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Many of us romanticize retirement as a time when we can finally be free. Free of work. Free of worrying about money. We can ditch the alarm clock and do whatever we want!

Diania Merriman speaking at EconoMe conference

Then reality hits. We still have obligations. There is the creeping doubt about whether we truly have enough money. We lose the identity, purpose, income, health insurance, and other benefits derived from a job.

The retirement model is broken. I recognized this and started thinking and writing about and planning for it before leaving my career. Still, the first year after retiring was one of the hardest of my life. Three years in, I continue to experience challenges and struggles.

So I’m fascinated by other people who are finding ways to live their best life while still saving aggressively towards financial independence. I recently had the pleasure of meeting one such person, Diania Merriam.

I invited her to do a Q&A to share what she’s doing, how she’s doing it, and what she’s learned so far. Read to the end for a special offer to blog readers…

Welcome Diania. Tell us a little about yourself, how and when you found the idea of financial independence and retiring early (FIRE), and the first steps you took to start changing your life.

Thanks Chris! I’m almost 34 now, but my financial journey started back in the fall of 2015. I was in my late 20’s, living in NYC, and in $30k of debt. I felt a sense of urgency to get out of this debt and save as much as I could because I wanted to walk the Camino de Santiago for my 30th birthday. The trip completely intimidated me. Figuring out my finances to make it happen was also way outside my comfort zone.  

My debt accumulated largely from me just not paying attention. Half of my debt was from student loans. That doesn’t sound too bad until you consider that I went to college on a full academic scholarship! 

I took out loans for living expenses, which in retrospect, was a dumb move. But the money was available to me so I didn’t think much of it. The other half of my debt was high interest credit card debt solely from living outside my means. My attitude in my 20’s was that I’d figure out my debt later, when I’m “making my millions.” Needless to say, it was not a great strategy and definitely caught up with me. Fortunately, I stumbled upon the Mr. Money Mustache blog, when I was coming up with a plan to get out of debt. I read every article and admittedly became a little obsessed. I had never heard anyone talk about money this way, and it ignited the desire to learn more. After originally thinking it would take me 2 years to get out of $30k of debt, I crushed it in just 11 months.

I had a similar experience when finding FIRE blogs. What was different for you about this messaging than personal finance advice you ignored in the past.

It was incredibly satisfying to pay off my debt. The process helped me tap into a level of creativity and resourcefulness I didn’t know I had. 

Through cooking all my meals, I became very skilled in the kitchen. Treating myself to gourmet meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on $40 per week became a skill set that now feels like second nature. Since I was going out less, I learned to become “the hostess with the mostest,” and often held elaborate dinner parties in my one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment.

I hosted and attended clothing swaps and ended up with a closet full of fashionable and free hand me downs from my friends. My downstairs neighbors and I shared internet and cut that bill in half. I built a sharing community in my apartment building so that we all had a network of convenient people to call on when we needed to borrow a hammer, a cup of sugar, or whatever need happened to arise. I learned to make my own laundry detergent, stopped wearing makeup and became comfortable with what my face looks like, spent more time reading, journaling, and working out. 

Self-imposed restriction and frugality led me to a whole lot of self improvement. It is laughable to me that there were people around me who felt sorry for me. They assumed I felt the need to “deprive” myself. Deprivation is definitely not the word that I would use to describe this period of self discovery.

What came next after you were debt free?

I started saving about 60% of my income after getting out of debt. While I was living frugally, my income was also increasing at a steady rate. By not allowing lifestyle inflation to creep in, I was able to save money quickly and build a level of confidence that would help me focus on what I realized was more important than more money- time and freedom. 

I convinced my employer to allow me to work remotely so I could give midwest living a try. This enabled moving to Cincinnati (hello lower cost of living!) about 4 years ago. I also took a 2 month unpaid sabbatical so that I could walk the Camino in 2017. It took me 38 days to walk 500 miles across Spain!  

After I got back from the Camino, I adopted a dog, bought a house, found myself a midwestern gentleman, and started my own business… more on that later!  Most recently, I quit my full time job and walked away from a 6 figure salary all while I’m not yet financially independent. I’m taking the next year to flirt with self employment.

I know we share a similar love-hate relationship with the concept of FIRE. Describe the concept of FI-lexibility you created as an alternative to rushing to financial independence to retire as soon as possible.

I like to define “Fi-lexibility” as follows: 

  1. A mindset of elasticity amid the obstacles and opportunities that present themselves on the path to financial independence.
  2. A concept I made up to make myself feel better about not being financially independent.

This concept is about recognizing that pursuing financial independence is about so much more than actually reaching financial independence. If reaching FI is about opening up options, fi-lexibility is about seeing the options you have now, while you’re on the way to even more options.  

For example, my work situation changed drastically with my employer of 9 years and it became very clear that I was no longer valued. This was an obstacle on my path to FI. Because I’m now Coast FI and I have 2 years of living expenses liquid, I was able to seize the opportunity to take a big bet on myself. I left a toxic environment and have the financial bandwidth to pursue self employment with 14 different income streams that I’m really excited about.

If I was solely focused on reaching FI as quickly as possible, I’d probably keep my head down and tolerate the misery in exchange for the 6 figure salary that would have gotten me to FI in 6 years. But I’ve chosen to live in the uncertainty. I could either reach my FI goal much faster or slower based on my decision to work for myself. And the best part of this uncertainty is realizing that it doesn’t matter. Here’s an oxymoron for you: I’m simultaneously pursuing FI and creating a life that makes it irrelevant if I ever reach FI.

Your second definition made me laugh. But on a serious note, the math of financial independence is pretty simple. It’s the mental and emotional aspects of making behavioral changes and following through that are hard. Can you share more about the idea of making yourself feel better about not being financially independent yet?

When I say it’s a concept that makes me feel better about not being FI, it’s because I notice this attitude in the FIRE community that if you’re not financially independent, you should be constantly optimizing to reach it faster. When I was getting out of debt, I had a real sense of urgency. That worked well for me for those 11 months, but I don’t see that carrying me through my whole journey.   

This idea I’m calling “fi-lexibility” stems from me seeing my mindset around money continually evolve. It’s often been said that personal finance is much more about mindset than the numbers. As I reach more milestones in my financial journey, I see my relationship with money and the role it plays in my life continue to change. 

I think of fi-lexibility as a tool I’m using while internalizing my goals. One of my big goals is to reach financial independence by the time I’m 40, but I’m being “fi-lexible” about this time frame.

What has been the biggest benefit of designing your own unique path through life? Why do you think that is better for most people than following preset all-or-nothing models of a standard consumer lifestyle to traditional retirement in your 60s or 70s vs. the fastest track to early retirement possible as commonly advocated by FIRE enthusiasts?

Hands down the biggest benefit to designing my own path has been all that I’ve been able to learn about myself. What kind of person do I want to be? What do I value? How do I want to do spend my time? It requires a lot of experimentation and testing of assumptions, and willingness to be wrong.

I’ve learned that I’m simply incorrect about many of the things I think I want to do. I make incorrect assumptions about how those things will make me feel. For example, I used to do stand up comedy, I played in a drum and bugle corps for a couple years, and most recently, I completed a 4 month School of Rock program and sang in a band. 

I’ve always had this desire to perform in some way. All these experiments were in search of the right outlet for that. But whenever I was on those stages, I never felt how I thought I would feel.

This to me is the danger of pursuing FIRE so that one day in the future, you can quit your job and do what you want. 

  • What if you don’t know what you want?
  • What if you never test the assumptions of what you think you want?  

Then you retire and realize that you were wrong about what you thought you wanted to do with your time. That’s just as bad as the standard consumer lifestyle. Many of us are conditioned to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like because we make assumptions about how it will make us feel. While this pursuit of FIRE helps us test those consumerist assumptions, it also comes packaged in a whole other set of assumptions that need to be tested as well.

Any time you choose to go against the grain of the culture around you, there are bound to be conflicts and challenges. What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced since deciding to take control of your finances and pursue a more FI-lexibile lifestyle?

We’ve been conditioned since birth to be good consumers and follow the standard narrative of society. I’ve found that when I push against that for myself, others may consider it a judgement on their choice to live a conventional life. The reality is, what other people do with their money is none of my business. I don’t talk about this stuff to try and change their minds or sell them on the idea of FIRE.

I talk about it because I know there are people out there like me, that when they hear my story, they will react the way I did when I read the Mr. Money Mustache blog. Getting control of my finances completely improved my life and allowed me to see myself at my full potential. It’s an incredible experience I wish for others. And sharing my story has the potential to help other people improve their lives if they are receptive to the message.  

But it can be uncomfortable when I’m faced with a naysayer who wants to convince me that my frugality is deprivation and my 60% savings rate is so unrealistic that it’s offensive to talk about.  I’ve also gotten a lot of criticism for choosing to start a business that I don’t monetarily profit from. Many people assume it’s because I don’t value my time, or I have self worth issues.

It’s difficult for me to explain sometimes that being generous with my time and energy makes me feel wealthy. I’m in a fortunate financial position that I don’t need to be paid for all the work I do, even though I’m not yet financially independent.

Tell readers what this business is and why you started this project. What need are you trying to fill? Why did you decide to do it when you did?

The EconoMe Conference is an annual large scale event that I produce at The University of Cincinnati. It’s been called the “Ted Talks” of the FIRE movement. One attendee last year even referred to it as “a party about money”. We bring together thought leaders to help guide us in questioning our assumptions about happiness, freedom, and prosperity through the lens of personal finance.   

When I thought about becoming financially independent, the biggest benefit I could imagine was creating what I wanted to see in the world without any concern for making an income from it.  I’m the most extroverted person I know and absolutely love attending events/conferences and surrounding myself with people who have similar interests. 

One of my favorite events is called the World Domination Summit. Every time I go to this event, I leave feeling like my life is so full of possibility. I wanted to replicate this feeling for other people on the FIRE path. This is what drove me to launch EconoMe. This was supposed to be my eventual “retirement project”, but I got so excited about it, I couldn’t wait! 

When I think about the things that contribute most to my happiness, it’s pretty simple- relationships/community, creative expression, and autonomy over my time.  Many people talk about FIRE being a lonely path. So I felt that I could help fill this need by creating an opportunity to surround ourselves with an engaged community of people who are doing incredible things with their finances.

The core message and theme of this blog targets people already on the path to financial independence and contemplating the retirement decision or currently making the transition away from traditional careers to retirement or other more fulfilling work. We also have long-time readers who have been retired for a decade or more. New readers may have only recently found the concept of financial independence. Who would benefit from attending EconoMe and why?

I originally thought EconoMe was going to be more for people like me- who are in the accumulation stage and looking for community and inspiration to “fuel the FIRE”. But I was really surprised how many early retirees came to the first event! I think it’s because when you figure it out for yourself, there is an overwhelming desire to help other people. I’ve found the FIRE community very generous in that regard. The early retirees who shared their knowledge in breakout sessions, sponsored student tickets, and just came to cheer the rest of us on was really nice to see.

The content is also a great mix of inspirational and tactical information. Wherever you are on your journey, you are bound to get something out of EconoMe. 

For example, Travis Hornsby did a speech on student loan debt last year. Most people in the audience revealed in a survey during that speech that they didn’t have any student loan debt. The speech was still very well received by that audience because the content was surprising and most of us just like to nerd out on money matters. And now whenever attendees are helping their kids or others looking to avoid or get out of debt, they can provide a resource by sharing that speech.

There are other speeches that are purely inspirational, no matter where you are on your journey.  For example, Rose Lounsbury did a speech called The Journey to Enough. She not only questions how much is enough money, but also, how much is enough stuff, friends, or success? 

I think one of the best parts of reaching FI or even being on the path is that it opens up the bandwidth to start asking bigger questions. We look to facilitate that kind of dialogue at EconoMe.

The first time we talked you introduced me to Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. In it, Newport rails against the “passion hypothesis” and “courage culture.” These ideas tell us that we should follow our passion and that we “just need the courage to step away from ‘other people’s definition of success’ and to follow your dream.”

How do you think Newport would view things like this exchange of ideas or the talks presented at the EconoMe conference? Do we fall into these narratives of selling an unrealistic dream that set people up for disappointment? If not, how are we different?

In addition to Cal’s points, I think the trouble with following your passion is the likelihood that you are wrong about what that “passion” is. Furthermore, just like people think “following their passion” will make them happy, many people in the FIRE community believe that retiring early will make them happy. It’s simply not true. I think you, Cal, and I would agree that people who believe this narrative are in for a rude awakening.

If you want to retire early just to get away from a job you don’t like, your motivations might not serve you all that well. I think the FIRE path is about opening up options, having more control/autonomy, and very much about self discovery in how you want to use your time. It’s not necessarily about not working. Effort after all is the spice of life.

Cal talks about how happiness at work is driven more by the people you surround yourself with, being good at what you do, and autonomy over your time. So the whole idea is to build up career capital to ultimately trade it for more autonomy.

In a sense, people in the FIRE movement are following a similar path. They are building up financial capital to trade for more autonomy. But perhaps they’re missing some of the other key building blocks of happiness when they think freedom from needing paid work is all they need.

Ultimately I think everyone is responsible for their own happiness. Disappointment in an unrealistic dream might come from trying to copy the path of the stories they read online.

I used to try to live like Mr. Money Mustache, until I realized that I don’t want to be him. I want to be me! 

And there is a level of financial freedom that only I can create with my unique circumstances, preferences, and skills. If we can start reading FIRE content with the understanding that people are sharing their stories as food for thought on what worked for them, we can start to get creative on what might work for us. But if we try to copy their stories, then we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment because we’re robbing ourselves of the joy that comes with writing our own. 

Do you have anything else you’re dying to share with our audience that I didn’t ask you about?

If people want to hear more from me, I’m also the host of the Optimal Finance Daily podcast.  This is a daily narration style podcast where I read from some of the best blogs on personal finance, with the author’s permission of course! (And Can I Retire Yet? is a contributor! I haven’t read from Chris yet, but there are 4 episodes that I’ve read from Darrow). I also offer commentary on each of the articles and occasionally do Q&A episodes. 

Summing Up

Diania and I recently connected at an online conference and later had a long one-on-one Zoom call. I couldn’t help but to love her attitude, humor, enthusiasm and notice her wisdom beyond her years. So I wanted her to share her story on the blog. I hope you enjoyed reading this interview as much as I did putting it together.

I agree with Diania that people who aggressively pursue a path to financial independence and early retirement (or whatever else may follow) are generally misfits in our society that is driven by consumerism. There is great value in connecting with other people with similar mindsets in order to support and learn from one another. I’ve written about how valuable it has been for Kim and I to be part of a mastermind group of likeminded couples and find the right community when we relocated that includes our Choose FI local group. I was scheduled to speak at a Camp FI event in Joshua Tree last fall where I was hoping to grow my social network, before it was unfortunately cancelled due to Covid 19 restrictions.

I wholeheartedly support Diania’s efforts to develop another avenue for like minded people to connect through the EconoMe Conference. On that note, Diania has a special opportunity for you…

Special Offer

Diania is offering a pair of free tickets to the EconoMe conference to a reader of the blog. The conference will be held November 13th and 14th, 2021 in Cincinnati, OH. You can find a list of speakers and anything else you would like to know about this event at the EconoMe website. (Can I Retire Yet? has no financial relationship with the EconoMe conference.)

If you’d like a chance to win the tickets, leave a short comment (2-3 sentences) telling me why you would like to attend by March 21st. I’ll announce a winner on March 29th in the monthly Best of the Web post. You can comment with just a first name or alias to maintain your anonymity. You must leave a valid email, which will remain private, to be eligible for the tickets so that we can contact you if you win. If you are a first time commenter, your comment needs to be manually approved and won’t display immediately. Please do not leave more than one comment. Good luck!

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Valuable Resources

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[Chris Mamula used principles of traditional retirement planning, combined with creative lifestyle design, to retire from a career as a physical therapist at age 41. After poor experiences with the financial industry early in his professional life, he educated himself on investing and tax planning. Now he draws on his experience to write about wealth building, DIY investing, financial planning, early retirement, and lifestyle design at Can I Retire Yet? Chris has been featured on MarketWatch, Morningstar, U.S. News & World Report, and Business Insider. He is also the primary author of the book Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence. You can reach him at chris@caniretireyet.com.]

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