BiggerPockets Money Podcast 13: Achieving FI Before 40 Despite Breaking Every Financial “Rule” with Tanja from Our Next Life

by | BiggerPockets.com

Tanja reached financial independence (FI) and retired from her full-time, high-stress job at age 38—despite not being a natural saver, having purchased two brand-new cars in the past, and not maxing out her 401(k) in the beginning—pretty much breaking every FI “rule” out there.

Tanja was not focused on early retirement or financial independence when she met Mark, but quickly got on board. Her 60-hour-per-week job took up all her time and “brain space,” and more than 100 plane trips per year made it very easy to increase her savings rate to be able to achieve her goal.

Hear how she reached financial independence and parlayed that into early retirement in today’s episode of The BiggerPockets Money Podcast.

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Listen to the Podcast Here

Read the Transcript Here

 Scott: Welcome to BiggerPockets Money Show Number 13.“He asked me how much I made on our first date. You can’t do that”.

It’s time for a new American dream, one that doesn’t involve working in a cubicle for 40 years, barely scraping by. Whether you’re looking to get your financial house in order, invest the money you already have, or discover new paths for wealth’s creation, you’re in the right place. This show is for anyone who has money or wants more, this is the BiggerPockets Money podcast.

Scott: How’s it going, everybody? I’m Scott Trench and I’m here with my co-host, Miss Mindy Jensen. How are you doing, Mindy?

Mindy: You know, Scott, I’m doing pretty good but today is a very cold day. It snowed. I didn’t pay attention to the weather and it snowed like five or six inches up where I live and it was kind of surprising. The drive in today was kind of bad.

Scott: There was no bicycling today.

Mindy: Well, I don’t bicycle anyway.

Scott: Nah. But yeah, it was freezing. It took me forever to defrost my car. Miserable, cold day here in Denver. However, yesterday was 60 degrees. Or two days ago, it was 60 degrees.

Mindy: Yeah, it was like 65. I love how—and it was super windy so you know that there’s a big storm blowing in when there’s super wind. But I still didn’t put it together. Then I was surprised when I woke up the next morning. So enough about the weather. How are you?

Scott: The weather does not affect our latest guest today, though, right? Which is Tanja from Our Next Life, who is retired and recorded the entire episode in her pajamas.

Mindy: Uh, her Mouse onesie.

Scott: Her Mouse onesie, yes. So it was one o’clock in the afternoon for her and it sounded like she was having a great day so that’s living the dream. That’s exactly how I envision retirement.

Mindy: So I know this about Tanya, it didn’t come out in the interview but Tanja actually lives in a really beautiful house in Lake Tahoe, which she bought for like a dollar or something in 2011 at the very bottom of the market, the real estate market, the recreation market up by the ski resorts, up by the beach. Those always fall first because those are like extraneous expenses. You don’t need to have that house to live. So she found this smoking deal and moved in and I’m a little bit jealous. Have you been to Lake Tahoe? It’s just gorgeous.

Scott: No, I haven’t been to Lake Tahoe. I’ve heard fantastic things but I think we have some—maybe just as good stuff here in Colorado. So I’m content to myself with that, things I can drive to.

Mindy: What’s the lake up there? I get it confused with great Salt Lake. It’s not Salt Lake City—it’s not Lake Salt Lake. It’s the Great Salt Lake? I don’t know. Anyway, but that lake is beautiful. Is this the largest freshwater lake?

Scott: Yeah, we do not have anything like that here in Colorado, which is a little tough. We do have some good lakes and some good mountain areas but not salt lakes.

Mindy: Dylan Reservoir.

Scott: But yeah, I mean this episode is a great talk for folks that earn high incomes, Tanja and her husband are double income, no kids. They lived in the high cost Los Angeles market for the beginning part of their career and they of course moved out to Lake Tahoe for the latter part. And she just crushed it with her career alongside her husband, kept their expenses at a manageable level, and retired right around—I think she’s a little under 40 and her husband might be a little over 40.

Mindy: Yes, I believe she’s 38 and he is 41.

Scott: I think this is a great episode for you if you’re interested and you think your career has some high potential and how you can kind of parlay that into a earlier retirement if you’re smart about things, even in a high cost of living area somewhere around the country.

Mindy: And one point that I really loved that she made was she wasn’t always frugal. She wasn’t always this super saver who never spent on anything and she met this guy who was, and she was like, oh, I could do that. You don’t have to always be financially perfect to attain this early retirement and this lifestyle. You can learn how to be frugal.

Scott: They sustained a smart system of finance throughout their career and it allowed their financial position to scale with their careers instead of buying themselves into higher, higher lifestyles as their careers progressed. But by no means, it doesn’t sound like they were at any point ever really worried about that extra dollar if they wanted something or wanted to go on a trip or a nice dinner out. Things like that.

Mindy: Yeah, they did not deprive themselves and that’s really important. That’s one of the things that I hear from a lot of people is, oh I can never live like that. Well, you don’t have to. Personal finance is personal. So you know, make it what you want it to be.

Scott: Yep. Well absolutely. Let’s bring Tanja in and hear it straight from the horse’s mouth.

Mindy: Okay.

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All right, Tanja, welcome to the show. How are you doing?

Tanja: I’m great. Thanks you guys so much for having me.

Mindy: Thank you for coming on the show.

Scott: Well, let’s start from the beginning. When did you kind of discover the concept of financial independence and how did you begin to move towards it?

Mindy: My husband Mark and I, I think we’ve always had, even though we’ve worked really hard and definitely did well in our careers, I think we did always have a little bit of like a, we don’t want to do this forever mentality. And had the kind of jobs where we could never unplug, could never be unreachable and I think it just really took a toll on us. It took a toll on our health and our mental health and our relationship and so really, from very early on, we’ve been married for almost ten years now.

We were together a few years before that, but we’ve always tried to think about ways like how could we not work forever? How could we find a way out of having to do these careers until we die? And that was always just kind of a running joke and it was about six years ago when we really got serious about retiring early and that came from just understanding some of the math.

A few years ago, a great book by Robin Charlton came out called How to Retire Early, a self-published book on Amazon that I love recommending to folks and that really broke down a lot of their math. And once we saw that, we went like, oh yeah. We can totally do this.

And so we started saving, a pretty boring approach, just mostly index fund investing and continuing to max out our 401K, that kind of thing. And yeah, I think in total, we saved for six years, really four of that in a very focused way.

Mindy: So I have a question really quick before we get started down more of this. Did you and Mark discuss finances before you got married?

Tanja: Oh, we did. This is like a fun fact about Mark is he asked me how much I made on our first date.

Mindy: You can’t do that.

Tanja: I know. He totally did that.

Mindy: Did you make more?

Scott: Was it a pass fail?

Tanja: No, I made like half of what he made. I mean, I am three years younger and so when we started dating I was I think 25 and he was 28. So those are kind of a big deal set of years in terms of earning. But yeah no, I think to be honest, it was him attempting to not be anti-feminist and offering to pay for the date. That’s a weird way of saying, you’re kind of broke. I can afford this. Let me pay for it. Without insulting like your status as a strong badass lady. But yeah no, we talked money from day one.

Scott: What was your position going into the marriage, or I guess at the time, what were you doing as a job and how were your finances evolving at the time you went to get married?

Tanja: We actually are both total anomalies in our generation of having had essentially the same job for our whole careers. So Mark just retired at almost 20 years even though he’s only 41 and I had 16 years in the same job. So we had those jobs when we met each other. That’s how we met. And we kept them until we retired.

I would say before we got married, my finances were definitely not great. I financed a car at 100%. A brand new car. And had some credit card debt. Had a little bit of student loan debt even though I had a really nice college scholarship and so, that was all stuff though that we really wanted to take care of before we got married.

So I paid off all the debt. We saved some money together. And we definitely viewed our finances as collective even though we didn’t technically combine anything until we got married. But we were for sure in it together. We weren’t just splitting stuff 50/50. Like Mark paid off all the rent while I was paying off my debt for example, so that I could hurry up and get that knocked out. And so yeah.

Going into marriage, we went into it with no debt although we bought a place in L.A. pretty quickly after so then we took on some big debt. And just kind of went from there. But I do think talking about money openly and viewing it collectively from the get-go really did set us up to be able to get on an FI path.

Mindy: Okay so you said you combined finances after you got married. Derek Olsen wrote a book with his wife called One Bed, One Checkbook and I really believe you should combine your finances because you’re married. You’re a cohesive unit now. I have had some good arguments on the other side. Did you ever consider not combining your finances or was it just always a done deal that you were just going to do it?

Tanja: I just don’t think we even would have gotten married if we weren’t going to combine finances. We would have just as we jokingly called it lived in sin. There would have been no important reason to actually physically tie the knot, especially because we don’t have kids. We’ve never really planned on having kids so there isn’t that same kind of legal imperative and we live in California where we could get domestic partnership rights.

Like, I think for us marriage was as much about the money piece as it was about the romantic love piece because you just want to be able to operate as a unit and to be able to think of everything in a team sense. And that’s not to say that’s the only way to have a healthy relationship or to have a healthy money relationship but I think for us, it was never really a question.

Scott: It sounds like outside of a few purchases like a financed car in your 20s, you really entered this marriage in a strong financial position. What was the difference between being relatively good with finances and then aggressively pursuing financial freedom? When did that shift happen and what was your kind of position going into it when that shift happened?

Tanja: It’s funny, I actually would not say that I was particularly good at money. By the time that Mark and I got together, he was already really maxing out his 401K so he was doing a lot better than I was. I think when we started dating, he maybe even had to talk me into saving enough in my 401K to get the employer match. I was not doing all the right stuff and I have always been susceptible to, I would say, I’ve never bought a lot of clothes but I’ve often bought a lot of home stuff. For a long time, I actually had a DIY house blog and definitely had to like follow the trends in home decorating.

So I think for us, like, what I love talking about is just the fact that I think you don’t have to naturally be frugal or a naturally amazing saver to be able to retire early or to save for a big financial goal. I think it’s just finding the right system for you. This actually happened before we started pursuing FI but I had discovered that if I had my paychecks split by my HR department and had some of it go into savings, I never missed that money and that was me accidentally stumbling upon the concept of paying yourself first and the concept of automation.

And I really just started ramping that up and then Mark and I both did that together. Like I just started having my paycheck split and have that money increase each year and I started doing more automated investing. So to me, it was really what I called hiding money from myself. Like if I didn’t see it in my checking account, I didn’t feel like I had it to spend. It wasn’t that I was so motivated to save, just over time, Mark and I together started upping the amount that we had hidden from us and that got us to over time constraining our lifestyle. It got us to a really massive savings rate without it feeling like we were actually saving anything.

Mindy: Okay. You touched on a couple of really great things. You don’t have to be a natural saver. You don’t have to be naturally frugal to embrace this idea and that’s really important because there are a lot of people who are like, oh well, I’m not frugal so I guess I could never do that. You absolutely can and I love that you said that.

And also, the hiding money from yourself—if you’re not a natural saver, if you’re not naturally frugal, you don’t miss what you’ve never had. So every time you get a bonus, you just put that back into your savings account or every time you get a raise, you up your savings to reflect that so you’re not getting anything different in your paycheck and you’re just forcing yourself. I love this so much. Nice job.

Tanja: Thank you, yeah. I’m a huge fan of what I call lifestyle stagnation. Although I think that sounds really bad and boring, it’s really more—

Mindy: Yeah, you need another name.

Tanja: Yeah, it’s resisting lifestyle inflation. So for the last ten years of our career, we increased our automatic deductions at the end of every year when we got a raise and then we banked every bonus and so we’re living on what we earned ten years prior, which was still plenty and still very comfortable but people forget that compounding doesn’t just apply to your investments. It also applies to your earnings. So if you get a few percent a year pay increase, over time, that stuff adds up. So if you can save it instead of spending it, it is crazy how fast you can save.

Scott: You know, that’s a really interesting point because a lot of people are trying to pursue FI and they live in expensive markets. I think you mentioned Los Angeles is where all of this is going on. And yeah, it might seem really difficult right now to save a lot of money but what you’re talking about is okay, over the course of a decade, you’re forgetting that if you’re in one of these areas and working at a career and giving it your all, as you guys clearly were—you both have very successful careers—your earnings potential go up and if you can just maintain that same level of spending, you’re automatically going to approach that high level of high savings rate, which can make all this possible.

Tanja: Absolutely. I think that that’s totally true, so taking advantage of compounding in your income which as you said, in high cost areas, you’re much more likely to earn more. So you can take advantage of that. I think it’s also creating kind of a culture with your social circles of not spending money. We moved six years ago from L.A. to Tahoe which folks will go, oh yeah, no wonder you saved quickly. You moved to a rural area.

Well, actually, Tahoe is the fourth most expensive place in the country. It’s not cheap here at all. It doesn’t. Organic eggs cost $9-$12. It costs a fortune. But the difference is, if we went out in L.A. to see friends, it would be $100 a person to go to a restaurant pretty easily before anybody even batted an eyelash.

Whereas here, people are much more likely to say, let’s go for a hike or let’s have a picnic at the park or let’s do some things that are really cheap or free. And I think having that kind of a social circle and that sort of spending expectation of it has been a huge part of being able to save faster in the last six years.

Mindy: In-N-Out Burger is not $100 a person.

Tanja: No, that’s for sure true but that is problematic for someone like me who has Celiac which is also part of why our groceries cost so much.

Mindy: Yes, I forgot about that.

Tanja: They’ll do the lettuce wrap if you’re like really dying for a burger.

Mindy: So yeah, Tahoe isn’t rural. It’s just hard to get to.

Tanja: It’s the most accessible ski area in the country except maybe the mountains around Salt Lake. I’m just doing a little tourist plug for my home region.

Scott: And there’s no Costco.

Tanja: There’s Costco down the hill in Reno, which is only a half hour away.

Scott: Oh, and eggs there are $12 a dozen?

Tanja: No, no, no. They’re cheaper down there. I’m talking about like up here in Tahoe.

Scott: All right. I’m just thinking there must not be a Costco if things are so expensive. But go ahead. I digress.

Mindy: So you were living in L.A. which is not the most frugal place to live. What sort of income were you at versus what your expenses were, your housing, your—I mean, your fixed costs are pretty similar all around except obviously in Lake Tahoe where it’s more expensive for eggs. But the cost of living in L.A. isn’t that much different than the cost of living in Chicago or Denver in terms of like gas and eggs and bread and milk and like your general things, maybe gas. I shouldn’t say that.

Tanja: Yeah, gas is significantly more in California. But yeah, the other stuff in L.A. is pretty close. Although yeah, there is just what we call like the California surcharge. Everything is a little more for no reason. We grew all the food and we get all the gas from the ports but for some reason, it gets cheaper the farther it gets from here.

Mindy: Yes. That’s definitely the law of supply and demand. So what sort of income were you making? Like top 10%? Bottom 4%?

Tanja: I think in terms of household income, we were probably at that point in L.A., like top 10%. We both kind of had low six figures. I’m trying to remember at what point I crossed into it. Mark certainly was in six figures way earlier than I was.

Scott: This was when you ended your career versus when you started, right?

Tanja: Yeah, well I think L.A. ended six years ago so that would have been lower earnings at that point. But yeah, we both definitely ended in the six-figure zone. But you know, not like Wall Street level six-figures. Just like, normal people six figures.

Scott: No, that’s awesome. So what you’re saying is this approach is repeatable for folks that are in these expensive areas as long as you’re being reasonable with your spending. You know, you’re not sacrificing everything. It doesn’t sound like to me, correct me if I’m wrong, that you were biking to work or living in the basement of a duplex or anything like that. You were living a pretty solid lifestyle. But working on your careers and allowing that to compound over the course of a better part of a decade, maybe a little longer including the time before you were married.

Tanja: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. The secret to our success are not about massive scrimping or sacrificing. Like we have never been in the Mustachian school of bike everywhere. We have two cars. We bought both of them brand new. I know a lot of people will slap my wrist for that. I know—Mindy’s like making a face right now.

Scott: It’s the same face she made when you were not contributing to your retirement account and getting the employer match.

Tanja: I know.

Mindy: I have to say both of my cars were bought brand new, too.

Tanja: See, it’s plausible. But you know, one of them is a 2004. The other is a 2012 and we will keep them both until they die. I think that is an important point. I think it’s been about not splurging on stuff that doesn’t bring us happiness so like we have definitely splurged on some major things. I blogged about this before. We spent $1000 on one meal once at Per Se in New York and it was worth every penny and I don’t regret it. But that was like a thing we did once in our lives and not something we expect to do twice a year or something like that.

And similarly, I own six pairs of skis but I use them and they bring me happiness and I wouldn’t spend money on trendy clothing or new shoes all the time or fancy handbags or things that I don’t know, other people spend money on. So it’s for us, it’s been about kind of getting really focused on our why and what we were aiming for and that very easy made the decisions on what to scale back.

So that it was never about like going from a big spending lifestyle to a scrimping one. It was about gradually trimming some of the stuff that didn’t make us happy but continuing to spend on the stuff that did. Like travel and skiing and outdoors stuff.

Mindy: Okay. So that’s my mantra, too. You don’t worry about the things that don’t make you happy. You save when you can so you can spend on things that really are important to you. But going back to you were making six figures. You weren’t spending six figures. You were saving six figures. Because you had dual income at this high rate. And that’s great. And when you went to that $1000 a person dinner—

Tanja: Total, not per person.

Mindy: Total. Oh, I’m sorry. When you went to the $500 a person dinner, did you have to not pay rent to do that? Did you not pay your utility bill? Well, you don’t pay utility bills anyways. You keep your house at a balmy four or whatever ridiculous temperature you keep your house at. But you weren’t doing without to do this and I think it’s really important to make that distinction, that there are people that—oh, well, I can’t really afford my rent this month but I’m going to go to the boat gambling or I’ve got to get this new iPhone. You don’t. You can have a flip phone. Or no phone.

Tanja: I mean, I’m not going to go down the road of saying like anybody who doesn’t do what we’re doing is making bad decisions. I think that everybody is doing their best under the circumstances and I also think this is a world where you kind of need a smartphone for a lot of jobs and need computer literacy and things like that but we were in a very lucky position of earning more than we needed and I think for others who are in a similar position, you can make the decision. You can decide like, do we want to spend all the money now for immediate gratification or do we want to save it a little bit and get much bigger gratification just a little bit further down the road?

I think for us, I think if we had seen—let’s say that a high savings rate would have let us retire in 20 years, I think it would have honestly been hard to make the decisions that we made and not splurge more than we did in the final years. But because it was such a short timeline, it was very easy to see that light at the end of the tunnel and to say, like, okay—this is worth doing.

I think certainly I recognize not everybody can save in six or four years and certainly not everyone can save in that kind of timeline in an expensive place, not having kids for sure helped accelerate our progress. We also just got really lucky in that we were able to buy our house in Tahoe in 2011 at the bottom of the market. That was just dumb luck.

But I think you can still apply all the same principles and just put them in your own situation. It might be a very different timeline but it’s still very, very possible to at a minimum retire securely in your 60s but probably to shave plenty of time off that timeline.

Scott: I think it’s fantastic. I think there’s four ways to go through about this thing I like to describe as the four ways to achieve financial freedom. You can save. You can just keep your income the same and save more of it. You can increase your income and keep your spending the same. You can invest to achieve greater returns on the capital that you’ve already accumulated or you can create assets for businesses which produce passive income.

All these ways work. You decide if it sounds like to focus on, we’re going to live a happy lifestyle at a level that we are comfortable with and then we are going to focus our energy on our careers and we are going to invest pretty passively in index funds, that kind of stuff. It sounds like tax advantage accounts but then we’re going to focus really heavily into our careers.

It sounds like you had some tremendous careers that were very successful over this time period that allowed you to scale and that was how you got there. So can we maybe dive into that point, which if that’s correct—can we dive into that career aspect? What do you think are some things that allowed you and your husband to excel in your careers about this time period and advance your income that much?

Tanja: Yeah, and I actually love the way that you broke that down into the four and we really did a bit of each one is the true answer. But I think to your career question, irony is, I think one of the best career decisions I made is when I quit my side hustle, which I think is the opposite of what a lot of advice is focused on. And I’m completely grateful that I had my side hustle in my 20s. I taught yoga and spinning on the side in addition to working full-time but I think there is a really important thing to notice and that’s when you hit the point in your career when a side hustle might be holding you back.

And that’s if you are focused on kind of a traditional career. Obviously, if you’re doing something where you’re focused on entrepreneurship or doing more of a gig deal, that might not apply. But I think for me, I hit a point when doing classes was forcing me to say no to travel which was making me miss opportunities and it was also, I think, holding me back in showing my commitment to the job and how dedicated I was. Like I was having to leave sometimes, or say, sorry I have to get off this call to go like teach my class.

And being able to eliminate that from my life, I more than made up for it for the lost income with what I was able to add to my earnings. So that was a big one. I think you know, part of it was just like really working hard and knowing that we were in careers that had earnings growth potential which not every career has. I think if we hadn’t been in jobs that we knew could continue to grow, we would have changed that.

Some of it, we both got our jobs when we were in our early 20s and I don’t think that we both knew at the time, okay, these are jobs that are going to let us become financially independent in our 30s. But I think once we were clear that that’s what we wanted, we would have made the change if we weren’t in the right line of work.

Scott: Maybe we already touched on this but I can’t remember if we mentioned this on the show or not—can you briefly talk about what your career actually was, what you were doing?

Tanja: Yeah, we were both political consultants and consultants for social causes. And Mark did polling and survey research and focus groups, that kind of stuff. And I did more on the communications side, so messaging and different advertising, PR, for candidates and also social cause campaigns. Like if you ever saw ads for not drunk driving or buckling your seatbelt, there was a good chance that I or some of my colleagues had a hand in that.

Scott: Awesome. Saving lives.

Mindy: My favorite one was “Go belt someone today”.

Tanja: I did not have a part in that one.

Mindy: That was from the early ‘80s and they would show people like buckling each other up but they would sing, “Go belt someone today” and it was just very funny.

Tanja: I’m so happy we got to hear you sing today. But you’ll notice that I think seatbelts are an interesting study to think about because back in the day, all the seatbelt ads were like, oh, you’re going to die. Oh, it’s going to be terrible. That kind of stuff and it was in the last decade or so that the messaging really shifted to be about money, like here’s how much the ticket costs. And here’s how much pay you might lose if you have to take a day off of work to go to court to fight the seatbelt ticket.

And it’s kind of an interesting parallel move with kind of the eye movement of putting off instead this scary doom and gloom message—hey, you’re going to retire one day and not have enough money saved which feels like very far off and abstract to like, very immediate terms of you could save that money today and be done working forever in like just a few years.

Mindy: I think that’s fair.

Tanja: I mostly just want you to sing another jingle, Mindy.

Mindy: Well, let’s—as we progress further, I’m sure I will sing something else. I have a terrible singing voice.

Scott: You had this passion. Things were going well. You were working long hours but you know, it sounded like good rewarding work that was fulfilling. When did you decide that you were ready? How did you know that your financial position was approaching that point where you were ready to find—what was that mentally like breaking with these careers?

Tanja: Oh gosh, so many things in that question. We realized math-wise that we hit technical FI—that’s kind of how I think about it—about two years before we actually quit. Which just meant like we wouldn’t die if we couldn’t work. We could cover our basic expenses. We couldn’t do much else but at least we could survive. And knowing that really just helped me mentally get to a place where I felt okay without doing it.

The biggest thing that we did is we set a timeline. So we said we were going to quit at the end of 2017 pretty much no matter what. We decided that, I think, three years before we actually quit. And I couldn’t ever share the reason on the blog when we were anonymous why that was but it was because we didn’t want to work another election cycle. So we didn’t want to get into the 2018 election. We wanted 2016 presidential year to be our last and like, gosh, now with how the world is and how nasty politics has gotten, we’re feeling really good about that decision.

But that was basically it. We were like, we’re going to pull the plug at that point. We had a magic number we hoped to hit. We actually exceeded it by a pretty good margin both because the markets helped us a little bit but also just because we were able to save more than we expected. And I think that really helped knowing that we were ahead of our number.

And also, Mindy, you and I have talked about this before but it also really helped me personally to know that we had enough that if we had to split up, which we don’t plan to do, but like I think this is something that’s not talked about enough in FI circles, that if we for some reason divorced, we could each still separately be financially independent. We wouldn’t be forced to go back to work by a split.

That’s not to say we could live exactly the same lifestyle because certainly you get many economies of scale in a couple. We only have to have one house. We only have to have one set of utility bills and all those things. But I don’t know. I take great comfort knowing that we’d be okay if something unexpected happened in that way.

Mindy: I would like to point out that if you split up fairly amicably, you could each separately be FI. I have a friend who’s going through a really ugly divorce right now and a lot of his retirement was kind of wiped out because of it, because it wasn’t amicable. It was really ugly.

Tanja: Fair enough. Fair enough. I’m making the assumption, yeah.

Mindy: But just don’t split up. And then there you go.

Tanja: No, no, no. That’s not in the plan. Not to worry.

Scott: But I think the concept is really important and interesting that you’ve discussed this, it sounds like, with your husband and said, hey, if we do get divorced—obviously, the plan is to stay married forever. But the numbers out there will say that a significant percent of marriages break up and you had this discussion with that in mind. And do you think that that increases your ability to manage money or your relationship with your significant other, your odds of success, all those kinds of things?

Tanja: Oh, totally. I think people have this weird superstitious view of divorce that somehow talking about it makes you more likely to do it and I think that’s crazy. Like not talking about the possibility of divorce to me feels like a major communication hurdle and a sign of larger problems in the relationship. So yes, I think it’s really essential that you talk about it if you’re married and that if you’re aiming for FI that you know what your plan is if you should split up. Because I think a lot of folks go into it and just assume sort of the economy a scale number, like 4% Rule on our expenses as a couple and don’t factor in like, okay, what happens if we split?

I think that’s a big mistake because yeah, Scott, as you said, like what’s the current rate? It’s lower now for millennials and for Gen-X than it was for Baby Boomers but it’s still almost one in three marriages, right? It’s not like this is some rare unicorn event. And I do think it’s important to plan for that possibility even if it’s not what you actually hope will happen.

Scott: I think that’s a very wise advice and I think that a lot of people are going to have a lot of trouble taking it and acting on it and discussing that but I think that’s something really to consider. I mean, it just sounds like something so important that’s so frequently ignored.

Tanja: I agree and I will say, too, one of the questions that I get pretty frequently via e-mail from the blog is, guys writing to say, hey, I can’t get my wife on board with FI. How can I persuade her? The thing that I really do stress for folks is you know, you need to actually, if you’re trying to convince a partner of this, you need to show them how they will be okay if you don’t split up.

Because I do actually suspect that’s part of what some partners are resisting is this idea like, okay, we’re looking at what we spend as a couple and planning this whole future around that and then saying goodbye to our solid income and our stability and all those things that feel really safe and secure. And I think that feels terrifying to a lot of people and I think if you can show that instead your plan is based around you guys being okay, kind of no matter what, whether you’re together or not, I think that it’s so much easier to bring somebody along to the plan.

Scott: I think it’s great. Can you talk a little bit about where your income comes from nowadays? Is it just from all these investments and index funds? What are the sources of income for you guys?

Mindy: She’s retired, Scott. She doesn’t have a job anymore.

Tanja: So right now, it’s funny because we’re only a few months in and so we have yet to actually put any of our plan into action. But we’ve always based our plan around not needing to work, so not relying on any future outside earned income to be able to get by. So we have enough that we could just sell off shares of index funds. We actually are a little bit unusual in the FI world of having two-phase retirement. So we have mostly just regular taxable index funds that we’ll tap until Mark turns 59 and a half and then we’ll shift into selling 401K which he’s now rolled over to a Vanguard IRA.

So selling off tax advantage accounts at that point and we also will be able to increase our standard of living pretty significantly once we hit kind of traditional retirement age. So we’re looking at it as our leaner early retirement years and then our slightly cushier traditional retirement years. We also do have one rental property that we bought specifically to rent to a relative so that’s on a 15-year mortgage and so right now, it’s pretty much just cash flow neutral but in about 12 years, it’ll be paid off and then that will be a good chunk of our cash flow.

And so that’s built in there as well but I would say right now we’re actually doing some fun side stuff. So like I’m doing some paid speaking gigs and Mark’s been doing just a couple of limited consulting things that have felt really fun. And so we actually haven’t had to sell any shares yet. So it is interesting that that does seem to be the path of a lot of people who blog about FI. They don’t in the end actually live off the stuff they put into place. But for me, just being very risk averse, it does help me sleep better at night to know, okay, even if the market loses 40% tomorrow, we’re going to be okay.

Scott: Yeah, I mean it’s just not talked about that it’s so ridiculously incredibly conservative to retire at a 4% Rule before the age of 40 and be like, oh yeah, I’m just going to live off my shares forever. I mean nobody that has the hustle or drive to do this seems capable of just living that way, at least indefinitely. I want to dive into what you just talked about here with your two FIREs. You have one that’s lean now and you’re going to have another one that you’re going to advance when you hit retirement age.

Would you have accumulated more in the IRA if you could have—if you hadn’t reached these limits of about, I think it’s $18,000 per year, and is the reason why you have this two-pronged approach mostly because you’re saving six figures a year, maxing out these accounts, and then had a ton left over?

Tanja: Yeah, it’s a couple of factors. One is we just got a really good head start on the 401Ks and when I say we, I really mean Mark, obviously. He started maxing out, I think when he was like 25, and so by the end of it, his 401K was just very sizeable. If you look at maxing plus compounding and all. Some good market years in there. And my 401K is definitely good-sized because I started maxing after we got together. But yeah, as you said—

Scott: After the first date, right?

Tanja: Yeah. Not quite that quickly but yeah. But it’s hard to know because the limits were there. So we didn’t really think about oh, what if we could save $50,000 a year in tax advantage? For us, it just became sort of a no-brainer to say okay, well, let’s not make ourselves jump through all these hoops of ROTH conversations and all of those things and building the ladder and what not. I will also say a large part of the logistics of our plan are built around the fact that I’m just super risk averse.

I have some health care issues in my genes and know that our later years could be extremely expensive. I think that health care uncertainty has to be a major concern for anyone thinking about early retirement. And frankly, anyone thinking about traditional retirement. They’re now talking about getting Medicare and beyond that Medicare is still expensive anyway. The average Medicare recipient right now is still spending more than a quarter million dollars between when they get on Medicare and when they die. And that’s something you’ve got to find the money for.

So it has been a great comfort to me and it’s something that let me walk away from work and still sleep at night by knowing that we have the bigger pot of money there for our traditional retirement years. So I think just the idea of like the conversion ladder wouldn’t have appealed to me anyway because that would mean potentially taking money away from our older selves. So I like having that money there and knowing we’re not touching it for a long time.

Scott: What’s a day in the life like here for you now that you’ve moved on? Do you wear your pajamas all day? How do things go?

Tanja: Yeah. You guys have been nice not to mention that you can see on video that I’m wearing a Mouse onesie.

Mindy: Can you tell me why you’re wearing a Mouse onesie? Is it because you think it’s so cool?

Tanja: No, it’s because I slept in this and there was no reason to change clothes.

Mindy: Oh, I thought it was because you didn’t turn your heat up to—

Tanja: It’s also because our house is very cold. I will say so far, there has been no typical day. We are still trying to figure out if we are going to have any structure in our lives that kind of dictates the flow of things. But yes, some days we’ll get up at like a reasonable, responsible time and we’ve had days where we’re sleeping til noon and just trying to make up for all the sleep we lost in our career.

So yeah, some days I get up and do a bunch of productive stuff which is mostly writing and doing stuff for my podcast and then other days, get up and make pancakes and eat them on the couch and watch Netflix all day and try to make up for lost time of all the TV shows that people have been telling us for years we needed to watch and are bind on. So far, mostly through The Crown and the Great British Baking Show and we also did Westworld but we’re not really past those things yet.

Mindy: Okay, and you’ve said you haven’t been retired very long. Can you remind everybody when you did in fact quit your job and when Mark quit his job?

Tanja: Yeah, so December 15th was his last day. It was mostly my last day. I had to work two days at the very end of the year just to get the 401K match from my company and so that was a lot of just like tying up loose ends. But yeah, that was almost two months ago. So I think he has 67 days in according to the ticker on the blog and I’m a couple fewer than that.

Mindy: Okay but you know what, working an extra couple of days for your 401K match, totally worth it.

Tanja: Oh yeah, it was like a $6,000 match. Why would you not work two days for that?

Scott: And get paid those two days.

Tanja: Oh yeah, exactly.

Scott: I haven’t talked to a lot of people, maybe like five or ten, who have quit their jobs and it seems like there’s always almost six months, sometimes 12-month period where there is this large amount of decompression. You’re like, you may have a couple of side projects but you’re really doing exactly what you’re talking about and just relaxing, especially when it comes to your career that’s as demanding as it sounds like you guys’ were. But I’ll be very interested to see what you guys do next because you are such hustlers and creative people that I could see you working at some cool projects over the next couple of years.

Tanja: I’m going to take that as a very big compliment. Thank you.

Scott: That is a compliment.

Tanja: I am super excited to see that, too. And I think it’s the same. Like, the e-mails that I have gotten from folks or the comments have been that it takes six months to a year to really decompress and figure out your new rhythm. So I would not pretend to be there yet. We are definitely still in the kind of like kids who get to run around the house unsupervised, stage of early retirement.

Mindy: I will say six months to a year or more.

Tanja: Or more. Yeah. We’ll see. I’ll keep you posted.

Mindy: Some people that we know have not yet started to decompress.

Scott: Nice. Well, with that, let’s move onto our Famous Four. These are the same four questions that we ask every guest and some of them are extremely important so I hope you’ve planned ahead and are well prepared. Mindy, you want to take the first one?

Mindy: Yes. What is your favorite finance book?

Tanja: Your Money or Your Life. No question. That book was super life-changing for me. Seeing your money as an extension of your life force I think was totally a game-changer and made if very easy for me to not take out the credit card at stores.

Mindy: Yeah, that’s a really great book.

Scott: Awesome. What was your biggest money mistake?

Tanja: You know, I don’t think about a lot of stuff as mistakes just because I feel like I’ve learned from all of my past money behavior but I definitely think if I had it all to do all over again, I would really love to have bought less crap in my early 20s. Like stuff that I thought I needed to make my home look a certain way or things that I bought to try to project a certain image at work, I think, was just focusing on the wrong stuff. And so yeah, I think I’d take some of those purchases off the table.

Mindy: You know, I like that you say that. Because there are so many people who are, they have this mindset, oh well I can’t do that because I’m not frugal. I can’t do that because I already made some mistakes. So you made some mistakes. Learn from them and move on.

Tanja: Absolutely. I think it’s so easy to kick ourselves for stuff but first of all, that just doesn’t accomplish anything. Try to figure out what you can learn from it and then move forward and do the best you can today with the info you have today.

Mindy: Perfect. What is your best piece of advice for people who are just starting out on their FI journey or on their debt reduction journey?

Tanja: I think the biggest thing that everyone should do is just start tracking where every penny that comes in is going so that you know. Because I think even for people who are very good savers, the biggest thing is we just spend a lot of money mindlessly. And I know that this is talked about endlessly in The Latte Factor and I would not tell anybody to cut out lattes if that is the best part of your day. Like having your coffee is like your biggest relief from stress, great. Keep doing it.

But once you actually know where all your money is going, you can actually look at it and say okay, these are the things that are bringing me happiness. These are the things that are adding no value to my life. And then it’s so easy to cut that stuff out. But if you just say like, okay, I have to save $500 a month, that’s a really hard abstract place to start and it’s hard to find that money. But if you start from the spending side, looking at it, what brings joy and what doesn’t, it’s so much easier.

Scott: I love it.

Mindy: I absolutely agree with that. Scott?

Scott: Alrighty.

Mindy: Your favorite question?

Scott: This is my favorite question. What is your favorite joke to tell at parties?

Tanja: I was hoping you guys would forget to ask this question.

Scott: Never.

Mindy: Never.

Tanja: You know, I’m more of an observational humor type. I don’t have any actual jokes. But I always find like a zinger when somebody is doing something funny.

Mindy: Yes, you’re very clever.

Scott: Well in that case, I’m going to shout out to a listener who sent me a very nice note right here to the office. He had a P.S. which was, what did one ocean say to the other ocean?

Tanja: I have no idea.

Scott: Nothing. It just waved. We’ll go with that one.

Tanja: That’s such a dad joke.

Scott: Thank you to Ben. I appreciate that, Ben.

Mindy: Oh my goodness. Now you’re going to get people sending you jokes so when our—if you’ve got a really great joke, send them to Scott—what e-mail address do you want to put?

Scott: Send them to [email protected] or you can mail them to the office if you want to be creative like Ben. I will give you a full name mention if you give me a push to do so. I’m not mentioning this person’s last name because I don’t know if they want me to shout that over the air. But I love jokes.

Mindy: So then when our guests cannot come up with one, Scott will read your amazing, wonderful, fabulous, super funny jokes.

Scott: But enough with the jokes. Where can people find out more about you, Tanja?

Tanja: The main place to go is OurNextLife.com. And there you can link to all the social stuff. I especially do Twitter which is @Our_NextLife and you can link over to the podcasts. So far, just the The Fairer Cents is up which is a podcast I do which is mostly for women with my friend, Kara Perez. And Mark and I have another one that will probably be launching this summer called Adventures in Early Retirement, so stay tuned.

Mindy: Oh, that’s going to be a good one.

Scott: Oh, awesome. Looking forward to that.

Tanja: It’s not going to be financial at all. It’s going to be silly because we can’t help it. We’re just silly.

Scott: That’s great. It’ll just be fun things you can do as early retirees with millions of travel miles.

Tanja: Indeed.

Scott: Which you can rack up without having to buy all that credit card hacking, for folks that are listening.

Tanja: Absolutely.

Mindy: Yes, but it’s better when your employer pays for it and then gives you the points. I actually worked for somebody who wouldn’t let us keep the points.

Tanja: That is so unfair. I have just like a moral problem with that because you’re doing all the butt and seat miles and like you’re away from home. You should have a little bit of benefit from it.

Mindy: Yep. I don’t work for them anymore.

Tanja: Good move.

Mindy: All right, well Scott, shall we get out of here? We don’t want to keep you anymore than you need to. We know that you have a busy day full of sitting around in a Mouse onesie.

Tanja: I know. I really need to get back to the couch, guys.

Scott: All right, well thank you so much. This is fantastic. Learned a ton from you and I appreciate it.

Tanja: Oh well thanks so much. It’s always great talking to you guys and such a delight to be here.

Mindy: Thank you for your time. Now go back and watch what is it? The British Cooking Show?

Tanja: Yeah, the Great British Baking Show.

Mindy: The Great British Baking Show. Ooh. I haven’t heard of that one.

Scott: You have good taste, it sounds like. Alrighty. Well, thank you very much.

Mindy: Thank you, Tanja, have a good day.

Scott: All right. That was Tanja from Our Next Life, a great episode. What did you think, Mindy?

Mindy: I love Tanja. I met her a couple of years ago and I love her story. I love that she wasn’t a frugal person. She was able to do this anyway. She never felt deprived and she led the life she wanted to lead while she was working and now she has her whole life ahead of her. She can lead whatever life she wants to lead now. Just by making a few simple tweaks. I mean, they were making six figures each and living on six figures in L.A. That doesn’t seem like a real big sacrifice.

Scott: No. I mean, they, it sounded like they focused on the career they had. They were doing everything else right. They were keeping their expenses reasonable. They had a smart investing plan. It sounded like they had some side projects that they were ready to dive into when they did leave full-time work, but it sounded like they worked really hard in their careers. It allowed them to scale and took advantage of that and all the perks that came with it like the travel miles and that kind of stuff.

Mindy: Yeah. The travel miles. That pile of miles that they’re sitting on right now, I’m a little bit jealous, I’ve got to say.

Scott: Yeah, absolutely. Well I hope that that episode was really relevant for people that are living in these high cost of living areas and you know, the trade-off with that is you are probably going to need a solid career with a lot of upside potential if you are in one of these areas. If you want to pursue a path like Tanja and her husband Mark. But it is achievable and there should be those opportunities, maybe in greater abundance on those career front and those markets and maybe some other places where there’s a lower cost of living.

Mindy: Yes, it is achievable and you don’t have to feel deprived all the time. I know I have mentioned Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme before and he chose to be very extreme in his early retirement. That’s his choice. That’s what he wanted to do. It was worth it to him. Tanja said, you know what, this isn’t worth it to me. I’m going to go have a $500 a person meal and I don’t regret it at all. But she wasn’t harm her future by having that one meal. I think if she did that every single day, she’d soon run out of those lean FI funds and would have to start dipping into some other savings.

Scott: I really want this meal.

Mindy: I’ll ask her what the name of the restaurant is again. I can’t remember. Sofi? So me?

Scott: We’ll have to check it out. We’ll put it in the Show Notes.

Mindy: Yeah, we’ll put it in the Show Notes. Absolutely. Okay, Scott?

Scott: Before we get out of here, I’d love to just remind everybody to leave us a rating or review on iTunes if you enjoyed the show. We appreciate that. We read every single one. They matter to us. We take your feedback. So please do give us one of those ratings or reviews.

Mindy: Yes, please do leave us a rating and review. That’s how our show gets spread. That’s how we show up in the New and Noteworthy on the iTunes and that’s how you show up in the Top Business Podcasts. I think we’re in the Top 100 Business Podcasts which is kind of sweet.

Scott: Yeah, that’s awesome.

Mindy: Okay. From Episode 13 of the BiggerPockets Money podcast, this is Mindy Jensen. Over and out.

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In This Episode We Cover:

  • When Tanja discovered the concept of financial independence
  • Discussing finances prior to getting married
  • Tanja’s job before they tied the knot
  • On whether she considered sharing the finances with her husband
  • The cost of living in Los Angeles versus the cost of living in Chicago
  • Tanja’s income
  • Things that allow her and her husband to excel in their careers
  • When she realized she was ready to be financially independent
  • Her take on marriage and divorce
  • When she and her husband quit their jobs
  • And SO much more!

Links from the Show

Books Mentioned in this Show

Tweetable Topics:

  • “Just start tracking where every penny that comes in is going.” (Tweet This!)

Connect with Tanja

About Author

The BiggerPockets Money Podcast is for anyone who has money… or want to have more! Join BiggerPockets Community Manager Mindy Jensen and Director of Operations Scott Trench weekly for the BiggerPockets Money Podcast!
Each week, financial experts Mindy and Scott interview unique and powerful thought leaders about how to earn more, keep more, spend smarter, and grow your wealth.
You’ll get tips for getting your financial house in order and actionable advice from guests who have been in your shoes – and found their way out.

7 Comments

  1. Man was it me or was Mandy/Mindy? just undermining them at several points? I was very turned off by her demeanor throughout the entire conversation. Whether they did it making 50k or 100k each they still deserve some major kudos.

  2. Christy Flora

    This one was hard for me to get behind. Why does it seem that all the FI people are either DINKS (double income, no kids), single and house hacking, or have kids but were on their way to FI prior to having them. I would absolutely love to hear from a couple that is currently deep into the business of child rearing that is also making it work with saving – achieving FI. I would assume many people listening to this podcast are in this situation.

  3. Hi Christy,
    I am a single mom raising kids and I totally agree. This whole conversation is sorely lacking for those of us also trying to juggle child raising and in particular, single moms. There is just not enough time in the day and i just can’t wrap my head around those who tell me to stop making excuses or to prioritize. Either I am really missing something, or they are.
    Lisa

  4. Harley G.

    Six figure income DINKs retiring after each working 10+ years and being FI… *yawn*

    This is like a single head of household making an income that is a median household income for most “expensive” areas, like where this couple lived, retiring after an average career of 20+ years.

    Congratulations, you did not completely fail at life.

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