How We Became Big Believers of Early Retirement and Rejected The Nonsense That Leads to an Average American Lifestyle

This is turning out to be a year of reflection for Tatiana and me, as we look in the rearview mirror and realize all the progress we’ve made together. We’ve been kicking butts on the financial side of things, and, besides dealing with life events that are outside of our control, we stand strong and continue to move forward with our plans to retire by 2020.

My part of the freedom journey, which started about seven years ago, has been quite a wild ride and an incredible one at that. On the personal side, I had to make some choices that many people wouldn’t dare to do for fear of the unknown. Maybe one day I’ll talk about it on the blog, but for now, let’s just say that I experienced that the paths to take in life are not always clear, and it’s okay to steer in a different direction. Among the choices that I had to make, getting my financial life in order became a top priority.

I was never a high roller or consumer of expensive products but, man, where did my money go all those years?

I started making some money while in college but had almost nothing saved by my mid-thirties. Life sucks when you only live to spend and pay bills.

Fortunately, I woke up from that lifestyle, and, in a matter of seven years, I went from spending most of my paycheck to saving more than half of it. I crushed my debt as well. I brought down housing, transportation, and all the usual “consumer sucka” monthly expenses. If you feel trapped by your consumerist behaviors you can be free too. This is not reserved for a few of us.

I made such a transformation in the process that when I look back, I realize that the man from seven years ago is no longer a true representation of me. And I also thank Tatiana for being such a great partner and for showing me what I was missing in life.

Those major life changes didn’t come to me easily. I had to make some tough choices including rejecting the nonsense that leads to an average life with average happiness.

And, what kind of advice can you lead you to an average lifestyle?

Advice such as:

  • Buy a new car every four years and get chained to a monthly car payment.
  • Buy as much housing as you desire, even though you can’t afford it.
  • You must send your kids to top schools and pay a premium for them to get the best education.
  • Put it on the plastic and pay it later.
  • Save a little. Spend most of it. You only live once.
  • Shop. Spend. Gift. Black Friday and the holidays are coming!

These are all examples of advice full of baloney that will keep you working until arthritis kicks in and will leave your body swimming in stress. It will no doubt lead you to an average lifestyle. And let me tell you something: Average sucks!!!

‘Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.”  — George Carlin

I say stop changing cars like underwear. Buy your financial independence first and then spend a little more on things that make you happy. If you want to own your home, buy that house when you can really afford it.

Going through the motions vs. pursuing true happiness

In my “prior life”, I was going through the motions of working to pay for a fancy house with a pool, while debt was fueling the fire. I was even paying PMI (private mortgage insurance) because I couldn’t afford to put 20% down. This was back in the summer of 2008 and, with the housing market meltdown, I thought I was already getting a deal that I couldn’t pass on, but the truth is that opportunities are for those who can afford it. The new me now wants to show up to closing with a 100% down payment!

I was using my money to satisfy life’s purchases, which sometimes came dressed as opportunities, instead of staying out of debt and enjoying life’s experiences. It’s how I was fulfilling my version of the American Dream but was I really happy?

Tatiana, on the other hand, was enjoying life the way it should be enjoyed: spending quality time with loved ones and spending money on life experiences.

By the time I met her, she was only 25 and had made more trips to Europe in a week than I made to the bathroom in a lifetime. Okay, so that was an exaggeration, but she was making at least two international trips a year. All while staying out of debt, saving enough in her 401(k) to get the company’s match, contributing to a brokerage account, and helping her mom financially.

We were pursuing happiness, but on separate paths and with competing priorities. At the end of the day, we all want to pursue happiness. Right? I’m sure that besides paying bills, you go to work to pay for other things and goals that you believe will make you happier.

I hope that you’re nodding yes and are on a path to become happier. Otherwise, start to think about your purpose in life and what would make you truly happy. 😉 We recommend that you take that step in our Seven-Step Blueprint for Early retirement.

The pursuit of true happiness and financial freedom

Ironically, it was a fire back in 2010 that got the FIRE thing in motion for me. I wrote more about that experience at the beginning of our blogging journey. At first, it was a period of discovery. I looked deep down inside and realized that I was not happy. That neighborhood fire made me question what was really important in life and material things weren’t the answer.

This decade brought so many realizations to my life. By taking time to reevaluate my life, I became fully aware that the path predetermined by society, which I was set to take, could be changed. That I had more power in my hands to change course from what was being prescribed than I realized. So I started to change it since I have never been a person who waits for destiny to decide my future.

The path to freedom

By the beginning of 2011 I had a plan: Kill the unaffordable lifestyle and get rid of all debt. Back then I was in a financial hole and the house mortgage ate most of my paycheck. I also had a three-year-old car loan and lots of debt personal debt.

During that year, I buckled up. I had to inconvenience myself by moving out of the house and knew that without pain, there would be no gain. I built a small studio on the third floor of my rental property and moved there to cut housing costs. In the meanwhile, I started tracking my expenses and brought them down big time. As I freed myself more and more from my lifestyle, I felt more in charge of my life and finances.

Here’s something to think about: If you’re going through financial hardships and need to deflate your lifestyle, getting rid of your material possessions is not as hard as you might think. Think about the precious memories of your life. Do they revolve around objects or people?

I put the home on a rent-to-own contract and that freed me from the mortgage responsibility. I continued to work and concentrated on paying off all the debt, sending as much as I could to the debt with the highest interest rate, while simultaneously working towards maxing out my 401(k) account.

During those years of huge expenses, even though it looks like I was living large in a big house with a newer car, I actually felt deprived. I couldn’t visit my parents in the DR, not even once a year.

Then I realized that by doing something as simple as cutting satellite TV, I could easily afford to visit them at least once a year. As I kept cutting unnecessary expenses, I became happier. All the small and big moves led me to a gigantic transformation which made me an even better human being.

When my awesome lady came into my life

During my life-changing experience, I met Tatiana. Pursuing her love was the best decision I made in my life. We felt an immediate connection. I showed her my romantic side for two years and she said yes! Well, she first said: “Maybe”, but I knew that was a yes to my marriage proposal.  We share the same values and she’s my life partner. The rest of the story, well, you’re seeing it play out real-time here. 🙂

How my relationship with money changed

As I saw my debt pile decrease, and my net worth increase, I became more serious about investing. One of the biggest money lessons came from the book Stop Acting Rich: …and Start Living Like a Real Millionaire by Thomas J. Stanley. Instead of trying to copy the spending habits of the super-elite, concentrate on building wealth as the working rich do. Being rich is not about driving luxury cars and owning mansions, it’s about having an unlimited wealth of time available to you because you have assets working for you day and night.

Assets that allow you to be free and fulfilled with true happiness, instead of being trapped in a debt-sponsored spending cycle.

Other points in the book are that wealthy people buy value. They drive Camrys (us owning a Camry, it’s just a coincidence) and live in modest homes. They don’t need to keep up with high-spending neighbors because they don’t move to the most expensive neighborhoods.

Wealthy people don’t go around flaunting their money.

And they buy $10 wine bottles and don’t go around showing off as wine connoisseurs.

In a nutshell, wealthy people buy assets, while those who just act rich spend money on junk.

How the idea of early retirement came to our lives

By the fall of 2012, I was excited to learn more about how money can really bring happiness and came across the book Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin. This is where we were exposed to the concept of early retirement and it sounded so freakin’ cool.

I shared what I learned about financial independence and early retirement with Tatiana and her no-so-exact words were: “So you mean to tell me that if we save and invest up to a certain amount, we can live off this money forever and not have to work for money again?”

She was on board right away as she was already realizing that the corporate life was not something she’d want to do for the rest of her life. Lucky for her, she was realizing this when she’d been working for only five years after college.

By buying things and experiences that only brought value to our happiness, we realized that we could live on less. We also started craving our freedom.

What would it feel to work only on things that you enjoy?

How would it feel to take a 3-month vacation?

Can we really fund an expense for life and not have to worry about working to pay for it again?

We quickly changed our ways. Tatiana started to pack lunch and cut down on eating out. Expenses were decreasing, while happiness was on the rise without feeling any deprivation.

We were so excited about the teachings that we even bought the audible version of Vicki’s book, and shared it with some friends and family members. I don’t think most of them were sold on it. It’s important to know that not everyone will be a believer in financial independence or early retirement, and that’s okay. People need to be in the right mindset and it has to be the right time for them. So we don’t give unsolicited advice but are eager to share with those who are curious about our plans.

FIRE excitement kicked in!

I was still paying off debt but accelerated the process even more because we were so psyched about the prospects of reaching financial independence. We even started to create spreadsheets on how soon we could reach our desired freedom.

I wanted to get rid of debt because having debt was stressful, but it was not an exciting goal. The concept of FIRE, on the other hand, got me excited like a horny teenager in 9th grade. Striving to reach FIRE also made us look forward to saving and investing.

Early retirement was about buying our time back and getting there quicker than following the traditional path of saving for 30 years. The fact that the numbers we were projecting showed that we could reach FIRE in less than 10 years was the biggest motivation to continue on the path.

We could retire early and still have our youth to enjoy life’s pleasures. How cool was that!

Discovering that you can live like a king with a $25,000 spending budget or like Mr. Money Mustache

After realizing that we could retire early if we were to save and invest enough to fund our living expenses, we continued to read on the subject and stumbled upon Mr. Money Mustache. Whaaaat! Here’s a guy that retired at 30 with his wife to care for their child and lives on $25,000 a year. Not only that, but they live a rich lifestyle without deprivation.

We didn’t need to be sold on the topic of early retirement, so reading about MMM’s lifestyle was more about learning from him, then questioning the lifestyle. We learned some good lessons from him. Thanks, MMM!

In MMM, we had someone leading the way to early retirement. Soon, we encountered other FIRE bloggers and, as we learned more and more about the intricacies of early retirement, we finished drafting our FIRE plan.

Final thoughts

I live life with no regrets because every failure brings some valuable lessons in the process. When things don’t pan out in life, it’s okay to change course. It’s even okay to change your mind on things as new information comes in. I was lucky to learn from my failures and even luckier to have found the idea of early retirement early enough in life to be able to take advantage of it.

Early retirement was a concept totally unfamiliar to us just five years ago and it’s now within two years of becoming a reality. And we’re making it a reality because we rejected the idea of a lifestyle in which you base happiness on consumption. Instead, we spend only on what makes us truly happy, and that keeps our expenses low and our happiness level at a maximum.

The happiness journey was not clear for me when I decided to change my life. There were days of rain, days of sunshine, many days of fog, but I kept driving, stopping for breaks and never turned back. I never gave up on my happiness. And early retirement will bring us happiness in ways that we can’t even begin to imagine. The freedom that it promises it’s just around the corner.

So, this was just a really long way of saying: Screw being average! It’s way better to be on top! 

Are you on the path to early retirement? What made you realize that you can retire early?


After dedicating 13 years of his career to Vanguard, José retired from the corporate world at the young age of 44. During his tenure at Vanguard, he expertly coordinated the production of both electronic and print educational materials for 401(k) participants. Now, he relishes in his early retirement, cherishing time spent with his family, indulging in his favorite hobbies, seeking out new experiences, and savoring meals in the comfort of his own backyard.

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6 years ago

So happy you guys are on your way! And what an inspiring story about how to turn your life around. Also, I applaud you for giving your wife the credit she deserves…

6 years ago

Thank you!!! Yes, there has never been an I on this team. She’s my MVP and deserves the credit. We wouldn’t have gotten this far without the support of each other. Vivo enamorado de mi mujer. 🙂

Tim Kim @ Tub of Cash
6 years ago

Thanks for sharing! “Put it on the plastic and pay it later.” This is seriously a big one. At least around here. I just don’t get that mentality. How are people ok with spending money that they don’t yet have? It’s beyond comprehension for me. Very reckless.

6 years ago

Hi Tim,
And the spending levels have gotten back to the 2008 levels so we know that consumers are getting in trouble with borrowing. It’s happening all over again. People are feeling comfortable and are borrowing more than they can handle but the party never last forever. Thanks for dropping by.

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