Thursday, September 24, 2015

Walking the talk - Balancing quality of life with early retirement goals

I, like most Americans, am a materialist.  Perhaps more so than most.  I grew up with parents who earned slightly more than average, thanks to their entrepreneurship.  While they did have more freedom being their own boss and earned more than most, they also worked longer hours and happened to spend more.

Sure, we got to go on many vacations and enjoyed nice toys and went out to dinner several nights a week, but they worked well into the night, almost every night.  My dad especially would work 16 hour+ days often; I'd rarely see him daily for more than a few hours before I was in bed.  He'd leave in the morning before I was up nearly every day. What little time I did spend with him during the week was usually unmemorable; he was too tired to really play with us after working such long days. He also worked weekends often.

Of course he did all that he could, spending his free time taking us on trips and building things in his workshop.  My dad did what he thought was his best to keep up with the expenses and still be a good father. I argue that the opportunity cost he paid was too high however.  My parents spending habits have always mirrored their income, which is very unfortunate.  The more they made, the more they spent and thus the more they had to work.  They still likely won't be able to retire any time soon.

From what I just shared about my upbringing, I've concluded two things.  Number one, I never want my job to be more important than my family.  Secondly, I'd rather spend less and retire earlier.  The first point is pretty self evident, being the best father and husband I can be by doing all I can to spend as much free time with my kids.  And who doesn't want to retire sooner than later?  Even if you love your job, why would you desire the necessity to work due to bills?

Unfortunately, both of these goals seem to be at odds with each other.  One can pick a quick route to retirement by working several jobs or working hard at advancing their career.  Or they could take a job that lets them work minimal hours to cover their expenses.  Finding a balance between the two is very difficult when you have a family.  Had I spent my 20's working very hard and living very frugally and investing more, I would have been able to retire by 30.  On the other side, what I learned about myself and the experiences I had in my 20's are invaluable.  And now as a family man with two children, I no longer have that option.


My solution to the balance problem

So how does one strike a balance between advancing their career and earning enough, while making time to connect with one's family and friends?  The particular solution I've found won't work for everyone, but it may for many, especially in the rapidly changing economy of knowledge based work.

  1. Pick a career field that is based in knowledge work (i.e. a desk job) that involves a specialized skill set.
  2. Work harder on yourself than you do at your job, becoming more specialized in that area and an expert.
  3. Land a job with great pay, minimal work load, and negotiate 100% telecommute terms.
  4. Maximize your investments and minimize your spending.
Let me break this down.  Step one is pretty important as some lines of work will never allow you to work remotely, such as construction.  Most office cubicle jobs however can be done remotely, especially ones where work is handled asynchronously, like generating reports and analysis, or building code that doesn't require real time interaction over the phone or desktop sharing and doesn't have many meetings.  IT is great for this, but not all areas of IT lend themselves to such workflows.  The goal is to be able to be more flexible around when you can work, giving yourself the option of taking a 4 hour lunch to take your kids somewhere and then working later while they are in bed, etc.

Step two is my little gem I got from my favorite business philosopher, Jim Rohn.  By working harder on yourself, you increase your own value to the marketplace; your earning potential rises quickly. There are tons of free resources on the internet, free classes, books, etc.  Spend at least one hour every morning before you go to work studying and working on yourself, and I can almost guarantee you'll get a raise and promotion nearly every year.  I did better than that.  I've managed to double my income nearly four times over since I started working.  The core of my knowledge I use daily I didn't get from college, but self study on the web.

Becoming a renowned expert in your field not only lets you fetch high salaries and likely lets you negotiate telecommute terms, but you'll find that the high end jobs are typically less stressful and you'll likely do less actual work.  It's ironic how this works, but part of it is because you've become so highly skilled that you are able to complete work much faster than expected.  By being able to work remotely, and asynchronously, you can design each day to spend in how you'll spend time with your family and plan to get your work done in the most convenient way to you.

Taking a page from Mr. Money Mustache, step four is all about shortening your route to early retirement.  While I endorse what MMM preaches in finding gratification from things that don't involve spending money, I'm a materialist as I mentioned.  So I believe in delayed gratification; if you want a particular toy and you can afford it now without exceeding your budget, then go for it.  Otherwise, if you have to finance something, adjust your investment & savings budget, or sacrifice another necessity, it's probably better holding off.  The key is understanding all purchases in terms of how long they will delay early retirement and weighing the value.


So that's my current life balancing strategy.  I just got 100% telecommute again as well as a role with no on-call or after hours support, which means my time outside of my duties is mine.  This is very big for me since I've been on call at every job since about 2003.  One job I averaged 60-70 hours a week doing after hours support.  Never again.

That said, I'm involved with many other projects which eat into my personal time as my job is never my only source of income.  Landlordship, consulting, teaching, writing two blogs, and several startup endeavors just to name a few.  However, I still make sure that the responsibilities they bring take a backseat to my family.  The primary objective regarding maintaining work/personal balance is to keep your priorities straight.  It's not always easy to do this, especially if you love what you do and get sucked up by work projects and lose track of time as I do.  I find keeping photos of my family in field of view helps a ton since I'm a very visual person.

What I've found in progressing down my career path is an increased amount of freedom.  Becoming highly sought after by recruiters changes your thinking and sense of stability.  You aren't ever worried about being employed when you get daily phone calls and emails that are trying to sell you on their opportunities.  While I still keep my eyes open for anything that looks good, I've found a company that grants me exactly what I'm looking for, so nothing better has come along yet.

The other major piece to early retirement is minimizing spending.  I'll save the topic of budgeting for another post.

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