My wife and I discovered the Financial Independence community in 2016, which opened our eyes to the possibility of achieving FI at an early age with moderate incomes. With a healthy amount of effort, we achieved FI four years later at ages 35 (me) and 33 (my wife).
Four years sounds quick, doesn’t it? In reality, our journey to FI started the same place as it did for many other folks in the FI community: our childhood. We were both fortunate to grow up in middle-class families that emphasized the value of saving money from an early age. We both had allowances that we earned through doing chores, and we were both expected to pull most of our weight when it came to funding our education. But we also never had to worry about whether we’d have food on the table or a roof over our heads, which makes us vastly more fortunate than millions of people around the world.
As a teenager I worked a couple grunt jobs at a grocery store and a movie theater, both of which I despised and worked at just long enough to pay for my (very expensive) car insurance. I’ll never forget one day when I had to clean up a several-inch-thick layer of dried butter/oil on the floor below a leaking popcorn machine – to this day I detest popcorn. Those experiences taught me how incredibly important it was for me to pursue higher skill level work.
My favorite job as a teenager I actually didn’t get any paychecks for: teaching Tae Kwon Do. Starting around age 11, I worked my way up to a 3rd Degree Black Belt and Head Instructor status. I loved the training and teaching, and would continue to do so for a number of years after leaving my initial Tae Kwon Do school for college. I haven’t continued training for the last several years, but someday I’ll probably pick it back up. But the discipline and focus I learned from Tae Kwon Do has paid dividends for many years now.
After high school, I attended the University of Texas at Austin (Hook ‘em!) to get my BS in Aerospace Engineering. But after a couple of summers of not landing any engineering summer internships, and wanting to be fully financially independent from my parents (a different kind of financial independence!), I decided to apply for engineering co-op positions.
If you’re not familiar with the co-op programs at many engineering schools, the idea is that you work at least one long semester at a company/organization while you’re in school, and usually alternate “work” and “school” semesters. It’s a brilliant program, because you remain a full time student while working (required for many scholarships), you earn far more than an intern would (though not as much as a full time employee), you get fantastic experience that you can easily parlay into a full time position (assuming you do a decent job), and you can pay for school without having to work while taking classes (assuming you save your money – something we talk about just a little on this site).
I ended up working at NASA’s Johnson Space Center for my co-op, with a very sexy sounding job: I became a certified International Space Station instructor within the Training Division, teaching astronauts and flight controllers about a variety of International Space Station systems. At one point I was among the top four rated instructors for the entire training division, even though I was a lowly co-op student. I was also able to parlay the impressive sounding nature of the work into winning the Cooperative Education and Internship Association national cooperative education student of the year award in 2007 (even though I’m sure plenty of other co-op students worked just as hard as I did, in less glamorous sounding positions).
But I think what I liked the most about my co-op experience was that I ended up in the black by a decent amount when I finished my BS, and I never had to work while taking 15+ hours/semester of grueling engineering courses.
Towards the end of my BS (during my “super senior” 5th year, due to the co-op), I started applying for grad school, sticking with Aerospace Engineering. I ended up staying at UT Austin to get my Masters, as I was offered a great research assistant position that would pay my tuition and provide a small (~$20K/year) stipend, along with student health insurance. It was tough to save much money on that stipend, but I did manage to save a tiny bit. I also met my future wife in the fall of 2008, who somehow put up with my poor grad student lifestyle. 😉
Also during my MS program I was super fortunate to land internships at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where I was able to make a bit more money. In fact, about halfway through my JPL internship I was switched from “salaried” to “hourly” (due to some bureaucratic reason affecting all interns), and I then proceeded to work a ridiculous amount of overtime to take full advantage. After working 8 hours each day I would make 1.5x/hour, and after 11 hours I made 2x/hour! I remember sitting at my desk at JPL being ultra productive well into the evening thinking a) how nice and quiet the office was, b) how much great progress I was making on the project that I would end up using for my masters thesis, and c) how much money I was making! And my supervisor never said a word, because he was trying to spend all those funds anyway!
Unfortunately, I graduated with my MS in the spring of 2009, when the economy was still in the toilet. That same spring semester, I flew to California three weekends in a row on the dime of each organization, but walked away with no offers. It turns out these organizations had money to fly folks out, but no money to hire! Fortunately I did end up obtaining a couple offers in the Washington D.C. area, where federal funding was still flowing strongly. I accepted a position that would have me working on spacecraft navigation for a NASA mission, which I was definitely thrilled to have after so many interviews.
Before moving up to DC though, I proceeded to spend all the extra money I had made at JPL the previous summer on a huge 10-week 18-country trip backpacking around Europe the summer of 2009. That was the last time in my life I spent my way down to basically zero dollars. Despite spending all my money, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Though if I hadn’t had a job offer lined up for after the summer, I would not have felt comfortable spending every penny to my name. And I definitely did not even consider carrying a balance on a credit card – I’d eat nothing but beans and rice and live under a bridge before I’d have a non-zero credit card balance.
Mrs. EYFI’s Story
My wife started college as a chemistry major intending to combine it with a second major in studio art and eventually become an art conservator (combining her long-time passion for art with an interest in chemistry and, although she didn’t recognize this as an interest until almost a decade into her career, problem-solving). Like myself, she tested out of many classes via AP credits. In fact, I think she had far more AP credits than I had, as she went to a stronger high school than I did and she scooped up a ton of Spanish coursework credits (foreign language credit is not even required for Engineering majors). She also obtained numerous scholarships that helped pay for her education, with the largest providing $15K/year.
After identifying a semester into college that chemistry wasn’t the right fit for her, she took the advice that “most people’s careers have nothing to do with what they studied in school” to heart and switched to a major in something she loved without having a plan lined up for what she would do with it: Spanish. Having a very planning-focused and risk-averse personality, this was a somewhat anxiety-inducing decision to make but one that ultimately made her significantly happier. She then proceeded to spend her remaining 3.5 years of college adding/switching a second major (first art history, then English, and almost psychology at one point) and seeking out any career ideas, insight, and experience that she could find in an attempt to have a post-college career focus planned before graduation (recall that she’s planning-focused and risk-averse). This ultimately led to her landing an unpaid but fascinating internship editing book manuscripts for a professor (She was fortunate enough to have secured enough scholarships to have the option to take on an unpaid internship). Later, she found a paid internship at the membership office of a travel publication company, which, along with a great scholarship she landed that covered tuition and lodging, funded her travel during a 2007 summer study abroad program in Madrid, Spain.
She also joined a great group of folks in college that spoke nothing but Spanish at coffee house meetups, where she gained far more comfort speaking Spanish than in her courses (which focused more on the fundamentals and language structure, vs conversational language proficiency). She put those skills to excellent use in her study abroad stint, an experience which significantly broadened her awareness of other cultures and her own comfort zone.
During and after college she created artwork and hustled to sell it in a variety of venues – including at the original Kerbey Lane Cafe (an Austin institution). She has continued to create and sell her work through an Etsy shop for a number of years now as well, converting her designs to downloadable printable products once we started having kids to keep it manageable while also working full-time and having a family.
After graduating with both of her degrees, she joined a technology company in Austin, TX as a technical writer. In order to get to work reliably though, she needed a newer vehicle. She had nursed along a 1989 Mustang during college (that year’s design was notorious for engine issues, and the fact that the car was 20 years old didn’t help matters). Literally the day she traded it in for her new car, the driver side door handle broke and she had to crawl in and out of the passenger side all day while running a few errands. Now that’s some serious frugality skill! She also made a very smart car purchase, prioritizing reliability and longevity: a 2009 Toyota Corolla, which runs well to this day.
After working for several years at her company, she started steadily making her way up the corporate ladder – starting as a group manager in a smaller group, then a larger group, and becoming a senior group manager. However, as we made significant progress towards FI, she was able to use that newfound financial security to take a risk (recall her risk-averse nature) and transition into a new and temporary role that she’s enjoying even more – enabling her to pursue important but longer-term structural upgrades for her entire organization. While the role was defined as finite in length, our progress toward FI gave her the confidence to pursue it and trust that when that project reached closure she’d find an equally-engaging role following it, knowing she had financial flexibility if her career path and interests significantly diverged down the road. The change to a more problem-solving-focused role also will enable her to shift to part-time work when she is ready – yet another power of FI.
Our Stories Merged
I moved up to Washington, DC in August of 2009 and my future wife joined me in June of 2010 after getting some more experience at her first job out of college (more on her story above). We moved into a great apartment that was walking distance from a DC metro station, and we saw a huge number of sights in DC during the next couple of years, including every Smithsonian museum (thanks to the many national monuments and Smithsonian museums, the cost of living in DC might have been high but at least the sightseeing was often free!). We also loved taking the 4-hour cheap Bolt bus up to NYC on a regular basis, visiting friends and seeing a ton of great sights.
Some expensive things we saved up for (and paid for fully without taking on any debt) while living in DC:
- a number of flights back to TX to see family
- several big vacation trips, the biggest of which was a trip to Portugal and Spain
- an engagement ring
- our wedding in Austin, which totaled only about $13.5K in the end due to a ton of great DIY efforts from my (at that point very soon to be) wife
While we had a great time living in DC and made a ton of great friends there, I think we also knew in the back of our minds that we didn’t want to live in such a high cost of living area forever. Our apartment rent was actually pretty reasonable for the area, but still pretty dang high. I also wasn’t happy with my job after working there a while, so in mid-2011 I decided to return to grad school for my PhD in Aerospace Engineering. I then spent the fall filling out a ton of grad school applications (including a full application for UT that I later learned was unnecessary since I was considered a returning grad student) and graduate fellowship applications. I then spent the spring of 2012 visiting several graduate schools (on their dime! one of the few instances when a university will spend lavishly on grad students).
Then three days before our wedding, we made the hardest decision I’ve ever faced: I turned down a really amazing offer to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder for my PhD in order to accept the also amazing offer to return to my alma mater, UT Austin. One big motivating factor was that my wife had returned to working for the company she started with Austin as a remote employee (back when working remotely was pretty rare!), so returning to Austin would be far easier for her. But there were many other factors, such as proximity to most of our family in TX (though my uncle in Colorado made a hell of a pitch for CU).
The effort I put into applications in the fall continued to pay dividends as well, as I found out a week or two later that I had been awarded the NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship (NSTRF). With the UT financial offer and the NSTRF fellowship, I somehow secured an astounding stipend of $45K/year for the 4 years of my PhD program. The fellowship also provided $10K/year for tuition (which luckily just barely covered in-state tuition at UT), $1K/year for medical insurance (which luckily just barely covered adding me to my wife’s health insurance through her company), a yearly conference travel stipend (can’t remember how much), and $10K/year to travel to and work at different NASA centers each summer. And of course I was also super lucky during my PhD program to have a great sugar mama who was working full time – I highly recommend!
So in the Fall of 2012 we moved back to Austin, and somehow we managed to snag a great cheap apartment in northwest Austin near my wife’s work and her sister’s house. The apartment was a bit farther from the UT campus and downtown than we originally hoped for, but it turned out that the apartment was right next to an incredible express bus line stop that zoomed on down to campus in luxurious large charter-type buses – far better than the local buses I would have taken had we found a place closer to campus. And normally the express bus line is substantially more expensive than the standard city/campus buses, but as a UT student I rode all Cap Metro buses for free! Incredible score. And I saved myself a ton of stress dealing with Austin rush hour traffic and a ton of wear and tear and gas and parking fees versus driving down to campus. I did a ton of reading on that bus as well, including most of the technical papers that served as my literature review for my PhD research.
After about a year in the apartment, and after I had gotten through the first round of PhD qualifying exams and did my first NASA stint in the summer of 2013, we started house hunting. Very fortunately my wife had a full time job, unlike myself (see above recommendation for acquiring a sugar mama), so we were able to use her salary to qualify for a home loan. Even back in 2013, Austin was very much a seller’s market, so of course we got into a bidding war – though with just one other party, instead of 5+ like you’ll hear about these days. Here again our natural inclination to save paid big dividends: on top of having saved enough for the 20% down payment, we won the bidding war (at a still reasonable price) by demonstrating we could pay for more cash-up-front expenses. At the time we were a bit concerned we might have missed the bulk of the price increases in Austin, given the increase from 2012 to 2013, but happily we were proven wrong: our house value increased from $230K to $400K in just 7 years, and we anticipate that number only going up with Apple’s gigantic new campus coming to northwest Austin. Unfortunately our annual property taxes also increased correspondingly, jumping from $5352 in 2014 to $7080 in 2020. Ouch.
As a result of my fantastic fellowship, the aforementioned sugar mama, and our inclination to save, when I finished up my PhD in August 2016, my wife and I had liquid assets (including retirement accounts, but not including house equity) of around $240K – a number I know only because I created an account on Personal Capital back in April of 2016.
That spring was also when I discovered the world of FI (and it’s probably not a coincidence that I signed up for Personal Capital around the same time). While on one of the luxurious bus rides down to campus, I was skimming a list of links sent out by Becoming Minimalist (minimalism was the most attractive lifestyle change community to me prior to finding the FI community). One of the links was Mr. Money Mustache’s article titled “What if Everyone Became Frugal?”. I loved the article, and found myself (like many other folks who discover MMM) devouring his entire blog.
The more I read of MMM and other early FI bloggers, the more I recognized that I had found something that I had been unconsciously seeking for much of my adult life – a missing puzzle piece gap that no prior philosophy had filled effectively, and which FI slotted into perfectly. As I talked with my wife about the FI concepts, she slowly realized this was a bit more than my normal gets-really-excited-about-a-new-idea reaction she’d seen many times before. Before long, she was fully on the FI bandwagon with me.
The summer of 2016 was exciting for a number of reasons: we discovered the FI community and philosophy, I was furiously wrapping up my dissertation which I would defend in early August, and we had a baby in May! Here’s a strong recommendation: don’t have a baby only three months before defending your dissertation – you’re in for a world of hurt.
Despite all the craziness of that summer, we set an audacious goal for ourselves: achieve FI within 4 to 6 years. Despite starting with a very healthy amount of savings after graduating, we knew that we’d need a pretty high saving rate to achieve such an ambitious goal.
Very fortunately I was able to land a fantastic job with my alma mater UT Austin (I just can’t seem to leave, can I?) as a research associate. I was very excited not only for the competitive salary I was offered, but also for the fantastic retirement benefits I would have. As a research associate, I could select the UT Austin Optional Retirement Program that is designed to compete for top notch faculty members, with an employer contribution rate of 8.5%! And as a Texas state government employee (which all UT Austin staff members are), I can also take advantage of the 457b program to double my pre-tax savings. Thus by maxing out my wife’s 401K and my 403b and 457b accounts, right off the bat we could save over $60K in pre-tax accounts – a huge boon to our savings rate (and yes, I include pre-tax saved money in our savings rate, which I can explain further in a future post).
My wife and I then worked our butts off over the next four years a) raising a child, b) doing well at our jobs, and c) finding new ways to bring down our expenses (in that order of difficulty). As a result of that hard work, the incredible retirement benefits we took full advantage of, some good salary raises, and a strongly performing stock market, we managed to achieve our FI goal by February of 2020, 6 months ahead of our earliest goal time-frame. Woo-hoo!
And then of course you know what happened next: a very tiny thing from the other side of the planet managed to throw the whole world upside down in March of 2020. But we were super fortunate again for several reasons, despite our portfolio dropping by over 30%: a) we had not immediately “retired” when we hit our FI number (and we don’t ever plan to “retire” either [link coming soon]), b) we have stable employers and we were both able to immediately start working from home, and c) somehow the markets bounced back in one of the fastest recoveries in history, so as of late 2020 we’re back to a very healthy portfolio balance. Only time will tell what happens going forward!