We did it!
After five years of painstakingly managing our budget, growing our income, and paying down $300,000 of debt, my husband and I reached a goal I thought would take us at least another decade.
We hit our FIRE number.
This means we have enough money in investments to become work-optional, according to the calculation traditionally used by the FIRE (Financial Independence, Relax Early) movement. For us, our FIRE number equates to $900,000, which will generate enough income to cover basic living expenses of about $3,000 per month.
But hitting that number did not end our financial freedom journey. Instead, it kickstarted us into the next phase: mastering our tax and drawdown strategies, detaching from our career-based identities, and learning how to truly relax for the first time in our adult lives.
If you’re working toward financial independence, you should know that you will get there if you stay committed to your goals and investing strategy—even if you mess up a few times along the way, like I did. You should also know what happens next. Here are four things my husband and I are doing now that we’ve hit our FIRE number.
This is the last column of a 5-part series from Bernadette Joy. In “Mess to Million,” she shows that you don’t have to be perfect to get rich. Follow @nextadvisor on Instagram for updates and live Q&As with Bernadette.
1. We’re detaching from the ideas of forever homes and forever careers
As first-generation Asian Americans, both our parents ingrained in us that success would be a high-paying, stable career and one big house we raise our family in.
Now, without the pressure of having to go to work for more money, we’re both excited to try new kinds of work that we have intrinsic interest in. AJ has been exploring old hobbies like collecting and trading comic books, which has been more about meeting the small business owners who run these shops and treasure hunting than the money itself. I’ve taken my interest in creating personal finance content on social media and courses to writing articles like this column and speaking at live events. A few years ago I never would have dreamed of calling myself a writer or speaker!
Knowing that we have the cushion of a basic retirement has given us more confidence and more time to explore what different careers can be for each of us— without the need to stick to it if we find it doesn’t suit us.
We’ve also started reinterpreting our version of the American dream: moving to a new city every few years, or having multiple smaller homes around the world, rather than just one big home that we buy and pay off for 30 years like our families did. After reaching our FIRE number and paying down our 4-bedroom home in Charlotte, NC, we bought a smaller condo in the mountains of Asheville, NC, and learned that we didn’t really miss the maintenance a larger home requires. We ended up selling the larger home and are finding that less lawn and household items to maintain better fits our definition of retirement.
2. We are reshaping our preconceived ideas about retirement
When I teach the principles of FIRE at Crush Your Money Goals, I always ask my students what they would do if they were to retire early. The most common answers I get are 1) travel 2) spend more time with family and 3) pick up new hobbies. My husband AJ and I would have said the same answers, and now we actually have the opportunity to test those ideas out in our thirties and forties rather than waiting for our fifties and sixties.
After we reached our FIRE number, we decided to give ourselves permission to slow down our investing and re-route some of those funds to vacations, eating out more, board games, and tickets to live concerts. With both our jobs becoming fully remote, we also took the opportunity to work from anywhere and become digital nomads, something I had long fantasized about, even before the pandemic.
It’s all been great, except for a twist we didn’t expect at all: we found it all incredibly exhausting!
It turns out that waking up in a new city every few days isn’t as thrilling as I thought it would be, and I learned that I actually enjoy sleeping in my own bed and cooking my own food more often than not. The 100+ board games AJ so enthusiastically bought during the pandemic have largely gone unplayed. And while I will still go to any K-pop or country music concert scheduled in the immediate future, I don’t look forward to big crowds and long lines, even when BTS is on the other side.
Now, rather than centering ourselves around productivity and achievement, we’re starting to learn how to prioritize rest and relaxation for the first time in our adult lives. One simple way I’ve done this is by keeping an “off screen” journal, encouraging myself to schedule downtime that doesn’t include being on a television, computer, or phone. It’s been eye-opening to find how hard it is for me to take a simple stroll, read for pleasure, or just sit by the fire, because these things aren’t “productive.” It continues to be a work in progress.
3. We’re learning how to be even smarter with our investments
Just as soon as we hit our FIRE number, the investments we had—mostly in index funds and ETFs—started to decline in value due to the volatility in the stock market. This felt disheartening after benefiting from steady increases over the last few years, and at times I wondered if we should have put all that money into our investments as quickly as we did.
But then I had to remind myself that these dollars were put in there for the long haul, and I need to let them do their work for the next few decades, while continuing to dollar cost average at a less aggressive rate than we did before.
Now, we are looking at ways we can continue to diversify the additional investing we will participate in, including learning about and investing in things like Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), traditional real estate, NFTs, and other small businesses.
We’re also learning ways to save on additional taxes for our current investments. Last year, I opened up my own 401(k) through my business for the first time, after not having had access to a 401(k) since leaving my last corporate job—saving me the taxes I would have paid by putting the same money into a brokerage account. And in another tax-saving strategy, we’re working with a tax professional to help us convert our traditional 401(k)s into Roth IRAs over the next few years.
4. Most importantly, we’re putting our health and mental well-being first
If I’m being completely transparent, our financial freedom journey didn’t start with a flash of genius or the idea of a bright future. It started because my mental health was on the verge of collapse. At the time, I was working a full-time job and a side hustle while attending graduate school, and I had no idea where I would find the time, money, or energy to pay off the $300,000 of debt we had accumulated beyond our means.
Hitting our FIRE number not only gave us financial room to breathe, but gave me actual room to breathe.o My FIRE number has given me time to focus on the basics of healthy living—sleeping normal hours, exercising more regularly, eating intentionally, and spending more on medications and supplements that I long ignored. When either of us have gotten ill, we no longer rush back to work right away but focus on getting healthy first. And while many of our friends and family still hold a stigma against admitting to struggles around mental health, we both carve out the time and money to see a therapist regularly and take breaks during the week, not just on the weekends, for self-care.
Your journey to financial independence doesn’t have to look like mine
And with this article is the end of the Mess to Million series! I recognize that everyone’s story is unique and challenging in their own ways, and by no means do I expect that all of my experience would reflect yours. But I do hope that in sharing the lessons, and yes, the many messy actions I took along the way, you find some inspiration and practical steps you can take to continue your money journey—with a little less fear and a little more joy!
And as always, I’m here to remind you that even if you feel like a complete money mess today, financial independence can still be possible for you.