Seven years ago I was working at a job I hated with people I didn’t like in a place that was really depressing.
Every day I was verbally abused by the personal assistants of the rich and famous, people in a middle management purgatory of their own who probably had no one lower on the totem pole to shit on. I was also charged with pretty much running the whole company for $20 an hour while my higher ups got high in the alley and then went out to get drunk and cheat on their wives. Plus, I was not at all invested in the thing I was helping make happen in the world.
It was hell and I was stuck there.
I’d taken the job out of necessity and fear. It was 2011. I hadn’t been out of school for very long, I had no relevant job experience, and the unemployment rate in my city was pushing 11%. I had bare minimum savings and student loan debt. I’d always thought I’d be able to fall back on waitressing, which I’d done for many years before getting my degree, but now I had a huge gap in my resume and a growing number of people had the same idea. I’d applied for jobs for months without finding anything, and so had jumped at this one.
I was lucky compared to a lot of friends who were unable to find work at all, but eventually I became dangerously depressed. I dreaded waking up every morning and found myself drinking alone at night to escape very real hopelessness.
I don’t remember a lot of specifics about that time, probably a result of the depression and the self medicating. But I do know that eventually my misery took on a healthy dose of anger, and I just started milking that job for every dollar I could so that I could eventually tell them to fuck off without losing my apartment and starving to death. You could probably describe what I was doing as rage working.
If I said I had a plan that would be a lie.
I didn’t even have very high aspirations. I figured a couple months of rent and food would be a perfectly fine buffer, and just started squirrelling away everything I could and eliminated spending on anything extraneous.
Despite getting together a tiny bit of FU money, I was so depressed, inertia was so strong, and my fear of being broke was so overwhelming, it finally took a natural disaster to shake me out of my rut.
My home was not affected, but my life was completely overturned.
My City was completely shut down for days, in some places weeks, so I knew I wouldn’t have to go to work for a while. After getting a sense of how badly the area was hit, I put to use the resources I had available, which consisted of some unexpected free time, an empty cargo van, and a full tank of gas, and drove to an affected area. To make a long story short, I didn’t leave for a long time. I became a full time volunteer.
From the first day, I was addicted. I was addicted to the urgency and pace of the work, to doing something meaningful for other humans, and to living my days intentionally. When my job called me to see when I’d be coming back I said Never.
I didn’t really know what I was going to do but I knew I couldn’t go back to what I was doing before. I’d gone from a place where I was literally watching my life pass by to a place where I was needed, valued, and able to contribute to something bigger than making people I didn’t respect richer.
It might seem crazy that I was able to leave a shitty $20 per hour job and become a full time volunteer, but despite knowing nothing about finances I had accidentally done a couple things right: I had a very low cost of living and no consumer debt. I had mastered being broke and could really squeeze a lot out of very little. Last but not least, I had a supportive community that gave me the push I needed to a take a risk.
An Atheist’s Leap of Faith
Like I said, I had a couple of months of rent saved up, very few bills to pay, and a burning desire to not be miserable. Days turned into months, and then, something magical happened: People wanted to support me and my work. The destruction of the disaster was large scale and prompted a really huge outpouring of support. However, like in many disasters, it was difficult to know who to trust or where to donate. Several people came out of the woodwork, based on my social media posts and photos, and basically said, “Hey, we really want to support the recovery effort, and we like the work you’re doing, so we’d like to pay your rent so you can keep working for free.”
It will come as no surprise that I said yes.
I’m not one to believe in a lot of woo woo stuff, but it certainly felt like the universe was paying me back. I traded every single waking hour of my life in service of a cause I believed in and in return I got the support I needed to get my sanity and some semblance of happiness back. I was totally happy with this arrangement. Later on, we were able to work out a small stipend to help support our crew of volunteers. It was only $1000 per month per person, but it was enough to get by, and it was predictable. My first year freedom from wage slavery was funded by $12,000.
So What Do These Questionable Choices Have to do with Finance, Anyway?
From a financial standpoint, quitting my job during an economic downturn with no savings to speak of and no job prospects might seem like a bad financial decision, but for me it laid the groundwork for pursuing financial independence. It illustrated, very clearly, the difference that having even a few thousand dollars in the bank could make, and in this instance it really felt like the difference between life and death.
At the end of this time of my life, I really didn’t know where I was going, but I did have some new goals. I decided to get my financial life together, and I decided to take some steps to know what that even meant. I also decided that I’d start building what I called an emergency fund, but what I really thought of as a mental health trap door from which I could escape any future shitty work situations I might wind up in. Today that trap door has become a full fledged FIRE plan.
PSA: Save Money and Retire as Many Times as You Need To
Recently when I was explaining to someone that I plan to achieve Financial Independence and Retire Early, they seemed to think I was lazy and somehow insubordinate to, well, just the way things work. There was a comment like, “Not me. I like to stay busy. I don’t want to waste my days away.”
This conception of retirement is a strange one to me. As far as I can tell, the reason we think retirement is for relaxing is because most people in the US are so overworked and exhausted by the time they retire that they need a break. If I have to wait until I’m 70 for conventional retirement I sure as hell better be looking at a lot of day drinking and naps.
But for most people I know, what we want out of early retirement isn’t an endless life of cocktails and couches. We actually just want to be supported while we do work that is meaningful to us and that doesn’t wear on our mental health. We want to believe in what we do, and not sacrifice the days of our lives in the service of people or businesses or systems with bad ethics. We want to feel needed and appreciated and be part of a team of people we respect. We don’t want our labor to alienate us from who we are.
It’s just that we usually have to stop working to find a job like that.
So, maybe this is why more and more of us are looking for it in retirement. Maybe there’s just so much work we want to do that we can’t imagine NOT retiring as soon as we possibly can. The way I see it, if we’re lucky, maybe we can retire early enough that we still have our health, and we never have to stop working at all.