SlowFI: Write Your Own Script; Early Retirement Might Still Be Someone Else’s

Today's guest post is courtesy of Jessica of The Fioneers. When you think about financial independence, there's a tendency to gravitate towards the original flavor – aggressive frugality to retire as early as possible. But that's not appealing to everyone (and certainly not to me). When I first heard about Jess and Corey's twist, I knew I had to get her to put together this incredible guest post – I hope you enjoy it!

When I first learned about FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early), I was intrigued. I loved the idea of figuring out what I wanted to do with my life if money weren't an obstacle.

I loved this idea so much that I began to reflect on what my ideal life would look like.

In my ideal life, I would be location independent and have the opportunity to travel for a few months each year. I wouldn't ever feel perpetually busy. There would be ample time to focus on my health and my relationships with friends and family. Some sort of meaningful work would be part of it since I've always loved helping people learn and grow.

I started to get excited about these ideas. I realized that if I worked very hard (cutting costs and increasing my income), I could reach FI in about 10 years.

10 years felt like a LONG time.

This timeline felt disappointing. I had already spent significant time and energy figuring out what I wanted out of life, and I felt paralyzed.

I didn't want to wait for 10 more years to be able to do the things I wanted to do.

Burnout was an ever-present reality in my life. I worked 50+ hours per week in a toxic work environment. My job was very challenging, (sometimes in a good way but mostly not), but it paid well. At the time, I didn't realize that there were any other options.

I assumed that everyone just found a job that they, hopefully, didn't hate; then, they worked for 30-40 years.

After I learned about FIRE, it felt like there were now two options available. I could continue living my consumer-driven lifestyle, or I could cut my spending, reach financial independence, and retire early.

This would allow me to live the life I wanted, or so I thought.

FIRE Flips the Script of Consumerism

Those who pursue financial independence see dramatic changes in their lives. One important mindset shift is that people realize that they can use their hard-earned money to buy back their future time. As a result, it no longer feels worth upgrading the car, furniture, kitchen appliances, and other “toys” before it's necessary.

When we learned about financial independence and early retirement, we started to live our lives and use our money in more intentional ways.

We now focus on spending money on things that we value and cutting costs on things that we don't. We realize we can live on (and be just as happy with) less. This is good for the environment and our wallets.

FIRE is a better script to follow than continuing with a consumption-driven mindset. With this script, you will have more options later so that you can figure out what you want out of life.

Unfortunately, early retirement is still someone else's script.

Many people who are pursuing FIRE have dropped one script and adopted another without figuring out what they uniquely want out of life.

Flipping the Script Isn't Enough

Over the last couple of years, I've met many people (in person and online) who are pursuing financial independence and/or early retirement.

A few weeks ago, I went to a local FI meet-up. A fellow attendee shared that he reached FI through real estate investments. After he reached FI, he said that he didn't know what to do next. He set up time with his mentor and asked, “Now what do I do?”

This story isn't unique. Many people say they want to retire early, but they don't know why or what they want to do with their time. They will figure it out once they retire and are no longer exhausted and burned out.

People don't need to wait until they are financially independent to figure out what they want. They can figure out their passions and what they want to do with their time now, along the journey to financial independence.

The point of financial freedom isn't to save up as much money as possible to retire early to a life of eternal bliss. Many people still see retirement as a two-phase approach with very little overlap between their pre- and post-FIRE lives.

Many early retirees who have taken this approach have found the transition challenging. It's hard to suddenly shed your professional identity and then figure out a whole new identity that will fulfill you.

Most Early Retirees Could Have Transitioned Earlier

Some (or might I say most) people who have retired early actually return to paid work: either for an employer or for themselves. Once they have time to de-stress from the burnout that they've experienced, people often realize that their ideal life includes work. What they really needed was better working conditions, flexibility, and more interesting work.

For example, Joel from Financial 180 recently returned to work after retiring early. In a recent post, he shares, “I didn't hate work in general; I hated my specific job.”

There are even people who use their early retired life to make a transition to self-employment. Within a few years, some find that they are making more money than when they were working. This is true of Jillian Johnsrud. After retiring from her day job, she began her own business helping people to design their ideal lifestyle through: coaching, speaking, disseminating content, and running her own retreat.

So many people continue to work and earn an income after early retirement. This tells me that, if they wanted to, they could have transitioned earlier. Instead of waiting until they had 25 or 33 times their annual expenses saved, they could have started living a life they wanted earlier.

They would have continued to do well financially and would have reached financial independence. It may have taken a few more years, but they could have had a more fulfilling life years earlier.

If I waited until I reached financial independence to make a transition to a life I wanted to be living, it would be my biggest regret.

I want everyone to reach financial independence at their own pace. When they achieve it, I don't want them to realize that they were still living someone else's script the whole time.

Pursue Slow FI and Write Your Own Script

I dove headfirst into the financial independence and lifestyle design communities online. I realized that there are so many different options in life. I didn't need to limit myself to two (consumerism and early retirement).

I started to learn about and meet people who were using their financial freedom to design lives that they wanted to be living now. These stories still feel few and far between. If you seek them out, you will find so many awesome options.

This is why we coined the term Slow FI. There is a large community of people who aren't inspired by the traditional FIRE narrative. Like us, they weren't seeing examples of people living lives that they identified with.

We hope to change the narrative within the FIRE community. To have a broader reach, we must represent a variety of different lifestyle options so that people see what financial freedom could do for them.

Slow FI Definition: “When someone uses the incremental financial freedom they gain along the journey to financial independence to live happier and healthier lives, do better work, and build strong relationships.”

When someone pursues Slow FI, the focus is not on when they can retire. The ultimate goal is to reach full financial independence, but the focus is on making the journey as remarkable as the destination.

Slow FI is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It is a process of defining your ideal life and taking small steps to align your life with that vision all along the way.

There are many people using their financial freedom to improve their lives now. Here are a few of the ways:

  • F-You Money: When you have enough cash in your emergency fund or liquid investments that you can walk away from a toxic situation without needing to worry (too much) about the financial ramifications. People use F-You money to get out of bad work situations, relationships, housing situations or quit side hustles, etc. F-You money can also build the self-confidence needed to: negotiate better work hours, work from home arrangements, take extended time off, or pursue entrepreneurship or self-employment.
  • Coast FI: When you have enough money invested that, if left untouched, will grow to provide a comfortable retirement at a traditional age. When someone reaches Coast FI, it means that they only need to cover their actual cost of living. Once people reach coast FI, they have many options. They can choose to work part-time, do freelance or consulting work, or just work for a portion of the year. They could also choose to work a lower-paying job that they would enjoy more.
  • Semi-Retirement: When you cover your living costs with a combination of active income and passive income from investments. Because semi-retirees still have some active income (often from an activity they find enjoyable), they will draw down a smaller amount in retirement funds. This allows their retirement accounts to continue to grow. Because these people don't need to cover their full cost of living, they can choose to scale back on work even more and spend more of their time doing activities that do not make money.
  • Full Early Retirement: Full early retirement is also one of the options. If you've reflected on your ideal life and your vision does not include any paid work, pushing toward full early retirement could be your best option. If you believe that this is the best option based on your own situation, then take it and make it your own script. I'd also urge you to figure out how to make the journey to FI more enjoyable by incorporating aspects of your ideal life now.

Tools to Write Your Own Script

Having financial freedom provides us with options. Too many choices can leave us feeling paralyzed if we start to question our decisions before we even make them.

When we have so many good options, how do we decide?

Designing your ideal life is an ongoing process of discovery and experimentation. If you don't have any idea where to start, you are in good company. That's exactly where I was 2 years ago.

1. Reflection

When I first began this process, I had a mental block. I hadn't thought about what I actually wanted in years.

Because of this, I started with a practice called morning pages to systematically reflect on my life and a variety of questions.

For those unfamiliar, morning pages is a practice to write 3 pages in a notebook every morning for a period of time. It doesn't matter what you write. You can write about your frustrations, your ideas, or anything that crosses your mind.

Writing is a powerful tool. If you write about a frustration enough, you either let it go or do something about it. If you write about an idea enough, you start to plan how to make it happen.

In combination with morning pages, I began to reflect on a variety of questions, such as:

  • “What would you do if you didn't need to work for money?” Inspired by Vicki Robin, this question helps you to define your ideal life if money weren't an obstacle. Then you can figure out how to incorporate aspects of it into your life today.
  • “What does your ideal day, week, month, and year look like?” For me, it was important to answer all these questions. It was easy to define what my ideal year would look like, but it was harder for me to define what I would like my day-to-day life to look like.
  • “If you had an amount of time (1 month, 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, 3 years, 5 years) off of work, what would you do with the time?” This can help you get a sense of what you want to be doing long-term. For the shorter stints, many people will say travel or destressing at home. Once you get into the longer periods of time, you begin to think about what kinds of activities would bring you true fulfillment.
  • “What did you enjoy doing when you were a kid?” This question was helpful for me because I was having a hard time figuring out what I enjoyed doing. This gave me a lot of ideas for hobbies and passions to pursue.

There are many more options for reflection. If you want to dig deeper, I'd recommend reading Work Optional or this transformational list of reflection questions from Modest Millionaires.

2. Build a Community and Expose Yourself to New Lifestyle Designs

You can't pursue a lifestyle that you don't know exists.

Until I started to explore the FI and lifestyle design communities online, I didn't know that there were more options to choose from in life. I met people who were: running their own businesses, working part-time, freelancing, working remotely, traveling full-time, and so much more.

Once I began to learn that these options existed, the world of opportunities opened up for me. I had examples that I could learn from to design my ideal lifestyle.

If you don't know where to start, I'd encourage you to check out our Slow FI interview series. The purpose of these interviews is to identify and amplify stories of people who are living unconventional lives focused on happiness and fulfillment along their path to FI.

3. Track your Energy and Engagement

Humans are notoriously bad at predicting what will make us happy. This is why it's important that we don't just reflect in a vacuum to create our ideal life.

One important thing we can do is to pay attention to how we feel doing our everyday activities. By doing this, we can determine what activities fully engage us and leave us feeling energized.

This practice is recommended as part of Designing Your Life (a book written by Stanford Design Professors applying the principles of design thinking to lifestyle design). These professors invite us to do a daily reflection of the activities we do each day for about 3-4 weeks. For each of these activities, we should rank how energized and engaged we felt by the activity.

This can lead to tremendous insights about what brings you joy and what zaps your energy. This can allow you to make small and large shifts toward the life you want.

4. Conduct Lifestyle Design Experiments

It's important to try things out by conducting lifestyle design experiments. No one will wake up one day and say, “I'm passionate about _________, and I'm going to do that for the rest of my life.” To figure out what will make us happy, we need to try things out to see if we enjoy them.

These experiments can be conversations, experiences, or lifestyle shifts. Everything we do can be a lifestyle design experiment if we pay attention to what we like and don't like about it. Every experience can help to inform our ideal lifestyle.

Over the last two years, I have done a variety of lifestyle design experiments.

I wanted to use my creative muscle, so I took a photography class. While I enjoyed myself, I also realized that I only wanted this to be a hobby.

As another way to use my creative energy and share things that I've learned, I started my blog. This experiment helped me to realize that I love writing, engaging with my community, and helping people to think about their lives in new ways. Because I've enjoyed it so much, it's something I've decided to invest even more of my time into.

Another lifestyle design experiment I undertook is that I began to work part-time. I was originally planning to start at 24 hours/week and go up to 30 hours/week a few months in. I found that I loved the pace of part-time work so much that I didn't want to go up to 30 hours. I found that I have ample time to focus on my health and well-being, work on my blog, relax, and spend time with friends. For the first time in my adult life, I know what it feels like to not be burned out. I enjoy it so much that I may never go back to full-time work.

I will continue to conduct lifestyle design experiments – probably for the rest of my life.

I've considered running events or retreats in the future. I'm planning to attend some retreats over the next year and start to plan local meetups. I also want to connect with people who run events to learn more about the process.

We also have a crazy idea of traveling around the US in an RV for a year. Besides reading blogs about people who have done this, we will likely rent an RV or campervan for a few weeks to get a feel for it.

You need to come up with the crazy and awesome ideas that you might want to do with your life. Then, you can figure out the types of lifestyle design experiments that will help you understand if that is what you really want.

Building the Life You Want is an Iterative Process

My life looks different than it did a year ago. I expect it'll also look different next year. If we are actively focused on building the life we want, our lives will shift over time.

My life isn't yet fully aligned with my vision for my ideal life, but it's a lot closer than it was a year ago. I expect it to be even closer next year and two years down the road. I will continue doing lifestyle design experiments and figuring out how to generate income in ways that fit with my ideal lifestyle.

This is the power of Slow FI. It is an iterative process that allows you to grab hold of the financial freedom you've gained already to design a life you want to be living today.

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Jessica (Mrs. Fioneer)

About Jessica (Mrs. Fioneer)

Jessica is a co-founder of The Fioneers. She and her husband are pursuing financial independence in Boston, a high cost of living area, while working in nonprofit organizations. When not writing for her blog, she enjoys the flexibility that working part-time provides.

Jessica is the creator of the "Slow FI." Instead of retiring early, she wants to utilize the financial freedom she gains to live a happier and more fulfilling life now. She also hopes to one day put her corporate HR experience into practice doing career discovery, salary negotiation, and lifestyle design coaching.

You can contact her through her website (thefioneers.com), on Twitter or Instagram (@TheFioneers), or join her private "Slow FI Enthusiasts" Facebook Group.

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  1. Lil old G says

    I loved reading your insights and experience into FI; I have recently experienced a ‘forced FI’ and even though it has been two years into this early retirement, I still struggle with what it is that i find fullfilling. Mostly though it comes down to finances. It seems in my life it has always been that old cliche “you either have time or you have money”. I dont seem to have enough money to do the things I want to do, but lots of time.

    • Jessica (Mrs. Fioneer) says

      Hey! I’m sorry to hear about the forced FI. And I can hear you on the time vs. money challenge. It’s interesting because I’ve figured out that many of the things I enjoy doing most don’t require a lot of money – spending time with friends and family, exploring new local places, hiking, taking walks with my dog, supporting people around their finance and lifestyle design journeys. I wonder if there are ways to figure out free/low cost thongs to do. Or maybe you could consider volunteering for a nonprofit.

      I’m not sure if you have the ability to work or make an income, so I don’t want to presume that everyone can go out and increase their income. One idea could be looking into the gig economy or even a part-time job to help generate some income for fun money.

      I wish you the best. Thanks for the comment,
      Jessica

  2. Mighty Investor says

    A worthwhile article and a more realistic approach for most people who don’t want to live the radicalism of super early FI that entails the super super low expenses that usually come with it.

    Closer to the way I approach it, too.

    Thanks.

    • Jessica (Mrs. Fioneer) says

      Hi Mighty Investor,

      Thanks for the comment! I agree that Slow FI is a more realistic option for most people. Given that it will take much longer for most people to teach FI, figuring out how to enjoy the journey is vital!

      Thanks,
      Jessica

  3. Steph says

    Excellent article highlighting a middle path, for those of us who prefer not to aggressively pursue full early retirement.

    In your phrase, I am pursuing ‘coast FI’. I like my job, but it’s stressful, and we have a young child to raise. 25-30 hours a week paid work feels quite strenuous when combined with parenting and a partner who works full-time. I am working on finding a balance between saving early to maximise the benefits of compound growth, and enjoying life more now with my family (by working less / taking more time off). Current savings rate is 35% and current goal is to have retirement (meaning from age 60) fully funded within 7 years, allowing us to reduce our income by 35% at that point and just coast. However perhaps it would make sense to extend this out to 10 years and take some pressure off now.

    It’s a work in progress but knowing that we have a plan in place for our future gives me peace of mind that I didn’t have before discovering FI.

    Thanks for the article.

    • Jessica (Mrs. Fioneer) says

      Hi Steph,

      Thanks for sharing. Only you can know what the best thing for your life would look like. I do wonder if you eased up a bit now while the kids are small, if you could increase work later if you decided you wanted to.

      There are so many options! I wish you the best in figuring out what the right path is for you!

      Jessica

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