Early Retirement Extreme: The ten-year update

Today, I’m pleased to present a guest article from one of my favorite money bloggers of all time: Jacob Lund Fisker. Fisker founded Early Retirement Extreme in 2007. It quickly became an influential voice for the nascent FIRE movement. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that FIRE wouldn’t be what it is today with his work.

Fisker retired from blogging in 2011. Since then, he and I have exchanged long emails on sometimes arcane subjects. Occasionally I ask him for advice. Recently, I asked him if he’d be willing to update people on where he’s been and what he’s been doing for the past decade. He agreed.

Here, then, is Fisker’s story of life after Early Retirement Extreme (and extreme early retirement). Be warned: His story is not short.

Early Retirement ExtremeStarting in 2007 (and largely finishing by 2011), I formalized a philosophical alternative to consumerism in the form of a 1000+ post blog and 100,000+ word book [J.D.’s review], which I mistakenly called “Early Retirement Extreme” (or ERE in acronym form). These days, I stick to the acronym form. 😛

Central to my philosophy was the renaissance ideal of spending your life mastering a productive level of competence in a broad range of subjects. This arsenal of “renaissance skills” would then be combined into a mutually reinforcing web-of-goals, which made living more interesting and balanced — but also more cost- and resource-efficient and resilient in the face of the growing complexities and uncertainties of the 21st century.

Being a theoretical physicist by training (and remaining one in spirit) compelled me to present all of this as a theory of everything, rather than the more typical format of a light non-fiction autobiography or overview. As I didn’t really figure on a general audience — it was fairly non-existent back in 2008 — that also meant using graphs and equations when applicable.

The benefit of that format was that others could use the ERE design principles to construct their own particular plan according to their own individual circumstances and goals instead of retracing the footsteps of one particular individual.

Retiring from blogging

Eventually, I considered the problem of “How to escape the earn-buy cycle in order to live a more interesting life” solved and sufficiently “communicated”. In 2011, I stopped blogging. I continued to follow the ERE principles in the spirit of the renaissance ideal with the goal of solving other big problems. Being financially independent (FI), I no longer require any compensation even if I still appreciate it — if nothing else than just to keep score or divert the lucre towards more useful purposes (e.g. supporting people on Kiva or Patreon).

Career workers who don’t know me typically ask me what I do for a living, expecting an answer in the form of a job title. (That tends to get awkward and I still don’t have a clever response.)

Similarly, people in the FIRE community (and the media that now covers it since they discovered it a couple of years ago) expect a curriculum vitae in the form of instagram-friendly bucket-list of accomplishments. However, following the systems-based web-of-goals approach, it’s really hard to answer that in a way that satisfies linear formats.

I follow many different leads and do many different things — often concurrently — and sometimes in ways where they combine and result in new, unexpected opportunities (the serendipity effect). It’s therefore difficult to summarize the last ten years of my life in chronological order, so let me instead attempt it as a “skill” or activity-based resume in no particular order.

This format makes more sense since the ERE strategy is to learn something and add value to the process and its environment, a side-effect of which is that I usually don’t have to pay to solve problems and that I sometimes get paid. As a consequence, my spending also remains ridiculously low. (I’ll get to that near the end of this article.)

I apologize that this is long and boring, but ten years is a long time and one can get a lot done in ten years — not all of which might be as interesting to the reader as it is or was to me. So, for the sake of completeness and in no particular order, and perhaps with the hope that I don’t have to write another autobiography for the next ten years, here’s a first-hand answer to the question: “Whatever happened to Jacob Lund Fisker?”

My Sporting Years

The first years of any retirement are often filled with activities that one never had time to pursue when working. For most, this means travel. But I had travelled a lot as a part of my career already, so the missing ingredient for me was sports. So, initially I played a lot of sports.

I spent three or four days each week practicing Japanese swordfighting for three years. So, I know a little bit about swords now. Swordfighting is a complex skill that is hard to put into words. It also resists incremental learning because it doesn’t make sense or flow until all of the ingredients are known and snap together. (Much like the ERE philosophy!)

Note: After moving to Chicago, I wanted to continue swordfighting, but the nearest dojo is too far away. The take-away here is that if one wants to move around, it’s better to pick an activity that exists everywhere and is easily accessible.

Jacob as a team playerI also played a lot of inline hockey in the local city league. My talents were mostly in passing, winning faceoffs, and scoring garbage goals, so I played the role of center forward. Our team won four seasons in a row. Growing up, I was a competitive swimmer, so this was the first time I played a team sport and I thoroughly enjoyed competing with others instead of against myself.

These days, I’ve sacrificed hockey and risky sports in general because I want to avoid acquiring any long-term injuries. Now, I mainly do BeachBody-type workouts: Insanity, Max30, Asylum, Tapout. It’s free, easy, and it keeps me active. I achieved six-pack abs for the first time in my life in my early forties! Another fun exercise is jump roping. I can do double unders, running crosses, heel taps, boxer step, and seamless forward backward reverses. (J.D. loves jump roping too, although he says he’s too fat right now to do it without injury.)

Meanwhile, I taught myself bicycle repair. I eventually served as the unofficial mechanic for a women’s shelter thanks to someone I met via Freecycle. I mostly used Park’s Blue Book, Zinn’s guides, and youtube videos to teach myself. Bicycle repair is fantastic for those of us who come from a white-collar background with zero practical skills, because bicycle repair is mostly solving closed-end problems.

Speaking of cycling, I did a lot of riding in the bay area and was planning a ride across the United States. That is indefinitely postponed, but I did ride a few centuries (100-milers) and trained enough to reach a [20 minute] functional threshold power of 3.7W/kg for those who know what that means.

Jacob's dog!My connection at the shelter owned a boat and one of my hockey mates also knew a guy with a boat. They connected me with the sailing community in the San Francisco bay.

I think almost everybody who first gets into sailing dreams about sailing around the world, but I found that I didn’t enjoy cruising as much as I liked racing. So, I joined a couple of racing yachts out of the Berkeley marina serving as the mainsail trimmer on my primary boat. We won two regattas while I was on that boat.

I sailed about 50 times per year and have sailed around Alcatraz or under the Golden Gate Bridge more times than I can remember. Lots of stories here including force 6 winds facing 12ft+ rolling waves in the Pacific, losing the rudder (snapped right off), losing the engine, shrimping the spinnaker, shredding the mainsail, taking on water and bailing with a bucket, pulling other boats off of cliff shores. Exciting stuff!

The RV years

From 2008 (before I retired) until 2011 (when we left for Chicago), we lived in a 34-foot motorhome (class A a.k.a. “autocamper” — looks like a bus) that we permanently parked in a nice mobile-home park (we also looked at some not so nice parks before finding a good one) within biking distance from my work and eventually former colleagues.

This allowed us to live in the East Bay Area spending less than $14,000/year for the two of us (including health care, a car, a dog (he’s 15 now!), and of course the RV).

Originally, I wanted to live in a boat or a tiny house, but my wife vetoed it in favor of an RV, which she was more familiar with. I must admit that I wasn’t too keen on our home and worldly possessions possibly sinking either. Also, I didn’t know the first thing about carpentry and building, but that doesn’t seem to hold other people back. If we had to do it again, we’d get a 21-25′ travel trailer. (See the frequently asked questions section on my blog for the reasons.)

Moving to Chicago

In December 2011, we sold the RV and moved into a one-bed/one-bath apartment in Chicago. This was the easiest move ever. It only took 17 days to get the RV sold, drive 2000 miles across the US, find an apartment, and move in. Thanks #minimalism for making it easy to accept opportunities when presented!

For a while, it was strange living in a place where furniture, switches, and doorways were all much farther apart…and how the floor didn’t sway during wind gusts. [J.D.’s note: This is how Kim and I felt after returning from our fifteen-month RV trip around the U.S. Such culture shock going from a tiny space to a huge one, especially one so removed from the outside environment.]

Why did we move? I had received an offer (actually via one of my blog readers) to work in a financial firm in Chicago as a quant on the buy-side. (This had been something I wanted to try for a long time. I first tried in 2008 after reading up on all the details, but then the credit crisis happened and hiring froze!)

I worked there full time until I quit in 2015. It was interesting to see how the markets’ plumbing really works. And how the people working in high finance were some of the most widely-read and intellectually curious people I’ve ever met. I do think maybe academics might be inherently more curious, it’s just that “publish or perish” doesn’t leave enough time to exercise it anymore. I’ve seen so many stacks of unopened books and magazines on the desks of professors bogged down by administrative and grantseeking duties, it makes me sad.

Here’s another big lesson I learned, one that might surprise you.

You know how the standard refrain amongst personal finance gurus is how nobody can predict or beat the market? Well, I met and now know a lot of nobodies who regularly beat the market.

These folks have no desire to start a blog, get a paper published, explain the details, or debate the possibility with the internet. Rather, the attitude is one of “live and let live”. I think some of that attitude rubbed off on me. Why bother explaining if the audience always sees it as a starting point for a win-lose debate rather than an opportunity to learn?

It’s also possible that I’ve just grown tired of arguing. I’ve thought a lot about how we all take roles in that particular dynamic on social media thereby affecting what it’s possible to learn from each other. I feel less inclined to share insights than I used to.

Home and Homesteading

In 2014, we bought a house. We paid cash, of course. (Fun fact: Before I learned about investing as a means of using money to make more money and the whole financial independence thing, I was just saving so I could entirely avoid the interest payments on a mortgage.)

Our house is a roughly 1000-square-foot brick fixer-upper that we live in and that we’re still “fixing” up. Rationally, flipping fixer-uppers you live in is an ideal combination of investing and working that checks many FIRE boxes. However, I’ve found that it’s not really something that I enjoy. To me, a house remains a big container that’s mostly used to shelter myself and my stuff while I do other things. I wish I could enjoy the maintenance aspect of homeownership, but I don’t. Maybe someday I will.

I taught myself woodworking using hand tools, which is mentally different from the machine-thinking I was used to. This process developed slowly and took years, but it came in handy being a homeowner. I can design and build properly-sized furniture and I can make replacement parts and fix free furniture.

Jacob can build his own furniture

For example, I furnished our bathroom with a new DIY vanity and built-in cabinet spending only $50 on materials total. Lately, I’ve been interested in toolmaking. I think being able to build one’s own tools is the real measure of mastery of one’s field. Most recently, I have built a lathe from scratch. It cost me less than $10 in materials. [J.D.’s note:: Holy cats! And I thought my father was handy…]

We plowed up (actually laboriously double-dug with a spade) much of our backyard lawn to install a vegetable garden. The ultimate goal is to develop some level of self-reliance beyond just having access to free organic vegetables every summer/fall. This has been a good reminder that we (or at least I) definitely don’t want to be homesteaders. It’s funny how homestead is so popular in the FIRE community that it almost seems like a rite of passage. Maybe homesteading attracts exuberant personalities in search of projects? We almost bought one in rural Oregon in 2011. I’m glad we didn’t because maintenance is just not for me.

Who Watches the Watchmen?

Taking apart a watchFor a while, I messed around with mechanical watches. I can now take one completely apart and reassemble it back into a working unit.

Similar to bicycle repair, this skill allows one to fix things for oneself, neighbors, and friends, but it is hard to make real money on it due to the competition. And if you do, it will mostly come from buying and selling at the right price or simple fixes like changing batteries and fixing flat tires. There’s little profit in doing difficult technical work!

Also how many people do you know who still wear watches? They’re both great hobbies though. Recently, I’ve started building a mechanical clock out of plywood. For real!

My general prescription for a successful job-free life is to find activities that cover the combination of meaning+fun and theoretical+practical — albeit not necessarily at the same time. But it’s important to touch all of those dimensions from time to time even it it involves a job.

For example, building a working clock out of plywood is practical and fun and perhaps a bit theoretical as well…but definitely not meaningful in the grand scheme of things. However, it checks some of the checkbox combinatorics. In the long run, meaning is more important than fun though!

Many (but not all) who work a job ultimately come to think working their job is meaningless beyond receiving their paycheck. Filling out TPS reports, designing or selling apps and widgets and thneeds that nobody wants because nobody needs. Or just increasing one’s net worth highscore or falling victim to the syndrome of one more year.

The search for meaning (over comfort) was a big reason I quit my physics career. I wanted to focus on writing the ERE blog. With physics, I was researching arcane details about neutron stars that were only interesting to maybe five other people in the world. I wasn’t exactly curing cancer, but see below…

When blogging, I was breaking new ground (many aspects of commonly accepted FIRE philosophy today were still pretty original ten years ago) and changing peoples’ lives on a daily basis. (At least, that’s what the comments and emails told me!) Quitting astrophysics to write about early retirement thus checked the box of meaningfulness that my academic research lacked.

The Search for Meaning

One of my buddies from high school — who is now a professor at my alma mater — asked for my help doing some numerical research on enzyme reactions that are actually relevant to cancer research. After bridging the interdisciplinary communications gap, it was fun to see what could be done.

The numerical tools used in computational astrophysics are maybe 40 years ahead of what is apparently state-of-the-art in molecular biology. It’s always fun to blow someone’s mind with a little bit of applied math. It doesn’t just happen with the shockingly simple math of extreme early retirement! 😉

The very first thing I engaged in after retiring from physics was signing onto a non-profit startup with the aim to facilitate interdisciplinary solutions for a brave new green economy. As is tradition in Silicon Valley-area startups, we gave each other fancy titles. I was the “associate director” (basically “number one” in Star Trek terms) and served on the board of directors as a founding member.

However, I eventually found that I didn’t agree with the speed and indirect impact of this format. I would much rather focus on solutions that could be immediately implemented at the field level, like ERE, than advise, debate, research, educate, or engage in activism. Ultimately, “big change” needs people filling all roles, but now I have a better idea of the role I optimally fill.

Most of my ERE readers/forumites don’t know it, but before ERE back in the early 2000s, when I was still a grad student in physics, I ran a highly-ranked website on the limits of energy resources that drew more traffic than the rest of the entire physics department combined. A very astute person recently tweeted that ERE is a peak oil blog in disguise. This is correct.

Thinking back, I faded from the energy resource scene for similar reasons that I left the non-profit. Sticking to thinking up actionable solutions at the individual level just works better for me. I’m writing this down as a reminder to myself to stay focused on my current project. Tempting as it is to focus on different ways of solving problems — raising awareness, etc. — I am fundamentally interested in individually actionable solutions.

J.D.’s note: This reminds me of our recent discussion about politics and personal finance. Ultimately, I concluded we need people to fill all roles. Some folks — like Tanja from Our Next Life — are generals. They want to formulate political strategy. I don’t. I want to train the troops in day-to-day financial combat skills.

The Downsides of the Renaissance Ideal

In a given year, I read more than 100 books. Most of these are technical/non-fiction in order to gain useful insights or learn more stuff.

After reading a few thousand, the ROI of reading or “book learning” is near the top end of the S-curve for me. This is also the case for striving towards being a master of many trades in general.

The downsides of the renaissance ideal as measured at the 10-year milestone in my experience? It becomes harder to enjoy being a spectator. It’s also harder to appreciate bought experiences along with and in the company of others. This is not necessarily a virtue or a good thing by the way!

I find myself unable to enjoy watching sports, for example. J.D. can do it; I can’t. Courtesy of my high-finance stint, I got to experience watching the Blackhawks play from the box suites at the United Center eating catered food. I bet that was all very expensive and I appreciate the gesture — I understand that it was meant as a reward — but watching professionals play is a far cry from the full experience of playing hockey yourself even as a competent amateur.

I think this holds true for all kinds of experiences.

Learning new skills. Making things yourself. Earning money in new and different ways like hourly, salaried, royalties, investing, trading. Interacting with other people whether it be by helping, getting helped, giving, getting, selling, buying. I could go on, but you know what I mean, right?

I have the same problem with going out to eat. Those $150/person restaurant meals — again, I appreciate the gesture — become hard to enjoy once you’re able to create a superior meal (as measured by your personal preferences) for far less.

What My Wife Did

I’ve now been married for more than thirteen years. Both my wife and I suffer from itchy feet on a three to five year basis. She gets it from growing up military. I get it from an early career as a metic academic ever since I left Denmark two decades ago when I was 24. Temperamentally, the idea of “doing time” in a job or being a “career lifer” is just unappealing to both of us.

When I received the job offer in Chicago back in 2011, I of course asked my wife if she was okay with leaving the east bay and wanted to go too? (Veto rights are always implied in our relationship.) She said yes.

In Chicago, she interviewed with a couple of companies in her old field of environmental remediation but she could no longer find any spark of joy. Essentially being on a sabbatical, I insisted on her doing our taxes (something that had previously been under my purview) to get a hands-on feeling for how they worked should I ever get hit by a bus. Strangely, she liked doing the numbers very much and thus decided to go back to school for an associates degree in accounting which she quickly finished (piece of cake when you come in with a STEM PhD).

This led to her being hired by a certain tax preparation company that everybody probably knows. (Free semi-retirement tip: There are a lot of overly-educated, semi-retired people working in tax-prep because it’s seasonal, reasonably well paid, and the co-workers tend to be interesting!) She spent a few years working her way up the ladder until she was responsible for the day-to-day problems of ~100 offices. Then she decided it wasn’t worth it anymore and quit. Now she works for a non-profit in the legal field.

Spending Money as a Failure of Imagination

My spending has remained around the $7000 per year mark for almost twenty years now. Since we got married thirteen years ago, my wife’s spending has also hovered around the $7000 per year mark. In other words, our combined expenses total about $14,000 per year.

The continual addition of new skills and skill-synergies has allowed us to stretch each dollar further and further in terms of what we get from spending it. We still tend to specialize individually, but as a unit comparative advantage works for us.

I can do many things competently. Ditto my wife for many other things. Together, we’re rather self-reliant (to put it mildly). Spending money mainly serves to resolve friction from inefficient lifestyle design. And for us, there’s just not a whole lot of friction left anymore except real-estate, taxes, and insurance premiums, which account for nearly 60% of our budget. We consider spending money a failure to solve our problems by smarter means.

Jacob's graph of skill vs imagination

But our failure rate is getting quite low at this point.

J.D.’s Note
Whoa. This is my biggest take-away from the 5000 words that Jacob wrote here: “Spending money is a failure to solve problems by smarter means.” This hits home hard.

Last week, my dog broke her retractable leash again. She lunged hard at a squirrel and destroyed the internal mechanism. I threw the leash away and bought a new one. This is a failure to solve the problem by smarter means. I’m willing to bet that I could have opened the leash and repaired the sprung spring. But I was too lazy. Or, more precisely, it didn’t even occur to me.

Spending money is a failure to solve problems by smarter means. Wow.

Our present situation could easily be confused for a mundane suburban middle-class existence…except most of what we own has not been acquired by spending. Some get disappointed by that optic expecting the (typically expensive) Instagram-worthy minimalist designs often portrayed in the media as they try to sell eyeballs to those who want to buy the newest fad.

114 Years of Savings (and Counting)

For historical reasons, my wife and I have kept our savings separate while splitting our income. There are lots of different ways to arrange financial matters, and attitudes vary a lot depending on whatever antediluvian norms anyone grew up under. This is just what we decided back then — mainly because it made tax accounting easy — and we’re still happy with it.

For the record, my cumulative income contribution still remains the larger one by a skodge. So we could have chosen differently, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway at this point since we’re both way way beyond the standard FI numbers (and have been for several years).

Currently, I have saved 114 years worth of spending. That’s way beyond the 25 years required for the so-called 4% rule for safe withdrawals in retirement. My wife has 62 years worth of savings. At this point, earning more money doesn’t matter anymore.

Both of us have contributed much more to society producing things than we’ve taken out by consuming them. Neither of us need to work anymore. Nor do we feel any reason to spend more. It’s not money but skills and imagination that comprise the limiting factor when operating at this level.

However, whereas it has ultimately become clear to me that I function best as a self-employed intellectual gunslinger for short-term hire to solve complex problems, as mentioned above, my wife still enjoys the structure of a traditional job as long as she’s free to change it from time to time. As a couple, both of us being FI makes it a lot easier to solve the “two-body” problem that academics are annoyingly familiar with: In choosing where to go, we take turns with who gets to do a “location-specific project” next.

What Is FIRE For?

Starting in 2017ish, FIRE began to go mainstream.

Hundreds of new FIRE blogs have been started in the past few years. The handful of us who have been around since the beginning have spent more time than we probably like getting interviewed by journalists.

While social media reactions and the general understanding has improved (especially when talking to journalists who are also pursuing FIRE on their own), the media narrative of the FIRE model often remains a story with two separate parts:

  1. A working phase of money earning accumulation followed by…
  2. A spending phase of consumerist entertainment.

Basically, this is an old-fashioned retirement with younger people, where travelling, eating out, and going to concerts substitute for playing bingo. Given this, it’s not uncommon that young FIRE people eventually get bored and go back to their old jobs.

With little or no widespread experience outside of consumerism, it seems there’s a certain lack of imagination in terms of what to do with all of this unlocked financial freedom (time).

While FIRE solves the freedom-from problem, ERE’s renaissance concept also solves the freedom-to issue, because the limiting factor in enjoying post-work life is seldom money but skill, connections, and the amazing opportunities they generate.

ERE was designed as a continually-evolving system that aims at efficiency and resilience for the 21st century. Within this system, FI just happens as a side-effect of being compensated for adding value to the system while reducing the need and desire to spend. Basically, a two-fer.

Focusing on adding value creates plenty of experiences and things to try and do, which I hope to have illustrated above. Effectively, it looks very different from traditional forms of retirement — whether they be early or late. Indeed, it’s been our experience, both personally but also from the other early adopters from 10+ years ago, that the ERE concept works as intended.

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