There’s a lot of commentary out there on the get out of debt and FIRE movements, and it goes a little like this:
- “Well, you were only able to get out of debt because you make a lot of money.”
- “Well, you were a white male software engineer and so of course it was easy for you to become financially independent & retire early.”
- Or my favorite one of all: “You’re not really retired because you still make money.”
Let’s unpack those for a moment, and then I’ll get into the nitty gritty details of exactly how I make money. (Both before, during, and after becoming debt free and FI.) I will warn you, this is very rant-y and long. But hey, it’s my site.
My thoughts on the advice around debt
You can get into and out of debt on a low income. You can get into debt on a high income (and get out of it much faster if you want.) You can live without debt on all kinds of incomes.
If you’re saying that the get out of debt advice you read everywhere doesn’t apply to you because it’s ridiculous, let’s talk. Yes, it’s insanely frustrating to read things like “just quit eating out so much & cut your cable” or “quit going to Starbucks & make coffee at home” when you’ve never even had those things in the first place and already know how to squeeze blood from a turnip.
But it’s not that the advice is bad. (It’s actually GOOD advice for huge numbers of people who are in debt.) It’s that the advice is unhelpful for your situation. Because chances are, you’re experiencing generational poverty, long term unemployment, student loan debt of $100K or more, or a lifetime of struggling to raise a family (or just yourself!) on a minimum wage income.
“Make more money and stop having to pay extra for all kinds of things many people take for granted” is the actual solution if you’re experiencing those things, but that would also be unhelpful advice. Because it leaves out HOW.
I wish I had an easy answer to the how part, but I don’t. Most people don’t, which is why they don’t write about it. I have at least experienced long term unemployment and living in a crappy areas where you’re not shocked that a building blew up or that someone ran past your door brandishing a knife. And I currently live in a much nicer, rapidly-gentrifying area (where I’ve lived for over 20 years) where the helicopters still hover overhead 2-3 times a year warning people to stay inside. So I get that part. But I definitely have not experienced generational poverty, and only know that it’s a huge problem.
So at this point all I can tell you is that it IS possible to escape and improve things significantly, but you probably can’t do it alone. You have to get help from other people who are already doing better than you, help from social services, help from anyone you can think of. And by “help” I do not mean people giving you money.
I mean social connections, help getting a job that pays more without requiring you to be randomly available at all time and uninsured. Help getting into better housing so heating & cooling don’t cost so much. Help living closer to that better job so that you don’t have to spend 2-5 hours a day getting to and from it on public transit. Help reducing your expenses by getting a financially reliable roommate.
Talk to the people you know who are doing better than you financially. Ask them how they did it. Ask if they know anyone who is hiring they could recommend you to. Ask for a raise at your current job. Ask if they have a management training program you can qualify for. Start a business in any scrap of spare time you can come up with. (A business that costs $35 or less to start, or is ideally free to start. You do not have to spend money to make money, despite what “they” say.)
And if you CAN benefit from the standard advice, take it! Stop making excuses for whatever your situation is and focus on what you what most instead.
Either way, going forward is what matters most. So go forward. You can do it.
My thoughts on the whole white male / FIRE thing
Yes, it is EASIER to become financially independent if you have a high paying job and every advantage in today’s society. It’s easier if you’re starting closer to the finish line and have a little booster pack on your back rocketing you forward. It’s easier if you HAVE tons of things to cut or sell.
But NO, those are NOT the only people who can successfully become financially independent and retire early. And it’s no guarantee of success. You can blow through tons of money or become disabled no matter where you’re starting from.
I’m FI, and although I am white I’ve never been a software engineer, and I’ve pretty much always been substantially underemployed and underpaid when I had a job. Here’s another example of a non-traditional FIRE story. I know there are more, but I’m not going to take the time to dig them up right now. Maybe I’ll add some later.
Women making less is an issue too of course, but we’ve got to change that. I once got hired for the EXACT same job, by the EXACT same hiring person, at the EXACT same company as my husband, and I started years later at $8,000 a year less than he did when he started years earlier. But I took that job, because it was a whole lot better than what I had been making before part time, and they were willing to make me full time with benefits. I figured I could ask for a raise later. When they turned down my multiple requests for a raise, I did what it took to change their mind. I ended up with just over a 56% pay increase and more vacation time. And then I worked full time+ on the side doing my own thing too, while raising my son and dealing with life. Because I was going to do whatever it took to get out of debt for good and reach my goal of FREEDOM.
Now I am financially independent. Because I don’t have debt and the things I need to pay for to live cost very little. And yeah, I still work on my own stuff. A lot. Because I like it. Because I want to help people. And because I like making more money.
Fight for what you want, and don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t possible. Or use proving them wrong as motivation if they do.
My thoughts on “You’re not really retired because you still make money.”
Really? I don’t know ANYONE who is traditionally retired that doesn’t still make money. If you’re retired and are still making money, you are doing it right!
Why isn’t that a common GOAL instead of a common complaint? Maybe because it’s an excuse to not have to take a hard look at your own life?
People work for all kinds of reasons: they want to contribute to society, they want more money, they get bored otherwise, they don’t want to be lonely, they have things to offer, you name it. It’s the nature of human beings to want to be useful, and there’s no law that says to be considered retired you must strictly meet those needs by volunteering and living only off passive income.
Also, most “passive income” actually involves work. Even in the IRS-accepted definition of passive income (aka owning rental properties or being a part of a business or partnership that you don’t “materially” participate in) there’s still work involved. You have to manage those rental properties, or deal with the person/company you hired to manage those rental properties. All they do is call you and ask for money when there is a problem, and see if you authorize the repairs. You have to file a whole bunch of extra tax paperwork, or hire someone to do so after you’ve done all the work of gathering the information in the first place. There is no free lunch.
So, what’s the deal? I don’t go around saying I’m retired, but you know what? They threw me a retirement lunch when I quit my job for good at age 46. I do not need another job to live. (I do need healthcare, but that’s another story.)
Retirement is whatever you want to make of it. But it typically does mean you are not working a traditional 9-5 job because you can’t get along without that income. It doesn’t mean you aren’t making money!
Now it’s time for that transparency I promised.
TLDR: I have earned and still do earn money in a huge variety of random ways.
Now for the longer version, including how I make money from blogging.
How I earned money while getting into debt
In brief, I earned money while my (now-ex) and I were busy getting into debt by:
- Working a full time job while going to school full time
- Reselling things I bought at garage sales and from the classifieds
- Just working a full time job
- Working a part time job
- Doing a few random side hustles along the lines of selling souvenirs at a football game, painting a mural, house sitting, etc.
- Getting a stipend while working & living in Germany on a work-exchange
- Doing a paid internship (and an unpaid one) while going to school full time during my last year of graduate school
- Creating websites for people
Mostly, it was working a full time job.
How I earned money while treading water
After my ex and I got separated and then divorced, and prior to getting remarried, I was basically just treading water. I wasn’t adding to my debt (progress!), but I wasn’t reducing it either. My student loan was in deferment. I was living with my son and (first) a roommate who shared expenses, and then later with my now-husband who shared expenses the same way my previous roommate did. This was kind of a bad time financially, but the start of a massive improvement emotionally. I am good at understatements.
Here’s how I earned money during that period:
- Working a full time job
- Working two full time jobs at once to build up an emergency fund, because I could see the writing on the wall at my original, primary job
- Losing my primary full time job as the dot com bubble burst and negotiating a small severance that I added to my emergency fund. This was right around 9/11 also. Then losing my second full time (contract) job as it came to a close. Guess that’s not really making money but it led me to the next part.
- Getting unemployment of $200/month for 2 years (unemployment was extended by a year in Arizona due to the Great Recession. At one point about 40% of the people I knew locally were unemployed or furloughed. I ended up being unemployed for about 4 years.)
- Getting $200 a month in child support
- Netting a VERY small amount of money from a wedding photography business I tried to start. Turns out it’s hard to get clients when you have social anxiety. (I think I’d do a lot better at it now that I no longer have SA, but wedding photography is ridiculously physical work and I think I’ll pass for now.)
- Getting an approximately $30,000 inheritance when my mom died. I’d rather have had my mom. (I’ll revise this amount later when I dig up the actual number.) I used that money to buy a condo before prices went sky high, and used all of the rent money I got to pay the mortgage on the condo and the monthly HOA fees. So monthly income-wise it was a net zero at the time.
- Finally getting a temporary job that was meant to last for 1-2 days. (I ended up getting a part time contract position with them instead, then hired as an employee part time, then later hired full time.)
- Later getting some money from the indirect sale of the condo. What I mean by that is I sold the condo and did a 1031 exchange to buy a duplex I most definitely could not afford in Texas using an interest-only loan. I very quickly realized that was a stupid idea and sold the duplex for less than I paid for it. But if I remember right I still technically had a long term profit, and so after paying taxes on that profit I did get some money out of the deal.
How I earned money while actively paying off debt:
That part time contract job was the turning point for me in actively paying off debt. I never EVER wanted to be in that position again, where I owed money and couldn’t pay it. I read Your Money or Your Life (yes that is an affiliate link) and decided that I was done with debt, and that I wanted to have enough passive income to pay all my bills.
So here’s how I earned money while my husband and I were paying off ALL of our debt. (We kept separate finances, with his hers and ours accounts. The “ours” account was where we each put the money for half of our joint bills, regardless of our income.)
- Working that temp-turned contract-turned eventual full time job
- Creating a successful iPhone app to help others pay off debt. It was one of the first of its kind in the App store. Android wasn’t even around. And no, I didn’t know how to code. I am not a software engineer. I hired people.
- Selling stuff I bought at garage sales and on Craigslist.
- Selling some old children’s books I had on eBay.
- Selling the clarinet I had from being in band as a kid.
- Writing on websites that paid tiny amounts based on how popular whatever you wrote was. (I do not recommend this.)
- Starting my own anonymous blog about money (not this one) where everyone seemed to assume I was a guy. I accepted ads and text links on that (this was before Google was even talking about giving the smack down; I definitely don’t do that now) and charged people a monthly fee. Those fees ranged from $20-$400/month. Average price was probably $80/month.
- I may have also created 1-2 websites for people during this time; not sure
- Doing a few Pinecone surveys a month. I think they paid $3 a survey at the time. The bank tellers would often laugh at me when I deposited those checks, but I kept thinking about how my debt was going down and that they could laugh all they wanted.
- Starting a second, less anonymous website (still not this one) and also accepting advertising on it.
- Doing the (very) occasional odd job, like cleaning office spaces at night.
- Selling some of my artwork on Etsy.
- Trying out Amazon FBA.
- Getting a significant raise at my full time job.
- Earning interest from a couple of treasury bonds.
- Earning interest from savings (back when banks paid a little something) and from account-opening bonuses
- Writing and selling ebooks on Amazon
- Getting rental income (although I could not and still can’t access this until I’m of government-mandated retirement age) from a inexpensive house I bought in a small town. The house is held within my IRA. I got the money for it by maxing out my contributions to my 401k, then rolling that money to an IRA when the company I worked for was acquired.
- Getting one bonus at work
The important thing? I did a MOST of that stuff all at the same time. While raising my son. What I did not do was clean the house, spend money I didn’t have, or care about what people thought of me. There were plenty of failed attempts to earn more in there too that I’m not talking about since this is getting really long already.
And how I earn money now that we are complete out of debt
I finally quit my full time job in 2014, right after my husband got laid off from his full time job. It seemed like the perfect time to me. (We’d become debt free in 2012.)
This is also the point at which we changed how we handled our money a little. Since our goal was that we would both eventually not have a full time job, we started what I like to call income smoothing. We agreed that I would send him half of my gross income each month, and he would send me half of his take home pay each month. (Since he wanted to keep working longer, and would ideally have health insurance again from that.) My husband did get another job making good money. He maxes out his 401k each year though, so that reduces his take home pay significantly.
So here are my income streams from 2012 on. The ones I view as unusual are listed first.
- I get half my husband’s take home pay each month, after giving him half my gross income. He has taxes and health insurance costs withheld, so that’s why the difference. FINALLY (starting in late 2018) I’m to the point where I’m sending him more than he’s sending me each month. I want that trend to continue and increase!
- I received another inheritance after my grandma died. (Again, I’d rather have had my grandma. I had no idea she was leaving me this.) I used that money to buy a second rental property, this time locally and outside my IRA. This was a huge fast-forward for my plan to buy a second property, but it took place after I’d already tried to quit my job a couple of times, had gone down to part time, and still intended to quit ASAP. I believe you should use windfalls to further your goals, so that’s what I did. I have passive monthly rental income from that. I am still saving for additional rental properties.
- My IRA still gets rental income from the little house that’s held by it.
- I still make money every month from my app, which is now also available for Android. Sales are significantly lower now that there are 80 jillion copycats, but it’s still close-to-passive income.
- When I still had a full time job, I made money from that.
- I make money from advertising impressions (not clicks or purchases) on this site. These are interest-based ads, so everyone sees something different and I have no idea what you’re seeing. But it’s whatever the algorithms think you’re interested in or what they think the page is about, which could be inaccurate of course. If you’re another blogger reading this, the company I use to provide the ads (Mediavine) is awesome. Go with them if you qualify.
- I make a teeny, TINY bit of money, sometimes, as an Amazon affiliate.
- I make money as an affiliate for Digit, who I adore the most after my own app, and (sometimes) from a few other companies that are mostly listed on my Money Management Resources page and in this Best Personal Finances Apps article that Josh put together for my site. There are also things on those pages and elsewhere on my site that I don’t make any money at all from. If they ever get affiliate programs & I remember, I’ll join them.
- I’ve made money as an affiliate for a few courses where I know the people doing them are awesome.
- I made money once by participating in a focus group about coins. (Which was fun!)
- I make money walking dogs using the Rover app when it’s not burning hot out.
- I make money selling a few of my ebooks on Amazon
- Sometimes I still run across the odd item at a garage sale that I buy and resell. Apparently I like poking around at garage sales.
- I get interest from treasury bonds.
- I get small amounts of interest from the bank.
- I very occasionally make money from clearly-labeled sponsored posts on my old site that I still have. (Not this site. If you found this in a Google search because you want to provide one, don’t bother asking. I’m not going to accept them and will likely just delete your email.)
- Sometimes I sell things that I already own, like when we went from a queen bed to a kingsize one.
- I used to make money managing people’s Pinterest accounts. That took too much time and was distracting me from my real purpose of helping others here, so I don’t do that any longer.
- I’ve made money from selling my own paid course. You can’t buy it at the moment, but I will likely have another paid course or courses available again in the future.
- I have investments in the stock market that make money, but they’re all in tax-advantaged accounts and so I don’t get that as income right now.
There might some random things I’m forgetting, but I’ll add them later if I think of them. Basically, the 3 biggest ways I make money are: advertising on my site, passive income from real estate investing, and semi-passive income from my app.