Every superhero has an origin story. Bitten by a radioactive spider. Bombarded by cosmic rays. Mutated genes. Space aliens from another world.
Two of the most commercially successful superhero franchises of all time featured bored middle-aged white guys whose only superpower was being rich!
These origin stories provide context and framing for all that follows.
Defining blindspots, choices, ethics, limits, risk appetites, and weaknesses.
Is the superhero driven by sound decision making or irrational fears?
Are the monsters they strive to vanquish real, imagined, or ghosts from their past?
Do they strive to do good deeds, seek selfish gain, or desire escape from untenable circumstance?
The Accumulator penned “What’s your financial origin story?”, one of the best pieces of Personal Finance writing of 2020. It challenged readers to reflect on their own origin story, and think about what circumstances, decisions, and events from their past had set them down the financial path they follow today.
The Accumulator’s story attracted an amazing response. Over 100 readers shared an incredible array of inspiring financial origin stories. I challenged the Sovereign Quest community to write up their own financial origin stories. Here is mine.
When I thought about what had shaped my approach to finances, I realised that a financial origin story differs from a biography or a resume.
There was no cohesive narrative. Grand plan. Or linear plot, that neatly leads the reader from beginning to end. Instead, it resembled a collection of seemingly random vignettes, that somehow combine at the end like a Christopher Nolan movie. Perhaps it all makes sense. Perhaps not. The meanings change with each viewing, as new experience alters our perceptions and beliefs.
Does that work as a structure of an origin story? We are about to see.
In the beginning…
My childhood was comfortable. Free-range. Middle class. Suburban. Uneventful, for the most part.
State schools. Second-hand cars. Family holidays in caravan parks. Idle hands occupied by chores.
We had more than some. Less than others. I don’t recall wanting for anything.
Grandparents from small towns who led humble lives. Bookkeeper. Farmer. Housewife. Soldier.
Parents who left home to move to the big city, in search of more. Better. Different.
For the first decade of my life, my tiny bedroom doubled as my father’s study and my mother’s library. A bed for me. A desk for him. Walls lined with hundreds of her second-hand paperback novels.
Sunday nights saw my father seated at that desk in front of his cheque book. A fistful of red letters held in one hand, a bucket of cheap supermarket wine clutched in the other. Attempting a juggling act. Praying for a miracle. A time of the week best not to be seen or heard.
The dining table was frequently buried beneath mountains of textbooks and notepads, as my parents studied in the evenings while working full time. Each was the first in their families to attain a university education. Weekends spent at the university library, they listening to recordings of lectures skipped during the working week, while I wrote stories and roamed the campus.
Education led to career advancement. Less financial pressure. Greater control. A calmer home life.
The former bulldozer driver eventually occupied a corner office and drove an executive car.
The former housewife became an internationally recognised expert in her chosen field.
Credit where credit is due, they succeeded the hard way.
Early in primary school, the father of one of my best friends discovered he was worth more money to his family dead than alive. An unhappy soul at the best of times, he decided to crystalise the gain.
He stole some money. Established trust funds for his children with the proceeds. Then hit eject on life.
His widow spent the next two decades slowly drinking herself to death, while regaling her children with tales of the riches they would receive upon their 18th birthdays. All their dreams would come true!
This unconventional parenting produced children with little interest in school or work. Why bother, when a life-changing amount of money was hovering just beyond the horizon?
As each child came of age, they gained access to their trust funds. That pot of gold at the end of the rainbow contained a small fortune to those who had never had much, but proved insufficient to finance a lifetime as a member of the idle rich.
Each child gave half of their windfall to their mother and burned through the rest within a matter of months. Fast motorbikes. Faster girlfriends. Drugs. Drinking. Designer clothes.
My childhood friend spent part of his windfall on an expensive stock market investment course. As far as I know, he never opened the cover on the course materials, but he kindly let me read them. I eagerly digested every word. Learning about fundamental analysis, technical analysis, and a bunch of equally dubious “secrets of the pros” that would supposedly lead to investment riches.
I was fortunate to see through many of these schools of investing dogma at a young age, learning via shadow trading and critically assessing the results, before I had any real money on the table.
Last I heard, my childhood friend had followed in his mother’s footsteps. Unemployed. Living in a council house by the sea. Steadily drinking himself into an early grave.
For reasons I have never entirely understood, I became a paperboy during primary school.
Twice a week, for ten years, I would deliver heavy loads of newspapers around my neighbourhood. By the time I started high school, I had arms like Popeye, the equivalent of £1,000 in the bank, and the hard-won knowledge that doing poorly paid manual labour outdoors in the rain was no fun at all.
My parents wanted to keep us too busy to participate in the unsavoury opportunities available in our very cosmopolitan neighbourhood, many of which offered a free criminal record for every player.
As soon as I was old enough, I took on second and third jobs. Selling off all my “free” time that was not already accounted for by schoolwork and looking after my younger brother.
By the end of school, I had learned that working harder doesn’t scale, either in terms of output or financial rewards. We each have only so much time to invest. Working every waking moment is for fools and masochists! Maximising the market value of my time was a much smarter approach.
Life is unpredictable. Yanking the rug from beneath our feet at the most inconvenient of times. Teaching valuable, though often bruising, lessons. Sometimes observed. More often experienced.
My grandfather “retired” after being made redundant, twice, in the twilight of his career. Risk-averse, he invested his life savings in a term deposit ladder, paying 18% per annum at the time. Five years later, interest rates had fallen to below 5%, slashing his income by more than two thirds, and forcing him to consume capital to survive.
Longevity risk in all its terrifying glory.
My father’s career came to a similarly abrupt halt, as he too was made redundant. Confidence shattered, his ego never recovering from the blow. He surrendered control of much of his portfolio to professional financial planners, who managed a small fortune out of his accounts and into their own pockets via high fees, frequent churn, and trailing commissions.
Sharks and charlatans abound.
Ever the hard worker, my father deferred enjoying life until the adventurous retirement he had spent years dreaming about. Cancer cared little for his plans, calling time on his retirement just a few short years after it began.
We can’t bottle time, use it or lose it.
After he died, we discovered his single largest investment holding was an expensive managed fund operated by his financial planning firm. Years of greed and mismanagement saw the unit price in freefall, then redemptions frozen. Assets were sold at fire-sale prices, realising just cents on the dollar. By the time the dust settled, the value of his estate had shrunk by a six-figure sum.
Misaligned commercials create conflicts of interest.
Safe as houses
I bought my first property at the peak of an extremely frothy job market. I had just landed a big-money consultancy gig, paying more than double what I had previously earned.
As the purchase completed, the bubble burst. Jobs vanished. Visa rules tightened to thin out the herd. I found myself unemployed. Requiring a sponsored visa to work. With a mortgage to pay.
Four long humbling months followed as I haemorrhaged money while fighting for financial survival.
Eventually, I rented out the property, sold my soul for a work visa, and survived by the skin of my teeth. I’d been broke before, but never broke and in debt. The feeling was terrifying!
The experience taught me the importance of diversified income streams, and the value of maintaining a strong financial cushion.
It would be fifteen years before I once again touched those lofty incomes levels. Evidence that just like asset values, salaries and day rates will rise and fall, based on the whims of the market gods.
The first time I migrated, visa conditions outlawed permanent employment. Hard-won qualifications weren’t recognised in my new country. With few viable options available, an accidental entrepreneur was born.
Owning and running a business was an adventure. Risk. Reward. Rainmaking. Responsibility.
Ultimate accountability. Deciding the quality, quantity, and frequency of the work being performed. Living with the consequences. Word of mouth can open doors, or be death by a thousand cuts. Choose your fate!
Delighted clients, with offers of paid employment or acquisition.
Desperate clients who can’t pay. Small to medium-sized businesses can be a minefield.
Bullying clients who won’t pay. Megacorp finance departments are the worst.
Occasionally no clients at all. A whole different kind of problem.
Business ownership is one of the most rewarding things I have done. An unparalleled route to riches and career advancement when it works, but the eye-watering failure rate makes it not for the faint of heart. Professional life doesn’t get any better than doing great work surrounded by a close-knit team of highly skilled colleagues, who become friends, then an extended family away from home.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Hiring. Sometimes firing. Lawyers at dawn. Staff getting poached. Intellectual property stolen. Staff staying too long. Outbid. Undercut. Collecting debts.
My origin story has been erratic. Disjointed. Unpredictable. As difficult to follow as a chameleon on acid suffering an epileptic fit. My life leading to the point my origin story concludes felt the same way.
Forward progress was a series of staggers, lurches, and the occasional misstep.
One of the few constants throughout had been a theme of continuous reinvention.
Analyse. Evaluate. Adapt. Evolve.
Shedding skins as they become outgrown, or to avoid imminent extinction.
Many masks worn. Many roles played.
Paperboy turned accountant.
Freelancer turned entrepreneur.
Always learning. Programmer. Financial planner. Landlord. Investor. Husband. Father.
Telling stories with words. Stories with numbers. Stories with code. Methods change, stories remain.
Once, I was a single globetrotting backpacker. Broke. Responsibility-free. Enjoying freedom.
Later, plying my trade to solve tricky problems on a global scale. Distributed teams. Outsourced vendors. Business travel. Conference calls. Nights. Weekends. Always on. “Money never sleeps”.
Financially comfortable. Responsibilities galore. Burnt out. Never enough time. Craving an escape.
The life-changing clarity of a hospital bed. Superpowers gone. Disappointingly mortal. No longer young. No longer invincible. No longer free.
Changing gears. Recalibrating goals. Seeking more time, rather than more money.
Recognising that “enough” had already been achieved. The financial imperative (largely) conquered.
Pivoting from capital growth to passive income.
Using that income to buy back control of my time, one bill at a time.
I later learned the term for what I sought was financial independence. A new journey began.
Today I find myself a stay at home father. Homeschooling during a pandemic lockdown. Not how I imagined it, but those years of working towards financial independence had come together to make this a viable option. Without any competing pressures for my time and attention. For as long as it takes.
Free to choose.
- The Accumulator (2020), ‘What’s your financial origin story?’, Monevator
- Sovereign Quest (2021), ‘Financial origin stories‘