Confessions of a Hedonist OR How I became Financially Independent Slowly & Against ALL Odds.

Dear Goddess of Frugality in FIRE heaven. Please forgive me for I have sinned. Please spare my mortal soul Goddess from eternally burning in consumerist hell for I didn’t always keep the faith. I haven’t always lived frugally Goddess. I confess that I’ve committed every possible crime against the holy disciplines of penny pinching. In fact when I first came across the concept of ERE some years back I cursed it. I thought to myself there is no f*** way in hell I’m ever going near that s***. That this extreme discipline is for mice not men. That the only life worth living is one that is about buying earthly pleasures in expensive restaurants, splashing cash on fine wine in expensive Las Vegas casinos, wearing a Rolex Submariner and an Armani suite to the office on a weekday. That anything smelling to frugality would amount to extreme deprivation and a Les Miserables like, well… misery! That I rather suffer the plague than become ultra frugal to then live off pennies. But then I did what I did and I made it through to FI!
Hope it’s all forgiven and that there’s no bad blood between us or your community of cultish obsessive compulsive followers. (People just like me 😉 )

See, frugality in my mind and since I was a child equalled divine punishment and utter failure. A life made of a ‘ground hog day’ like endless sequence of freezing cold showers on sub-zero Celsius winter mornings. An existence doomed to eternal torture where I would be forced to suck on dirty dog piss snow while all my friends would enjoy their super high quality Italian ice-cream. Going frugal on life caused me frightening hallucinations of cycling on an old rusty bike to the pound shop on Christmas eve whilst the rain pours down my neck and I scream in pain and agony to the heavens when meanwhile everyone else sit in the comfort and warmth of their Land Rovers, listening to Christmas songs on the radio, holding hands and laughing whole heartedly on their way to some luxurious happy people only allowed fancy incredibly tasty Christmas dinner by the fire place and with reserved seating next to Santa himself. Or something like that.

But then I did learn early on the lesson of buying freedom when as a 14 year old teen I bought my first shitty car which I then drove illegally around town hiding from the police in the woods when these would be called to the scene – ah, the freedom of a young juvenile! And then again later in my early twenties when I worked my a** off for a whole year and saved every penny like a mad dog to then fund my girlfriend and myself a year off in India and Nepal. A year of slavery for a year of freedom was my first ever conversion of money into time (!!) and I could see some light at the end of the tunnel already. Although maybe it was an Indian train coming towards me. But despite of realising the power of having a high savings rate I didn’t quite yet come up with a profound master plan… And the years went by… 

Me, the Himalayas and Lang Tang Valley Rendezvous

I hereby confess that right after this successful “time 2 freedom” trade and subsequent Himalayan enlightenment I willingly and joyfully hopped onto the valley of consumerist bacchanal and fine dining. Just because. And this new lifestyle of mine peaked during the playful years of the pre- and somewhat post- 2007/8 Financial Crisis and the mega cocaine and Dom Perignon and debt-fuelled consumerist orgy that was going on and to which I received no written invitation to my dismay.

Oh, how I yearned to steer my ship towards the madness! Those deep blue financially tropical shark infested waters I believed was where valuable treasures and earthly pleasures were waiting just for me. So I made a claim to my share, raised my black pirate flag and sailed full speed ahead! That and a bottle of Rum.

Click those heals three times and say there is no place like Vegas!

Being right about where the party was and paranoid about how it will end became my key to success. Thankfully I was paranoid enough not to think any of it is in any way real or would last forever. I just knew that I must have a plan to escape the party alive one day and ideally just before the whole house goes up in flames. I just didn’t know what that plan was…

…So just to be on the safe side I kept saving a very healthy portion of my income whilst still going all in to my corporate career as if my life depended on it, praying to the gods (sometimes literally and on my knees despite of being a complete atheist but so “what if after all they are up there and taking notes of my Christmas wish list items??”) sacrificing rice and burning incense anything so they would aid me on my treasure hunt…

And so for a good while I lived this duality made of the diagonally opposed eternal Rock And Roll wisdom of “its better to burn out than fade away” on one hand and on the other the immortal catch 22 wisdom of “just because you are paranoid do not mean they are not after you”. (by now I’m pretty done with the first. If for no other reason than the fact that being 43 years of age I’m no longer capable of leaving behind a young beautiful corpse even if I wanted to. But I’m still clinging to the latter immortal wisdom and with ever growing paranoia!)  

And so making it a point to never forget that the party will end one day I made sure to always stash cash aside, have lots of F-you money at hand, never take a loan, never buy anything on credit, heavily invest tax free towards my pension, all that good stuff you need to competently play the game, you know the drill. And then one day I stood at Dublin’s International airport, staring at a group of astonished people gathering next to the big screens, watching this terrified news anchor announcing the collapse of Allied Irish Banks, and that moment I knew the party has finally come to an abrupt end. It was all over.

Well, for about a second and a half. Soon after the bankers walked away with their mega bonuses, quantitative easing saved Wall Street again and another even bigger party got started! And so I leaped upwards on the corporate ladder and switched to the City of London where it all happens… And more years marked by hedonism went by… 

We’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz!

Until sometimes around my mid-thirties I started taking notice of some small cracks that started appearing. I didn’t pay much attention to them at first. They didn’t look structural. Just a coat of fresh paint and we are good to go I thought. But of-course these small cracks were only bringing to the surface the many small compromises that I was making along the way in order to achieve what I thought was the end game. And this game as I started realising demanded so many of these small compromises it perhaps was wholly compromised itself. Paranoia you see works in mysterious and paranoid ways!

And as my doubts grew as to the meaning of it all, and as I drifted closer to borderline midlife crisis, the mask I wore to protect myself from my fellow sharks, cannibals and pirates was becoming increasingly uncomfortable to wear. I could no longer as easily look away from the damaging impact of the hollow Machiavellian soul crashing corporate culture I surrounded myself with. I could no longer just pretend that the sociopaths on the fast track to top dog positions and which had so much power over me were something else than who they truly were. And I didn’t want to ever work without a plan or worse, just blindly follow theirs. And so I finally started having a clue to what it required to fearlessly take control back. Yet frustratingly, I still didn’t have a sure shot silver bullet master plan I could believe in…

…But by now I started obsessively reading the available traditional literature on personal finance and retirement planning. At this point I wasn’t clear exactly how ambitious I could realistically be with my exit plan and thought that I could at best take a sabbatical every 10 years to tick off another bucket list item or two whilst I still can or maybe retire “early” at the age of 55 if I’m really lucky. It was a depressing vision as it ignored my quest to radical freedom. And the more I studied the conventional retirement planning wisdom the bleaker the picture became…

You see, I couldn’t immediately see that these books that I had put my hands on and which promised the principles of sound financial planning to forever happy retirements were written for the mainstream – at most competent and certainly far from brilliant or from even just being modestly ambitious – rat racers looking to burn through their best years and health to then only retire when all of their peak energy supply run out entirely and whilst still looking to keep the same level of wasteful consumerism fuelled sad little lives.

And so all that these books could ever teach me was how to remain trapped until old age so I can then at last – old, broken, burnt out and tired – sit down on a tropical beach somewhere and sip one last margarita before I drop dead. I actually got very close to accepting this would be my fate at best. And I almost kissed my dreams goodbye and lost hope of ever gaining any level of true freedom before being pushed into a home as the senile old man that I will perhaps one day become.

The positive thing that came out of endlessly studying all this utter rubbish if well branded collection of personal finance BS publications was that now I was horrified with the lifestyle and financial advice they had to offer.
And so I bumped up my savings rate ever higher, sucked my belly in and saved even more. This was a fight to the death. literally!

The traditional retirement dream as presented by BS vendors – To that I say NO THANKS. Image: GETTY

But the final kick in the butt and real transformative if not magically alchemic crystallisation process started when at last I decided to take a sabbatical. Eager to escape the corporate hamster wheel for a year to backpack long term again and realise a bucket list item or two, and this time in Latin America, I ambitiously decided this trip must be funded in full and whilst not losing a single pension contribution either (!!) entirely through investing smartly in the stock exchange. No longer will I convert money to freedom by saving just to spend it all. No, this time I will save to invest to spend the yield and be left with the capital if not more in the bank when I return!
I just had no idea how I could ever get this done but I was hell bent to find out.

Figuring this financial magic out – which took me an entire spring of banging my head to the pavement – to then having my kicks already that very summer somewhere between the Bolivian Andes and the tropical beaches of Northern Brazil turned the lights on again in my feverish brain.

If I can fund a sabbatical through my investments, realise my dreams, travel, climb mountains, study languages, read philosophy, sail the Amazon, meet incredible people, all entirely just through my investments – AND without even losing any pension contributions or touching the capital – then surely I should be able to fund a sabbatiLIFE of all that awesomeness in exactly the same way!? 

I was finally onto something…

Climbing to the top takes a whole different meaning when you dare to look for a different angle on life.

This realisation was quickly accompanied by another critical aha moment. Living off a back pack I swiftly realised the things I truly need to be happy were known to me right from the start – I just perhaps forgot about them – and they did not involve material possessions or luxury items in the slightest… Maybe somehow with the never-ending partying and big city corporate treasure hunts I lost track of the real adventure: The quest for happiness and a truly purposeful life…

Was it the burning urge to challenge myself and to push myself to the edge that swept me with it, to make it out there on my own, to taste what I understood success to mean, to live life to the fullest, maybe also to conform to conventional status anxiety and my illusions of societal and parental expectations of me, maybe the urge to taste to feel to touch to fly away to experience nirvana (…?…) I don’t know and have little appetite for the years of therapy it will require to find out. But it was this incredible sabbatical that reminded me of what life was all about. At least for me. And then I realised how I will make it happen!

And the years no longer just flew by. For now I was the man with the plan again. And so I flew back home and plugged myself back onto the matrix. This time for a final push to complete FI.

Me myself and I in the Matrix. Photo: Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

Unlike the first exciting arrival however, coming back to the Emerald City was now a bitter disillusioned pill to swallow. It felt like a forced return to the crime scene. An attempt at a legendary one last robbery of the Royal Mint and then a final great escape a la Papillon.

The mission was clear this time: Financial Freedom or die trying.
Then hitting the re-start button again and shuffling the cards for one more exciting adventure. I had it all figured out. My net worth, estimated earnings, savings rates, mortgage, 4% rule, 3% rule, 2.5% rule, rice and incense for help from the gods, were all pointing at a prison sentence of somewhere around 3 years but with the option of maybe getting out in 2 for good behaviour. Or excellent bonuses whichever comes first.

And it all worked like a dream. Well, almost. I had to aid it a little admittedly with a pinch of CBT, switching to whole plant based foods to eliminate dangerously high cholesterol levels that were building up, doubling my meditation and exercise regimes, dropping 10kg of fat off my waste, increasing my savings rate to 90%, and much more of… well, you know the life changing madness required for a total make over? So that stuff.

And then I made it to FI. Free at last!

That moment when Leo Dicaprio made FI. Image: The Great Gatsby

And then as fast as lighting and just before I managed to scream “hurray!” the gods pulled a practical joke on homo sapiens by launching Operation Covid-19.

Obediently I accepted the challenge, like everyone else, and put my head down, stepped onto my secret elevator and went 25 floors underground to my nuclear bunker to test my FI plan in battle for the first time. And what better proof of concept moment than the fastest deepest recession since forever? I also started the Reflections from the Bunker series which got this blog launched. You know, more of those little things you do when a total makeover continues, but this time in the bunker.

I’m glad to hereby announce that all success criteria were fully met. The PoC was successful. My FI hardly blinked at Covid-19. And unless the gods are planning a total financial meltdown or a China-US nuclear war or Ebola pandemic wiping out 50% of mankind than it should pretty much stay that way and I should emerge out of my bunker again and onto the sunshine soon! In fact we probably all will.

There is a happy ending to this treasure hunt story you see. But you knew that from the start. And if you are still reading this than you should know this too: there is a happy ending to your treasure hunt story as well!
If only you sit down to write it if you haven’t yet…
And so I already know which treasure hunt I will be on next…
(Clue: it has something to do with happiness and purpose…)

…And so I’ll see you around when you get there…? (the answer is: aye aye Captain!)

I’ll be waiting for you if you ever go ahead with your Papillon final scene.

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