Reader Case Study: Foresters, Bus Drivers and Farmers in the Upper Peninsula

Sam and her husband John both work as full-time foresters for the federal government and part-time school bus drivers for their local school district. They live in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on an off-grid hobby farm with their dog, dairy goats, laying hens and Tibetan yaks. Sam’s family lives nearby and they’re very happy with their location and lifestyle. The only problem? Their jobs. Both Sam and John would like to disentangle themselves from their full-time government jobs in favor of self-employment and more time on their farm. But can they make the numbers work? We’re off to Michigan today to offer our advice!

What’s a Reader Case Study?

Case Studies address financial and life dilemmas that readers of Frugalwoods send in requesting advice. Then, we (that’d be me and YOU, dear reader) read through their situation and provide advice, encouragement, insight and feedback in the comments section.

For an example, check out the last case study. Case Studies are updated by participants (at the end of the post) several months after the Case is featured. Visit this page for links to all updated Case Studies.

The Goal Of Reader Case Studies

Reader Case Studies intend to highlight a diverse range of financial situations, ages, ethnicities, locations, goals, careers, incomes, family compositions and more!

The Case Study series began in 2016 and, to date, there’ve been 74 Case Studies. I’ve featured folks with annual incomes ranging from $17k to $200k+ and net worths ranging from -$300k to $2.9M+.

I’ve featured single, married, partnered, divorced, child-filled and child-free households. I’ve featured gay, straight, queer, bisexual and polyamorous people. I’ve featured women, non-binary folks and men. I’ve featured transgender and cisgender people. I’ve had cat people and dog people. I’ve featured folks from the US, Australia, Canada, England, South Africa, Spain, Finland, Germany and France. I’ve featured people with PhDs and people with high school diplomas. I’ve featured people in their early 20’s and people in their late 60’s. I’ve featured folks who live on farms and folks who live in New York City.

The goal is diversity and only YOU can help me achieve that by emailing me your story! If you haven’t seen your circumstances reflected in a Case Study, I encourage you to apply to be a Case Study participant by emailing mrs@frugalwoods.com.

Reader Case Study Guidelines

I probably don’t need to say the following because you folks are the kindest, most polite commenters on the internet, but please note that Frugalwoods is a judgement-free zone where we endeavor to help one another, not condemn.

There’s no room for rudeness here. The goal is to create a supportive environment where we all acknowledge we’re human, we’re flawed, but we choose to be here together, workshopping our money and our lives with positive, proactive suggestions and ideas.

A disclaimer that I am not a trained financial professional and I encourage people not to make serious financial decisions based solely on what one person on the internet advises. 

I encourage everyone to do their own research to determine the best course of action for their finances. I am not a financial advisor and I am not your financial advisor.

With that I’ll let Sam, today’s Case Study subject, take it from here!

Sam’s Story

Hi Mrs. Frugalwoods! I’m Sam, I’m 39, and my husband John is 41. We are child-free and dedicated to staying that way. We live in my dream location, kiddy-corner to my great-grandparents’ original homestead in a super-rural location. Our only “close” neighbors (on the same road) are my parents and one of my mom’s retired cousins – but I consider anyone within about a 3-mile radius a neighbor! 

Sam & John’s Careers

Where Sam & John work

We are both employed by the federal government as foresters and we share an office, which means we can also share our commute.

As a side hustle, a few years ago we both got endorsements for driving the school bus as subs for our local school district and John often drives sports teams to their away games. This side hustle gives us a little extra cash, a meagre investment into a personal healthcare fund (2% of very little money), and access to a 457 Plan. I also jokingly consider it a type of community service! I invest the maximum the online system allows me to contribute – something like 70% of my bus wages get direct deposited into the pre-tax 457 account so my actual take-home bus paychecks are often $10 or less. 

While we are so incredibly blessed to have our steady government jobs, both of us feel disappointed with the bureaucracy, the inefficiency, and the inflexibility of the system we are bound by. There are aspects of the job we love – time spent in the woods every day, some favorite contractors that almost feel like friends… that’s about it though. We aren’t working with a cohort of people that share many of our interests and so we don’t really feel like we fit in with this crowd very well.

John’s Side Business

John especially struggles with keeping a positive attitude and has been toying with the idea of leaving government service to start his own independent woods business, which would likely be logging or selling firewood. He’s trying to figure out what option would be the best fit. He bought an old “iron mule” forwarder that’s used to bring pieces of trees from the stump to the roadside. He took out a loan from his TSP (Thrift Savings Plan – basically a government-sponsored 401k/roth 401k plan for those who don’t know) a couple of years ago to purchase the iron mule and has spent a lot of his free time since then getting familiar with the ins and outs of what it will take to succeed in that endeavor. He’s made some money from it already but found that he will likely need a second piece of equipment to set him up to be completely independent and (fingers-crossed…) productive enough that he thinks he could succeed –not making the salary we make now, but at least bringing home a satisfactory amount of income to support his fair share of our household expenses. He will not pull the plug on his government career until any loans he takes out to get started in his potential new career are paid off, so he can start with no business debt.   

Sam’s Exit Plan

Sam & John’s property

I am planning to stick with my government job at least until I reach age 45 – an arbitrary number I chose several years ago.  When my performance evaluation comes up this year, I plan to approach my supervisor about whether there is any potential that I could transition my position to either a part-time or a permanent seasonal gig. I don’t really see him being supportive of that, so it’s highly unlikely to pan out, but I would LOVE to be able to keep my very respectable benefits package and continue contributing to my gov retirement plan with a 5% match. Any change, should he happen to be willing to support me in this, would be a long time coming and I suspect I might be close to age 45 by the time it ever pans out!

If that doesn’t happen – I am considering, upon reaching age 45, quitting the feds to drive the school bus as a permanent driver, which would provide some health benefits, continued access to the 457 plan, and give me so much more free time to pursue other interests.  Just imagine – mid-days at home, summers off, 2 weeks off in December and 1 in the spring, several school holidays…  It would be a DRASTIC cut in pay and a serious reduction in benefits, but some days I think the energy-sapping, soul-sucking nature of our current jobs might warrant a drastic change. I do think if/when John does quit, I will see a decrease in my work-related stress – I won’t be hearing his half of the complaints and frustrations we have about our very similar jobs! Our griping back and forth feeds the negativity like a hungry beast. 

Investing for the Future

John and I are focused on contributing as much as we can afford into our TSP accounts while we still have good earning power, with the thought that we may need to draw from them to supplement future income. Knowing that we are growing ever closer to the day we might pull the plug on the government career path, in the past year we’ve each opened Roth IRA accounts, and I also opened a brokerage account through Vanguard, because (I think?) those funds, along with the Roth TSP accounts, will have money that is somewhat accessible to us if we need it, compared to the traditional TSP investment accounts. I am considering taking a couple mini-retirements in the next few years, maybe a month at a time if I can talk my supervisor into it, to see if the lifestyle I am envisioning for myself is one that would actually bring me more satisfaction. I think I could work it out to take off from my regular job and see if I can even handle considerably more time spent driving a busload of kids! Will I really utilize my extra time in a meaningful way? Will I feel more energized?

Sam & John’s Property

We bought our current property in 2015 as vacant land. We spent 3 summers of weekends building the infrastructure needed to move ourselves, our stuff, and our critter family here. We were amazingly blessed to have a family residence just up the road where we were able to live rent-free during this time, before my parents retired there – this, plus starting out with a yurt as a cheap second story on the house, allowed us to move in debt-free. After we moved in and spent 2 years in the yurt, we were able to take it down, add a “real” second story to the house (the first building project we hired a building contractor to help with) – and sell the yurt for almost what we paid for it. While our major infrastructure expenses have dropped since those initial few years, we continue investing in it: fencing, a shed to store John’s equipment, an addition to that shed to give the yaks some cover in a corner of their pasture…  I am starting to suspect these are costs that will never end! 

Sam & John’s Hobbies and Animal Packs

As to our lifestyle – John and I are just a pair of humans on planet earth with no kids and a small hobby farm. We love being outdoors. It’s always been a dream of mine to have a pack of dogs – or really, many animals of all kinds! When John and I met in 2008, I had 3 dogs and he had 1; we just said goodbye to our old dog a couple weeks ago at age 16; it feels to me like I’m saying goodbye to him and to our lives as young newlyweds at the same time. While John hasn’t been quite willing to sustain that number as we lose dogs to old age, he has agreed to let me start scouting for a new addition to the pack. For nearly a decade now he’s also been willing to join me in raising a micro-herd of dairy goats, and a flock of laying hens. 

Feral apples on their land

Plus, we just recently brought home some larger ruminants in the form of Tibetan yaks! I think they will thrive in our northern climate. Most summers we raise either pigs or meat chickens for the freezer. As a rule, we don’t consume meat if we don’t know/support the way it was produced, so this gives us a reliable source for the small amount we do consume. We have used the pigs to help us improve our pasture and supplement the soil nutrition with their manure – brown gold, LOL! Same with the meat chickens – we rotate both throughout the growing season with portable fencing to target the areas of our pasture most in need of their attention. We just acquired the yaks this fall because our primary pasture has come so far since we started this rotation that we think we can support an increase in the number of ruminant animals. Plus, we like the novelty of it. We’ll see how it goes.    

When we raise animals for meat, we grow enough for ourselves and several friends, and get together to harvest them as a group in the fall – I’d love to be able to cover more of our own expenses (mainly feed) by increasing the number of animals we produce with each batch to spread the cost over a larger group of people, but with our current jobs it’s just too big of a workload to manage at butchering time. 

In addition to our critters, I have a lovely, messy vegetable garden and happily spend much of my free time in the spring and summer with my hands in the dirt, coaxing food from the ground. We have planted mini-orchards across our property, with apples and plums, and are planning a final large apple planting in the coming spring, with up to 20 or 30 new trees – we installed protective fencing this fall in preparation. I have planted wine grapes and perennials like asparagus, blueberries, blackberries, and cranberries, with pockets of wildflowers in the mix to help support our pollinators. I crave more time and energy to spend growing plants, supplying more of our food and enriching the ecosystem through our management practices. 

Additional hobbies, when we can find time for them: In the warm seasons we love to canoe and one big trip we did a few years ago was canoeing a portion of the “Voyageur’s highway” along the Minnesota/Canada border, paddling and portaging 210 miles over 9 days. We had planned to take a month to paddle a portion of the Churchill River in Saskatchewan in 2020, but we all know how that ended up…  I’m hopeful we will put that trip back into the schedule. 

I also LOVE to read, it’s basically an addiction for me – I give my kindle unlimited subscription a healthy workout! 

Living that Off-grid Farm Life

Last year for my birthday I was gifted the AMAZING treasure that is my great-grandmother’s old treadle sewing machine (Did I mention we built off-grid, with a tiny PV system to power DC lights and a fridge/freezer? I haven’t been able to use my electric sewing machine since we moved into our house!). This past winter when the days were short and we spent more time inside, I had an amazing time kindling a love affair with this sewing machine and pieced together a couple of quilts and some dresses, along with my regular little knitting projects and recently I started up some embroidery projects as well. 

I often don’t have the energy for it at the end of the work-day, but I enjoy working in the kitchen in my free time – in springtime when the goats freshen and everyone gets out on the tender green grass, there is a time of amazing abundance – milk and eggs for days! I especially love making chevre seasoned with my own fresh herbs (YUM!). In addition to caring for my animal critters I keep cultures of sourdough, kefir, and kombucha thriving in the kitchen. I’d love to make hard cheeses (We consume a TON of cheese in our household) but it is a much more time-consuming process than chevre and it’s just not feasible for me right now. In the early spring we do a little maple-sugaring – there’s a ton of potential to expand this if we had more time, but for now it’s small-hobby scale. 

The Vehicle Fleet and the Future SAUNA!!!

One egg, three yolks!

In the last few years we’ve replaced both of our vehicles. We have a car for most of our trips – daily commute/running to town for groceries/road trips/etc, and a little Toyota pick-up truck for hauling loads or towing. My parents bought our old, full-size truck, and if we need to haul something big, they let us borrow it, we finally upgraded to a reliable tandem-axle trailer (with working trailer lights. And reflectors! New tires and no rust! What even is this luxury?!) for hauling lumber/tractor/bulk animal feed;  we replaced our tractor with one that John swears will last us the rest of our lives, and poured a slab for a wood-fired sauna in the local tradition. 

The sauna will be one of next year’s building projects along with yet ANOTHER shed to house the second machine John plans to acquire in pursuit of becoming an independent businessman (and to give him room to do maintenance out of the weather). We bought most of the supplies for the shed this fall and need to pour a foundation for it in the spring. When we built our home, we chose not to install (read: didn’t want to take out a loan for) a well and septic system, instead choosing to build a privy, and collect rainwater from various roofs across the property for all our water needs, using a cistern buried uphill from our house to gravity-feed water to our kitchen and bathroom faucets. We put in a simple greywater system to handle this wastewater, and for bathing we have an outdoor shower behind the outhouse (rarely used), and we sauna at my folks’ house twice a week whether we need it or not. Our house is perfectly sized for the two of us, but we can’t really accommodate visitors. When John’s parents come visit they often park their camper in the driveway, or stay at a hotel 15 miles away. I’d love to have a better option for sleeping quarters so we can have out-of-town friends come stay! Maybe another yurt is in order…?   

What feels most pressing right now? What brings you to submit a Case Study?

1) With some big employment decisions looming, I need to know if we can actually afford to stop working our reliable full-time jobs. Is it stupid to give up lifetime health coverage at reasonably affordable rates, which we’d be eligible for if we stay with the feds ‘til traditional retirement age? 

2) Additionally, my parents are nearly 70 and it’s likely a lot of their future care will fall on my shoulders – my brother lives 300 miles away. They don’t have long-term care insurance. They don’t yet have a will or estate plan. John and I might consider moving to their place in the future as it’s better-designed for aging-in-place compared to our current home. It also has enough room that I think the basement could be converted into living quarters for an in-home nurse if we could find an affordable way to provide that kind of care for them (and/or ourselves someday) if needed. 

3) There are some acreages adjacent to our property that we’d love to buy –the highest ranking being 40 acres of vacant land that could provide us with timber assets, firewood, and recreation opportunities – its more rugged than our home place and just a really neat property we’d love to pursue if it becomes available. There’s an 80-acre parcel on the opposite end of our property with a little cabin that we’d love to acquire as guest lodging and additional pastureland, but the owner isn’t willing to negotiate down to a price we’d be willing to pay – and it’s not really something we NEED, just a place I covet! The original family homestead next door is likely coming on the market soon as my relatives who own it age, and I think there might be an opportunity to partner with a cousin to parcel out some of the acreage John and I would love to manage, while out-of-town family could keep the house for a summer home. Then, there’s my parents’ place, which doesn’t require any immediate decisions, but I think needs to be a consideration…

What’s the best part of your current lifestyle/routine?

Having my parents able-bodied and right next door allows us to fulfill the dream of raising a variety of animals while also having some flexibility to travel, since my mom can milk and do other chores as needed. We have also fostered a great chore-sharing relationship with another neighbor that allows us a ton of flexibility in the shoulder seasons. I love living in this incredibly rural area – we have thousands of acres of public land accessible from our driveway where we can explore – and right now we literally get PAID to spend our days in this amazing landscape. I love rambling around the woods with my dogs, I love milking my goats, I love the garden harvest and putting food by, making (and drinking) hard apple cider, visiting with friends and family….  We live an incredible life here. 

What’s the worst part of your current lifestyle/routine?

While we are getting paid to work in a place we love, there’s an aspect of government employment that’s incredibly draining and so frustrating. When I get home at the end of the workday, I don’t have the mental energy I need to fully engage with my other interests. I just want someone to get the chores done, feed me dinner, and let me numb my brain with a trashy novel until bed-time! At the end of the week, neither John nor I feel fulfilled by these jobs, though granted we do find little moments of wonder and joy every now and then.

Sam & John’s Finances

Income

Item Amount Notes
John’s net income – federal salary $2,200 Gross pay minus: soc sec, fed tax, state tax, medicare, health insurance (140/mo),TSP(1080/mo), HSA (215/mo) , Roth IRA (100/mo) , retirement (towards “pension”, 215/mo)
Sam’s net income – Federal salary $1,900 Gross pay minus: soc sec, fed tax, state tax, medicare, health insurance (140/mo), TSP (1080/mo), HSA (215/mo), Roth IRA (325/mo), retirement  (towards “pension”, 215/mo) *My goal is to contribute the IRS max allowable contributions to the TSP each year, but I juggle it throughout the year to make sure we are covering our expenses.  We always contribute more than enough to qualify for the full employer match.
John’s side hustle income – bus driving $50 This is very irregular income.  Avg net value after state/fed taxes, medicare/soc sec, and 457 contribution
Sam’s side hustle income – bus driving $15 This is very irregular income.  Avg net value after state/fed taxes, medicare/soc sec and 457 contribution (70% goes right into 457 account)
Monthly subtotal: $4,165
Annual total: $49,980

Mortgage: None

  • We paid cash for the land and have been installing infrastructure as we can afford it. We moved in late 2017.  

Debts: None

Assets

Item Amount Notes Interest/type of securities held/Stock ticker Name of bank/brokerage Expense Ratio
Sam’s Traditional TSP $183,500 Federal retirement plan, includes a 1% automatic employer match and up to an an additional 4% match into the traditional fund.  We’re both fully vested in the match funds 50%G fund, 30% C fund, 20% S fund TSP
John’s Traditional TSP $163,000 Federal retirement plan, includes a 1% automatic employer match AND up to an an additional 4% match into the traditional fund regardless of which account we are investing in.  We’re both fully vested in the match funds 50%G fund, 30% C fund, 20% S fund Thrift Saving Plan (TSP)
Sam’s Roth TSP $63,000 Federal retirement plan 50%G fund, 30% C fund, 20% S fund TSP
John’s Roth TSP $57,000 Federal retirement plan. We were invested 50%c/50% s until just a few months ago when we moved a big chunk of this into the G fund – John was very uncomfortable with the potential to lose a huge chunk of what these accounts gained in the last few years and talked me into converting 50% into Gov securities in the g fund 50%G fund, 30% C fund, 20% S fund TSP
Sam’s HSA Investment account $25,000 Set up to automatically invest any $ in the savings account above a balance of $5k Devenir
John’s HSA investment account $20,000 This is an estimate – John can’t figure out his log-in to see his account!  We’re working on it… Devenir
Joint Savings (emergency fund) $18,500 Usually kept at 20k, this is the priority to keep full before the “project” account is grown 0.10% Credit union n/a
Sam’s federal “pension” (defined contribution) $17,300 This is the amount Sam’s contributed.  I assume it could be rolled over somehow, but I haven’t found info on what the rules of this are. Generally these contributions can be applied to an annuity based on years of service and High-3 salary. With 10 years of service, may be accessed starting at age 57 (with “penalties” for each year before age 65).

This 10-year requirement is a factor in our considerations for if/when to leave fed service, but I’m not sure how big a factor it should be… Sam will hit 10 years in late 2024, John a year later at age 45.

n/a FERS (Federal employees retirement system) n/a
Sam’s pension from previous employer (defined contribution) $15,000 This is the value of the account that could be refunded (includes my contributions and interest, minus 20% mandatory fed taxes – I think there would be additional tax penalties for withdrawal before age 59.5, and some state tax as well?).

I am fully vested in this plan and qualify for a small pension that could be available starting at age 55, based on years of service and high-5 salary. The estimated value ranges from about $130/month at age 55 to $350/month at age 66 – with options for a survivor benefits election

n/a MSRS n/a
John’s pension from previous employer (defined contribution) $14,000 This is the value of John’s contributions that could be refunded/rolled over. He is fully vested in this plan and qualifies for a small annuity that could be available starting at age 55, based on years of service and high-5 salary.

The annual statement says the estimated value ranges from about $160/month starting at age 55 to $460/month at age 66 – with options for a survivor benefits election

n/a MSRS/GERP
John’s federal “pension” $12,345 This is the amount John’s contributed. I assume it could be rolled over somehow, but I haven’t found info on what the rules of this are.  Generally these contributions can be applied to an annuity based on years of service and High-3 salary.

With 10 years of service, may be accessed starting at age 57 (with “penalties” for each year before age 65).  This 10-year requirement is a factor in our considerations for if/when to leave fed service, but I’m not sure how big a factor it should be… Sam will hit 10 years in late 2024, John a year later at age 45.

n/a FERS (Federal employees retirement system)
John’s Healthcare Savings Plan (HCSP) $8,000 This is a holdover from a previous employer.  As long as he is enrolled in an HDHP/HSA he can only use the $ towards vision/dental expenses. This money cannot be transferred or rolled over into any other accounts. Should we spend down the LEXFSA account next year and quit enrolling while we spend this account down…? n/a MSRS
John’s HSA savings account $5,000 This is an estimate – John can’t figure out his log-in to see his account!  I know it’s set up for the $75/month pass-through and the max IRS contribution HSA Bank
Sam’s HSA Savings account $5,000 $75/month pass through from insurance premiums, plus my contributions which I max out through an automatic payroll deduction HSA Bank
Sam’s Roth IRA $5,000 just opened this past year. VTI (Vanguard total stock market ETF) Vanguard 0.03%
Sam’s health care saving plan (HCSP) $4,000 This is a holdover from a previous employer.  As long as I’m enrolled in an HDHP/HSA I can only use the $ for vision/dental expenses.  This money cannot be transferred or rolled over into any other accounts. Vanguard funds:                 17% total intl stock index, 63% total stock mkt index, 10%  balanced index,         10% total bond market index MSRS Looks like all have admin fees of 0.65% annually, plus a 0.02%-0.07 “gross fund expense”
Sam’s 457 $1,900 Retirement account through the public school employees retirement system.  If we switched to being regular drivers, we would also qualify for an employer match  in a separate 401k plan, but we are not vested in any of that money as subs.  This value includes an automatic 2% contribution into a “personal healthcare fund” out of my bus driver pay 50% State Street S&P 500, 50% Artisan Mid-cap growth VOYA I can’t find this on the website, but from Jan 1 through Nov 18 of this year,  $31 in admin fees were distributed from the account
Joint Checking $1,400 Our expenses are paid out of this account 0.05% Our local Credit union n/a
Sam’s brokerage account $1,300 just opened this past year VTI (Vanguard total stock market ETF) Vanguard 0.03%
John’s Roth IRA $1,200 just opened this past year VTI (Vanguard total stock market ETF) Vanguard 0.03%
“Project” Savings account $600 this is where we try to save up in advance of bigger expenses – replacing vehicles, funding building projects, covering large regular expenses such as insurance, property taxes, etc. I’m still learning to balance this and we often pull from the “emergency fund” balance to cover the difference, but I am getting better every year. 0.10% Credit Union n/a
Sam’s LEXFSA $500 I am able to carry over this balance each year (up to $500) as long as I re-enroll. Used for any dental or vision costs for either me or John over what is covered by my health plan, rather than paying out of our HSA balance. FSAFeds n/a
John’s 457 $500 Retirement account through the public school employees retirement system. If we switched to being regular drivers, we would also qualify for a 50% employer match of the first 2% contributions in a separate 401k plan, but we are not vested in that as subs VOYA
Total: $623,045

Vehicles

Vehicle make, model, year Valued at Mileage Paid off?
Toyota Tacoma 2006

Bought used a few years ago with a brand new warranty frame; has little-to-no rust. It’s mainly used for pulling the trailer and/or hauling any loads the car won’t handle, and commuting when the snow is too deep to get out to the main road in 2wd.

$10,000 100,000 Yes
Pontiac Vibe 2009

Used fir the majority of our driving miles each year.

$5,500 95,000 Yes
Misc canoes/kayaks (4 total) $3,500 n/a Yes
Honda Rebel 250 Motorcycle 

This really should be sold, just one of those things we seem to never get around to. It’s fun to ride and a nice spare vehicle in the summer, but has only been ridden 100 miles cumulative in the last couple years.

$1,000 10,000 Yes
Total: $20,000

Expenses

Item Amount Notes
Groceries $632 This includes everything we eat and drink, except for on big shared trips which I include with travel. This doesn’t include the cost of meat – that would mainly be covered in the farm costs for animal acquisition and feed. We patronize our small local grocery store for main weekly stocking, and every 3-6 months we stock up at bigger chains if we make a run to a bigger town. Some items we buy in bulk online (flour, olive oil, nuts and dried fruit).
Vehicles $585 Includes pretty much everything we spend to keep vehicles on the road – insurance, registration, maintenance, parts, and fuel. This covers the car, truck, motorcycle, and trailer registration. We’re insured through Auto-Owners, brokered by our local insurance agent. Vehicle insurance alone is $170/month
Farm Infrastructure $515 I split these out from the general farm expenses. Included here are larger  infrastructure-type costs we’ve had in the last 4 years: replacing the tractor (John swears this one will last the rest of our lives…), a new trailer, building a machine-shed, installing an additional cistern, grain storage bin, bigger fencing projects. These costs should drop eventually, right?
Farm $455 Includes hay/animal feed, misc vet expenses, animal purchases and stud fees, fence repair, perennial plants and pasture seed, general maintenance of access roads/cistern/tractor/etc. Some costs are offset when we share animal harvest with friends – they pay their share of the costs, but I don’t have consistent data on how much that’s actually been, somehow it’s all on scraps of paper scattered around the house (In 2020 it was at least $100/mo paid back for our pigs).  Partway through 2021 I did finally start a ledger to track the money flow by livestock type. But it’s a work in progress!
Household Infrastructure $262 Includes bigger purchases we’ve made in the last several years, such as a propane back-up heater, adding a small entryway to the house, upgraded batteries for our photovoltaic electrical system, a DC chest freezer, pouring a slab for the future sauna, and installing a concrete floor in the kitchen. The old batteries still have plenty of life in them and we bought a little charge controller and panel and moved the old batteries into the barn so we can have lights and a fan in my milk room.
Misc $225 A lot of this is Amazon purchases that I neglected to log-in to determine what category they fall into and didn’t know off the top of my head when I was updating my spreadsheet (Which I sometimes get to 3 months after the fact).
Dogs $214 Includes vet bills, rx/supplements for joint health and arthritis relief and food.  Includes orthopedic surgery from 2018 that was pretty expensive but necessary for our then 6-year-old dog, and this past year we were up to $75-100/month for prescription pain relievers and seasonal allergy shots for the geriatric dog before he passed, so ::fingers crossed!:: this should be a smaller cost going forward – at least for a few more years until our 9-year-old starts having age-related issues.

Does anyone have opinions on pet insurance if we adopt a young dog? I looked into it a little bit in the past and it seemed like a racket if it didn’t include the basic vet check-ups, but then we adopted an accident prone dog, and started paying for expensive prescriptions for the old dog…  Prior to that we rarely if ever had vet bills that were more than the annual check-ups so I was a little shocked by the mix of those 2 expenses!

Hobbies and recreation $175 Frankly I was shocked at how high this is! We don’t really do…well….anything that costs all that much money in our free time –  I think an outrageous portion of this is BOOKS! This includes a Kindle unlimited subscription for $10/month. I sometimes buy hard copies of reference books on farm/home type topics, and I buy digital copies of books by my favorite authors that aren’t available in my subscription, and which I often read and re-read.

Last month I found out we have a small community library and I just got access to our regional online book system, so I should prioritize the free resources before buying any more books that aren’t going to stick with me permanently and provide useful reference.

I don’t think I can give up Kindle unlimited though – I read hundreds of books each year through that thing. Limiting my reading to books available through that subscription and getting everything else from the library is totally reasonable to me though, and I will prioritize that. Also includes yarn/sewing supplies, video downloads, xc skis, maple-tapping supplies, wine/cider brewing supplies, and tattoos.

Household $150 Includes cleaning supplies, propane fills, canning supplies, waste disposal, a shared phone (now $18/mo with Ting, thanks to Frugalwoods’ recommendation), replacement bedding, kitchen supplies, etc
Property Taxes $130 Self explanatory. If we buy additional property this will obviously go up accordingly.
Homeowners insurance $100 We just signed up for this last year with Michigan Farm Bureau, mainly for the liability aspect. Provides some coverage for “agricultural exposure” in addition to insuring the buildings and whatnot. Our local broker that we go through for auto insurance wouldn’t get us a policy due to this exposure. MFB quoted me auto insurance as well but couldn’t come close to our rates with auto-owners so we have 2 different insurance providers.
Life Insurance $93 Sam has a small life insurance policy through Thrivent ($3/mo). Should be close to covering any funeral expenses. We also each have a pretty big group life insurance policy through work, paid as an automatic deduction from our paychecks but not accounted for in the income block above. Our thought when we enrolled was that if either of us dies, the other would be able to afford to at least semi-retire and maintain current lifestyle on the proceeds of that policy plus the retirement accounts of the deceased. We don’t plan to maintain this much coverage after we leave federal service. Looking for suggestions of what type (if any) of life insurance we should look into – and should we change now?  or wait?
Gifts $72 Christmas and bday gifts for 5 nieces/nephews, parents, 1 sibling, and occasional wedding and grad gifts.
Medical $67 This is mostly for elective carpal tunnel surgery John had in 2020, and then some misc vision/dental expenses above the coverage of our insurance and flex spending account allocations. We choose to pay out-of-pocket, then save receipts to be reimbursed out of the HSA in the future.
Travel $66 Airfare, campsites, airbnb, maps, includes food and gas for big shared trips we take together
Clothes $50 Non-work clothes. Lately: hiking skirts, wool socks, wool undergarments, shoes/boots/sandals, and t-shirts.
Long term care insurance $45 Automatic deduction from our paychecks, not accounted for in net income. Both of us signed up for FLTCIP (Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program) coverage when we started. It’s really basic coverage, something like $100/day for 2 years max, and we can take it with us when we leave this employer.
work $32 Misc supplies – pants (we both hate the uniform pants offered by our employer, and since we have to wear them 5 days a week we are willing to pay for comfortable well-fit pants out-of-pocket), professional assoc. memberships, and covering the cost of  boots above our boot allowance. In our climate we each need the option of wearing leather summer boots, rubber boots, insulated rubber boots, winter pac boots…
Flex Spending Account $32 Automatic pre-tax deduction from Sam’s paycheck not accounted for in net income. This is variable each year depending on my annual election. I try to guess what dental or vision expenses we might need to cover
Donations $20 Long-term I’d like this to go up, committing to charitable giving that supports our beliefs and best case helps out our local community. Right now we give to a small handful of non-profits for supporting our favorite hiking trail, rare livestock breeds, and some veteran support programs.
Monthly subtotal: $3,920
Annual total: $47,040

Credit Cards: None

  • Last year I applied for one of the cash back cards recommended by Frugalwoods and was denied (affiliate link). I think perhaps my credit history is too old? We haven’t had a mortgage, credit card, or any loans from a bank since around 2012.
  • Should I apply for a regular credit card and try to develop a new history to qualify for one of these cash back cards?

Where Sam and John Want to be in 10 Years:

1)    Finances: 

  • We’d like to have our annual expenses below $40k, and be covering most if not all those expenses through part-time or seasonal work (Sam) and self-employment and/or part time work (John). 
  • We’d like to have enough money saved up that we can cover any deficits without having to touch the principal from the investments we are making now. 

Putting food by: Sam & John’s winter storage

2)    Lifestyle: 

  • I want to be providing a much larger portion of our household needs from my own personal inputs – not from spending money. 
  • I want to grow more, healthier forage to feed our livestock who in turn feed us.
  • I want to grow more food in my garden. 
  • I want to spend more time hiking the woods with my dogs!
  • I want to maintain the relationships I have with my family and friends. My nearest friend lives an hour away, and most are more than double that distance, so I want to continue to be in a position where I can meet up with them each at least annually if not more often – these are my chosen people, who energize me, make me laugh, and feed my vision for a better version of myself. They are worth the drive! Ideally, I’ll have a comfortable place for them to stay so they can come visit me as well. 

3)    Career:

  • I don’t want to be employed full-time and John should no longer be working for the federal government. My best-case scenario is I am a permanent-seasonal or part-time employee at the same location I work now – this will keep me working in the field (“field” both as in literally working outdoors, which I love, and in a forestry profession), with less job-related stress and more time/energy for my other lifestyle goals, while keeping a large portion of my employee benefits – including providing good health insurance for both myself and John.
  • Second best for me: I am driving a school bus to meet my fair portion of our financial needs, with some health and retirement benefits included for myself, and I have the time and energy to invest in my love for the outdoors, along with my other lifestyle goals. 
  • John will ideally be self-employed, running a business he can operate in the black. While it will require him to invest an incredible amount of time and effort, I think he will be so much more fulfilled at the end of the day. This man was not built to be a government wonk! A secondary option is that he drives the school bus part-time, with some health insurance and retirement benefits for himself. There is decent potential he could have a sort of blended option where he drives the bus and operates his business either seasonally when school is out, or part-time – that might be a great starting point for him to get his feet wet in the world of self-employment and would give him health coverage if I leave federal service. 

Sam & John’s Questions for You:

1) Regarding our finances:

  • Can we actually afford to stop working full time and reasonably have enough money to focus on the best parts of our current lifestyle? 
  • What key items am I forgetting to include in these grand schemes?
  • Does anyone have suggestions for great online courses targeting aspiring small-business owners/entrepreneurs? I have 1 requirement for John before he pulls the plug on his federal job – he needs to know the basics of managing the books for a small business – or hire someone who does! This is not something either of us has any experience with. 

An American Marten

2) Regarding my parents:

  • Should I approach them about putting their house and property into a trust for me and my brother while they are still young, able-bodied, and mentally healthy?
  • Should I look into straight-up buying them out so they can’t be forced to sell off the home as an asset if/when they need care above what their funds (or my brother and I) can provide? 
  • I am hopeful this need is a long time in the future, but nursing care is hard to access in this rural area. What are some options to be aware of that might help me find or provide quality care for them as they age – especially if I can keep them in their home? What are the considerations if they need to move to a nursing facility?

3) Regarding real estate:

  • How do we prioritize which (if any) nearby properties we should consider purchasing? 
  • The rental market in this area is basically non-existent, so investing in any of the residential options strictly as a rental property for income wouldn’t be feasible – however I do like the idea that I could help aid my mom and dad’s future care by offering housing to a care provider who could maybe also provide care to others in our aging, rural community to help offset costs? Is that at all realistic? 

4) How many dogs is TOO MANY dogs?  (LOL!)

Liz Frugalwoods’ Recommendations

I love the lifestyle Sam and John have carved out for themselves! Woods! Animals! Farm stuff! Very much up my alley and I adore how clear they are on how they like to spend their time. Their story is a great illustration of identifying your priorities and then making your money support those goals. Let’s dive into Sam’s questions!

Sam’s Question #1: Can we afford to stop working full time and still have enough money to focus on the best parts of our current lifestyle? 

I’m going to answer Sam’s question with a few follow-up questions:

1. How much money would they make driving the school bus full-time (or more regularly than now)?

We’d need to know what this dollar amount would be in order to determine its feasibility.

2. What’s the projected income from John’s logging/firewood business?

This goes to Sam’s very wise requirement that John develop a business plan. He needs to identify who his customers are, how much he anticipates bringing in, what overhead and expenses will be, and whether or not this business model is still viable when diesel is really, really expensive (as it is right now).

Without the answers to these two variables, it’s tough to say if they’ll be able to cover their expenses. However, I do have a few other ideas for Sam and John to toss around:

Don’t Quit Together; Also Reduce Expenses

First off, under no circumstances should Sam and John both quit their jobs at the same time. If they can ensure that Sam’s salary will cover their expenses, John could quit to focus on building up his business while Sam continues to work to support them both. In that event, they’d need to explore how to reduce their spending. 

Current monthly spending: $3,920

Income without John’s salary:

Item Amount Notes
Sam’s net income – Federal salary $1,900 Gross pay minus: soc sec, fed tax, state tax, medicare, health insurance (140/mo), TSP (1080/mo), HSA (215/mo), Roth IRA (325/mo), retirement  (towards “pension”, 215/mo) *My goal is to contribute the IRS max allowable contributions to the TSP each year, but I juggle it throughout the year to make sure we are covering our expenses.  We always contribute more than enough to qualify for the full employer match.
John’s side hustle income – bus driving $50 This is very irregular income.  Avg net value after state/fed taxes, medicare/soc sec, and 457 contribution
Sam’s side hustle income – bus driving $15 This is very irregular income.  Avg net value after state/fed taxes, medicare/soc sec and 457 contribution (70% goes right into 457 account)
Monthly subtotal: $1,965

This means Sam and John would need to essentially cut their monthly expenses in half, which I don’t think is possible given a number of their fixed expenses. Their groceries and vehicles costs alone total $1,217 and that’s before getting to feed for the animals and other farm-related costs. Given that, I’m not sure it’s actually possible for John to quit his job unless they’re able to radically alter their top line budget items of groceries, vehicles, farm infrastructure and farm supplies.

Without drastically altering their vehicle or farm spending, they wouldn’t be able to cover their expenses on Sam’s salary alone. However, we haven’t yet addressed their pre-tax deductions, so I want to turn my attention to their assets now. 

Sam & John’s Assets By Class

Here’s the breakdown of where Sam and John have their money:

  • Retirement: $533,745
  • Healthcare-related accounts: $67,500
  • Cash: $20,500
  • Investment Account: $1,300

Sam’s July garden

What this asset breakdown illustrates is that Sam and John have done a fantastic job over the years of contributing pre-tax money (out of their paychecks) to tax-advantaged health and retirement accounts, which means they’re in great shape on both of those fronts. Let’s do a quick check-in with our favorite oversimplified (but helpful) retirement rule of thumb, courtesy of Fidelity:

Aim to save at least 1x your salary by 30, 3x by 40, 6x by 50, 8x by 60, and 10x by 67 (source: Fidelity).

Sam and John are both roughly 40, so we’ll go with 3x net salary, which would be ($49,980 x 3) = $149,940. This means they are in superb shape with $533k in retirement! 

The challenge we’re now running into now is that all of these (excellent) pre-tax contributions come at the detriment of their cash-on-hand. This wouldn’t be a problem at all if they both planned to continue their work for the federal government, but it does make John’s transition to self-employment a bit more difficult. Their $20,500 in cash is an absolutely perfect emergency fund–it’s about five months worth of their expenses, which is precisely what most experts recommend (the standard is anywhere from three to six months worth of your expenses). However, that amount doesn’t give them a whole lot of cushion for John to quit his job. But there are things we can do to help!

Ways to increase their cash on hand:

  1. Reduce any expenses that are reduce-able 
  2. Work more hours as bus drivers
  3. Decrease pre-tax contributions to retirement and health savings accounts

I don’t think I’ve ever suggested anyone consider #3 before, but Sam and John have done such a great job of contributing to retirement and HSAs over the years that they’re slightly out of balance in terms of their cash on hand (again, assuming John quits his job). If they were to both stay in these jobs for the duration, I probably wouldn’t change a thing. I also don’t suggest Sam cease (or reduce) her pre-tax contributions forever, but, it could be a way for them to float their expenses while John ramps up his business.

Sam’s current pre-tax monthly contributions:

  • TSP: $1,080
  • Roth IRA: $325
  • HSA: $215
  • Retirement (towards pension): $215

TOTAL: $1,835

Sam also pays for $140 for health insurance, which I assume will double once she is also paying for John’s coverage? They’ll want to figure out that dollar amount before John leaves his job.

If Sam pauses some of her pre-tax contributions, I recommend she continue contributing enough to qualify for her employer’s match as that’s free money.

Transitioning to Self-Employment for John

First morels in spring!

1) Set A Net Profit Timeline for John’s Business

I recommend that  they set a timeline for when his business will need to start generating a net profit (minus his expenses, of course). I don’t know what timeline is reasonable, but if they decide on, say, one year, then at that point they’d assess his income and determine if the business will be viable for the longterm. If it’s not viable at that point? He will need to find another job that mirrors his current salary.

2) Learn While You Earn

If at all possible, the most financially stable way for John to develop his business would be while he’s still working full-time. I know it’s not ideal to do research on nights and weekends, but it would allow them to shore up their cash reserves in advance of him quitting.

3) Don’t Borrow $$ From Your Retirement Fund Again

Sam noted that John borrowed from his TSP in order to purchase equipment for his business and, in the future, you want to avoid doing this if at all possible. Retirement accounts are not designed to advantage early access of the funds, which is another reason why I suggest Sam and John slow their roll with putting so much money into these accounts. In an ideal world, you want to build up a large enough cash reserve to pay cash for the capital expenditures for John’s business.

4) Are Government Grants/Subsidized Loans Available?

Another avenue for John to explore is the availability of government grants or subsidized loans for small, agricultural businesses. I don’t know about Michigan, but I know these are super prevalent in Vermont. John and Sam are already experts at navigating government bureaucracy and paperwork, so I suggest they research this in earnest.

Another Idea: What about Private Forestry?

Maine Scenery

Have Sam and John considering going into private forestry? Or consulting for a timber company? Or similar? From their write-up, it sounds like they both enjoy the “being in the woods” aspect of their jobs, just not the “government paperwork” aspect. In light of that, I’d be curious to hear if they’ve looked into other forestry (or forestry-adjacent) positions outside of the government?
Might there be an opportunity to consult part-time or only during certain seasons? This could enable them to leverage their education and experience in exchange for more free time throughout the year.

Sam’s Question #2: What about my parents?

From Sam’s line of questioning regarding her aging parents, it sounds like she hasn’t discussed a lot of this with them. I know it’s challenging to broach financial and health issues with family, but I think Sam needs to get a better sense of what her parents are envisioning for their future. At the very least, Sam should ask them to work with a lawyer to draw up a will and estate plan. That is the first step and I strongly, strongly, strongly encourage everyone to do this and to HIRE A LAWYER!!! It will be money well spent. In my opinion, your final will and testament is not the time to DIY in order to try and save $$$.

For guidance on how to have this conversation, I recommend Sam check out the book, Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk: How to Have Essential Conversations with Your Parents About Their Finances by Cameron Huddleston (affiliate link).

Sam’s Question $3: How do we prioritize which (if any) nearby properties we should consider purchasing?

A local waterfall

Sam, my friend, you are a gal after my own heart. I 100% understand the urge to BUY ALL THE FOREST!!!! Some people want to buy shoes and handbags, we woods-dwellers want to BUY THE TREES AND SAVE THEM ALL!!!!! I too am constantly looking at properties for sale, despite the fact that I already own 66 acres and do not need more, but… THE TREEEEEEEESSSS!!! At any rate, non-rural people usually do not understand this urge, but I do, on a deep level.

Feelings aside, Sam and John don’t have the cash for this right now. Particularly not if John quits his job.

John and Sam will need to focus on one major financial change at a time: either John transitioning to self-employment OR real estate purchasing.

Once John is established in his new career and is cash flowing the business, Sam and John can consider saving up enough cash to put a downpayment on more land. The mention of a mortgage brings me to another topic:

Sam and John’s Credit Score and the Need for a Credit Card

Ironically, because Sam and John have done such a stellar job staying out of debt, it sounds like they don’t have a very good credit score. This is one of those totally dumb financial things. A credit score essentially indicates how good you are at carrying debt. Creditors want to know if you can repay debt on time and the only way for them to know that is for you to have debt. My husband and I ran into this issue when we were applying for our first mortgage because we’d never had any debt.

I think it’s weird and ironic that the better you are at not having debt, the lower your credit score is likely to be. This could be an issue for Sam and John if they intend to get a mortgage for future real estate purchases and/or if they need to secure loans for John’s business. I am extrapolating this about their credit score based on the facts that:

  1. They don’t have a mortgage (and never did)
  2. Sam said their application for a cash back credit card was declined

Salamander

I didn’t ask to see their credit score, but I’m assuming it’s low. 

Sam asked:

The answer is YES! Do it today. John is very likely to need a business credit card and so they should get started with building up their credit score ASAP boss. Having a credit card open for many years and PAYING THE BALANCE IN FULL every single month is an easy way to build up your credit. You do NOT need to keep a balance on your card for this purpose; you should pay it off in full every month, but should aim to keep the card open for many years. This behavior demonstrates to creditors (ie mortgage brokers, banks) that you are able to responsibly manage debt, which is what they want to know before they extend you a loan or mortgage.

What Kind Of Credit Card To Get?

I normally recommend folks get a cash back or travel rewards card; however, you must have a good credit history in order to qualify for those. But fear not! There are several categories of credit cards designed for people with bad/no/poor credit. The two options most relevant for Sam and John are:

  1. Credit-Building Cards
  2. Secured Credit Cards

If at all possible, you want to go with a credit-building card as those operate more like a regular credit card. However, if your credit history is too minimal (or your credit score too bad), you may need to start out with a secured credit card.

According to Forbes:

A secured credit card requires you to make a cash deposit to the credit card issuer to open your account. With a secured credit card, the amount you deposit, or use to “secure” the account will be equivalent to the line of credit you receive. In other words, a $500 deposit will get you a card with a $500 line of credit.

A secured card is not ideal because it ties up some of your cash, but it is a great way to start with credit building. My husband reminded me that his first credit card was a secured card and that after about a year of successfully using and paying off that card, he was able to open up a regular credit card. Essentially, you can use these types of of credit cards to stair-step your way up to better credit and better credit cards that offer you rewards (such as cash back or travel points). Sam and John, if you need to start with a secured card, that’s no problem at all–go ahead and do that and then apply for better cards after you have a proven track record of paying that card off.

Here are some specific cards Sam and John can consider:

1) Credit Building. Start here and see if you qualify for either of these:

  • Petal® 2 “Cash Back, No Fees” Visa® Credit Card:
    • I like this one because it doesn’t have an annual fee
    • Plus, you can earn 1% cash back on eligible purchases right away and up to 1.5% cash back on eligible purchases after making 12 on-time monthly payments (although after a year with this card, Sam and John should be able to apply for a better cash back card)
  • Petal® 1 “No Annual Fee” Visa® Credit Card:
    • This one also has no annual fee but doesn’t offer the opportunity for cash back.
    • It is, though, supposedly available for people with worse credit, so if they don’t qualify for the Petal 2 card, they very well might qualify for the Petal 1.

2) If you don’t qualify for a credit-building card–don’t worry–you can try for a hybrid Secured/Building Card:

  • Self – Credit Builder Account + Secured Visa® Credit Card:
    • This is a combined credit builder account and secured card
    • No credit check. No credit history required.
    • If you make at least 3 monthly payments on time, have $100 or more in savings progress in your account, and are in good standing, you’ll automatically be eligible for the Self Visa® Credit Card, without a credit check.
    • Your savings progress from your Credit Builder Account acts as your refundable security deposit.

3) If you don’t qualify for that card, move onto Secured Cards:

  • Applied Bank Secured Visa® Gold Preferred® Card:
    • This is not ideal because it has an annual fee of $48, but, that’ll be $48 well spent to improve your credit history if this is the only card you qualify for.
  • Secured Sable ONE Credit Card:
    • This one looks pretty good as there’s no annual fee and you can get a dollar-for-dollar match on all cash back at the end of your first year. Additionally, it says that they can auto-review you to an unsecured card in a little as four months
    • You can also earn 2% cash back on everyday purchases at Amazon, Uber, Uber Eats, Whole Foods, Netflix, Spotify, and more! Plus, 1% cash back on all other purchases.
    • Up to $10,000 credit limit
  • Prosper® Card:
    • This one has an annual fee of $39, but it’s waived for the first year if you sign up for AutoPay before your first statement

Credit Utilization

Once Sam and John have a credit card, they should use it every month and pay it off every month. Additionally, they should keep in mind their credit utilization rate, or debt-to-limit ratio. Every credit card has a “spending limit” attached to it, which is the maximum amount you’re allowed to charge on that card per billing cycle. To improve your credit score, you don’t want to spend all the way up to that limit.

According to NerdWallet:

Many credit experts say you should keep your credit utilization ratio — the percentage of your total credit that you use — below 30% to maintain a good or excellent credit score. Credit utilization is a major factor in your credit score, so it pays to keep an eye on it. View the 30% rule as a good guideline, but be aware that using even less is better for your score.

Once Sam and John have a track record of responsible credit card usage, they should be able to get a higher spending limit as well as a better credit card (as in, one that offer rewards such as cash back).

NOTE: all of the credit card links are affiliate links.

Sam’s Question #4: How many dogs is TOO MANY dogs? 

There are never enough dogs!!!!!

Summary:

  1. John needs to create a business plan to determine the viability of quitting his job. If at all possible, he should “learn while he earns” and not quit his job until the business is ready to go.
  2. Sam should look into reducing her pre-tax contributions to retirement and HSAs while they’re in this phase of building up cash to both cover their expenses and fund John’s start-up costs for the business.
  3. Explore the availability of government grants or subsidized loans for small agricultural businesses in Michigan. There may well be a wealth of programs available for John’s business.
  4. Do not borrow from a retirement account again.
  5. Explore private forestry or part-time consulting (if they haven’t already) and consider if this might deliver the work/life balance they’re looking for.
  6. Read the book, Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk: How to Have Essential Conversations with Your Parents About Their Finances by Cameron Huddleston (affiliate link), and schedule a time to have a serious conversation with Sam’s parents about their plans for the future.
  7. Apply for a credit card today to start building up their credit score. Pay it off every month (be sure to use it!) and be mindful of their debt-to-limit spending ratio.
  8. Hold off on real estate purchases until John’s business is successfully earning an income and they’ve saved up enough cash for a downpayment and created a credit history that enables them to qualify for a mortgage.

Ok Frugalwoods nation, what advice do you have for Sam? We’ll both reply to comments, so please feel free to ask questions!

Would you like your own case study to appear here on Frugalwoods? Email me (mrs@frugalwoods.com) your brief story and we’ll talk.

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79 Responses

  1. Gov Worker says:

    Great job! I love seeing federal workers consider early retirement. One thing I wish Liz would have mentioned is how much money you leave on the table if you leave before your Minimum Retirement Age (MRA). I did a study on my blog where I showed that I I left just 1 day early, I lose over a million dollars in federal retirement benefits. I recently negotiated working part time as a federal employee. You might have more leverage than you think. Good luck!

    • Becky Hurt-Stadler says:

      OK so I did some quick research on the government grant/small farm funding idea I am a great researcher former instructors will tell you smile. Just before retirement a year and a half ago I did a lot of research on the possibility of going off grid. Instead I live in the downtown of a small small city in a home rented to me by my best friend. I have a chicken wire fence and am planting a butterfly garden and veggie garden. I am 68 and recovering from some sort of injury in my lower back. Despite this setback I still walked my dog every day 2-3 miles every day. I adjusted my diet and lost weight. But back to your needs I reading on a website called reehugger.com. if you type in treehugger small farm funding it will bring up all kinds of information you will find most Iinormative and useful. Btw I am an ex-nurse and paralegal. I use a push reel mower to mow my small yard. And continued to use it even while injured. As far as ageing goes yes you do slow up some but usually that is due to needing to adjust lifestyle habits. For a while the dog and I walked using my rollator or rolling walker with brakes. Then I progressed to a cane and now I no longer need either. I slowed down for a while and focused on rehabilitating myself. And from someone who has been an independent contractor a business plan is a stellar idea. It will help keep you focused on your goals. I love love love reading about off-grid lifestyles. Keep moving forward. Best regards Becky

  2. Claire says:

    I’m not sure what your minimum retirement age is for the federal government, but have you looked into postponed retirement which would let you retire early but restart federal health benefits once you hit 65ish?
    I also wonder if some counseling might help make it manageable in the short term – I know there’s a huge shortage of therapy times right now, but I’ve found short-term therapy to be really helpful for developing coping skills for stressful/non-idea situations that has ultimately made the situation overall more bearable. I don’t think it’ll solve not liking your job, but maybe it would help with the stress?

    • Sam says:

      There is an option for deferred retirement, which is what we would pursue with the federal pension, but the health benefits do not come along in that scenario – we’d need to be working and receiving the benefits immediately prior to retiring to be able to take them with us.

      • Anne says:

        In that case, would it be best to take one immediate retirement (after the 10 years), defer the other, and wait to take the 2 pensions from former jobs until your mid-60s? This could get you the health insurance and a little guaranteed income while close to maximising your pensions at full retirement age.

  3. FellowFed says:

    They both need to get out of the G Fund it is worthless. And over half their retirement money is sitting in it earning next to zero return rate. They need to do this before banking on their retirement funds growing enough through investment to draw down their contributions.

  4. Donna says:

    1) As someone who is 60 and child-free, just realize everything gets a lot harder and more complicated logistically as you age. It’s great to have a long life, but it’s a balance to keep everything going in your later decades when you are not so able to rise to physical and financial challenges.
    2) Amassing a pack of animals, especially large animals, might seem dream-worthy, but each animal deserves good vet care, and veterinary visits are extremely expensive. Go easy on the animal accumulation because the financial commitment can cost more than educating kids in college. And it looks like your income is on the meager side already. Sometimes it’s a fact of life to work a job you’re not 100 percent thrilled with.

    • Dawn Harris says:

      Aside from the government jobs and no children, your life sounds very much like ours. We have 2 children, chickens, bees, one dog and 4 cats (and we foster kittens), big garden, fruit trees, etc. and live on about $10k less than your stated income on 30 acres in a very rural area. Others can speak with more authority about investments, etc. but little things matter, too. Pennies make dollars, as they say. We shop exclusively at thrift stores and trade/barter with others (unless we can’t find a needed item – usually for our kids – and then I scour the internet for the best price for said item.) We are probably the best customers at out little local library. I read a lot of obscure stuff and can only think of 2 occasions when something I wanted to read was not available through inter-library loan. We believe in YouTube university with a passion. My husband is very handy and can build/fix almost anything but he constantly researches and learns new things that save us money. All of these are little things that can make life styles like ours possible with little money. You may be doing them but I didn’t see it mentioned. Sorry if I missed it. Can you monetize things you are doing already? Raising meat is great for yourselves and for barter but can you sell eggs, produce, etc? If you do want to get into raising more animals, I would highly recommend beekeeping. They require little work or expense on a daily basis (more seasonal things to be done) but can provide some supplemental income in terms of honey and, in time, through the sale of bees themselves. Have you considered renting some of your property to campers? Since you no longer have your yurt, this might be a way to generate a little seasonal income with little investment (if you’re willing to have strangers on your property.) Also, maybe looking ahead, would you consider a WOOFer to help you with developing/caring for your farm in exchange for living space? Just throwing ideas out there and maybe none of them would suit you. But, this kind of no-limits brainstorming has helped us come up with some pretty creative solutions in the past that have allowed us to live here mortgage-free and for me to home educate our children. I think you are so wise to live in a place that makes you happy and figure out the money side to make it happen. So many people live in a place they hate and spend all of their money trying to escape in one way or another. I wish you both well on your journey and will be interested to see what others suggest.

      • Nora S. says:

        Yes, I second Dawn here. This reminds me of the “Afford Anything” idea from Paula Pant: you can afford anything, but you can’t afford everything.

    • Laura A. says:

      I have to echo Donna here. I’m in my late 50s, and had an unexpected health issue last year. I’m fortunate to live in Canada and have the government-provided financial supports that I do, but it was still alarming and could have turned out much worse. As it was, I still returned to work when not fully well for financial reasons. I think we expect our bodies to carry on as normal forever, but the truth is, “normal” changes as you age. Your ability to do manual labour likely will diminish, so I suggest having contingency plans in place in case of accident, illness, etc.

      Also, as lovely as it is having your farm filled with animals, every animal you add is an additional expense. Just like buying land, I’d hold off on acquiring more until you achieve reasonable financial security and know what your new expenses look like.

      Best of luck to you – it sounds like a wonderful dream that you’re well on your way to turning into reality!

    • Sam says:

      I appreciate the input of someone who is ahead of me on the child-free journey! I have a group of child-free friends and we often talk about what our futures will look like as far as a support network.

  5. Birdie says:

    If you’re looking for stable rescue dogs, check out Julie Hart in New Mexico. I’m a dog trainer (previously featured in a case study!) and I absolutely trust her to match people with good dogs. She has a lot of good resources on temperament testing. https://rescuedogsresponsibly.uscreen.io/

  6. Mindie says:

    Thanks for sharing your story Sam and John. You mentioned your small local library for ebooks. Larger library systems have more ebooks to borrow. You may be able to get card online from a bigger city library in Michigan or it would be worth stopping in to get a card and have access when you are near a large city library. Here in Ohio, you can get a card anywhere in the state. Many libraries also have free references on their sites like LinkedIn learning for business classes. Good luck with your farm!

    • Sam says:

      Thank you! Our little library is part of a bigger regional group so there are 5 larger cooperative systems I am able to access. The more I am using it the more I love it!

  7. Annie says:

    I’m familiar with the Upper Peninsula and your property and lifestyle sound wonderful! One thing you should think about is that you prepare yourselves for a time when you are not physically capable of doing things like hauling logs out of the woods or taking care of a yak. I’m not saying stop those activities now but don’t rely on income that depends on super keen physical ability into your old age. And whatever you do make sure you have health insurance to protect you in case of accident.
    I don’t know about where you are but where I am bus drivers get paid less than waitresses. I would be really really cautious about giving up a government job right now. That’s just me… If you’re totally miserable it’s a different story I realize. But I am familiar with the U.P. and it’s not exactly rich in job opportunities. I agree that trying to use your knowledge to earn money makes a lot of sense as a side gig if you can do it. Do you have the qualifications to be doing some teaching, like picking up summer courses as an adjunct at Marquette or Michigan Tech? If they teach courses and stuff you already know. Especially if you can get good Internet you have a lot more options. Those are just my thoughts. Good luck!

  8. Jenni says:

    This diary sang to my happy little hippie heart.

  9. Sam says:

    This is so great, to have an outsider’s perspective! Thankyou! As far as “1. How much money would they make driving the school bus full-time (or more regularly than now)?”, I estimate that gross income would be in the range of $13-15k annually for 1 regular driver, or between $1080 and $1250 per month.

    • Maria says:

      You guys rock, I think you are really living the dream, I have worked 33 years at Mcgill university, for 26 years, only 20 hours a week. It’s been a dream, I have 5 days off , and work Saturday/Sunday. I make a small salary, but I have 4 months off every summer, priceless. ( I could never do full time, too soul crushing) I wish you guys the very best!

  10. AJ says:

    A place to start learning about running a business is your nearest (there may not be a local one in your rural area) community development financial institution or CDFI. They provide loans to entrepreneurs and small businesses, which may not be appropriate for you, but they also provide “technical assistance”. This can be done either directly or through referrals to community colleges or other institutions, and can include help developing a business plan and financial projections as well as learning how to use small business accounting software. This is sometimes free and sometimes at a much lower cost than elsewhere. Start at https://ofn.org/cdfi-locator to find the CDFI nearest you.

    • Rose says:

      Thank you! Yes, look for a ceding near you and also investigate your nearest SCORE or sdbc (probably at the nearest large state university ) and utilize their expertise to do market research and write a business plan.

  11. kat says:

    Well that crushes my idea of a forestry job being something I would love, who knew being out in the woods could be so stressful?

    • Sam says:

      Kat, it’s not the being in the woods part, that is amazing! It’s the federal-government-bureaucracy part that is eating my soul. I have worked in state and county forestry and they are a little better – just not geographically feasible for me at this location! I am going to look into part-time consulting more – I had thought about it in the past but it sort of fell off the plate. Consulting in summer and bus-driving the rest of the year would be an interesting option.

  12. Anne says:

    I would definitely stick it out the 2 more years to get your government pension eligibility. The monthly annuity is going to be worth so much more than the cash out. Look up the terms and details, but if you are able to take a sabbatical (leave without pay) you may be able to do it for up to 6 months in a year and still have your time count toward your pension. Once you run the numbers on what your various pensions and social security will look like, you could very well discover that you are already coast fire and can permanently stop the retirement contributions and have flexibility to earn just what you will spend.

    One aspect of increasing your credit score that is not well known is that if you are added as a supplemental card holder for someone else’s existing account, your credit history will reflect their whole account history. So if one of your family members for example has great credit and a long term account, you can be added (they don’t even need to issue a card for you) and your credit score suddenly reflects you having a card with 20 years of on-time payments, a high limit and Low balance. Only do this with someone you trust, but it can bring your credit up FAST.

    Definitely speak to your parents about their wishes/plans for when they need care. It is never to early to look up what subsidized options are available in your state. And if your parents do need government assistance for long term care through Medicaid, there is a clawback provision where the government can take any property or money given away a certain number of years before they get Medicaid. They/you will need to speak to a lawyer or maybe also a financial advisor to figure out how to structure it so the house is passed along legally in a way that avoids it being taken for repayment. It could look like a trust, it could look like a gift with a legal stipulation that they can live their throughout their lives. As a bonus, this research will help you be ahead of the game and know how to get your own plans in place, which is especially necessary since you don’t have kids. Good luck with all of your fun plans!

  13. A says:

    Hello from a fellow Pontiac Vibe driving, knitting, avid reader. 😊 You might want to look into getting a Care Credit card. That was my first card (obtained during a very expensive visit to the emergency vet) and I think they very rarely decline anyone. You can use it for pet or human medical expenses, and as long as you pay it off in full within six months or something there’s no interest. Obviously paying credit off fully each month is a better bet, but it was a lifesaver when I had a huge unexpected vet bill when I was younger, and it might help to build your credit if your vets accept it. Best of luck!

  14. Heidi Latsko Hill says:

    My only suggestion is to build private offices that are physically separated to alleviate the stress of working together. Sounds like your husband is driving you crazy. We all hate certain aspects of our jobs and he sounds quite vocal about it. You are right that feelings are contagious and I don’t always think that spouses should work together. Put those construction skills to work and build yourself a she-shed!

  15. Sam says:

    If I reduce my tax-advantaged contributions, should I divert that money into the brokerage account? And have John open a business account and do the same thing for now?

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      I think it’s going to depend on when John wants to quit and how much you project his business will earn. At this point, your income alone won’t cover your expenses, so you’d need to keep that $$ in a checking/savings account to pay your monthly expenses. You wouldn’t want to put it into a brokerage account because then it’s not as easily accessible. The brokerage account is only for money you’re not going to touch for decades.

  16. Sam says:

    Should John and I each apply for credit cards? I am going to look into the petal 2 option first – fingers crossed!

  17. Tucker says:

    Sam it sounds like you have created a wonderful life for yourself! I also read lots and lots and wanted to share a suggestion that I use to keep my reading costs low. I have a library card and love it if I buy a book it’s from my amazing used bookstore maybe there’s one you could look at for reference texts? I also use NetGalley to review advanced copies of books. I get a free digital download I can read on my kindle. I review the book and post my reviews on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and goodreads.

  18. Gov Worker says:

    Hi! I know I already left a comment but JUST thought of this. I don’t know if I agree with Liz’s idea to stop contributing to traditional retirement accounts. Especially if John leaves first and has business losses in his first year of early retirement. In that case, he would be able to do a Roth conversion and pay very little taxes on this money. They could live off of Sam’s income for those 5 years and then have much more money available to them once Sam leaves. Depending on the specifics of their early retirement plans, a Roth conversion could be a great way to avoid paying taxes on a lot of the money they have already saved and it turns a negative (high amount of money in traditional retirement accounts) into a positive (can avoid paying taxes on the conversion if low income/business losses in the startup phase of the business).

    • Sam says:

      We’ve been stumbling along this route in our planning, except without any knowledge of how self-employment/start-up costs might play into it. Our general thought for the last several years has been to stay out of debt and cram as much money as possible into the TSP, then find a way to access those funds early, without touching the principle, in order to supplement the reduction in income once he/we leave the federal government!

      • Anne says:

        To give a little more info on the TSP, when you leave government you can convert it to IRAs if you want to. So rothTSP money becomes RothIRA money, which you should be able to start pulling from after a few years. Not sure if there is any benefit to converting the traditional TSP

  19. caryatis says:

    Honestly, it seems pretty unlikely that you’ll both be able to quit those government jobs soon. Your investments will not cover your spending level and there’s limited room for cutting spending given your current lifestyle full of animals, driving and farm expenses. Self-employment for John could really take off …or it could end up being a big money sink.

    One way I could see this going is him quitting and trying to build up the business, while Sam stays working. Having Sam be the breadwinner has another big benefit in that women who outearn their husbands tend to have more egalitarian marriages. I would never want a spouse who earned more than I do, personally.

    So…could you take that? How solid is your marriage? How long does Sam have before MRA? Is there anything you (Sam) can do to switch to a different federal job, different place in the organization, or perhaps as someone else suggested, find ways to mentally/emotionally decrease stress?

    • Sam says:

      I love this. I actually make a higher salary than John does right now, since I have more time-in-grade than he does. I just invest more of it before it hits our bank account! I will hit MRA in about …dun dun dunnnnn….17 years (ugh!).

      As mentioned in another comment (thanks Jean!) – I do think we need to work on focusing on the joyful aspects of our life, and better manage the negativity – If John leaves and I stay, and I can make it feel more meaningful and less draining, maybe I could hold out longer without it feeling so tortuous.

  20. steveark says:

    The thing that stood out to me is their goal of cutting expenses to $40K in ten years. I hope they realize that their current lifestyle of $47K may cost $70K in ten years due to inflation(assuming4%), so to reach $40K they’d need to cut current expenses to $27,000 of todays dollars. That’s a pretty serious cut. We just closed on 25 acres on the side of a mountain near Jasper, Arkansas. We plan to build a cabin there this year. Firmly on the grid in our case.

  21. Jean says:

    Hello from Europe, Sam! You’ve both done a wonderful job in amassing benefits for the future, and you clearly enjoy your land and many hobbies and interests. So that’s all good.

    But, sadly, you don’t sound too happy at the moment. Reading through your case study, I thought it was very interesting that your focus on how to fix this is primarily by looking at your financial situation. As someone who’s been 65 times round the sun ;), I hope it may be of some help if I suggest that solutions to many of your concerns may lie not so much in your finances, but in your relationships.

    First, you’ve already recognised that you and John have got into the habit of bringing one another down by talking about the negatives in your situation. It’s good that you have that self-awareness: it can be easy for two people to lapse into their own pity party, and I would urge you to work with John to break this unhappy cycle. You’ve mentioned in several places during your case study that you are blessed, and that’s certainly true. So hopefully you and John can come up with some mental strategies to focus together on those positives and stop reinforcing the negatives.

    As the mother of a grown family, I am also curious about your parents, Sam. It’s wonderful that they are currently active and in good health, and they are clearly a great help to you. But I wonder whether you lean on them a bit more than people your age might usually do, given your close proximity to them and relative isolation from others? For example, did they buy your large, old truck because they actually needed to have it – or did they perhaps do it to enable you to have the amenity of a large truck when you need it, but without the cost? Given your modest income in relation to your outgoings and animal responsibilities, it may be that they worry. That’s particularly the case if you’ve been talking to them about your desire to buy still more land, and borrowing to buy machinery. It may help your relationship with them for both sides to have an honest and candid heart to heart about these things.

    That talk might also make it easier for them to start to address the issue of wills and estate planning. That’s something they’ll need to decide for themselves, after taking their own legal advice, because there can sometimes be a bit of a conflict of interest between what is best for the parents and what would be optimum from the childrens’ point of view. In particular, putting property into trust for someone else is a huge step for older people to take and can have significant implications. You would not want them to feel pressured into anything. Where I live in Europe, you can’t normally put property into trust to avoid having to pay for your later-life care – it may be different in the US, but I’m guessing not, otherwise everyone would do it !

    There’s also your and John’s relationships with colleagues, and I’m sensing some difficult stuff around all of that. I get it that you’re both willing to drive for hours to see your chosen people that fully share your outlook and values. But most of us also maintain and enjoy a less intense friendship group, where we have the diverse company of people who maybe don’t share all the same values and interests, or who have a different take on life from ours. That often includes work colleagues, and the fact that you say you “don’t fit in with this crowd very well” makes me wonder whether you’ve given them a fair chance? I wonder, might it be the case that the down energy around your work that you and John seem to be generating at the moment could be making you seem a bit ‘stand-offish’ to your colleagues, and this is feeding into your feelings of not having much in common with them? It’s just a thought.

    Similarly, I’m not sure what your feelings really are about the bus driving. I don’t get the sense that either you or John really get much satisfaction from this activity. Although you say you ‘jokingly’ see it as community service, it’s really not. Unless there is nobody else in your area willing or able to take this job, then it’s simply something you do to get extra benefits. But again, perhaps with a different mindset it would be an activity that you could get some positive pleasure from.

    I wish you every success with your plans, whatever they turn out to be in the end!

    Jean

    • Stephanie says:

      Very insightful comment, Jean! I had also clocked the comment about Sam and John bringing each other down with negativity about work. And Sam, even if every bit of Jean’s reflection doesn’t resonate, it seems wise to take it in and see what emotional truths you might identify.

      • Sam says:

        Yes, very insightful indeed! I will ponder all of this, Jean, much of it does resonate with me. Thank you so much for such a well-though-out response.

        A large part of the bus driving really does feel a lot like volunteering – John and I are currently the only subs available for our school district, so if one of the regulars can’t drive for some reason – we are the only options to fill in. I think the weird hours/seasonality of the job, plus the legalization of recreational marijuana, really limits local interest – There is regular drug testing for the position. There is also recent policy here that makes it harder to even obtain a CDL initially, requiring formal classroom education in addition to passing the written and driving tests… I believe the situation is actually getting to be somewhat dire in many rural areas around the Midwest in the USA! And it’s not just bus drivers – some of the contractors I work with struggle to find commercial truck-drivers as well. I definitely feel appreciated by the school district 🙂

        • Jean says:

          Thanks for your response, Sam. It’s really helpful that you’ve clarified the bus driving situation, I can see now why you view this as partly a service to your community. Again, good luck to you both!

          Jean

    • Sally says:

      This is a very insightful post indeed, Jean. As a mother of grown children, I had some of the same thoughts.

    • Clancy says:

      Jean’s comment is one of the best that I’ve read in many years of reading these case studies. There is so much care and wisdom in her words. Thank you Jean.

  22. Stephanie says:

    I am also familiar with the Upper Peninsula. We inherited property at the base of the Keweenaw and go there every summer. It’s a special part of the country! I would second the advice that John explore a realistic plan for a logging business, either via a resource like CDFI as AJ mentioned above, or SCORE (a voluntary organization that advises entrepreneurs), or another online resource. We have noticed how often people with U.P. acreage employ foresters to assess their forests, mark trees, cut, etc. On a smaller scale, when we have needed help cutting down problematic trees that were too big for our limited chainsaw skills, we’ve usually had to wait for someone to have an opening. And then there are people who need appraisals of their property, another option or side hustle, perhaps? John would put a lot of miles on a vehicle (and Mrs. FW makes a good point about fuel prices, ugh), but you’re certainly in the land of many trees! All good wishes to you as you forge your own best life!

  23. Richard Jason says:

    Hi, I am familiar with the upper peninsula also. We lived in Marquette until 1999. The U.S. Sac bomber base closed in 1995 and the area never recovered. We finally had to leave since we could no longer make a living and support our family.
    Both of my daughters graduated from Northern Michigan University with a medical background but were unable to find jobs because the local hospital had a freeze on hiring. They ended up working for the Mayo clinic in Rochester MN. They both have very good jobs with room for advancement. I wish I could be more positive but if you are going to live in the upper peninsula it is an economically depressed area and you are going to have a hard time finding jobs that you can live on. I think you would be foolish to give up Federal government jobs with good pay and good benefits. For example,
    here in Rochester, the local school bus company is looking for drivers at $20.00 per hour plus a $3000.00 sign on bonus. I will bet the school bus driving jobs you are looking at pay close to minimum wage. Follow your dreams, but you are going to live a subsistence life style in the U.P.

  24. Leslie says:

    I want to see pictures of yaks, dogs and other animals!
    Congratulations on what you have done, and saved, so far. I envy you although I suspect winters might be too fierce for me.
    Only one suggestion: Could your husband get help with business plans through a university cooperative extension center? Our library also has business courses, but it is much bigger than yours.
    Good luck!

  25. james says:

    wow!!! Govt work has such great benefits. My parents are retired Civil servants and with SS they gross about 90k+
    A firewood business sounds good – but so many people are doing that in rural areas. Every time we camp there is someone with a honor system for campfires, and of course we order a 1/2 cord which is plenty for winter.

    I think you have a good thing now as it is!.. only don’t you both quit at the same time!

  26. Sadie says:

    I am not personally affiliated with Ramit Sethi, and his two virtual class offerings ($2,000 each), “Dream Job” and “Earnable”, helped my spouse and I play out building small businesses online and in person without a business background. The accountability of using his courses (and his wisdom to STAY in your stable income until you reach a marking point) kept my spouse and my sanity, while we built up a small side hustle / business. I echo what Mrs Frugalwoods recommends around, what can you offer to the private industry that will be more financially returning? Our biggest consultancy project (marketing in tech) thus far has been a $100 million dollar project, where we were paid $120,000 for 3 months work. I recommend Sethi to all our friends as even us, with tech backgrounds, didn’t know what we didn’t know about how to talk about ourselves and what we offer (and don’t have MBA credentials or other things like that to signal we can offer something to the private industry). His courses helped us build a GREAT website, feel confident when talking to business-y trained people, and to know what is acceptable and not acceptable to us in terms of what we charge. In the end, we stayed with our stable jobs because we realized building a small business is not small in effort. That being said, the side hustle / business money is our extra travel fund, so it all worked out 🙂 Sharing Sethi’s work as so many people recommended a MBA, and other virtual classes that we could not see the value in. After listening to Ramit’s podcast and reading his book, we knew it was the right match for us.

    The other thing that wasn’t responded to (yet!): we’ve used Trupanion since day 1 for pet insurance and it has been GREAT. We’re part of multiple animal rescue groups, and Trupanion and Healthy Paws seem to be the two that keep coming up. We’ve never had any issues with claims and have the highest deductible for emergencies only.

    Thank you for caring for our ability to breathe!

  27. Elizabeth Whitmore says:

    I would say that one of you should keep their government job. If John decides to think about quitting he needs to look into the costs for liability and disability insurance. It is probably crazy expensive due to high risk. I counselled many people who needed to work after 60 but couldn’t for various reasons. I worked for a hospital and retired at 55. I was doing mental health counseling and I was done emotionally. I could have switched jobs within the hospital if my pension and savings weren’t enough yet. Alternately I could have done the work to deal with my feelings. I have suggested to many that if they have a job that they don’t enjoy that the alternate is to add more to your life. Bus driving comes with its own stressors. Having disability insurance is very important as you never know and 1 low income won’t cut it. I became a widow at 45 and having the job I did and a pension resulted in no financial worries.

  28. Pat says:

    Don’t stay in the G funds for too long! Is is in short-term government securities…and returns less than 2%/year. With inflation high, realize that you’re losing purchasing power every month you’re there. As Liz mentioned, you are way ahead in savings, (which is awesome!) so some risk in the next 20 years is worth it. Stock prices typically rise along with inflation, so they’re a “better” inflation protection.

    That said, the only way that will work is if you can leave the money alone when it does go down. If you will feel any urge to “cut your losses”, then maybe leave it where it is…

  29. LongTime Frugal says:

    HDHP/HSA – you should be able to use this money on medical until you reach your out of pocket maximum (per year of course). I would check into rolling it to another HSA – I rolled HSA from a prior employer into an HSA at my local bank. And remember, no matter when the HSA account is opened, the first day you had an HDHP plan (not sure about breaks aka HDHP/non-HDHP), is your “start date”. To my knowledge, there is no must-reimburse-by date so IF you paid a medical/Rx from non-HSA, consider reimbursing yourself. Unlike an FSA, you don’t have to send in receipts – bookkeeping is on you in the event of an audit.

    Since COVID hit, most FSAs have allowed monies to be rolled over to the next year. Not sure this is going to go on forever. IF you truly cannot roll the HCSP, then I’d stop funding the LexFSA.

    I rolled my HSA from current employer to my local bank. Employer switched processors and I abhor the new one.

  30. BG says:

    What about becoming a consulting forester? I know here in Pennsylvania, and many other states, that property owners hire private foresters to assist them with their property management, preparing management plans and overseeing/coordinating logging of timber stands.

    It would involve a willingness to spend time away from home, but on the other hand, particularly as you get older, it would involve less hard labor, whilst using your skills. Your background as a federal forester must have given you knowledge of the various federal incentives available to landowners for habitat restoration and forest regeneration. This knowledge would be a real selling point to many private landowners who know nothing about such programs.

  31. Meira Bear says:

    Speaking of wills, shop around! My husband and I just did ours and the quotes I got ranged from $300 CAD to $1500 CAD. The cheapest for me was the chain of lawyers’ offices who work in Walmart, though mine was not physically in a Walmart. The whole process took about 90 minutes and that’s it.

  32. KnoxPatch says:

    Unlike others here, I’ve got no familiarity with the upper peninsula. Zilch. Nada. That said, I empathize with feeling different from the office crew. I worked in the southeast and was born and raised in the California Bay Area. It was daily culture shock. However, Jean (from Europe:) made a good point. Be open to those around you. I found a lot of truly cool people from the janitors to the execs, none of whom were anything like me.

    You’ve got skills and talents that many would consider unusual and compelling. Could your homesteading lifestyle be shared with others either on-line or through summer experiences or extension teaching?

    Also, I had to look up chèvre. Thought you’d giggle over that!

  33. Brendan Classon says:

    I wonder if 3 months leave without pay could be an option (for Sam or John)? That may provide a little breathing space to assess how the new circumstances might work before embarking on such a big change…?

  34. Kate says:

    Sam, I do just want to throw out that I work for a state agency — and I have no idea if my state agency is like your federal agency — but if it is I can understand why the bureaucracy could grind you down. My position is such that I mostly did my own thing until COVID came along and I now have a TON more interaction with administration in ways that have really sapped a lot of joy from my work (and I am not anti-government!)

    All to say – it might be a need for attitude shift but it also might be a genuinely difficult place for you to work and I want to validate that. I mentioned the MBSR class above and that has really helped me to discern between the two and how much I can tolerate, and why I do it.

  35. Vicki Lyon Prin says:

    My family has had a small business for over 20 years. The best recommendation we ever had was to find a good CPA who can set up your bookkeeping right from the beginning. We have used Quicken Pro for all of that time. Another hint, don’t put off the bookwork. Keep up with it and life will flow much easier.
    Come tax time we send him a backup of our books and he figures our taxes from that information. He is also on call if I run into any questions or problems. I’m sure he has saved us many headaches over the years.

  36. Monica says:

    I live in the UP too. My family moved here in 2019 and I know many people that, like us, have moved here recently to homestead. In response to some of the comments about the UP having depressed wages and lack of opportunity, I’d disagree, at least in the central UP area im familiar with.

    We are in Alger county, what county are you in?

    • Sam says:

      We actually used to live in Wetmore (!) but now we are in Ontonagon County – I do think it is economically depressed here. It’s still an incredible location though, with a lot of potential.

  37. Laura says:

    Two random thoughts – wealthy families love finding interesting tech-free vacation spots. How about exploring the idea of renting a yurt to couples/families and providing a hands-on farm experience? Let kids collect eggs, feed the chickens, etc. take families on guided hikes with your yaks, etc. If there is enough interest/demand, perhaps re-purchase the yurt. Second, the Caretaker Gazette is a great source to find a nurse or medical professional willing to provide care (when your folks need it) in exchange for living on your property. Good luck!

  38. Suzanne says:

    As someone who has been self-employed since I was 25, I totally understand having trouble working inside a system. Looking back, I’m a bit shocked at the financial risks that I took. I lived very frugally, invested like mad in my own business, and now in my mid-fifties am able to start to pivot toward less “work” work time and more garden time (started a flower farm in the city on multiple city lots) and art time (unpacked my oil and watercolor paints for the first time in over 7 years). Part of me wishes I still had many years left to focus on the flowers and the painting – if only I could have done that at age 40!

    But on the other hand, sacrificing time for my passions means I am now financially secure. And as others have said, it comes as a bit of a shock and surprise to discover that my body cannot do what it used to do. I’m still in good health, etc., but my energy is not the same. Plus my husband is 70, my mother is 89, and my nieces and nephews who live nearby are having children – any one of them could need my help, and my financial independence may prove invaluable by allowing me to devote time to them. I am so glad that when I was younger I planned for future me by working and saving. Thinking that you can work later in life to make up for focusing on passions instead when you are younger may not work out. It’s a bit like eating dessert first.

    Of course you can’t postpone all fun and joy – who knows how long you’ll live? It’s a balancing act. I applaud your fascinating life. Regarding number of dogs, I’d cap it at three. Mind you, I have more cats than that. And it’s amazing how the cost of cat litter and food add up for these not so big animals. But I’m also more willing than most modern pet owners to NOT pay for what I consider extraordinary medical costs for my beloved pets. So my pet expenses are more fixed; it sounds like you would pay for a lot of expensive treatment for your dogs, or if you didn’t, be buried by guilt. Knowing this about yourself means you should consider not exposing yourself to a lot of big vet bills by limiting your animal count (ironically, you are able to harvest pigs and chickens; though maybe I have misread you and you are able to put a limit on vet bills for the dogs? and put them down if paying for cancer treatment/ACL surgery/etc is not in your budget?)

    I’d encourage you to find a way for you, Sam, to stay employed until you vest or whatever it’s called with the government while getting your retirement funds invested so they stay ahead of the cost of inflation. And then keep working for a few more years to give yourself a cushion. But I’d recommend that your husband investigate the demand for his skills being self employed because I don’t think he can do the job thing anymore (and that’s hurting your ability to keep doing it). He needs to be flexible because opportunities he hasn’t considered will come up (for decades I loved to garden, but didn’t realize I could make a reasonable “second career” income from it). It’s a way for the two of you to play it safe AND take a chance on self-employment.

    Best wishes to you both!

  39. Kathryn says:

    Oh I’m glad Mrs Frugalwoods removed the snarky comments that first appeared when I read this yesterday. I only came on to say of course, the limit does not exist for how many dogs is too many dogs…

  40. JD says:

    I think there are never enough dogs, but having said that, I only have one, as much as I’d love a “pack.” Vet bills are very expensive, and I’ve not found an insurance, yet, that is worth it to me. I saw another commenter make some suggestions for insurance, and I’m going to check those out. However, my dog is also sensitive to grains and worse, allergic to chicken, which is nearly ubiquitous in dog food, so I buy her an expensive grain-free, chicken-free dog food. If you get a dog like my rescued girl, you will be feeding all of your dogs the expensive food, because they are definitely going to steal from each other and you can’t risk the allergic dog grabbing the wrong food.

    As someone who unexpectedly found my spouse needing long term care when we are only in our mid-sixties, I’d say talk with your parents now. And, as Jean gently pointed out, consider whether you are unconsciously counting on them a little bit. How would you manage if they weren’t here? Do they take care of your animals when you travel? If they do, what if they couldn’t? What would you do if they had to sell their house and land, and left you and your sibling nothing, due to long term care costs as they age? What if it wasn’t enough, and you had to help pay for their care? It happens more than you know. Long term care insurance at their age is very, very expensive, and some policies are not worth the cost. And before your talk, please read the book Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande. It’s in libraries around here so maybe it is near you, too. (EVERYBODY, read that book!)

    I consulted an attorney who specializes in elder affairs. My husband and I each established a will, a living will, a health surrogacy, a power of attorney, pre-need guardianship, and I set up a special trust so that my spouse will not actually inherit from me should I die first – his portion will go in trust and our kids will be trustees for him, since he is now in long term care and would be forced to hand all his inheritance over to the facility if his share had not been placed in trust. She was worth every penny, and I’m so grateful we did it before we needed it.

    • bjoelle says:

      I just lost my Dad a week ago after eight and a half years with Alzheimers. I’m glad you have Long Term Care insurance but I’m always weary of the actual coverage when push comes to shove.

      We saw a lawyer for mom and dad and tried to get them set up. Out of pocket costs were $6000 a month for him and mom had to live on something too.

      It’s worth the conversation since you are so close, find out their plan, their wishes and their resources. We were lucky, but is a huge financial (and emotional) strain on everyone.

      • JD says:

        bjoelle,

        I’m so sorry about your dad!

        My aunt had pretty good LTC insurance that kept her for about 4 years, but I know several people who got very little out of LTC insurance. By the time my spouse and I heard about it, it was way out of our price range. His current living expenses in an assisted living facility are over $4,000 a month, and as you say, I need something to live on too. Our kids are helping me pay for his costs, bless them, but I hate that they have to do that. He’s only in his sixties, so this may go on for a long time. Life can change quickly – a stroke, a wreck, cancer, heck, a tree falling on one – and it doesn’t just happen to the elderly.

    • Clancy says:

      I just finished Being Mortal by Atul Gawande based on the comment here by JD. I CANNOT recommend this book enough. It gave me new insight on aging and caring for our loved ones as they age. Please read this incredible book.

  41. Jen says:

    Yes, thank you Mrs Frugalwoods for removing those initial comments. They were a big bummer and I was glad to see the conversation taking a more positive turn! I always enjoy these case studies and getting to hear other perspectives. I would recommend The Side Hustle School podcast for inspiration if you are thinking of pursuing any type of business on the side. Lots of great advice there and given here already 🙂

  42. K says:

    As you have a checking account with a local credit union, they are often a good place to apply for a “starter” credit card.

    • Amy K says:

      Yes! I was going to recommend exactly that. Sam and John already have a good relationship with their credit union and I think they would be able to get a “regular” credit card rather than a secured card.

  43. Kathryn says:

    If you are counting on fed health insurance in retirement, you should check to make sure it would be available to you.

    Public entities generally provide health insurance in retirement only if you retire directly from the public entity with no break in service. If you leave, and don’t start your pension immediately upon separation, you may forfeit insurance in retirement. Check with OPM

  44. Christina says:

    For credit cards- your parent or a sibling might be willing to add you as an authorized user on one of their cards. You could benefit from having a card with more benefits and kind of piggy-back off their good credit, and then once you have a decent score, apply for your own. I know it can be dicey mixing family with money but if you have a written agreement that you’ll pay off your share of the bill each month and you will be a user on their card for a limited time, it can work out fine. I have added a few friends as authorized users on my cards over the years and it’s been fine- no negative affect on me, and it’s helped them establish credit.
    Seconding the recommendation to have your parents spend money on an elder planning lawyer. My family is in a similar situation to yours but with my grandparents in your parents’ position, with a small farm and lots of land. We eventually got them to go to a lawyer but we still don’t know what they have set up- they are very private about it but at least they have something set up. They’re so generous in small things but we have to respect their desire to keep this private, nothing else we can do.
    If possible it could be helpful to talk with the extended family/ your generation about what everyone wants to happen to the land and buildings in the future. Sometimes people are willing to give up a relatively modest inheritance to keep the land in the family/ keep it being used by someone for something productive like small-scale farming. Sadly this hasn’t been the case with my family’s land but I have seen it happen with friends. Long story short your idea of keeping the house as a place cousins etc could visit might be feasible. If your extended family can make a long-term plan for the land/ buildings now that could at least let you plan accordingly.
    Good luck!

  45. Rachael says:

    Were you considering Horse based Forest Logging as your niche? It’s a thing in France. It combines animals & trees.

  46. Meg says:

    Have you read up on CoastFi or SlowFi? You seem to be in a great position but it seems to be a situation of: you can afford anything but not everything. So you may have to really think about what is most important to you both? Is having a giant herd of animals the most important at the expense of having to work mor years?
    One of you can quit but not both. One of you can go part time and slow down the retirement contributions (kind of like CoastFi where you stop investing as you have enough for traditional retirement age it seems already) so that you have enough to live on. You can start allocating investments into the taxable brokerage so you have more money at a younger age to access should you stop working soon.
    I would also be aware that your elderly parents may not be able to take care of so many animals, including large yaks, as they continue to age. Traveling may become harder as you build your herd and your parents start to become unable to help so much.
    I would also suggest checking out the Fioneers website. It may resonate with you.

  47. Lindsey says:

    Hello from a (fellow part time) Yooper! Thank you for driving bus- it is truly, truly needed and appreciated.

    A thought: If your parents have a basement space that could be ideal for a caregiver, could they/you focus on completing that space soon-ish and use it to house a WOOFer, friends or AirBnB type guests until a caretaker is needed? Might be a fun way to build some more community and provide a space for visitors (of course, only if your parents are up for that). Another option might be to acquire a smallish RV to have as a guest “house” for visitors.

    Another thought: I don’t hear about it all that often when it comes to pet insurance, but we are self insuring. We put a small-ish amount away each month into a high(er) yield savings account. That becomes our budget for vet expenses or budget for acquiring a new dog/cat. Insurance is quite costly per animal and I just couldn’t stomach paying that each month knowing that we might not need it (previous few dogs/cats needed very little care), so we chose a dollar amount that worked for our budget and we sock it away each month. Depending on our financial situation each month, we either pay for a vet visit out of our checking account (leaving more in the vet fund) or tap into that vet fund. If an emergency comes up, we will utilize this fund first.

    A final thought: Have you considered substitute teaching? Same/similar schedule to a bus driver but WAY better pay… plus it’s generally easier to manage a class than a bus!

  48. SVF says:

    I would just like to second the idea of a yurt/s or rustic cabin/s – even renting spots for RVs/tent camping on your land. It’s so hard to book a spot up in the UP in demand seasons. In addition, offering nature hikes for tourists for fees with your abundant knowledge, even on your own land, are possible side hustles with or without the renting (I would sign up for at least and every other year visit!! I have many friends who would love the same!). I love the UP – live in Madison, WI – and many in this area would die for a chance to visit a loved piece of land with animals!! Yes, start that conversation with your parents asap, for everyone’s sake. I used to hike very easily but first one joint problem and then another – I still hike but with limitations which is completely normal with aging (I’m over 60). Good luck, working in bureaucracy or toxic environments is very difficult.

  49. Jason says:

    Has John considered getting a saw mill(like a portable woodmizer or similar)? The logs are valuable, if they are hardwood, but if can set aside some money to get a portable mill, and start sawing live edge boards, there is a real business opportunity to make good money with a small up front investment. There are plenty of woodworkers in the upper midwest who would love access to live edge slabs, as well as custom sawn boards for their projects. And its better than seeing valuable hardwoods burned!

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