I read a lot of FIRE blogs when I first learned about this movement, but I didn’t really see someone “like me” in any of them. There were plenty of young whipper-snapper 20-year-olds with well-paying tech or engineering jobs right out of university and no family to support. And that’s great that they discovered FIRE so early and had the time to throw themselves at it so intensely. But where were the married Canadian women in their mid-30s with three young kids? I wanted to read about someone like that. Someone who started the FIRE journey late with a family in tow.
I first learned about FIRE in September 2018 when I was 35 years old and on maternity leave with baby #3. I was reading Reddit on my phone while nursing my infant and someone mentioned Mr. Money Mustache‘s blog. I devoured it and several other blogs and subreddits, read books like “Millionaire Teacher” and “The Millionaire Next Door”, and eagerly calculated my net worth at $192,463.65. While not bad, most of that was tied up in my house rather than in income generating assets. I quickly realized that we were starting later than most people on the FIRE path, and it would take some hard work to retire early starting at our age and income level. Thankfully we had fluked into a few good decisions over the past decade, but we also made some missteps.
Life before kids: No budget, no problem
For some reason my husband and I didn’t pick our university subjects based on how much money they could fetch us. No, we were purists, and simply wanted to follow our thirst for scientific knowledge right into the impoverished halls of academia forevermore. Yes, we knew only 10% of PhDs get an academic appointment in their field, but gosh-golly, we were DIFFERENT. So after graduating with our bachelor’s degrees in 2005 we headed off to grad school in one of the highest cost of living cities in the country. Score!
We didn’t budget at all really. We both had scholarships and put 50% of our stipends into a joint account for household expenses, and the rest we could do whatever we wanted with. We bought way too much crap with that other 50%… largely enough craft supplies to open a store and professional camera equipment we didn’t have time to use.
Thankfully we lived in a 600 sq.ft. apartment on campus and our place could only hold so much, so we didn’t blow it all. My husband put some of his money in a mutual fund recommended by the bank (we didn’t know anything about comparing MERs), while mine languished in a savings account.
Living on campus sheltered us somewhat from the high cost of living. We also had a 4-year-old car given to us by my husband’s parents. Since we lived and studied on campus we only used the car twice a month for groceries, and the rest of the time we used a university bus pass. Because we were so busy with school, entertainment was having friends over every now and then, or watching some DVDs. So by happenstance we got something right without trying. In two years we saved enough for a simple wedding back home with 75 guests, and an extra $17k besides.
We flew home to get married in 2007, and while we drove around town tending to last minute wedding plans, we noticed a townhouse for sale within walking distance to the university. I spontaneously told my husband that we should buy it. We hadn’t discussed or thought about buying a house before that moment. I figured we’d rent it out and have it as a starter home when we moved back for work (because, you know, finding work in the location we wanted would be SO EASY).
We didn’t end up buying that house, but within 3 weeks we found half a duplex farther away from the university but still on a bus route. We put 10% down ($15,700) and mortgaged the rest at the bargain rate of 5.8% locked in for 5-years. Because, you know, “rates were only going up.”
Life in grad school with children: Too busy to spend money
We had our first son in 2008 while in grad school. My husband had finished his Masters and was now working on a PhD, and I was halfway through my PhD. We didn’t have any family nearby and were living on scholarship stipends in student housing, which sheltered us somewhat from the high cost of living. Yes, it was planned, and I wouldn’t change a thing, as we were blissfully clueless. We weren’t eligible for employment insurance (EI), but our scholarships provided 4 months of paid parental leave, and I took an additional 4-months of unpaid leave while my husband continued to study.
We both came from families where a parent was home with the kids, and when it was time for me to go back we realized we wanted that for our son as well. After accessing where we both were in our studies and our potential career prospects, my husband decided to quit his PhD and stay at home, while I continued on my career path.
Somehow I supported the three of us on my graduate stipend. We didn’t really budget, but were naturally frugal and super busy, so we didn’t have time to spend any money. We didn’t register our son in any paid activities, as our quaint campus community provided lots of little playmates and there were free organized play groups nearby. We didn’t pay for cable because we had no time to watch TV. We didn’t really eat out or go on dates because we had no one we trusted to watch our son. We enjoyed the beautiful weather and the great outdoors and took advantage of free events on campus.
We didn’t feel like we lacked anything at all.
We hired a property manager for our house back home. They found two tenants quickly but they weren’t willing to pay enough rent to cover the mortgage. They told us we should sign them anyway because it was “hard to find tenants right now.” Stupidly, we listened, and paid their fee (half one month’s rent). In retrospect, I think they just wanted to get the house filled quickly. Thankfully the difference was only a few hundred dollars a month, and we managed. Although when we saw interest rates drop to under 2% while we were still paying 5.8%, it stung. We had no idea that refinancing to the current rates was even possible.
A family of 4 below the poverty line
We wanted more than one child and planned #2 to arrive shortly after I finished my PhD in 2011. During this time I was asked by someone on a search committee to apply for a tenure-track job at my graduate school, as they weren’t satisfied with the candidates that had applied and thought I would be a great fit. Naively, I told them I was pregnant and wouldn’t be able to start any time soon, and that I planned to move back home anyway. So instead of thanking my lucky stars for this insane opportunity, I worked four part-time jobs in addition to finishing my dissertation in a desperate attempt to collect enough hours for EI.
Miraculously, I just met the EI cut-off, and qualified for the maximum EI payout. Also, amazingly, we had something like $25k saved up (again languishing in a bank account). This was purely a secondary effect of collecting enough EI hours, which were more important in my mind at the time than savings. We sold our car for $2k (it had some damage) and promptly spent $12k on moving back home.
Once home we were officially a “low income” family, supported purely on EI. This came with the benefit of qualifying for grants to improve our home and make it more energy efficient. Huzzah! Between EI and savings we felt just fine, as we continued living like students. We bought a 9-year-old Toyota RAV4 with 160,000 kms for $5k cash. We didn’t do this because it was what someone following FIRE would do. We did this because neither one of us had bought a car before and we couldn’t afford a new one, and everything we bought used we bought off Kijiji, so it made sense to buy a used car on Kijiji too.
Baby #2 finally arrived and I looked for a job for the next 5 months with no luck. Then I bumped into an old colleague in town and they recommended me for a short-term, part-time teaching position at the university. This didn’t really earn me much as it clawed back my EI, but I figured it was a good stepping stone. Little did I know that short-term teaching appointments are in no way a stepping stone to something more permanent in academia.
Thankfully this same colleague subsequently hired me as a post-doc for $40k/yr before my EI ran out in 2012. For this I am forever grateful.
I was 29 before I got my first real job
After 6 months in the postdoc position, when I was 29 years old, I finally found a “real” job as a staff person at the university in a completely separate field. My starting salary was $59k/yr. I felt amazing about this, as it was halfway up the pay scale of the job ad. Then I learned they had published the wrong pay scale and I was actually now at the bottom of the “correct” pay scale, but I was not allowed to renegotiate. Fun!
Despite this, I kicked ass at my job, and got awards and everything. But unlike in industry, none of these things affect your pay in academia. Yearly raises have no link to performance, and all promotions follow specific rules. I picked up extra contract work teaching on the side. Here’s what my pay looked like in the years that followed:
|Full-time job||Part-time||Side hustle
|2012||42,422||29,584||12,838||—||Started “real job” in the Fall.|
|2016||75,336||72,211||3,125||—||Promoted in the Spring.|
|2018||53,984||43,412 (w/ EI)||3,675||6,897||Took mat leave in the Spring.|
At this point lifestyle creep started to kick in. We were still frugal, but we got… comfortable. We registered the kids in activities (part-time preschool purely for socialization, swimming, nature camps). We fully decked ourselves out with camping gear even though we only camp in a nearby park once every 3 years. We bought top-of-the-line small appliances (a $350 juicer, a $250 toaster oven, a $400 blender).
In 2013 my husband received a small $10,000 inheritance from his grandfather. This was also the year our Rav4’s transmission started acting up and at 30 years old we visited a car dealership for the first time in our lives. We bought a used 2-year-old Kia Sorento with 54,000kms for $25k, and we got $1k for our old Rav 4 which was auctioned for parts. Right after we gave it new tires and a brake job. Ugh.
That said, our frugal roots had us shopping at Costco, only buying clothes during 50% off sales or second hand, and minimizing other expenses. I also either walked 45 mins to work, or took the bus. Starting in 2016, once both kids were in school and preschool bills didn’t gobble our income, we started to save about $5k/yr. Not intentionally; it was just left over because we weren’t spending it. We wanted to control our investments after being burned by the bank, so we signed up for QTrade and stuck our extra cash in TFSAs. We bought mutual funds because they were free to buy and sell.
Adding a third child
As I approached 35 years old I knew I wanted one more child before the time bomb of my uterus exploded and the option was off the table. To prepare we started a gourmet food side hustle in 2017 to build an income stream to support us during my leave, as I was still the primary breadwinner. It wasn’t a side hustle I was proud to do or enjoyed very much, but it quickly took off and we socked that cash away. We also got more frugal about our spending.
With a third child planned and a business that had us lugging things back and forth, we traded in our Sorento for a 2-year-old Honda Odyssey with 36,000 kms that cost $27.5k. We sold the Sorento (which had 74,000 kms) for $9,500, and financed the rest at 3.99% over 5 years. I don’t regret this decision as we get a lot of use out of the Odyssey driving construction materials, business stuff, and kids stuff around.
By 2018 we had about $30k saved, mostly in TFSAs with some emergency funds in bank accounts. Things were going south at work for the past year due to new management, and I applied for a 2-year unpaid leave. For the first year I received the max EI, and for the second we ramped up our side hustle even more. While on mat leave I secured a new staff job at the university earning $3k/yr less, but with no overtime expectation and no boss to report to.
Discovering the FIRE movement
Today, I am obsessed with personal finance. I’ve been tracking our net worth since learning about FIRE in September 2018. It is my new favourite hobby and I can’t wait to have employment income again and see our numbers go up.
We have tried on many side hustles over the past few years and intend to use them to vastly increase our future income. Realistically, I think hustling is the only way we’ll make it to FIRE, as my husband isn’t going back to work, and I’m not getting a 6-figure full-time job any time soon. Honestly, I’m looking forward to an easy non-management job so I can commit my energy to side hustles that have a much greater income potential, and can work around my family life.
I’ve got 6-years vested in a defined benefit pension plan and I’ll be pulling out its commuted value when I FIRE; right now the personal portion of my balance is $41,868.35. I owe $9,407.48 on my car, and $86,575.86 on my house (still living in our “starter” home 12 years after we bought it). I have no other debt.
This blog is the continuation of the above story. It starts when I’m 36 years old, married to a 37 year old husband, with three sons (aged 11, 8, and almost 2), one cat (age 8), and $16,498.99 in liquid assets sitting in a high interest savings account.
I’m aiming for an income of $60k/yr at a safe withdrawal rate of 4%, so $1.5M in income-generating assets.
It’s game on.