She lurched into the room. Glassy-eyed. Slightly unsteady on her feet. Half-empty wine glass dangling precariously between two fingers.
Angry gaze sweeping the room in search of targets.
A scathing complaint about toys on the floor, where the younger boy was actively playing with them. He grabbed a couple of transformers and scarpered.
Slurred sniping about a lack of revision being done by the older boy. He’d been studying hard all weekend, only just coming up for air late on Sunday afternoon. Brain fried. Headphones in. He’d been contentedly watching anime on his iPad until moments before. Death stares were exchanged, before he stomped back upstairs and slammed his bedroom door with enough force to make the windows rattle. I noticed he’d taken his iPad with him, smart boy!
A ranging shot.
She scowled at the feuding cats, who froze, before skedaddling outside into the rain.
Then she looked at me. A series of expressions rapidly flittered across her face, settling on contempt.
Target acquired. Fire for effect.
The opening salvos were a selection from the greatest hits catalogue. Employment. Family. Housing. Imagined insults. Perceived slights. Concluding with the familiar lament about why her friends could lead fabulous lives of luxury, but she could not?
The rant was belittling and mean spirited. Intended to wound. Heard so many times before it had little effect.
But today the delivery was off.
These Sunday night diatribes were typically served up with the kind of venom that curdled milk and stripped paint from the walls. Today it was half-hearted. As though she was going through the motions. Phoning it in.
Something was different.
I donned my helmet and psyched myself up to venture into the lion’s den. My inner saboteur gave a resigned sigh, wryly observing this must be what it felt like to accept a suicide mission, like those condemned prisoners in the “Dirty Dozen” movies my grandfather had loved watching.
After lobbing a few more verbal grenades, she said one of her acquaintances had suffered an aneurysm.
Dead before they hit the floor.
Aged in their early forties. A sudden and random ending that tragically left behind a young family.
The acquaintance had played the career game hard, but unlike most, with a long term plan in mind.
First, endure a soul-destroying professional services career. Work that is well-paid yet meaningless, adding little value and helping no one. A familiar, yet uncomfortable, truth for much of the financial services and technology worlds.
Second, accumulate a nest-egg capable of sustainably supporting a modest yet comfortable lifestyle.
Third, escape the corporate world to devote the second phase of their working life to meaningful work that helped people every day. The kind of job that is important for society, yet pays peanuts.
The acquaintance had handed in their notice at work.
Actively counted down the sleeps until they could start doing professionally what they had long volunteered to do on a time-constrained basis.
Cruelly felled when the finishing line was in sight.
It was a sad story.
Yet I was puzzled by the impact the news appeared to have had. It wasn’t a name that had been mentioned previously. Neither a work colleague nor a friend. Apparently, it wasn’t a name at all, but a pseudonymous internet handle with whom she had occasionally chatted during rare quiet moments while they both volunteered at the same online charity.
Hopes and dreams
Through tears and more wine, the picture became clearer.
She had a similar career switch in mind.
Escape the always-on “big job” that has been slowly but surely crushing her throughout these COVID times. All-remote-all-the-time had meant follow the sun video conferences. Asian mornings through to East Coast evenings. Working from home had become living at work.
Office reopenings may have led to a change of view, but the firm had become accustomed to operating an always contactable locked-down workforce, with nowhere else to be and nothing better to do. No excuses. The COO might have secured a bonus for trimming the corporate rent bill, but the real performance gain had been transforming the definition of “full-time” job into a 24×7 lifestyle choice.
She was burnt out. Depressed. Frayed. Spent. Unravelling.
Never a good combination. Nor one that has ended well in the past.
The very embodiment of someone seeking Financial Independence, at the beginning of their journey.
Having reached an age where she attends more funerals than weddings, she was acutely aware of the passage of time. She didn’t want to end up like her acquaintance, or my father, who both postponed seeking joy and fulfilment in life until it was too late.
While listening to the tale, I had dropped my guard. I vividly recalled the time when a dance with The Reaper had initiated my own thought process that led me to similar conclusions. Lifestyle choices that had drawn derision and scorn, mocking and ridicule ever since. Venturing off-script and living by my own rules not fitting with the accepted narrative.
Could she be coming around to my way of thinking?
Was this a turning point in our increasingly fractious relationship?
Just when I thought she was calming down, she drained her glass and went for the knock-out blow.
Simple guide to financial independence
Her solution was simple. We would trade places.
She would quit. Study. Move into a lowly paid yet fulfilling role dedicated to helping people.
I would have to “man up”. Swallow my pride. Climb back on the career ladder. Take a permanent job that earned enough to ensure her current lifestyle didn’t suffer.
It was her turn. Her due. After giving me two children and twenty years of marriage, she wanted to collect.
My cash flowing investment portfolio would be liquidated. The proceeds used to purchase her cash consuming dream house. That way I couldn’t backslide, and should we get divorced her financial interests would be protected because “the mother always gets the house, kids, and spousal support”.
Her plan was a brutally honest form of “Spouse-FI”.
The chosen lifestyle led by more than a few “do as I say, not as I do” voices in the FIRE movement.
Having delivered that bombshell, she shot me a triumphant, if slightly unfocussed, glare.
I was gobsmacked. It would be fair to say I hadn’t seen that coming.
One of the interesting things about personal finance blogs is how much of the narrative depends upon the author’s perspective. The protagonist often has a compelling backstory.
Scrappy underdog makes good.
Kid from the wrong side of the tracks conquers the world.
Reformed consumerist defeats a mountain of credit card debt and student loans.
Suffering martyr with fragile mental health struggles to receive their due in a big bad world.
Corporate escapee finds zen-like peace of mind schilling life coaching, mindfulness, or stoicism.
Some appear to hustle their way through endless “get rich quick” schemes. Affiliate marketing. Drop shipping. Matched betting. Always busy. Rarely calculating the return-on-investment of their time.
Others grind away in traditional careers. Modest lifestyles leading to high savings rates. Allowing rising markets and property prices to do the heavy lifting over the long term.
The tales are often engaging, but rarely tell the full story.
We claim the wins. Deflect losses. Rarely mention good fortune or the help received along the way.
Which is as it should be. Readers turn to blogs seeking entertainment or a relatable escape from their own lives. Those offering easy answers and how-to guides are attempting to sell you something.
To illustrate, consider the humble net worth update. A staple of the personal journal style site. Ensuring a regular publishing cadence. Charting progress along their individual journey.
Many bloggers bask in the warm fuzzy feeling provided by inflated net worth figures.
Age-restricted pension balances they can’t access.
Accrued transaction costs and capital gains taxes conveniently ignored.
Projections based on S&P500 historical returns, while actually investing in lower returning individual stocks or local market index trackers. Painting a rose coloured picture by comparing apples to wheelbarrows.
“Safe” withdrawal rates based upon a net worth calculation that includes home equity, which is a problem if you don’t want to sell 4% of the house you live in each year.
Each one a personal choice. A perspective. Interpreting facts in a way that might be accurate, but isn’t necessarily true at the time. Seeing and believing what we wish to believe. Telling a tale.
As part of maintaining a healthy scepticism, it can be a useful exercise for the reader to consider alternative perspectives that could be applied to the same circumstances described.
For example, my semi-retired seasonal working pattern could be alternately viewed as a lazy idler with a short attention span who struggles to hold down a job. Passive income either financing that lifestyle by design, or selfishly denying my family the financial security of living in an owner occupied dream house.
Meanwhile, my lady wife’s pursuit of a demanding career out of ambition and envy could be alternatively portrayed as a breadwinning mother of two who works hard to provide for her family. Making up for her no good layabout husband’s many and storied shortcomings.
Multiple presentations of the same facts. Correlation or causation? Who can say?
In the early years of our relationship, jewellery was a preferred gift of choice for my lady wife.
To me, these shiny trinkets were tokens of affection.
Initially, I might choose something as a surprise, a behaviour I was swiftly cured of. As my income increased, the price tag of these sought after trinkets steadily climbed.
In time, it occurred to me that the jewellery was being collected but seldom worn. When I asked about it, I was fobbed off with a complaint that we rarely went anywhere “nice” to wear it to. Which was accurate but, as it turned out, not true.
Years later I found myself seated on a long haul flight next to my mother-in-law.
She spoke about the many positive changes in the world she had witnessed over her long life.
Improvements in education. Health. Life expectancy.
Global migration. Offering the chance of a better life to millions of people born in poverty-stricken countries. Those willing to take a risk, work hard, and provide a more promising future for their family.
Then she started talking about how different things were for women. In the not too distant past, women were property. Given or sold from fathers to husbands. Unable to own property or wealth.
Jewellery became a popular workaround. Small. Mobile. Valuable. Easily transported, hidden, or converted to cash. A woman’s store of wealth, independent of male relatives who could neither be depended nor relied upon.
Girls were taught to accumulate jewellery. Gold bangles. Necklaces. Rings set with precious stones.
Jewellery wasn’t a gift, but a transfer of wealth. Tokens of monetary value, rather than affection.
Sometime later, one of my lady wife’s friends had been showing off their latest bauble from Tiffany’s. On the way home, I recounted the conversation with my mother-in-law about changing times and cultural mores.
My lady wife agreed that things had improved for women, but strongly believed that only foolish women would allow themselves to become financially dependent upon a man.
Smart women have their own money and see to their own wealth.
The “3 months’ full salary” engagement ring rule of thumb might have been popularised by a De Beers marketing campaign, but it really provided a form of insurance for the bride-to-be against being abused or abandoned by a future husband. Three months’ full salary should be enough to get her back on her feet.
Which might be accurate. Possibly even true. Not a perspective I had previously considered.
That brings me back to perspective.
My lady wife’s views on jewellery, money, and wealth differ markedly to my own.
We each believe the other to be inefficient, misguided, and often wrong.
Yet we each also believe our own views are perfectly reasonable. Logical. The correct approach.
The drunken rant with its “mic drop” ending was certainly confronting. A thinly veiled threat or a brave attempt to take control of her own financial destiny? The holder of the pen gets to tell the tale.
Perspective is a curious thing.
- Epstein, J.E. (1982), ‘Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?‘, The Atlantic
- Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1967), ‘The Dirty Dozen‘