In the summer of 2019, I reached out to get an advanced copy of the Choose FI book. Upon receipt of it, I wondered, “Who is this Chris Mamula guy (the author of the book)?”
While reading the book, I felt like I got to “know” Chris pretty well. I learned all about his approach to life and finances, his financial mistakes, and his life goals. I found the book to be extremely valuable, particularly around the tactics that you can take to gain financial freedom.
My main critique of the book is that I felt like it still focused too much on the “traditional FIRE” narrative. This narrative often starts with finding the highest paying job possible. Then, you save as much money as you possibly can as quickly as possible, so that you can ride off into the sunset of your dream life. There was some focus on figuring out your “why” for FI and encouraging people to “enjoy their lives too” sprinkled in.
If you know me though, this wasn’t enough for my taste!
This book even inspired me to create my own set of FI milestones that were not focused on retiring early. Instead, these new milestones focused on the incremental financial freedom that you gain along the way to FI.
A few months after I read the book, I actually had the opportunity to meet Chris in person! We had a lively discussion about the book – both what I found helpful and my critiques. I’m an honest person; I can’t help it!
Luckily, Chris told me that he appreciated honest dialogue, so I took his word for it.
We’ve kept in touch over social media since then. Earlier this year, I released the first-of-its-kind Slow FI interview with Robert from Stop Ironing Shirts about what he wished he’d done differently on his path to FI. Shortly after, Chris reached out and offered to do a similar interview. I was ecstatic!
After reaching FI and “retiring early” two years ago, Chris has some incredibly valuable insights to share that encourage a slower and more intentional path to FI.
Let’s get into the interview.
1. Tell me about you.
I’m a husband, dad, writer/blogger, and lover of outdoor adventure. I retired as a physical therapist in 2017 at 41 years of age. About six months later, my family moved from western PA, where my wife and I were born and raised, to the mountains of Utah.
2. Why did you decide to pursue financial independence in the first place?
My wife and I knew quickly that we didn’t want to live a standard lifestyle. She graduated from college in 2000, and I finished up in 2001. We each got “good jobs” quickly.
We got married in the fall of 2001 and within a few months bought our first house. As new professionals, we were each working about 50 hour weeks. We were commuting 45 minutes each way in opposite directions.
It was “the American Dream,” but it wasn’t our dream.
Friends talked us into joining them on a backpacking trip to the Grand Canyon in the spring of 2002. Being able to unplug, slow down, and be more intentional while out in nature reinforced what was important to us.
So we decided to make changes right away. We started building a life around those things.
I talk to many people who want a different way of life. Yet one year, five years, or even ten years later, nothing has changed. They are saying and more importantly doing the same things.
We realized that if we didn’t make drastic changes to our lives that would be us as well. So we essentially chose to hit the “reset” button by looking for new jobs, putting our house up for sale, and intentionally starting over.
3. How did you approach your FI journey?
The idea of FIRE wasn’t a thing when we were getting started. I didn’t totally believe it was possible for normal people with regular jobs to do something like we ended up doing. My wife was extremely skeptical.
We just started anyway, because we wanted to create a better way of life.
Along the way, we intuitively did things that are now commonly discussed by FIRE bloggers. We hacked college, obtaining three degrees each with very little debt. We utilized domestic geoarbitrage. We moved away from Pittsburgh to our smaller home town where housing was cheaper, and I could earn more as a physical therapist. Those decisions allowed us to earn more while spending less.
Frankly, we got lucky to get out of our first house less than two years after we bought it with only a small loss. From that point forward, we’ve done extremely well with our housing costs. We never financed a car, and after our move, we drastically decreased our commutes.
Conversely, we got a lot of the technical parts very wrong. We were overwhelmed by investing and tax planning.
We bought into the idea that you need an “expert” to help you. In the process, we made extremely expensive mistakes by following conflicting advice. This cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars in unnecessary fees and taxes before we educated ourselves.
Despite our mistakes, we got many of the big things right. This allowed us to establish a good bit of financial independence quickly. My wife was able to cut back to part-time work after the birth of our daughter in 2012. I left my career in 2017.
As to how long our journey took, we’re about 20 years in now. I don’t feel like we’ve particularly reached a destination yet.
4. When did you reach FI? Was that timeline different than you originally thought?
I tend to think about FI as a process more than a destination that you reach.
I originally was focused on retiring and didn’t have a timeline. I didn’t know anyone who had done anything like we wanted to do. I suppose I thought retiring by our early 50s was possible, but we had no real goal or plan.
In 2012, we found out my wife was pregnant. We didn’t think she could have children. This shock made me get serious about our finances. Knowing we were going to be responsible for another human life, our prior plan of just winging it so we could have more time to play seemed a little irresponsible.
Then, I found FIRE blogs. The ones that I originally started reading were Early Retirement Extreme, Mr. Money Mustache, Mad Fientist, and Go Curry Cracker! They focused a lot on optimizing finances to retire as quickly as possible, and I bought into the idea fully. I realized if we made a few changes, we could retire in just a few years.
This leads perfectly to your next question…
5. Was there anything that happened along your journey that shifted your perspective about FI?
Finding FIRE blogs had extremely positive benefits in our life.
On the positive side, when I saw that my goals were realistic, I became laser-focused on achieving FI. I took control of our finances and cut tens of thousands of dollars a year of investment fees and taxes we had been paying. This accelerated our path to FI without giving up anything of value.
We also started living more intentionally. We had talked about getting rid of cable for years. Looking at how much we were spending, and how little value it was providing pushed us to cut the cord.
I also recall reading a blog post by Mr. Money Mustache about his MVNO cell phone plan. His phone plan cost about 20% of the plan I used with a “free” flip phone, with about 5x the functionality. I made that change as well, saving hundreds of dollars per year while consolidating my phone, iPod, and GPS into one unit.
These same FIRE blogs had some negative consequences as well.
We started to focus too much on our finances and optimizing the path to early retirement. We started to think of FI as this magical time when all our problems would be solved. I, in particular, became more disenchanted with my work and stopped appreciating the great life I already had.
My current home on the internet is the blog Can I Retire Yet? It was started by an early retiree, Darrow Kirkpatrick. I found that blog when I was literally asking that question.
I realized I needed to start asking more and better questions. One that changed my life was What If You Can’t Retire Yet? Just like I intuitively started down the path to FIRE before I knew it was a thing, I started heading down the path to Slow FI before I knew that was a thing. I called it redefining retirement.
6. Is there anything you regret about taking such a fast journey to FI?
Our journey can really be divided into two phases.
- Pre-child and Pre-knowledge of FIRE
- Post-child and Post-knowledge of FIRE
In phase one, we had no idea what we were doing. This was both a blessing and a curse.
On the blessing side, we weren’t overly focused on getting to the finish line as quickly as possible. We managed to spend very little on our education, housing, and cars. This allowed us to save a lot while still living an amazing lifestyle.
Before discovering FI, we traveled the world. This includes hiking Kilimanjaro and taking an African safari, diving the Great Barrier Reef, climbing high-altitude mountains in Mexico and South America, traveling extensively in the U.S. while pursuing outdoor adventures and even attending two Super Bowls. I cherish those memories and don’t regret one dollar we spent on them.
On the curse side, we didn’t take our personal finances seriously. This led to our massive financial planning mistakes that slowed our path to FI. I would love to not have made those mistakes that slowed down our path to FI. The worst thing about them is that they didn’t add any value to our lives.
In phase two, I wish I would have appreciated how special a time in our life we were in. I became overly fixated on FIRE.
I missed out on a lot during a magical time in our daughter’s formative years because I was still working full-time and also starting to devote a lot of time to writing.
On an average weekday, my interaction with my daughter was limited. My wife would get her up in the morning, dress her, and pack her things. I’d scoop her up, load her in the car, then unload her at daycare on my way to work.
In the evening we’d do the reverse, arriving home around six p.m. That gave us two hours with her, mostly dominated by feeding and bathing before getting ready for bed. She spent most of her time in daycare, so there was little time for us to interact with her and get to know her.
Looking back, I realize we could have chosen to cut back on work sooner. It would have meant earning active income for longer. But, we continue to earn income now anyways (from my wife’s ongoing part-time work and from my writing).
We also have very low expenses. We have a paid-off mortgage and car, low taxes, and use travel credit card rewards (at least when travel was a thing). This means we draw down very little from our investment portfolio. Last year, we actually were net savers in my second year of “early retirement.”
I was so focused on retiring early. If I’d had the courage and insight to choose a different path, we could have had the lifestyle we do now even sooner. Even though we’ve reached FI, I would say we’ve settled into a semi-retired lifestyle. This lifestyle gives us so much more time to devote to our daughter, relationship, and outdoor hobbies.
7. If you knew then what you know now, what would you have done differently on your journey to FI?
I would have asked more and better questions.
The reasons for our successes can all be attributed to stepping back when things didn’t feel right, asking why we were doing what we were doing, and then changing course when it made sense to do so.
As we were finishing school, we asked why almost everyone accepts debt as a normal part of life. All our friends were buying new cars and rapidly inflating their lifestyles. We consciously decided it didn’t make sense for us and chose a different path.
Another example was when we asked why we put ourselves in the position we did when starting our careers. We realized it didn’t make sense, so we decided to change course after only about a year.
Conversely, the biggest mistakes that we made were all the results of not asking better questions.
I don’t know why I always thought investing and taxes were so overwhelming. But I did, so I just buried my head in the sand for over a decade.
It’s bizarre that I now have such an interest in learning and writing about these topics. The name of my original blog was Eat the Financial Elephant. It was meant to reflect the idea that investing and finance was overwhelming, like eating an elephant, and I needed to figure it out “one bite at a time.”
Even when we realized how bad and expensive the advice we were receiving was, our first inclination was just to find a better financial advisor. We probably would have if I hadn’t found JL Collins fabulous “Stock Series” that made investing accessible to someone like me.
Another example was my overemphasis on retirement after finding FIRE. It took a while to realize that early retirement just takes the standard path that most people follow through life and compresses it into a shorter time frame. This emphasis on getting to retirement more quickly made it hard to be present and happy as I was before.
It took me too long to ask why I wanted to retire early. What was I trying to escape from? What kind of life did I actually want? What are the downsides to retiring? When I started asking better questions, I started finding better answers.
8. Is early retirement everything you thought it was cracked up to be? Were there things you didn’t expect?
I don’t think I was naive in thinking that achieving financial independence and retiring early would make life perfect. Still, I was not prepared for just how hard it was to make the massive changes that we did.
These changes included leaving my career of 17 years (for 15 years, I worked in the same physical therapy clinic), beginning work simultaneously on my book and a new blogging project, selling the home we had lived in for over a decade, and moving cross country from Pennsylvania (where we had a lifetime of relationships) to Utah (where we knew no one) to start a new phase of life. This all happened in a period of about eight months.
I’m not sure why it was such a surprise that this was such a challenge, other than to say that we (not just my wife and I, but humans in general) are generally pretty bad at predicting the future.
I want to share a nuanced view from the other side of financial independence to help people better prepare for these challenges. It’s genuinely a great lifestyle and worth the effort, but it’s not all rainbows and puppy dogs.
Thank you, Chris, for sharing your story with us!
I love hearing insights gained by people after they reach financial independence. For those of us who are still on the path, it’s infinitely helpful to learn from the experiences of those who have gone before us.
In fact, our Slow FI approach has been inspired by so many early retirees who’ve said they wish they’d taken a slower path to FI and enjoyed the journey more along the way.
Like many early retirees, Chris shares that he got overly focused on the early retirement part of FIRE. Because he got so focused on optimizing his finances and looking forward to the future, he feels like he missed out on an important time during his daughter’s life.
I’m also intrigued by the fact that in year two of his “early retirement,” he actually ended up saving money because they are still bringing in income. Most people who want to retire early don’t factor extra active income into their retirement numbers. People sometimes assume they’ll never make another dollar and will need to cover all of their expenses from their retirement accounts.
This is something I think about a lot. Many people end up making money doing things that they enjoy after reaching FI and then realizing that they could have transitioned earlier. Had Chris realized this, he could have made the leap to Coast FI or semi-retirement earlier. This would have allowed him to live his dream lifestyle much earlier.
This is part of the reason why my goal is to build up enjoyable active income sources so that I can build a life I love along the way.
I still hear stories from people pursuing FI who think that they need to reach full FI before they can work less, write a book, or start a business. In actuality, those are all things that we can do along our path to FI. We need to start listening to the advice from people like Chris who have gone down this path before us and have the benefit of hindsight.
I also loved Chris’s advice, and I hope we can all take it to heart. Chris urges us to ask better questions. Instead of blindly pursuing early retirement, it’s important that we ask ourselves these questions:
- Why do I want to retire early?
- What am I trying to escape from?
- What kind of life do I actually want?
- Can I make that life happen before reaching full FI?
Let’s determine what we uniquely want our lives to look like and write that script.
If you want to continue to follow Chris’s journey, you can find him in the following places:
- Blog: Can I Retire Yet? (a collaboration with Darrow Kirkpatrick)
- Book: Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence (a collaboration with Brad Barett and Jonathan Mendonsa of Choose FI)
- Twitter: @caniretire_yet