I Traded Income for Flexibility & Regret Nothing

“This free company latte really takes the sting out of missing my kid’s first word!”

While chatting with one of my clients a few weeks back, the topic of the hours I bill on a monthly basis came up. The client represents the vast majority of my income, and despite their small size and limited funding, they always cut me a check immediately after I issue an invoice. I like them a lot, so I do my part to be respectful in my billing practices. I never bill for my travel time and always cap my work days at eight hours, even if my day goes a little (or a lot) long.

The topic of the conversation was actually about how they would like me to bill for more hours on a monthly basis for a number of reasons. One thing my client said really jumped out at me: they mentioned that they had given raises to a few of my colleagues at the company, but since I am a contractor, I hadn’t benefitted from that. If I wanted to work some more hours going forward, they said, that would be just fine.

I thought for a brief moment and said, “Thank you so much for thinking of my interests.  Honestly, I am happy with the amount I bill per month. You pay me in flexibility, and that’s worth more to me than a raise or more hours.”

How could I– a FIRE blogger, someone who ostensibly wants to finish working for good not just soon but as soon as humanly possible– turn down a chance to make even more money?

It was easy.

The Dark Side of Silicon Valley Perks

To understand my thought process, it would help to briefly discuss the kinds of perks and benefits to which engineers here in Silicon Valley have grown accustomed. Companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook lavish their engineers not just with outsized salaries, but also with goodies like 24-hour cafeteria service, on-campus medical facilities, gyms, and wifi-equipped buses to and from work. In an unscientific poll of my peers in the area, these kinds of perks play a huge role in deciding to accept a job with one of these companies.

The problem is, each and every amenity in the workplace is another chain imprisoning you at your desk. Companies aren’t providing you with meals and transport because they like you– they’re doing it because they want you to stay at work for as long as humanly possible.

Exhausted after a long day and need to get cleaned up? No problem, the company gym has showers and luxury toiletries. Close to a deadline, but famished? Don’t go out, there’s a Michelin-starred chef serving up gourmet fare in the company cafeteria. When all of your needs are met at work, these companies reason, there’s little excuse to go home other than to sleep (and many companies will offer you a place to do that, too!).

A Career-long Desire For Flexibility

While I feel like I get paid very generously, when you compare my income to that of an engineer at <insert Silicon Valley megacorp here>, I actually make less per year than most of their engineers make straight out of school, despite my 15+ years of experience. At my age, engineers at Apple or Facebook make two to three times what I make.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally fantasize about ending up at one of those plush companies– at our current level of spending, we would be FIRE in just a couple years! The thing is, as I’ve often said, stress is a chronic and ultimately fatal illness. I always decide that the sacrifices I would have to make in my relationships with my wife, my child (who is due to be born at literally any moment), my pets, and my friends aren’t worth it.

Even if I made it through the crucible of that kind of high-stress, unbalanced lifestyle for a few years, I would never know how many weeks, months, or years of my precious and irreplaceable time I had sacrificed. There is no amount sufficiently large to make me prioritize work above the things that really, truly matter to me.

Put another way: How much would I have to pay you to write off your relationship with your spouse or significant other? How much is enough for you to accept missing your child’s first steps, first laugh, or first word? What would it cost for you to miss the last moments in the life of a pet or loved one? As bloggers and readers with a passion for personal finance, our first instinct is often to maximize income and defer satisfaction– but if you can put a price on any of those things, you have lost your way.

As a result of this kind of thinking, I’ve always found myself making a bit less (but still more than enough), having fewer perks and amenities (but still more than enough), and knowing that getting to FIRE would take us a tiny bit longer than it might otherwise. But you know what? I’m always home for dinner. I take my wife to the gym multiple times a week. I love her as much– more, even– than I did on the day we got married. If a friend needs me, I can be there with no questions asked. I have a job that will let me work from home (mostly left alone) for several weeks after the baby arrives, and where I can be certain I’ll be rested and ready for labor and delivery. They’ve accepted some changes to my work situation (which we’ll tell you more about next year) without a word of complaint.

With all of this flexibility and freedom to be present when it matters, I have to say that I feel very rich indeed.

Have you ever given up pay for flexibility, or vice versa? Tell me a story in the comments!

18 thoughts on “I Traded Income for Flexibility & Regret Nothing

  1. RoadToFire

    Hi there,
    I am regular reader of blog and fellow traveler on FIRE journey.
    It is kind of comforting to know someone has made similar trade off…:)

    I am S/W engineer living in bay area with ~17 years of s/w experience. I am working as consultant remotely for last ~6 years. I often feel jealous after hearing stories of crazy salaries/perks of many bay area cos, but then I remember the ultimate flexibility of working from anywhere (with decent internet connection) and “automatic” work-life balance.

    Good luck. Hope to catch you in some FIRE meetup in bay area!

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Amazing! Congratulations to you, and it’s nice to hear from someone has taken a similar path as well. I hope that you are making the most of your amazing flexibility! We have only begun to scratch the surface of ours, but that will change someday very soon!

      1. RoadToFire

        I would say I am not making most as wife is not on board with my dream of slow travelling world. I really can’t blame her, even I am not sure with 2 kids. but some day!
        By the way your tool, the earth awaits is totally awesome! Thanks!

  2. (Dr.) Mark Doctoroff

    About 35 years ago, my finance & I seriously looked at our “work life imbalance”. While we were earning a substantial salary, like many others we spent most of it! We decided that “radical changes were essential” to redress the imbalance. This initially involved buying a sailboat and saving as much money as possible while continuing to enjoy life!!
    After 2 years we departed for the small islands in the Eastern Caribbean.
    We stayed on the boat for 6 years and then moved ashore when we decided to stay in one place and “develop business opportunities” while working part time AND continuing to travel in the Caribbean and Europe for at least 4-6 months a year. We departed the Caribbean in 2009- due to the Financial crisis… and moved to SE Asia- where we still live a wonderful fully retired life- travelling globally about 6+ months/year… IT IS VERY POSSIBLE TO RE-BALANCE one’s life while also maximising joys/fun & adventures!!

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      What an amazing adventure! That sounds like exactly what life should be about, once you’ve established a base level of financial security: designing the lifestyle that makes you truly happy, and maybe making a living you enjoy along the way!

  3. Steveark

    I respect your choice of flexibility over pay and perks. But while you see it as placing your family above your job that isn’t true for some of us. I worked a demanding job for decades for great pay and perks but more than that, it was fun! I was affirmed and grew as a person and had wonderful experiences I could not have had without my job. My family didn’t suffer, my wife and I are still in love after 40 years of marriage and my 3 grown millennial kids are all self supporting great adults who love and respect me. I know your choice was best for you but mine was optimal for me. Great blog!

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Fair enough, Steve! In the end it’s all about choosing the path that works for you and your family, and I wanted to encourage others to set their own measure of success! I am sincerely glad to hear that it has been a joyful and fulfilling path for you, and wish you many more years of the same!

  4. Mary

    This is not so unusual if you look at this from a different perspective. This is common practice for women who happily slow down or even stop their careers to take care of their children. I kept a part-time job with no benefits and a per hour salary much lower than a full-time job so I could work from home and raise my children. I don’t regret it a minute and I don’t think you will either. It is great to see men doing this too including taking more than a day or two when a baby is born. I wish your family the best.

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      That is a very good way to look at it— thank you for the mom’s perspective. I hope it didn’t come across the wrong way, actually- It has been so satisfying for us as a family to define our own standard of “success.” I am proud to share the experience and the effort with my wife, and see so many advantages ahead thanks to some of these alternative choices.

  5. Fervent Finance

    I was recruited by another company doing the same thing I do now. Potential comp was almost 2x what I make now. I decided not to move forward with interviewing with them a couple times. The main reason would be that I would have to live in a major US city and my hours at work and on my computer would go up. I already work a lot with a schedule that already has some late nights and weekend work. I like where I live and I don’t want to work MORE for more money at this point in my life. I think you’ve made the right moves for you and your family!

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Exactly, it sounds like you and I are on a similar wavelength. Even though I’m in my 30s, I still feel like I’m on the “downswing” of working, if that makes sense. I’m probably in the “prime earning years” for my profession, but the world is too great and wide and interesting for me to spend more effort and time than necessary at my job!

  6. @Luxthrift

    Oh what a great life. I often wonder whether I should work a ridiculous amount at a company like Google or Facebook for a couple of years to “catch up” to where I think I should have been now in my FIRE journey.

    However, I stay at my marvellous company where I work mainly 10-6, am encouraged to go home if there’s not much on and generally have an amazing work culture. It might take longer to FIRE but at least I’ll be happy on the journey there.

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Yes, exactly! 7:30-3:30 life, in my case! Sounds like you have your priorities straight! It’s definitely tempting to pick up that ridiculous paycheck, but the grass isn’t always greener and there are always trade-offs. 🙂

  7. Steve Burkett

    I 100% feel the same thing (working less, more flexibility, good w/ less $ for the benefit). However….my experience has been it’s a lot more difficult in practice to find this sort of arrangement. Most companies i’ve come into contact with want full time employees (because they can find them, and they can more easily “manage” them into a lower marginal cost relationship).

    I’ve seen many companies trim the “fat”…contractors that are not “manageable”, excessive costs, part-time “less manageable” resources, employees/contractors that are stir up the pot of jealous and/or odd hours, etc etc. so I suppose…there’s that associated risk.

    I’m hoping to one day find an enlightened employer that wants amazing experience, mentoring for others, and great productivity for less $$ and for me, 1/2 time or a similar flexibility… just not easy to find imo.

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      I am sure that for lots of people/professions/locations, finding this kind of flexibility is tricky– I have been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, develop good relationships, and to have a skillset that is often in demand. I’ve also worked for companies that are competing for bodies with big tech, and have to offer some level of flexibility to offset the comparatively lower compensation.

      As I mentioned in the other thread you commented on, of course there is *some* risk any time you walk away from a perfectly good job/ask for an arrangement that mostly benefits you. That said, if you’re (I think this was what you were saying in the moving abroad thread) ~2 years away from FIRE, odds are you could already be FIRE somewhere with some additional flexibility. My family, at ~$650K accumulated, could for sure be lean FIRE a lot of places that would make us really happy in Central and South America, SE Asia, and even here in the US. My wife and I really aren’t concerned about ending up in a situation where we would both be completely unable to find any work, anywhere, that would allow us to simply tread water for 5-10 years while we wait for our already-accumulated investments to hit a more luxurious FIRE number. I’m confident enough that we could find something– anything— to at least support a lifestyle we could live with while we wait, so we’re comfortable making some adjustments for personal happiness.

  8. gofi

    My challenge is slightly different in that I could look for a job that’s more challenging (with a higher pay), and trade my current comfortable job for that. But I digg that you’re taking care of the more important things in life.

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