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!