The Lightbulb Moment: Reader Case Study

financial independence

I recently got a comment on the site from a reader asking for a recommendation for an economics textbook to read.

Economics textbooks are Boring but the comment had some background revealing a spark of ambition that intrigued me. So I asked the reader to email me some more details and together we produced a Reader Case Study that neatly illustrates the themes of this blog.

So let’s jump right in!

Hello T.E.A.!

Before I begin, I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to be one of your case studies, which I’m sure will help me and others reading immensely.

I was born and raised in a small town in the Welsh Valleys. When I was 13, my parents divorced and I took it hard.

I started skipping school and it affected my relationship with my friends. I became more introverted, wasting away hours on my video games even in summer while other teenagers were out having fun.

I dropped out of school at 15 with no exams, no vision for the future and no goals. I then job-hopped from car valeting, eBay selling, bar serving, gardening, and other frivolity interspersed with dole claiming (ugh). I was socially inept and anxious in public.

This continued until I got my first job that took seriously… part time… at a supermarket… at 24. I shit you not, it was that bad. Since it was one of the biggies in the UK, I thought I’d work hard and try to move up the ranks.

After a few months there, management loved my effort and put me on their junior management training initiative. I waited over 2 years for something to materialise, but the store wasn’t replacing leaving staff and definitely not promoting anyone.

I searched for jobs local to my girlfriend in the Gloucestershire area and found one as part time Night Manager cover at a big hotel chain. A couple of months in, the Night Manager left after 4 years and I was offered his job, which I have now been in for over 18 months.

My girlfriend would like to have a family but I have explained that there is no way I will have children while on such a paltry income (£18k) and I need a decent career first.

I reached 28 this year and my 30s seemed to beckon. This jolted me into what felt like an early mid-life crisis. How could I get to 28 with no money, qualifications or achievements, and to be only a mere Night Duty Manager at a hotel chain? I was interested in IT but didn’t have the confidence for it as a career at the time. I felt trapped and that my situation was my fault.

On top of that, I had worked for 4 years with no money to show for it. I started to cut back when I realised spending all of my money on video games and gadgets wasn’t bringing me pleasure anymore, and the take-aways were hardly making me thinner. So I stopped spending and started cooking more.

When showing my girlfriend the resultant new money I’d saved, she asked me what I was saving for. I didn’t have an answer. One good thing about me is I’ve always intuitively stayed away from debt, but that meant having a mortgage and saving for a down-payment had never crossed my mind either.

I just did not know what to do with saved up money. I hadn’t discovered the idea of early retirement yet! So I caved, built myself a £1,700 gaming PC and weeks later, when the novelty wore off, I felt huge regret. Even worse is the upcoming £2,000 trip to Barbados, booked earlier this year.

Then, 2 months ago, it happened. I discovered the online early retirement movement (MMM, Jlcollinsnh, Monevator and T.E.A.) I’ve since digested every article and now know what I want to do in life. I finally have a long-term goal and sense of purpose. 

I started to work through the book recommendations found in these great blogs. I have first read Economics Explained and now I’m reading Smarter Investing by Tim Hale. I plan on reading a lot more while I save for my first (index tracking) equity investment.

I plan on pursuing a switch to IT through acquiring certifications from Microsoft, Cisco, etc. These are more cost-friendly than a degree and just as highly recognisable in the field. I now feel confident I can do it, and trying to achieve financial independence with my current income would be very tough. My present situation:

Annual income: a measly £18k 4 weekly after deductions: £1,200

I live in a 1 bedroom flat with my girlfriend and we split the bills almost evenly. I don’t include my girlfriend’s income because I plan to achieve FI with my own income. (All figures work out 4-weekly)

Rent – £429

Gas & Electricity – £65

Council Tax – £98

Food – £200

Water – £39

Car Tax = £10

Total = £841 /2 = £420.50

My individual costs:

Work fuel – £60 (12 miles each way)

iPhone contract – £35 (This drops to £15 a month next August)

Phone & Internet – £20 (She pays car insurance alone while I pay for this – roughly the same cost)

Children: £0

Debt: £0

Cigarettes & Alcohol: £0

Total = £115 Both totals = £535.50

£1,200 – £535.50 = £664.50 every fourth Friday, to save/invest/etc, along with a current stash of £2,200.

It’s going to be tough. Not the frugality, but trying to keep it a secret because of all the myopic lemmings out there who are too transfixed to their current lifestyles to think of scaling it down. I’m sure they’d be happy to inject their negativity into my dream, as they do my lack of spending, (i.e. not throwing my money away).

The frugality I’m actually excited about, along with the extreme challenge of self-studying IT certifications while working full time. One caveat is that the first rung in IT will likely be a tech support role which could potentially lower my earnings (it typically pays £15-£18k). But it’s a chance I’d take as I believe it’s possible I could advance to the average £30k salary.

Thanks again,

The Turnaround

The Turnaround

Congratulations! You have had what I call the lightbulb moment. You have also been able to do what most people can not and that is be honest with yourself and then ask for help and guidance.

You had a shitty start in life but you have 3 HUGE things going for you and they are:

1) Ambition

2) Intelligence

3) Self awareness

Given your ambition, frugality and low net worth, you need to start by getting your income up. Let me say this right at the outset, you can raise your sights and think bigger.

Ambition

The first thing that captured my attention about your comment / emails was the ambition that shone through. This is great: you have got to want it. You are building from the bottom up and that takes grit and determination.  You have not had the pampered middle class start in life but this can be a source of strength for you.  You are gonna have to hustle in whatever you do, so a bit of background in ebay selling is no bad thing.

But you still need raise your sights much further. In the IT sector, there are fucking monkeys making way more than double or treble the £30k target you mention.  Trust me on this, I used to have to deal with some of them.

The Job

The most important thing for you is not investing or frugality, it is maximising income. I love that you have already shown yourself willing to move geographically and to a new career.  Given your interest in IT, this is a smart career move.   IT employment continues to grow and salaries range from good to excellent.

You should not overlook the opportunities that your current job could offer whilst also looking at a move elsewhere. Is there a graduate / management fast track scheme that you could join? Do not be scared to put your case to someone much further up the chain.  CEOs want people like you to emerge and push up the ranks. Why not write to them?   It’s the junior / middle managers and HR goons that may act like gatekeepers and try to stop you.  They may be obstacles to be overcome or evaded. Be polite but be persistent.  Adapt, Improvise, Overcome.

Don’t quit your hotel job until you have used it to find out as much as possible about IT in the hotel business. What systems and what service providers do they use? Could you talk to some of these service providers? Do they enjoy their work? What does their job entail?

Find a community of IT workers you can email / read about / speak with / listen to and see what they recommend. Consider moving closer to an area where many of these people live and work.  If you are in Gloucestershire, you could consider moving to the Reading area where much of the UK IT industry is based and where salaries and job opportunities will be greater.

There is no point thinking about a mortgage until you have got your new career started and you know where you want to be geographically.

You are 100% correct to focus on gaining practical IT certifications whilst holding down your day job, rather than a university degree. Wasting 3 years incurring student debt, eating vodka jelly and boasting about how many lectures you have skipped would not be an optimal strategy here.

Transport

I see you have a relatively sensible & frugal car (a 50mpg Matiz, shared with your girlfriend).   I would also look into replacing (or if necessary supplementing) this with a second-hand scooter.  These are cool and fun and incredibly cheap to run.

I love that you bought a bike a few months ago and are riding this around town. I would build this up to cycling to / from work a few days a week – this is a super-efficient way of using your time and resources. Free transport and exercise in one go. You are gonna be busy so don’t spend time trying to exercise for its own sake…work it into your life to help you get shit done.

Exercise is not an optional extra – it can not sensibly be skipped. Look after yourself, get your sleep and eat naturally (its cheaper).

Reading

You originally asked me for suggested economics texts to read. The Escape Artist has a degree in economics and says this: fuck most economic textbooks, they are boring and irrelevant in the real world.  If I were you, I’d start by reading the following books:

  1. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective people
  2. The Magic of Thinking Big

If you insist on reading stuff about Economics, focus on stuff that is applied to the real world and not boring. You could try The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford or Freakonomics / Think Like a Freak by Dubner and Levitt.

In your emails you mention that you have a difficult time explaining your goal of financial independence to your father and other family. Consider reading Manhood by Steve Biddulph who is good on this relationship stuff.

Do not buy these books new. Get them free from your local library (or second-hand from Amazon if you absolutely must).

Investing

You’ve been reading Smarter Investing by Tim Hale. Well that’s a good book on passive investing but you can stop right there. You don’t need to read another word on investing for now.

When you have cash savings in excess of £5k (this will be sooner than you think) then you can start reading more stuff about investing. Until then, it’s an unnecessary distraction. Focus on your new career and reading around that.

For now, get an ISA to ensure your cash savings are tax sheltered and focus on building up your baby stash.

The girlfriend

First decide where you want to get to in life and then decide who you are going to go there with. The order is important.

You need to have The Talk with your partner. You have already started this process but have not yet fully reconciled your 2 world views. These things can take time. You are not going to make it without reaching a deeper understanding with your girlfriend.  If she understands and respects your FI objectives then everything will become SO much easier in your life.  Otherwise, she will not have the understanding of why you are being frugal and she will misinterpret that as being stingy. Most women hate that.

The children thing has the potential to be a big issue. I agree with and admire your stance on not having children until you can really afford them. You have plenty of time but this is a sensitive issue that needs to be treated with care when discussing with your girlfriend.

You mention that most people in your friends and family don’t understand the concept of FI. That’s normal. They are the majority and that is reality. The good news is that you have started to find your tribe.

The Holiday

What….the….FUCK!? Did you book this just to provide comedy material for The Escape Artist??

You are spending 100% of your net worth on a 2 week holiday in Barbados. This is the equivalent of me selling all my investments and using the stash to buy a ticket to go into space along with Bill Gates, Richard Branson and all my other billionaire friends.

I thought all that “Holiday of a Lifetime” nonsense went out in the early 1980s along with The Generation Game, Bullseye* and coal mining. I have done a couple of those long haul beach holidays and, honestly, they are over-rated. If it were me, I’d dig out the terms and conditions of the holiday and insurance and see if I could cancel and get my money back.

I understand that you may not be able to do this. If so, use the time away with your girlfriend to have The Talk, read life changing books and don’t forget to have a great time.

The Games Console

The only people that should buy £1,700 video games consoles are rich male models worn out by constant demands for sex from their many attractive girlfriends. Those people may need to buy something that will make them poorer and less attractive to women. For the rest of us, a £1,700 games console is unnecessary. In the same way that leprosy is unnecessary.

You are going to be busy my friend. Cutting out the video games is a perfect place to start freeing up some time and will provide a break with your past.

The beauty of the Holiday and the Games Console is that they perfectly illustrate that we all have quick wins available to us, simply by refraining from shooting ourselves in the foot. Don’t let my ribbing worry you, what’s done is done and you need to move forward.

As you say in your emails, you are unusual amongst the readership of this blog who are mostly high earning professionals. You have no problem with frugality – you have definitely seen the light – and unlike most members of the middle class you are not spending like a drunken sailor on shore leave.

For most readers of this site, the advice is really simple – 1) stop spending like your money is blood haemorrhaging away from a gaping wound and 2) stop getting screwed by wealth managers, financial advisers, active fund managers and other parasites. For most readers of this site, that is enough to reach financial independence within a decade or so.

For you, it is going to be a little more interesting as you are going to need to get the career and income side sorted out first. But the challenge will be life affirming and I’m confident you can do it.

Now that the lightbulb has come on, you can start living in accordance with your values and what is important to you.  If you do this, things will carry on getting better and you will notice an acceleration as improvements in one area of your life increase your confidence and spill over into other areas.

Go for it and please let us know how you get on!

The Escape Artist

If you think your situation would make a good Reader Case Study, please email me at thefireescapeartist@gmail.com

*According to Wikipedia, Jim Bowen once described Bullseye as “the second-best darts-based game-show on television”. There are no others.

22 comments

  1. Dylantherabbit · · Reply

    I love this kind of case study. Can’t fault the advice. Definetly use the bike for commuting. I commute a similar distance and the savings are significant. I reckon it’s about 40p/mile saved for me. After a while of using a bike for regular transport I started to hate driving anywhere. Bikes are FTW.

  2. TheTurnaround · · Reply

    Hello, T.E.A.,

    This was a brilliant and motivating response. I thank you wholeheartedly for the invaluable words of wisdom and encouragement!

    I shall indeed have my sights set higher, but I honestly did not want to sound a fool getting ahead of himself. That you not only didn’t deny my goal as feasible, but advocate looking further to the stars has given me renewed vigour!

    I will definitely do all that you advised, including reading those book recommendations between IT study

    I should mention that one mitigation of the “Big Items” in that list is that the £1,700 PC will come in handy for the IT study; running simulations, “labbing”, etc. I would have had to have bought a relatively powerful machine in either case, albeit not one close to this Holodeck I’ve forked out for!

    As for the ribbing, I loved it. Having somebody relay the insanity of it back to me, as opposed to the affirmation from all those around me that it’s a-okay to spend, spend, spend, is quite refreshing. This is another reason I wanted to start reaching out and communicating with the online FI movement.

    In reading this response I also realised I could have been approaching “The Talk” with my girlfriend a bit more sensitively and not charging in with excitement. So something else to work on!

    Lastly, now this article is out there, I will push all the more towards achieving what I’ve set out to in order not to look foolish. I sincerely hope I have some great results to report in future.

    Thank you once again, my friend!

    The Turnaround

    P.S. I remember Bullseye well. That and Catchphrase with Roy Walker!

  3. I’m intrigued to know how you pay only £20 for phone and internet ? Congratulations on seeing the light. Coming across the Monevator was my light bulb moment many years ago. I’m sure TEA wont mind me plugging the Monevator but his article titled The One number to beat if you want to retire early dated February 15 2008, literally changed my life. Good luck on your FI journey, compounding is very much on your side.

    1. TheTurnaround · · Reply

      Hello, Jon. My Sky Talk and Broadband package comes to £20.40 per month. I actually calculated it wrong in the case study email because I was using 4-weekly calculations above, so it’s actually slightly under £20.40 per month.

      I don’t have any of the TV packages. We don’t even pay a TV license since we’re not interested in TV and never watch it.

      And thank you! Definitely glad I saw the light now instead of at 38. Though 18 would still have been better than 28… ooooh where I might be now. But best not to dwell on past mistakes.

  4. seagermatt · · Reply

    Congratulations to The Turnaround for seeing the light! Someone once told me that for the same or very similar job to the one I was doing, someone else would be getting paid 100% more, and someone else 50% less. While it might not be exactly correct, I think the spirit is aim high and don’t be afraid to go for jobs that are “out of your league”. Good luck, and I would love to see an update in the future!

    1. TheTurnaround · · Reply

      I hope T.E.A. doesn’t think I’m trying to steal his mic with all these replies!

      Seagermatt, I appreciate the advice and it’s very similar to what I’ve been told by the small IT community I engage with online, who I get most of my industry advice from. Something about job descriptions being like the rules girls have to get off with you… they can bend and break.

      And thank you, sir. I hope I don’t let myself and the growing T.E.A. community down!

      1. TT – not at all – please continue to act as MC and pick up all the questions to you!

  5. Good article, I especially liked the link to “Have You Found Your Tribe?” I don’t really like to talk about my plan to be FI with anyone, partly because – as The Turnaround says – I fear their negativity, and partly because I don’t want other people to know I’m sitting on a reasonable quantity of assets, in case that affects how they act towards me. But it can be quite lonely, and I’m very glad there are UK sites like this one and Monevator which don’t make me feel I’m trying to pursue some idea that only works in the US.

    1. TheTurnaround · · Reply

      Hi Steve!

      I never considered how people may change how they act. I can foresee it being easy to hide during the accumulation stage of the road to FI given the lack of fanciful spending, but I think it might be hard to hide once one is a known early retiree.

      I can definitely relate to the loneliness aspect. These early retirement blogs contain mostly esoteric knowledge that will be quickly rebuked as fantasy by most people I know. I’m not even going to waste my time explaining myself to those so obviously close-minded. I would rather put the extra time into progressing further down the road to FI.

      1. Nice to hear from you, TT.

        When the glorious day arrives and I finally pull the trigger, I imagine I will struggle to suppress the urge to tell every random stranger I meet about it but if I can keep that down, I plan to tell people I’m doing freelance work part-time. That way I can openly exhibit all the freedom of the early retiree without anyone realising I don’t actually need to work.

        (Hey, it might even be true. A small income stream would give me more confidence I’m not going to run out of money and would probably be good for me in all sorts of ways. As long as I’m not under any obligation to do keep it up if it starts to get to me.)

  6. Great advice here, TEA! I second your recommendation to TheTurnaround for having a sincere conversation with his girlfriend about their lives together and their finances. I credit being on the same financial page as my husband as the #1 key to our financial success. We discuss our finances openly and frequently, and we make financial decisions that benefit our shared future goals.

    1. Thanks Mrs F – Its great to have expert back up on this communication / relationship stuff from a female FI ninja!

  7. Loving the positivity on this post and all thoughout the comments. Got me buzzing on a chilly October morning! Shame I am just starting work now 🙂

    Good luck The Turnaround and hopefully we’ll hear more from you in the future.

    1. TheTurnaround · · Reply

      Thank you, sir. Forgive the late response, I’ve been quite busy (and very ill). I can’t wait to report my future accomplishments (if and when they occur).

  8. Hi Turnaround,

    I discovered the FI movement about a year ago and have been following MMM, Monevator and more recently TEA.

    I never post on blogs, but really respected the honesty in your post and how you took the ribbing from TEA on the chin.

    You have an entertaining writing style. You should definitely think about start a blog of your own. The current crop of FI bloggers (such as those listed above) are great. But, as TEA points out, they and their readers do tend to have middle class backgrounds and are often already earning good money. I think you could could do a good job spreading financial literacy to a new audience.

    All the best,

    Andy

    1. TheTurnaround · · Reply

      Thank you, Andy. I appreciate that. I find it’s just best to be honest about who I am and where I am in life because there’s no hiding or having to remember what front I might have put up previously. It’s also better for assessing where I am and where I need to be and then deciding how to get there.

      Again, I really appreciate that. I never would have thought anyone would say I could potentially have my own Blog. I will keep it in mind in future, but as T.E.A. said, I’m going to be very busy for now! 🙂

  9. A great blog both from TEA and The Turnaround, I would only add two things:

    1. Make sure as your salary increases that you don’t automatically live up to the new salary (it doesn’t sound like The Turnaround would, but it’s easy to do) but you try and set aside the increases to save and invest.

    2. The Turnaround has plenty time to benefit from compound interest, so make sure that you do save or invest some money now, as this is the money that will benefit from CI most (oh and don’t be tempted to “cash it in” for something you don’t really need – I cashed in my stocks and shares ISA in 1997 to move from a one bedroom flat to a three bedroom house, which as we had no intention of having children, we didn’t need to do. If I hadn’t done this I reckon I could have reached FI at least five years ago at 50 instead of now not forecasting to get there until 58 at the earliest.)

    Best Wishes to both TEA and TT
    FIUK

    1. TheTurnaround · · Reply

      Hi there, FIUK. That’s great advice, thank you. I know deep down that my tastes wouldn’t spiral out of control on higher income. Fast cars, expensive restaurants and the like have never really interested me, and I’ve never felt the urge to keep up with the Joneses. The only thing I covet is what T.E.A., MMM and the rest have… ultimate security and freedom for the rest of their days. It must feel like heaven waking up every day knowing that! 🙂

      I’ve been hearing about the power of compound interest for a while now, but an 8 year difference is huge. That is duly noted advice there. Just awaiting that first £5k emergency fund, then I’ll do as T.E.A. advised.

      Thanks again, FIUK.

  10. Hi both, I just wanted to weigh in and let The Turnaround know that his approach to getting into the IT sector through doing the certifications is an excellent one.

    After doing poorly in his A-Levels and going straight on the dole for 5 years then spending a good few years in a dead-end job, my brother did the same. He bought the books, taught himself and went and sat the exams. A+, Network+, then through the Microsoft ones. He would start learning a new one within a month of passing the previous, and in the space of about 5 years he’s gone from entry-level to managing his own team in a multinational IT company.

    Good luck to you dude!

    1. TheTurnaround · · Reply

      DW, I could kiss you (though I’m sure you wouldn’t want me to hehe). That is some amazing extra motivation right there, and well done to your brother for that great achievement!

      I’m about to start A+ actually, and that will be my first cert. I’m reading a more rudimentary book right now, which I’ve had to stop because I’m very ill, and I might as well use this opportunity to share an interesting story on the Barbados holiday that was mentioned in the article.

      Well, after an engine fault stopped us from taking off to return home, we were kept on the runway for 4 hours while the engineers tried to fix it. After no such luck we were all herded back into the airport and the airline had to find us a hotel. It took 2 nights before the plane was patched up and ready to fly home and on return to the airport to do just that, we were told that everyone on the flight would receive £570 compensation each. So at least that’s something to go back on the stash!

      Sadly though, after about 15 minutes of landing back in the UK, I felt that nasty feeling at the back of the throat where you know some horrible illness is about to start, and this one has been a doozy. I’ve been shivering and coughing while feeling like my head is in a vice and that I have razor blades in my throat every time I swallow for the past week. It’s finally starting to pass now and as soon as it does, it’s time grab the bull by the horns as they say! Until then, I’ll just mope in self-pity and curse being ill some more.

      Anyway, thanks again for that inspiration, DW!

  11. A great story and great motivational advice from both TEA and other commenters.

    Wishing TT all the best with your FI journey and hope you’re feeling better soon!

  12. Hi TT

    Wow, 2 1/2 years have passed since the last update so I hope all’s good in your world – I was wondering how everything has progressed for you? (if you don’t mind sharing)

    In particular, how did ‘The Talk’ go? And the IT career so far?

    BW, Ray

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