In 2020, I learned about Joe and Ayie, and I was intrigued by their story.
Joe has built a career doing international humanitarian assistance, which is not a field that pays a whole lot of money. Ayie is a nurse and photographer by trade, but she’s currently taking on the role of a stay-at-home parent while her kids are young.
Besides pursuing financial independence at their own pace, they are also planning to world-school their two boys. They are focusing on doing this while their kids are at the best ages for it rather than having it be dependent on their FI timeline.
Their story is so rich. I’m excited to share it. We have a so much to discuss in this interview!
Let’s jump in.
1. Tell me a little bit about you.
We’re a mixed-nationality household raising two young (and very high energy!) boys outside either of our cultures.
Joe: I was born in California and grew up riding bikes, camping and hiking, and spending countless hours in the ocean. I have spent the vast majority of my adult life outside the US, including over two decades in the international humanitarian assistance field. Through personal and work-related travel, I’ve lived in or visited over 50 countries including off-the-beaten-track locations like Angola, Sudan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Liberia, Haiti, and Bangladesh.
Ayie: I was born on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines and very much consider myself a tropical girl (I don’t like the cold!). I am a trained nurse and worked in one of the largest hospitals in the Philippines for over 9 years. I am also a professional photographer and stay-at-home mom.
In addition to some of the languages of the Philippines (Ilonggo, Bisaya, and Tagalog), I speak English fluently plus some Mandarin, Fukien, and Thai. During the lockdown days, I became passionate about personal fitness, feeding my family healthy food, and am currently enjoying learning how to prepare plant-based meals.
We met and are currently based in Bangkok, Thailand. Even after having two kids, we continue to love travel and exploration and are always looking for unique experiences for our small tribe. We have recently started a family blog called Mapball Adventures where we currently write about life as ex-pats abroad, travel with kids, and some of our favorite food dishes along the way.
Our blog will also be where we will document the next chapter in our lives: taking a year+ break from work to world school our kids when they’re old enough to remember the experience and young enough to still think traveling around the world with their parents is cool.
2. What deliberate decisions have you made to slow down and improve your life? Why did you decide to make these choices?
There are two main things that we’ve done that have slowed down our path to financial independence but have immeasurably improved our lives.
Ayie: Although I am able to work (and may return to employment at some point), we’ve decided as a family to prioritize my time at home when the boys are still young. We’ve taken to heart the advice we hear from nearly all parents ahead of us: time goes by extremely quickly, so enjoy the kids when they’re young. We know that this is a very exciting time for them developmentally, and I didn’t want to miss these milestones. We were also really hoping that at least one of us would be able to spend the most waking hours with the boys and be the primary influence in their young lives, something we’d have to hand over to daycare or a babysitter if I was working full time. Because our living expenses are so low, it’s very manageable to live and save off of Joe’s income. Because it is so important to us to have one parent home with the kids when they’re young, we would have tried to make this work regardless of financial considerations.
Joe: I’ve had the privilege of having what I call the best job in the world. For the last 20+ years, I’ve lived mostly abroad responding to humanitarian emergencies: the Indian Ocean tsunami, earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal, conflicts in Sudan, Afghanistan, and Syria, the Ebola response in West Africa, as well as current Covid outbreaks. When I’m not responding to disasters, I work with local leaders and communities to help them prepare for the next big event.
How in the world did I end up in the humanitarian field?
As a kid, I always loved exploring the southwest US with my family on summer vacations and looked up to my cousin who had posters of faraway places on his bedroom walls. After I took a two-week trip to South America as a teenager with my church, the idea of travel plus service really struck a chord with me. I wasn’t one of those kids who knows exactly what they wanted to do in life, so I tried to figure it out by matching what I felt were the biggest needs in the world with what I could contribute.
Breaking into the humanitarian field is more straightforward these days, but in the late 90s, one thing just led to another. I started volunteering in Latin America, trading work for room and board, and then graduated to positions that paid $100/month. At one point, I reached out to a Swiss non-governmental organization (NGO) through the fledgling internet and they invited me to be on their logistics team responding to needs stemming from the civil war in Angola. It’s been such a privilege to do this kind of work, I never seriously thought about doing anything else.
3. How have these decisions impacted your quality of life?
Ayie: Being a stay-at-home mom with young children isn’t always easy, but I recognize how quickly this period will pass. The days are sometimes exhausting, but very precious at the same time. I love that I’m the human that is able to spend the most hours per day with these kids. I know that I won’t get these days back. There are only 365 days when they’re three or four.
I read a lot of books to the boys, go to parks and playgrounds, arrange playdates, and do projects. One of my favorite things to do with the kids is to bring them along as I do normal everyday life activities. We’ll go to a pop-up market, food shopping, pay bills, and visit the bookstore (not many libraries in Bangkok!). I encourage them to interact with people along the way, let them handle money, and talk about what we’re seeing.
I’m a big fan of this kind of real-world education at their age instead of a more structured set of activities in a traditional preschool.
Joe: My career path is definitely not a fast-track to financial independence but has at the same time been extremely rewarding. I’ve often worked as a member of an international team, coming together to respond to a disaster, providing emergency healthcare, shelter, water, or sanitation. The most satisfying days are the ones where the team’s hard work has a positive impact on affected communities. It can be a challenge as well: there are often unexpected bumps along the way and responses rarely go exactly as planned.
It has also been a great way to see the world: I’ve been able to explore some of the wildest and untouristed corners of the world, places that most travelers don’t even think about visiting. Probably the best part of my line of work is the people I’ve been able to meet: from ex-pats to locals, villagers to prime ministers. There are a lot of interesting characters out there and we have been able to make friends with people all around the globe.
4. How has the decision to have a meaningful career in international development work impacted your FI timeline?
Joe: Years of volunteering and low-salary assignments along with choosing to have only one working spouse have definitely slowed our progress toward financial independence. We didn’t even know about the FI/RE approach until recently!
I remember very clearly when I started to get serious about taking a closer look at our finances and looking for ways to speed up the process. I was just returning to work after our first son was born. I vividly remember opening the front door, looking back to say goodbye to my wife and my newborn, and asking myself: why am I leaving these people I love to spend nine hours with people I like?
It was as if I was being forced to face the fact that what I told myself and others about my family being more important than my work was rubbish: if measured in time and focus, work received the majority of my attention.
We definitely need to work to make ends meet, and I’ve always prioritized meaning and service over salary. But at the same time, it was a wake-up call for me.
It’s a tricky balance: I’m extremely fortunate to have meaningful work, but at the end of the day, it is still work. I don’t want to get lost in the mission at the expense of my family, as I’d seen happen to some of my peers.
Ayie and I are both naturally frugal, which was a great foundation to build upon. We started paying more attention to what we were spending and then little by little trying to implement what I was learning through FI blogs and podcasts: focusing on broad-based, low-cost index funds. We started maxing out our IRAs and HSA as soon in the year as possible. I don’t get a match on my 401k, but learned we could front-load contributions to max that out by the summer instead of spreading it out during the year. We don’t budget ahead of time but do a monthly summary so we can keep track of where our money is going.
We don’t have a specific FI number in mind, but we started to formulate a rough plan: save as much as possible doing meaningful work along the way (whether that’s staying home with the kids or humanitarian work) in order to have the option to write a bit of adventure into our family story.
5. What enabled you to focus on doing mission-driven work to have a meaningful career?
Joe: The twist with my career path is that despite a relatively low salary, it has turned out to be accidentally very FI-friendly. Support for housing, food, and transportation are often part of the package, as are regular trips home for R&R. Work in the humanitarian field sometimes qualifies for federal, state, or university-specific loan forgiveness programs. Health insurance is often either partially or totally covered.
The salary isn’t off the charts, especially at first, but with so few expenses, the savings rate can be very high. Compensation packages vary, but over the years we’ve generally been completely responsible for expenses like internet, phone, and personal travel. Costs associated with food, transportation, and health insurance are usually shared in some way. Housing (including water and electricity), medical evacuation insurance, travel benefits (flights to and from the country at the start/end of the contract, regular home leave, and R&R), schooling for children, and any visa-related costs are typically covered completely by the employer.
Because our expenses are so low, our save/give rate over the last few years has been about 70%. Put another way, we are able to live off of 30% of one salary. Considering how many of our expenses are covered, this isn’t as impressive (or sacrificial!) as it sounds.
We are definitely not living in deprivation. Last year for example (pre-Covid), we went on 8 trips to 6 different countries. International travel was tough this year, but because internal travel was possible, we were able to explore quite a bit of Thailand. With four hungry mouths to feed in one of the best foodie cities on earth, our spending on food is very high!
Despite our attempt to get a bit better at managing our money, we don’t want to be so focused on our financial goals that we don’t enjoy today. Today is pretty great too.
6. Were there things in your life you changed so you could do mission-driven work and continue to work toward your goals?
Joe: Although our jobs are extremely fulfilling, goals shift over time. Since the birth of our first son, we’ve been focusing on how to accelerate the FI process, so we (especially me) can be more present with the kids.
Over the last few years, we’ve made incremental progress: we started closely tracking our expenses, learned how to invest wisely (focusing on broad-based, low-cost index funds, maxing out our tax-advantaged investments, using credit card rewards, etc.), and are trying to keep our expenses low. We’re naturally more drawn to experiences instead of possessions so that helps keep costs down as well.
Ayie: At the same time, we don’t want to become overly focused on finances. We don’t want to fall into the trap of overworking during our relatively young and healthy years in pursuit of a financially secure future when tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. We want to enjoy the journey, and enjoy the time with the kids when they’re young. This is why we are planning for a break from work for at least a year to try out world schooling with our kids.
Interviewer note: We’re going to pick up the conversation on world schooling in a moment, but I don’t want to lose the thread on building a meaningful career.
7. Why and when do you think someone might consider finding a meaningful career that provides them with more purpose?
Joe: We’d like to encourage people to think about purpose from the very beginning.
The idea that the path to financial independence is to work 80 hours a week at a job you hate so you can live miserably on 25% of your income for a decade so that one day you can live an adventurous and meaningful life just doesn’t make sense.
What’s the point of having money in your bank account if you’re miserable along the way? What if you don’t make it to your “one day?” There are zero guarantees that by the time you reach financial independence you’ll have the health, motivation, or energy to do what you’ve always wanted to do or to make a difference in the world.
We would suggest that these goals, the things folks plan to do eventually, can be done along the way leading to a lifetime of meaning/purpose…and still lead to FI. Instead of waiting until FI to live meaningfully, why not do it along the way?
These days, if you’re open to an alternative FI-journey, there are a bunch of paths that prioritize meaning over speed: look into joining the National Park Service, Peace Corps, Foreign Service, or the international humanitarian assistance field. If being a stay-at-home parent is important to you, see if you can make it work, even if it slows down the process.
As for the why: while the jury is still out on whether money and/or the pursuit of happiness leads to happiness itself, there is an undeniable link between purpose, meaning, and generosity with happiness and life satisfaction.
8. What advice do you have for someone considering finding a meaningful career or life shift like what you did or are planning to do?
Joe: For the humanitarian path, I suggest getting serious about learning a foreign language and consider obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in international development, humanitarian affairs, or sector-specific studies that can easily translate to aid work like finance, administration, HR, engineering, sanitation, or health services.
Research jobs that might interest you, then reach out to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or UN Offices that you may want to join. Attend meetings hosted by the local branch of an organization you’re interested in, make connections, and ask questions. Be open to volunteering and be prepared not to make much in terms of salary for the first few years.
9. You’ve mentioned that you plan to do a few years of “world-schooling.” Can you tell us what that means?
Ayie: We didn’t know this term existed before finding it on the internet! Basically, it is homeschooling abroad.
We still have a lot to learn, but at the moment we are thinking about slow traveling with the boys in three or four countries over the course of a year, homeschooling along the way. We are saving aggressively in order to “buy” that time off when we will educate the boys ourselves and have them actually experience the world instead of reading about it in a textbook. Or both! It’s fun thinking about reading a lesson in a book, then going out to experience it first hand.
We’ll do our best to expose the kids to what life is really like for families around the world and would like to try to incorporate service or some kind of volunteering as well. As for the choice of countries, we’re still brainstorming: India, Jordan, the US (focused on the National Parks), and somewhere in Europe are on our list at the moment, but we’re hoping to involve the boys in the decision-making as the time approaches.
Maybe we’ll have each of the four family members pick a country!
10. How will your plan to do world-schooling fit into your FI timeline? Do you plan to reach FI beforehand?
Joe: While it would be nice if they intersected, our progress towards financial independence won’t determine when we pull the trigger on world schooling. Considering what we know about memory and child development, we’re planning our timeline around what we think is a very small window of opportunity when the boys will both remember the experience AND still be excited about spending a year with their parents!
For us, the sweet spot is when both the boys are roughly between 6 and 11 years old. So, FI or no FI, we’re planning on the world-school year when the kids are in that age window.
Being completely financially independent would of course give us the most flexibility. If we’re not quite there yet, that’s fine too – we would treat the experience as a bit of a gap year and look to go back to work either full or part-time when the adventure ends.
If the blog takes off and we’re able to supplement our income during that year, that would be a great bonus as well, but we’re not counting on it. Thankfully, we should have enough saved up by then to not have to rely on blog income to survive!
11. Why and when do you think someone might consider world schooling their kids?
Ayie and Joe: Our hope for the world-school year is to be able to carve out a time to prioritize family and togetherness over all else, especially work. We’ll have at least a year of close bonding and then a lifetime to reminisce and point back to that one year we all did something a bit crazy.
The way we’re starting to think about it is that everyone’s lives are a story. We want the story of our family to feature a year-long globetrotting adventure.
Although once it’s all said and done, we’re not sure we’ll be able to recommend it to others, there’s a possibility we’ll drive each other nuts in the first few weeks!
12. If anyone wants to stay in touch and follow your journey, where can they find you?
Joe: We’d love to hear from anyone who has any questions about getting into the humanitarian field or who is considering world-schooling or something similar! Or, if you find yourself in Asia, please reach out, we love meeting folks who pass through Thailand. We know the region fairly well and are happy to share tips for traveling with kids. We’re on all the socials, but are most reliably reached through our blog Mapball Adventures, Facebook, Instagram, or you can reach out via email: [email protected].
I’ve also been running a homemade Top Ten Cryptocurrency Index Fund Experiment since January 2018, providing monthly updates along the way. It is my attempt to bring the FI approach to investing in Index Funds as a way to mitigate risk, avoid stock picking, and capture the gains of the entire market to the very volatile crypto space. It’s been a very interesting ride so far, you’re very welcome to follow along with the experiment.
Thank you so much, Joe and Ayie, for sharing your story with us! There are so many things from this interview that resonate with me.
First, it’s really important to understand that you can both pursue mission-driven work and pursue financial independence. They are not mutually exclusive.
Most people assume that you need a high-paying corporate job to achieve FI. Sure, it could be a lot faster that way. But, if you value meaningful work, you can do both. Joe shared a number of options for achieving financial freedom by doing mission-driven work, especially when you have a job where some of your expenses are covered.
This is an experience I identify with. We originally thought we’d take a similar path. Our first “job” after college was to teach English at a university in Nicaragua that focused on educating Afro-Caribbean and indigenous students. At this job, we each taught 12 credit hours of classes and we got paid $60/month. On top of it though, we were provided with housing and food.
Had we continued doing international development work, I assume that our wages would have risen over time!
One important thing to note about working in a nonprofit (or another mission-driven environment) is that it’s still a job. Sure, you might feel more fulfilled by the work that you do, but you’ll still be spending most of your waking hours working.
After Joe’s first son was born, he realized that spending time with his family was more important than even his mission-driven work. He wants to make sure to keep everything in balance.
The final thing I want to call out from this interview is the idea of world schooling. For people who love to travel, this sounds like such a fantastic way to connect with their kids while having the opportunity to explore the world.
I also love that they aren’t waiting to embark on this adventure until they reach FI. If they aren’t FI yet when their kids are the best age for world schooling, they’ll simply treat it as a career break or sabbatical. They don’t need to delay their dream simply because they might need to go back to work afterward.
Thank you, Joe and Ayie, for participating in the Slow FI interview series!