Several months ago, I learned about a new blog, Government Worker FI.
Since I’ve worked in nonprofit organizations for my entire career and received a graduate degree in public administration, I’m always interested to hear about people in the public sector pursuing financial independence.
While people working in the public sector and in nonprofits often make a good, steady income, it’s often less than we could make in the private sector. We do these jobs at least partially because we feel connected to a mission and being part of something bigger than ourselves.
Not only does Mr. GovWorker work in the public sector, but he also breaks so many financial independence stereotypes we so often see in the mass media (i.e. single, very high-income, spending $20K/year, planning to retire in the next 5 years).
Mr. and Mrs. GovWorker live in the midwest. They both work government jobs and have three kids, ages 3-to-11. Mr. and Mrs. GovWorker also don’t have a set timeline to reach financial independence. They learned about FI in 2018 when reading a Money Magazine feature. Their decision to pursue FI came when they realized that they were already more than halfway to FI and would love the extra time to enjoy life together.
When Mr. GovWorker reached out to me to share that his wife was about to take a part-time job, I was, of course, interested and learning more and featuring their story in an upcoming interview.
Since starting this interview series, I’ve heard so many incredible stories of people working fewer hours, traveling full-time, living semi-retired lifestyles, taking career breaks, quitting side hustles, or starting their own businesses.
I’m continually inspired by the stories that I hear, and I hope you will be too. Let’s get into the interview.
1. What deliberate decision have you made to slow down and improve your life? Why did you decide to make this decision?
Mrs. GovWorker recently was able to convince her employer to move to a part-time (32 hours per week) position and allow her flexibility in her hours.
It was nearly impossible for us to raise our kids and both work full time. While I have a flexible schedule, my wife’s schedule was previously fixed.
Here’s what our schedule looked like before this career change:
- 5 AM: Mrs. GovWorker gets up and walks on the treadmill
- 5:45 AM: Turn on the lights, kids wake up
- 5:45-6:45 AM: Kids eat breakfast, brush teeth, practice piano. Mrs. GovWorker and I run around prodding them to keep going
- 7 AM (or earlier): Mr. GovWorker starts work
- 7:30 AM: Mrs. GovWorker gets kids off to school, bikes to work, and starts at 8 AM
- 3:30 PM: Mr. GovWorker leaves work, gets home shortly after kids 1&2 arrive at home, breaks up a fight about snacks
- 4:00 PM: Mr. GovWorker walks to pick up kid3 at daycare
- 4:30 PM: Mr. GovWorker returns home, cook dinner with 3 kids
- 5:15 PM: Mrs. GovWorker returns home, eat dinner
- 6:30 PM: Put the youngest child to bed
- 7:30 PM: Put the oldest child to bed, prep dinners and lunches for the next day
- 8:00 PM: Have adult conversations about our day and watch TV
- 9:00 PM: Adults go to bed
We knew this wasn’t working for a while. While we were able to hold it together (everyone fed and properly clothed), the intensity of the schedule manifested itself in a continual, low-level tension in our household. I often felt crabby and like I was going to snap at one of the kids or my spouse.
I have massive respect for families who work a combined 80 hours per week (or more) and can still have a positive attitude and environment.
My wife had tried to negotiate a part-time work arrangement previously but it didn’t work out. Finally, she found and was offered another job that was 16 hours a week on nights and weekends.
However, when she gave her notice at her current job, they didn’t want to see her leave, so she had a lot of negotiating power. She ended up staying with her current employer but was able to reduce her position from 40 hours a week with a fixed schedule to 32 hours a week with a flexible schedule.
2. How has this decision impacted your quality of life?
My wife just started her new schedule a couple of weeks ago. While I was hoping it would feel like an even bigger relief, it has made a huge difference. The biggest change is that meal preparation has been a lot less stressful.
We cook all 3 meals from scratch almost every day. We’ve cooked from scratch ever since I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2007 (long before gluten-free was a fad diet). Cooking from scratch is why we are able to keep our food budget at $1.25 per person per meal.
This is well below the USDA’s projected budget for a “thrifty family” (which is used to calculate food stamp allowances). We also believe that cooking whole foods from scratch is crucial for remaining healthy and is more sustainable for the planet.
Unfortunately, all of this cooking takes time and time is a finite resource. We prioritize healthy eating over all other extra-curricular family activities. However, it still takes focused blocks of time which is in short supply with three kids. Cutting back to 1.8 FTE as a family allows both of us more (and less stressful) time in the kitchen to produce healthy meals for our family.
3. How did it impact your financial goals or timelines?
Surprisingly, the move to part-time work hasn’t greatly impacted our finances. While it is true that my wife’s paycheck is smaller, our daycare costs have also decreased.
I’ve previously written about how high our daycare costs are. In some ways, working less and using less daycare is doubly advantageous.
The vast majority of daycare costs are not tax deductible. Therefore, by insourcing more of the daycare, we’re saving not just the sticker price of the daycare but the tax we pay on the income that goes directly to childcare.
While I am not comfortable sharing exact dollar amounts, We are still able to save a large percentage of our income. Prior to the shift, we saved around 55% of our monthly income. Our savings rate over the past 2 months has been 43%.
We don’t currently have a specific timeline to reach FI or FI(RE). One of these reasons is that we don’t want a certain goal date to affect our financial decisions. We’re happier now than we were before and that is what is most important to us. I find that I’m actually glad I don’t know how it affected an imaginary finish line.
4. What enabled you to make this decision (i.e. what financial or social context helped)?
My wife previously worked 32 hours a week with another employer, so we already knew how much balance it would provide our family. It can be a real challenge to find a good part-time job, so we are very happy to be back at this level of employment.
Even though we knew that we liked working 1.8 FTE as a family, it took us a while to get there. Ultimately, Mrs. GovWorker’s employer offered her the 0.8 FTE position because she was a valuable employee of the organization.
When she spoke with them about her resignation, her supervisors made it very clear that the didn’t want her to leave. They were willing to work with her to find a win-win solution for both her and them.
The biggest surprise was that Mrs. GovWorker had some awkward calls with human resources after she and her supervisor had agreed in principle to working 0.8 FTE.
HR kept asking her why she would want to make less money. And Mrs. GovWorker kept telling them that she didn’t want less money, but instead, she wanted more time.
This concept was completely foreign to multiple people we’ve spoken with. In hindsight, this isn’t surprising. Since the vast majority of Americans (80% according to this study) live paycheck to paycheck, working fewer hours for less pay would seem odd to most people. We are lucky enough to be in a position to live well below our means so that we could downshift when the timing was right.
5. Why and when do you think someone might consider “downshifting?”
I would recommend downshifting when you think it might be a possibility in your current job. Working fewer hours combines a lot of the advantages of early retirement with the advantages of employment. We’re able to spend more time doing projects we love and care about, spend time as a family, and we still have a steady paycheck and benefits. To me, it seems like a great middle ground.
Unfortunately, not all employers are open to part-time arrangements.
It also seems that many people (both inside and outside of the FIRE community) are focused on maximizing income. However, for us, it just seems logical to us to just go at a slower, happier pace even if it is for a longer time period.
If given the opportunity, we would be interested in downshifting even more. While we were already able to downshift to a combined 1.8 FTE without greatly affecting our FI(RE) progress, downshifting more would certainly slow down the timeline.
Unfortunately, neither of us is in a position to ask for less work right now. If the opportunity came up for either of us in the future, we’d certainly jump at the chance.
6. How did your pursuit of FI help or hinder this decision?
Pursuing FI definitely helped us downshift. One of the most beneficial ways that pursuing FI helped was that we were already tracking all of our expenses. Knowing exactly how much money we spent each month made us realize that we could earn significantly less than we currently were. (As an aside, it seems like, in the US you’re programmed to want “more” money, regardless of whether or not you need it).
Furthermore, because we were saving so much of our income, we already have a large cushion of savings. This cushion could be used in case I lost my job and we needed to live on just my wife’s part-time income. In many ways, pursuing FI gives you options, regardless of whether you decide to retire early. In our case, we are using our savings to achieve better work-life balance today.
I can’t imagine how pursuing FI would be a hindrance to making a decision to slow down in one’s career. I guess I’ll have to keep close tabs on this series to see how having a large savings rate and plenty of emergency savings could be a hindrance to affording to work less.
7. What advice do you have for someone considering a similar decision?
I think that the traditional 9-5 doesn’t work for a lot of people. Yet, we are conditioned that it is the only option. I want to encourage anyone with an inkling of “slowing down” to do so— no matter what that looks like.
Our decision was largely based on our family. Parenting can be kind of crazy in this day in age. It feels like a competition focused on making your kids look attractive to colleges. For example, several families in our school hire math tutors for their 5th graders who are already performing above grade level so that they can get into “accelerated math” in middle and high school. Other peers hire private soccer coaches, put their kids in gymnastics lessons, or sign-up for travel teams. It goes on and on.
We believe that kids don’t really need to be overscheduled and have this pressure to overachieve. We don’t believe that being in the most accelerated math class will make a difference in your kid’s starting salary (or level of happiness as a kid or an adult).
My wife and I both graduated from state Universities, and we earn significantly more than the median household income for our city. I think that parents are well-intentioned when they (over)schedule their kids for extracurriculars. However, I’m not sure that this is what will really help kids grow into the citizens who will be able to tackle our world’s future problems.
Instead, we believe kids need quality time as a family. Kids need time and space to think and express themselves. They also need independence (with a safety net) so they learn how to solve problems on their own. I don’t know how it’s possible for kids to learn all of that while their bouncing between tutors and coaches and extra practices.
While we certainly have more time because we minimize extracurriculars, there are still only so many hours in a day. It never feels like there is enough time. Ultimately our kids won’t be young forever. We’re happy to have eight extra hours a week to parent and help our children grow.
While I think working less can be great for everyone, it can be incredible for parents of young families.
Congratulations to Mrs. GovWorker for the recent move to part-time work!
Speaking from personal experience, I love working part-time, and I wish more people had this opportunity. Working part-time allows me to have more time to focus on passion projects and my own physical and mental health.
I can imagine that with three kids, any additional time helps the GovWorker family feel less stressed and more balanced.
I also love hearing that this decision to improve their lives didn’t drastically impact their goals and timelines.
In fact, one thing I love about the GovWorker family’s story is that they don’t actually have a specific timeline to reach financial independence. While they do have a big goal of achieving FI, they are more focused on living a fulfilling life today. I have no doubt that they will reach their ultimate financial goal, and it won’t be at the expense of their happiness, health, or time with their family.
In fact, it sounds like we had a similar epiphany about the relationship between time and money. The a-ha moment for me was when I learned that the way that you get money is to “pay” for it with your time (i.e. work).
Therefore, if you live well below our means, you actually need less money to fund your lifestyle. If you need less money, you don’t need to spend as much of your precious time working for it. You then have a lot more freedom in how you decide to use your time.
As Fioneers, we believe that the journey is as important as the destination. Financial independence is not about deferring your life and your happiness for some distant future. It’s about figuring out how to disrupt this cycle of trading time for money to buy stuff we don’t need and live a life you want to live both now and in the future.
I believe that Mr. and Mrs. GovWorker and their family are great examples of putting this philosophy into practice. Because they live below their means, they can spend more time focusing on the things that are important to them – their family.
If you are interested in learning more about the GovWorker family, here’s where you can find them:
Email: GovernmentWorkerFi (at) gmail.com