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FIRE, Fat FIRE & Me
How did I end up on the journey to Fat Fire anyway?
It was 2016 and I had just finished my Computer Science degree and moved to London. I used to love the website Stumble Upon, and long before I was a heavy Reddit user, I would spend hours browsing whatever it happened to show me next. I remember it was really late; I have never been a good sleeper (probably because I spend too much time staring at my phone screen) and would often go to work off a few hours sleep.
I hated my first job. I couldn’t figure out if it was because I was still adapting from uni life or maybe just everyone hated working? I know my parents complained about it all the time. Its probably why the next thing I stumbled upon had such an impact on me. It was Mr. Money Mustache’s blog.
If you are not familiar, Mr Money Mustache (or MMM) is a popular FIRE blogger, and has been posting about how he retired from his job as a software engineer at just 30 years old, simply by living way below his means and investing in simple index funds. He has been posting regularly since 2011. I became obsessed with his blog and read from his first post to his most recent over just a few evenings.
I learnt from his blog that FIRE stands for Financial Independence, Retire Early and the easiest way to achieve this is to live frugally, invest in index funds and pay off your mortgage ASAP. Once you amassed enough that you could follow the 4% rule, you could retire (although I have since learnt this rule is in dispute and there is a lot more to it. I intend to write more about this in the future).
It seemed so simple. Why didn’t everyone do this? Why had I never heard about it?
I immediately wanted to work out what it would take for me to retire. I was pretty unsure how to figure out how much I would need, since I was only just starting out with work.
I have always been a budgeter and I still have this note in my phone which was the budget I had in place for my £1952 monthly salary:
I didn’t think there was too much to trim here. I was living in London and £867 for rent and bills was a pretty good price. My food budget was pretty lean. I needed the clothes budget for now as I didn’t own a professional wardrobe at all, but figured I could drop this after retirement as well as hopefully my travel costs. I therefore figured my “yearly expenses” would be around the £17k mark.
I made a spreadsheet to model this which has been long lost to time, but if I put these numbers into the UK FIRE calc here, it gives me the following:
This roughly aligns with what I remember.
I was really disappointed that even if I saved really hard and lived frugally, I’d still have to work until I was 55. I had two options. Reduce costs even more, or increase income. I decided to go after the latter as it seemed easier to me.
I threw myself into my work over the next couple of years… and actually found there was elements of my job I could enjoy. I managed to quite quickly work my way up from £30k → £45k. I did not have any meaningful increase to my expenses at the time and was still saving regularly. By 26, things were looking something like the below; much better!
At this point, I was actually less interested in retiring early; I was somewhat enjoying my job. However, due to some deep rooted psychological issues I still carry with me today, I found the idea of Financial Independence REALLY attractive. I therefore figured that if I stuck to my current trajectory, I could have the optionality to stop working whenever it stopped being fun. This was (and still remains) very appealing to me.
Up until now, I had been working as a consultant. My job mainly consisted of travelling a lot, saying things that sounded technical and making powerpoint. I loved the travelling (it made me feel important) and the people I worked with but I was starting to get this itchy feeling that I was going to “lose” my ability to be a software engineer if I didn’t go back to it. For some reason, it was really important to me that I maintained this skill set. I think it was because of how valued I felt the “technical people” in the consultancy were.
I started using my evenings and weekends to build basic websites, apps and side projects. I fell in love with programming again, and it reminded me why I did a CS degree in the first place. I started daydreaming about doing my side projects whilst at work and suddenly the travel and the powerpoint weren’t so appealing to me. I decided it was time to look around.
As I began my job hunt, I realised just how much I didn’t know. I was a few years into my career at this point, was on a decent salary (£45k) but didn’t really have the requirements for even the most junior Software Engineer roles as I could barely even spell AWS. I did what any recovering consultant would do, and stretched the truth a little. For example, my CV said “Drove an increase in test coverage from 40% → 80% across critical apps”. Not necessarily a lie, I did project manage the project and by drove I asked “when will it be done” a lot and drew pretty graphs.
I started applying for startups in London since this was always a dream of mine and to my surprise I was hearing back! I got 3 interviews and ended up with 2 offers, both matching my 45k salary. However, the one I didn’t get offered is the one that will always stick with me. I was asked to do a recursive algorithm on the whiteboard and I was woefully unprepared for this. I felt my stomach drop when they asked me to do it. “They are going to figure out that I don’t know what I’m doing” I thought.
Over the next couple of years I turned myself into a Software Engineering machine. I would work for 12 hours a day and on weekends because I remained terrified that people would soon figure out that I didn’t know as much as I should. Although the reason for doing it was not a healthy one, this was great for my salary. By age 28 I had increased my salary to ~£70k. London is expensive, but I didn’t lose my frugality for the most part and continued to save every month. I had also always decent contributions to my pensions. Due to this, I was still trending towards being Financially independent.
There was points in this period where I hated my job and I wish I could have quit or retired. I was getting bored and I realized I wasn’t learning too much anymore. Another fear of mine was becoming stagnant and being left behind when the market moved. I therefore decided to try and get ahead of it.
I had heard from other engineers that experience with certain programming language allowed you to command higher salaries as finding people with experience was rare. I was told to look at functional languages such as OCaml or Fortran as they were used by investment banks, but these didn’t interest me at all. I instead started looking at the companies I really admired and dreamed of working for like Google and Netflix and seeing what programming languages they were using and starting to talk about. Two caught my attention. One was Golang, and the other was Rust.
Go and Rust seemed modern and “cool”. The conference talks I had watched on them were coming from really smart people and I wanted to be like them. I decided I was going to learn these languages and try and introduce them at my current work place. This turned out to be the best decision I ever made.
After a few months of learning and writing small amounts of Rust code for my current job, I decided I would try and find a new job where these languages were being used all the time. I applied for roles at two other startups who were popular for using these language and got offered both roles. Amazingly, even my small amount of experience in these languages meant I was able to command a salary of £100k and this new role actually was going to pay me to be on-call too (previously I had just done this for free).
Making 6 figures was a huge milestone to me, and was not something I had ever expected to achieve. At this point I was saving nearly £2,000 every month (as well as making substantial pension contributions) and had built up a considerable nest egg. Retiring early was still was not something I was thinking too much about, but having savings and focusing on FI was what had given me the confidence up to now to “take risks”, move jobs and work for small companies.
Around this time, I bought a house with my partner in the North London suburbs. This drastically impacted by savings and I really struggled with this mentally. “It's an investment” friends told me. Our interest rate at the time of purchase was around 2.5% which seems amazing now. We bought the house for £400k with a £50k deposit and I setup an overpayment for it every month. This has put us in an amazing position as the house has just been valued at £500k and our mortgage balance is just a little over £300k.
Its now 2020 in our story and we’re about to enter the pandemic. There is lots of doom and gloom around startups as people are nervous that VC funding is going to dry up. I learnt that my risk appetite was not as high as I thought it was and I decide that I would go and join a big company to ride out the pandemic. To do this I had to leave behind some stock options in the startup. This may end up being a huge mistake, as it seems it is liquidity events from startups that often lead to people achieving fat FIRE.
Lots of engineers are aware of the phrase FAANG+. It stands for Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix & Google (Sometimes now its called MAANG since Facebook → Meta). The + is there just to denote that there are some other big tech companies that could fit into the bracket too such as Twitter (at least before Elon), Dropbox, Etsy, Pinterest, Microsoft etc. These are seen as the gold standard of engineering companies and are also well known for paying the top of the market. The interview process at these companies are notoriously difficult. In fact, there is whole websites and online courses setup to help you prepare for them. I figured if I prepared for them and failed then I would be well placed to apply for some other big companies anyway.
For a month I got up at 5AM to grind Leetcode and do system design interviews into the bathroom mirror for 4 hours before work. It wasn’t long before I was seeing patterns in the questions and could start to pattern match solutions, even if I didn’t fully understand the fundamental principles sometimes. I also just straight up could not do the hard questions.
I applied to all the big tech companies. Some didn’t respond to me, most I didn’t make it through the LeetCode rounds but for one of them I got all the way to the end and they made me an offer I could not believe. They offered me a base salary of £130k and $200k worth of stock that vested over 4 years. Also they had all these other benefits that were just unheard of at startups. I made no attempt to negotiate and accepted on the spot.
It’s been nearly 3 years since then and I have managed to increase my salary to £150k and have had another stock refresh. I joined at a pretty good time and generally the stock is a lot higher than it was at the point of issue. Due to this, my total compensation for 2021 was around £350k. 2022 and 2023 are going to be less but still in a similar ball park. Furthermore, my role is now fully remote (it might be going hybrid soon) which has given me extra time to pursue other income streams and “side hustles”. I intend to talk about these in future posts.
After the pandemic, I let lifestyle creep happen dramatically. The lockdowns were really hard for me and I lost loved ones and faced medical issues myself (both mental and physical). As we were allowed to travel again, I took full advantage. Since the start of 2022, I have spent tens of thousands of pounds on luxury travel experiences and truthfully, I don’t regret them one bit. I have had a taste of the good life and I want more of it.
In early 2022, I began researching “retiring early without budget” and came across the concept of fatFIRE over on Reddit. I have since learnt there is also a fatFIREUK. fat FIRE is the concept of retiring early and being financially independent but without the frugality. “A life without limits” is how I like to think of it.
Interestingly, there is a huge difference between the US and UK version of the fat FIRE subreddit. I feel like in the UK, we have lower expectations of what it means to be truly wealthy. The US sub talks about buying planes and people with multi million dollar a year incomes, whereas the UK subreddit seems to be mainly people making £200-800k a year. Lots of people much smarter than I have tried to define what fat FIRE means, but here is what I am personally aiming for:
Can travel business class long haul.
Can stay in luxury hotels.
(once retired) can vacation 5+ times a year.
Do not have to think about day to day purchases.
Can eat out whenever I like.
Can help friends, families and charities out as I desire.
These are all pretty loose. I think the lifestyle outlined above (assuming no mortgage) would cost around £80,000 a year. If I was to retire at 45 (in 15 years) and follow the 4% rule, I would need to have £2,000,000 available across my ISA and my pension. As of right now, I have £390,000 which is surprisingly close to my original FIRE number. If I was MMM, I could probably start thinking about retiring!
Can I achieve fat FIRE? maybe, and this blog is to document my journey to trying.
There will be tons of hurdles and roadblocks along the way. I am also aware that the technology job market is ropey at the moment which is why I am committed to building extra income streams. I still remember how to frugal, so if I lose my great job, I have budgets prepared for various levels of income that I can enact very quickly. I also would love to found my own startup one day.
If this post was interesting to you, please subscribe to be the first to hear about my new posts which will include information about other income streams I have built, the side projects I have failed horribly to monetise as well as interview with other software engineers who have already FIRE’d!