Vet Success Stories: Reaching for FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early)

Welcome to my first FIRE interview! FIRE stands for financial independence, retire early. You can read about my motivation to FIRE here. Whether you’re on your way to FIRE or not, I hope you enjoy reading the story of others that are on this journey.

This small animal veterinarian is splitting her time between part time veterinary work and freelance writing. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, daughter, dog, three cats, three horses, and a dove (yes, you read that right….a white dove!). Here is her journey to FIRE story.

1. Please introduce yourself! Give us a little of your background and how you got started in veterinary medicine. 

I’m not one of those veterinarians who chose the profession as a young child. I didn’t consider veterinary medicine until high school, when I spent a day shadowing a veterinarian to meet a requirement for an anatomy elective. I had always known that I wanted an animal-related career… and at that point, I shifted my focus from wildlife biologist towards dreams of becoming a wildlife veterinarian. (Spoiler alert: I never became a wildlife vet. Bummer.)

2. How much debt did you have upon graduating from veterinary school? 

I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but I was one of those lucky few who graduated without student loans. My dad paid my tuition and much of my living expenses while in veterinary school (thanks, Dad!) and I supplemented his help with a job as a SAT/GRE instructor for The Princeton Review. When I graduated, I had around $10-15k in credit card debt but no student loans.

3. What was your level of financial literacy prior to veterinary school? Were you price sensitive when pursuing veterinary medicine?

I feel like I was probably more financially-savvy than most prior to veterinary school. My dad often talked personal finance with my brother and me when we were young. I received personal finance books as gifts, was often encouraged to think through the financial implications of my decisions, etc. 

(Editor’s note: Her father’s emphasis on his children being financially literate and his ability to pay for her tuition are tightly linked. People who pay attention to their money are not only more successful with their money, but they pass this knowledge forward to those that are willing to listen.)

Unfortunately, my financial literacy didn’t really extend to choosing a career. I knew better than to spend money on frivolous luxuries, but I didn’t view vet med in that way. I was under the impression (like many vets, I suspect!) that the financial implications of veterinary medicine wouldn’t be important in the big picture because I would find so much happiness and fulfillment at work that everything else would pale in importance. It sounds so naïve and laughable now! I think I failed to realize that I would someday have additional goals, interests, and priorities outside of my career. 

4.  Did your veterinary school provide personal finance education? If so, what did you think of the quality?

We received a decent amount of personal finance education, sprinkled throughout our Professional Development and Business Management courses. I don’t remember a lot of detail about what was covered, but I do remember Fritz Wood telling us that we should be contributing at least 10% of our income into index funds for our future retirement. While retirement seemed like such a crazy, far-off concept at the time, I also remember him telling us not to think of retirement as the goal (with all of the implications and mental images that it entails), but instead to think of reaching the point “where work becomes optional.” That really resonated with me. While I didn’t know if I ever wanted to be “retired,” I did know that I wanted options. As soon as I graduated, I dutifully started saving at least 10% of my income so that work could someday become optional.

5. What has motivated you to achieve FIRE?

One afternoon, in 2013, I found myself browsing the internet for ideas on how to cut costs and reduce our spending. My husband had recently become a stay-at-home dad, I was our only income, and we had recently moved into a larger and more-expensive house. We weren’t struggling, but I wanted to make sure that we stayed on top of everything. During my browsing, I stumbled across the site www.mrmoneymustache.com. Mr. Money Mustache (MMM) is a blogger who retired at age 30, through frugal living and aggressive savings. His blog and the forums on his website are dedicated to helping others do the same. 

When I first read through the MMM website, the concept of early retirement seemed insane. The forums were full of great info on cost-cutting, though, so I kept coming back and reading more. Within a few weeks, I was hooked. I was starting to burn out on veterinary medicine, but didn’t really see any other option beyond just plugging away until 65 or making a move to a different field (which would require either retraining a pay cut). Suddenly, this other option was standing in front of me…. I COULD retire earlier, if only I was willing to make some sacrifices to get there. 

I started saving aggressively and we’re now on track to potentially be completely retired by the time I’m 50 years and my husband is 45 years old.  I say potentially, because we’ve found ourselves changing our goal from a sudden early retirement to a gradual downshifting. I recently left full-time veterinary employment for a part-time vet job… and I make up the lost income with my freelance writing and occasional relief work. I LOVE this balance. So I may continue to work my current schedule for the next 10 years until FIRE, or I may do it for a few years and then start gradually downshifting on vet med, my side hustles, or both, which would put our official “retirement date” sometime after the original 50/45-year-old target. We’ll see. It’s very much a work in progress. As I said earlier, savings = options. 

6. Describe what the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) movement means to you.

In my mind, FIRE = options. It’s that simple. We are saving aggressively so that we can have options.

Once we hit our target FIRE number (25x our annual spending, which is the amount we’d need to have invested in order to be able to live off our investment long-term), my husband and I won’t HAVE to work to generate income… at all. Could we CHOOSE to work? Absolutely…. and we probably will. But if we do, it will be our decision and on our terms. We will no longer have any obligation to work for money.

The way I see it, we’ll have several different options once we hit FIRE:

  • Cut back to “passion jobs” that pay poorly, or maybe not at all. We’re both pretty purpose-driven, passionate people…. so I think this is the most likely scenario. I have SO MANY fields in which I’d love to do in-depth, ongoing volunteer work. (Like that whole wildlife thing…) That would be so much easier without paid work getting in the way.
  • Stay in decent-paying jobs and do something fun with our income. Give it all to charity? Take luxurious vacations? Buy a crazy-fun classic car? Who knows.
  • Not work at all. We could stay at home, travel, or spend our days out doing fun things. This scenario seems unlikely to me at this point, but I know that our perspectives may change as we age. So many people are forced out of work due to illness, injury, etc. that it will be nice to have that option without it placing any financial strain on us.

In order to someday have all of these options, we basically have to limit our spending by giving Future Us a vote in all of our financial decisions. I hope that makes sense…. maybe it sounds kind of weird, but hear me out! Some FIRE fanatics get really hung up on saving every single penny in a quest to retire as early as humanly possible. We aren’t that extreme…. but we do try to look at expenses from the perspective of what Future Us would say about having to work an extra week/month/year/whatever to pay for that expense. The trip to Europe that we’re planning for some time in the next year? I think Future Us will be glad we did it, even if it means delaying FIRE by a few months. Stopping at Starbucks every morning for a latte? Future Us would be pretty irritated at having to work extra months/years to pay for a habit that won’t provide any long-term benefits or memories, so we don’t do it. We try to make sure our spending is in line with our priorities and look at the big picture.

7.  What specific steps are you taking to achieve FIRE?

At the moment, we save 30-40% of our take-home pay. Sometimes that number goes up a little and sometimes it goes down a little bit, but we tend to settle around that percentage. 

In order to get to that savings rate, we’ve done two things:

  1. Increase income. While I was working as a full-time veterinarian, I started a side hustle doing medical and veterinary writing/editing. That provided extra income that I could funnel directly into savings. 
  2. Decrease spending. While we certainly aren’t perfect in this regard, we try to be intentional about our spending. We’ve cut back on eating out and shopping and we also try to put a lot of thought into big purchase. For example, when we decided that we wanted a vehicle with a third row, I did a lot of research and ended up with a spreadsheet incorporating purchase price, expected gas mileage, expected repair costs, etc. Instead of getting a Chevrolet Traverse or a Honda Pilot, we went with the much-cheaper Mazda5, which met our needs for a lot less money. 

8. Is your spouse completely on board with FIRE? Do you both approach finances the same way?

In our marriage, my husband is definitely the spender and I’m definitely the saver. It has been that way since before we were married and it will probably always be that way. 

When I first became FIRE-obsessed, it was hard to get my husband on board. The idea seemed bizarre, ridiculous, and far-fetched to him. I started out by making cuts in areas that wouldn’t affect him (my cheaper car purchase, taking my lunch to work every day, etc.) and by making small enough cuts in our household budget that it wasn’t really a hardship. Once I was able to show him that our net worth was significantly increasing, he became more interested and receptive when I pushed for cost-cutting. He’ll probably never be as motivated as me, but he’s come a long way and I think our approaches balance each other to some extent.

9.  Have you faced any challenges that prevented you from reaching your financial goals?

Our biggest weakness is eating out. With both of us working 40+ hrs/wk, not to mention weird schedules that keep one or both of us out late many nights (husband has late-night work meetings and I lead a Girl Scout troop) it’s sometimes easier to eat out than to cook at home. Also, I’ll admit it… we just LIKE restaurant food, even though it isn’t particularly budget-friendly or waistline-friendly!

Controlling the ‘eating out’ budget is a constant area of focus for us. Although I’m ashamed to admit it, we used to sometimes spend as much as $1,000/month on food eaten outside of our home. How? Well, if my husband and I both eat lunch out every day, that’s almost $500/month right there… throw in a couple of nights per week at the local pizza place or Mexican restaurant and it was easy for us to spend a ridiculous amount of money without even having any especially-memorable meals to show for it.

Our goal these days is to control this line of our budget by packing lunches every day and limiting ourselves to no more than two meals out per week. We allow ourselves one “date” each week (usually a lunch date, because lunch is cheaper than dinner!) and one family dinner out (at the local pizza place or Mexican restaurant). I would be lying if I said that we didn’t still exceed that guideline sometimes, but we’re definitely doing much better than we used to be!

Eating out still constitutes a decent-sized line item in our budget and there is absolutely room for us to decrease it further. Still, I’ve reached a point where I’m okay with our current level of spending; it’s a good compromise between my frugal side and my husband’s spendy side. I’m comfortable with the percentage of our income that we’re putting into savings and comfortable with the percentage of our income that we’re giving to charity, so having a slightly larger-than-ideal eating out budget is okay because it isn’t interfering with those bigger priorities.

(Editor’s note: Our eating out expenses are also pretty high, despite the fact that we only eat out on the weekends. However, ever since coming up with our monthly flexible spending number, I haven’t gotten as worked up about this category as long as we haven’t gone over our monthly amount. It’s still a goal of mine to get this number down and use that money for other purposes.)

10.  What are some financial mistakes that you’ve made?

I wish that I hadn’t waited so long to get started. Like I said earlier, I saved 10% of my income from the very start…. but I could have, and should have, saved more. If I had been saving 30-40% of my income from the start, instead of waiting until just a few years ago, I could probably be retired by now.

11.  What is your financial advice for other veterinarians?

I feel like a lot of veterinarians look at personal finance and just admit defeat. I can see how easy it would be to do that, with the huge student loans that many veterinarians graduate with. Heck, even without any student loans, it never occurred to me that I could/should save more than the 10% that I started saving…. because the concept of early retirement never once crossed my mind when I started out as a baby vet making only $45k/yr! The truth is, though, that little steps over the course of your career can have a HUGE impact on your finances later down the road.

Don’t let yourself feel hopeless about finances. If you were smart enough to get into vet school, you can definitely learn about personal finance. Find a website or a book that speaks to you, learn what you can, and start taking steps towards a better future for yourself and your family.

12.  Feel free to add any other information that people may find helpful!

Here are some websites that you might want to check out. All of these are full of great info… just find one that you like and dive in!
www.mrmoneymustache.com

www.whitecoatinvestor.com

www.jlcollinsnh.com

www.bogleheads.com (forums only, no blog… but so much great info!) 

Closing thoughts: As you can tell, this vet is absolutely fired up about reaching FIRE. Her father gave her the building blocks to a successful financial future. Her veterinary school program offered professional development and business management courses that led to her saving 10% of her income right off the bat (vet schools…please offer these classes to your students!). Then she came across one website that got her hooked. This is why I want to emphasize the importance of financial literacy; the earlier you start, the easier it is to use money as a tool to reach your financial goals. As she stated, your Future You will be incredibly grateful if you get into some good habits sooner rather than later.

She’s working both offense and defense, by increasing income AND decreasing spending. It all boils down to simple math, so make the equation work for you.

It is not unusual to have a spender and a saver in a marriage. In my case, I’m definitely the saver. It’s all about compromises and balancing each other out, which is important in every aspect of a relationship. 

As she states, don’t feel hopeless about finances. You can reach out and find a community that will support you, whether it be through this blog or elsewhere. Financial literacy is the first step, but finding that community is also crucial so that you don’t feel like you have to go at it alone. 

Are you interested in submitting your own Vet Success Story? I’m currently accepting submissions for student loan debt payoff, FIRE, and Entrepreneurs. Contact me at grace@richerlifedvm.com.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: