I was recently introduced to the work of Wendy from the blog Wanderlust Wendy. I have been inspired by her story and the unconventional choices she’s made.
At the age of 12, she was transplanted from a big city in Taiwan to suburbia in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents were immigrants and gave up decent-paying jobs to earn not much above minimum wage in the US. She says that she, “dutifully repaid that sacrifice by earning a few fancy degrees and landing an even fancier job.” She was living the American Dream that was expected of her.
In the summer of 2018, she modified that dream to fit her own ambitions and goals. She and her husband left their jobs, bid farewell to their life in Shanghai, and began to travel the world full-time.
Wendy tells us that their nomadic journey gave them a lot of opportunities to discover what their ideal life would look like.
I have been incredibly inspired by Wendy and the courage that it took to quit a high paying job to focus on the journey. In the short-term, this was full-time travel; in the long term, they are still figuring out how their ideal lives will look.
If you are a regular reader of the Fioneers, you will already know that we believe the journey to financial independence should be as remarkable as the destination. We believe that Wendy is a great example of this philosophy.
This is why we decided to ask Wendy to be our first interview in our Slowing Down Interview series.
The purpose of this interview series is to identify and amplify the stories of people who are using their financial freedom to envision and align with their ideal lives before reaching financial independence.
This could be through full-time travel, part-time work, going down to one income, giving up a side hustle, building a business, or almost any other decision that makes your life better, even if it doesn’t make perfect financial sense.
With this interview series, we want to change the financial independence narrative. The purpose of FI is not to work as hard as possible to retire as early as possible. It’s to live a life of meaning, purpose, happiness, and connection throughout our entire lives.
Without further ado, let’s hear from Wendy.
1. What deliberate decision have you made to slow down and improve your life? Why did you decide to make this decision?
Once I paid off my student loans, my husband and I made a plan to reach our version of Financial Independence by 2020. The plan was to let work become optional. Despite already wanting to leave my job, I held onto it for another 18 months.
When debt isn’t involved, motivation was scarce to stay in a job I disliked.
I decided that I didn’t need work to become optional, I just need it to be flexible. My debt-repayment experience gave me the confidence that I can find work without going through the 9-5 grind, doing something I dislike.
2. Can you paint a picture for me? What did a “day in your life” look like before your decision to travel the world? What did your life look like during your year of travel?
My job required a lot of morning conference calls. I am not a morning person, so a typical day in the office usually meant hitting snooze a bunch of times, then a mad rush to put myself together, get on the insanely crowded Shanghai subway just before rush hour, desperately look for coffee, and get on that conference call by 8 am. The day then goes by in a blur between emails, meetings, and number-crunching.
“What to eat for lunch?” was the most enjoyable problem to solve each day. Evenings were spent emptying my mind with travel videos on YouTube or drinking and feasting with friends. Sometimes, I’d throw a workout in there, somewhere. I lived for those two precious weekend days, cramming in all of my enjoyable activities. I spent six years always feeling SO busy, never had enough time to live my life.
During our travels, no two days are alike. But unless we have a plane or train to catch, the day does not start with an alarm clock. On non-travel days, we don’t plan the day’s activities ahead. We wake up, look at the weather, see how we feel, then make a draft plan. Some days go according to the draft, other days are totally different. Either way, there is always a lot of looking up places on Google Maps. While full-time travel can be exhausting, we always prioritize sleep and headspace.
3. What did you get to do during your nomadic journey that you wouldn’t have been able to do if you hadn’t slowed down?
It’s one thing to go on vacations, and it’s another to be a “full-time traveler.” I was a good tiger kid and never took more than a few weeks between major life events to relax. When I vacationed and met long-term travelers, I always oozed with envy. To finally be one of them and experience both the joy and the madness of long-term travel has been a dream come true.
Along similar lines, we had learned about various alternative lifestyles from YouTube videos. Experiences like living on a farm and building houses.
On our travels, we spent two months working with various Workaway exchanges to get a taste. We spent three weeks in rural Uruguay on an off-grid farm hosted by an American family, and two weeks helping a Chilean guy building a pizzeria, using reclaimed materials. These unique experiences can’t be bought with money; they require our most precious resource – time.
4. How has this decision impacted your quality of life?
We decided to bid farewell to our life in Shanghai after we left our jobs. This helped a lot in reducing our expenses. City-living can be quite expensive, and in the expat-circle, a lot of non-essential spending is common. We were able to reduce our expenses by half without sacrificing quality of life. If anything, the freedom to do what we want when we want has immensely improved our life quality.
5. That is amazing that you were able to reduce your expenses in half. What did you spend the most money on while traveling? What did you find to be less expensive than you thought?
Food and transportation took up most of our travel expenses thus far. Accommodation, once the largest portion of our spending, has been low because we arranged our trip mostly around visiting family and friends, or partaking in unique experiences via Workaway, where we enjoyed free lodging in exchange for some work.
Besides accommodation, we spend a lot less on social expenses like eating out and happy hour drinks. When we visit family and friends, a lot of catching up is over home-cooked meals. During the rest of our travels, we prefer to cook in AirBnBs whenever possible and eat out only occasionally. While we miss our Shanghai social circle, traveling has reduced a lot of those “hanging-out” expenses.
6. How did it impact your financial goals or timelines?
Since we shifted our goals from being financially independent to financially free, we no longer feel the constraint of a timeline. To us, we have already achieved our ideal version of financial freedom – the freedom to travel, to experience unique lifestyles, and to pursue work that fulfills us.
Our financial goals and life goals have melded into one. Taking a pause on work helped us to clarify our vision of an ideal life. When we set off on our travels last summer, we were quite happy to continuously trot around the globe. Now, we miss elements of a stationary life – a community, a well-stocked kitchen, etc. We also realized we do enjoy working and miss having a purpose other than being travelers. The goals are ever-changing and our plans are constantly evolving.
7. What enabled you to become a nomadic traveler (i.e. what financial or social context helped)?
Since we were already saving for FI, we had a substantial saving in place. Not enough to never work again, but enough to put a pause on work and take time to gain some headspace. We stockpiled enough cash to cover one year of living expenses, allowing the investment portfolio to do its thing. As I mentioned, our expenses on the road are actually half of what they were in Shanghai, so that has stretched out longer than expected. It buys us time to slowly figure out what the next phase of life looks like.
Having the financial cushion was helpful, but getting over the mental hurdle was even more important. When we are so focused on accumulating wealth, it’s easy to get trapped in the “one-more-year” syndrome. The golden handcuffs are real. We want to have kids in the near future, and for us, it was important to experience life outside of the corporate grind before the kid stage of our lives take over.
Finally, living abroad and traveling has been immensely helpful to gain perspective. The American Way is not the only way. My encounters with non-Americans showed me that 6-figure tuition is not necessary to get a well-paying job. Medical services can be very affordable, and insurance isn’t normally the reason people stay employed. When we think about our future, we think globally and aren’t afraid of the constraints placed upon a typical American family.
8. Were there things in your life you adapted to make it work better so you could continue to work toward your goals?
Adopting the concept of minimalist living propelled us to abandon our original FI plan. Adjusting our attitudes toward stuff liberated our minds to think about living a life that is meaningful to us. We downsized our possessions to whatever fit into a suitcase and a backpack per person. Spending a year living with so little, we can clearly identify our priorities. We won’t live like this forever, but it’s a good reset to identify what truly brings us value (and joy). For us, a well-stocked kitchen tops the list.
9. Why and when do you think someone might consider “downshifting?”
I would recommend thinking about taking a pause, or “downshift”, once one reaches positive net worth, and have a comfortable amount of cash stockpiled. Everyone has different risk tolerance; for us, it was one year of expenses.
It’s a cliché, but life is short. There is no guarantee that we will live out to enjoy our FI life. And even when we have the privilege to reach FI through all the hard work, it’s no guarantee that we’ll love it. Take a pause to test out an ideal version of life, and make tweaks along the way can ensure longer-term success.
10. How did your pursuit of financial independence help or hinder this decision?
Our original pursuit of FI was the catalyst to think about our life deliberately. Had we not been on a FI plan, we might have continued to live on auto-pilot. But once we had a goal, and I was restless to achieve it, it forced us to devise an alternative plan.
While I still have a spreadsheet that tracks how far away we are from the original FI number, it’s no longer the primary goal. We are focusing on finding work that fulfills us and identifying new opportunities that enrich our lives. Ultimately, this feels more meaningful to us than working begrudgingly toward a faraway goal.
11. What advice do you have for someone considering a similar decision?
Clearly identify your ideal version of life. It may or may not take FI to reach it, but you won’t know until you take the time to really think about it. Also, don’t compare to others. Just as we encourage each other to not keep up with the Jones with spending, let’s remember to live our own best lives without comparing our financial freedom plans. Let others’ inspirational stories guide you toward your gut feeling, and make the choice that is best for you.
Wow! What a great story for our first interview.
While Wendy was originally pursuing Financial Independence and wanted work to become optional, she realized that what she really wanted was work to become flexible.
She then makes the courageous choice to quit her job with one year of living expenses saved up to travel the world. During this time she knocked some awe-inspiring experiences off her bucket list, cuts her expenses in half, and had time to envision her ideal life, knowing that full-time travel was only one phase.
Wendy and her husband are now likely headed back into a more stationary lifestyle that will include more community and a well-stocked kitchen, which is the next stage in what they’ve envisioned for their ideal life. Wendy says that while they still track the spreadsheets, financial independence is no longer their primary goal.
Like Wendy, reaching financial independence as quickly as possible is not our primary goal. Our primary goal is to live our lives in a way that aligned with our ideal vision – where we have the opportunity to focus on things we are passionate about and become location independent so that we can travel frequently.
I believe that a large part of what enables us to pursue our vision of our ideal life is that we’re focused on intentional spending and saving a significant portion of our income, both of which will also enable us to reach financial independence. While we will not achieve it as quickly as some very high earners, we will achieve it in the long-term (8-10 years), and I do believe this will also be true for Wendy.
Even though the stories sometimes feel few and far between, we are not alone in making unconventional choices. There are countless people who are changing the traditional financial independence narrative by focusing on building their ideal lives along the journey to financial independence. This series seeks to discover and amplify those stories. If you have a story you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you.
And finally, thank you very much to Wendy for participating in our first slowing down interview. I’d encourage you to follow her journey. You can do so in the following ways: