August 30, 2021

Bogleheads® Chapter Series – Mad Fientist Discusses Financial Independence

Blogger Brandon Ganch, aka The Mad Fientist discusses “Achieving the Dream of Financial Independence”.

Hosted by the Starting Out Life Stage Chapter. Recorded on August 30, 2021.

Chat from the recorded meeting can be accessed here.

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Bogleheads® Chapter Series – Mad Fientist Discusses Financial Independence


Gouri: Welcome to the Bogleheads Chapter Series. This episode was hosted by the Boglehead Starting Out Life Stage Chapter and recorded August 30, 2021. It features the blogger Mad Fientist discussing achieving the dream of financial independence. Bogleheads are investors who follow John Bogle's philosophy for attaining financial independence. This recording is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as investment advice. Brandon, great to see you.

Brandon: Thanks a lot for having me.

Gouri: Yeah thanks for being here. We are so grateful that you're taking the time. A lot of folks know that you were a software developer. You retired at 34 having reached financial independence. So we're going to talk about the highs and lows of financial independence, but also get to know you as a person, talk about you, know some of your influences, how you've evolved during early retirement, and wherever the conversation takes us. 

So I want to be sensitive to some of the audience,knowing your material really well, both written and podcast. And some of the audience, being less familiar, so we'll navigate that balance so as to not be too redundant as well as to not address what you're known for and specialized about.

So again, as Miriam mentioned, we have a national audience here from coast to coast. Again for the audience, you and I will chat for about an hour and then during the chat the team is collecting questions via the chat function and we'll address those after our conversation concludes. So with that I  also want to encourage folks who aren't yet familiar with Brandon's website to read the blogs and listen to the podcasts there. So there’s a lot of it might sound familiar, covered in the space but a lot of it is uniquely Brandon or Mad Fientist related. A lot of tax efficiency stuff and Brandon has also been a guest on other podcasts like ChooseFi and Afford Anything so you can find additional insights from Brandon as a guest, not just on his podcast. 

With that let's dive in. Anything you want to say before we get started Brandon.

Brandon:  No, no. Looking forward to it. Thanks for having me.

Gouri: Again excellent. So we'll begin with something that you often end with on your podcast, which is you ask your guests who are leaders in the FI space or off in the self-improvement space, you ask them what's one piece of financial advice you would give towards financial independence. So I ask you that question.

Brandon: Yeah. Well that's a question I love to ask because there's so many different answers I've gotten over the years. But for me I would say experiment. Which you know being the Mad Fientist, I probably wouldn't have said that when I started the Mad Fientist. So it's not me just saying that because it fits with my science theme or anything, but it's really the truth because if I've learned anything over the past ten years of doing this and really thinking about it hard. It's that we're really bad at knowing what we really, really want, and the only way to find out is to try things. Hopefully try them at a low cost, low commitment sort of situation so that you don't get yourself into a situation where you can't reverse that choice.

But it's really about experimenting because especially, like for me, I'm naturally a frugal guy and spending has been a big focus of mine recently. And you know after post FI to figure out what is the best use of money. And now that it's not as tight anymore you know what's actually going to make me happier and what's not really going to move the needle and things like that. So yeah, experimenting and just realizing that you don't have to be right, right away. Because you are probably pretty bad at actually figuring out what you really want to do, or what you want to be, or what you want to spend your money on.

Gouri: Excellent. Yeah it's so great to hear and there's so much there that I'd like for us to follow up on. One is when you know you say experiment, try it out. There are tons of people that we hear about who whether they're planning for financial independence, early retirement, or just retirement in general, they dream about this next phase of life. They plan the savings part of it but then when they get there they're kind of absent the social structure or interaction or meaning. How do you suggest people, building on what you said about experimenting ,how do you suggest people fill that void in advance?

Brandon: Sure. So like I'm sure a lot of people out there are probably similar to what I was, where I blamed my job for the reason I wasn't living the life that I thought would make me happiest, and wasn't doing the things that I thought I really wanted to do with my life. Like it was such an easy scapegoat. And only after leaving the job and then trying to do all those things that I thought I wanted to do, I realized it wasn't my job holding me back.

 I was very lucky I was a software developer and the technologies I used allowed me to be very productive very quickly so I could get my work done in a quarter of the time that some other teams that I worked amongst were able to do it. So my time skills were never tight and I had plenty of free time. So it was only once that I removed that easy scapegoat did I realize that actually I could have been doing all of these things with a job.

And you know I would have then not had to also try to figure out all these crazy post-FI things that come up that you never even expect because I would have still been working. So yeah, I would say just try to remove the easy scapegoats of your job and start trying to do these things that you really think you're going to do post FI. Because some things aren't big enough to really get you out of bed in the morning. Like I remember I thought, oh I'll learn a new language and then that way when we travel to wherever in the world I'll be able to know this new language, it’s going to be amazing. But you know, when you don't have anyone forcing you to get out of bed in the morning to conjugate verbs it's harder to force yourself to do that. And you're not exactly leaping out of bed to do that either.

So the more you can like get started on these things while you're still in in the grind, the daily grind, I think the way better off you're going to be because you're going to have momentum, you're going to sort of like come across these challenges that have nothing to do with your job earlier, and start to work through them, and realize hey actually it's not my job that's holding me back. It's for me, like personally, it was my self-doubt in some of the artistic things I wanted to do.

And if you just start early. I think the other problem is like, it's like for me back then. It was a finish line, everything was going to be great after that finish line and everything wasn't working prior to that finish line. And I think that was definitely the wrong way to do it. I think the more you can view it as just a spectrum, where every dollar you're saving is adding to that power that you have to take more time off or follow that passion project to another level, and things like that, I think the better off you'll be.

And then the less crazy FI or post-FI life would be after because it's not going to be just like flipping a switch. It's going to be this gradual progression into oh actually now I have the power to have unlimited free time and now I know how to deal with that and use it properly because I've practiced along the way as I've incrementally got more free time. So that's how I would view it, just as a spectrum not as a goal line.

Gouri: Excellent. Yeah that makes a lot of sense. It reminds me of someone interviewing Michael Phelps, and I think in one of the Olympic runs his goggles failed and water got in his eyes and he had to do the whole thing with eyes closed. And they interviewed him after and asked how was he able to perform at such a high level. And he said he did that in his head over and over again. So it reminds me of how you're saying prepare.

So following up on a few of the things you mentioned. So you mentioned a passion project.I think your followers will know that you pursued FI to record and release your own music. And you were able to do that. So come huge congrats again there. And I know you're modest so I'll let folks know that the release went really well and had success on the charts. Why don't you tell us a bit more about that, how it was to pursue this lifelong goal. And how's it been since.

Brandon: Yeah, yeah. So you mentioned the charts. And I'd love that to be because the music was so amazing and it just got played on the radio everywhere. Actually, it was just the Mad Fientist audience had grown so big over ten years and I'd never asked them to do anything. And I asked them to buy the album, and then thousands of them did, and that it was a ridiculous one week on the charts and then that was that, it was done.

But yeah, that was the main goal. That was again, like I've mentioned a bit earlier, that I blamed my job for holding me back on that for so long. But it was only once I quit my job and had all the time in the world to pursue it that I realized it was way more than that. It was really just a ton of self-doubt. I never thought I could actually do it so I was not even trying to do it because I thought if I’d tried and then failed I'd lose the dream forever.

And I never wanted to do that because I was like I really need to write and release an album one day.  So I didn't want to lose the dream. But trying, every time I tried just made it so much more evident that I would never actually be able to do it. So that's why I just put off doing it. So I never made progress and it took me till three and a half years after I left my job before I finally got fed up and I was like look, this is the whole reason I was wanting to have all this free time.And in the first years after leaving my job I filled it with Mad Fientist's stuff. I filled it with fun stuff. I was saying yes to everything because I could have all this time.

And I was like I need to just really get serious about this, and it was brutal. But it was actually Atomic Habits by James Clear. I read his book, got to speak to him on my podcast, which was amazing, and it was that, coupled with another book called Ultralearning. And then there was a music specific one that was just an e-book, but it was actually phenomenal. So if any musicians out there care I'll send you a link to that because it's not a very big book but it was very instrumental in me actually making progress.

And all of that at the end of the day just boiled down to like putting in the time. So sitting in the chair and being uncomfortable and just forcing yourself to do that. And trying to not focus on what you produce by the end of that day, just focusing on okay, I put five hours into the chair. And it was all mostly productive. Like I would lose confidence, I would lose willpower, and by the end of the day I was watching youtube tutorials which you know was not really productive, but I could sort of make it seem productive for my five hours at least.

So anyway it took all of that. And then the pandemic hit and I just locked myself inside for 15 months because Scotland was very locked down. My wife's Scottish and we live in Edinburgh, or we did at that time. And just locked myself inside and never truly believed that I would do it. And until it came out, I still didn't really believe it. But I listened to it, and I'm like I'm really proud of it. It was definitely the most challenging thing I've ever tried to do, and it meant so much to me. 

So yeah, you'll listen to it. It's not like Grammy award-winning stuff. It’s like my weird synthesizer,  like experimental synth pop stuff that I loved growing up. So it's a really weird genre of music but  my only goal line was that I was comfortable enough with it to release it, and I did. 

So that was the highlight and was the whole reason I wanted to pursue FI in the first place. And like I said before,Ii didn't actually need to be FI to do it, but I sort of did as well, because that took away all my excuses.

Gouri: Yep, well congrats again on achieving that. It's tremendous and I'm not typically a synth-pop listener but absolutely enjoyed your music. So thanks again for getting it out there. So a few things. One is that a lot of folks in the FI space will talk about, of course, saving and investing and reducing your living expenses and increasing your savings rate .And I think folks interested in pursuing it have a lot of access to that information.

A more common underlying message that surfaces is that a lot of this is about happiness, right. So can you elaborate on what happiness is, you know like for you, or what success means to you. And for this audience, the bogleheads famously are not defined by fancy houses or fancy cars even though many of them could easily afford that, sometimes many times over. So what  does success mean to you and how has it been in early retirement?

Brandon: Yeah. Well success is to me those personal wins. I can think back over the last ten years and the things I'm most proud of are things that I haven't shouted about or told anybody about, really. And it's just those, like knowing how hard I worked on that album and all the hurdles that I'd  overcome. That's what I'm super proud of. And getting on the billboard charts for a week is funny and just adds to the ridiculousness of my life, in a great way. It's so funny to think about, every time I think about it, but that's nothing.  It's thinking back at all those things that I had to overcome. 

And yeah, happiness is a tricky one because I had a great comment on my last post, and it was, I was sort of talking about happiness and like finding new sources of motivation. Because for people like me, who have thought about money since I was a kid. I was there, my parents were throwing quarters in the deep end of the pool and I would spend all day finding money, and I just loved it.  So for somebody where money has been so important for so long, for now that to not matter anymore. Because I don't want a fancy house or fancy cars, or I don't want to waste money in any way, and things like that. So that's been really interesting to try to come to grips with. That and find new sources of motivation because now I don't have to do anything.

And as I said in my most recent post, it's like a lot of the really fun things have a lot of  discomfort up front. But now that I don't have money driving me through that initial discomfort, I worry that I'm missing out on some longer term fun in some areas just because  I'm like well I don't want to do that, I don't have to do that because I don't need to earn another dollar, or whatever. 

So yeah, happiness is a tricky one, and so this goes back to the comment I was going to mention. So I thought it was really insightful he had said, I think as humans we always need something to be uncomfortable with or unhappy about or striving for something better and he brought up the fact. You know there's a lot of---maybe I'm not too big in the rest of the FI community anymore just because I've been working on the music stuff---but apparently in the FI community there's lots of divorces happening, and things. And people reach FI and then they need that unhappiness, so they find it in their partner or things like that. 

And I can see how that happens because you know I could throw everything at my job and be like that's why my boss is making me mad, my colleagues are making me mad, and that's why I'm unhappy. But then when you can control everything and do whatever you want, then you either have to come to accept that oh it's just you that's finding those things to be unhappy about or angry about. Or you've sometimes, sadly, maybe put it on the person closest to you, or the people around you. So yeah,it's still one that I haven't figured out yet.

And that's not to say  I feel so lucky and I'm definitely happier now having been able to pursue all these things that I've always wanted to and not have the stresses of money or worrying about if the markets are tanking or anything like that. But yeah, it's not a golden ticket to just happiness and rainbows. Which I think early me, when I was pursuing it, I put that on FIRE. I was like well yeah, I'll be happy when I’m FI, so I’ll just be miserable now and just grind it out.

And I again, going back to the advice that I was giving earlier, don't put off happiness until the finish line, either. Don't put off pursuing your things that you want to do. Don't put off you're thinking about what post-FI life is going to look like, because when you cross the finish line it's just, at the end of the day, it's just a slightly higher number on the screen. And maybe it really is more anticlimactic than you may expect it to be.

Gouri: Got it, yeah very insightful stuff. So two particular things. So let's say a two-part question. One, building on your comments, one is this concept of enough, right. You and I know people in the FI space and life in general who have earned a lot can still earn a lot, and really adjusted this mindset to just say, you know, any additional money has very little marginal value. Why am I needing to work or seeking work? But there are also people who either enjoy what they do, maybe they're entrepreneurs, or some people are paid really well, dislike the rat race, but enjoy accumulating, enjoy watching their portfolios grow. And within the FI community there's this one more year syndrome, right. People don't feel comfortable. Can you elaborate on how you achieve this, I'll call it a zen-like state of you have enough?

We know someone who says any additional money he gets he gives to charity. And I just feel like that's such an enlightened state, right. Like we're socialized, like apart from societal influence on the importance of money there's a practical importance. So that's one, and then the second you spoke about relationships, and specifically in the FI community can you elaborate on yours, to the extent you're comfortable, what it's like being, because you mentioned publicly Jill still works, she loves what she does, you guys converged in this journey, and, you know, what has that been like. And talk about gender roles or societal pressures or influences to be the spouse who's not working and to be a guy and not working in our society.

Brandon: Sure. Oh yeah, I really don't feel like I've reached any zen like state, sadly. But I'm working towards it. Again, I think the big thing for me was never feeling like I'd need to impress anyone with money. And I think that just gives you such a huge advantage where I would rather people think I was poorer than I am because I just had a middle class upbringing. Times were always tight and my identity's so tied to that. So to then either go into the next societal brackets, you know, upper class or something, would just be a total identity--it would just, yeah I don't think my brain could handle it--so I'm lucky in that sense, where I've never felt the need to impress people with flashy anything.

I wouldn't say I'm zen yet because you mentioned charity. I still can't give money away. I'm not wasting it and that's why I have such hard trouble spending it because I don't want to waste it. And I know one day I'm going to be at that stage where I can make better use of it, so in this meantime, where I still have this psychological hang up  I'm just protecting it so that I don't waste it away, and have some sort of lifestyle inflation that causes me to not to be able to give it away . But there's still part of me that I guess just has this scarcity mindset, like oh lI’ve got to keep it all just in case something really bad happens. And I don't know where that comes from.

Like I said, maybe it was because times were so tight growing up and I never felt like we were deprived of anything, but there was, you know, every penny was accounted for. And I still feel that my mindset hasn't caught up with the actual situation yet. So yeah, a long way to go on the zen part.

To get to the spouse part, yes my wife was at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from me. She wasn't, she never spent money to impress other people,so I don't think it was like that far, but she never, she just didn't care about money. So if it was in their account she would spend it, and if it wasn't she wouldn't want to think too much about it. Whereas I was like, you know, spreadsheets for everything, and going to know what I bought at this store versus this store and all that stuff. So yeah thankfully we've come together and she's a lot more conscious of spending money and I'm not as crazy about it. Which has worked out great, and as you said she loves her job. She's an optometrist. She can't think of anything else she'd want to do. But she's also seen the benefits of having savings. 

So to go to covid. At the beginning of the pandemic in Scotland, her thing, people weren't taking it as seriously as we felt needed to be. You know, things needed to be taken care of. So she was able to just say, look I'm just not coming in. And then she was off for the first three or four months of the pandemic because she was worried about giving it to her elderly patients, and she didn't think the PPE [ Personal protective equipment ] was all in the right state.

And then once that came back she was able to go back. And then for the past like six months we've been traveling to the States since we were finally able to, and we've been able to see friends and family. So she's obviously not worked that time. So she's seen the benefits of that, and obviously I've seen the benefits of not being so crazy with money. So thankfully we have met in the middle and I think we've both made each other better with our relationships with money.

But as far as her working and me not, this is going to sound crazy because I’ve been writing about financial independence on the internet since 2012, but I really don't like talking about it to people I know in real life. So I still just say I'm a software developer that works from home, which is technically true because I write software for the Mad  Fientist website. But yeah, I feel really weird talking about that in person so yeah, I'm at home but I was at home before we even hit FI and again, I don't think it bothers me that I don't even if that wasn't the case and I was, if all of our friends thought I was just unemployed and she was working.

Yeah I  don't know how I would feel about that. I don't think, I would hope I wouldn't care that much because again, the things that drive me are the personal things that I accomplish that, you know, I still don't tell anybody about anyway. So I think I’d hoped that I would be okay with that, but like I said it's harder.The reality is often way different than you imagined it would be. So yeah, but so far I haven't had any issue because, again, I just mostly tell people  I work from home for myself as a software developer.

Gouri: Excellent, great to hear. So that spawns another two-part question one is  covid and I know historically you said you saved enough but your  passive income stream was sufficient that you didn't need to withdraw from your portfolio. And I know that this audience would be very curious about your withdrawal strategy. So maybe if you can elaborate, maybe during covid you needed to test it, or how you envision it if you haven't needed to test it. And then within the actual FI experience, if you could talk more about the highs and lows of it. So what surprised you. Were you blindsided by anything? Were there some disappointing surprises, and then some  phenomenal surprises you didn't even consider?

Brandon: Sure. So the first thing, I haven't had to withdraw with Jill working, and with the side income that has grown probably over the last three or four years, I guess,  whenever FIRE really took off, I guess that was maybe 2018 when it seemed to be in mainstream media and stuff. So then the Mad Fientist just started earning more income than we spend. So I can't speak to that. My plan was always to do the safe withdrawal rate, just I'd never imagined I would increase it with inflation,as allowed for. I felt thatIi would be very flexible in my withdrawals since we don't have a lot of fixed costs. A lot of our spending is just discretionary. So the plan was to just tighten up in down years and then go back to 3.5% was my floor withdrawal rate, but then 4% plus in better years, potentially. So yeah 3.5% was my target and that's still what I base all of all of our spending on. 

Now I'm actually, like I said, I'm trying to loosen up with spending because I'm still the frugal college student I was twenty years ago, and I'm trying to break out of that. I spoke to Ramit Sethi about that on my podcast. And I'm hopefully going to get him back because I feel like I've made some strides in that, slightly. But now I'm trying to force myself to spend that 3.5% withdrawal which we've been shy of ever since.  

And then the second question. The surprise is losing money as a source of motivation. That wasn't what I expected. I always always thought, wow just do fun stuff with it. But as part of that experimentation I told you about earlier, like we experimented one year and we traveled the whole year, and we ate out like four or five nights a week. And we tried all that stuff and realized lit's actually way more fun when it's special and you get to look forward to it over a few months and you plan for it, and same with eating out. It's like well if it's a Friday night thing then you're looking forward to Friday nights. And so we've tried a lot of that stuff. 

So I guess pre-FI I would have thought that oh if we had extra money this is going to be great, we could go do even more fun stuff. But through experimentation I feel like we've got the sweet spot and  more's not necessarily better, in a lot of cases it's worse. So that was a big surprise and that's still something I'm trying to come to grips with. 

And especially I don't know--I haven't even talked to you about this Gouri-- but I realized now that my cheapness was the only thing keeping my eating in check when we're traveling. So when we go somewhere, like sightseeing is just the stuff I do in between eating and drinking and tasting all the foods and trying all the different stuff. And on these  past trips, ever since we've been able to travel since covid, I’ve just gone crazy. And I realized that the only thing that was keeping that in check was my frugality and my cheapness. And now that that's not there, it's like well I need some self-control I guess when it comes to food and drinks. 

So it's things like that, you don't really think about but then they rear their head when your situation changes, so that was a surprise.

 I think just the peace of mind has been fantastic like I said, I still feel like a teenager so like the thought of like my car breaking down still gives me some stress and anxiety but you know having enough and then having more than enough has sort of eased that and been like okay we can handle the car breaking or an unexpected repair and things like that.That I think has really drastically improved my baseline, just eat at ease-ness I guess. 

So that's been fantastic and then I'm trying to think if there's anything else that's been really-- yeah, now those are some of the big ones--if anything comes up when we're talking I'll be sure to add it--but yeah those are the big ones. And then yeah, just realizing that all your excuses before, all the blame I was placing on my job, was just totally misplaced, and it was more, it was all the internal stuff that I still had to deal with. Yeah, just the self-doubts and the motivation, the procrastination, all that stuff. Yeah it wasn't my job. So those are the big ones.

Gouri: Got it. So thanks for sharing, especially some of these vulnerable topics like, you know, what you're opening up about, a lot of it's personal. So some of the things, I think it's funny you know, to hear your comments about Ramit. For a lot of folks in the space, you know there are die-hard mustachians, folks who read Mr. Money Mustache, and whose blog changed their lives. And then Ramit, you know I would joke to myself. I really value his content as well, but in my head I think of him as somewhat of an anti-mustachian.

So I understand that you felt liberated to some extent. I'd love to hear more about what you've grown to enjoy spending on. You mentioned food. and then I'd also love to hear about the evolution of travel. It sounds like--you know we all want to travel--it's a very common  primary goal, and then some people travel a lot---so when it sounds like your ambition for travel has kind of  perhaps changed. So I would love to hear more about that. 

And then on the topic of travel and living abroad. How has being financially independent living abroad, how do you feel that would differ from living in the States. Like a lot of people in the FI space consider moving abroad and they try to optimize where they're going to live, either travel around or settle. So your thoughts on those.

Brandon: Yeah sure. Yeah, I'll address the anti-mustachian Ramits, which I thought too. And that's why I was so excited to get them on my show.  Because I was like, yeah, you are the opposite ends of the spectrum. I think they say a lot of the same things in just different ways. But I  think having both in your ear is great, and that I was lucky to talk to both of them.

And again, I'm going to be going back to Ramit because I feel  I'm naturally like Mr. Money Mustache, like that's my natural inclination, I guess. So having Ramit there challenging all that stuff, that yeah, me listening to him is like an echo chamber. So it's like I'm not really getting anything out of that, but Ramit challenges me in as far as some of the stuff that has helped me not be so crazy with the spending. Which I believe you asked me, but I'm not sure If you want me to talk about something else. I believe that was part of the question about Ramit. It was reframing things.

So one of the things that's helped is like ten dollars to me is just as valuable as it was when I was a college student. It's in my mind, it's the same. It's like that's 10 bucks, I'm not going to waste 10 bucks, or I'm going to save 10 bucks if I can. So the trick that I've been doing recently is anytime I'm  freaking out about an expense that I think I really shouldn't be freaking out about, I calculate what that expense was like in my college years. Because that's where my brain feels like it still is with money. So taking my net worth back in 2000 and dividing it by my net worth now, and then times it by the expense that I'm worried about, and then it'll be like, oh that's a nickel, you're actually stressing out about a nickel in college times. So that's been helpful.

And then forcing myself to spend with the portfolio. It should allow me to spend. It has been really nice because it's made me a lot more generous, which is something I've always wanted to be. But I always was, like I said before, I’m always like, oh every penny, I need to squeeze it tight in case you know anything happens. 

Whereas now this year it's like, you know, going out to dinner with my family. It's like hurry up and try to pay before anybody else even has a chance. And the same with drinks with friends and things like that. So it's been really nice because it's like, well I’ve got to spend it this year. I'm forcing myself to spend that much. And there's no way I’m going to do that naturally because like I said, I feel like we've dialed in our spending quite well. So anything more is just going to be maybe not as useful, or not bring as much happiness.

So then doing those things day to day has been really nice. Just because before I would have maybe stressed about that. Like you go to dinner with friends and somebody orders the fancy cocktail and you're drinking water. And then you're like, oh, and that's the mindset of when I was a student. I want to get out of that, now the times have changed, forcing myself to spend this year. And again, it's not, I'm not wasting any money because like I said, I don't want to waste money, I want to protect it in case one day I definitely will be giving it away.

And the third thing that's helped with that is also allowing myself to enjoy investments. So rather than just dump all my money into Vanguard index funds, which is what I've done for the last 20 years, instead I'm thinking about buying a house, for example. So to me that's an ultimate luxury. It's not really a great investment, but I think it's a luxury that I'm really looking forward to right now. And my wife is as well. So in my mind, I think about it as an investment rather than me spending on myself, which makes it a lot easier to accept.

And so I think that's something we're going to do over the next few months, is buy a house in Scotland and hopefully make it really comfortable and nice and all of that. And then for the music stuff, it's like instead of buying the cheapest synthesizer that'll let me make the sounds, I buy the one that's going to hold its value the best. And it's going to maybe be a future classic that is going to maybe even go up in value. So that's helping me spend a bit more in the near term, but then hopefully getting a lot of enjoyment out of it. And then maybe even making it an investment where I’m if not making money at least not losing money. And that's been helpful in mentally being able to spend on myself a little bit more. And I'm sorry, but I forgot the second question.

Gouri: Living abroad versus being FI in the States.

Brandon: Sure, yeah. Well luckily, that was one thing I never skimped on when we were in our 20s. And now I'm thankful for that, we did travel. I was really good at travel hacking. I love doing stuff like that. That's like having spreadsheets and plans and that's how my brain loves to be all the time. So travel hacking was just right in my wheelhouse. So we've visited I think 50 countries over our lifetime so far, and we had great, great trips, and it didn't break the bank. But obviously, especially since now the covid has sort of made travel a bit less fun, I'm so glad I didn't skimp on that when we were younger.

But now I don't know if it's because I’m older--I'm turning 40 this year--I don't know I feel like I've got that out of my system. I feel like it's out of my system and now we just flip-flop back between Scotland and America because my wife's family is in Scotland and my family is in America. And luckily those are two great beautiful rich places that have so much to offer that you can continue to explore for a lifetime and not get bored with them.

So we're always so excited to do that, but now I think our travel's more based around people so it's not all  which country we could go to to see these things or eat these foods or whatever. It's now like all right where we could go to see these people and have fun with them. So that's been a huge shift. So I think travel is going to decrease for us in the future as well. It's just going to be mainly just bounce up between those two places.

As far as how that impacts FI, I know travel in my 20’s was very impactful. And showing me that what I thought was normal in America was actually extremely extravagant, and there's a lot of really unfortunate situations out there ,where people are really struggling to get by. And that allowed me to keep my spending in check, I think. And never  feel like I deserved nicer things or anything like that. So that was huge and just having given me the mindset to save so much money over those years.

But as far as, you know, now, I just became a British citizen on July 1st, which was really exciting after so long and so many applications trying to get it.  So now we don't have to worry about visas and stuff. But obviously the healthcare thing, that's a huge weight off my chest now, I guess, it's the national healthcare. National health service is fantastic in Scotland, so there are benefits in places. You know it's probably more difficult to pursue FIRE there just because of the higher taxes and things like that, and there's less loopholes, which is what my whole site was built on back in the earlier days, just finding interesting loopholes for early retirees or future early retirees. So there's a lot less of that but then there's a bigger social safety net. So you have a lot more stuff covered as well. So I don't know if that exactly answers your question but hopefully it's helpful.

Gouri: Yeah that was very helpful, thanks. So a few things in what you said is, one, that you're considering buying a house. I'm certain that the boglehead audience would like to hear more about--especially given how analytical you are, and how you commented it's not necessarily a good investment, or it's often not a good investment--but also if you could talk about, on top of that, share your thoughts. Previously you mentioned you were considering buying real estate as a part-time investment. So you mentioned a unit near a ski resort that you could use personally when in ski season and then you could rent it out when you're not using it. And then covid happened. So obviously that changed, but how are your thoughts going forward on that. Does it still interest you, and then can you elaborate on your purchase analysis and how you decided where you're currently leaning.

Brandon: Sure, yeah. No, so that plan is pretty much out the window and again, that's always me coming back to my default, which is how could I optimize this for the numbers as perfectly as possible. And that whole plan of having two places, one in Scotland, one in America, and the thought was that we buy in places that the peak tour season was pretty much opposite. So we could live in the non-high peak tourist place while we rent out the peak tourist place, and then use that money to pay for the other one, and then vice versa.

And it was all a numbers thing, and that's again, it's just old habits die hard. I'm trying to get out of making numbers only decisions, which is where Ramit comes in. Where he's like there's more than a spreadsheet and you have to live outside the spreadsheet and sometimes decisions should be more than just optimizing numbers.

So I realized all the stress that could come from renting things out. And at least I know myself well enough to know that that would just cause a huge amount of stress because I'm an introverted guy. And I do enjoy interacting with people but conflict with people-- I just know that if I'm a landlord I’m not going to be too happy-- and I'll probably be a lot more stressed. So it would just add a lot of negative things. And yeah, the numbers may be great but  I don't think we would actually benefit.

So now the idea is to just buy a base in Scotland. You know, finally get to enjoy some of our stuff. We just literally today, Jill and I were in the closet. I'm at my dad's house going through that closet because there's boxes in there that we haven't seen since we moved out of Vermont six years ago or something. So yeah, being reunited with all that stuff is going to be nice. And then we can just store it all in Scotland, and then when we come to the States and if we want to go skiing, we can just rent an Airbnb. Or if we want to come to Pittsburgh and see all of my family here we can just rent an apartment in the city.

I think it'll allow us to be a lot more flexible in the States. And then in Scotland we'll have a home base to go back to. And that's when I can--you know the idea is Scotland will be the place where we can get stuff done and see Jill's family and just really spend time with them and Jill  can work if she wants to pick up some shifts and things like that--and then the States, we can just use that time to see people here and have fun and do things like skiing and visiting friends. So, yeah it's changed quite a lot.

And then as far as the end of the analysis for buying a place in Scotland. Not really looking at it numbers based. At least we know where we want to be. We know the type of property we want. Thankfully it hasn't popped up yet because we're in the States. We're not going to be back in Scotland until mid-October so hopefully we can deal with that when we get back. But I think it's hopefully just going to be the property that decides it, and not any crazy number analysis from me. And I can just have some money set aside for that and, hopefully, we just find a property that works, and then try to be homeowners again after renting for so long.

Gouri: Now that sounds fantastic. It's another example of optimizing for happiness.  I think we have about four or five minutes before we go to the group's questions. So as you and I wrap up, even though clearly we could  keep talking about so many different things. I think folks find a lot of this practical and insightful. You've commented that you're not in this FI space to be evangelical. You started the blog to kind of keep yourself accountable, right, with an external motivator. And it helps people who are already interested in the journey.

So this question is really like, for a lot of bogleheads, they're the beacon in their community whether it's a social circle or family people, who come to them for guidance and advice. What have you seen in the space--because there's so much advice out there, right, and certain things resonate with some people more than others obviously--what have you seen be most effective for the folks that want to improve. They want to save better. They want to invest better, but they find it so incredibly challenging.

Brandon: Yeah that’s a tough one for me just because it has come so naturally. Like I said before, it's just been such a focus in my life for some reason for so long. I guess it would have to just go back to tracking, and really this is probably a good actual example. So I have another personal spreadsheet where I just in a cell, just one column will have all the things, all the big purchases I made that year. And then another column will have and it--doesn't like all the spreadsheet purists are going to be like you don't need a spreadsheet for that but I just love working with cells--so and then another column, that's the highlights of the year.

And I think, like obviously if I was struggling with that, I think that it would be really beneficial to keep those lists, you know your big purchases, and then your highlights. And then revisit it in future years. And, you know, tracking your spending is obviously huge. And I think tracking your spending and then tracking these big purchases, I think would be the first step.

Because I feel like a lot of people maybe are just, you know, buying what other people think.Or they see other people doing that and they're buying and it's really not adding to their happiness in any way. So I think writing those things down and then looking back on and be like, oh actually those things weren't really that important, or that trip wasn't that great, or eating out wasn't that great.

But again, though I'm like I said, I'm so naturally focused on this stuff that it's a bit harder for me to think about what would be really beneficial. But I think even now as I'm trying to come to grips with my new spending patterns it's been helpful for me and it's something that I still do. So it's just recording all the big purchases, all the highlights, and then trying to figure out what does that mean for what I actually enjoy or get value out of.

Gouri: Great. Yeah, it's definitely helpful to hear, and for folks who don't know, Mad Fientist compiled a pdf of the one piece of advice answers that he got from his podcast guests, so that's available at mad fine to slash advice I believe you go to that enter your email you'll get that pdf basically instantly.

So in closing before we turn it over to audience questions, you mentioned James Clear's Atomic Habits. I think that's a universal favorite. Everyone I know who’s read it just kind of swears by it. On top of the other habit books out there that preceded it, very practical. And you mentioned Ultralearning. Any other books you recommend or documentaries, especially for the boglehead crowd. Doesn't need to be finance related, could be you know spanning life.

Brandon: Yeah, so  J.L. Collins, the author of The Simple Path to Wealth, he was my second podcast guest way back in 2012, way before The Simple Path to Wealth, and he had recommended How To Obtain Freedom In An Unfree World by Harry Browne, and there's a lot in that book that I definitely don't agree with it all. My wife particularly had big issues with some of it. But it did make you think a little bit differently about the boxes you put yourself in, and the constraints that are all self-imposed. Pretty much I would say in a lot of cases.

And you know back then 2012  FIRE wasn't as big of a thing, and definitely wasn't anywhere near mainstream like it got to be in 2018, or things like that. So that helped just with my mindset, like, oh actually society doesn't know best, and these other people don't know best, and the things that I think I’m restricted by aren't actually restrictions, they're just my own mental restrictions and I can actually do anything that I really want. So I would say that it was a pretty impactful non-financial book.

Early Retirement Extreme that was what got me into this in the first place I saw in 2011 I think it was that  J.D. Roth on Get Rich Slowly had interviewed or had written a book review of Early Retirement Extreme. And that reads like an academic book but there's a lot of great stuff in there that, you know, I've read it at least three times and I finally got to speak to Jacob just last year which was a big thrill for me because he was the thing that, he was the guy that made the light bulb go off in my head.

So yeah, Early Retirement Extreme is still one of my favorites. So those two I would give as something to check out with an open mind and  it's not, they're not bibles, but they'll hopefully get you thinking.

Gouri: Fantastic. Well thanks again. I meant to mention earlier, when we're talking about relationships, that your wife Jill has a guest post on your blog and also a podcast conversation that if folks haven't listened to I highly recommend. Those are very engaging, just warm and enjoyable. So with that, Brandon thanks again. 

You know we're still continuing, but I want to turn it over to Miriam, Carol and Manny and the folks who are running the the questions on the chat and those folks will be asking the questions from the audience 

Brandon: Oh yeah, before you move over, thanks a lot Gouri, it's always a pleasure to chat with you, and hopefully see you back in Edinburgh soon.

Gouri: Love that, and likewise.

Miriam: Thank you Gouri. Thank you Mad Fientist. That was a wonderful, wonderful discussion. I enjoyed it very much.



The chat session of this presentation is available at Chat.


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