The FIRE Movement is How I Can Afford to be a Full-Time Writer
I saved 60% of my income for 10 years. Now I'm a full-time writer.
When my husband and I were 25 years old, we had coffee at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park and planned our whole lives together.
At the time, we were celebrating our seventh anniversary (we started dating the first month of college when we were just 18) and we knew we didn't want to live conventional lives, but we also didn't know what unconventional lives looked like. So we started daydreaming.
I knew I wanted to be a writer and that I wanted to spend my life mastering that craft, but I also didn't expect to make a living doing it. At the time, I had a (loosely related to writing) tech job in the Bay Area and I figured my best hope was to make enough money so that I could eventually quit my job, move to France, and write novels. The dream!
My husband thought similarly. He enjoyed his job, but what he really loved was mountain biking and being outside. He wanted to buy a camper van and bikepack through Europe. Together we imagined living creative lives filled with adventure and travel and we figured our jobs were a great way to get us there.
Around this time, the FIRE movement was really picking up steam. People like Mr. Money Mustache (whose blog I still religiously follow) were retiring from their jobs before the age of 30 to live unconventional and interesting lives and my husband and I wanted to do the same. We didn't want to get stuck in the 9–5 grind, we wanted to become financially independent and retire early (that's what FIRE stands for)!
That day in Yosemite, we took a hard look at our finances and figured out that if we worked for 10 more years and saved 60 percent of our income the entire time, by the time we were 35 years old we could retire, move to France, travel the world, and write novels.
We set up goals and a budget on Mint.com and the next year we got married, bought a house, and set out to live the dream.
Financially supporting our dreams
Our goal was never to not work - it was to work our dream jobs.
I wanted to be a full-time novelist and I figured there were two ways I could accomplish that: I could either write bestselling novels that earned so much money that I could quit my job and write novels full-time (like Dan Brown did) or I could financially support myself using FIRE so that I could quit my job and write novels full-time.
FIRE seemed the more sure-fire route. I won't get into it all here, but the concept is to essentially build your own trust fund: You minimize debt and expenses so that it doesn't cost much money to live, and then you maximize savings by putting as much money as you can into index funds/real estate until the earnings from these investments pay for your whole lifestyle.
Everyone does this differently. On one end of the spectrum, you have Mark Cuban who couch-surfed and ate ramen every day for 10 years while spending all of his waking hours building a business so he could sell it in his 30s and earn enough money to live on for the rest of his life (which he did). On the other end, you have Mr. Money Mustache whose living expenses are so low he only requires $13,068/year to live on (he keeps track and posts every transaction to his blog each year) and he is able to earn that amount solely from compounding interest on the index funds he started in his early 20s.
There are even the intensely frugal: I used to follow a couple on Instagram who hosted one workshop every year that earned them $20,000. They used that money to pay their rent for the entire year, then they just didn't work. They had no money, but they also didn't have any expenses. They went to museums on free museum day, took advantage of free furniture on the curb, and hung out at the beach a lot. Today, a lot of van lifers follow a similar approach, keeping expenses so low they don't need to earn much to live, and they can make that amount from a rather creative existence.
We wanted something in the middle. More specifically, we wanted what Neighbor Dan had. Neighbor Dan lived next door to us in Fairfax, California and he always said he was "working for wine money." That became our FI mantra. His house was long ago paid off and his property taxes, health insurance, and living expenses were covered by his IRAs. He didn't need much else to live a good life, just enough to splurge on a good bottle of wine and a nice vacation.
Similarly, we didn't need the monk-like existence of Mr. Money Mustache, nor did we desire the exuberant wealth of Mark Cuban. It wasn't our goal to get our cell phone bill down to $20/month or to afford to buy a basketball team. But we did want to live in a nice house, to have the time to explore creative pursuits, and to be able to travel the world. We wanted to have the luxury to" work for wine money" and we planned our numbers with that goal in mind.
If, we reasoned, all of our living expenses were taken care of (our house and cars were paid off, etc.), $5,000/month would be more than enough to pay our bills ($1,000), contribute to our IRAs ($1,000), and eat/travel very well ($3,000). And, with our house as an asset, we could even earn $3,000-$4,000 of that by renting it out on Airbnb. One part-time job would be all it took to earn the additional $2,000+ and live semi-retired for life.
Building financial stability
By the time we sat in Yosemite planning out our lives, we were already in a good place financially. Built into our origin story was my father-in-law's story. He told us that his first job out of high school earned him $45,000/year and that every time he got a raise after that, he just put that extra money in savings and kept his living expenses the same. He continued living off his initial income until he retired in his mid-50s, and though he wasn't earning a ton of money, he saved so much that he and my mother-in-law are able to live a very good life.
Because of this story, and because we had the benefit of finding each other very young and so began our lives as a dual-income household, our lowest-paid year as a couple was our first year out of college. We were making $90,000 a year ($45,000/year each) and, following in my father-in-law's footsteps, we immediately lived off one of our incomes ($45,000/year) and saved the other ($45,000/year). Our incomes have since grown, but we have continued to live off one of our paychecks (the lower of the two) and save the other, ever since.
We had a couple other things going for us: My husband and I both had the benefit of educations paid for by our parents and cars passed down to us by our parents so we started our lives together debt-free. It should also be mentioned that every one of our cars since then has been paid for by my husband's work. As a sales executive, he receives a stipend to buy a new car every four years and I always take the old one when he gets a new one. We opted out of the program once we had our dream cars (he has a Sprinter Van, I have a Mini Cooper, both paid off). In this way, the only debt we have ever had to pay is our house.
All of this, plus the massive housing recession, put us in the position to purchase our first home in 2011 for $387,000 with a $77,000 down payment. As 26-year old newlyweds, our first loan was $310,000 and our monthly mortgage was $2,000/month on a fifteen-year loan. We immediately doubled down on our mortgage payments, putting my entire paycheck (after taxes and maxing out my 401k and IRA) toward paying off our mortgage and establishing an emergency fund. We used my husband's paycheck (after taxes and maxing out his 401k/IRAs) to pay our bills, donate to charity, and have fun.
By the time we moved to Salt Lake City in 2015, our mortgage was down to $225,000 and we were able to sell our house for $540,000. That gave us $315,000 in cash. We put $70,000 of it into treasury bonds (our 401ks and IRAs are in index funds), then set $200,000 of it aside for our next down payment. We also purchased our camper van with cash and put a pop-top on it ($43,000) and went on a trip to France ($5,000).
We purchased our current home in 2017 for $385,000 with a $195,000 down payment. We had a loan for $205,000 and our mortgage was $1,200/month so we just went back to doing our same old thing. We put my husband's entire paycheck toward the house (after taxes and maxing out his 401ks/IRAs), and we used my paycheck (after taxes and maxing out my 401ks/IRAs) to pay our bills, donate to charity, and have fun. Eventually, when our $70,000 in bonds had turned into $80,000, we put that lump sum toward our house as well and got our loan down to $55,000.
With this plan in place, we were able to pay off our house by November of 2020, just one year shy of the goal we set for ourselves at 25 years old. We are now 36 years old, we have no debt, and our monthly bills are only $1,020 ($575 in bills, $245 in property taxes, $200 in gas/insurance) with another $1,000 going to our IRAs. Our 401ks and IRAS have been maxed out for more than a decade, and since we paid off our house a year ago, we have continued to live off my salary and save my husband's, which means we now have one year of living expenses stowed away in our Betterment "Freedom Fund."
We have officially reached the Neighbor Dan ideal: we're working for wine money! Or rather, we're working for however much we want to spend on food and travel. All because we set a goal for ourselves 10 years ago, and then achieved it!
Funding our creativity
With our living expenses so low, we don't need to work as much. We could probably even work one part-time job between the two of us and be fine.
But we don't want to do that. A lot has changed since we set those initial goals 10 years ago!!
For one, though I may not be working full-time as a novelist, I'm working full-time as a writer and I am feeling very creatively fulfilled by my profession right now. I've already written my first novel, I have another in the works, and I am very excited about some of the other creative projects I'm working on. In other words, I've already achieved a lot of the goals I wanted to achieve for myself by 35.
My husband has also reached some level of lifestyle nirvana. He bought our camper van a couple years ago and finished building it out with his Dad last year. We spent the past two summers traveling the country in our van and he has loved being able to do that while continuing to work his job, which he absolutely loves.
The pandemic further shifted things for us. Being able to work remotely allowed us the flexibility we always thought we would have to quit our jobs to achieve. We even spent a month trekking through the Swiss Alps in August while keeping our jobs and we plan to do similar excursions throughout the coming years. In a lot of ways, we feel like we are living an even better version of our initial dream!
That's why we created a new goal for ourselves this year: We want to keep doing what we are doing and, while we're at it, we want to use the extra income we are earning to build a mother-in-law unit on our property.
After putting our house on Airbnb while we were traveling this year, we discovered we could earn $3,000-$4,000/month by renting it out, which completely covered our travel expenses while we were away. If we had one more rental unit (paid for in cash), we could earn that same amount while we were still home (or $6,000-$8,000/month while we are away).
We like this idea because it would allow us to have completely passive income by the time we hit 40. With $2,000 in monthly expenses and $3,000-$8,000/month coming in from Airbnb, there's nothing stopping us from being expansively creative. We could move to France and live off my newsletter and books if we wanted to - not because I'm making millions off either things, but because we don't need more than a little bit of wine money to do it.
(Full disclosure, my Substack is now earning $3,520 in gross annualized revenue from 42 paying subscribers, so I'm not there yet. My income and health insurance still come from my job as editor-in-chief of Utah Business. My husband also has a full-time job.)
Because we are in a good place financially, we can also afford to take a few risks and to dream big. I've been able to spend money on advertising my newsletter to help build it up, I've been experimenting with cryptocurrencies and NFTs and DAOs to see whether they could financially support writers (which I'll talk about soon), and I have a dream to start an angel investment fund that supports creators (more on that idea next year).
With solid financial support, I believe artists have the stability to be even more creative - that's what fueled the Renaissance after all (and me for that matter) - and I'm very excited to explore that prospect.
I do want to acknowledge the largest criticism of the FIRE movement: that every FIRE journey has a different starting point. By the time we reach 18, we begin our lives either at a huge advantage or at a huge disadvantage depending on our upbringing and background.
Though I believe we all have the capability to become financially independent and that you don't need to be rich to achieve it, I also know that we all start with different levels of debt and different levels of income. Some people (like me) start life with a paid college education, others start life $100k in debt, and that's probably the difference between someone who has the ability to choose a creative career and someone who might have to be more practical.
Though I don't have all the answers and I hope that someday we will all be able to begin our lives on even footing, I do believe that not talking about money puts us at a disadvantage (and it definitely affects the gender wage gap). In the FIRE community, the numbers are essential - they are intimately shared on blogs and in podcasts. It's how we learn what's possible. It's how my husband and I were able to figure out what we could reasonably save/make/achieve to live our dream lives.
Personally, I think the publishing community needs to be more open about money. There's a misconception that any one of us can become the next Dan Brown and earn millions from our books, and maybe that's true. But I'd rather hedge my bets in case it's not. Many authors make it work thanks to a variety of financial situations (like having a day job, having a side-hustle, having a spouse who works, living with parents or friends, being retired, or having a trust fund). I'm no exception.
That's why I'm sharing my FIRE story. Because reading other people's FIRE stories allowed my husband and I to come up with our dream life and create a financial plan to get there. If you ever hear me say that I'm a "full-time novelist," don't think that I'm earning millions from a publishing deal. Know that it took decades of planning and saving to have the luxury to write for a living. And I'm so fortunate to be able to do that now.