I’m going to take you back to a smaller version of me.
Still as curly-haired, still as gappy-toothed, but much less wrangled by the world. I would read books widely and voraciously (thanks for making reading such a big part of our lives, Mum), and had a particular penchant for books about magic, mystery and grown-up women kicking ass.
On the latter side of things, this usually came in the form of stories of young women entering the workforce for the first time.
They were well-educated, worldly, ambitious, strong-minded and unafraid to take risks and meet challenges head-on. Mostly, they were university grads, working an internship in a fabulous company – climbing up the career ladder to success, perhaps falling in love en route, wowing their boss, befriending the “uncool” colleague, and sparring with a major competitor (always female… why?!).
I wanted to be her. Not her, as a person, but what she represented. I wanted more than anything to work. I was hungry for professional grandeur. I was a diligent student, I enjoyed learning, I enjoyed the routine and the discipline and as someone who, despite a rebellious streak, tends to want to please people inherently – working was the perfect environment.
So, I studied hard, thought long about what I wanted to do, and eventually got my degree with a number of other voluntary professional achievements that would bolster my graduate applications.
As I turned out, I wouldn’t need to apply for much. I was offered a job with an events company right before I finished Uni – which was hell on earth, and I left within the month. Imagine being thrown to the wolves with zero training to organise a huge national conference, and then being asked two weeks into the job why no-one was signed on as a speaker yet. I bowed out pretty in a pretty undignified way from that gig.
Enter stage left the little voice in the back of my head: “Imagine having to feel that anxious for forty years?”
Be quiet, I told it. That’s not a good example, it wasn’t the right job. You don’t even want to work in events. That’s not what you studied. It was a stop-gap.
Next, a job as an editor that came after a writing internship. Difficult work, difficult people (that’s high-fashun for you) but rewarding. And there’s that little voice again: “Wow, I can’t believe you have to work this hard for forty years.” Again, I silenced it. Not a good example, remember – I won’t be here much longer. I’m cutting my teeth writing and I’ll overlook everything else for now.
Then, a dream job. Amazing boss, a revolutionary startup in the technology sector, an opportunity to build a team and solve a genuine problem to improve the lives of other people.
And what a ride it was for the next two years (I often credit this job to most things I know about leadership, growing ideas, communicating well and pivoting well from bad or stressful situations). Follow that by a few different roles within another startup, all with great learning experiences and relationships of its own.
But still that voice. “People die at 70, you know? Like, the time you’re supposed to retire. People die. You never know. Crazy that we all just accept that, right?”
Yeah. Right. Actually, yeah! Right! Cue emotional breakdowns in my living room at 10pm at night if I wasn’t too exhausted by the workday, sobbing into my husband’s arms. To me, there was just no other option. You work. You work. You work, says the robot. You must work until you’re old. And I didn’t like it, nor understand it. Something about it turned my stomach.
As a little bit of background, my husband and I had been good with money up to this point. This is not a typical story of being terrible with it, living with the silent marriage-ruiner; unsecured and personal debt, and making bad financial decisions.
Since we’d been together, we’d be saving routinely and often. By the stage of said emotional breakdowns, we had just moved into the home that we had bought in Sydney’s inner-west fringe (with a 20% deposit) during the peak of the property market in 2017, we were salary sacrificing for super, we had a nice little share portfolio ticking away, we had paid for our second-hand, but very nice Mazda CX7 in cash and were also about to cash-flow our new kitchen, and some of our wedding.
So my concerns weren’t about having enough money. In fact, it’s never really been about money at all.
Rather, it was the emotional weight of the longevity of work. It was the unknown of my future – what would happen to me, or my husband, my family, or even children we might have? Why wouldn’t we want to maximise our time and the hours in our day to enjoy the things we loved, now, rather than wait until “the golden years” later?
No-one could anticipate where we’d all be – and considering the known statistics on how people’s health and energy deteriorates by that age, being dependent on something external and out of my control to get there felt just so… illogical. But to my knowledge, there was no other way – and so I emotionally, and begrudgingly, just accepted it for many years. We had been saving and investing – but for a retirement we believed was out of reach for many decades yet.
When I first found out about FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early), I remember the warmth in my body, radiating and heating upwards from my toes to my head. It was Mr. Money Mustache’s blog and it was a passing recommendation made to me from one of the smartest people I know; an old colleague, and now (along with his wife) a good friend.
I remember reading his words, his maths, his reasoning, and just… everything clicked. The rest of that day (sorry old boss) I got my hands of every piece of material I could about him. Every podcast, every interview, every TED talk, every everything. And that was Pandora’s Box. It was the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the FIRE community was putting out there. There were bloggers! Women! Like me! My age! My income! Doing it (or already having done it).
FIRE opened up a world of possibility that defied the typical ideas of working for the exchange of time for money. It gave people, like me, a sense of control and financial empowerment. It gave people a tangible timeline, it allowed them to find abundance in simple things, to shake off the consumerist coat they were sweating in, and find joy in their daily work – knowing it wasn’t going to be forever.
For many, it allowed them (as they wound down to their FIRE date) the opportunity to volunteer, travel and work to completely better the life or someone else, without fear of lack of a paycheck. It allowed them to spend more and more time with their children, enjoying the little developmental things their children did that they otherwise never would have been around to notice; or relish in those important final days in a parent’s, or a friend’s, life.
Some people decided to keep working. Some had the flexibility to take time off to search for a job they had always wanted to do, but had never had the time to apply or network for. Others started their business, knowing it might not be profitable for a year or even more, and not worried about that in the slightest. Some filled their days gardening, turning a hobby into something they could monetise, or even not at all. But that beautiful notion of choice is inherent in all of these.
And something I have come to believe that every human fundamentally deserves. Because sure, we technically can do all of those things outside of a full-time job. But when you factor in the commute, the energy-sapping day, the after-school routine, the random life admin you only have time for outside of office hours and weekends… how much time do you really have? Not opportunistically. Not “make it a priority and just do it if you’re that unfulfilled”… how much time do we really have?
In 2018, I started my copywriting and communications business, Wordy and Smith. And to say that starting a business is the best thing I’ve ever done in my career would be an understatement. It is absolutely incredible. I love my work, I love how I have total control of my time, who I work with and what I earn. But that little voice you read of earlier? Still there. Loud and clear.
So it’s also incredible in another way. It proved to me that I was on the right track, and that my feelings and discontent with work were valid. That I don’t want to be spending my time working, beyond another decade at the most – but at least I can really enjoy the journey to get me there.
How does my husband factor into all of this? He’s not quite as emotional as I am, but this is certainly something he’s excited for. Did I get him onto the FIRE bandwagon? Yep. Did he teach me a lot about money management on the way, though? You bet he did. We complement each other in a lot of ways, and we’re now completely dedicated to this journey. He might have taken a little longer than me to come around, but what matters is he’s here now – and he’s really excited for the future of being financially free (he even has a few business ideas he’s mapping out).
We didn’t start the FIRE, but you know what they say, FIRE always spreads with a spark.
Hopefully this is yours. Welcome to our journey to complete financial independence.