I accidentally began research for this article about 2.5 years ago, when passing through Chicago on the long drive home from a summer in Canada. There was a gathering of Mustachians downtown and we kept a pub and eventually the neighboring Falafel place open late. One of the group was a young attorney in a prestigious law firm and she generously offered me a spot in her apartment’s guest room.
As we got to talking, it turned out that my new friend was not your average lawyer. In her early 30s at the time, she was living in a tidy but simple place with a matching decor. She owned no car and used a bike to get to work. Hosted roommates and couch surfers like myself occasionally as a way to cut rent bills and meet new people. Her $100,000 law school debt was long gone, and she claimed to be only two years from retirement.
Anita and I have kept in touch over the years since then, and I was really interested to see if she would follow through with this plan. Having reviewed her financial numbers (a normal and uninhibited behavior among us money nerds), I knew that the idea was solid – she would have plenty of money to live on. But when the moment of truth came, would she really give up a job at the very top of the income scale? Untold years of school and hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition – all for a legal career that lasted only five years?
But eventually those years passed, and in August I saw the following picture pop up in my Facebook feed:
And I knew it was real.
Anita has always been an avid world traveler. So since her retirement date I have seen more photos pop up from Australia, Europe, Asia, South America, and other interesting locations. I knew we had to review her inspiring story here on MMM, because there are thousands of less fortunate attorneys in the audience who may be able to benefit from her help.
I caught up with her by email and phone recently as she was spending time in Santiago, Chile. For the purposes of this interview, we’ll call her Thriftygal, as that is the name she uses on her blog (more on that later).
My Interview With The Quitting Lawyer
Adm Karpinsk: So, I read on your blog that you stumbled into law school in 2006, less than a year after I retired. There, you racked up over $100,000 in student loan debt but at least graduated with a relatively powerful degree that found you an immediate job. How did you accomplish this, when most lawyers tell me there are too many graduates chasing too few jobs?
Thriftygal: The oft publicized secret about law school is that only the souls who went to the top law schools (or those who graduated at the very very top of their class at lower ranked law schools) have a relatively easy time finding an absurdly high paying job. I also happened to job hunt in the sweet spot of the naughts before the recession hit.
So, in a nutshell? Luck.
MMM (aside): Got it – luck. Thriftygal not only got a normal economics degree in her early 20s, and did some full-time work in various industries to pay the bills. But she then went back and got a law degree from the University of Chicago law school on her own dime, which is apparently one of the country’s top five, with tuition currently listed at $55,503 per year. A pretty grinding kind of luck that sounds suspiciously like hard work, but I admire the modesty.
MMM: OK, so now you are a 27-year-old graduate working with an unusually high salary. Most of your peers are out buying big cars and houses to celebrate, but instead you feel a radiating evil coming from your mountain of debt. At less than a year’s gross salary, I wouldn’t personally perceive this debt as huge, but it is traditional among doctors and lawyers to stretch out the repayment over 10 years or more. In those intervening years, some people spend more than that on a single car or boat. Why were you so different from your coworkers?
TG: I love the phrase radiating evil! I thought of it more as a game though. These banks loaned me this exorbitant amount of money with the idea that I would pay them a crap-ton in interest over the years. I wanted the better end of the deal. If I wanted to pay them less interest by throwing a bunch more money at the principal, there was nothing they could do about that! I felt like I was winning whenever I calculated how much less interest they would squeeze from me.
Also, I’m a bit embarrassed to think about it now, but I remember distinctly worrying that my firm would realize I was a fraud and ask me to leave. I couldn’t fathom why exactly they thought I was qualified to earn $160,000 fresh out of law school. I realized after reading an article years later, I was feeling something called “imposter syndrome.”
MMM: A year later, the debt was dispatched. You were still in your 20s with no kids, no debt, high salary and low cost of living. Surely THEN you were ready to cut loose? What living conditions did you choose at that point?
TG: Oh, I cut loose alright! I bought a bunch of really expensive coconut water. I went out with friends a bit more often and let myself travel internationally for vacations. I still had a roommate because we were good friends and I enjoyed living with her. I still took my lunch to work most days because I liked peanut butter and jelly. I still accepted my sisters’ hand-me-down clothes because I hated shopping. I still biked to work because it was fun. All the things I did that were frugal were also good for my health and good for the environment, so I saw no reason to change just because I didn’t have any more loan payments.
MMM: What was the defining moment (place, time, age, maybe a story of a critical frustrating event) when you decided to go for early retirement rather than the traditional 40-year law career? What did you imagine your life would be like after retiring?
TG: I remember talking to a friend while we were in law school after interviewing with these giant firms. I asked him if I made four times what the average person made, why couldn’t I retire four times earlier? He assured me it didn’t work that way*, but I wasn’t sold on his reasons. I’ve never been a materialistic person, so the idea of stuff didn’t appeal to me. The idea of freedom and having my time be my own, sleeping in, reading and traveling, now THAT was the life I craved.
MMM: I remember when I was about 26 and my girlfriend (now wife) and I made the decision to really go for early retirement, there was still a period of several more years of hardcore working, earning and saving, while the rest of the world (for example our coworkers) continued on their merry way. I was getting more efficient and motivated, and this contrast made standard consumer culture seem more and more bizarre and extreme in contrast. Did you notice anything similar?
TG: The consumer culture never really appealed to me. I’ve never been a fan of shopping. I’m rather petite, so finding clothes was always a chore and not a fun activity. I like wandering and the idea of baggage and having a lot of junk to cart around was out of the question. I would much rather have the money than the stuff that I knew was destroying the planet and didn’t bring me much joy.
MMM (aside): Wow, at this point in the written interview I became a little worried: Thriftygal sounds much less materialistic than me. After all, I am into fancy houses, nice audio equipment, I bought a nice car in my early 20s, and so on. In our subsequent phone call she reassured me she still has vices: a brand new Toyota Corolla bought on credit before law school, lots of international travel, great food and more than a few dollars on expensive drinks while out on these travels as well. And she likes to have enough money to be generous with others without regret.
MMM: Somewhere in this period, you were reading blogs – first Early Retirement Extreme and then Adm Karpinsk after it came into the picture. How did you end up reading here, and then later providing me with a guest room in which to crash on the way through Chicago?
TG: I gobbled up every personal finance article I could find when I was paying down my debt and after a while I wasn’t learning anything new. I liked ERE, but thought it might be a little TOO extreme for me. My friend introduced me to your blog shortly after you started it and described it as “the PhD of personal finance” where everything else was “high school personal finance.” I thought it was pretty apt. :)
MMM (aside): Hmm, I would have thought ERE is the PhD while I’m more of the basic Computer Engineering degree with an apprenticeship in the construction trades. But sure, I’ll take the compliment.
TG: And then I saw your post about the first Ecuador retreat! I was out of debt by that point, infatuated with travel, about to move to Sydney, had a major blog crush on you and Jim Collins, so naturally I jumped at the chance of attending. It was one of the best vacations I’ve been on and it was so wonderful to meet so many like-minded people who didn’t scoff when I said I wanted to retire in a couple of years.
MMM: How much money did you figure you would need to retire on (either in terms of dollars or a multiple of expenses?) And did you quit when you reached exactly that amount of money?
TG: I read Your Money Or Your Life and started my own wall chart. As soon as my average monthly expenses for the past few years were less than my projected passive income, I knew I could live the same lifestyle I currently had (and loved) and wouldn’t need to work anymore. I stayed a bit longer than I needed to because I was living in Sydney and under contract, which I absolutely don’t regret.
MMM: Once you cut off the income stream, how do you keep the money allocated so that most of it remains at work for you, yet you have a reasonable amount flowing into the checking account for monthly expenses?
TG: I have a little over a year’s worth of expenses in my checking account. The rest of my money is tucked away in investments. When my checking account money starts to run out next January, I may look for a part-time job if the stock market is still in the meh range, but that’s a problem for future me.
MMM (aside): Uh-oh! You just said you might work again, I’m calling the Internet Retirement Police! I followed up with Thriftygal on this point and she said work would still be totally unnecessary from a financial perspective. She just likes the adventure of new and unusual jobs – one of her earlier stints was as a flight attendant!
If you have saved enough to meet the 4% rule and have the money stashed in low-fee Index funds, you’ll get 2% in dividends alone which can flow straight to your checking account. Then you simply set your account to automatically sell a tiny amount shares once per quarter to keep your checking balance where you want it. This is what I have done on years when my post-retirement income from miscellaneous hobby work was less than our spending.
MMM: I saw a picture of your packed bags in August 2015, and I knew you had pulled the trigger and actually retired. What have you been up to since then? And what unexpected challenges has retirement presented you with? Would you offer any cautionary words to other people who are striving now in the equivalent to where you were in, say, 2011?
TG: I’m on a never-ending quest to see the world, so I’ve been soothing my wanderlust and traveling. I spent a month in Asia, another month bumming around Sydney, a month+ visiting family in the States, a month+ in the Caribbean and now I’m wandering around South America.
The unexpected challenges question is my favorite one because I honestly thought that when I retired my life would be all fairies and unicorns dancing in the rainbows. And while I do indeed love love love my life right now, I’m surprised by how lonely I often feel. Most of the people I know work and can’t hang out during the week. I’m traveling, but it’s mostly solo as normal people can’t up and gallivant around the globe for months at a time.
I also struggle with laziness and worry that I’m wasting my lucky place in the universe. My advice to people who are striving is to be sure to have a clear idea of what you want your life to be post-retirement. Have lists of things you want to do and accomplish because if you’re the type of person who has the discipline to retire early, you’re probably the type of person who won’t be happy as a couch potato.
For me it was never about discipline because I never wanted the stuff, the things, the junk, the consumerism. I could be perfectly happy smoking pot on my couch. :)
MMM: That point about everybody else being stuck in work is a good one – some early retirees feel like a kid skipping school and finding an empty town, and there was a recent New York Times story on the idea.
I have a different perspective since family life keeps me busy, then I have my carpentry addiction (plus more recently this blog) and a good number of local friends who are semi-retired or self employed without real work schedules as well. Everything always boils down to having good times with people you like.
So anyway, the entire world is now open to you. What do you see in your future? Would you ever take a job just for the fun of it? Start a company? Work part time? Settle in a different country?
TG: My short-term goal is to travel and tick off other items on my life bucket list. I’m learning to cook authentic Indian food. I want to write. I want to read lots and lots and lots and lots of books. I like to set my alarm clock for when I’d normally wake up for work and then cackle when I shut it off and go back to sleep.
My friends tell me I’m taking more of an extended sabbatical as opposed to retirement as I know for sure that I’ll take another job at some point. On my life bucket list, I want to see what it’s like to work in a factory. I want to start a business. I want to start a nonprofit. There is so much to do and see and explore and I just hope I can find the motivation to do it all!
MMM Conclusion: That sounds just right to me. When I retired 10 years ago I didn’t know exactly what was in store – I only knew that I wanted my weekdays to be as fun and productive as my weekends seemed to be.
But it turned out that I really love to create stuff (houses, sentences, events, designs, adventures, music, whatever), and these activities are often labeled as “work”. But if I have to endure even a single day without the opportunity do this “work”, I can get into a depressive funk. Sure, I like a leisurely breakfast and a mostly unscheduled life. But I can’t deal with too much ass-flattening inactivity.
One time I took a week-long trip on a cruise ship and it was hell for me. It was all consumption with no opportunity to work on anything at all. No tools, no Internet, no food planning or preparation, and no Nature. I had to resort to running up and down the 14 storeys of staircases, standing on the empty, windy top deck to look out at the ocean and using the gym between lineups at the buffet.
I wrote more about the connection between early retirement and continued work in a story for Vox Magazine.
It’s called “What Early Retirement Taught Me About Life (and Work)“, so please ignore the incorrect title that somebody there made up for it and slapped on.
More from Thrifty Gal
It turns out that Anita has had a personal blog all along and just didn’t tell me about it. She is a pretty catchy writer and has used her site called The Power of Thrift to document the battle between her savings and expenses since 2013.
Update: almost two years later, she ended up writing a book and publishing it. Operation Enough: How to Retire Remarkably Early is available on paperback and Kindle at Amazon. Way to go Thriftygal!
* Thriftygal’s skepticism was warranted here. Making four times more than average does indeed allow you to cut your career at least four times shorter, but that doesn’t mean hope is lost for those of us with normal salaries. Your time to financial independence depends not on your income, but on your savings rate, which means living efficiently is more important than earning more. It is very feasible to retire in your 30s after never earning more than $40,000 per year, but equally possible (and much more common) to make $300,000 and have nothing to show for it at age 60.