In this episode, Emily interviews Dr. 50 of By 50 Journey, a federal employee who is pursuing financial independence and early retirement (FIRE). Dr. 50 came to the US after finishing college, but worked minimum wage jobs while she learned English until she could apply to PhD programs. She worked full-time to self-fund her PhD over six years. Ultimately the PhD was a game-changer for Dr. 50’s income, and within three or four years of finishing she was earning a six-figure salary. However, a higher salary was not the solution to her family’s financial problems. Dr. 50 describes her emotions at their financial low point, when they completed their debt repayment journey, and upon discovering the FIRE movement. Dr. 50 concludes the interview with an incredible insight regarding financial struggle and striving.
Links Mentioned in This Episode
- PF for PhDs: Community
- Walden on Wheels (Book by Ken Ilgunas)
- E-mail Emily (for Book Giveaway Contest)
- PF for PhDs: Podcast Hub
- By 50 Journey Website
- General Schedule (GS)
- The Academic Society Website
- Toyin’s Free Masterclass (Emily’s Affiliate Link)
- PF for PhDs: Subscribe to Mailing List
00:00 Dr. 50: And one day I was like, okay, this is it. I am making a six-figure salary and I couldn’t even afford a lunch at the cafeteria. And it’s like a wake-up call. I need to do something. We need to do something.
00:21 Emily: Welcome to the Personal Finance for PhDs Podcast: A Higher Education in Personal Finance. I’m your host, Dr. Emily Roberts. This is season eight, episode 16, and today my guest is Dr. 50 of By 50 Journey, a federal employee who is pursuing financial independence and early retirement: FIRE. Dr. 50 came to the U.S. after finishing college, but worked minimum wage jobs while she learned English until she could apply for PhD programs. She worked full-time to self-fund her PhD over six years. Ultimately, the PhD was a game-changer for Dr. 50’s income, and within three or four years of finishing, she was earning a six-figure salary. However, a higher salary was not the solution to her family’s financial problems. Dr. 50 describes her emotions at their financial low point when they completed their debt repayment journey. And upon discovering the FIRE movement. Listen through to the end for an incredible insight from Dr. 50 regarding financial struggle and striving.
01:28 Emily: We’ve just passed decision day, April 15th, so I’d like to extend a massive congratulations to everyone who committed to a graduate program for fall 2021. This is an incredibly exciting period of time. As you dream about and plan this new phase of your life, keep your finances top of mind. You’ve already made the biggest financial decision of your graduate career by one, choosing to attend graduate school, and two, committing to a specific stipend and location. The next biggest decisions are housing and transportation, which presumably you will lock in over the next few months. Before making those big commitments, I recommend that you sketch a budget to figure out how much you can afford while ideally maintaining some kind of savings rate. If you would like some help with that process, join the Personal Finance for PhDs Community at pfforphds.community. Inside the Community, you’ll find my How to Draft a Budget From a Distance webinar and custom spreadsheet. We also have a forum and monthly live calls where we can chat more about your specific situation. I would love to assist you with this process in any way that I can.
Book Giveaway Contest
02:44 Emily: Now, it’s time for the book giveaway contest. In April, 2021, I’m giving away one copy of Walden on Wheels by Ken Ilgunas, which is the Personal Finance for PhDs Community book club selection for June 2021. Everyone who enters the contest during April will have a chance to win a copy of this book. If you would like to enter the giveaway contest, please rate and review this podcast on Apple Podcasts, take a screenshot of your review, and email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll choose a winner at the end of April from all the entries. You can find full instructions at pfforphds.com/podcast. The podcast received a review recently titled exactly what I was looking for. Quote, having read a lot of scattered news articles and attending college workshops, I still felt a need for expert advice on investment strategies for international students. I stumbled upon this podcast while doing my weekly finance research, and I can say that Dr. Roberts does a phenomenal job at it. PF for PhDs is one of the few resources I could find which has got something for every grad student trying to figure out personal finances. Highly recommend it to incoming and current students alike. End quote. Thank you so much for this review. I am focusing more energy in 2021 on serving international students, postdocs, and workers, and I’m so glad that is coming across. Without further ado, here’s my interview with Dr. 50 from By 50 Journey.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
04:19 Emily: I am delighted to have joining me on the podcast today, Dr. 50. She actually goes by Mrs. 50 on her blog, By 50 Journey, which is a FIRE journey blog. However, she does have a PhD. So, we’re going to call her Dr. 50 today. She has an incredible story to tell us about coming to the U.S. As an immigrant, speaking no English, having no money, and you know, pursuing a PhD and ultimately being on this path to financial independence and early retirement. So, really delighted to get her story today. Dr. 50, welcome to the podcast. And will you please tell us a little bit more about yourself?
04:55 Dr. 50: Thank you so much. That was a really great introduction. Yes. That was a long time ago. I would say like over two decades, I came to this country and I had nothing. I mean, it’s nothing. So, I was trying to get a job, but I didn’t get any, because of course I didn’t speak any English. I couldn’t even answer a simple question like, how are you, what are you doing? Because I could understand, but I couldn’t express myself. So meaning trying to get a job, even a simple job. I couldn’t get it. So I was thinking, ah, this is, this is tougher than I thought it would be to start spending my life in a new country with my new husband. And I was trying, okay, let’s go back to grad school. That way I have friends. I have professor, I have, everybody so I can practice on my English. Because back in the day I didn’t have any friends, I don’t have anybody, except just for my husband. Right?
05:59 Dr. 50: And years later, I got accepted into grad school. I was so happy, but on the back of my mind, Oh well, okay, now here I am, I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any financial support. And then I was trying to get funding, trying to get an assistantship, fellowship, whatever that was available. I didn’t get it. So, my first semester I used my credit card to pay for the tuition. I was, Oh, this is not going well. I have to do it better. So I was trying to find a job on campus. But as a student, we couldn’t work more than 20 hours. I said, this is not going to be enough to pay for everything. And not even the rent. Finally, in my second year of grad school, I got a full-time job which was wonderful. I was so grateful and I worked my way and then time flies.
07:07 Dr. 50: I got my master’s and PhD in six years because I was like, okay, let’s get this done as soon as possible so I can get a job and make real money. Right after I finished my PhD, I got a very great offer, even though I finished in the year 2008. So, everybody knows 2008 was the financial crisis. So I denied that job offer. I don’t know why, maybe because of the years, years, and the struggle of the grad school, I didn’t want to get that job because it was so stressful. So I accepted, I was a post-doc for a year and a half. During that time I was trying to find a real job. So I got a great job offer again. And then I got that job. And then my income was increased significantly. I would say, like triple. But unfortunately that job, it was in the city and I was traveling 90% of the time.
08:11 Dr. 50: And I just had a baby. I was happy with my job, but the work-life balance was not great. So I quit my dream job and then I had to find a job that’s not in the city. And then I got that with a negotiation that I negotiated with them. I managed to get the same salary that I had in the city, but I would live in the country. So, which is great. So, the struggle that was in grad school and a great job offer and determination and then patience. So I would say this is from, didn’t speak English to have a career that I wanted because of my PhD, and I was really happy. So, I’m ready to go on to the next level.
Pre-Grad School Finances
09:12 Emily: Yeah. I want to tease out a couple other pieces of that stories so that I understand it correctly. And thank you for giving us that like overarching view of how your career has evolved. So, it sounds like when you came to the U.S., it was a few years in between when you first arrived and when you were accepted to graduate school, is that right?
09:33 Dr. 50: That is correct.
09:35 Emily: And so, were you ultimately able to find some kind of job? I know that you said that you struggled at first, but how were the finances for you and your husband during that pre-grad school period?
09:46 Dr. 50: Yeah, I had odd jobs washing dishes. I answered the phone. I worked in a Chinese restaurant. I worked in a factory. I worked night shift. I did everything that I could do to earn money. And back in the day, it was the minimum wage. I believe it was $4.75 an hour. And yes, we were struggling before I got accepted into school. Even though after I accepted into grad school, we were still struggling because okay, now I spend my time studying during the day. I didn’t have time to earn money, so it was zero, but yeah. And using credit cards to pay for living expenses, even to pay for rent.
10:33 Emily: Yeah. So, it sounds like you very clearly identified the PhD, having that credential, as the path out of these minimum wage positions, is that correct?
10:44 Dr. 50: Yes. Yes. Definitely.
PhD as a Path to Professorship
10:47 Emily: If you had stayed in your home country, do you think you would have pursued a PhD?
10:53 Dr. 50: Yes, because before I met my husband I had a fellowship lined up for me, which they would pay for my school expenses, tuition, and living expenses. And yeah, I was about to go to doing my masters at the time, but decision between, okay, stay here and pursue my dream of becoming a professor or go there and be with my husband, and the love all my life. So, it’s a life-changing decision.
11:28 Emily: I am glad to hear, though, that you were already oriented in that direction. You were already planning on doing the PhD. It’s just, you decided to do it in a different country and had to take a couple steps back and learn the language and so forth. But you still got to, in terms of doing the PhD, you still got to that same goal.
11:44 Dr. 50: Yes. I always wanted to be a professor. A university professor.
Making Ends Meet in Grad School
11:49 Emily: And one other question I had about kind of the finances during graduate school. You said that you initially started out financing, you know, you weren’t funded, so you were financing it through consumer debt, and ultimately you got, I think you said a full-time job, right? So was it the case that your PhD was never funded? You didn’t have an assistantship or a fellowship, but you worked aside from doing the PhD?
12:10 Dr. 50: Yes. I worked 20 hours at the university dining hall in the morning from 3:30 to eight o’clock. And then during the day I worked as a lab technician for 40 hours. So yeah, my week was full. I would get up at three o’clock and then wouldn’t come home until 11 at night.
12:38 Emily: So you were working 60 hours at jobs plus the PhD work?
12:45 Dr. 50: Yes. And I enrolled full-time because if I did it part-time, it would drag me to eight or 10 years. I couldn’t afford that. That’s too long.
12:57 Emily: Wow. Incredible. I can’t, I can’t even fathom how you got through that. And you said it took six years, right?
13:07 Dr. 50: Yeah. It took six years, a master’s for two years and PhD for four years.
13:11 Emily: And you kept up that, I mean, I’m just like flabbergasted, you kept up that schedule the whole time?
13:16 Dr. 50: Yes. And finally, when I did my research, I quit my dining hall job because it was, Oh, it’s early. And I had that job because I got free meals. So, to save money, so I got free meals for five days. So, that’s awesome. Finally, I didn’t have time to do my research, so I quit that job and then I just kept my full-time job.
13:45 Emily: Yeah. I think we’re getting a real picture of how your finances were, but what it took, the work it took to keep yourself afloat, you and your husband afloat, during that time. And you know, clearly why you had the motivation to do the PhD. So, I’m really glad to hear that element of the story. Thank you. And so, you told us a little bit earlier about, you know, having the postdoc position and then, you know, taking a couple of different jobs, post-PhD. Did you want to add anything in there about how your income has been or anything like that?
14:20 Dr. 50: Yeah, sure. So, during my grad school years, the part-time one was the dining hall one. That was minimum paid. So, it was like, six or $7 an hour for 20 hours. So, that wasn’t that much. My full-time job, I worked as a lab technician that was $15 an hour. Back in the day, that was, I’d say 15 years ago, that was a lot for me. So, I’d say that I earned the most was $34,000 a year. That was awesome. That’s great money for us. That allowed us to buy a house, this would be our first house, and I didn’t have to worry much about my school tuition. And during that time I was able to talk to my boss, have them pay for a couple of classes. So, that was great. And so, post-PhD I had a postdoc and that doubled my income. I earned $63,000. That was in 2009. I graduated in 2008. So, it was double wage. Our finances were starting to get a lot, a lot better.
15:42 Emily: I just want to ask there, what kind of setting was that postdoc position in? Because that sounds like a pretty well-paid one, especially for that time.
15:52 Dr. 50: I was in the federal agency.
15:55 Emily: Okay. Gotcha.
Money Mindset: Salary Negotiation
Dr. 50 (15:56): And I, again, I negotiated my salary. I always had this mindset, even though with the federal, we have to follow rules and although certain staff follow certain salary level. Yeah. I negotiated. So, actually, it started at, I believe back in the day, was like $51,000 and I was able to get $63,000.
16:23 Emily: I think that’s a really great tip for anyone else who’s looking to apply for federal jobs because you have the, it’s the GS system, is that right?
16:31 Dr. 50: Yeah, it’s the GS system. Even though you’ve been told, okay, this position will give you the GS level this or accept this, you can always negotiate with them. Even though they have the fixed table to follow, you always can negotiate. Yeah. So, after the postdoc, I got a really great job offer in the city. This is in New York city. I was like, Oh my God, New York city, that’s a high cost of living. But it was a job of my dreams. So, I took it and my salary was doubled again. So, I made a six-figure salary. So I came from making minimum wage and then making a six-figure salary within, I would say, three or four years after I got my PhD. So, it was very quick.
17:28 Emily: Yeah. And then you said you maintained that salary even though you didn’t live in New York anymore.
17:33 Dr. 50: Yes.
17:33 Emily: Yeah. That’s fantastic.
17:35 Dr. 50: I came back to the federal, and I negotiated with them again. Different agency. And then they said, yes. I said, Oh my gosh. Yeah. It was so wonderful.
17:46 Emily: And do you still work for the federal government?
17:47 Dr. 50: Yes.
Overcoming a Large Financial Struggle
17:48 Emily: Okay. Yes. Thank you so much. It’s an incredible income trajectory. Also in this period post-PhD, I understand you overcame a large financial struggle. Can you tell us about that?
18:01 Dr. 50: Yes. So, during my graduate school years, I mean, as I already told you guys, we didn’t have much. Plus I supported myself and my family, husband, because he was still trying to finish his college also. So, I’d been using credit cards to pay for my tuition. And I was trying to pay it off every month. Some months I did, and some months I did not. So, it’s accumulated from there. And also, when I got my first real job in the New York City, we had our first child and then baby came and husband still couldn’t find any jobs. So, he was unemployed for a long time. Plus, the daycare cost was like so high. So, it’s better for him to be at home and take care of the baby. And then I’ll take care of the financial side of it.
19:04 Dr. 50: And yes, during this time we have surgeries, hospital, car wreck, and everything you can imagine. So, we accumulated a lot of debt. And one day I was like, okay, this is it. I am making a six-figure salary, and I couldn’t even afford a lunch at the cafeteria. And it’s like a wake up call. I need to do something. We need to do something. So, I say to myself, okay, no more excuses. I don’t want to wait until he got a job or I don’t want to wait until the baby leaves the daycare and goes to school. Let’s start now. Let’s do it. Yeah, all of the frustration. I just made our plan, trying to pay off the debt and made a budget and started doing my excel sheets. And then we go from there. And then in less than six years, all the debt was gone, including the mortgage.
20:04 Emily: Wow. What was the total debt balance then? Between the mortgage and the consumer debt that you were working on?
20:10 Dr. 50: Yeah, we had one car payment that was $18,000 and credit card debt was almost $80,000 and the mortgage was $114,000. So, I would say that 230 to $240,000.
20:26 Emily: Wow. So, within six years you paid off 230, $240,000 of debt on $120k ish, it sounds like, salary. Plus your husband was not working or maybe started working at some point during that period?
20:43 Dr. 50: No.
20:43 Emily: Not working during that period.
20:45 Dr. 50: He was not working yet.
20:45 Emily: Okay. Home with the baby.
20:48 Dr. 50: Yes, home with the baby.
A Shift in Money Mindset
20:48 Emily: Yes, plenty of work there. But it doesn’t sound to me, I want to ask you a little bit more about that transition about that day you couldn’t buy the lunch, you were so frustrated. Because the things that you mentioned, you know, that got you into the debt, the medical bills and the car wreck, none of that was frivolous spending. So, what did change actually at that point?
21:13 Dr. 50: It changed because, it’s kind of embarrassing to say, but I spent hours, hours just to pay a couple of bills. Because I have to think in advance, okay, if we have enough to pay for this and that before the next paycheck comes in. So, basically, we were living paycheck to paycheck. We stressed ourselves financially. Okay, the baby crying, I was trying to pay the bills. And I spent a lot to pay a couple of bills. This is, something’s wrong here. It’s not right. So I was, yeah. From there. Okay. Let’s make a decision to tackle this issue from the cause. Yeah. I was struggling and sad, and then I had nobody else to turn to. And I would say, let’s do this. I don’t want to wait any longer. Let’s do it. Our lifestyle will change, no more shopping, no more eating out. Let’s do this. If we do this, we can do this in under 10 years. In 10 years, we will be a whole new person, a new family, and then life will be much better.
22:29 Emily: And is that how you felt when you, you know, sent off the last payment?
22:33 Dr. 50: I felt relief. Okay, I don’t have to make all these calculations and then try to predict the future if my paycheck will be the same or if we will have any unexpected expenses. But I was like, Oh, well, okay, now we are definitely, the debt is gone. I still, so surprisingly, I still felt the same. It wasn’t the financial that I was looking for. I feel I miss something. We were missing something, but I couldn’t put a word to it until I found the FIRE movement.
Discovering the FIRE Movement
23:16 Emily: Yeah. So FIRE, acronym for financial independence and early retirement or retire early. Would you please explain for my audience, you know, your version of what FIRE is and why that spoke to you, and why you decided to pursue it?
23:31 Dr. 50: Yeah. So, before I knew it was a thing I always, Oh, wait, I don’t want to work. I don’t want to do this for the next 40 years. I mean, I only get one take on this planet. I want to do something that really matters, really matters to me and to my family, and really matters, that I am passionate about. I don’t want to spend my 40 years doing this. So, but I didn’t know what that feeling was until I met the FIRE movement, which you already said stands for financial independence, retire early. So, at this point, I want to be financially independent. The retire early can come back later. So, to me, FIRE means that you don’t have to worry about money anymore, meaning you don’t have to be worried about making a living, making money to support your lifestyle, your life. I mean, you can spend your time doing what really matters. To me, I really have a passion about helping animals in need, dogs and cats at the shelter. So, I really want to pursue that.
24:50 Emily: Emily here for a brief interlude. This announcement is for prospective and first-year graduate students. My colleague, Dr. Toyin Alli of The Academic Society, offers a fantastic course just for you called Grad School Prep. The course teaches you Toyin’s four-step Grad Boss method, which is to uncover grad school secrets, transform your mindset, up-level your productivity, and master time management. I contributed a very comprehensive webinar to the course titled Set Yourself Up for Financial Success in Graduate School. It explores the financial norms of grad school and the financial secrets of grad school. I also give you a plan for what to focus on in your finances in each season of the year that you apply to and into your first year of grad school. If this all sounds great to you, please register at theacademicsociety.com/Emily for Toyin’s free masterclass on what to expect in your first semester of grad school, and the three big mistakes that keep grad students stuck in a cycle of anxiety, overwhelm, and procrastination. You’ll also learn more about how to join Grad School Prep, if you’d like to go a step further. Again, that’s theacademic society.com/E M I L Y for my affiliate link for the course. Now, back to our interview.
Striving for Financial Independence
26:18 Emily: It sounds like when you were heavily in consumer debt and you had your mortgage, you were stressed out and you thought that it was because you were playing this paycheck-to-paycheck game, right? Which is super common, that you have to really figure out, you know, when things can be paid so you have money in the bank to do it and all that. But then, once you got out of that level of stress, you said you still kind of felt the same. And so it sounds like you realized that it wasn’t just the paycheck to paycheck game. It was that you had to have a paycheck at all. You wanted to be freed of needing to work to support your lifestyle.
26:53 Dr. 50: Exactly. Yes. I still felt the same. I was surprised. Oh my gosh. I should just be, feel very happy. Definitely I felt relieved, but it wasn’t the happiness that I was looking for. And then, yeah, I just don’t want to have any paychecks at all. I just want to have my money working for me instead of working for the money. I had been working for the money for a long time, and I don’t want to work for the money anymore.
27:19 Emily: I see. Can you give us a little bit of more of the technicalities of how FIRE works, at least in your example? Like, do you have a number that you’re shooting for, and what are the strategies that you’re using to get to that point?
27:31 Dr. 50: Yes. I have several options. So, because my older child and my husband had a chronic disease that the health insurance is the other issue, but yeah, I have a couple options here. So, the first option would be, we accumulate enough money that we can live off the investments, mainly to live off the dividends or the 4% rules. If you Google 4% rules, you will know what it is.
FIRE: The 4% Rule
28:03 Emily: Yeah. I’ll just say for the listener that there’s kind of a rule of thumb in the FIRE movement, which is that if you are supporting yourself through paper assets, stocks and bonds and so forth, the rule is that you save up, invest, 25 times your expected spending level in your retirement, or if that’s what you’re doing, and that you can withdraw 4% per year from your portfolio over the long-term without endangering, you know, that you’re going to draw it down to zero. That’s a really brief explanation. There’s a lot more underneath that, but that’s the gist of the 4% rule.
28:40 Dr. 50: Yes. So, the first option would just live off the 4% rules and everybody will be staying home and taking care of the kids. So, I just had a baby this year, so yeah, the FIRE just came back to me again. And then the second option would be like my husband keeps working. So, we will have the health insurance that we desperately need. And I would be at home and taking care of the baby. And then the third option would be to move to another country that has the universal health insurance. So, we would get that issue covered, and then we’d just live off of the investment.
29:20 Emily: Yeah. So, which one is your plan A?
29:23 Dr. 50: My plan A is the option two. So, have him keep working so we don’t have to move. And then, because by that time they’d be about to get close to the number. The younger one was still be in elementary school. So, would be just like six or seven years old.
29:40 Emily: Okay. And I think this, you know, this health insurance thing that you brought up is something that is such a big conversation in the FIRE movement in the United States, not necessarily elsewhere. And there are plenty of people who are keeping jobs, not because they need the money, but just because health insurance or the risk that you take, if you went on certain kinds of health insurance plans, is so great here. So, it sounds like either your husband will keep working, or maybe at some point we will have a universal option and then that’ll give you a lot more flexibility.
30:11 Dr. 50: Yes, that’s true. Yeah. If you have that flexibility, that would be great. He doesn’t mind working at all. He loves working. So, I’m really grateful for that.
Federal Retirement Benefits
30:21 Emily: Since you’re a federal government employee, do you have a pension? Or do you have like defined contribution plans, or what’s the deal with your retirement?
30:30 Dr. 50: Yes, I do have a pension that is very, very small. So, let’s say if I worked for 30 years plus if you meet MRA, MRA stands for minimal retirement age, if you meet 30 years at your minimum retirement age, you will get 1% of your high three of your salary. The high three is your last three years of your salary. Let’s say, to make the math easier, if you make a hundred thousand a year for the last three years before you resign. So, 1% of that, and times 30 years, so it’s only $30,000 a year, plus tax and all the deduction, it wouldn’t be much. And we have a 401(k), like any other industry, but what we call it TSP. TSP stands for Thrift Savings Plans. So, it works just like 401(k), but it’s just called differently.
Investment Changes Toward Achieving the FIRE Goal
31:39 Emily: And since you already went through that massive debt payoff journey before discovering the FIRE movement, was there anything that you actually started changing in your finances once you had that identified as your goal?
31:52 Dr. 50: Yes. I’m glad that you asked that question. So, it changed dramatically. So, I’ve always been maxing out my 401(k), or my TSP, every year. Okay. So, we agreed as a family that we’re going to pursue FIRE. Let’s do something different. Because if I keep my job, if I still continue trying to do a traditional retirement, I would work into my MRA at 57 or 60 years. And if you want to pursue FIRE, we need to fill a gap between that because I cannot take the money out until 59 and a half. So that gap, we cannot draw our 401(k) or any retirement account. So, we opened a broker’s account and instead of maxing out my 401(k) and his 401(k), we just contribute to the match just enough to get the match from our employer. And then divert all the money from that into the brokerage account, the taxable account.
33:00 Emily: So, that sounds like you felt like your post-60 retirement was well-funded enough. And I mean, you’re still going to get the match, so there’s still more growth and a little bit more contribution there, but it sounded like you thought that that was well-funded enough. So, now you’re going to focus on those years between whenever you do stop working and when you can start to access those retirement accounts.
33:21 Dr. 50: Yes. It would be about 10 years. So, the “50” came from, I would like to retire by the time I turn 50. Yeah, so, 10 years I calculated it. All the expenses in the future. I came up with the numbers that we have to have at least $600,000, or $600,000 to be okay, that’s the lean FIRE. If you want to get more comfortable, I say $750,000. That will get up to be better than lean FIRE. Lean FIRE is just like, minimal, barely enough to live on.
34:00 Emily: Anything else that you changed aside from the destination of your investments?
34:05 Dr. 50: Yeah, that’s the one thing. And then we also, any leftover money that we can save, any activity that we cannot pass by, like re-doing our budget, do the meal plan. Budget system number one and meal planning, not going out, basically just frugal living. And then I started a side business. Anything that I can sell. And as a family we like, talk, okay, this is the goal that we want to do. And everybody was on board and yeah. Every little thing, side hustles, living frugally, anything will go to the FIRE account.
Lifestyle and Money Mindset Pre- vs. Post-Grad School
34:54 Emily: How does, how you’re living now–you know, frugally and so forth, saving a lot, working hard–how does that compare to that pre-grad school period, or even the time when you were in graduate school, and you had that heavy workload? I guess I’m asking, how does your lifestyle compare, and also how do you feel about your finances now compared to back then?
35:18 Dr. 50: I would say I feel a little bit better. Because back in the day, we were struggling financially trying to put food on the table, trying to pay rent and then trying to pay the mortgage. Right now, we’ve comfortably more than enough to pay all the expenses, living expenses and mortgage, everything is on auto pay. I didn’t have to worry about if we have enough money. If the bill comes in, if we have a roof leak, if we have a broken pipe, we have emergency funds. So yes, my feeling was much better, but financially I was still trying to meet my financial goal, which is the financial independence. So it’s a different feeling, but I would say a different feeling kind of between struggle and the finish line, I would say.
36:14 Emily: So, sort of like struggling to get off the starting blocks. Right? To even make it, you know, to have a tiny bit of financial security, versus now, like you just said, you can see the finish line. You’re striving and you’re racing for that finish line. And yeah, I would imagine that, even if your lifestyle is pretty low, like you’ve tried to like be pretty frugal and stuff, having that financial security of the, you know, X, many hundreds of thousands of dollars, you know, in the bank and the investments, it has to be a massive, massive relief on your mind.
36:49 Dr. 50: Yes. Yeah. It would be a relief because right now we trying, I would say we are in an accumulation phase trying to get as much money into the FIRE as much as possible, as soon as possible. But at the same time, I just don’t want to stress myself out. Because one thing that I learned from our debt-free journey, our debt journey was like, because at the end of the day, you just want to be happy, right? The money doesn’t make you happy. You just need to learn to live in the moment, even though you are trying to achieve something or aim for something, but overall you just want to be happy and just trying to live in the day. I just don’t want to stress out too much because during our debt journey, I was so stressed out. I just wanted to be out of debt so badly. I just didn’t want to spend at all.
37:47 Dr. 50: And I wasn’t happy. And when we were debt-free, I still wasn’t happy. Now, we are on the FIRE path, FIRE journey. I just don’t want to be the same. I just want to enjoy a little bit more of my life. I just want to stop and breathe and enjoy every single day. I just don’t want to wait, because if you wait, you will feel depressed. And if you ever feel like it will never come. So yes, I take it easy and just live in the day. And that day will come before you know it.
Was the PhD Financially Worthwhile?
38:24 Emily: I’m really glad to hear you say that. That’s a message I need to hear. I need to hear that and be able to focus on living in the moment more and not striving. And I’m really glad to hear you say that because I know that some people in the FIRE movement do stay very caught up in the end goal. And even though sort of the philosophy around FIRE would be to be living in the moment both while you’re pursuing it and once you’ve achieved it, a lot of people do fall into just thinking about the future and living for the future and you know, not taking the time to enjoy the time they have at the moment, which is all we have. Right? Really. So, I’m really glad to hear that you’ve, based on your debt free journey, you’ve already learned that lesson. And you’re now, you know, beyond that and into still enjoying your life even while you’re pursuing FIRE. So, I’m really pleased to hear that. Do you think the PhD was financially worthwhile?
39:14 Dr. 50: Oh, yes. In my case, for me. For me, it was worthwhile. I am glad that I made the right decision to pursue a PhD because it’s opened so many doors for us. If I were working at my minimum wage job at a factory, or I was afraid to take the risk of not having any paycheck and then just went straight to grad school without any backup plan. We wouldn’t be here today. Yes. It was very worthwhile. Yeah.
Best Financial Advice for an Early-Career PhD
39:47 Emily: Yes. I can see that clearly from the story now. And so, Dr. 50, I conclude all my interviews by asking my guest what is your best financial advice for an early-career PhD? That could be something we’ve talked about already. It could be something completely different, but would you please share that with us?
40:04 Dr. 50: Yeah, sure. I say, from my past experience as a PhD graduate, you feel like, Oh my gosh, I have a PhD behind my name now. I make a ton of money. Even though it’s not a ton, I would say, it’s increased your income. My one piece of advice would be trying to live the same. Don’t let the life inflation get you. Because if you do that, it will be never enough. I mean, it’s how much you make, how advancing your career brings you. It will not be enough. You just, if you just keep inflating your lifestyle. I’m not saying that you should be conscious as a graduate student, but on the back of your mind, trying to do like other peers are doing. I’m not saying like, you should live this way, but yeah. Lifestyle inflation, it really hurts your financial life.
40:59 Emily: Yeah. And it definitely sounds like you were there, you did that for a little while. I like to say, don’t inflate your lifestyle, but increase your lifestyle. Increase it intentionally, mindfully. But don’t, yeah. Don’t just let it float up to, you know, whatever your salary is.
41:16 Dr. 50: Yes.
41:17 Emily: Yes. I love that advice. Thank you so much. Dr. 50, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much for joining me on the podcast.
41:22 Dr. 50: Oh, thank you so much. I’m glad to be here. And I’m so honored to be on this podcast. I am. I hope that my life lesson and experience will be helpful to you guys in some way, some small way. Thank you so much for having me here.
Listener Q&A: Financial Independence
41:42 Emily: Now on to the listener question and answer segment. Today’s question was asked in advance of a live webinar I gave recently for a university client. So, it is anonymous. Here is the question. Quote, can you start a journey to financial independence in grad school. End quote. Wow. It is awesome that this person is already thinking about long-term financial independence as a graduate student. The answer is, unequivocally, yes. In fact, if you’d like to think about it this way, you have already started your journey to financial independence in grad school, because you are making a long-term investment in your career, and presumably, your earning potential. While FIRE is achievable in theory by anyone, it’s definitely an easier road if you have a good salary. So, in that sense, if getting a graduate degree is going to put you on a road to a good salary, you’re already pursuing financial independence. Now, what can you do while you’re actually in graduate school to pursue financial independence?
42:46 Emily: No matter what your income, you can work on your mindset. You can learn more about personal finance. You can put strong habits into place, which you’ll definitely need during graduate school, like budgeting and frugality. Your income is always going to be rather low during grad school, but that’s not the only side of the equation when it comes to financial independence. Your expenses matter a lot as well. I would say, during this period of time, when your income is suppressed, you should take the time to master the controlling expenses side of the equation. But that’s not all. Even with a lower income during grad school, you can work on increasing your net worth. This is what I put a lot of focus on when I was in graduate school. Tactically, once you have your budget set up and hopefully a bit of free cashflow, you can put that towards saving, debt repayment, or investing, following, like I’ve talked about in recent weeks, the financial framework that I developed for PhDs.
43:43 Emily: Now, here’s one key concept that might not have occurred to you yet. While you’re in graduate school and you have this lower income, you also have a lower tax rate. Graduate students tend to, unless they’re married to someone with a much higher income, top out in the 12% federal marginal tax bracket or lower. And that means that it is a perfect time to use a Roth IRA for your retirement investments. Especially, again, if you anticipate a large income increase postgraduate school, this is probably the most optimal time in your life to be using a Roth IRA. And presumably it’s also the earliest investing you’ll do, so it has the longest timeline to compound and grow. People are crazy for the Roth IRA, and they will contribute even when they’re in incredibly high tax bracket. So, you really have, if you think about it, a great opportunity to be able to contribute to the Roth IRA without paying a high tax rate. And five years or so investing in a Roth IRA and then decades compounding after that, this will be a very big portion of your portfolio, ultimately, even if you don’t contribute in absolute numbers a lot of money during grad school. Thank you so much for this question, Anonymous, and I’m so glad to learn that you are already on your journey to financial independence. If you’d like to submit a question to be answered in a future episode, please go to pfforphds.com/podcast and follow the instructions you find there. I love answering questions, so please submit yours.
45:18 Emily: Listeners, thank you for joining me for this episode. Pfforphds.com/podcast is the hub for the Personal Finance for PhDs Podcast. On that page are links to all the episode show notes, which include full transcripts and videos of the interviews. There is also a form to volunteer to be interviewed on the podcast, and instructions for entering the book giveaway contest and submitting a question for the Q&A segment. I’d love for you to check it out and get more involved. If you’ve been enjoying the podcast, here are four ways you can help it grow. One, subscribe to the podcast and rate and review it on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or whatever platform you use. If you leave a review, be sure to send it to me. Two, share an episode you found particularly valuable on social media, with an email listserv, or as a link from your website. Three, recommend me as a speaker to your university or association. My seminars cover the personal finance topics PhDs are most interested in, like investing, debt repayment, and taxes. Four, subscribe to my mailing list at pfforphds.com/subscribe. Through that list, you’ll keep up with all the new content and special opportunities for Personal Finance for PhDs. See you in the next episode! And remember you don’t have to have a PhD to succeed with personal finance, but it helps. The music is Stages of Awakening by Podington bear from the free music archive and is shared under CC by NC. Podcast editing and show notes creation by Meryem Ok.
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