Reader Case Study: Two Nurses, One Kid and One Cat on the Coast FIRE Path
Peter and his wife, Kim, both work as registered nurses in a medium-sized city in the Eastern United States. They became a family of three when they adopted their daughter, Rachel, in October 2020. Well, family of four including their cat, Pringles. Peter and Kim both enjoy their careers as nurses, but are at a point where they need to step back to part-time work in order to reduce burnout and fatigue and for the betterment of their mental health. The couple plans on pursuing Coast FIRE and would like our help analyzing their financial projections to ensure they’ll be able to both work part-time, care for their daughter, and enjoy a sustainable work/life balance.
Liz Frugalwoods popping in with a quick definition. According to Business Insider:
Reaching Coast FIRE [financial independence retire early] means you no longer have to save money to reach retirement. The difference between Coast FIRE and regular FIRE is that with regular FIRE, you no longer need income to retire. With Coast FIRE, you still need income to cover expenses, you just don’t need to worry about saving money for retirement.
And now back to our Case Study…
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 75 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 email@example.com.
Come Hear Me Talk on April 8th!
Brief note unrelated to today’s Case Study… I’m thrilled to share that I’ll be speaking on a panel on Friday, April 8th at the online Mamas Talk Money: The Legacy You Leave conference. I’m honored to be on this panel with:
- Sandy Smith, the renowned founder of the Elevate Community and YesIAmCheap.com (best website name ever). Sandy formed the Elevate Community to, “raise awareness and shine greater light on the financial issues that people of color face. The 400+ members of the Elevate Community group are financial professionals, teachers, writers, bloggers, and educators of color who are committed to improving the financial lives of people of color.”
- Jamila Souffrant, the founder of the incredibly successful JourneytoLaunch.com. I was actually on Jamila’s Journey to Launch podcast back in 2018 and met her in person when we were both pregnant with our little girls (who are now FOUR!).
If you’re interested in attending this three-day online conference, you can save $5 off the $49 ticket price by using the coupon code FRUGALWOODS. Go here to get your ticket and register to attend. I hope to see you there!
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 Peter, today’s Case Study subject, take it from here!
Hi Frugalwoods :-)! I’m Peter, I am 36 years old, my wife Kim is 35 and we have one daughter and one cat. We live in a medium-sized city in the Eastern United States where we’re both Registered Nurses. Kim’s been a nurse since graduation, whereas nursing is a second career for me. We got married in 2015 after I graduated from nursing school and our daughter, Rachel, is a year and a half old. We also have an alert, agreeable cat called Pringles.
Peter & Kim’s Careers as Nurses
I originally graduated with a bachelors in psychology in 2007, but once I was in the real world, found that my degree didn’t fit with what I wanted to do for work. I eventually decided to go back to school for nursing and ended up studying in the same city where Kim was working. We met through mutual friends at our local church and started dating while I was attending classes.
Even though Kim had been a nurse for many years, after we married she was gracious enough to “go back to nights” to work the same shift as my new nursing job. For a couple of years, we did the night shift thing together: working and living nocturnally. This double-income-night-shift-lifestyle helped us accelerate paying off my student loans. That’s when I stumbled upon FIRE blogs. These blogs eventually led me to the Frugalwoods, most likely through the Mad Fientist’s blog/podcast.
A few years after being married, we both were fortunate enough to gain some seniority at the hospital and move to working day-shifts in our respective units. After that, we decided to buy a small three-bedroom, two-bathroom house. For a number of years we tried unsuccessfully to have biological children, including infertility treatments. Ultimately, we decided to try for domestic infant adoption through a Christian agency.
Peter & Kim’s Financial Upbringing
We both grew up in households that felt very loving, but were certainly tight financially, at least in our childhood years. As both of us entered our teenage years, our households became more financially solvent. Between scholarships and family assistance, neither of us accrued severe debt for our bachelor’s degrees. In our young adult years, we both felt privileged to follow our dreams and callings rather than what was most financially prudent. We feel blessed to be in our current financial position and realize that given different family situations, this might not be the case.
Peter & Kim’s Financial Philosophy
We each keep an eye on different financial aspects. Generally, Kim runs the day-to-day finances. This means taking care of the ins and outs in the checkbook, paying the monthly bills that aren’t automated, and keeping track of receipts. We do this through YNAB, which makes it fairly simple to see where our budget sits. I look after our long-term finances including tracking our net-worth, mortgage amortization/prepayments, and investment accounts.
We have a written financial plan which I made, but was “ratified” by Kim. So far this arrangement has worked pretty well, but honestly it hasn’t really been stress tested. Our budget was built on the “minimum hours” scheduled, which in our field rarely occurs.
If we are scheduled to work a 12 hour shift at the hospital, we are usually working at least 12 ½ hours if not 13 hours per working day. With our hourly wage, this adds up over the course of the year. Generally we have extra cash each month, which Kim allots into various sinking funds (healthcare, home/car maintenance, and next larger purchases). If our cash on hand gets too high, we start dollar-cost-averaging the extra into our brokerage investment account or increasing our prepayments on our mortgage.
Peter & Kim’s Daughter, Rachel
This brings us to 2020 where, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, we were matched with a couple who were looking for someone to adopt their (yet unborn) baby girl. In October of 2020, we were able to adopt Rachel from birth. She’s now a year and a half old and keeps us on our toes for all of our waking moments! Her adoption was legally finalized in July 2021, and we were able to apply and receive her social security card late in fall of 2021. We’ve already been reimbursed for some of our adoption expenses through the adoption tax credit, but it doesn’t negate the financial burden of adoption by a long shot. Now we’re waiting for a further refund from our 2020 tax return for the child tax credit (you need a social security number) and expect to receive the expanded child tax credit on our 2021 taxes.
Peter & Kim’s Hobbies
In our spare time, we are mostly outdoors. We like to go for walks around our neighborhood, trail hikes (for as far as Rachel will allow), and keep up our vegetable garden. While we both like to hike, Kim enjoys running and I enjoy cycling for individual daily exercise.
Fortunately, we’ve been able to incorporate Rachel into both of those activities with a baby jogger and bike trailer! In the next few years, we look forward to getting her into swim classes and, when age-appropriate, an outdoor pre-school. She is most assuredly the center of our lives and we are grateful for the opportunity to parent her.
What feels most pressing right now? What brings you to submit a Case Study?
Since originally inquiring about submitting a Case Study, our questions have changed significantly. Mostly due to the circumstances of our life and how it has morphed and evolved over the last year and a half, some due to Rachel becoming part of our lives, some due to the Covid-19 pandemic. With all of these changes we feel we are coming to a crossroads of sorts.
A bit more about the last few years will help explain:
- Prior to adopting Rachel our financial life was fairly flush. We lived as a DINK household (dual income, no kids) and saved a substantial portion of our income into retirement. Our savings rate grew from 15% when we were first married to around 40% of our gross income prior to adoption. Not included in these percentages: saving for the downpayment on our home, saving for infertility treatments, and then adoption expenses.
- By mid-2020, we were maxing out our Roth IRAs, almost maxing out our 403b’s, investing in our brokerage account, and making increasingly large payments to pay down our mortgage early. To this day, our biggest short-term goal is having our house paid off in the next 3-7 years. Currently we’re paying about $500 extra per month in principle with a couple of $1,000 extra principal payments in the months where we have a third paycheck.
- If we continue with this plan, our mortgage payoff date will be circa February 2028. We understand prepaying on a mortgage isn’t necessarily the “best” investment, but it is a guaranteed return. We see our prepayments kind of like adding more bonds to our portfolio. Since bonds aren’t generating very much return right now, making payments on a mortgage feels like more progress.
- Our desire for having the mortgage paid off stems from: 1) Not wanting to be beholden to others (e.g. a bank) through debt. 2) If the US healthcare system collapses, we will suffer from a dramatic decrease in income. 3) We want to be able to volunteer at some point in our adult lives and “needing” less income would help facilitate that goal.
The Baby Change
After adopting Rachel in October 2020, we shifted our work-life balance for childcare purposes. Kim continued working full-time, and I went to working per-diem shifts around her schedule. This worked for a while, as Kim covered our healthcare insurance and I was able to get enough shifts to maintain my competency as a nurse. All the while, we continued to work toward our financial goals. While this did mean we saw our expenses rise and our income decrease, we were still able to save substantial portions of our income into retirement accounts and continue making payments toward our mortgage. Generally this has been about 30 to 35% toward retirement and 10% toward prepaying the mortgage.
The Pandemic Change
In January 2022 we downshifted again, this time due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As nurses both working on high-acuity units, work has become increasingly challenging and burnout became crushingly real, especially for Kim. That’s why, going forward, Kim will be working part-time. Choosing to work fewer hours is helpful to fight fatigue/injury/work dissatisfaction, but means another large reduction to our household income.
I will continue to work per-diem around Kim’s schedule, but will likely have even more shift-flexibility than I had previously. Financially this means we have taken a pause on investing extra to an after-tax brokerage account and substantially reduced my 403b contributions (I had been contributing 35% and will reduce this to 20% or possibly 0%).
Initially we were submitting our case study to ask if the idea of “Coast FIRE” was a possibility, but now we’re essentially doing a modified trial run out of necessity for Kim’s mental health. In true Coast FIRE fashion, we wouldn’t contribute anything toward retirement accounts and would let them sit and grow until we reach traditional retirement age.
At the moment, we are merely decreasing our savings rate. For our 2022 budget, if you don’t include the tax refunds, we’ll be spending more than we earn most months. However, twice a year when we have a third paycheck, we end up with more cash creating a bit of a buffer in our accounts for the slight overspend. At the moment we’re ok with this scenario since we have plenty of cash. If it doesn’t seem to work financially we could save less to our 403b’s or I could always go back to working full-time with Kim working per-diem. Going back to working full-time feels the least likely given that we highly value our time off together and life flexibility.
Longer term we see ourselves volunteering in some capacity. Whether this is within the States or internationally, we don’t have strong convictions yet. We have both spent time overseas through Christian Ministries (Peter as an adult for three years as a volunteer and Kim as a child with her parents who were missionaries). Ideally we want to do volunteering work (esp. as it may involve frequent moves) when Rachel is younger, up until about age 11. We wouldn’t be moving a lot while Rachel is in middle or high school, as we are hoping to offer her some social stability by staying put.
What’s the best part of your current lifestyle/routine?
The best part of our current lifestyle is the ability for both of us to parent Rachel. Working as nurses provides a living wage and allows Kim to only work two days a week (starting in 2022) and still qualify for part-time benefits. This means we share childcare responsibilities on days when the other works, but also spend a few days a week together as a family. Our days off together allow Kim necessary “introvert time” and Peter the chance to play strategy board games, either locally (when Covid-19 isn’t an issue) or online.
Having a few days off per week together as a family allows us to get out and experience the world around us. We live within an hour of a national park and multiple other mountain ranges, which provides ample opportunities to go hiking. We are also a couple of hours’ drive from a few major cities, so we can experience some larger scale urban life as well! That being said, our own city has a large university and smaller colleges in the neighboring towns, so it has a number of attractions and diverse restaurants, which are not necessarily present in all cities of our size.
What’s the worst part of your current lifestyle/routine?
The worst part of our current lifestyle is the stress from our jobs. Working during the pandemic has been wearing on us and our colleagues. We both want to continue to enjoy taking care of people in their time of need, and we hate what the US healthcare system has done to hospital care. We have reduced our hours partly to care for Rachel without taking on significant childcare expenses and partly so that we don’t burn out completely.
An additional recent difficulty is navigating the “stealth wealth” balance. With us both working for the same employer, when Kim announced she was going part-time, many assumed I would be transitioning back to full-time. Kim is uncomfortable trying to navigate these discussions with her colleagues, many of whom are just as burned and disillusioned with the work. It brings up negative emotions associated with having wealth and being privileged enough to take a step back financially, simply because we want to. With neither of us working full-time, it is a significant sacrifice to our employer benefits and wages, which is probably not lost on our colleagues.
Kim and I are not yet sure if we will pursue adopting a second child. Adoption is a complicated nut to crack and could probably be its own case study of pros and cons!
The adoption process felt elongated for us since it tagged onto our experience with infertility, which was already over two years. The process for getting approved and on a list was about 6 months between initial application, home study, and final adoption list approval. We then waited another 2 years before being chosen by our daughter’s birth parents. Waiting time for us turned out to be less than average. Most people adopting through our agency (who were successful adopting, not including people who voluntarily dropped off the list) waited about 3-4 years. Our friend circle includes two couples who waited around 10 years. Every three years, you need to “renew” your home-study, which is an additional financial cost we were not burdened with. If we only had to wait another two years, we would probably be more open to the idea of adopting a second child, but the thought of having a second child in our late 40s is less appealing.
Regarding the costs, we feel pretty confident that if we develop strong convictions toward adopting again, we’d be able to figure it out. The adoption tax credit lessens the financial blow by about $15k, which is probably 35%-40% of total adoption costs (though that money wouldn’t come back initially, typically 2-3 years after adoption). To “get on the list” costs around half of the total adoption expenses. So we would need around $15-17k in cash. However, our employer just added a benefit for full and part-time employees of $10k or $5k respectively toward adoption expenses. This wouldn’t keep us with our employer, but also is not something we’d turn down if we went down the adoption path again in the future.
Financially we feel we could stomach the short-term hit to our finances to save the cash for adoption. It would involve a combination of reducing Roth IRA contributions, reducing 403b contributions to 6%, stopping pre-payments to our mortgage, and/or liquidating investments from our brokerage account. If we did all of these things, we’d have the cash to immediately “get on the list” and would be able to save the rest of the expenses over 8-12 months and then resume our former savings/investments.
A second adoption would delay our potential “moving in order to volunteer” plans if the adoption didn’t occur for a while as we wouldn’t be able to move out of state while on an adoption list. The potential waiting game is the big unknown. All that to say, we are considering it, but as of yet are undecided.
Where Peter & Kim Want to be in Ten Years:
- Paid-off house; able to work only to cover day-to-day expenses.
- Long-term we know it isn’t the best decision to pay off low-interest debt, especially in an inflationary environment, but we value the benefit of having a paid-off home.
- Would love to have enough in retirement accounts to “Coast FIRE” to age 59.5, essentially not needing to contribute to our retirement accounts anymore, but still be fine for retirement. Currently I’m using 5% as the inflation-adjusted return for estimating our potential retirement savings in the future.
- Some of our financial assumptions include:
- For net-worth purposes we consider our home an asset, but not part of our retirement savings. To be conservative, we’re still valuing it at purchase price until it is actually sold even though the local housing market has gone up dramatically.
- Social Security will pay out at least 70% of its expected return (around $24-36k per year depending on how long we work or when we start collecting).
- Our workplace pensions are “sprinkles on the cake.” We intend to take the payout when eligible at age 55 and roll that amount into IRAs so we will maintain control and have access to funds. While our pensions are insured, we don’t trust that all pensions across the US won’t fail simultaneously and therefore be reduced in value.
- We prefer to be at home together at least three days a week. Days off would include time outside together as a family with possibly some sort of team recreation for Rachel, but who knows at this point. Trail hiking at least once a week is desirable. Visiting both sets of grandparents at least two times a year would also be ideal. Basically, spending our days with parenting and childcare. In many ways we’re already there, so that’s a plus!
- We want to give Rachel the opportunity to see much of the world at some point in her life. Some of this traveling would hopefully happen as she grows up so it becomes common to see other cultures and experiences.
- We may want to pursue a second adoption.
- Both Kim and I would like to be working or volunteering away from home/parenting at least two days a week for mental stimulation, possibly in a different nursing capacity. Unsure if this would be with a new organization or some volunteer nursing gig.
Peter & Kim’s Finances
|Peter estimated W2 income||$2,400||Estimated monthly net salary minus: 20% to 403b (no match available), taxes, health and dental insurance, 401k contributions, and taxes.|
|Kim estimated W2 income||$2,040||Estimated monthly net salary minus: 10% to 403b (receives 3% match), taxes, family health insurance/dental cost of $888/month from January 2022|
|Tax refund 2021||$277||Expected minimum amount of $3,600 from 2021 tax refund because we did not have Rachel’s SS number until the end of 2021, hence could not apply for any advance of the child tax credit, divided by 13 since we are paid biweekly|
|Tax refund 2020 v2.||$115||Amendment to 2020 tax return once Rachel’s SS card arrived, $,1500 due, hasn’t arrived yet (can take up to 16 weeks to be completed in a normal year), divided by 13 since we are paid biweekly|
|Annual total:||$62,816||Monthly x 13 due to being paid biweekly, without refunds ~$57,708 or $4,440/month|
|Outstanding loan balance||Interest Rate||Loan Period and Terms||Equity||Purchase price and year|
|$92,237||4.25%||30-year fixed rate, principle & interest is $812.68/month||$114,263||$206,500, purchased in April 2017|
|Item||Amount||Notes||Interest/type of securities held/Stock ticker||Name of bank/brokerage||Expense Ratio|
|Kim 403b||$193,337||10% pretax contributions (~$430/month), additional 3% match from employer||FXIAX, VTWIX, FXNAX||Fidelity||0.015, 0.08, 0.025|
|Peter 403b||$160,143||20% pretax contributions (~$680/month), no match from April 2021||FXIAX, VTWIX, FXNAX||Fidelity||0.015, 0.08, 0.025|
|Kim Roth IRA||$89,656||$500/month to max each calendar year||VTSAX||Vanguard||0.04|
|Kim 529||$85,772||Don’t generally include in net worth, currently held by Kim’s parents. Originally for Kim, but now also could be re-designated for Peter or Rachel’s use.||Unsure||Unsure||Unsure|
|Peter Brokerage||$54,373||Sinking funds & long term spending, stopped contributing in Jan 2022||VTSAX||Vanguard||0.04|
|Savings account||$23,500||Emergency fund / sinking funds||0.03%||Credit union||N/A|
|Peter Roth IRA||$15,681||$500/month to max each calendar year||VTSAX||Vanguard||0.04|
|Kim 401a||$15,664||Prior employer, no additional contributions||FFFGX||Fidelity||0.51|
|Checking account||$14,000||Monthly cashflow||Earns essentially 0%||Credit union||N/A|
|CD/alternative savings account||$10,487||Cash for next car||2% on first 1k, 0.4% on remainder||Different Credit union||Taxed at marginal income|
|Peter HSA||$7,275||Prior benefit, no additional contributions||VTSAX||HealthEquity||0.04|
|Donor advised fund||$4,000||Don’t generally include in net worth||Money market||Credit Union||N/A|
|Kim Pension||$209/month @ age 55 to $349/month @ age 65||Current value, will increase. Lump sum of $54,480 @ 55, $77,279 @ 65||N/A||Current employer||N/A|
|Peter Pension||$110/month @ age 55 to $217/month @ age 65||Frozen value, will not increase. Lump sum of $29,500 @ 55, $41,000 @ 65||N/A||Current employer||N/A|
|Vehicle make, model, year||Valued at||Mileage||Paid off?|
|Honda Civic 2008||$4,400||115,000||Yes, paid for cash 11 yrs ago|
|Honda Civic 2001||Priceless||203,000||Yes, paid for cash 7 yrs ago|
|Extra to mortgage||$667||$500.56/month + $1k 2x/year with third paycheck months|
|Tithe||$500||Approximately 10% of take-home pay, will increase or decrease depending on after tax income|
|Groceries||$480||Food, alcohol, and formula; may be a little less going forward since Rachel is now off formula|
|Home maintenance||$354||Sinking fund goal of 20k, currently has $5800|
|Property tax/insurance||$185||Through Erie|
|Vacation||$177||Sinking fund, currently has $7,000|
|Medical||$175||Includes all expenses and co-payments, increased in 2021 due to Rachel having eye surgery, sinking fund goal of 7k fully funded|
|Electric||$116||Stove and heat pump/AC are electric|
|Next car||$100||Sinking fund goal of 20k, currently has $12,000|
|Household||$88||Includes toilet paper, diapers, cleaning supplies, cat food, litter|
|Restaurants||$84||Take out, admittedly higher due to Covid-19|
|Internet||$55||Lowest cost for high-speed internet available from Comcast/any other providers|
|Car maintenance||$55||Sinking fund, currently has $1800|
|Auto insurance||$49||Through Erie|
|Life insurance||$45||25-yr term for both Peter and Kim through Erie, will likely ditch once house paid off|
|Phone||$43||Verizon for Kim, Ting for Peter|
|Peter “fun money”||$30||Sinking fund for Peter, average spend is actually less, but this is allocated for being spent|
|Kim “fun money”||$30||Sinking fund for Kim, average spend is actually less, but is allocated for being spent|
|Malpractice insurance||$18||In addition to automatic coverage from our employer, combined cost for Peter and Kim, considered a must have|
|Auto property tax||$17|
|Nursing license renewal(s)||$12||Sinking fund for renewals every two years on even year for Peter and odd year for Kim|
|YNAB||$7||YouNeedaBudget annual subscription|
|Next computer||$0||Fully funded sinking fund goal of 1k|
|Next phone||$0||Fully funded sinking fund goal of $500|
|Entertainment||$0||Generally taken from “fun” money funds, includes items like redbox, wine/beer tastings, date nights|
*Sinking funds for vacation, home, and next car, and car maintenance may be more or less depending on monthly spillover
Credit Card Strategy
|Card Name||Rewards Type?||Bank/card company|
|Visa||Cash back||Local credit union (held continuously by Kim since graduating college in 2009)|
|Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card||1.5% Cash back||Capital One (affiliate link)|
Peter & Kim’s Questions for You:
- Is Coast FIRE really something we can do? In other words, not saving towards retirement starting at age 40/45/50 and only earning enough to live on for those years?
- Our estimated retirement budget, including taxes, is around $60k/year or $1.5 million in retirement accounts by age 59.5, not including Social Security.
- Our expected expenses without a mortgage are ~$72k/year, but that still includes $6k each to Roth IRAs and expensive health insurance (see below). If we do not contribute to our Roth IRAs, expenses are around $60k/year.
- Are the Roth savings too good to give up? So far I feel the answer is yes. The tax diversification gives additional financial flexibility. We plan on continuing to max out our Roth IRAs as long as we can because these contributions could always be withdrawn if needed, although that is less than ideal.
Are my assumptions too conservative or too aggressive? (e.g. expected real return of 5% with low cost index funds):
- If I’m being too conservative, we’ve already reached “Coast FIRE” with a 6% real return.
- Current asset allocation is 88% stocks/12% bonds in our 403b accounts and 100% stocks in Roth IRA/taxable.
- I am planning on rebalancing to 70/30 stock/bond allocation during our 40s with the goal of reaching that allocation by age 50.
- What’s the best strategy for our mortgage?
- Despite the best interest rates in history, we decided against refinancing. We hated the idea of paying money for a refinance if we might pay it off in a few years or move and sell anyway. The break even point would have been around 4 years with our current mortgage servicer. We decided to deploy more of our cash toward the mortgage because of the guaranteed return we get paying down debt vs investing in an unsure market.
- Now the question becomes whether to deploy part of our investment account (could use investments by early to mid 2024 with conservative return to pay off the mortgage) or just continue our prepayment strategy and be done by early 2028.
- Getting rid of our mortgage payment (required $813 plus extra monthly principal $500 and $1,000 biannual payments) would decrease our expenses by almost $18k/year, which would free us up to either build up our investments again quickly or work less.
- What to do about health insurance?
- Would both of us going per-diem and then getting insurance through the ACA be a good idea? Or would it be better to pay through the nose to keep insurance as a part-time employee (our family plan is currently $888 a month)? Taking advantage of the ACA subsidy (we’re not eligible unless we are both per-diem) could decrease our monthly healthcare premiums by an estimated $300-400/month.
- Any thoughts on how to think about some medium-term life goals?
- Currently both sets of our parents are in their mid-60s and relatively healthy. We know this will not likely always be the case. Recommendations for how to balance the unknown of parents’ health and needing to move closer to them with doing what works best for our family?
- It is unlikely we will want to move once the little one is in middle or high school. So we have a 12-13 year window until that happens to possibly relocate closer to parents or take volunteer gig(s). The uproot-and-volunteer option would mean we could sell the house and bank the equity into a taxable/money market account or rent it out until we return. We’re not in favor of being landlords, but selling and storing our stuff does seem increasingly daunting. Locally there are a few small healthcare organizations where we might get our feet wet volunteering, but they probably wouldn’t provide a housing and food stipend like some international options.
- Any suggestions on how to deal with the uncomfortableness of the privilege of “stealth wealth” we are currently experiencing?
Liz Frugalwoods’ Recommendations
Peter and Kim are in fantastic financial shape and I commend them for how carefully they’ve mapped out their future. I think much of what they’re looking for today is confirmation of their math and a double-check on their plans.
In many ways, I don’t have a whole lot to tell Peter and Kim because they’ve already done most of the financial steps I suggest. They’ve clearly spent a lot of time researching and learning how to manage their money and are on a great path!
Peter and Kim have already:
- Paid off their student loans and stayed out of debt.
- Saved up a robust emergency fund.
- Invested for retirement.
- Started a taxable investment account to grow their wealth over the coming decades.
- Opened a Donor Advised Fund to plan for future philanthropy.
- Accelerated payments on their mortgage in order to have a paid-off home.
- Kept their expenses low by driving older cars, buying a home they can afford, embracing frugality, and focusing their spending on their highest and best priorities.
- Executed a smart credit card strategy to enhance their credit and earn cash-back rewards.
Doing these 8 steps puts Peter and Kim in the “advanced” echelon of financial management and I hope their story serves as an inspiration and guide to others. Do what Peter and Kim are doing :)!
Ok, ok, I will actually dive into their questions…
Peter’s Question #1: Is Coast FIRE something we can do?
This is a question best answered by a calculator! We’re going to employ one of my all-time favorites from Engaging Data, the aptly named “FIRE Calculator: When can I retire early?” calculator, a must-do for anyone considering any form of FIRE.
For Peter and Kim, I input the following variables:
- Investments: $528,854 (this is the sum of their retirement accounts + taxable investments. This excludes their cash, Donor Advised Fund, HSA, 529 and pensions)
- Retirement age: 36 (Peter is 36)
- Target withdrawal rate: 4% (this is the % they’d withdraw from these accounts after age 60)
- Asset allocation: 70% stocks/30% bonds (this is what Peter noted he’ll do)
- Spending per year: $0 (they will not be touching this money until age 60, so their spending from these accounts should be $0)
- Income: $0 (under the principles of Coast FIRE, they wouldn’t be contributing any additional money to these accounts)
What this simulates is the scenario of Coast FIRE whereby Peter and Kim stop contributing to their retirement accounts today, but continue to cover their expenses (by earning an income) until the age of 60. At age 60, they stop working to cover their expenses and begin drawing 4% from their retirement (and taxable investment) accounts in order to cover their expenses.
This shows that Peter & Kim wouldn’t reach their FIRE number until age 66. However, what I love about this calculator is that all of the variables are adjustable. Peter and Kim should spend some quality time with this calculator inputting different variables to see where they’ll end up. At the end of the day, this is all conjecture and simulation, but it provides a very useful basis for them to operate from.
I encourage them to evaluate some of their assumptions:
- Asset allocation: is 70% stocks/30% bonds appropriate for their time horizon? 70/30 is pretty conservative and they’d see a shift if they were more heavily weighted toward stocks. However, this is a question of their personal risk tolerance (since stocks are higher risk/higher reward) and there’s no one right answer.
- Average stock returns: how committed are they to the 5% return projection? 5% returns is very conservative and again, they’d see a major shift if they went with a higher return %.
- Savings: how committed are they to being 100% Coast FIRE right now? Would they be willing to reduce their expenses by a bit in order to funnel a bit more money into retirement savings every year?
Peter and Kim should try plugging in different savings rates, different asset allocations, etc and see where they land.
It’s also crucial to note that this calculation does not include their pensions OR social security. The numbers look much more favorable when you do include those two variables.
Peter’s Question #2: Are my assumptions too conservative or too aggressive? (e.g. expected real return of 5% with low cost index funds):
As I noted above, Peter’s assumptions generally lean conservative, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Conservative vs. aggressive is all about your own risk tolerance and what you feel comfortable with. Additionally, Peter noted they’re not planning on Social Security being there for them, but I honestly think that’s more of an existential question.
If Social Security in the US fails, we all have WAY bigger problems and should’ve been stockpiling ammunition and antibiotics in our bunkers.
I completely agree with Peter’s “belt and suspenders” approach to investing and saving, but at a certain point, we all need to remember that the sun could explode tomorrow and everything would be moot. In other words, sometimes we have to proceed with the best and most likely scenario (that Social Security will be fine) as opposed to all-out apocalypse. If you prefer all-out apocalypse, begin researching bunker availability now.
Peter’s Question #3: What’s the best strategy for our mortgage?
In my opinion, if you want to pay off your mortgage early, the best strategy is often to do it in one fell swoop. This entails employing a version of dollar cost averaging whereby you invest all of the money you WOULD use to pay it off early and then, once you have the total amount needed to pay off your mortgage in its entirety, liquidate stocks and pay it off all at once. The rationale behind this approach is two-fold:
- It gives you more liquidity and flexibility in the short term (because your money isn’t tied up in your mortgage; it is technically more accessible in a taxable investment account)
- It can be better mathematically from an opportunity cost perspective because you’re not losing out on the potential gains in the stock market while putting the money into a lower-return vehicle (your mortgage).
There is, of course, also danger involved in this approach–as there is with every single type of investment:
- The market could enter a downturn and you could temporarily “lose” your mortgage pre-payment money. If that happened, you’d have to wait until the market rebounded before you were able to liquidate and pay it off.
All that being said, there’s nothing “wrong” with Peter & Kim’s current strategy of paying it off bit by bit each month. This is just another method for them to consider.
Peter’s Question #4: What to do about health insurance?
I think this might be more a question of “what to do about our jobs?” because in terms of health insurance, I think the options are pretty straightforward:
- Continue paying for employer-sponsored health insurance while you’re working.
- Research the ACA in your state when/if you no longer qualify for employer-sponsored health insurance (here are the details on how I signed my family up for the ACA earlier this year. TLDR: the ACA varies WILDLY by state and by your individual/family circumstances, so the real answer is that you have to do your own research).
Peter & Kim’s Jobs:
I’m wondering if Peter and Kim have considered taking nursing jobs in a different, non-acute context? Certainly their current jobs are likely to command the highest RN salaries, but they’re reaching the point where this work is no longer tenable from a mental health/life balance perspective.
This leads me to ask if they’ve looked into:
- School nursing? Not great pay; but, same hours/holidays as the kiddo.
- Primary care office nursing? I’m sure it’s called something different, but you know what I mean…
- Other types of less stressful nursing? Obviously I am not a nurse and have limited knowledge here, but I know tons of Frugalwoods readers are nurses and will be able to offer excellent ideas!
I know Peter and Kim are primarily considering per diem work at the hospital, but I wonder if that wouldn’t still be very stressful since it lacks predictability and still entails nursing in the acute care context?
The job market is on fire right now, so if they’re interested, I have to imagine Peter and Kim would be able to find nursing positions in a lower-stress capacity. A career shift for less stress and less money isn’t going to tank their long-term financial goals and might dramatically increase their quality of life.
Peter’s Question #5: Any thoughts on how to think about medium-term life goals?
In a lot of ways, the answer here is: too many variables and too far in the future to offer concrete advice. I think Peter and Kim are smart to think long-term, but I also think it’s ok to accept that none of us can know our future. I think researching possible future volunteer opportunities is great, as is considering where they might live down the road. But, I personally wouldn’t get too tangled up in trying to map out 20 years in the future because Peter and Kim are already doing the two BEST things possible for their future:
- They are saving and investing their money.
- They are clear on their priorities and are putting their most prized resources (time and money) towards those priorities.
Beyond that? There’s not a whole lot we can control. Since Peter mentioned both his parents and in-laws, I suggest he and Kim 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 then have frank conversations with their parents. The first step here will be to understand what their parents envision for their own future.
Peter’s Question #6: Any suggestions on how to deal with the uncomfortableness of the privilege of “stealth wealth” we are currently experiencing?
I personally consider this question within the context of two different categories of people:
- Those for whom it is not their business/they do not care and I simply don’t bring up money.
- Those to whom I am very close and I thoughtfully broach the topic because it would be very weird if they didn’t know my financial situation.
The first category includes acquaintances, neighbors, people I volunteer with, not-super-close friends, extended family, etc. I’m big on “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the context of personal finance. I don’t go around talking about money and, I find it doesn’t come up in the normal course of acquaintance/neighbor chit-chat conversations. It just doesn’t.
The second category are my close friends, immediate family members and colleagues. I don’t, like, email them my net worth breakdown from Personal Capital (that would be weird), but I’m honest about our FIRE journey because it would prevent intimacy if I wasn’t (affiliate link). It would be tough for me to have close friends who didn’t know about this aspect of my life; just as it would be tough to have close friends who didn’t know other personal details about me.
I too went through a panic of “WHAT IF PEOPLE FIND OUT?????” at the outset of our FIRE journey back in 2014, but over the past 8 years I’ve learned the fundamental, life-long truth that:
Nobody cares what you’re doing with your life.
They REALLY do not. I was walking around back in 2014 thinking everyone wanted to be up in my financial business and, turns out? They do not. My close friends? Those bitches care because they are invested in me as a person. But everyone else? Nope. It’s TMI.
All that to say, Peter and Kim, you are in charge of what you share with other people. I suggest you:
- Come up with a set of answers you feel comfortable telling other people IF THEY ASK YOU DIRECTLY, which I can almost guarantee they will not because people would rather ask you where you buy your underwear than about your finances.
- Decide how/when/if you want to communicate this to your family. It really may not be relevant to them and may only engender resentment/jealousy to bring it up in the first place. Again, are they asking? Or are you just feeling compelled to share?
- Determine how/when/if to broach the topic with your close friends WHEN/IF it feels like you’re preventing a deeper relationship by NOT sharing this information. Make sense?
You don’t “owe” anyone an explanation about your money or your life. It’s your life, it’s your money, you’re adults, you do you. As Littlewoods says anytime anyone tries to help her with anything:
Worry about your own self.
Donor Advised Fund:
The other way to responsibly address privilege and wealth is to acknowledge it to yourself and to donate money. Peter and Kim already have a Donor Advised Fund for this purpose, which is the same approach I use for my philanthropy. I have two articles detailing how to use a DAF to ensure effective, lifelong philanthropy:
- How We Donate To Charities Like Billionaires
- How We Make Meaningful And Tax Efficient Charitable Donations
Kim should have a conversation with her parents about this account. It will likely make the most sense for them to transfer it over to Rachel’s name, which is something they’ll want to iron out well before Rachel reaches college age. This is one of those things that’s probably easier to do sooner rather than later.
Cell Phone Bill:
Peter and Kim should be able to cut their $43 cell phone bill in half by putting Kim onto an MVNO (Peter noted she’s still on Verizon). I pay $28 a month for my both husband and myself. Not a huge deal, but it is a super easy way for them to save more money every month.
- Spend time with the “When can I retire” calculator and test some of their assumptions, particularly around asset allocation, rate of return and savings rate.
- Explore/consider finding nursing jobs in less stressful contexts and moving away from acute hospital care.
- Consider changing the mortgage payoff approach per the above conversation.
- Have conversations with parents about long-term planning, as well as the specific note of Kim’s 529.
- Brainstorm responses to “are you rich” questions from colleague/acquaintances and a timeline for when/if they need/want to share their financial plans with close friends and family.
- Feel confident that they’ve mapped out a wonderful future and that the unknown unknowns are ok and that none of us can plan for every eventuality.
Ok Frugalwoods nation, what advice do you have for Peter? 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) your brief story and we’ll talk.
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