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What is lighting your FIRE?

So why did I use the acronym FIRE in my title?

This was a new term for me up until recently.  But once I found out what it was, it resonated very deeply with me.

FIRE stands for Financial Independence, Retire Early. You have enough accumulated in your investments that you can live off of your assets without having earned income. You are living off of passive income, examples which include stock dividends and real estate income. Your days as an employed person in the workforce are over.

The usual life script is that you get a job, work until you’re eligible for Social Security, then you retire.  But those in the FIRE community want to reach this stage much earlier. Waiting until you’re in your 60’s just seems too far away when you could theoretically be financially independent decades earlier.

This concept of FIRE isn’t new, but it has certainly gained traction recently. This was highlighted in an article featuring Vicki Robin, the coauthor of Your Money or Your Life. This book was first published in 1992, but it had been republished with quite a bit of fanfare earlier this year. What happened in the intervening 25 years?

I believe that we’re entering unchartered territory when it comes to how we view our careers and retirement. Older generations viewed work as work: the point was to make money and support yourself and your family. Actually being fulfilled by your job was just a bonus; you were lucky to have a job, period.

Although I do have an alternate theory: perhaps people were more fulfilled by their jobs in the past because it provided them a great source of identity and stability if they were gainfully employed. Things seemed much more predictable and safe, which meant you didn’t have to go outside your bubble to search for further meaning and fulfillment in life.

We live in very different times now. Younger generations are much more concerned about work-life balance and prioritizing life experiences, versus the idea that you slog through work as a requirement of being an adult. Your identity is much more than your job or career. It seems almost wasteful to spend most of your waking hours doing something you don’t like doing when there’s a great big world out there full of opportunity, possibilities, and life experiences.

In addition, the decade long bull market has also been very kind to investors, allowing many people to significantly increase their wealth within a short period of time. Reaching financial independence just got a whole lot easier when you’re getting great returns in the market and enjoying the benefits of compounding. I am fairly certain that there was not as much enthusiasm for the FIRE movement while we were in the midst of the Great Recession.

Who doesn’t love the idea of being financially independent and retiring early? Especially if you happen to be burnt out at work and simply need space to feel like you can breathe a little and enjoy life?

MY MOTIVATION, MY “WHY”

So my personal motivation is my husband. Mr. RLDVM is a physician.

I met him during his residency. His stressful job with long hours is the only way I’ve ever known him.

Just to give you an idea of what it’s like to be married to him: he typically has to be at the hospital by 7 am. And I never know when he’ll get home.

He can tell me that he expects today to be a “light day” (which usually means somewhere around normal dinnertime), and maybe he’ll get home at a decent hour. But I never, ever assume that he will be home when he says he will be home. Ever. I just go about my day and assume that I will be the one that needs to take care of everything house and kid-related.

If we’re lucky, he’s home in time to eat dinner with us, which is rare. He may get home right around their bedtime (anywhere between 8-9). And there are many days where he gets home after their bedtime because he needs to stay late for an emergency case. To wake up the next morning and see that his side of the bed was untouched has been a reality quite a number of times throughout our marriage.

But surely he gets a break on weekends? Ha- that’s a good one! Well, when he’s on-call, he spends a good chunk of both Saturday and Sunday at the hospital.  Even weekends he’s not on-call, work still beckons. Sometimes he will be at the hospital anyway for emergency cases or to check on some patients. Sometimes he has presentations to prepare or paperwork to catch up on. His pager has now been replaced with direct calls to his cell, which has a habit of ringing any time of day or night, any day of the week. Thankfully, I no longer wake during those middle of the night calls. I’m pretty sure my brain said that it was going to do me a favor and just ignore those calls. Thank you, brain.

It’s not just the hours. He deals with complicated cases with very sick people. The stakes are high. It’s hard enough having conversations about risk and death in veterinary medicine; I can’t even imagine having these kinds of conversations in human medicine. One of the many reasons I had no interest in pursuing medical school.

Although his current schedule is an improvement compared to his grueling schedule as a resident and fellow, I know that I can never expect a Monday-Friday, 9-5 schedule from him.

So this job takes a lot out of him. It is physically and mentally taxing. He is healthy, but he’d be a lot healthier if he could just get some regular sleep. He has missed his fair share of birthday parties, recitals, and holidays. He spends time with the family when he can, but the nature of his job demands that he tends to his patients first. As much as we like to think about work-life balance, there are jobs out there where achieving this kind of balance is near impossible. Whether you’re talking about a minimum wage worker working multiple jobs to make ends meet, the lawyer trying to make partner, our active duty military service members who are deployed for months on end in dangerous locales, a restaurant owner who has to pour everything they’ve got into their business…some jobs simply aren’t built for work-life balance.

He takes his role as provider very seriously. He is so committed to his job. And he is damn good at it- I am so proud when I hear compliments about him, because people don’t go out of their way to say something nice about a physician unless they really mean it.

THE MOMENT

There was one particular night that he came home late, with the same look of exhaustion on his face that I’ve seen thousands of times. The kids were already asleep as dinner was warming up on the stove. It was a night no different than any other. Yet I just thought to myself, this is not sustainable.

My husband was working himself to the bone. His commitment to his job, to his patients, and to his family is what keeps him going. Despite the fact that his job is very demanding and stressful, he also derives great satisfaction from work. I mean, he literally gets to save people’s lives, which is amazing. However, I also realized that he was going to be the type of person that would continue to sacrifice his own health and wellbeing if left to his own devices.

There comes a time where even doing amazing things in your career is not enough when your wellbeing is compromised. As much as he enjoys his job, he’s also a realist and understands that there is the possibility of burnout in the future. I have seen many examples of people who work, not because they want to, but because they have to. They get to a stage in life where they are clearly burnt out, but they have amassed a certain kind of lifestyle. If they were to stop producing income, their life would fall apart. They would still have bills to pay, mouths to feed, and a lifestyle to fund.

This is where I needed to step in. I was already doing as much as I could in terms of making our home life as streamlined and worry-free as possible. The kids were well cared for and thriving. I handled our day to day finances, being careful with what we had and not overspending. What more could I do?

I used to think of a house as just a house. You buy one that isn’t going to break the bank, you live in it, and eventually you move away. But after becoming a homeowner, it has become clear that a house doesn’t have to break the bank to still be a huge consumption item. Not only do you have to pay down that mortgage, but owning a home becomes less sexy when you’re having to replace moldy carpeting and replace drywall. If you were to break your income down to an hourly wage, you will know exactly how many hours you had to work to pay for that mortgage and replace that carpet.

This train of thought can be applied to almost every consumption item you can think of. No matter your income, it’s very easy to spend as much (or more) than you make if you’re not careful. This is why there are plenty of high-income earners that are still living paycheck to paycheck, delaying their retirement because of the insidious nature of lifestyle creep.

I was not going to let us find ourselves in this situation. No way was I going to let himself work indefinitely just to pay bills. Not on my watch.

THE CONVERSATION

So I told him to come up with a number.  A retirement number. How much do we need for you to feel comfortable either cutting back or retiring completely?

I showed him charts. I showed him spreadsheets. I gave him the nitty-gritty details on our spending and our savings. Then I made a plan for us to get there in a reasonable amount of time, based on what our expected expenses will be in retirement. This is a plan that will need frequent assessments and adjustments, as all financial plans do. But there is no doubt that I will be watching our finances like a hawk, making sure that we are on track. This mindset forces you to think very specifically about how you spend your money and your time. We will be sure to spend according to our values along the way, making the act of spending one of intention, rather than oblivion.

I was a bit nervous before I assessed our financial situation since we had not done anything very detailed or comprehensive about our financial life. My critical eye saw places we could’ve done better, but thankfully, we had a healthy net worth and we were heading in the right direction. We were able to keep a lot of lifestyle creep at bay by focusing on paying down debt and saving/investing. But having this goal is making this journey much more intentional and full of purpose.

Our previous path was loosely structured, a bit nebulous. We were spending, saving, and investing, but there was no cohesive plan to put all of this together. Had we continued down this path, we could have easily started making suboptimal financial choices. Any gains could have potentially been wiped out by poor choices, perhaps to the point where Mr. RLDVM would have to work out of financial obligation, rather than out of self-fulfillment.

So we are now on the path towards financial independence, retire optional. The FIRE community is diverse, with many people focusing on just the FI portion. Reaching FI opens up a world of possibilities. You can decide to continue working because you still enjoy it. Or pursue another line of work that interests you. Or go after that passion project that’s been on the back burner. Having these options for our future together is what’s lighting my FIRE.

Are you on track to FIRE? What’s lighting your FIRE? Comment below!

7 Comments

  1. hatton1md on October 7, 2018 at 6:14 am

    Great post. A treadmill is easy to get on but hard to get off. No shift work in surgery. You sound like you are well on your way to figuring this puzzle out.

    • Financial Wellness DVM on October 7, 2018 at 5:38 pm

      Thanks- such a true analogy. It’s so interesting to see how a different mindset can change a trajectory.

  2. The Sunday Best (10/7/2018) - Physician on FIRE on October 7, 2018 at 8:22 am

    […] The Financial Wellness DVM, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine for those of you not into the whole brevity thing, explains how and why she began pursuing financial independence. Interestingly, it has less to do with her career than that of her husband’s (he’s a surgeon). What is Lighting Your FIRE? […]

  3. Jacq on October 7, 2018 at 9:47 pm

    My goal is FI to give myself options to craft my ideal life / life style. I realized working at a big company, I would never get to a C suite. Seeing some managers, and how the roles stress them out, or the lack of work life balance, I’m not sure I want to try for that. It would take a lot of my life energy for an accomplishment I value less highly than time with friends and family, and my health.
    To have that time with people I care about probably means non traditional work schedule, and I’m working on building skills now, to shape a future career that give me that flexibility. FI would empower me to step away from the traditional and make choices that let me balance life and work (in that order).
    How it all plays out is yet to be seen, but I know what I’m working towards, and some of the steps to start the path.
    All the best on your FI/R? (E, O) journey!

    • Financial Wellness DVM on October 8, 2018 at 5:41 am

      Good for you that you’re already looking ahead and making decisions now to change your future. So much of life is a trade-off, and it’s up to each of us to determine what sort of trade-offs we’re willing to make. Best of luck to you, too!

  4. Frogdancer Jones on October 8, 2018 at 12:20 pm

    This is such a brilliant article. It’s funny how some of the most significant times in life come to us on ordinary days… you’re going along with life and then suddenly the penny drops and life takes off in a new direction.

    • Financial Wellness DVM on October 9, 2018 at 6:10 am

      Little moments can become big moments for sure! I hope that everyone else can also find their “moment” when it comes to their financial wellbeing, because without your why, it just becomes a chore that no one wants to deal with.

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