I’m excited for the third follow-up Slow FI interview with Sam from Gov Worker FI. I first interviewed Sam back in June of 2019 when Mrs. GovWorker decided to reduce her hours at work. It’s now 2 ½ years later, and Sam (Mr. GovWorker) is following in her footsteps.
This interview series has been around for 2 ½ years now. I absolutely love being able to follow the journeys of everyone who has participated in Slow FI interviews. I get to document a snapshot of time in their life and watch how they continue to design their lives.
If you are curious, here are the other two people I’ve done follow-up Slow FI interviews with:
- Michelle from Frugality and Freedom: In June 2019, she discussed how seasonal work allowed her to live a semi-retired lifestyle. In late 2020, she wrote about becoming a virtual assistant so that she could be location-independent.
- Josh Overmyer: In May 2019, Josh wrote about quitting his Uber side hustle, so that he’d have more time to do things he wanted to. A little over two years later (July 2021), he wrote about quitting his job to take an adult gap year to recover from burnout.
Stay tuned for more follow-up Slow FI interviews as time goes on.
Let’s get into the interview with Sam!
1. I’m so excited to have you back for a follow-up Slow FI interview. Tell me about your recent decision to work part-time. Why did you decide to make this decision?
I am very happy to participate in a second Slow FI interview.
It is fun to look back and see how both of our blogs have grown since the first interview. When you first interviewed me, I was a brand-new blogger, and you had been running the Fioneers for less than a year. Now you are the Best Personal Finance Blog and I was made into a Bobblehead by All-Star Money!
When we talked before, we talked about how my wife was able to negotiate working 32 hours a week with her employer. Back then, we were working 2 full-time jobs with three kids (including a 2-year-old) and it was too much.
In fact, she was planning on quitting her job and working a much lower-paid part-time night shift job where we wouldn’t have to pay for childcare (our biggest expense). When she put in her notice, her current employer allowed her to work 32 hours a week and set her own schedule which made our lives much better.
In short, our first Slow FI move was about survival.
Since we last talked, my wife and I have been making great progress towards financial independence and at the same time, our goals have shifted.
Where Our FI Journey Started
When I first learned about FIRE, I wanted to save a lot of money so that I could leave my job. At that time, I was really struggling with the pressure to produce research results in an area that didn’t interest me.
However, once we started reaching some FIRE milestones, I started realizing that some of this pressure was self-inflicted.
From a very young age, I had very strongly internalized that as a male I needed to be the breadwinner (I know this is problematic for many reasons and will discuss it more below). This mindset meant I was terrified of losing my job because it would have meant that I was a failure. As a result, I tried to make myself indispensable at work by volunteering for every project possible and producing superhuman levels of research.
While I was a very successful researcher, I wasn’t happy contributing to some of these projects. The stress was physically affecting me and causing me to engage in self-destructive behaviors. I knew I didn’t want to do this forever and thought that early retirement was my only option.
How My FI Journey Changed Me
A lot of people say that the freedom that FI provides isn’t binary. But I didn’t understand that right away.
I will never forget when we reached 1 years’ worth of expenses in our taxable brokerage account. As someone who was programmed to be the breadwinner, it was a relief to know that even if I lost my job, we’d be okay for a long time.
Once we reached this (very early) FI milestone, my work life changed:
- I stopped volunteering for projects that involved working with people who raised my blood pressure.
- I made it a point to foster collaborations with researchers I genuinely enjoyed working with.
- I started saying “no” the first time anyone asked me to get on an airplane. (Ultimately, I had to go on a lot of these trips anyway, but I was able to eliminate some.)
- I prioritized research that I was super passionate about.
As you can imagine, making those changes dramatically changed how I felt about work.
Ironically (or maybe not), I was still one of the most prolific researchers at my laboratory. But in contrast to several years earlier, I was much happier with work. Much of the physical symptoms of stress disappeared. I lost a lot of weight, was in the best shape of my life, and I quit drinking! Life was good.
Why I Decided I Wanted to Work Part-Time
As I made those positive changes in my job, we were also making great progress to financial independence.
If we continued on our current path and worked to retirement age, we’d retire with more money than we’d ever need. However, if I retire just 1 day too early from federal service I lose out on over a million dollars in retirement benefits.
So, it seemed like working part-time would be a great way to “purchase” some freedom earlier. And, I could do this without giving up some of the great benefits of working for the federal government.
2. I know you’ve mentioned that you felt like your scarcity mindset that kept you from taking action. How did you overcome your scarcity mindset?
As I mentioned before, a scarcity mindset was causing me to act in an unhealthy manner.
Firstly, I had internalized a lot of pressure to provide financially for the family. I am not sure why I felt this so strongly because my wife and I are a team. We’ve always worked together towards our goals. We both earn a salary and we both contribute to domestic tasks. Clearly, this pressure wasn’t coming from her but rather something I thought society/peers/friends expected of me.
Thankfully, I’ve been able to move past this limiting mindset. I now often joke with my wife that I should just quit my job and become a “trophy husband”. (And honestly, depending on how our investing journey goes, it’s something that could happen someday).
Beyond this culturally imposed male-breadwinner mindset, I also had a lot of limiting mindsets around my job. For example, I thought researchers were supposed to value their research above all else and work until they are physically unable to do so. Don’t we all know an emeritus professor hobbling down the hallway?
I knew I wanted to work part-time for a while. But, I was not planning on asking to work part-time until we hit our basic financial independence milestone. That way, we’d be able to survive even if I lost my job.
I now realize this is completely unnecessary.
I’ve written before about how federal jobs are constitutionally protected. They can’t fire me because I have interests in my life outside of my research.
Taking Jessica’s course on overcoming scarcity mindset was a huge help in me overcoming my issues around asking to work part-time. During the course, I was able to list my limiting beliefs and then address them one by one.
Some limiting beliefs (like they’ll fire me if they find out I want to work part-time) were easy to dismiss.
Others were more difficult.
For example, part of me is still a little worried I made a mistake. We’ll never be as rich as some people in the FIRE movement (those who live on more than $100,000 per year). But, let’s face it, we might not have ever been that rich even if I continued working full-time.
We’ve always been happy living as a frugal family (living on less than $10k/person/year). But what if I develop a taste for (??whatever rich people buy??)?
Given the fact that I can’t even list what I might want to buy in the future, I decided that working part-time would give me back what I wanted most right now – time.
3. What are you most excited about? How are you spending your extra time?
I’m most excited about having some more time to devote to my blog and spending more time in nature.
While I’m most excited about these introverted activities, in reality, most of my “extra time” is earmarked for domestic tasks. I’m now able to pick the kids up off of the school bus most days. Mrs. Gov and I also reshuffled which chores we’re responsible for. I’m now 100% responsible for the laundry, and I am also taking on more cooking and meal-planning duties.
I’m really happy to be able to do more of the domestic tasks around the house. Hopefully, my wife and I model what a healthy and happy marriage looks like for our 3 daughters. And while serving afterschool snacks is not a magical “Leave it to Beaver” moment (where I give them healthy, homemade snacks and they obediently sit around a table and tell me about their days), I’m glad to have face-time with the kids. I hope they’ll appreciate it if and when they have their own children someday.
4. How has your decision to work part-time impacted your financial goals or timelines?
We have two different FIRE milestones.
Our first is basic financial independence where our portfolio is 25 times larger than our current expenses. In other words, I’d consider us FI when we have a 4% safe withdrawal rate. However, that number doesn’t have any room for surprise expenses like a new roof on the house or some other emergency. This basic milestone also doesn’t take into account that our health insurance costs would likely go up if we left our jobs.
The other metric we track is our “early retirement” (ER) number, which is more conservative. Our ER number assumes a 3.5% safe withdrawal rate, a buffer each year for extra health insurance costs, and a buffer each year for emergency expenses. I feel very confident that we could retire early at the ER number. This is especially true since both my wife and I will be eligible for pensions and social security later in life. And, we don’t include pensions or social security in our financial independence calculations.
Even though we don’t plan on leaving our jobs once we hit FI, it’s still a major milestone. It means that, in theory, we could both leave our jobs if they became unbearable. And, we wouldn’t need to search for a new job if we lost our job. In that case, we could take on side hustles if we had an emergency or unexpected expenses. (I’m a big fan of how Financial Panther is always making extra money in a way that fits into his schedule using the gig economy).
Prior to working part-time, I calculated we were about 14 months away from reaching our FI milestone. Moving to part-time will only extend that out by 3 months. Honestly, 3 months is almost equivalent to uncertainty in the calculations because of fluctuations in market returns.
Working part-time did have a larger effect on our ER timeline though. Prior to moving to part-time, we were less than 5 years away (4 years and 7 months) from ER. With the change, I estimate we are now 5 years and 8 months away from the milestone.
This means that we’d be able to retire early by the age of 45. It was amazing to find out that it only extended our timeline by about 1 year.
5. How do you feel about these changes to the timeline?
Honestly, I had a lot of time to think about this change since it took over 6 months for the federal government to approve my request to work part-time.
During that time, I considered lots of options.
- Should I keep working full time and reach ER as fast as possible?
- Or maybe I should quit entirely, while Mrs. Gov works and only earn enough money to meet our current expenses (Coast FI + Spouse FI)?
- Or should I keep trying to get my current request to work part-time through?
Once I started considering moving down the Coast FI path, a lot of my feelings about FI & ER changed.
Since we’re already so close to FI, even if we just coasted, we’d soon hit our FI milestone. And, if I was earning money in a way I enjoyed, it could be a life that I never wanted to retire from. While we might never hit our ER milestone in that scenario, we’d still be living a life we enjoyed. And, we’d be set for a comfortable retirement in our late 50’s or early 60’s.
Ultimately, I decided that working part-time was what I really wanted. I’m able to:
- “Purchase” some of my time back to do what I want to do outside of work
- Still have a guaranteed, inflation-adjusted paycheck
- Continue in the FERS retirement system in case I do make it to my minimum retirement age (57)
- Work towards some lasting research accomplishments I really care about.
One of the biggest reasons I didn’t quit is that the last book on my major area of research was written in 1988, and I’ve already disproved most of the theories in the book. I really want to leave my own stamp on the field before I leave it. I’ll do this by writing my own version of the book with my best research friends.
Importantly, I now feel confident that I could switch to Coast FI any time I want to. I’m not super worried about hitting our financial independence milestones. Maybe by the time I write the book, we are at our ER milestone. Or perhaps we aren’t. I could decide to deliver a few Instacart orders a week to keep us at a 0% withdrawal rate for a few years.
No matter what, I know that we are close now, and I have agency over my own decisions.
6. What enabled you to make the decision to reduce your hours?
If I hadn’t taken your and Mel’s class on “Overcoming Your Scarcity Mindset” I am pretty sure I’d still be working full-time.
Prior to taking the course, I “knew” in my head that we were in great financial shape but was too afraid to make any changes.
I found the exercises in the class were really helpful. I spent time listing all of my fears (or “limiting mindsets”). Some of my biggest fears were that:
- My supervisors would immediately reject my request.
- I would face some sort of punishment or demotion for asking to go part-time.
- We would feel stressed about money because my income was lower.
- I would be destroying our family’s opportunity to create generational wealth.
Later, when I was in a different frame of mind, I objectively answered all of these questions.
For example, my supervisors might immediately say no, but they could also say yes. And, it was very unlikely that I’d be penalized for asking for the change. In the end, they were all positive and supportive.
While it is true that I am leaving money on the table by working part-time, this change has had a minimal effect on our retirement timeline. I don’t think it will add financial stress, and it certainly won’t destroy our family’s opportunity to create generational wealth.
While it was scary to ask to go part-time, most of my mental barriers were not based upon reasonable fears.
7. How did your pursuit of FI help or hinder your decision to downshift to part-time?
Starting down a path towards FI was a huge turning point in my life.
To be clear though, it wasn’t the money aspects of FI that helped me make this decision. Instead, the mindset shifts and emotional aspects of FI helped me the most.
Before pursuing FI, I had an unhealthy relationship with work. Not only did I have a fear of losing my job but I also strongly identified as my job. (“I am a researcher. I am an internationally recognized expert on X” etc.).
Reading Your Money or Your Life was life-changing for me. I realized that I was more than my job and that work was just a place I exchanged my time for money. Honestly, I feel like this is mandatory reading for anyone in academia where everyone is reduced to their subject-matter expertise.
When we started to pursue FI, we made some small money changes, but the biggest changes were to my mindset. If my identity were still closely tied to my job, there is no way I could have asked to go part-time. Why would I want to be less of who I am?
For me, pursuing FI was a radical rejection of American hustle-culture and that enabled me to be at peace with dialing back my career ambitions and working part-time.
8. What advice do you have for someone considering a similar decision?
My answer to this question depends on what you consider “similar”. Since the biggest aspects of my decision were with my own mindset, I am going to rephrase the question to “What advice do you have for someone who wants to make a change but is afraid to do so?”
The first step is to understand whether or not you are financially able to make the change.
I’d never recommended that anyone leap before they look.
Have you tracked all your expenses for at least a year?
What does your housing situation look like? What will you do for health insurance? How will your change affect your income, net worth, and retirement plans?
In my situation, I knew that we were almost to our FI milestone. I also knew my wife would continue working (part-time) and that we could still receive health insurance.
Next, I would list all of the reasons you think you cannot make the change right now.
Don’t dismiss any fear as being unreasonable yet. Write down every reason you’ve ever told yourself you can’t do this.
Are you afraid your colleagues will think you are lazy?
Are you worried that you’ll immediately be fired and put on a super-secret blacklist that every employer ever has access to but no one knows about?
Write it down. Make sure you’ve exhausted every fear you could possibly have.
On a different day, take a look at your list again and work through each item.
Some fears will seem silly when you’re looking at them with fresh eyes. Others won’t.
I’m still not 100% confident I made the right decision. On the other hand, I am confident that no matter what happens, I’ll still have a job and we’ll have enough money to live on.
I’m still a little worried that we’ll never be “rich” by FIRE blogger standards because I downshifted. Maybe in 20 years, I’ll wish I had a few extra million in the bank to blow on vacation homes or expensive hobbies. Who knows?
Perhaps after a year of working part-time, I’ll be more confident in my decision. And if not, I can always ask to move back to a full-time position. Although nothing is guaranteed, I’m pretty sure they’d love to have me back to working full-time. Sometimes the big scary decisions around financial independence aren’t as irreversible as we make them out to be in our mental dialog.
Thank you so much, Sam, for sharing your story with us.
I did a survey of Fioneers readers in early 2020 about what holds us back from actually making changes to improve our lives. From the survey, I heard three big reasons:
- We don’t realize there are other options
- Our identities are tied up in our career
- Making big life changes is scary. We worry that we’ll find ourselves in a worse situation (either emotionally or financially).
Seeing Sam work through all three of these barriers over the last couple of years is confirmation that these survey results still stand.
For example, Sam didn’t realize there were other options. Of course, he knew they existed. But, he didn’t think they didn’t exist for him (as a male breadwinner) until he reached his FI number. After embedding himself in the FI community and learning more about people who were working part-time and in the gig economy, he started to believe that this was possible for him.
Sam also shared that his identity was tied up in his career. One thing that he said in this interview really struck me, “If my identity were still closely tied to my job, there is no way I could have asked to go part-time. Why would I want to be less of who I am?” This is so true! Sam (like the rest of us) needed to expand his identity to encompass way more than his career. When our identity is multi-faceted, it allows us to make work a smaller component of our overall identity and allow other aspects of ourselves to take up a larger portion.
Finally, I loved how much Sam talked about working through limiting beliefs and fears of scarcity. Based on how the FIRE community behaves, it is clear that the vast majority of us suffer from a scarcity mindset. Sam shares an excellent strategy for working through your limiting beliefs. First, you write down every limiting belief you can think of (regardless of how crazy it may seem). Then, after you’ve cleared your head, you can work through them one by one.
I feel so honored that Sam was so affected by the Scarcity Mindset Class and Limiting Beliefs Workshop that Mel (from Modest Millionaires) and I put on in the Spring of 2021. While we won’t be opening this class again until sometime in 2022, I’d love to point you to a number of helpful resources in the meantime:
- The Guide to Identify Your Limiting Beliefs (Free Downloadable Guide and Worksheet)
- 6 Strategies to Conquer Your Self-Limiting Beliefs (Blogpost)
- Financial Metrics to Help you Design Your Life Today (Blogpost and Free Downloadable Spreadsheet)
Once people start to work through their limiting beliefs related to scarcity, they often find that what felt like a big shift doesn’t have as big of an impact as they might expect. For Sam, going part-time only changes his FI timeline by three months and his early retirement timeline by one year.
When I went part-time, we assumed it would add two years to our FI timeline. In reality, working less allowed us to reduce our emotional spending and ramp up passion projects (that became businesses), so it had virtually no impact on our timeline.
If you actually start working through the numbers of a change, you might find that the change won’t have as big of an impact as you think. And, if you build a life you don’t care to retire from, the timeline matters so much less.
If you’d like to keep following Sam’s journey, you can find him in the following places:
- Blog: Government Worker FI. Check out the posts in his “Money Well Spent” series where he gives personal updates on their life.
- Youtube: Government Worker FI
- Twitter: @govworkerFI