I got an intriguing email from Sam, a financially independent reader of this blog, that mentioned how, in his 40s, he and his wife Bella got paid to ski by working as chalet hosts.
As both had previously been IT professionals, I loved what this said about breaking pre-conceived ideas about status so I followed up with some questions.
So enjoy this interview with Sam, who quit his job about 14 years ago and who has since then done lots of fun and interesting things.
The Escape Artist
TEA: What jobs did you have before FI?
Sam: We had both been pretty lucky career wise. My background is software and my wife was a client service manager for a consultancy company. When I quit, I was running a department for an Internet Service Provider – they had bought the small startup I’d been working for. I wasn’t one of the founders but I was the first employee and by the time we were bought out, I headed the development team and ended up with a lump sum equivalent to several years salary.
We both kind of sneaked into our professions. I was working in the accounts dept for a company that decided to bring its computer system in house so I ended up spending a lot of time with the programmers and decided I could do this stuff.
My wife was a temp who was offered a permanent job in a dept for an organisation that got outsourced and she transferred to the outsourcing company and ended up managing a large team. It’s funny that neither of us went to university but we both ended up working in relatively senior roles for organisations that wouldn’t have considered directly employing someone without a degree.
What gave you the idea to pursue FI?
We didn’t – I just wanted the I part of FI; I’m not very good at being told what to do.
When we were working all hours in London we bought a small flat, effectively using the money we saved on commuting to pay the mortgage. When we stopped working in London in 2002 we let out the flat. Over the years we paid down the mortgage so it’s now mortgage free and the rental forms a decent chunk of our income. I’d also got smart about money by then so was saving in ISAs etc – my wife had always been smart that way, and used all her employers perks to the full – eg matched pension contributions, share purchase schemes etc.
Were any books helpful to you back then?
Several decades ago I had been involved with Multi Level Marketing. That’s a story in itself but the summary is I’m glad I got in and I’m glad I got out. That introduced me to positive thinking books – particularly The Magic of Thinking Big.
Its not from that book, but one phrase which has been a huge driver for me is:
In every adversity there is the seed of an equal or greater benefit
which I believe is attributed to Napoleon Hill. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy because if you believe it, you look for the benefit. It gave me the confidence to go contracting many years ago and more than double my income, to pack in working for a large, safe and not very rewarding corporate to go and work for a start up, and generally has been a driver in my attitude to life.
How did you resist the pressures to spend? Did you monitor your savings rate closely?
Yes, and no. We didn’t monitor our savings rate as such but we saved a lot and we always tracked our finances. We both worked hard, had teams working for us and effectively had no life on Monday to Friday other than work, so basically our only expenditure during the week was work related. We both earned well so we saved a lot by default rather than by design. Neither of us is motivated by flash cars or ‘trendy’ things. We get far more pleasure from experiences than owning things.
How did you figure out you how much was enough?
We didn’t have an end sum as such – our decision was more driven by our expenditure and our non-employment income. I’d never heard of the 4% safe withdrawal rate or anything like that, but we were always good at keeping track of our finances. In the years when I wasn’t working but my wife was, we had got very good at knowing what we spent and what we earned without her income. They weren’t too far apart and I could tell that even if we overspent our budget a year, and our investments only held their value and didn’t return any dividends, we would be well into pensionable age before it would be a worry and then we’d have our state and private pensions too.
What year did you quit? Did you agonise over the decision or was it easy?
I ‘quit’ in 2002, my wife in 2008. It was easy, but not for the reasons you might think. I didn’t think I was quitting, just taking a year or two off to pursue my own projects.
I packed in ‘proper’ work in my early forties and worked, without pay, on a series of projects with other people who had various start-up ideas. This was the not long after the dotcom boom and bust, but the culture that you didn’t need a fortune to set up a web based business was still there. In the end, they all came to nothing but even so working on them was still preferable to the commute & corporate cog work I’d been doing before.
After that there always seemed reasons to postpone looking for another job, like moving house for example, until one day I realised we didn’t need to work a “career job” again.
My wife loved her job initially but went from working with clients to working at home on company procedures. It became a job she didn’t like. I knew that we could live a nice life on our savings and investment income and so she decided to pack it in. We were particularly cautious in the first year or so but we have watched our net worth grow despite no employment income.
What did you do after you quit?
We enjoy outdoor activities and, after we quit, we moved from Commuterville to the country. It was really liberating choosing somewhere solely because it seemed a nice place to live.
We have a garden so one of the first things we did was make a vegetable patch. My wife loves pottering in the garden and a nice side benefit is that the veggie patch & freezers provide us with lots of fruit and veg throughout the year.
We are not on mains gas, so were dependant on oil for our heating, which historically has been more expensive than gas. We decided to install two wood burning stoves and also planted 50 ash saplings in our garden. If you think you or Warren Buffet get good returns you should look at the growth rate of an ash tree in its first 10 years! As a potential fuel it’s an example of a low downside, high upside experiment (about £1 a sapling and a few hours planting for a potential future sustainable provider of our winter heating ).
While we wait for our ash trees to do their stuff, I joined a local wood group. We buy literally tons of wood in the form of cut trunks, then over 3 days spread throughout the summer we chainsaw them into blocks and chop them into logs. The work provides each group member with 3 days exercise and a winters fuel for a fraction of the price if we’d bought it processed. Much like the vegetables, it’s a lifestyle thing. There is something that just feels good about heating your house with wood you have sawn, chopped & seasoned yourself.
What about travel?
During our holidays when we were still working, we realised watching wildlife in its natural environment gave us great pleasure. Gradually, we found our holidays being influenced by what wildlife we might see, to the extent that every year we now spend a week with friends volunteering on Skomer, an island known for its birdlife.
There are no shops, no roads, no television and the accommodation is best described as basic. Our volunteer tasks are not demanding, but when we put the day visitors on the last boat home it becomes a magical place. Watching the sunset go down over the ocean from an outcrop with the waves lapping beneath is a cliché we’re both happy to be part of.
A phrase everyone seeking FI will be familiar with is “paddle your own canoe”. We’ve taken that advice literally. We live near some great paddling rivers and after starting a few years ago, we are competent enough to undertake trips ourselves.
For several of the last few years we’ve gone on multi day paddling trips with friends on some of Britain’s finest rivers such as the Tay, the Spey, the Severn and the Wye.
We load up our canoe with camping gear and where we can (Scotland) we just rough camp on the bank.
Occasionally we’ve swapped our canoe for sea kayaks – Britain has a lot of coast! You can pay for guides to take you on trips like these but we’ve found by organising them ourselves we increase the flexibility and enjoyment and reduce the cost.
We’ve canoed in other countries and we like other outdoor activities too. We typically spent up 4 to 6 weeks in the summer in Europe and 1 or 2 weeks in Scotland on these.
Skiing is still something we do every year. One season my wife and I got paid to go skiing by working as hosts in a ski chalet.
I love the chalet idea…what was that like?
We have always liked skiing but wanted to spend more than a week a year skiing. After we’d quit we went to a ski recruitment event in London in 2009. We were offered work as chalet hosts that day. Most of the other hosts were several decades younger than us, but they were wonderful…even though we didn’t always understand yoof lingo.
Our job was feeding 16 guests twice a day and cleaning the rooms, including the ensuite loos and showers. We had a pre defined menu for the week. We thought that would be boring but in fact it was great as we quickly got to know how long each meal took and so what time we could ski until. We had one day off a week which we’d always use to the full – often visiting other resorts and always eating out in the evening.
After breakfast the guests would go out skiing and we’d do some prep for the evening meal and I’d clean the rooms and loos. Bella would bake a cake for the guests returning in the afternoon.
We’d generally get three to four hours skiing each day which was enough when you are working every day. We got pretty good! In the evening we’d cook a three course meal – it was non stop from 5ish through till 11 what with cooking, serving and washing up. The hardest day was changeover day when we might have to be up before 4 am and if incoming flights were delayed might not get to bed until near midnight – a long day with no skiing either. It was very hard work and I was set to pack up on several occasions, but at the end of the season neither of us wanted to leave.
Did you have any hang-ups about status?
I am no longer concerned about it. On the rare occasion when I meet someone who is obviously status conscious, they will invariably ask what I do, so I can be placed in the appropriate pigeonhole. I like to put on my sad face 😦 and tell them that I don’t have a job at the moment.
Our season running the ski chalet meant we met hundreds of different clients from all walks of life. Occasionally a new arrival (normally a Young Professional from London) would look upon us initially with a kind of “You must be sad bastards – having to run a chalet at your age” look, which I found quite amusing.
Then again, I suspect that they were fantasising about some hot off-piste action with a 20 year old chalet host – or maybe that was just me when I was their age – so finding their hosts to be a middle aged couple would naturally have been a big disappointment.
But we also met far more people who thought what we were doing was great and had no issues with status. One client, who owned a chain of restaurants in London, insisted we join him on the skiing competition he organised every year. Others asked us to join them for a tour of the bars. All season, I recall there were about 6 clients I’d be happy not to meet again, but that’s a good ratio out over 250.
What about other projects?
We have also tended to do one project a year on our house or garden. We have no plans to move so we are quite content to spend time and money on getting things the way we want them. Where we can, we do the work ourselves, but otherwise our local builder is more than happy for a free labour assistant. This not only reduces the cost, but also increases our sense of ownership.
Did your friends think you were mad to quit your jobs?
As for friends and colleagues, it has never been a problem. I guess people do ask but it tends to be a one-time conversation. I tell them, quite truthfully, that we have no mortgage, no car payments, no loans to pay off, no children to look after and that without those expenses you don’t actually need that much to have a good standard of living. Plus we have income from our flat and other sources. I think many people have an ingrained assumption that they will be working all their lives so they may as well have a nice house/car/holidays or whatever while they are working, not realising that it is because of those decisions that they will indeed be working all their lives.
We are lucky to have friends in Europe and further afield so it is lovely to both visit them and have them visit us. This year we had about 4 separate weeks of overseas visitors. We simply couldn’t do this when we were working full time.
The other day, we bumped into some old friends who mentioned that their son was biking from the North to South of New Zealand. “I think that’s a fantastic thing to do” I said. “Let’s do it ” said my wife. So that’s now on the list. We haven’t planned a date yet, and even if it doesn’t come off, just being able to consider these things as a genuine option is to me what FI is all about. But having previously cycled Lands End to John O’Groats and the Coast to Coast and enjoyed them immensely, I think we may well make it happen.
If you think your story would make a good case study for the blog, I’d love to hear from you. I’d especially like to do one on a busy, working pre-FI reader who either suspects that they may be over-spending but is struggling to get things under control…or has recently successfully cut their spending. Email me at TEA@theescapeartist.me or look me up on Twitter.
The Escape Artist