Leaving my job in the spring of 2012 was not an easy decision. Even if you have all your ducks in order, it’s still a leap of faith where you hope fluffy pillows await instead of jagged rocks. One of the main reasons why I wrote my book, “How To Engineer Your Layoff” was because negotiating a severance was the key financial buffer that gave me the courage to break free.
Before figuring out how to get laid off in order to gain a severance, my only real financial buffer was my various passive income streams which equaled about $78,000 a year at the time. I did input a Blue Sky scenario of $118,000 a year gross if things worked well on the rental property front after a couple years. But Blue Sky scenarios are never to be used in important life altering decisions.
$78,000 a year in passive income might seem like a healthy figure, but I live in San Francisco where the median condo price is around $800,000 and the median single family home costs around $1 million. Food and gas are also expensive and entertainment costs can quickly spiral out of control if you let them. We’ve had a terrific 100+ comment discussion on my post wondering how people in expensive cities live a comfortable life making less than six figures a year. It’s definitely possible as the comments have suggested, but it’s not easy, especially if you’re over 30, have a family, and no longer want to live like a college student.
I didn’t want to compromise my lifestyle in early retirement by eating dog food and living in the boondocks just to have all the time in the world. Otherwise, retirement is counterproductive. When I started writing this post, I could only recall two financial buffers. But as I kept on writing, I realized there were many more.
I’m confident you’ll find more of your own financial buffers than you first realized as well. Many people I’ve professionally consulted with have asked about building alternative income streams while working so that one day they don’t have to work. This post is for all of you and a revelation that the world isn’t as scary of a place after all.
FINANCIAL BUFFER #1 TO PASSIVE INCOME: SEVERANCE
It took about one year of planning before I finally got the courage to raise my hand to get let go. I made sure my subordinate was properly trained to do my job as I mentored him over two years. During that time I made sure my relationship with HR was top notch. I also thoroughly investigated the staffing needs of my department to make a realistic case for having them let me go. Think about negotiating a severance as trying to pitch someone to hire you, but in reverse.
What came out of engineering my layoff was six years worth of living expenses thanks to severance for 11 years of work, WARN pay, deferred compensation, health care and other bonuses. The irony is that I made more in 2012 “working” two months before negotiating a severance than if I stayed for the full year and received a bonus. If I had quit, I wouldn’t have received anything except for maybe a pat on the back, a cake for the 11 years of service, and management celebrating behind closed doors how I saved them lots of money.
With six years of living expenses I was emboldened to try my hand at online entrepreneurship.
FINANCIAL BUFFER #2: EATING MY OWN FLESH
After publishing my book during the three month WARN period, I thought hard about figuring out an online plan for the next 12 months to build my sites into reputable destinations that provide the best financial advice possible through story telling. During this time period I also looked for jobs in the internet startup space, spoke with competitors of my previous firm, got rejected from a journalism fellowship, considered the foreign service, and even toyed with getting a PhD since I already had an MBA.
All my searching resulted in a goose egg because my heart kept pulling me towards online entrepreneurship. People can easily tell if your heart isn’t into something during an interview, and I constantly felt a need to fake my enthusiasm which felt wrong. For those who are desperately looking for a job to pay the bills, I feel for you. Job searching online is practically a waste of time. It’s all about leveraging existing connections to receive introductions.
I was feeling a little paranoid that given my results ended up with nothing, I would not only be unemployed but permanently unemployable. Yes, even with a $78,000 a year passive income stream and years of living expenses as severance I still felt financial and reputational concern.
One morning I realized I had another financial buffer I did not consider: my financial nut. If for some reason my existing stream of cashflow was not enough, I would simply slaughter my golden goose to make up for any cash flow problems. I never once thought about eating my own flesh if I began starving since the best retirement withdrawal rate doesn’t touch principal. But people do desperate things during desperate times.
FINANCIAL BUFFER #3: OPTIMIZATION OF PASSIVE INCOME
Touching principal reminds me of not being able to live within my means since I’ve developed a habit of saving the majority of my income for most of my life. Even the lump sum severance payment was quickly invested in several S&P 500 and Dow Jones structured notes in the summer of 2012. I was bullish on the market, but also wanted to protect myself from my spendy self. I clearly remember itching to buy a new car for roughly $50,000 to replace then 12-year old Moose. I’m glad I didn’t because the markets have risen over 30% since and Moose is still alive at age 14.
I promised to live off only my passive income stream of $78,000 until I could finally make more money on my own. I knew I had room to improve my passive income if I refinanced my mortgages lower and raised the rents, so that’s exactly what I did. My primary residence was refinanced to 2.625% (from 3.25%) for a savings of roughly $3,800 a year while I raised my rent for two properties by a total of $6,000 a year. The vacation property is showing faint signs of recovery, but it’s still a dog of an investment. But, I was able to get a free loan modification by BoA for the vacation property out of the blue last year, which lowered my payments by a whopping $8,220 a year starting in January 2013 because the interest rate went down from 5.875% down to 4.25%.
The total optimization of passive income came to roughly $18,000 a year, bringing the total passive income figure to roughly $96,000 a year. As a reminder, the ideal mortgage amount is $1 million dollars for your primary residence if you can afford it.
FINANCIAL BUFFER #4: ONLINE INCOME
With $18,000 more a year in breathing room thanks to optimizing my passive income streams, I resumed a steady diet of ramen noodles, water, and the occasional aged ribeye as I sought to build an online revenue stream. Building a sustainable income online is brutally difficult because it takes a lot of traffic and discipline. Even if you have a lot of traffic, you run the risk of alienating your readers if you highlight too many ads and products. Only if you love to write for free for years should you consider blogging as a business.
If you are a regular reader, just ask yourself how much you’ve ever spent on my site and I’m pretty sure 96% of you will say $0. That’s the secret to an online business: work your ass off, get your readers to spend nothing, take insults like a champ, and get rich in the process! Am I crazy? Don’t answer that. WhatsApp makes no money and sold for $19 billion, so maybe I do make some sense.
Despite the curious case of 96% of you never spending a dime, there is income trickling in due to the advertisement you see around this site. I only add things that I’ve used before and are relevant and helpful within the content. How else am I supposed to properly write about a product I’ve never used? I can’t and it wouldn’t feel right to do so. Sticking with my goal of only living off passive income, any income generated from this site was swept to another account not in my name. Only in September of 2013, after 4 years of working for nothing did I draw a salary because it is required by the IRS for S-Corps.
FINANCIAL BUFFER #5: BUILDING A BUSINESS
The Yakezie Network was created in December 2009 as a place for new bloggers to grow their sites. The Network has since grown to about 100 personal finance bloggers strong and is recognized in the community as having some of the best online publishers around. One goal was to create a personal finance advertising network which offered great products and market-leading payouts. So I launched YakezieNetwork.com in the fall of 2013 and failed six months later when I decided to shut it down.
One client generated 99% of the revenue so I created a mini-version instead without all the costs and time associated with running a bigger platform. You can read about my business failure in the post entitled, “What I Learned From Business Failure“.
The other idea I have is to build a business off the Financial Samurai platform. I’ve got to either come up with a product or a partnership with a bigger business. Things are in the works. If anybody has any ideas and wants to be a co-founder CTO, feel free to shoot me an e-mail.
FINANCIAL BUFFER #6: INVESTING
I’m at risk of confusing brains with a bull market right now because the markets have just been going up for the past five years in a row. But my big head did deflate as I lost over $25,000 in my rollover IRA in January thanks to a correction in tech I have confidence in being able to return 7-10% a year on my investments based on my 19-year track record.
When the stock markets are returning 20%+ a year like they have been since 2009, practically anybody can return a “measly” 7-10%. The real test is when the markets finally turn for the worse. Bad years are when good investors really earn their money.
If you’ve got a large enough financial nut, a 7-10% return is good enough e.g. $70,000 – $100,000 return on $1 million. Large financial nuts are meant to be protected, not whipped around like a lasso. I’ve got a whole category on Investing which you can peruse. I’ll discuss more about private equity investing in the future as well.
FINANCIAL BUFFER #7: RAIDING MY ROLLOVER IRA
My rollover IRA comes from 13 years of maxing out my 401(k). It’s large enough to provide an extra $11,000 a year in 3% yielding dividend income if I implement Rule 72(t) until perpetuity. Rule 72(t) allows for the penalty-free early withdrawal of IRA money. If I wanted more than just a 3% dividend income, I can withdraw down principal based on “substantially equal payment periods.”
I’m going to do my best to never touch my IRA. It’s just good to know it’s there for penalty free withdrawal if absolutely necessary. I suggest all of you continue to max out your 401k and IRA and mentally write them both off until you’re 60+.
FINANCIAL BUFFER #8: PHYSICAL LABOR
I will be the best damn burger flipper there is at In N’ Out Burger because I’ve got experience working the grills at McDonald’s. When you start working minimum wage jobs, no job is beneath you. I will earn my $10 an hour with pride and stuff my face during breakfast, lunch, and dinner with complementary cheeseburgers, animal fries, and milkshakes in order to save money. The great thing about In N’ Out is that they also provide health insurance for full-time employees as well. Starbucks does the same, but I don’t drink coffee.
After my eight hour shift is over, I’ll build a website to market my tennis instructor services for $60 an hour for one student, $80 an hour for two students, and $95 and hour for three students. I’ve done it in the past and I know I can build a 10 client roster who will pay for 20 hours worth of instruction a month because I’ve now got the title, “San Francisco 4.5 City Champs 2012” under my tennis resume. Whoo hoo! Given teaching tennis is more lucrative than flipping burgers, I will eventually quit my In N’ Out Burger job once my tennis roster gets large enough. With $1,000+ a month from tennis + $1,600 a month from In N’ Out Burger, things will be tight living in San Francisco if there is no other income, but I’ll survive. I’ll move out of the city if I have to.
FINANCIAL BUFFER #9 TO PHYSICAL LABOR: MENTAL LABOR
If for some reason I can’t get a fast food job or the ladies find me too ugly to hire as a tennis instructor during the day, I’ll ramp up my resume review service and personal finance consulting. I’ve seen way too many people screw up the last mile (the resume and interview) during my time interviewing over 500 candidates who wanted to join a financial services firm.
Can you imagine spending $100,000 – $250,000 in college tuition on your kid who comes homes to live with you because he can’t find a job because he doesn’t know how to properly present himself to prospective employers? Oh, the things I could share that have cocked up many an Ivy League kid trying to get a job at Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, and Google.
Helping clients with the last mile or their personal finances takes a lot of work and is highly rewarding. The end game for this site is to simply lead better lives with less stress, increased security, and more happiness.
FINANCIAL BUFFER #10: CONSULTING FOR A STARTUP
After almost two years of being unemployed, I’ve found some part-time work at a financial-tech startup. You can read about my new adventure in this new post if you haven’t already. I won’t divulge the pay, but it’s in the ballpark for what mid-level engineers in the Valley make. Just go to angel.co/jobs to see the numerous available jobs right now in startup land. It’s amazing. I’m very grateful for the opportunity and I’m having a blast working with smart, energetic, and passionate folks. Working for a startup has been on my bucket list since 1999.
For my second three-month contract, I’m not making any money. I’ve decided to go 100% options instead because I believe in the future of the company and I like to gamble. I don’t want to show up to the liquidity event party as the only poor SOB who didn’t get any shares. I also don’t need the extra cash at the moment.
FINANCIAL BUFFER #11: THE BANK OF MOM AND DAD
I’ve always prided myself on never depending on my parents after college, even in expensive Manhattan where I landed a meager $40,000 base salary job. But I did get my sister’s boyfriend to co-sign a studio apartment for me with my equally poor roommate. I felt bad asking my parents for more help, even though my sister’s boyfriend never had to shell out a nickel since we were good tenants.
But gosh darn it, if I’m financially gutted, I’m coming back home to live with you momma and papa! I will clean the house, prune the garden, take out the trash, wash the dishes, mop the floors, paint the rooms, give you back massages, shuttle you to doctors appointments, and help you spend your pension income to its maximum every month! I promise to not get in your way if you promise not to knock on my door if I have a lady friend over. It kinda ruins the mojo.
FINANCIAL BUFFER #12: ALL OF YOU
If my parents deny me shelter as a 37 year old adult, I will have to ask for donations from all of you! I’ve never asked a penny for writing all these articles that take sometimes 10 hours each to write for your free consumption (this one has probably taken 6 hours). But if I’m dying for money, I hope at least some of you $500,000+ net worth readers will be able spare me at least $10 bucks. If not, I may have to shut this puppy down as I’ll be too busy working at In N’ Out Burger.
Over the years I’ve probably received three hundred e-mails of thanks from readers about how so-and-so article helped them to save, invest, get out of their funk, laugh, or make them feel more confident and happy about their future. Such feedback is one of the big three reasons why I write. The e-mails are like spinach to Popeye. The other two reasons I get up at 5am to write are to keep in touch with my family who are spread all over the world, and to keep a journal for my potential children and grandchildren long after I’ve lost my mind.
FINANCIAL BUFFER #13: SUGAR LADY
Man, I don’t know what I’ll do if none of you donated anything and if my parents don’t let me back in. I know. I will work out like crazy, go read books on better communication skills at the free library, and go to places where financially independent women hang out. Then I will look them in the eyes and listen with great intent as they share their stories with me. Only after they’ve said everything they’ve wanted to say will I then share my roller coaster of a ride life story. With a vulnerable good heart, I hope at least one of them will take me under their wings until I can fly on my own again.
I have friends who retired early because their wives work. I have one friend who does a lot of good work for the arts and the poor around San Francisco because his wife inherited over a billion dollars. There is no shame in being a kept man. Stay at home men of the world, UNITE! We just gotta do a little more manscaping, that’s all.
FINANCIAL BUFFER #14: THE GOVERNMENT
If it so happens that none of you are willing to donate $10 bucks, I’ll apply for government housing and food stamps. I’ve already contributed over seven figures in income taxes to the state and federal government in my working lifetime, so I’m not too proud to ask for some help when I’m most in need.
As part of my agreement to receive government assistance, I will change my tune against Big Government and promise to write laudatory words about government-backed things such as Clash For Clunkers, the marriage penalty tax, ROTH IRA conversions, and taxation based on sexism. I mean, if the median household income is $51,000, why not trade in your perfectly good $5,000 used vehicle to receive a small credit for a $30,000 vehicle? Articles such as, “How to Avoid An Audit Based On Discrimination By The IRS” will cease to exist. Well, maybe for a small fee.
I will serve the machine by no longer empowering individuals to fully understand the true intent of our politicians. I also promise to raise taxes on everyone (except for the middle class) so that we can benefit without paying for the benefits ourselves.
YOU HAVE MORE THAN YOU THINK!
Everything starts with savings, so make saving ’til it hurts a priority in your financial life. Once you get the ball rolling you’ll discover a lot of synergies to creating financial buffers. The more financial buffers you can create, the less stressed you’ll be about money. The less stressed you are about money, the more willing you are to take risks to go after your dreams.
Wealth Building Recommendation: The best way to become financially independent and track your financial buffers is by signing up with Personal Capital. They are a free online platform which aggregates all your financial accounts in one place so you can see where you can optimize. Before Personal Capital, I had to log into eight different systems to track 25+ difference accounts (brokerage, multiple banks, 401K, etc) to manage my finances. Now, I can just log into Personal Capital to see how my stock accounts are doing and how my net worth is progressing. I can also see how much I’m spending every month.
The best tool is their Portfolio Fee Analyzer which runs your investment portfolio through its software to see what you are paying. I found out I was paying $1,700 a year in portfolio fees I had no idea I was paying! They also launched in 2H2015 the best Retirement Planning Calculator I’ve ever seen, pulling real data and running Monte Carlo Simulations to highlight your financials. There is no better free financial tool online.
BONUS FINANCIAL BUFFER BUFFER: In June 2015, I spent 30 hours testing to see what it was like to earn money driving for Uber. I never planned on driving for Uber, but when they offered me $100 in free gas cards at a gas station to sign-up, I figured why not. I uploaded all my docs, got the sticker at the driving center, and switched on the Uber partner app to give it a go.
After 30 hours, I’ve averaged ~$32.25/hour gross. Not bad! Anybody can easily drive for 20 hours a week whenever they want to make an extra $2,000+ a month in spending money. I did most of my driving between 5am – 8am and after 8pm given I hate traffic.
If I lost all passive income, online income, and assets, I would definitely drive for Uber for 40 hours a week (~$4,800/month) and try to teach another 10 hours a week of tennis ($2,000/month) to make ends meet. Finally, new drivers can earn up to $300 in bonus income after making their 20th ride. You can sign up to be a driver today with my friend’s link. It’s a no brainer to at least drive the 20 rides to get the bonus.