From Career Catalysts to Disney Dreams: Our 10-Month Journey towards Financial Independence and Family Growth

2023 Review, Our Year of Progress

by FI Designer

The Designing FI blog was neglected for the past ten months because a lot of changes have been happening. Our actions hopefully will strengthen us individually and bring us closer together as a family. Last year I navigated a career change to fully remote work, our entire family has become more unified around the path to Financial Independence, and we traveled. I hope our story can help motivate you on your path to FI and family growth.

My wife and I have been intentionally pursuing Financial Independence (FI) for over four years. To us FI means building a net worth in which our investments will support our lifestyle, enabling us to make a life’s work out of our passions. I thought we had achieved most of our big exciting wins already and we were now just in the boring middle of our journey until reaching true FI. But the last ten months have been anything but boring. Here I will highlight the actions we have taken last year that we believe will set us up for exponential family growth.

January 2023 – Career Status
I had been working as a structural engineer in the Midwest for the same employer for over 21 years. This was the company whom I interned for in college and gave me my first full-time position after graduating. The firm was good, but I was getting bored and was confident that my skills would be more lucrative elsewhere. It was a mid-sized company and I had watched it nearly double in size since I started. You could say my job was an eight out of ten, not exactly lighting me up every day but not bad enough to leave.

My boredom had been kept at bay during the previous year by the potential opportunity to work on a prominent bridge construction site for two months over the summer of 2023 in the northwest United States. The assignment would have allowed me to take my wife and two kids to stay with me over the summer. We had high hopes of visiting the national parks of South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana during the driving trips out and back.

In January 2023 the timeline of the assignment changed, due to project circumstances outside of my or the employer’s control, and the opportunity vanished. This was a catalyst to make me pursue other career opportunities to either improve the terms with my existing employer or take a better opportunity elsewhere.

March 2023 – EconoMe Conference
EconoMe is a three-day conference dedicated to Financial Independence held in Cincinnati, Ohio. The event has around 300 attendees and includes presentations, workshops, breakout sessions, and social activities. I had never attended a large FI event before and was interested in attending, but my frugality made me reluctant to go. My wife and I agreed that my career and our lives needed inspiration, so we decided that I would attend EconoMe and she would come to Cincinnati with our kids to explore the city. Leaving our kids behind was challenging with our family situation.

“I have never made an investment in myself that has not paid off handsomely… ever. Whether it’s deciding to buy kettlebells when Covid hit and we were unable to go to the gym, or take a course, or buy a book. The spirit of frugality can often times get in the way of what Stephen Covey calls sharpening the saw.”

Julien Saunders on ChooseFI Episode 298 (at 27:20)

Attending EconoMe was more invigorating than I could have imagined. It was a stark contrast to the boring engineering conferences that I attend every year. At EconoMe I was a social butterfly, which was unlike my normal behavior at a conference. These were my people!

I was able to meet and talk to the content creators I had heavily consumed over the last four years on my FI journey. But the true inspiration and invigoration came from meeting fellow attendees who were on the same path as us. At the end of the EconoMe conference, I was energized by what Financial Independence could provide for our family. My wife could see and appreciate what I was feeling but I had wished that she could have experienced the whole event with me.

March 2023 – Job Search
The tactics for job searching that I employed were too much to do justice in this post alone. There is so much actionable information that there will be a future article dedicated entirely to this topic. In this post, I will list the primary resources from the ChooseFI podcast that were most helpful to me.

One crucial item that was not addressed in these resources was that I knew I possessed skills and experience that would make me sought after by recruiters and employers, but my existing resume and LinkedIn profile were not selling my skills adequately. A person that I met at a ChooseFI local meetup recommended I hire a freelancer from Fiverr to write my resume, cover letter, and LinkedIn profile. I used John @resumeplus04 on Fiverr who was a top-rated Professional Resume Writer and HR Consultant. That was the best $200 I ever spent because he was experienced in the HR field and optimized my profiles to rank high in search engine results.

Just days after updating my LinkedIn profile, and being armed with a new resume, fielding recruiter communications and practice interviews became my part-time job.

April 2023 – First Job Offer
In April I received my first compelling job offer. It was from a huge engineering company for a facilities structural engineering position in Tennessee. The work sounded exciting but it was not within the field of bridge engineering which I already had decades of experience in.

My wife and I have been scouting out Tennessee for years because of its many outdoor adventure opportunities and it is a no-income-tax state. Tennessee was at the top of our list of places we would like to relocate to. But this was the first real offer that I had received and even though the salary was higher than my current position, it was roughly equivalent compensation when accounting for tax deferred compensation.

Ultimately I declined the offer because some things did not seem right. First, the firm was pushing too hard for an expedited relocation. Second, our current mortgage was refinanced in 2020 and had a 2.125% interest rate. Selling our house and renting or buying again in the current high mortgage rate environment more than offset all of the savings of going from a high-tax state to a no-income-tax and low-property-tax state.

And last but not least, I knew that by moving into a completely new industry I would feel compelled to retool myself as soon as possible to the detriment of my happiness.

May 2023 – CampFI Mid-Atlantic
CampFI is a three-day and night retreat for Financial Independence that includes speakers, break-out sessions, and a lot of unstructured time for campers to interact and share information. It is currently held at seven locations across the country and has nearly 50 campers at each retreat consisting of people who are pursuing FI and others who have reached FI already. The smaller attendance size makes it much more intimate than EconoMe.

Photo of the CampFI Mid-Atlantic Welcome Sign.

I introduced my wife to the possibility of attending a CampFI because she was not able to attend EconoMe. Much to my surprise, she was eager to go but we needed to figure out child-care for our two kids. My wife was excited to see that CampFI Mid-Atlantic was held over Memorial Day weekend at a youth camp on the James River in Virginia. She had been teaching our kids about Jamestown Settlement that year in homeschool and the original settlement was right across the James River. CampFI Mid-Atlantic also seemed to be the most conducive CampFI to children and the camp facility looked like something directly from the 1961 Walt Disney film Parent Trap.

Photo of the chalets at CampFI Mid-Atlantic.

We agreed to take the entire family and on the drive out we spent a day at New River Gorge National Park to hike and the kids earned the park’s Junior Ranger badge to add to their collection. We also stayed an extra night after camp at a hotel near Jamestown to visit the Historic Jamestowne National Park, earn another Junior Ranger badge, and visit the Jamestown Settlement Museum.

Photo of our family hiking at New River Gorge National Park.
Photo of our family hiking at New River Gorge National Park.

Our children had a life-changing experience at CampFI and listened attentively to the speakers. My five-year-old daughter said, “Girls can do anything” after listening to a female firefighter give a talk on real estate investing, resilience, and overcoming loss as an investor. Then my nine-year-old son asked me, “What stocks do you own?” after watching the Seeking Fire documentary by filmmakers Ian Bawa and Quan Luong. Seizing the opportunity to show my son that we owned pieces of the entire market, I showed him Katie Donega’s interactive infographic breakdown of VTSAX, which visually depicts all the companies that make up the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund.

The synergy within the group at CampFI was like nothing I had ever experienced. My wife said it best, it felt like everybody had their unique “thing”, and others wanted to hear about your “thing” because it may help them with their “thing.”

The following takeaways came from a breakout session called “Transitions” which was especially meaningful to me after turning down the opportunity to relocate to Tennessee.

  • “It’s okay to stop saving during a transition.”
  • “What are you optimizing for?” Optimization can be for happiness, not always money.
  • “Start with the end in mind.”
  • “Scary is fun.”
  • “Don’t make a big decision when a small decision will do.”
  • “You are more resilient than you think you are.”

In summary, CampFI was more powerful than I had imagined at unifying my wife, and family, around the goal of Financial Independence. Our kids want to go back next year. My five-year-old daughter even made a video of herself giving a talk on saving money so she too can be a presenter at CampFI one day. I am not advocating for kids attending CampFI. Ours are somewhat unique in that they interact with adults extremely well and can sit through hour-long presentations. This may be because of homeschooling.

Photo of a goodbye message our kids left for the attendees of CampFI out of rocks.

June 2023 – A New Job
In June one of the recruiters I was closely working with had two senior structural engineering positions in the bridge industry that seemed to be a good fit for me. The positions were at two different firms, in the high-cost-of-living city that I had moved away from over ten years ago and had no intention of moving back to. Both employers were willing to make the position 100% remote for the right candidate. This could allow me to geo-arbitrage the salary of a high-cost-of-living city while I was living in a low-cost-of-living area and retaining my low mortgage rate.

By July I was in late-stage negotiations with both firms, and although it was not my initial intention, having two competing firms gave me additional leverage. When it finally came time to discuss the expected salary, the resources I noted above from the ChooseFI podcast gave me the confidence to negotiate effectively. The asking salary I led with was so high it made me throw up a little in my mouth. The number was even higher than the recruiter felt comfortable asking for, but knowing that I was in late-stage interviews with two similar companies it was now or never.

Both prospective employers gave me offers approximately matching my initial asking salary and I went with the firm that felt like the better fit. I am now making 30% more than my previous job with a 100% remote position.

The new job was not all unicorns and rainbows though. The industry was a slight pivot from the bridges I had been designing in the past and it required me to learn a new design manual. Ultimately it took three months to ramp up for the new position. This included performing design examples in the mornings before work and listening to the oral dictation of a 900-page design manual through the @Voice Aloud Reader (TTS) app while mowing the grass or driving. The app is a great way to consume written information across many formats while performing other tasks.

November 2023 – We’re Going to Disney World!
We took our kids to Disney World at the beginning of November, which conveniently marked the end of my ramp-up phase at work. The Disney trip did not represent any lifestyle inflation from the new job. We used the Step-By-Step Guide to a (Nearly) Free Disney Vacation by ChooseFI to almost entirely cover the cost of flights, hotel, and park tickets for a five-night vacation for a family of four at Walt Disney World.

Our patience and intentionality paid off again in this FI win. We started opening targeted credit cards to receive their sign-up bonuses in January 2023 and by July we had completed the minimum spend to receive the card sign-up bonuses. The following is a summary of the cards we used.

  • Airfare – Chase Sapphire Preferred Card transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Southwest covered the airfare.
  • Hotel – Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Card provided vouchers worth 50,000 points per night and covered the hotel but not the hotel fees.
  • Park Tickets – Capital One Venture Rewards Card was able to erase the expense of the park tickets if purchased through Undercover Tourist because the expense was coded as travel.

Each card was opened twice, once by me and once by my wife, to earn twice the sign-up bonuses.
We pay all of our credit cards off on time and in full such that we never pay interest. All of these cards have $95 annual fees which are summarized in the table below.

Hotel availability was the toughest needle to thread, but with a little bit of luck, we found five nights at the Disney Swan which was eligible for Marriott Bonvoy points/vouchers worth 50,000 points per night. The bottom line expenses for airfare, hotel, park admission, and credit card annual fees ended up allowing our family to experience Disney World for only 20% of the full rack rate.

Breakdown of the major travel expenses (excluding meals) for our family of 4 for a 4-day 5-night Disney World vacation.
Breakdown of the major travel expenses (excluding meals) for our family of 4 for a 4-day 5-night Disney World vacation.

Looking Ahead
I have to admit my head is spinning after all this “taking action” and I’m ready to regain my mental bandwidth. In 2024 we hope to focus more on family adventure wins than FI or career wins. Right now family adventure looks like visiting more national parks because our fourth-grade son has access to the Every Kid Outdoors pass that allows our family to visit national parks for free.

I would like to attend another EconoMe or CampFI in the future but I am not planning to attend in 2024. Instead, I am focusing on involvement in the ChooseFI local groups. I do not believe we would have taken this much action in ten months had it not been for EconoMe, and CampFI but we plan to space these events out going forward. At these FI events, you are surrounded by people who think differently and you can’t help but think differently too.

Call to Action
Please don’t stop here.
If you are interested in attending a large Financial Independence event do not let frugality hold you back. I hope our story inspires you to consider how these experiences and communities can pay off.
If you have any questions about the topics I discussed please comment below.

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