on money and freedom
and finding the balance... These days of long driving hours take us to places of deep conversation and deep thoughts. Time to reflect and look at the past and the future. Time to make concerted decisions and alter paths. What else would we do when driving impossibly slow for hours on end?
A few weeks before we left town for the current leg of our journey i was having a deep conversation with a close friend. A friend who we love and who is currently working a job he dislikes. It depletes him instead of building him up. It drains him instead of fueling his passions. It’s hard to watch, just as i know it was hard for him to watch when I was in a similar situation each day. I’ve tried to draw the right line between being supportive and not being pushy. To be a good influence and support him by showing him that there’s another possibility and trying to remind him how talented he is and how quickly he could find something else more engaging and suited to his skills.
But during our last conversation about jobs and following dreams he explained that one of the reasons he didn’t leave… was that didn’t want to be stressed out about money like we were. It really took me aback. I was speechless.
I didn’t think that there was any way he could be reading financial stress from me and we started talking more in depth about what he meant. I keep thinking about that conversation as I read through some of our old blog posts recently. One thing i keep seeing is exactly how stressed out about money i was during our trip south. I tried not to think about it, tried not to bring it up to jen and tried not to let it be the forefront of the posts i was writing; but it seems pretty clear as i reread 2 year old posts that it was close to the forefront of my mind.
I knew deep down that our little life experiment wasn’t going to work. Even when we left our jobs, as much as i loved the freedom that we felt and as right as it was for our overall happiness...i knew it was certain doom for our financial future.
There’s a reason normal people don’t “retire” when they’re 35. A reason people don’t pull out their 401k contributions early and in jen’s words “trust the universe to provide”. While i hated to admit it and i tried to be open to the possibilities; i was convinced that within 2 years I’d surely be banging on the bosses door, tail between my legs and begging for my old job back. I would explain sheepishly how "we needed to go find ourselves", but that we had done so and were now ready to commit to adulthood again.
In reality, I’ve always been terrified about things related to money. A gift i think i got in part from my parents. Seems ironic since we didn’t exactly have much of it growing up, but I still remember my parents staring at the gas light while driving past 3 or 4 exits with gas stations, just hoping for one that would save a fraction of a penny per gallon from the last station. I turned down the education paths and careers i really wanted for fear i wouldn’t make enough money at them. I left architecture (for many reasons, but primarily) because i was going to make less than a teacher for a decade while i served a sentence of indentured servitude before getting licensed. I fought against jen trying to convince us to “leap” because i was terrified of the financial doom of stepping off the hamster wheel and what horrors might await us after. Now... its been 2 1/2 years since we walked away from those jobs and how do i feel about our decision? I feel many things, but mainly like we were idiots.
Not idiots for pulling money out of our 401k. Not for quitting our jobs in one of the worst economies of our times. Not for spending the last 2 1/2 years spending money while we had none coming in. I feel like an idiot for having waited so long.
I still can’t really believe it, and i always hesitate to talk about it for fear that we might jinx it, or it might not hold. But in the reality of our financial situation- we’re just fine. Seriously.
We are living almost the same lifestyle we had while working (with the exception of not spending 10-12hours a day at a job, the fact that we traveled almost 100days this last year and have all day to spend time together doing what we choose) and we are holding steady financially. We certainly aren’t raking in money, and our savings still isn’t growing, but we also aren’t watching the account plummet like i always knew it would. When it comes to our finances, we are simply - floating.
Floating is a hell of a sensation when it comes to the fact that our “happiness curve” is through the roof. I use to describe those two curves as being inverses. While our happiness curve was on a steep uphill climb the financial curve was headed for the basement just as fast. Now, we are impossibly happy day to day and the bank account is somehow holding its own. It has leveled out to at least a (mostly) flat line.
That is as much as we could possibly ask, and that has been enough for me to not constantly watch, stare at and obsess over our finances for at least the last year. Ironically, the only year in my life i can remember not obsessing about the dollar, and it happened in a year where we should be burning through money like a wildfire. Spectacular!
How did all this come to be? Well, I’m certain there should be a longer and more detailed post later with the intricacies; but simply put, we worked our asses off during the years we were employed. Not just at our jobs but in the hours after we left them. We bought a few houses and fixed them up, and spent all our non-working hours living in a construction zone trying to improve the value of those homes. And then, we worked tediously to reduce our living and spending habits to something very manageable despite the fact we had good incomes. We lived as though we were just getting by in order to prove to ourselves that we actually could.
Once we left the jobs, it was easy to keep a minimalist lifestyle because we had already been doing so. Once we made the transition, we only had our mortgage and simple living expenses to worry about. If we had stayed in mexico and rented out our home, those expenses would be so small that we could theoretically survive for more than a decade off our 401ks. Returning to Portland, that number changed to about 2.5years. Deciding to renovate and live in our garage changed that timeframe significantly. With someone else paying our mortgage, we only had to figure out how to cover those other living expenses (eating and drinking mainly).
The beauty of those other life expenses is that it’s up to us to decide how big (or small) they are. They are entirely in our control based upon how we chose to live each day and the habits we keep. As long as spending habits are kept in check, those expenses can be covered by small income streams rather than a full time job. Once we realized we could rent our place out short term while traveling, things began to look feasible. The stress of having to find a great job, invent the next big thing or hit the lottery suddenly began to melt away.
Once we didn’t have to find the perfect job, it seemed like we could actually decide what we wanted to do. Our furniture sales and design clients cover a (small) portion, our AirBnB guests cover a portion, and our rental incomes cover a portion of our bills. The beauty is, that as long as the expenses are small, those income sources can also remain small.
Last year our "income" from rental properties was a loss of about 10k, and that was our best year to date. We have lost money every single year until now. It hurt and we worried about it, especially on the worst years and especially considering how much work and money we had put into those investments...but we had jobs covering those losses and we gave it time and believed it would turn around. Slowly, it seems to be doing just that. We aren’t getting rich. In fact, our bank account is still going down...but much, much less rapidly than we anticipated. And that...at this point, seems like a plan that's working.
When that friend and I we’re discussing what he meant by “seeing us stressed out about money” he described a few examples. Some examples are merely the way we handle money now. The way we discuss where our money goes and how we choose to spend it. The ways we make sure that expenses stay low and that we stay afloat. We discuss everything, we sometimes make tough decisions.
Other instances...I totally got. I understood how he could see them as stress. Even at a point where i don't feel the stress, my actions and words are still being read that way from those around me. I now realize that while trying to be a good influence I/we also have been very intentional and careful about not being too over the top about showing our happiness, or our excitement for where we are right now (financially and otherwise).
We never take for granted how fortunate we are, and never want to come across that way. We never want to brag or be inconsiderate. We never want to forget for even a second that we were in a completely different place a few years ago (and honestly, could be again at any point). But maybe hiding our excitement isn't the best choice.
If we truly want to help our friends and acquaintances (and anyone else who has a dream and asks us how to reach it), maybe what we need is to be as fully transparent about the good things as well. Instead of just talking about my fears, maybe its time I take the cap off the excitement as well. I certainly never want to think that anyone (especially a dear friend) looked at our scenario and walked away seeing a reason to stay at a job they didn’t like. A reason to not follow their dreams or to settle for anything less than perfect happiness.
The story we are trying to promote is a completely different one, because our path is a completely different one. And, despite its uncommon nature- it seems to be working. It’s happening slowly, but also happening just as we would’ve dreamt it if we had no fears in the world- and that makes us ecstatic. Absolutely ecstatic. And i plan on doing a better job of showing that enthusiasm right there along with my other thoughts, concerns and occasional stresses.
As much as i hate to do so, it also seems that it’s about time that i go to jen and tell her how i feel as well. Tell her that despite my fears, despite my absolute certainty that she was wrong and this little life experiment of hers would fail... that she in fact, maybe... just may have just been - right.