It’s just us this time!
We’re convinced that when people share their money stories and dive into the emotional side of personal finance that’s a good thing. And that’s why we started our Talking Money series. Now that some of our friends have gone through this process and shared their personal goals and vulnerabilities, it’s time for us to play along as well.
Everyone, meet… us! We’re Ali and Alison, two Queer women enjoying life after FIRE and sharing our experiences with financial independence. We met in 2004, started managing our own investments in 2005, married in 2006, reached financial independence in 2017, and retired in 2018 when Ali was 44 and Alison was 54 years old.
1. What were your childhood money experiences? Did you learn useful money lessons from your family?
Ali: I definitely never learned any useful lessons from my mom or dad about money or anything else. But I had two sets of grandparents who had lots of good lessons to share. My paternal grandparents and their families immigrated from Mexico, and worked hard all their lives doing jobs in physical labor. Their finances were tight because they earned low wages and my dad managed to scam them out of their house. My paternal grandparents taught me there’s no shame in operating machines or cleaning toilets! On the maternal side my grandparents learned about money as kids in Iowa during the Great Depression and they taught me about being frugal and the importance of tracking your spending. Their finances were tight because my mom wasn’t taking responsibility for her life and they were helping to support all three of us until my little sister and I grew up and became independent. My grandma did her best to teach me what she taught herself about investing and saving for retirement, and I can only imagine how happy she’d be to know that Alison and I made her dream a reality for ourselves.
Alison: I learned that big gifts only came from my grandparents and family vacations were spent camping in California in a tent trailer. My parents didn’t encourage or finance expensive stuff for me and my two sisters, but I never felt like I was missing out on anything. But at the same time, we really didn’t talk about money and my parents weren’t coaching us kids on how to manage our money when we were on our own. My dad was a CPA so he and my mom were very responsible with their money, but I wish my dad had been comfortable sharing what he had learned about money before he died. Now that dad is gone I’m grateful that my mom and I have learned how to talk with each other about money and nothing is off limits between us these days.
2. What have you learned about financial obstacles faced by Queer people? What kinds of experiences have you had with money as lesbians?
Ali: We were both very fortunate to have been born in California where being Queer was and still is much easier than it is for people who happen to be born in the midwest or deep south for example. I was fired for being a lesbian one time when I was only 19, but it was a part time job run by religious fundamentalists who didn’t want to be around me anymore than I wanted to be around them. I was lucky that there were no negative consequences for me from being fired since I had roommates to help cover rent and I found another job pretty quickly. Alison and I have been extremely lucky compared to others who were kicked out of their homes for being Queer when they were still kids, which set them on a path that makes it very difficult and sometimes impossible to reach any kind of financial stability.
Alison: I don’t think I experienced any detrimental experiences from being a lesbian. I know I could have made more money had I been more willing to change jobs and move to new companies during my career, or had I gone back and finished my undergraduate degree. But for me, it was my dyslexia and not being Queer that held me back from taking chances that would have allowed me to earn a higher income over time. That being said, I was luckier than a lot of people. We have seen Trans friends struggle to get insurance to pay for their gender confirmation surgery and be challenged by their family members for being Queer, which is crushing. But we’ve also seen Trans friends recover from their surgeries and watched the relief they experienced, which was amazing.
3. How do you feel about money at this point in your life? Have your feelings about money and wealth changed over time?
Ali: I feel so much confidence around money now, which I never could have imagined as a kid. My only concept for understanding wealth back then came from seeing some of the bigger houses in the town I grew up in. As a kid I assumed my only chance of creating wealth would be to set the same goal as my grandparents, which was owning their own home without a bank in the middle. Now I know wealth is not determined by home ownership, and frugality can be a healthy choice rather than a sign of failure. I’m not worried about the possibility of Alison and I running out of money, and I trust that if things get tight or the market does something detrimental to our portfolio we can get some kind of part time jobs or try other entrepreneurial projects to help cover our expenses.
Alison: Working towards financial independence was a bit stressful for me, and the idea of trusting our math and the stock market enough to quit my job made me pretty nervous. Ali was the optimist in our process and I was honestly not sure whether we really could retire early like my grandparents and parents did. I think I learned that nervousness about money from my dad. But eventually after taking investing classes and reading lots of personal finance books I finally know that we’re going to be just fine regarding money. And through some thoughtful planning, I know we can do just about anything we can imagine and dream up. I know now that we can afford anything, just not everything (Thanks for that saying Paula Pant!).
4. What kinds of experiences have you had with debt, both as individuals and as a couple?
Ali: I spent 8 years working minimum wage jobs and taking college classes part time before I graduated with a degree in english literature and $43k in student loan debt. I still had some of that debt when I was 30 years old and met Alison, and I also had a used car loan at the time. Fortunately I avoided serious credit card debt because I knew how much of a burden that was for my grandparents. I was ashamed of the debt I accumulated in my 20’s but once it was paid off I started thinking of it as “stepping stone debt” and my financial confidence started to grow.
Alison: The only debt I’ve ever had was a small car loan and then a few home mortgages over the years. The good thing about dropping out of college early is that one tends not to have college debt to pay off. The bad part is that not having a four year degree can preclude you from some jobs you might really want, which can stall your career and ability to earn income. I was turned down for a full time job at a community college teaching digital prepress even though I had been a guest teacher there for years and been in the industry for over 25 years by then because I didn’t finish that degree. Now that we are retired, I don’t want any kind of debt ever again. I think that choice for us to avoid all kinds of debt in retirement is about being able to prove we are ok by not buying anything unless we have the money in cash. Oh, and I don’t feel the need to finish that degree anymore.
5. What are your investing styles?
We tried lots of different investment options on the path to retirement. We started by investing in individual stocks, which we really enjoyed because we loved doing research for each stock we purchased. We picked some winners and we some picked losers, and our portfolio felt unstable with a smaller number of individual stocks. Because it was! So that’s not a style of investing we would want to continue during retirement.
Next we tried real estate by holding two residential rental properties. We also talked about going deeper into real estate investing by holding some kind of commercial property. Our exercise in owning rental properties was built around turning our personal homes into rentals which wasn’t ideal. Both houses had very low price-to-rent ratios which made it hard to charge enough rent to cover annual expenses. On top of that we managed them ourselves and let our personal relationships with the renters keep rental rates even further below market in a few circumstances. It was clear we were more driven by emotion than logic with our first rentals and once we admitted that we decided to sell those two homes which paid off our mortgage and also helped our brokerage account grow. Our rentals were not successful but owning real estate still turned out to be a very important part of our journey to financial independence, especially since the condo we bought in Seattle doubled in value in just 9 years. If we ever get into the rental property pool again, we’ll hire a property manager and do it right next time.
After we retired we sold our personal home and the last of our individual stocks and moved all of our investments into index funds, and ETF’s specifically. We simplified our portfolio to only one US broad market fund (SCHB), one international broad market fund (SCHF), and 2 bond funds (MUB and BSV). The dividends in our brokerage account alone cover half of our annual expenses every year and the rest of our expenses are covered by selling appreciated shares from our two equity funds. This is the investing style that works for us! For now anyway.
6. How did you two reach financial independence together?
Lots of trial and error. We started to prioritize our desire to retire together very soon after we were married in 2006. And since we are 10 years apart in age the plan always included early retirement, for Ali at least. The challenge was convincing Alison that we could save enough money to retire early even though our incomes weren’t high. The fact that her income had dropped below the median when her employer cut wages in 2008 and then went years without even cost of living increases had an impact on our savings rate and on her confidence as well.
So we stopped trying to keep up with our friends and family and the ways they spent their money, and dropped off the “upgrade merry go round.” We put all of Ali’s raises and bonuses into our investments and made sure we only bought things or traveled after we had the money for our purchases set aside. Then in 2014 Alison found the FIRE movement and our pace increased as we finally had enough information and confidence to finalize our FIRE number and run our own calculations. Then in 2017 we hit our retirement savings goal.
7. Now that you’ve enjoyed a few years of early retirement, what do the FIRE movement and financial independence concepts mean to you?
Financial independence means knowing you have the freedom to design your life intentionally and in a way that supports your wellbeing. Or just plain makes you happy! If you want to work at a job you love forever, good for you! If you want to retire and travel, that’s great! If you want to move away from the place you’re in now to be closer to your friends and family, do it! There are no “shoulds” when it comes to money or happiness in this world because we’re all so very different. The only things you should do are put yourself and your family first instead of worrying about other people’s approval, and try to be a good global citizen in any way you can.
8. What kinds of jobs did you have before reaching FIRE? Do you plan to take on other jobs or projects in the future for the purpose of earning additional income?
Ali: My first job after college was at a small company editing and publishing newsletters and public relations directories but after a couple of years (and a breakup and move) the 2+ hour long 80 mile commute was a deal breaker. My next job lasted almost 14 years and made up the majority of my career. I joined an engineering and architecture firm with a role in strategic marketing on a traveling team designed to help win the most important projects. All of the travel and winning created a sense of change and growth so when my role stayed the same for more than a decade it was hard to tell I was stuck, but I noticed when my salary hit a ceiling. I wrapped up my career with a job that lasted two years, as business development manager for a small environmental science firm. With that last position I negotiated my salary up 35% from my previous salary since I knew I had fallen behind and the benefit package at my new firm was a big step down. That company was unstable but at that point Alison and I had basically hit our FIRE number so we knew if the company fell apart, and it did, that wouldn’t derail our plans for retirement. As for the future, I want to spend more time volunteering but I wouldn’t plan to work for income again unless it was required for our financial wellbeing.
Alison: I worked in the printing industry for over 30 years. In the beginning I worked in and around the press rooms for large and small printers. Then I transitioned into digital prepress when the first Mac came on the computing scene. For the last 10 years of my career, I was a high-end digital retoucher working for fashion clients producing mail order catalogs. And the fact that I was working in a dying industry, or at least a rapidly changing one, had a big impact on my career and salary as I started with print images, advanced to digital, and watched as online images became the norm. I loved what I did for most of my career, especially all of the teaching and mentoring. But I didn’t love the fact it was so deadline driven, and working with creatives can be hard when you’re getting backed up against a press deadline. There were a lot of parts of my job that I loved but I really didn’t enjoy being part of the consumerism machine pushing people to buy stuff. As for the future, I would consider picking up odd jobs for income here and there if it meant I could meet interesting people and see some new places.
9. What kinds of projects are you focused on now through your blog, All Options Considered? How do you feel about your post-retirement projects?
We aren’t the same people we were when we retired, and the blog has changed a lot since then as well. We retired with a goal of international travel that we wanted to continue for at least five years before we were going to consider settling down again, and we started the blog with a plan to balance our writing between our imaginative sides and our analytical sides by writing as much about travel as we did about personal finance. But Covid changed our plans and the number of people reaching out to us asking to talk about money also changed our focus. We didn’t really have people we could talk to about money while we were still working towards FIRE so when we realized other people were looking for that from us we were happy to make ourselves available.
The blog has been a great hobby for us so we plan to keep it going for now. We still don’t want to turn it into a business, and we still don’t want to try to tell other people what they should do. We’ll continue telling our stories and sharing our experiences, and since we keep learning and experiencing new things we have a lot more to say now than we did when we first retired. We seem to have reached a point with the blog where we have tons of ideas and lists of posts we both want to write, though we aren’t spending a ton of time actually writing. Our list of topics at the moment is long and includes new posts about taxes, geoarbitrage, and Roth conversions!
10. How Does Owning Property Fit Into Your Personal Finance Strategy?
Ali: We were enjoying life with no real estate holdings, no property taxes, and no maintenance costs while traveling full time. But once the Covid pandemic set in our priorities changed and we moved into our new to us house in January of 2021. Buying a home was definitely an emotional decision for us this time, with a goal of creating a shared living compound with a friend who is chosen family for us, and another goal of living close enough to Alison’s 83 year old mom that we can spend time with her as often as possible. We certainly do appreciate being able to have a home of our own with a king sized bed, our favorite things all around us, and the things we most want in a kitchen ready to use. But we were just as happy living as nomads and would definitely consider that lifestyle again one day. We’re still open to buying a rental property in the future, or turning our home into a rental property at some point. Life keeps changing so we’re staying open to whatever might happen in the future!
Alison: Personally, we are committed to avoiding any kind of debt in the future, including mortgages. That’s probably our main personal finance strategy at this point when it comes to real estate. I do think that everyone should have diversified holdings in their portfolios. And yes that includes real estate. But we do not think that means you have to own a physical home or rental. Owning real estate through REIT’s is a great option if you don’t want to be responsible for dealing with backed up toilets and new roofs. We own a personal home with an attached mother-in-law suite (really it’s a pa-in-law suite!) now as we wanted to have a home base close to family and include a chosen family member in our household. It’s what works for us.
11. What was it like financially for you to travel full time? How did geoarbitrage impact your spending?
Ali: Our full time travels were such great adventures! I loved the constant change and the feeling of being guests in someone else’s home town and country. And I definitely enjoyed being limited to two bags each since that fit with our desire not to spend money on things since we’d have to carry them with us. We spent our money on cooking classes in places like France and Ecuador, and on tours to see amazing sites like Ta Prohm Temple in Cambodia and Chichén Itzá in Mexico. We focused on how our spending fit in the location we were in and into our annual budget overall. We didn’t pinch pennies or haggle with sellers, we tipped well and often. We learned about local economies and how local costs and related incomes translated with our American dollars so we could find ways to contribute financially to the communities we visited.
Alison: We did love being nomads. We have been “pulled over” from full time travel for almost two years now and I miss it. Our housing costs were impacted by a combination of visits to higher and lower cost of living areas plus the addition of rent-free stays while house sitting, and that worked really well for us. And yes, our spending was very different in each location. We enjoyed great food at ridiculously low prices at the night markets in Malaysia and Singapore, then splurged on a nice dinner at a restaurant in Paris. And then we would have fun cooking at home most of the time no matter where we were located. I loved tracking of all our spending as we traveled and finding our average costs across all locations for the year and monitoring how we were doing against our overall budget so we knew when we could have a bit more fun and when we needed no spend days.
12. How do you treat money in your marriage? Which assets or accounts have you combined or kept separate?
Ali: We started talking about money the week we met and never stopped. In our relationship it worked really well for us to combine our finances once my debt was paid off and we were engaged with wedding plans on the horizon. First we moved in together so I could sell my car and pay off my used car loan, and we kept working together on our individual and combined financial goals. We didn’t stumble over the fact that we came from such different financial backgrounds, since I had debt when we met and Alison had earnings from previous real estate purchases and a brokerage account. And we kept talking about how it felt to know my income was lower than Alison’s when we met, but by the time we retired my income surpassed hers. We were not on equal footing financially but that never held us back in our relationship and we’re really proud of that.
Alison: We combined all of our accounts early on and these days we have one checking account, one brokerage account, two savings accounts, two IRAs, and two Roth IRAs. And we make ALL of our money decisions as a team. We talk about every purchase or money move before we make them and we wait at least six months if we come up with a wild new idea that would constitute a big spend or change in our finances. For us, that system works great and we know it might not wouldn’t work for everyone. When you are considering combining money with someone else, make sure you feel like your financial needs and goals are being recognized and respected, and you are being heard before you dive in. And wait as long as it takes for you to feel safe. Some people may never want to combine their money with a spouse, and that is 100% ok.
13. How often do you two talk about money together? Do you also talk to your friends and family about money?
Ali: We still have lots of friends and family who aren’t comfortable talking about money, and that’s ok, that’s their choice. We just want to make sure the people in our lives, especially all of our nieces and nephews, know that we are safe people to talk to about money or anything else.
Alison: Ali and I talk about money in some form multiple times a day. We can’t help it. And with our closest friends and family money comes up eventually in most conversations. It felt good when our barriers about money came down enough to be open to talk about money any time and with just about anyone. In fact just yesterday we were talking with people about how they might strategically set the timing of their retirement along with selling their personal home, in order to save money on taxes and fund at least their first year of retirement expenses with cash. It was one of those great conversations that offered up an “aha moment.”
14. What are your personal money goals at this point in your life?
Our main financial goal is to do our best to outline our financial goals every year so we can make sure the timing of any bigger purchases can be scheduled and we can withdraw the appropriate cash for our purchases at appropriate times. We definitely want to avoid selling down equities, and be mindful about any selling we do in our portfolio. We know how much our health care costs and we know what our taxes are, and after more than a full year of home ownership we know what our utility bills and property taxes cost. We like the idea of pulling money out of our account only once each year in January and leaving it alone the rest of the time (except for rebalancing).
Most importantly, we want to be good stewards of our money and investments. We want to have enough money to be able to make our fun ideas a reality and to be able to be generous with others. We keep a running list of planned purchases and their timing. Now that we’ve gotten to this point we’re at now with our house/property, car, trailer, and upcoming travel plans we seem to have our big spending goals accomplished for now. We have what we need for now and we’ll see which way the wind blows in the future.
15. What kinds of activities or hobbies do you love? How do your favorite activities impact your spending?
Ali: My favorite hobbies have always been reading and writing, and dreaming of new stories or different versions of old stories to write. Those hobbies are mostly free though we do keep an Audible book membership with a new book available each month. I also like to draw and paint but I’m not feeling the urge to do those things lately. The other hobby I’m into at the moment is cross stitch, thanks to my mother in law. I have a few cross stitch projects I like to pick up and work on when the mood hits me. So far that’s a very inexpensive hobby since the little cotton floss threads are sold in bundles for less than a dollar each and the towels or whatever I’m stitching on only cost a few dollars each. Eventually I’ll figure out where I carefully stowed my grandma’s crochet hook, which I loved using to make scarves when we lived in Seattle (probably because it always felt like winter up there!). That was also a relatively inexpensive hobby and I think I’ll get that going again this coming winter.
Alison: I loved photography when I was younger. Then I stopped taking photos all together when I was working as photography was all ready a big part of my job. Once we retired, I know I wanted to start taking photos again but I put off buying a new camera for a very long time. We were chatting with a fellow camper at a national monument in April and I asked her about her camera because it was a small Nikon and we could tell she had just bought it. All of my previous cameras were Nikons. This woman had found a camera kit with 2 lenses for only $749.99 at Best Buy. That’s a lot of money but that kit would save us a few hundred bucks so we searched everywhere and it was out of stock nationally for Best Buy. But on a resent trip to Boston, Ali encouraged me to keep trying and then we found that same kit at a camera store near our Airbnb, so we walked over there and bought it. Photography can be an expensive hobby and I’m sure thats why I have resisted getting back into it for so long. I’m going to take it slow and just enjoy it for now.
16. Last question – what are you most excited about right now?
Ali: For me it’s a combo of being excited about spending more time in our Bessie Basecamp trailer traveling around the USA, and being excited about our upcoming trip to Portugal and Spain this year. I love that we booked a house sit in Portugal for a month that will get us back to the EU for the first time since 2019. We’re going to see some wonderful friends from our 2019 Ecuador Chautauqua event while we’re there followed by a side trip to Spain where we get to meet one of our financial coaching buddies in real life and catch up over dinner with an old coworker of Alison’s that we haven’t seen in ages. And we have three more camping trips booked with our trailer at the moment, and lots of ideas for more. Our next camping trip will be in the Phoenix area in November where we’ll meetup with a bunch of friends at a campground and then catch an Elton John concert one night. And one of our nieces is getting married next March in California so we booked a campsite through Airbnb on a farm about 15 minutes away from the wedding venue. So much to look forward to!
Alison: I’m already looking forward to 2023! The house is set up, mom is doing well in Phoenix, we have our health and the market is coming back up after all the delayed Covid pandemic effects on economies around the world. Next year I hope we can blend together lots of time with my mom, time enjoying our compound in Northern Arizona, a few road trips with our trailer, and lastly several months out side of the US. I want to be visiting new and old friends, seeing new and familiar locations, all while keeping our hearts and minds open to the surprises that I know will come our way.
That’s it for now! We’re excited to jump in and participate in our Talking Money series. Thank you for reading our story, we’re looking forward to your comments!