of-friends tell us there is a serious shortage of people who shear sheep (they claim to know a woman who quit her day job to shear sheep, as she got 2-4 calls per day without advertising); even fewer people who shear alpacas and llamas; fewer people who trim the hooves of cattle and horses; and fewer people still who can shoe horses (farriers). These are all skilled trades, but achievable with limited, focused training and practice.

    4. Checking in on elders whose kids live out of town. This is a booming side gig and full-time job. There is a whole demographic of people who left home to attend college and grad school, and live elsewhere and make decent amounts of money. They live far away and cannot check in on their parents and/or grandparents as much as they’d like, but they are happy to pay someone else to do so.

    My dad knows a few retired men who do this, in their 60s. Some of them are Vietnam Vets. They, in particular, are very popular with elderly men (some of whom are also Vets). They chat and help out with whatever needs doing: errands, straightening up the house, etc.

    Also, there are terrible options for the delivery of nutritious, homemade food for seniors. If you can do this and do it well, at a reasonable price point, I think you could be very wealthy indeed. We tried to find decent options for my grandparents and none of them were very good at all.

    5. Maintaining grave sites. I could not make it up if I tried. I know a woman who became popular at doing this through a church community and, a few months later, was getting referrals from cemeteries themselves. Many people are elderly and cannot easily travel to or maintain the cemetery sites of loved ones themselves, and/or loved ones live far away and cannot do it themselves. You find out what dates are important to people and how much they want to spend on arrangements, make it happen, and send them photos to confirm. Even a lot of elderly folks have a way to get digital photos these days. 

 

 

ACA, Don’t Go Away: The ACA, FIRE, and Uncertainty

I sat down to write a post about how the ACA — affordable, if not cheap, health insurance — enabled us to retire early, and what its now uncertain future means for our lives and lifestyle. But Dr. Doom already did. Read his post first, then come back here, if desired. Our details are different, but most points of Dr. Doom’s post apply directly to us.

We’re worried about losing access to affordable health insurance, and thus our ability to have our own business and FIRE (in shifting proportions). This lifestyle has another name: freedom. The Republican party has consistently tried to weaken and repeal the ACA legislation since 2010. Those are the facts.

So are these.

Our Situation

  • In mid-2015, my husband and I retired early, at ages 38 and 39.
  • We enrolled in a Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) plan purchased through the Covered California website, our state’s health insurance exchange.
    • Because we voluntarily quit our jobs and were not fired, the insurance company REQUIRED us to purchase our insurance through Covered California. I have never received a satisfactory explanation as to why. BCBS itself sells the exact same plan for the exact same price and, had we been fired, would have sold it to us directly without our needing to use the state exchange. If you think we don’t need the state exchanges the ACA created, because private companies will “just sell” you insurance because of course they’d want to, think again. Wishing doesn’t make it so.
  • We pay $657/month (without subsidy) for a BCBS Bronze PPO plan with an HSA. (An HSA is just a savings account into which pre-tax savings can be deposited. The annual maximum HSA contribution allowed by the IRS, for us, is just over $6,500. Many credit unions offer them.)
  • We have a high deductible plan with a $9,000 annual deductible that, in a normal, healthy, lucky year, we don’t nearly reach.
  • We do not carry dental or vision coverage. We pay out of pocket for annual cleanings and glasses, but we can use our HSA to do so.
  • Our 2015 income was not low enough to qualify us for a subsidy, but our 2016 income will be. We expect to realize some of the $657/month we’ve overpaid as a tax credit/refund for the 2016 tax year.
  • And remember, per the ACA, health insurance premiums for self-employed folks (us) and all dependents are fully deductible on our tax return. This another overlooked, underappreciated aspect of the ACA: It’s awesome for entrepreneurship and driving the growth of small business.
  • We would not have been able to stop working when we did (opening up our jobs for others to take, ahem) without the existence of the ACA. Period.
    • COBRA would have cost us $1,800/month.
    • Similar coverage from a private insurer prior to the enactment of the ACA (which we did look into a few years back, provided they would have actually sold it to us, which is not a given) would have cost almost the same, $1,600/month. Sure, we could work less and run through all of our savings pay for outrageously priced health care, but that’s not the sort of thinking that got us to FIRE, and it sure wouldn’t keep us here for as long as we’d like.
  • The cost of private insurance is only one aspect of this story. The other is about cost control, another woefully underappreciated aspect of the ACA. Insurance premiums go up, right? They rose every single year of our lives, long before the ACA, they rose a little bit this year, and they will rise next year. But! Thanks to the ACA, we are protected from these rises because subsidies rise to cover the difference. As Doom points out, “With private insurance, there is no such guarantee. You are at the mercy of the insurers. If we felt we had to save enough to indefinitely cover indefinitely rising health care costs, we might have been indefinitely working.” Yep.
    • This is just one reason why politicians’ servitude to corporations and their lobbyists is problematic. Corporations want us beholden to and dependent upon them for health insurance. Think about it. These days, health insurance is one of, if not the only, significant advantages they offer over working for yourself. Large corporations have broken the social contract in every other conceivable way: 1) At-will employment means you can be fired at any time for any reason (“or no reason,” as employment paperwork says), so long term employment stability isn’t a perk; 2) They offer no pensions, so you have no incentive to be loyal; 3) They dodge overtime pay laws, etc. etc. Health insurance is all they’ve got to offer, so it stands to reason that corporations would be pretty pissed off at the chinks the ACA made in this last-gasp armor. Their bought-and-paid for representatives have behaved according to plan.
  • In short, the ACA was a key enabler to us finally being able to realize our early retirement and self-employment plans. It’s not perfect, but it’s good, doable, and getting better every year, not worse. This year brought more doctor choices and such, things that made our plan easier to use and more beneficial. Any new product, whether it’s software or a Tesla, a new restaurant or health insurance, tends to improve after its initial release.

In order to continue to not work or, rather, to work less and about as much as we want (this year, that was about 50 hours/month between the two of us) and live frugally (on our usual $32-34,000/year in San Francisco), my husband and I need affordable health care.

President-Elect Trump has promised to “repeal and replace” the ACA, he will be able to do it, and it could really mess up the lives that we have worked very hard to, and been disciplined about, creating. Look. Living on 25-50% of what you make every year, forever, requires at least some discipline and lots of careful, daily choices, even when it’s a solid habit. Having a side job when you’re working 60+ hours week and in grad school part time, just to save a little extra,  doesn’t feel like a real sensible choice when you feel like you could gladly sleep for a year.

But my husband and I chose that. We chose not to buy a LOT of things. And then we chose this. And because this is the U.S., we have this basic, fundamental, possibly archaic and idealistic belief that we should have the basic freedom to live life as we choose. It’s that whole life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness thing. For us, freedom and corporate employment are at odds. Indeed, they are mutually exclusive conditions. We did it, and now we’re done. We hate working in offices. It’s not the President’s job to force us, even indirectly, to work for corporations like his own or those of his kids and friends.

Depending on what actually happens, we’ll probably try to at least stay self-employed, find some sort of coverage, and just work more (an exercise in futility when you don’t NEED to, and would really rather have the work go to other people who do need it, but since our politicians want to create nonsense land now…).

But I digress.

By virtue of living in San Francisco, California, we may have some other options.

California Dreaming

California has a few things going for it, ACA or not:

  • California has the largest economy in the U.S. and the sixth largest in the world. Yes, our state economy is larger than that of most countries. Given this, there is technically no reason we could not have something like Mass Health: Covered California, our state exchange, could provide the foundation for a state-wide health care plan.
    • Note: Starting on Nov. 9, I began to call and email both local and state representatives about this. They have assured me that it is not only possible, but already on their radar given Trump’s election win.
    • I’m not delusional. As it’s currently configured, California replacing federal subsidies would be a stretch, and a huge bite out of our state’s $122.5 billion general fund budget. It’s more likely that California would try to maintain access to coverage (the Covered California marketplace) and consumer protections (lifetime spending caps, fair prices for women, no discrimination based on pre-existing conditions).
    • But California has a strong incentive to have some sort of state-based plan, long term. Remember, people without health insurance are forced to seek care for free in emergency rooms, which are legally obligated to treat them. These hospitals pass the costs on to others, including insured patients, insurance companies and… the state itself.
  • We have Kaiser as a back stop. Kaiser is great for a lot of reasons, but I do not want it. Still, it beats having no health insurance at all. A monthly plan from Kaiser would cost exactly what we pay now, but offer much less. We would be bound to the Kaiser system, the out-of-state coverage sucks and is complicated (and I need out-of-state coverage, given the travel and type of work I do across state lines), and we would have to leave all our doctors and nurse practitioners of 10+ years, which we are loath to do (and do not feel we should be required to do, just because Republicans are feeling destructive).
  • Healthy San Francisco could make a comeback. The city of San Francisco offered universal health care to its residents in the form of Healthy San Francisco, for years before the ACA and Covered California. Since Covered California launched, people who were in Healthy San Francisco and eligible had to get coverage via Covered California instead. Healthy San Francisco still exists, though, for very poor people. Local representatives have assured me that Healthy San Francisco could, if necessary, be spun up to its former glory once again. For what it’s worth, Healthy San Francisco was very well regarded by those who were on it.

Aside: I Miss Old-School Republicans

It’s a pity that Mitt Romney does not take greater credit for all the lives he has saved via Mass Health, the state health plan in Massachusetts. If I were you, Mitt, I’d be singing those saved-life stories from the rooftops (and, to Republicans, would point out how many folks were still able to work and not dependent on taxpayer support because their health problems were treated and controlled).

If Romney had owned that success and the Republicans had taken it up as a mantle of their own, I think the GOP of today would be a completely different party, and one with much broader support and a lot less crazy.

Today’s Republican party, by contrast, no longer even pretends to represent the interests of fiscal sanity, small business owners, entrepreneurs, or folks who actually did what the GOP (used to) say to do. Many Mustachian types have struggled, worked intensely, lived very frugally, and saved our money. Now, however, the Republican party represents large corporations and only certain kinds of wealthy folks: They’ve disowned and shunned the millionaires next door in favor of Wall St. financiers and debt-dependent types like Trump and his ilk. With over $1 million to our names, a paid-off house, and self-employment income still coming in, we consider ourselves well off, but today’s GOP does not.

I miss that old school Republican party, I genuinely do. I’ve been a registered Independent most of my life, aside from a few party-specific registrations required in some states in order to vote in primaries. As a woman with more than a lick of sense, I have voted Democrat much of the time, but not always, especially 15 or so years ago.

In local and state elections at least, I loved that it was often difficult to decide who deserved my vote. Once upon a time, it wasn’t unusual for one or more parties to have one or more really solid, compelling candidates on the ballot, and sometimes I voted Republican. Prior to the great dissolution of actual small government values brought on by Bush II, 9/11, FISA, Homeland Security, and the TSA (I’m still WTF about all that), the Republicans were often strong on privacy and against surveillance; strong on education and unafraid to look and speak intelligently in public (something about a thousand points of light in here); as hunters and farmers, strong on the health of the Great Lakes, wilderness areas, and many aspects of the EPA (I worked on Superfund projects that had tremendous Republican support, for instance); and myriad other things.

It’s not for me to decide what the hell happened to Republicans. I am only sorry it has. They’ve cast their lot.

 

 

An Inconvenient Truth

Recently, I realized that I have unintentionally omitted a significant — yet deeply uncomfortable — contributing factor to quitting my tech job and “retiring” early, in my late 30s: consistent sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination at work. In a sick, twisted way, these experiences pushed me to financial independence.

Nothing I wanted could hold a candle to my desire to be rid of these men. Nothing.

I say “inconvenient” because I can see how some people could (and no doubt will) draw a terrible conclusion: that my being sexually harassed and assaulted at work over the course of 20 years was somehow acceptable, even beneficial, because I wouldn’t be financially independent and retired early (FIRE) without it. That I “should thank them” because their base, vile behavior “inspired” me to save more money than I would have otherwise.

This is demonstrably false. Let me state unequivocally that sexual predators and perverts did not make me frugal. That, blessed be, came from my family and me.

And I say “unintentionally” because, until the sexual assault revelations of presidential candidate Cinnamon Hitler (credit to Trevor Noah), I had blissfully, mercifully been able to forget some of these things and, in regard to other incidents, had at least reached the point that I did not think about them every day.

I had forgotten the Promise Keeper whose cubicle held a photo of his wife and two young children, and one of him on both knees in a stadium, crucifix gleaming on a heavy chain, both arms raised to the sky, weeping with joy in the Lord. Twenty years my senior (I was 19), he liked to walk up behind me when I was immersed in coding, my headphones on, and touch my hair, rub both of my shoulders, or land a hand on one of my thighs.

This happened in an open plan office, by the way. I was surrounded by other, male engineers. In fact, there were almost always multiple witnesses. With one exception — that of a similarly treated female peer — the witnesses were all male. As a female engineer, often at small and mid-sized companies, it was not unusual for me to be the only female employee.

Promise Keeper was, in my 20-year tech career, the only perv who was ever actually fired. He probably would not have been if he had not also harassed a receptionist in much the same way as myself; repeatedly delivered racist rants about “the Blacks” and “the inner cities” in front of an African-American manager; and actually slapped a female manager’s ass while she stood in front of the copy machine. For real.

Many more male coworkers (almost always executives, never engineers) would, for the next 20 years, proceed to do the same things as Promise Keeper. None of them would be fired or punished in any way, no matter complaints to HR, complaints from witnesses, or letters to board members.

Mandated company travel brought out the worst. However blatantly these men behaved in the office, it was just the tip of the iceberg. On the road and in a hotel, they were unshackled.

About 10 years ago, I lost count of the number of times a significantly older, always married, more powerful male employee knocked on my hotel room door late at night, carrying a six pack of beer or a brown-bagged bottle of whatever. I never, ever answered and always called the front desk about a “strange man at my door” immediately.

Once, my refusal to answer the door backfired on me, spectacularly. Door Knocker moved on to the door beside mine, where another male colleague was staying. We were in San Diego and the rooms had balconies. It was just after sunset, and I had been sitting on my balcony with my room service dinner, enjoying the sea air. I had the sliding doors open behind me to let the fresh air into my stale hotel room. Back home, the Midwest was in the thick of winter, so I cannot emphasize what a treat this was after a 12-hour day of intense work at a client site.

Alas, my colleague answered his door, and let Door Knocker and his six pack in. Door Knocker took to the balcony beside mine, saw me (as he no doubt intended), and began asking “why the fuck I wouldn’t let him in” and why I had to “ruin the party.” (Because work is or should be… a party?) My other male colleague looked shocked and mortified but did not ask Door Knocker to leave or settle down. I went inside my room, shut the double doors, and shut out that beautiful breeze from the beach.

When Door Knocker threw two empty beer bottles onto my balcony, where they smashed, I called down to the front desk to ask for a new room.

Far and away, however, the worst of this has taken place in offices in the San Francisco Bay Area. I should not have found it surprising or exceptional, but the area has such a liberal and litigious reputation that I expected otherwise. Of this, the worst has come from investors (VCs) in the companies for which I worked. They are so shameless that much of their harassment happens in writing: repeated text messages requesting dates, emails on “that outfit you had on in the board meeting.” (A loose, vintage, well below the knee Laura Ashley dress with long  sleeves and a high neck that I hoped made me look pregnant? Really?)

They know they are untouchable.

If a woman as wealthy and powerful as Ellen Pao can’t get them, neither can I.

The inevitable question is, of course, “Why didn’t you sue them?” Because, logistically speaking, if women sued every time we could and should, we would spend our entire working adult lives embroiled in expensive lawsuits. It would mean suing almost every employer I ever had. While tempting, I have a life to live. It’s easier to change jobs when HR or the board makes it clear nothing is going to change.

But there is no need to belabor these points and bore my readers, especially women, to whom none of this comes as a surprise and for whom much of this is probably mild, compared to their experiences.

This is why I find myself at odds with people — mostly women — who say tech companies need to hire more women, that women should stay in order to make tech culture better for other women and minorities. They say it won’t get better until then.

Really? Show me the data.

Over the course of my career, with each subsequent job, I worked with more women, not fewer, in multiple departments and in leadership. And it got worse, not better. I need evidence that having more women physically present at work actually reduces this behavior. Perhaps it does, but not significantly enough? I don’t know.

What I do know is that, in 20 years, I saw no evidence of this.

We each get one life. One. Do these companies pay us enough to cover physical assault, sexual threats, sleeplessness, unbelievable stress, insomnia, fear of physical safety, and shame? Forced job changes because we can’t stand it anymore and the predators are “too productive” and “create too much value” to be fired?

Stop thinking about these companies as “tech,” as somehow distinct or intrinsically different. Start thinking about them as corporations, plain and simple. Tech corporations are no better, more special, or more equitable than any other company.

Save yourselves, not them. They simply are not worth it. And especially not Cinnamon Hitler, who reminded me about all of this in the first place.

Stop permitting your own suffering.

Depressingly, a Medium post titled This is Your Life in Silicon Valley has been making the rounds, shared by friends on Facebook with comments like “Too true.” There are those who simply acknowledge the dystopian life described as familiar, and those who state they do not like it.

To the latter, I can only say: Stop it. Stop permitting your own suffering. These are human choices, not forces of nature, and you make them every day.

You can always do something else.

Last year, in 2015, I had one New Year’s resolution: I will not permit my own suffering. That resolution served as a lens through which I could find and examine things that made me miserable, and subsequently consider which I could and could not control.

Of course, we cannot control all of our own suffering. We cannot control whether or not we become ill, whether loved ones die and leave us bereft, and the like. But my New Year’s resolution experiment showed that I was permitting most of my own suffering. I was, through all sorts of behavior, teaching people what I would accept and tolerate.

When I answered texts, emails, and calls after work (or immediately), I taught people that they would receive — and thus should expect — responses from me at these times of day. Likewise when I attended early morning and late night meetings to accommodate other time zones, on multiple days of the week rather than one.

When I accepted invitations to meetings without agendas, or for which my presence was not required, I taught people that it was acceptable to waste my time.

When I skipped meals to attend last-minute meetings, I taught people that their lack of planning and panic was more important than my eating and taking a break. I rewarded them for bad behavior.

When people asked me to do things and I said yes by default, and didn’t make them choose a trade-off (i.e. “If I’m going to do that, then something else will have to go”), I taught them to overload me, and to continue to add to that load, every time.

When I repeatedly glanced at my phone at home, I showed my husband that I was not fully present for him. I gave my employer higher priority than my most loved one. My employer didn’t do that: I did. I allowed it.

The somber Medium post (which some people claim to find funny, shudder) opens with: “You wake up at 6:30am after an Ambien-induced sleep.” Stop it. Unless you have a baby, or are poor and must work two or three shifts to survive, you control how much sleep you get. Only you allow others to take sleep from you.

Put your phone in Do Not Disturb mode. Ban screen time (yes, that includes reading on the Kindle and Netflix) a minimum of two hours before bedtime. Take a shower. Have an herbal tea. Read something pleasant, on paper, for a minimum of 30 minutes before you fall asleep. Kick the Ambien and, if your doctor gave you a prescription for more than a few at a time and didn’t advise you to quit your job as s/he did so, kick your doctor, too.

The post describes a person losing an awful lot of allegedly limited time to online content: podcasts, Facebook, what have you. Stop it. Stand up, put the device down, and walk away. Turn it off, put it in airplane mode, avail yourself of the Freedom app, stop looking at it. Hours will magically reappear.

After describing someone who has no time to see his child, the post mentions “You have to decide where to go for dinner tonight.”  No, you don’t. Cook something simple — start with spaghetti, maybe — in less time than will be required to choose a restaurant, eat there in protracted fashion, and get home. The sooner you do, the sooner you can start your new process of seeing your child and creating pre-bedtime relaxation.

The post describes a dinner at which “You are all too busy making your own points and citing articles to really listen to each other.” Knock that shit off, then. You yourself can shut up, for starters, and actually listen. If you’d really like to kick the hornet’s nest, you could point out what’s happening. Try “Hey Bill, what’s the last thing Tom mentioned?”

Or, redirect the conversation to something more vulnerable and honest. Ask an interesting question. What was your favorite Halloween costume? Have you ever lived in a place with winter? Do you miss the snow? Who was your favorite family member? What was your favorite book in Junior High? Get to the point.

And on, and on, and on.

This, my dear ones, is why I ultimately had to quit my tech job more than one year ago. When I could finally see, and then began to address, all the various sources and instances of my suffering, I felt like I was playing a wild game of whack-a-mole.

After maddeningly addressing sources of suffering for six months, I had to accept that my tech job required me to suffer. People were indignant and offended when I simply asked “What should I prepare for this meeting?” or “What do you need from me on this call?” They’d reply, “Well, nothing! I just need you to be there.” No.

When I said I would not fly 30 hours round trip to be in an office in Asia for 36 hours, unless someone could tell me why I had to be there physically, I got tsk tsks and warnings (and still no explanation for why this travel was required).

Anything, and anyone, that requires you to suffer unnecessarily has got to go. Don’t allow it for another day more. And if you find, as I did, that a culture or company requires and depends on your suffering, then it has made the decision for you.

How To Divest from Specific Stocks in Wealthfront

One of my favorite bloggers, Dr. Doom, recently wrote an excellent post on how to unload (clever, that) guns from your Vanguard portfolio. It prompted me to publish this post, which has been sitting in draft form for some time.

Before I get rolling (and do feel free to skip this and scroll to the how-to with screenshots)…

I was surprised at the number of comments Doom’s post solicited, and the venom therein. I will probably never understand what it is about another person’s freedom to choose (in this case, one’s investments) that freaks people out so much, to the point that they scream “Unfollowing!” What’s so crazy about deciding how you want to invest your own, hard-earned money? What’s so frightening about ideas different from your own (which no one forces you to read about)?

But I digress.

How To Divest from Specific Stocks in Wealthfront

It’s remarkably easy.

First, you need a Wealthfront account.

Go to your account “Settings.”

On the left hand side, click “Restrictions.” You will see the following box into which you can type any ticker symbol, for any stock you do not want Wealthfront to purchase:

Wealthfront screen in Settings > Restrictions
Wealthfront screen in Settings > Restrictions

If you read Dr. Doom’s post on his challenges with Vanguard, you will find the reasons we still have some investments in Wealthfront. I have an Apex-Clearing-and-IEX-exchange beef with Wealthfront, but that’s another post. I’d rather have more of our money in Vanguard but, until I can more easily exclude specific stocks, our Wealthfront account lives to see another day.

There are numerous reasons someone may not legally be able to trade a certain stock, which is the likely use case Wealthfront had in mind when they designed this feature. But it can also effectively be used to divest from, and/or avoid purchasing, certain stocks.

Why would anyone want to do this?

Why might you want to divest from specific companies?

I’ll start with the emotional/personal reasons and move on to the logical/rational ones.

The ability to divest from (or never invest in) specific stocks is the ability to refrain from profiting from things that don’t align with your values and/or incentives.

Frankly, I have never believed that violating our principles and earning money must be mutually exclusive. I don’t care what personal beliefs and morals you have (unless, of course, they limit mine). I do believe, however, that any person should be able to put their money where their mouth (and heart) is, and that there is no need for it to be difficult. (The fact that it is difficult indicates that divestment is powerful, and that companies do not want us to be able to do this easily, which is itself a tacit acknowledgment that they know many of us don’t like their doings.)

Personally, I cannot abide the state of cognitive dissonance that results from my behaving in ways that don’t reflect my values. You may not be this kind of person. If so, I’m envious. My life would be easier (and more fun) if I were. But I’m not.

Bother.

Shifting from the emotional/moral to the logical view of divestment, it doesn’t make sense to shoot yourself in the foot. This is a matter of incentives and a focus on our desired, rational outcomes, vs. our feelings.

Let’s say, as the climate movement has, that we humans have an interest in Earth remaining habitable for… humans. It makes no sense for us to continue pull oil and gas out of the ground, because greenhouse gas omissions contribute to global warming and to the opposite outcome of the one we want.

Oil and gas companies, by contrast, have little or no incentive to create our desired outcome. Perhaps the humans who run these companies don’t care if Earth remains habitable for current and future generations, or perhaps Earthly habitation is less important than current profits to shareholders… which includes every person whose pension and/or retirement fund makes them a few dollars a month based on the oil and gas company’s performance.

Ah. There’s the rub, and our shot in our foot.

It’s not entirely our fault. The very structure of investment funds doesn’t make it easy for us to notice the extent to which we profit from the very things we abhor. Index and mutual funds may contain dozens, hundreds, or thousands of funds, with names and descriptions that mask what they do. We pick one of a few funds allowed in the company 401(k) plan, and that’s the extent of our “consumer choice.” Hours of research might be required to see, look up, and truly understand the contents of our portfolios (believe me, I know). And those contents change all the time.

This system creates an uncomfortable conflict in our rational incentives: We humans want to be able to survive in retirement, but we also know that our survival can only take place on Earth, with its key ingredients for human life: sun, water, bees, and top soil. It is entirely rational, then, for us to decide that the planet — the only one known to sustain human life — is more important than a certain segment of our portfolio. We should be allowed to make that choice. It’s rational. The market is all about rational actors, no? (Ha ha.)

When taken beyond the individual effort to a collective one, it’s possible that — if enough people divest — they can begin to starve the beast. (Divestment was one of several strategies that helped end apartheid, for example, and its cumulative effects can be powerful.) This can change the company’s incentives: if they lose institutional investors, if their stock price plummets, they have an incentive to change their behavior or risk further failure.

Anyway, this is just one example that applies to all humans. Depending on your personal beliefs and morals, you may not want to invest in a pharmaceutical company that manufactures the Plan B pill, for example; or a clothing manufacturer that uses child slave labor; or a media company that donates to a certain presidential candidate. Whatever you believe, I believe it should be possible and fairly straightforward for your investment behavior to align with your beliefs.

How Do You Divest?

If you’ve found ways to divest from and/or avoid purchasing stocks, I’d love to hear about these mechanisms and your experiences in attempting to use them. Please do comment. Thanks!