Guest Post: Counting the Days to Freedom

Time for another guest post from one of our readers. Andrea is originally Croatian but lives in Toronto with her husband. They are getting ready to ditch their 9-5 jobs and relocate to Croatia in mid-2018. Here’s their story:

“I count days. As of this week, we have 699 days left of this life. 699 days of living the 9-5 routine, which works wonderfully for some people but has become increasingly suffocating for us. We live a very nice life and to most of our friends and family it’s inconceivable that we are even thinking of walking away. And as much as we’ve received support for this “crazy” idea, I am convinced that most think we’ll be back (which we might be) and that we’re a little nutty (which we might be).

in Icelant

The two of us in Iceland, one of our favourite trips to date (Cuba is the other). This was taken as we hiked around an extinguished volcano.

My husband and I live in Toronto, Canada. We have good careers; I work in finance and he works in healthcare regulation, which afford us a comfortable, relatively stress free lifestyle. And we’ve enjoyed our success. We spent the better part of the first decade of working spending like everyone else around us. Sure we thought we were good with our money because we didn’t have significant debt, but we didn’t think twice about spending.

We didn’t have an “aha” moment which spurred a change in us. It was slow coming. A combination of wanting to see the world and a change in mindset led us to this point. Initially the idea of doing a round-the-world trip got us excited. That was over four years ago. We worked out a budget and started saving. Over the next year, the round-the-world trip evolved into a plan to save enough so we could travel (and work along the way if needed) over a five year period. By this point we were both getting increasingly dissatisfied with the 9-5 and the idea was that we’d spend five years travelling and hopefully, along the way, developing some sort of way to support ourselves in case we didn’t want to come home at all. Then I discovered Mr. Money Mustache, and the financial independence goal was born.

Today we are on track to exit the rat race in mid-2018!

So, how are we making this work? How is it that we plan to achieve, at 36, what most of our peers hope to achieve by 65?  I think the most important part, and also the most difficult, is a change in mentality; training yourself to rebel against the social norm that has been ingrained in us. The constant “buy, upgrade, bigger, better, spend, spend, spend”. The idea that success is measured by the stuff you own.  Once you step outside the consumer mindset of “needing” all the junk that is advertised and you are no longer trying keep up with others around you it becomes easy – at least it did for us. As for the money (and everyone always wants to know about the money) that’s the easier part.  Once you no longer have the urge to consume it’s surprising how little you really need and how much you can afford to save.

We started by tracking our spending.  

We spent 6 months writing down every penny we spent. To my surprise it was the small stuff you don’t think about, the $2 coffee or the $5 magazine that did the most damage.  Armed with this information, and keeping in mind we wanted to create a sustainable lifestyle, we developed a budget that would still allow for a life in Toronto where we didn’t feel deprived. Like the plan, our budget has evolved over the years. We keep tightening the belt, not because we have to, but because we want to. Our budget is very simple today and involves just three categories:

  1. Living expenses (26%): The necessities we need to survive; includes rent, insurance, cell phone plans, internet, transportation, and groceries
  1. Fun money (5%): A bi-weekly allowance we get to spend as we please, with no guilt attached. (As a side note, this amount has come down by more than 50% over the last two years and we don’t even notice the difference.)
  1. Savings (69%): The most important bucket and the foundation for our freedom

Our Assets

Our assets are divided between cash, individual stocks and ETFs, and real estate.  We are keeping two years of expenses in cash and our investments are concentrated in individual stocks and ETFs.  We are currently considering adding an investment property and we’ve just started talking about exploring other alternative investments such as farmland.  The easy part is done, the budget is set. Now we’re having some fun figuring out how best to put our savings to work.

We don’t own much. Or as I like to think of it, we don’t have anything that owns us.  

The Condo: Rented. Something about enslaving ourselves with a mortgage for the next 20-25 years has never appealed to us. This is exactly what would happen if we wanted to own a home in Toronto.

The Car: We call her Carol and she has been with us since 2005.  She’s a 2001 Toyota Corolla and the first and only car we have owned. As everyone around us seems to upgrade cars every 4-5 years we are a huge anomaly. However, I am quick to point out that we were able to buy an apartment in Croatia for the same amount of money someone has spent upgrading their car over the time we’ve been driving Carol. It’s all about choices!

The Other Stuff: Minimal. We started using the following test to keep or to discard: “Is this coming with us when we leave?” If the answer is NO, it’s out.  Simple as that. When we first started getting rid of unnecessary things it wasn’t easy, but we now find it so freeing. Other than some sentimental items we keep, we have no attachment to anything material.  We consider this our biggest win to date!

The Experiences: Modified. We like to think we’re a lot smarter today about how we use our resources, both time and money. Part of the reason we want our time back is to have more time cultivating relationships and this has become our focus. Today we tend to have friends and family over for dinner and drinks, rather than heading to a restaurant. Not only do we save in the process, but we actually prefer it – it’s more fun and relaxing.  Travel, travel, travel…. I usually get that dreamy, far off look whenever anyone mentions going somewhere.  Anywhere. The desire to travel was the catalyst for the change in our life. I don’t think I could ever give it up. However, it too has been modified. For now the frequency has decreased, but the quality has increased. When we do travel we are doing things that are cheaper but those experiences have proven to be more fulfilling for us.

Figuring out what we wanted our life to look like

Part of this transition has been figuring out (and we’re still a work in progress) what we wanted our life to look like and what we are willing to live without, not just in the short term but indefinitely. We redefined what success looks like. We are fully aware that we will never have the material things some of our friends have but we are ok with that. Very ok. We are giving up what we don’t think we need (consumer goods) for something we want so very desperately (our time). And as a by-product we are becoming much better world citizens. We are much more conscious, and becoming increasingly more passionate, about leaving as small of a footprint as possible and also making a positive difference with the skills we have to offer.

This is going to be a permanent move for us.  We are preparing as best as we can, and hoping to minimize our chance of failure. Two and a half years ago we purchased an apartment in Croatia and plan on using that as our home base. I was born in Croatia and retained my citizenship, while my husband received Italian citizenship a few years ago. This solves any issues of residency in the EU and takes care of other things like healthcare. By the time of our “exit” our investments should provide us with a monthly income to live comfortably in Croatia, which as you can imagine has very low cost of living compared to Toronto. We are giving ourselves additional funds for travel each year. Combining our living costs and travel costs we should be ok with a 4% annual withdrawal rate. Since we’ll be moving to a new location and we’re not 100% sure what our day-to-day life will look like it’s a little bit tougher to predict with certainty what our actual costs will be. However, rather than working another year or two to build a bigger cushion we are prepared to work along the way, should we have to.

Our future home

View overlooking our future home. The photo was taken on a day hike.

What will we do with all that time?

We talk a lot about what we’ll do with all that time. We have our first year somewhat figured out. We plan on spending late summer/early fall of 2018 in Canada; roughly two months to spend time with friends and family before we leave. Then it’s off to Croatia for a month, or two, or however long we feel like staying. From there we’ll be heading to Asia, and we hope to spend approximately a year making our way through Asia, up towards Vladivostok and then taking the Trans-Siberian railway through Russia, followed by a tour through the Baltic states and then slowly moving south to Croatia. From there… who knows? We would like to spend time volunteering in various countries; contributing our time and skills to empower communities. We’re pretty much open to anything and that’s the exciting part. Once we’re out there, outside of our routine, who knows what we might discover and what we’ll enjoy.

The idea for us was never to retire. We keep calling it a soft retirement. We didn’t want to work, work, work for 40-odd years and then stop, hoping to have 5, maybe 10 good years to enjoy life. We want to enjoy our time now and work as we want to or need to, but forever. So, we will technically never really retire but also never work full time.

We still have 699 days to go. That’s 699 days to enjoy Toronto and everything it has to offer. We’ve made some significant changes but I wouldn’t call them sacrifices. As we look back now, what we let go of were the material wants and desires that didn’t add true value to our everyday life. Having let go has freed us. It has allowed us to dream bigger. If all goes well we’ll keep on working, but because we want to not because we have to. And in the chaos of what our life may be, we hope to live it.

PS. For those wondering: No, we did not inherit money, nor do we rely on financial support from family. Our parents helped pay for most of our education, but we still came out of university with a combined $35,000 in debt. Since graduation, everything we have or haven’t accomplished has been a result of our own work and choices.”

Thank you very much to Andrea for sharing her story with us and hopefully we’ll be able to meet in person here in Europe!

We’re looking forward to hearing from her again in 699 days! If you’re on the path to FI or are FI already, why not tell us your story? Click here for more information.