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balance hiking adventure

I’m excited to bring you the next Slow FI interview with Michelle, who writes the new blog FIRE and Wide.  I recently met Michelle on Twitter, and I was intrigued by her story.  

Michelle did not take the traditional path to FI where she worked a full-time job to retire as quickly as possible. While her early path to financial independence looked a bit like the traditional path, during the last 5-10 years of their journey, they slowed way down.  

Michelle worked part-time, and her partner, Spen, built his own business. 

It’s exciting to share the story of someone who has retired early who took a slow FI path. Michelle made incremental changes along her journey to improve her life.  

Even though she didn’t sprint to reach FI, she has realized within the last couple of years that she could have transitioned even earlier.  

Thinking about when to transition is a topic that’s always on my mind. In the past, I’ve stayed in situations that weren’t serving me for too long. I don’t want to let that happen again.  

Let’s get into the interview! 

1. Tell me about you.

Hi. I’m Michelle. My partner, Spen, and I met just over 20 years ago. One thing that’s useful to share is how “normal” our beginnings were.  

couple partners outdoors

I’m from a small village in the UK where the unwritten expectation was to find a local job, find a local man to marry, have kids, work, have a few nice holidays, and eventually retire.  

I’ve always been intensely curious. I love to explore and try new things. So, I was the first in my entire family to do a lot of things, like go to university, move away, travel abroad, have a career, etc.  

Being curious has led me into all kinds of unexpected experiences and helped me find a life that suited me.  

2. Why did you decide to pursue financial independence in the first place?

We didn’t originally start out with the aim of achieving financial independence. It was more of a recognition that we wanted more out of life than the traditional financial approach would offer.  The UK retirement age is now 67 which seems a long way off.

As we grew older, our love for exploring the world grew stronger. Spending time outdoors was important to us. Long day hikes ending up with good food and beer. We’d find ourselves delving deeper into different food and cultures. We also wanted to help others and spend time with friends and family. 

couple arctic circle

We had so many places and things we wanted to do. But not enough time to do them all whilst working full-time.

At the same time, we heard more and more stories of people who were waiting to reach retirement to go after their dream life, only to realize it was too late. When the parents of a close friend died unexpectedly, it was particularly shocking to us. We heard too many similar stories without the happy endings we imagined.

So, we started to talk a lot more about how we could spend our time on what was important to us. We valued our freedom and time far more than owning stuff, and we wanted options. We realized that our priorities were different than the mainstream, and that was okay. 

At that point, we started on what would later become known as our FIRE journey.  

3. How did you approach your financial independence journey?

To achieve FI, we knew it was important to play to our strengths. So, we used levers that would have the most impact for us. 

We’ve never been particularly “spendy.” but we’ve also never been what would now be called frugal. These days you might simply call it mindfulness. At a time when we saw friends pairing up, getting married, having kids, buying bigger houses and flashier cars, and going on expensive holidays – we were always aware that these were choices. We knew we could buy all of these things, or we could buy our time. 

We definitely spent money on things we value – holidays, going out with friends, etc. – but we didn’t waste a lot of money. Because of this, spending less wasn’t going to have a huge impact on our FIRE journey. So, we focused on earning more.  

We did this through four main strategies: increasing our income at our day-jobs, geo-arbitrage, property, and investments.  

By taking a job in London at a large global company, I was able to increase my income through multiple promotions. The same kind of opportunities and payscales just simply did not exist where we lived. It was not my dream job, but it wasn’t terrible. Sometimes, the FIRE journey is one of compromises. This was one of them for us. 

Geo-arbitrage came into play by choosing not to move to London to be closer to work. The downside was that I had a 2 ½ hours commute to work each way. The huge upside was that my salary dramatically increased while we still lived in a town that had a much lower cost of living. The savings opportunity was huge. Because the long commute was draining, I negotiated a part-time role which helped to restore a workable life balance. Because I earned more in London, I was able to scale back.  

By earning more, we were able to save more money and invest. We started by investing in property. We expanded the rental business that Spen had started. We bought run-down places, fixed them up ourselves, and then managed the properties ourselves. At the time, our local market was great because it had low property prices and decent rents. The return on these investments was about 15% without too much risk.  

house build

At the same time, we saved up enough cash to build our own home in the country. Because we were able to use our home equity and savings and by doing the work ourselves, we completed it without needing a mortgage.  

Investing in property has its downsides as well. One of these downsides is that it took up a lot of our free time. This was a compromise, we were willing to accept at the time. 

When we finally settled into our new home, we started our first real plans for FIRE. We also learned how to invest money in the stock market. The property business was becoming harder to run since we no longer lived locally. Getting an agent helped but it cut into our margins. When the market shifted, our returns decreased as well. 

After a while, we started selling the rental properties and converting the income to higher returns in passive investments. 

4. When did you reach FI?  Was that timeline different than you originally thought?

Once we started selling the rental properties and converting them into passive investments, it took about 10 years to reach our targeted FIRE number.

For us, FI would be when I was able to give up my job in London since it caused the biggest restriction on our lives. I quit this job at the age of 43, which was two years ago.  

To be clear, we could have pulled the trigger much earlier if we only wanted to cover our actual living expenses. However, we wanted to have a larger budget for retirement, so that we could enjoy all of the extra freedom we would have. We wanted to travel for a significant amount of time, so we knew we’d need more funding. Retirement for us was about doing more, not less!

We were also worried about the risk of quitting too soon. In my field, it would be very difficult for me to get another job at the same pay level with the same amount of flexibility. It was a “once out, you’re out” type of decision. By setting a much higher budget for early retirement, we gave ourselves a lot of space for the contingency to deal with tough investment years. This has proved handy with all of the volatility this year.  

Although it took us about 15 years to reach financial independence overall, it helped that we didn’t know about FIRE early on. We learned about FIRE after we built our house, so our FIRE journey only feels like 10 years. When we firmed up our plan with 5 years to go, things started to move fast.  

To be honest, it did still feel like a long time, especially after a hard day. In the grand scheme of things, the timeline seemed shorter than what we imagined at the start. Because we were both from very average backgrounds, it’s amazing to see that we achieved so much financially in such a short time. We know our story isn’t common.  

5. Was there anything that happened along your journey that shifted your perspective about FI? Did that cause you to speed up or slow down?

Over time, our appreciation for having a balanced life grew. 

During our careers, we worked extremely hard and had little free time for ourselves. On top of those, we were also running a property business, building our own home, and starting Spen’s new consultancy. All of those things took a lot of time and effort. 

We were both too often tired and stressed. Our travels had become a desperate time to recuperate. Even though everything we were doing was for a good purpose, the balance was no longer right.  

We decided that needed to change. 

We needed to start freeing our time up as we got closer to our FIRE goals. We were spending so much time focusing on what was necessary to achieve our goals. We knew we wanted to start figuring out what we enjoyed doing.

This was a driver behind a number of our bigger decisions. It convinced us to use a property agent to help run the rental properties even though we’d get a smaller return. This also drove us to eventually sell the properties and invest the money into truly passive income streams. Without these shifts, Spen wouldn’t have been able to invest time in his consultancy. 

This thought process also contributed to my decision to work part-time. It ended up working better than having a local full-time job and made the commute more bearable.  

Life became more balanced again. These decisions added a couple of years to our FI timeline. And, it made a huge difference and allowed us to enjoy the journey along the way. It was well worth it. 

6. If you knew then what you know now, what would you have done differently on your journey to FI?

Hindsight is an amazing thing! 

Even though we spoke a lot about what it would look like when I gave up my job in London, neither of us appreciated what a big difference it would make in our lives. We no longer had the annual holiday constraints or the demand for me to be in the physical office. The mental demands disappeared. The freedom was huge. 

In our original FI plan, we both planned to retire at the same time so that we were both totally free. Instead, Spen has cut back on the number of clients he works with and now works part-time. His work is online and very flexible, so we have yet to find that it gets in the way of our new FI lives.  

couple hiking

We can and do now (pre-covid!) travel for months at a time, exploring the world at a pace that suits us. We enjoy the financial security it provides (for now). If it starts to interfere with our lives, he’ll quit.  

Now that we’ve been living our FIRE life for two years, we’ve also learned that we spend way less than we thought we would. We even spend less on travel, despite traveling for about 6 months out of the year.  

While we now have a safety margin for our finances, we realize that we did not need to save as much upfront. I could have easily given up my London job (our main obstacle to freedom) earlier. We could have been living this new life sooner. 

If we could go back and do it again, we’d spend more time figuring out what we enjoy doing. We worked so hard with our rental business, our self-build, and our jobs that we didn’t have a lot of time for hobbies. They were bottom of the priority list.

Things didn’t start to change for the better until we finished building our house and started reducing the work-load of the rentals business. Around that time, I started working part-time, and Spen established his consultancy. We both had more free time and less stress. Our travels were still limited by holiday allowances but they were no longer ‘flop & drop’ weeks away. We had the energy to try new things, explore and we had some great adventures.

Transitioning away from spending every spare hour working and actually enjoying more of our free time has helped us transition into early retirement. I’m glad we realized this because FIRE didn’t feel like such a major change. It felt like the balance kept shifting incrementally over time.  

More and more, we prioritized the things that we enjoyed as we focused on building up our investments. 

We spent time figuring out how we would enjoy the new freedom that early retirement would offer us. We tried new things. I now love blogging as a way to help others and continue to learn. I volunteer online. Spen dove into home-brewing. Travel has been as big of a part of our lives as expected. I love the research into figuring out how to slow travel for a few months each time.  

One big thing that people don’t think about is how having a successful early retirement takes effort. You need to figure out how to keep yourself challenged, growing, and learning. It’s not just all about the numbers. I’ve heard of so many people returning to work just because they don’t know what to do with themselves! 

We wouldn’t have made it here without those tough years at first. But by cutting down on work and moving into passive investments we were able to live certain aspects of our post-FIRE life before pulling the trigger. It made for an easier transition to enjoying the real thing. 

7. Is early retirement everything you thought it was cracked up to be? Were there things you didn’t expect?

If anything, early retirement is even better than expected. In fact, I’m often slightly embarrassed by how amazing our lives are. The freedom is mind-blowing. 

I am pretty good at handling stress, but I didn’t realize how much stress I was carrying from my job. It took me a while to realize that I didn’t need to be “on” all the time, ready to make a decision or give guidance. It has really freed up my mind. 

The best thing about early retirement is owning your own time. Simple things are often just as good as the bigger things. I now enjoy sitting in the garden with a book, not waking up to an alarm clock, and being able to say yes to nights out without worrying about my early commute. 

I don’t need to do things I don’t enjoy just because I need to get paid for it. I get to choose to do what I enjoy, even if it doesn’t pay me. 

This doesn’t mean the big things aren’t awesome too. One of our major goals after reaching FIRE was to travel for about 6 months per year. Having the time to get to know places and understand cultural differences is a great way to keep us challenged and continuing to grow. We also get to enjoy amazing food and drink! 

If you are pursuing FIRE, you need to be prepared to take extra efforts to make it what you want it to be. All of those things you dreamed about doing with your newly found free time don’t just happen. It’s up to you to actually go and do them. 

8. What advice do you have for others who want to find balance on the path to FI?

The best advice I can share is to find the balance in life that is right for you.  

There is a lot of well-meaning advice out there that makes it sound like there is only one path to take. That is simply not true.  

Take time to work out your own plan. 

Think about the lifestyle that will work best for you along the way. Pursuing FIRE doesn’t simply mean you have to work full-time and then give up work entirely. Spen’s business gives us tremendous flexibility, so there’s little reason for him to quit. For me, going part-time was one of my best decisions. Having a life with better balance allowed for a smoother transition to our post-FIRE life. 

Remember to prepare emotionally as well as financially.  It’s a big change. Spend time thinking about what you will do with your new freedom. Spend more time with your partner and family. Think about how you will maintain and build friendships outside of work. Figure out what you enjoy by trying things out. Don’t just wait until you have time.  

If you start to feel like you are deprived and you are not enjoying your life, it’s time to find a better balance in life. You don’t need to maximize your savings rate. Instead, choose to spend mindfully on things that bring you value. 

Enjoy the journey – this is your life we’re talking about here! 

Michelle, thank you so much for sharing your story with us!  

I absolutely loved seeing the transformation that Michelle and Spen had throughout their journey. At first, it seemed like they might be taking a more traditional FIRE path – with time-consuming rental investments and long commutes. 

Once they realized that they had become burned out and stressed, they realized they needed to make some changes even though they hadn’t reached financial independence yet. They made some pretty significant shifts too:

  • Michelle shifted to working part-time so that she wouldn’t need to commute every day. Because of the job in London, she could get paid as much working part-time as she would if she worked a full-time job in her local area.  
  • Spen built up his own business that he’s now been able to scale back to part-time. 
  • They started paying for an agent to help them manage the rentals. 
  • Eventually, they sold the rentals and converted the money into truly passive investments.  

These incremental shifts that they made along the way allowed them to explore hobbies and projects that they were interested in. Because they were less burned out, they were able to experience new places and cultures when they traveled. Vacations were no longer necessary for recovery. 

Not only did the incremental shifts enable them to live a better life along the journey, but it also helped them find balance in life and make a smoother transition to early retirement.  

I also love how reflective Michelle is about her journey. Even though they took many steps toward their ideal lives before reaching FI, she now realizes that she could have quit her London job quite a bit earlier. 

They saved for a much higher FIRE number expecting their expenses would go up in early retirement. They actually found that their expenses stayed the same, even though they were traveling significantly more. Their everyday expenses (like commuting) went down which meant that their spending didn’t actually go up.  

I’m not surprised by this. For me, by working less, our expenses also went down significantly (about $12,000/year). We were paying less for transportation and things like convenience and escape. I love that Michelle and Spen are spending those savings on what they enjoy most – travel. 

Additionally, they’ve found that Spen’s part-time business doesn’t hinder their ideal lifestyle at all. It’s all online, which allows him to work while they are on the road. They find that this work doesn’t hinder their ideal lifestyle at all, at least right now. They don’t need the income, but it’s adding a buffer of additional financial security.  

This point also resonates with me too. Now that I’m no longer burned out, I’ve found that work (on my own terms) is part of my ideal life. This is why I’d much rather figure out how to make money doing passion projects that I’d do after retiring early anyways. This will allow me to transition to my ideal lifestyle earlier. 

Michelle and Spen’s story gives me encouragement to take my leap sooner rather than later! 

If you’d like to learn more about Michelle and Spen’s story, you can find them here:

women travel fun

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