My early retirement story, or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the lean-FIRE
A lot of this blog’s advice will be centered on what worked (or backfired horrifically) for me. With that in mind, I figured I’d share my own chronology and personal story: it’s a bit more unusual than a typical personal finance blogger’s, but there’s a lot to learn even from outliers. (Or especially from outliers.) As I wrote earlier, keep in mind that I never made a six-figure salary, never had any powerful connections or got any inheritance from rich elderly relatives. In future posts, I’ll provide more context as to what/where/when/why, but for now…
1986: I’m born! My birthplace is a relatively large city in Siberia. My family of seven lives in a three-bedroom apartment. Good times.
2003: most of my family moves to the US – to rural Nevada, to be exact. (That’s both a culture shock and a climate shock!)
2004: I get accepted into University of Nevada, Reno. (Go Wolfpack!) After realizing just how boring a typical computer science job would be, I switch my major to political science instead. (Spoiler alert: I never really got to use it anyway.)
2007: I read Tim Ferriss’s groundbreaking book, “The 4-Hour Workweek.” (Disclaimer: that’s an affiliate link: a small percentage of your order would help run this blog.) The book changes my notion of money and introduces me to the concepts of outsourcing and, more importantly, geographic arbitrage. (A fancy way of saying you can live just as comfortably for way less money in a foreign country.)
April 2008: Warren Buffett visits UNR and I don’t go, since I have no idea who he is. On a whim, I start reading about him and his investment philosophy. I realize there’s an annual shareholder convention in Omaha a few weeks later. I buy one of the lookalike $5 convention passes he floods eBay with every year (mostly because he hates scalpers), get on a Greyhound bus, stay on a local Ukrainian-American family’s couch, and soak up all the investing wisdom Warren Buffett dispenses during the annual six-hour Q&A. I repeat that ritual for seven more years, until the whole convention finally gets livestreamed on Yahoo Finance. I’m mostly broke during that entire phase, so that’s my sole annual vacation.
May 2008: I graduate with 3.15 GPA and $18K in student loans: UNR was the cheapest university in the entire country. Thus begins my year of funemployment: selling used books, taking advantage of casino free play, becoming a freelance interpreter for the State Department, etc. (I rather enjoyed the time I spent three weeks interpreting for the delegation of beekeepers from Uzbekistan.)
September 2008: the real estate bubble collapses. Nevada gets hit harder than most states. I start to hustle harder.
November 2009: after a series of deadbeat roommates who decide not to pay their share of the rent (I was subleasing a small house I rented), and after running up my credit card to the $3K limit, I take the only full-time job I can find: a warehouse temp at an Amazon fulfillment center (FC) in Fernley, a tiny town 35 miles east of Reno. The job involves 60-hour workweeks and two hours of commute with my four carpool buddies, two of whom are chain smokers. During my free time, I’m too exhausted (and too broke) to do anything but read personal finance blogs. I learn about lean-FIRE – the frugal subset of the Financial Independence, Retire Early movement. The seed gets planted…
February 2010: the last of my carpool buddies gets fired. This being Northern Nevada, there is, of course, no public transit between cities. Faced with the choice of quitting the job or buying a car and learning how to drive, I choose the latter. My friends spend a weekend teaching me how to drive my $800 lemon.
May 2010: I pack a lot of boxes very fast and get my blue badge, aka permanent full-time job at Amazon as the bottom-level FC grunt. Huzzay! I take all my overtime savings and use them to pay off the credit card. I pay it off in full every single month from there on out. I also sign up for the company’s 401k plan: contribute 4% of your paycheck, and the company will match half of it. It sounds like a joke, but hey – free money.
2011: after a particularly bad safety incident at work, the management decides to take the easy way out and gives me the coveted transfer to the Las Vegas FC (everyone wants it, very few get it) rather than deal with the incident itself. Vegas, baby!
2012: I become promoted to a quality analyst at my Vegas FC. Grunt no more! I increase my 401k contribution to 10% of my paycheck. I also start adding $5K per year to my shiny new Roth IRA. At work, I start learning the basics of Excel: how to create a pivot table, maintain records in a spreadsheet, etc. I initially hate it, but practice makes perfect.
2013: I’m on my third car now, since they all keep breaking down (cheap, not frugal), costing me a fair chunk of money in repairs and missed workdays. I buy a brand new 2013 Kia Rio and get fleeced by the charismatic sales staff. (I actually ended up buying anti-rain windshield treatment. In Las Vegas. It’s okay to laugh at this.) Even so, my monthly total car payment ($380, I think) is less than I was paying in repairs and lost work-hours. The peace of mind, in particular, is absolutely amazing.
Later in 2013: Amazon has an interesting incentive program where it pays $10K cash (or $6.7K after taking out the 33% for taxes right away) if you agree to transfer to a brand new FC in another city (usually another state), to share your expertise and knowledge. I sign up for the transfer to our shiny new robot building in Fort Worth, TX.
2014: as the designated quality analyst, I realize the management’s focus on speed is causing our inventory accuracy to get worse and worse. After I try (and fail) to escalate this to the warehouse manager and our outside liaison, I decide to skip town and take the next transfer out: another $6.7K, and this time moving to Tampa, FL.
Later in 2014: the Texas FC’s inventory defect rate reaches 11.8%. Most of the management gets fired or transfers away. All of that could’ve been avoided.
2015: I realize that the quality wing of FC operations doesn’t have a lot of upward mobility: only one quality manager per FC, as opposed to dozens of operations managers. I decide to make a major move and apply (and get!) a higher-level job in Seattle. My new title is Business Analyst: I’ll still be paid hourly, not salary, but there’s a nice signing bonus with Amazon’s stock. (Aka RSUs – Restricted Stock Units.) Alas, just before my start date, I’m informed that the hiring manager will no longer provide the $6.7K relocation payout. Faced with the bad choice between driving across the country on my own dime or staying at my FC and applying for something interesting the following year, I go with the former. I spend my cross-country road trip sleeping on friends’ couches and at highway rest stops. (Amazon VIPs, if you’re reading this, that was the equivalent of 22 shares back in the day. Still waiting on that.)
2016: Rent in Seattle is expensive! I spend my first year bouncing between multiple apartments: a nice cat lady whose apartment gets really bad Internet service, a gay artist who decides to become more than just friends, and a college student’s dorm room that was free for the summer. There’s no way to find a rental room in Seattle for 30% of my take-home paycheck – ironically, it’s cheaper to buy a cheap condo, since the mortgage+HOA ($1,000) would be less than the $1,200 or so to rent my own place. I sell all my RSUs, cash out all my savings, and barely manage to cover the 20% downpayment on the cheapest condo in the greater Seattle area. My commute to work is 45 minutes each way now, but life is good. I use the rest of my liquid cash to pay off my student loans and car loan. Aside from the mortgage, I’m debt-free.
Also 2016: on a lark, I try applying for an FC quality manager job in the UK, since it promises free international relocation for a low-level employee like myself. They politely turn me down after a pro forma interview, but I get inspired by the possibility of international transfers… I apply for a similar job in Poland, but no luck.
November 2016: I sit down and write down a five-year plan, which I’ll update every quarter. The goal is to squirrel away enough money to be able to start my early retirement by November 2021. I track my life developments (living situation, chances of promotion at work, etc) as well as my Roth IRA and 401k balances.
2017: I prank Jeff Bezos for his birthday by giving him thousands of internal employee awards. (The poor guy had only 52.) The entire company is amused – my management isn’t. (I had their verbal approval from the day before, but they probably thought I was kidding. Heh.) Bezos himself replies and says that was pretty funny and thoughtful. Nonetheless, I lose my annual bonus (~25 RSUs, which brings Amazon’s tab to 47 total) despite having saved Canada’s FCs the previous winter. Oh well. I switch departments and become an FBA investigator.
Later in 2017: I go on a road trip around the west coast, which would culminate in officiating my best friend’s wedding in Nevada. Along the way, I stop in Vegas. I’m too lazy to go to the Strip after driving all day from Boise, so I go to an off-strip casino. Had I gone to the Strip, I might have followed the noise. I might have ended up at a giant concert at the Mandalay Bay. I might have ended up at the mass shooting that killed 60 people, with 867 wounded. I was a mile away, but I’m shaken. I’m not sure I want to live here anymore… I update my five-year plan with a new goal: move to a country without mass shootings.
2018: I apply for internal jobs in Canada (I almost got it) and Australia (so close!). Finally, one of my Canadian business partners (I covered his FC in my previous role) reaches out and tells me there’s an opening on the Canadian Finance team. I’m very interested, so I apply. Meanwhile, I turbo-charge my 401k by saving up money for a few months, then changing the paycheck contribution from 10% to 90% for three or four months, then living very frugally on a non-existent paycheck before flipping the contribution back to 10%. A rather crude but nonetheless efficient way to boost that account.
March 2019: after a few months of paperwork and a shiny novella-length recommendation document extolling my virtues and my Excel skills (which have been growing and improving steadily since 2013), I get my work permit at the Canadian border. A week later, I pack up all the important stuff into my Kia (fitting a 42″ TV in that trunk is still one of my top accomplishments in life), turn my condo into a rental, and go on a long road trip from Seattle to Toronto, where I’ll work inside an FC again, providing my financial wisdom and helping them balance the books. (Not bad for a political science major, eh?) Downside: I end up taking a 48% pay cut in total compensation (salary + RSUs). Upside: if I work long enough and don’t get fired (if you get fired on a work permit, you must go back), I’ll become a permanent Canadian!
March 2020: the pandemic shuts down all the international borders. My girlfriend at the time is immunocompromised and living with seven careless roommates. We set off on a 72-day-long AirBnB odyssey in small towns and abandoned resorts around Ontario and Quebec. You can find excellent deals if you rent for a whole month but even so, my savings take a big hit. (The gf is safe, though, and that’s what matters.) My switch to the work-from-home (WFH) situation doesn’t impact my productivity, and people roll with it, especially since it’s aligned with Amazon’s new policy. At the end, we find a safe little solo apartment for the gf in Toronto. I continue working from home.
April 2020: my second year in Canada begins! Their immigration system is rather streamlined: you get to apply for the permanent resident status after one year in the country, then for the citizen status two or three years after you get the PR. After assembling a ton of paperwork from different agencies (including a very shady fingerprinting company that operated while everything else was shut down), I send it off and get the coveted Invitation to Apply in August.
May 2020: the entire stock market is down. Really, really down. It’s a gigantic fire sale, is what I’m saying. Amazon’s stock remains high because that’s the only place where people can do their shopping. Amazon’s stock is trading at $2,200. I don’t anticipate the 50% spike to $3,300 just three months later, I’m just curious about the very rare “sell high, buy low” opportunity… This is probably one of the biggest decisions in my entire life, but I sell all the shares I got since buying my condo in 2016, and reinvest the money into a few companies I handpicked using Warren Buffett’s and Benjamin Graham’s methodology: BA, CCL, HAL, SPG, etc: travel and shopping and energy, everything that’s near 52-week lows. I use a similar strategy in my Roth IRA, though it had been hit by the stock market collapse.
March 2021: I finally get my Canadian permanent residency! Now I’m not dependent on my job to stay in Canada…
April 2021: at work, I finally get my long-awaited promotion. I am now a Financial Analyst II. Unfortunately, even with the bump in total compensation, I’d be making 33% less than I made in Seattle. I’m still working from home.
May 2021: my management wants me to go back into the FC and work from there, despite the fairly high number of covid cases. (And the fact that one of my colleagues did just that in November, got sick, and took a while to recover.) They do not take “no” for an answer… My portfolio is up 193.7% year-over-year. My retirement accounts (401k and Roth IRA) have low six figures, which will compound for another 25 years. I have more money on hand (not to mention my condo’s rising value) than I need for my lean-FIRE goal I’d set back in 2016. This is another hard decision, but there’s no compromise: I submit my resignation letter.
June 2021: ever since the AirBnB odyssey, I used my beloved Kia less and less. After moving to downtown Toronto, where everything was within walking distance, I didn’t use my car at all. (And car insurance + parking can get pretty expensive.) I sell it for next to nothing ($3,750 CAD, or $3,000 USD) and become a pedestrian once more.
September 2021: I execute my long-term dream of geographic arbitrage. Quebec is the only part of Canada that has rent control. I’d be saving more than 50% on my monthly rent, and living in a spacious one-bedroom apartment instead of a tiny studio with shoddy internet quality. It’s a no-brainer. After a ton of packing, I drive a little Uhaul truck from Toronto to Quebec City and begin my new life, eh.
That was somewhat more verbose than I’d anticipated, but it should also give you some basic idea of what was involved in my personal journey to financial freedom. I set concrete goals, tracked my progress, made huge if unorthodox moves (when buying a new car was cheaper than driving a lemon, or when mortgage + HOA on a cheap condo was cheaper than renting), wasn’t afraid to move between cities, states, and eventually countries (the first move is always the hardest!), and decided to strike when a unique investing opportunity presented itself in May 2020.
A lot of what happened is based on luck, which is also a factor. A lot is also based on skill and patience. Without learning all I could about value investing and personal finance, I never would’ve made it to this point – or I would’ve sold when my portfolio entered a five-month slump between June-November 2020. (There was a big sell-off following spikes in June, but things picked up again after Pfizer’s vaccine announcement in November.)
There are lots of personal finance blogs. Some of them are about FIRE. Some of those FIRE blogs are written by people who already retired, like yours truly. We’re a fairly small tribe, and each of us has a unique story: some are coders, some are house-flippers, some are itinerant Siberian analysts. I hope my early retirement story has been edumacational and will help you plan your own path to financial freedom!
I’m always curious about other people’s progress. What were the key moves you’ve made in your life? What are the big milestones you’re planning for?