Today we’re sitting down with Chris Mamula, the primary author of the book Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence, to get his take on lessons learned about financial independence/retiring early. Chris retired at 41, and is a welcome part of the FIRE community. Let’s jump right in to the interview.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about FIRE?
The biggest lesson that I’ve learned is if something isn’t working, change it. Even if change is painful in the short term, doing nothing is more painful in the long run.
Einstein has been credited as defining insanity as doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result. I agree. If you want a life that is different from most of the people around you, you have to choose a different path and have the courage to go down it.
My wife and I made a few conscious decisions to change course when we knew things clearly weren’t right. Those actions changed the trajectory of our lives.
The first occurred following my wife’s freshman year in college. She was following the standard path for those who don’t have parental assistance to get through college– finance everything with student loans.
She decided she did not want to start her life buried by debt. She worked full-time while going to school full-time the next three years and finished with a small amount of debt that we were able to pay off within a year before getting married.
The second big change was selling our first house only a year after buying it. We were each working 50+ hours/week as new professionals and spending ninety minutes per day round trip commuting in opposite directions.
We moved to a lower cost of living area, decreasing our commutes to less than ten minutes each in the process.
Instead of rushing to buy another house, we rented a tiny apartment. It was so small we couldn’t get our boxspring up to our bedroom, so we slept on a mattress on a floor for two and a half years until we built our next house.
We saved a massive amount of money in this time, allowing us to pay our next house off in about 7 years. Eliminating mortgage payments gave us confidence to take risks in other areas that improved our lives immensely.
The third big change we made was becoming DIY investors and financial planners. We spent a decade feeling overwhelmed by personal finance. This caused us to make massive mistakes by following horrible financial advice.
It was painful to unwind these mistakes. But it was worth it. We now save tens of thousands of dollars a year in unnecessary fees and taxes that we incurred by following advice tainted by massive conflicts of interest we didn’t understand.
Turning this negative situation into a positive saved us a tremendous amount of money, accelerating our path to financial independence. This also led me to start my original blog, creating accountability and giving me an outlet to help others facing similar challenges.
That project in turn led to writing a book with Brad Barrett and Jonathan Mendonsa of the ChooseFI podcast and partnering with Darrow Kirkpatrick on my current blogging project. Helping others through my writing has played a vital role in giving my life purpose and meaning in retirement.
What challenges of FIRE surprised you & why?
I don’t think I was naive in thinking that achieving financial independence and retiring early would make life perfect. Still, I was not prepared for just how hard it was to make the massive changes that we did.
These changes included leaving my career of 17 years (the last 15 working in the same physical therapy clinic), beginning work on my book and a new blog, selling the home we had lived in for over a decade, and moving cross country from Pennsylvania to Utah to start a new phase of life. This all happened in a period of about eight months.
I’m not sure why it was such a surprise other than to say that we (not just my wife and I, but humans in general) are generally pretty bad at predicting the future. I want to share a nuanced view from the other side of financial independence to help people better prepare for these challenges.
What was easier than you thought?
We were intimidated by investing and taxes for the first decade of our careers. Rather than approaching these topics as things we could learn, we buried our heads in the sand.
We paid taxes for a decade before we learned the difference between effective and marginal tax rates. Our knowledge of investing was “stocks are risky” and “bonds are safe.” We blindly followed conflicted advice that cost us dearly because we thought the technical aspects of personal finance were too hard.
JL Collins’ Stock Series was the first resource that I found that made investing accessible. He turned me on to the writing of Vanguard founder John Bogle which then led me to the Bogleheads (followers of Bogle’s philosophy of investing in passive, low-cost, tax efficient index funds.)
I’ll be forever grateful for having found these resources. They changed my life. I now share them whenever possible to pay it forward.
If you could have done one thing differently to prepare, what would it have been?
Ask more and better questions. The reasons for our successes can all be attributed to stepping back when things didn’t feel right, asking why we were doing what we were doing, and then changing course when it made sense to do so.
Conversely, the biggest mistakes that we made occurred when we failed to do so. Following bad financial advice was one example. Getting overly obsessed with FIRE for a few years after discovering the concept was another, before eventually redefining retirement to be something that made sense for our goals and desires.
What misconception about FIRE would you like to clear up?
Many people are introduced to FIRE by a story on a mainstream website or publication or a TV news report. They almost always have at least one of the following themes: the person lives a life of extreme frugality, made a ton of money, or is living an extreme lifestyle in retirement.
I’ve taken this path and have had the pleasure of meeting many other people who have as well. The only pattern I’ve consistently observed that is extraordinary is that we tend to travel more and have more interesting experiences than most people I meet in normal daily life.
Most of the people have (or had) ordinary jobs/careers and have made a few key decisions right regarding paying for college, housing, cars, food, investments and taxes. An extreme lifestyle is not required.
Is there anything you wish people would ask but they never do?
I wish people would ask what scares me. I think my story may give the impression of someone who is fearless:
- Retire at age 41 years old with a 5 year old child
- Investment portfolio consisting primarily of stocks
- Picking up and moving cross country to a place where we knew no one
- Lifestyle built around outdoor adventure (skiing, mountain biking, rock climbing, high altitude mountaineering).
I actually consider myself extremely risk averse and cautious. I sometimes feel overwhelmed by fear.
Pushing myself with outdoor adventures has forced me to learn to manage risk. I no longer see risk as black and white, but instead as many shades of gray.
I often refer back to the quote of mountaineer Ed Viesturs who said, “Getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory.” This highlights the importance of avoiding risks when you can’t live with the consequences.
Conversely, always taking the safe path in life means you’re going to miss out on a lot of amazing experiences that could be had if you just learned to mitigate risks that are manageable. Risk management is a learnable skill, but like any skill it takes practice.
Chris Mamula used principles of traditional retirement planning, combined with creative lifestyle design, to retire from a career as a physical therapist at age 41. After poor experiences with the financial industry early in his professional life, he educated himself on investing and tax planning. Now he draws on his experience to write about wealth building, DIY investing, financial planning, early retirement, and lifestyle design at Can I Retire Yet? Chris’ writing has been featured in MarketWatch, Morningstar, Doughroller, and Business Insider. He is also the primary author of the book Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence.