From August 2020 to May 2021, I was without a paycheck. This unhinging from salaried work was on purpose. I chose to resign from my steady paycheck job as a JET in 2020. Leaving a decent job at the start of a pandemic was a bold move. However, I had a financial cushion and needed new challenges. The next challenge I had lined up in HR fell through as hiring freezes took effect in Tokyo. In October 2020, I was offered an exciting law class to teach for spring 2021 at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. Teaching law has always been a bucket list item for me; I wholeheartedly accepted the assignment. Then, again, at the last minute, that elective law class was canceled too due to pandemic related-BS. Instead of finding mediocre work as a replacement income, I readjusted my plans and left Tokyo for five weeks in the Kyoto/Osaka area. This surprise situation did not prevent me from working on my larger goal of freedom through financial independence. In 2021, I spent late winter and early spring in a refreshing break from Tokyo life by applying geo-arbitrage in action. While location independence is one step of my approach, the formula for financial independence starts with a mindset.
Nowadays, I think anyone can work towards financial independence. Many use online income streams to work on their FIRE (financial independence retire early) goals. I have experimented with a few such income streams. There were some moments last year when I lived off my savings. Instead of panicking, I found purpose in pauses between salaried work.
Trial By Fire
I prize freedom over money. Few things are as challenging for me as staying inside an office while the sun shines through a window. It is for this reason that I started to work towards financial independence. This idea was a revolution and a relief to me in 2009. For me, 2009 was a challenging year. I had just graduated from law school in mid-2008 and suffered from PTSD from my father’s sudden death a few months after my graduation. In 2009, the year after the 2008 mortgage industry collapse, the financial recession followed, and I was in a numb state of shock. I started my first full-time job as an attorney in both a personal and global crisis. Shortly after starting that job, I happened upon the 4-Hour Workweek while browsing Barnes & Nobles. The book profoundly changed how I saw money, work, and life.
All in, for 2021, I made ZERO dollars of taxable income. As an adjunct professor of law at Temple University, the summer and fall semesters did not amount to much dough when I factored in the standard deduction. In fact, since I taught Fall 2021 virtually from the Americas, I could not even access the paychecks from Temple University that went into my Japanese bank account. How then did I manage to survive (or thrive, really)? These two key lessons helped me create a healthy financial buffer on my path to independence.
1. Stop Buying Stupid Shit
Life is short. I enjoy it to the fullest. Though money does not buy happiness, money can support you to create moments of enjoyment. If you know yourself well (see #2, below), you know where you get the most bang for your buck. Once you know which expenditures bring you joy, hone in on & cut back on the places where your purchases are frivolous.
For example, I seldom go to the movies. While watching Black Panther (the last film I saw in theatres), I fell asleep in the chair and needed plot updates from my friend. Movie-going isn’t for me. On the other hand, I love going to the ocean. I would instead spring for a weekend at the beach than a few nights of big screen watching. My approach is quite pragmatic, as well. I would rather drive a 10-year-old car to the beach than have five years of payments remaining on a shiny car.
I have known many intelligent, accomplished, and high-income individuals with no savings and little self-control. We live in a consumerist society. Everywhere you look, advertisements are vying for your attention and dollar. For many people, promotions set off psychological triggers and cue impulse spending. As you work towards financial freedom, it is essential to know your spending triggers. Sometimes it is as fundamental as knowing your own insecurities.
Many people get caught up in increasing their income. However, regardless of what you make, what you spend is what matters. I do not believe that austerity is required. Discipline is a muscle. It becomes stronger as you practice it. The first step towards discipline is to become aware of your spending habits. Make discretionary purchases that genuinely bring you joy.
Through practice, I have been good at reducing my recurring expenses. I am also very selective about how I use my discretionary money. In exchange for that, I (usually) have the flexibility to step away from work that does not interest or excite me.
By early 2016, I had ironed out a comfortable lifestyle in coastal South Carolina. However, after a traumatic relationship breakup and my general disappointment with politics in America, I returned to a sense of boredom. My WHY had changed, and I had to reconsider what I really wanted from life. I realized that working in a litigious and hierarchical legal culture was inconsistent with my more profound purpose. Though working in the law could provide a more straightforward path to financial independence, I realized I wanted to inspire a sense of global community through meaningful teaching and empowering others abroad.
2. Know Yourself
Self-mastery and self-knowledge lie at the heart of any successful endeavor. Financial independence is no different. Therefore, it is essential to realize why you are moving toward financial independence. Specifically, what does freedom mean for you?
The income automation portion is difficult but not impossible. When I owned a real estate portfolio (with a partner), I was well along the way to financial independence. However, I struggled to find meaning in financial comfort without a larger WHY. Retiring early is not necessarily the purpose behind financial independence. My favorite part about time freedom is making space for self-growth. I aim to balance unstructured time with goal-getting and radical personal experimentation.
For a family, financial independence looks different than it does for a single lady. For many people, their day-to-day job is central to their identity. What they do is who they are. If the goal is to get away from salaried work, be firm in who you are outside of your career.
Sometimes people link their identity to what they can buy. Purchases to impress others are a classic rat race trap. Working for prestige over purpose can confuse your direction in life. Paul Graham’s excellent essay on doing what you love is a favorite in the Y-combinator start-up community. You have to look deep into your core in working to know yourself. Is there a higher purpose you are working towards? How will you relate to others who see the world differently? What are your hobbies or interests that move you to go in that direction? It is essential to understand what you will do with your time.
As I move in that direction, I make very conscious decisions about what I want and how I pursue my goal. Working towards financial independence and turning down the typical 9 to 5 (or 5 to 9, really) is about controlling my own time. By taking charge of my choices, for example, knowing that I do not need a flashy bag to prove myself, I can accomplish the critical first half of the equation. My sense of self-worth is not tied to someone’s judgment. Since I know my WHY, I feel grounded in confidence and believe that I can manifest the right opportunities. I create the mental space for writing and inspire meaningful connections across cultural boundaries by choosing where I place my priorities.
As I return to the US, I have grown to know myself better. Knowing yourself means having faith in your capacity to pull off big goals. With that, I have found a heartfelt WHY. Thanks to my varied travel and life experiences, I have a deep sense of compassion for a global community of immigrants, travelers, and survivors. I wish to inspire others to lead a bold and authentic life through writing, coaching, and consulting.