[This post is brought to you by my cousin Ross! If you’re interested in contributing at The-Military-Guide.com, please see our posting guidelines.]
[For those who haven’t seen it yet, here’s the link to Ross’s first post in this series.]
Our net worth is what?!? I thought to myself. I knew my relationship with money had always been complicated (see my previous post), and that I spent too much of my disposable income. I was still paying down some student loans I’d foolishly taken out in grad school for “quality of life,” and my family was living on my salary alone in a VHCOL area even as my wife completed her second graduate degree.
I’d also made dumb decisions with credit as a young soldier in the Army, which had required nearly all my commissioned time to recover from. Frankly, I didn’t even like looking at my bank account because it was consistently below where I felt it “should be.” So when we finally did a full financial assessment before making an offer on a home earlier this year, I was shocked to discover our net worth was…positive. And not just positive, but like really positive.
How could I be so shocked to discover that you ask? Shouldn’t I, a professional with an MBA, working in financial services be fully aware of how much we were worth at all times? Well, no, for numerous reasons. One is that I was consistently afraid to find out just how much money we owed to various parties, so over the intervening years we’d just tossed money at our debtors in an attempt to ignore thinking about them. Another reason is that, frankly, we were pretty dang busy. I’d come off the road from my consulting job a couple years prior, but I’d stayed quite busy in my job since then. We were juggling my 60 hour a week position, my wife’s final year of medical school, and a one year old…all in the beginning of the pandemic. I figured as long as I didn’t have debt collectors sending angry letters, I was keeping my head above water.
I had also, admittedly, job-hopped a bit too much since I’d left the Army eight years prior. I’d struggled to find the right fit, and I’ll even admit I’d just struggled in some of those roles. As a result I had a string of 401(k)s, most of which I hadn’t logged into since leaving a prior company. But after almost a decade of that struggle, I finally felt like I was in a great position, in a wonderful company, and with some stability. Now that my wife had matched to her residency program, it seemed like it might make sense to purchase a home. I was still a bit overwhelmed at the thought of taking one even more debt to buy a house that was still in a HCOL area, a bit further outside the nation’s capital than we currently were, but the time seemed right. Prices hadn’t quite gone down, but they’d stopped rising so precipitously, and interest rates were at near record lows.
Well, we spent a few days digging up old logins and passwords, recovering the odd account here and there, and making phone calls to all our financial institutions. I’m embarrassed to admit I’d actually forgotten about the existence of one of my old 401(k)s! But ultimately we put together all this data into a single spreadsheet and…omg, we were worth well into the six figures! How?!?! I wondered.
It seemed impossible, given that we were still trapped in the feast-or-famine cycle of living paycheck-to-paycheck, and were both paying down student loans that we had taken out somewhat foolishly even when we didn’t need them. Well, the answer is simple – we had each grown up adjacent to people who were on their way to or actually living FIRE. In my case, it was my cousin Doug, the author of The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement, and in my wife’s case it was her father, who’d lived frugally, invested soundly, and semi-retired with a Merchant Marine pension in his early 50s.
Now, while we had never taken all their combined advice to heart, enough had sunk in over the years that we had somehow bumbled into following some of the critical steps. Always max out your 401(k) contribution? Check…well, once I’d started work in the civilian world. Sorry Doug, never maxed my TSP.
[Nords note: Ha! Nobody has ever admitted that before…]
Always put money into the market, through ups and downs? Check. Live within your means? Well, barely, but technically we didn’t have anything but (semi-)good debt, like student loans. I’d even bought a starter home near my first duty station around the bottom of the real estate market, way back in 2009, which had appreciated nicely and given me a decent windfall. And going back to that initial question about how we had been so surprised to find our net worth positive, I had carefully listened to Doug’s advice to “fire and forget.” In other words, I had thrown that money in a low cost index fund, and then only gotten around to checking it only when I finally needed to, rather than allowing the market’s natural ups and downs throw me for a loop. All this led to, well, quite a pleasant financial surprise – and those are the only types of financial surprises anyone likes to get!
Now my wife has been back in the work force for over six months, and we continue to receive pleasant financial surprises. It turns out that learning to live on just my paycheck for the past four years has allowed us to drastically increase our income without making any adjustments to our spending habits. We’ve increased our savings rate and begun aggressively paying down the remainder of our joint student loans. According to my models (again, MBA spreadsheet nerd here), we can Coast FIRE in less than eighteen months with no adjustments to our spending tendencies. Between some belt tightening and paying off our loans about that same time, we could theoretically Lean FIRE about eighteen months after that. OR, in the most likely case scenario, I can stay at work as long as it remains fun, and once my wife is making “real doctor” money we can move a bit further out to an Average Cost of Living area, and we can do the equivalent of “Fat FIRE” before I turn 50.
Why am I here writing about this? It’s not to brag, that’s for sure. Everyone can see all the mistakes we’ve made over the years. A truly discerning reader would point out that if we’d only made some quality-of-life adjustments in the years prior to 2020, we’d already be at a Lean – or at least Coast – FIRE level, particularly given the inflation-adjusted disability compensation my wife and I both receive from the VA. Ouch, right? Well, I’m here “bragging” about my stupid mistakes because I want to point out the importance of the messages we received from smart members of the FIRE movement.
Simply by being “FIRE adjacent,” my wife and I bumbled our way toward FIRE, and nearly into it. Enough smart advice penetrated my particularly tough skull that we paid ourselves something first, despite student loans, VHCOL rent, and lots of avocado toast at brunches. We made just enough smart decisions in automating our bills, investing in low cost index funds, and simply not paying much attention to our financial predicament situation that our net worth increased without us ever realizing it.
All this to say, I’m writing today’s piece to implore everyone in the FIRE community to proactively talk about the movement. [*] You simply don’t know who’s listening that might benefit from hearing about your journey. And even if it seems like your advice falls on deaf ears, if just a bit of it lands it may still help your friend/family member/neighbor/co-worker/etc. enough that they find themselves bumbling into FIRE. My immediate family taught me at a young age that “we don’t talk about money,” and it led me down a dangerous path. Having friends and other family members talk about the concepts of FIRE gave me one of the best surprises I’ve ever received. So please, buck polite society and talk about this stuff with anyone who will listen!
[* Nords note: I’d start with debunking the myth about frugality versus deprivation. And then I’d refer people to the quick start guide.]
About the author:
A Florida native, Ross enlisted in the Army after high school. He served as an infantryman in the 75th Ranger Regiment for three years prior to his acceptance to West Point. He deployed three times to Afghanistan and Iraq during the first years of the War – Ross likes to brag that he’d invaded two countries by the time he was twenty-one! After graduating from the Academy, he spent five additional years as an infantry officer with the First Cavalry Division, including another deployment to Iraq. During his final months in the Army, Ross considered a career in medicine as either a doctor or nurse before deciding he was best suited for work in “Corporate America.”
After transitioning from the military, Ross spent an additional year as a proud Army spouse supporting his wife, Camilla, at her terminal assignment with the 10th Special Forces Group at Ft. Carson. He worked as a telecommunications sales engineer during this time. When Camilla was accepted to the Premedical Post-Bacc program at Goucher College he happily followed her to Baltimore, where he worked as a project manager for a residential construction company. After Camilla graduated from Goucher, Ross decided to attend the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business, where he graduated with his MBA in 2016. Post-graduation Ross first worked as a consultant with Bain & Co., then in direct mail marketing as a Senior Business Manager at Capital One. Since 2019 Ross has been happily employed as an internal consultant at Fannie Mae, where he continues to polish his financial services pedigree.
Ross is passionate about giving back to the veteran community. He and his wife co-founded Vet2MD, a non-profit organization that exists solely to increase awareness about the medical profession as a career option for transitioning veterans. He has been a volunteer with Team Rubicon since 2013, and is an active member of the DC chapter of Operation Code. Ross also enjoys serving as an informal transition coach to veterans, helping them talk through their background and passions to understand their best fit in the civilian world. After holding a string of jobs that weren’t great fits and finally stumbling into one that is, he’s well positioned to talk to most industries and roles! You’re welcome to connect with Ross on LinkedIn.
The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement Price: By Doug Nordman: This book provides servicemembers, veterans, and their families with a critical roadmap for becoming financially independent.
Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence Price: Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence - The New Book from Doug Nordman & Carol Pittner
Reader story: “How I Bumbled Into Financial Independence”