Earlier this week I passed my thirteen-year anniversary* of working for my current employer. Although this is not the only job I have ever held, this is the only one that I would call a "career" job -- the earlier ones were ways to make a little income during and immediately after my high school and college years. I seem to be something of an anomaly as nearly everyone I know from my own generation has changed employers at least once, either purposefully or due to factors beyond their control.
My current tenure was almost cut short a number of years ago when the department I worked for was abruptly transferred to another state. Not wanting to relocate, I hastily found a job with a different group, only to be completely dissatisfied and frustrated with the culture in the new organization. I gave my notice and sent out a farewell email to current and former peers, only to have one of them quickly recruit me to work with him in a new role in the same company -- the one in which I still find myself employed today.
I work for a large company on sound financial footing. This has its advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, the compensation and benefits are fair and generous. I am not micromanaged, which allows me to work a somewhat flexible schedule, often from home. Of course, like many large organizations, there are frustrating layers of bureaucracy and inane policies that leave the employees feeling more like interchangeable parts rather than human beings. Overall, I would say the positives largely outweigh the negatives, which is why I've been satisfied to remain with the company as long as I have.
Having said that, I have no desire to spend another 13 years working for this company, or for any other. I am hopeful that before my 25-year employment anniversary, my wife and I will have built up our own finances so that we are no longer dependent on full-time salaries and benefits from our employers. Of course, this blog is here to track our progress toward this goal.
One of my favorite personal finance books, Your Money or Your Life (by Robin and Dominguez), advises readers to add up all of the money they've ever earned, and then compare it to their current position in life. By doing this the reader is given the opportunity to reflect on whether they have made the most of their money in the past, and decide whether changes are needed going forward.
Looking back over my own working career, I have to say that I've done a decent job. On the eve of my first working day at my current employer, I had about $10,000 to my name, half of it in cash and half in a used car. I also had a college degree and no debt of any kind -- no car loan, no student loans, no credit card debt. I have my parents to thank for all of this, because they were wise enough to manage their own finances so that I could start my independent life with an education and without having to dig out of debt. I'm extremely grateful to them for this opportunity.
Thirteen years ago, I was renting a small condo that I shared with my girlfriend at the time. I was not at all passionate about starting a career, but I needed an income and wanted to stop working the odd jobs that I had been doing to make ends meet up to that point. Using an online job posting website, I managed to get an interview with my current employer, not knowing much at all about the company. Fortunately, this was the late 1990s, when the economy was booming, and employers were scrambling to hire anyone and everyone they could. I was hired based on a single interview. I started in an entry-level position and worked a lot for the first several years, since overtime was plentiful and I was fearful that by working "only" 40 hours per week I would look like I was not willing to do my fair share. This was not my preference. Even then, with meager assets, I was frugal, and had no real ambition to earn money for the sake of more consumption. My time off was at least as valuable to me as my paid time, even at time-and-a-half rates. After my 40 hours were up, I wanted to be out hiking the beautiful mountains of New Hampshire, or playing games on my computer, or hanging out with friends. Somehow I managed to stay in good graces with my managers, working just enough overtime hours to not raise any red flags, but few enough that I was able to keep my own sanity.
Over the first few the years I earned raises and promotions (with salary increases), and eventually saved enough for a down payment on a condo. Early on, I remember daydreaming about how nice it would be to get rid of the mortgage so I could be free of those monthly payments. Still, I lived relatively frugally, not choosing to go into extra debt to make major home renovations. I also avoided a "cash out" refinance like a lot of people were doing at the time, as real estate values rapidly increased in the early 2000s. I made small extra mortgage payments when I could, and saved steadily in tax-advantaged retirement accounts, maximizing my 401k and Roth IRA contributions every year.
Fortune smiled on me when I met my wife. Although I knew right away that we clicked on so many levels, it wasn't until at least a year into our marriage that I pleasantly realized we had similar financial goals as well. She was the one who convinced me that a mortgage-free lifestyle didn't have to be a distant dream. This was triggered by a minor personal crisis that brought us even closer together. After we had weathered the storm, we started talking in earnest about what we wanted from life. We decided to work aggressively toward financial independence so that we could enjoy all of the things we love so much together, while we were both still young enough to fully appreciate them, without having to spend all of our time working. This led us to embark on a journey to pay off our mortgage first, as quickly as possible: partly as an insurance policy against sudden loss of income and partly as a way to kickstart our savings. We knew that once the mortgage was gone, we could funnel all of our extra cash toward an escape fund.
So now, thirteen years later, I find myself (along with my wife) belonging to the exclusive** club of homeowners without a mortgage. We're clearly in the very high end of savers for retirement and net worth, especially for our age group***. We are growing our savings and investing for early-retirement income. And while I must give my wife substantial credit for her contributions since we got married, I certainly would not be where I am today without the influence of my employer over the past thirteen years. Having a steady stream of income and benefits provided me with a solid financial foundation. However, while I appreciate the opportunities that come along with steady employment, I hope to continue to build on our current financial foundation. In the not-too-distant future I want to replace our employment anniversaries with financial independence anniversaries.
*By the way,
thirteen years sounds like a long time. New Kindergarten students in
October 1999 are now college freshmen or out on their own. I feel old.
**According to the US Census, just over 30 percent of homes were owned "free and clear" (without a mortgage) as of 2009. Of further interest is that almost half of those "free and clear" homes were owned by those 65 years of age or older, leaving my wife and I in the remaining 15-16 percent of the homeowners under 65 years old and without a mortgage.
*** I track our net worth monthly, using NetworthIQ.