Is it FIRE or just FI

This pandemic just keeps dragging on, and it’s very interesting to observe how people are handling it all across the globe. When things got started, Asia was on the forefront of effective handling of the pandemic. Vietnam, Thailand, Korea, Japan, Singapore. We managed here to keep infections and deaths on the low, as people were quick to adapt to protective measures and limitations on economic activity. Europe and the US were lagging behind, and there were frequent discussions on what the west can learn from the east in the future.

But now the tides have turned. While Europe and the US is on track to full recovery, here in Thailand I feel like we are back to where it all started. Lockdowns, economic restrictions. It’s like we got stuck somewhere along the way, and can’t find a way to move forward.

This is of course mainly due to the lack of efficient vaccines. Herd immunity is apparently not an option with this virus now circulating in the form of several diverse mutations, and our natural immune system not offering the long-term protection that would be required to keep infections at bay. To top it off, the SinoVac and SinoPharm vaccines aren’t working well, and the local production of AstraZenecca has stalled for whatever reason.

FIRE vs. FI

But let me stop here before I get political. My point is, that since this pandemic keeps dragging on and I am spending more time at home than usual, I realized a few things. One of those things is that I really don’t want to retire any soon. I like to work, and I miss having more action in my hotels, in my office, and spending more time with my guests. I like spending time with people, and the idea of retiring early and spending much more time on non-productive things feels a little less desirable after more than one year of Covid.

I know that there are thousands of people who don’t want to work at all. People who don’t want to report to anyone, to not depend on anyone, and to not being micro-managed by anyone. I am also fairly often at odds with myself over all these work-necessities, which make me sometimes feel not free, dependent, and all the negative notions that accompany these points.

But retiring early… honestly right now, it doesn’t seem for me like the right thing to do. I want to work. I might get out of the hotel business and do something else, become a consultant or stock analyst, turn to freelancing or whatever. But I am pretty sure that I will keep working for a long time to come.

So my goal changes from FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) to FI (Financial Independence).

It may not sound like much, but there is a significant point to it: Since I will keep working for a long time to come, I can be a little less frugal. I don’t need to maximize my savings all the time, because with a continuous stream of income from work, I have significantly more time to reach retirement. Striving “only” for financial independence first will give me the feeling of security and freedom that I want and need, while not thinking too much about retirement will take some stress and pressure out of the equation.

What’s the right thing for you?

Being financially independent offers a lot of options to do things that you actually want to do. If you don’t worry anymore about a low income, then you can start a new career, change your field of expertise or interest. Hell, you could even do an internship again in your 40s or 50s. Why not? It can open up some very exciting opportunities for you to learn more about the world, to pursue dreams which you set aside when you were younger due to financial concerns, or simply to just gain new perspectives. For me, this is absolutely “good enough”.

But of course, this means that hanging out on the beach all day and sipping Jim Beams with Coke will have to wait. That’s probably for the better anyway.

Cutting through the noise

We live in a time where information is abundant. The internet has become this fantastic tool, that gives us the opportunity to connect and access information all around the globe. We can read blogs (like this one), and we can gain access to newspaper articles and magazines. We can connect to professional writers and to amateurs. To complete strangers writing on some Reddit boards, or to follow the thoughts of such successful personalities like Warren Buffett.

The amount of information on the net is amazing. But it also creates a lot of noise. We can’t trust everything we read. It’s often hard to differentiate a fact from an opinion. Numbers can be skewed and often require to be verified. And we never truly know the agenda of anyone who puts things out there for others to read. Finding reliable sources is more challenging than ever.

Finding the right information

I spent a lot of time looking for informative sites, that can feed me investment ideas, offer some basic stock analysis, and that have enough followers to know that they actually have an impact when they write something. And (actually not surprisingly) I ended up with a slim selection of mostly professional analysts and journalists.

All this talk about mainstream media and fake news is just that. Talk. But fact is that people who actually work in and for the business still remain the most credible sources out there. Because they learned that stuff. They know how to gather information. They know how to ask questions. They know when something doesn’t “smell” right, and they have the means to dig deeper. They are being paid to do that.

The WIRECARD scandal in Germany would have been on a much smaller scale, if people were trusting more The Financial Times than some blogs and forums which were hyping the stock. Reading the Financial Times is also seriously more educating in the field of finance, even though I don’t like their political stance. The New York Times can give us more accurate ideas about what’s happening in the world than any Facebook forum. And a forum for professional investors like Seeking Alpha can give us much more valuable information than Reddit. I also like to regularly take a look at the finance section of Yahoo! (https://finance.yahoo.com) which is incredibly informative and the last piece of Yahoo! that still has some value to me and to many professional investors.

Verifying is key

But no matter where you do your due diligence, I still recommend to go a step further and to trying to verify the information you read. Are the numbers of the company that you want to invest in really matching up? Go to their investor relations website and download their annual report. Is the new technology they are touting really so revolutionary? Google it and read about it from some sceptic voices. It’s good to know alternatives and other perspectives, and these might actually lead you to other, better ideas.

About being independent

I have been working now for about 27 years. I started in 1994 when I was 14. This was the legally allowed minimum age in Germany when teens were allowed to have part-time jobs at that time. And since I started, I never stopped.

Filling in shelves in supermarkets, fixing computers, tutoring math, working as a part-time instructor at our local martial arts gym, doing translations in German, Polish and Korean, teaching German and English. And when times got rough, I was working on construction sites, painting walls and fences or digging holes around houses. I also did two years of a vocational training in a bank and got certified as a martial arts stuntman. The day never seemed long enough to follow up on all my commitments, which continued throughout high school, university, and until I finally settled on the hotel industry.

When I started working in hotels in 2008 I was already 28 years old and just about to finish my Bachelor’s degree. I started with an internship, and then became a full-time employee.

I loved the job and the industry. Traveling the world, meeting people from all walks of life, and being paid to do that. I went to Korea, Japan, China, Scotland, back to Germany and finally to Thailand. I didn’t mind working 12-14 hours a day, often 6 to 7 days a week. I didn’t mind working when others had holidays, missing Christmas and New Years events. And I didn’t mind the low payment. All I wanted was to travel to exotic places and to be meeting people, learning about their stories, and solving the problems they had during their stays in “my” hotel.

This attitude and flexibility allowed me to promote quickly. By 2014 I was already 2nd in charge of a large hotel operation, and by 2017 I became a General Manager. Starting late and after only a little more than 8 years on the job.

Things are sometimes not what they seem

Becoming a General Manager was my dream. I wanted to be fully in charge. To make all the decisions. To be the one who can really make a difference and implement all the things that would make my hotel great.

But after becoming a General Manager, I became quickly disillusioned. Between the actual guest requests, the requirements of hotel owners, the corporate office, and the whims of the companies vice presidents and executives for operations, sales, marketing, finance, and all the other people involved, there is actually very little room to navigate.

I enjoyed being a GM for a very short time. Yes, the salary and benefits were finally coming closer to the actual effort, but I still didn’t feel to have the full freedom to do what I wanted and how I wanted. I still had to justify myself, had to restrain and to adjust my processes and ideas to what everyone else wanted. I used to think that the General Manager of the hotel has all the power to make a hotel truly great, but the reality is that a General Manager is barely performing a balancing act, holding up a house of cards that is constantly being pulled by different people from different directions, each of them with different agendas and varied interests. The job is truly not what I expected it to be.

Time to get real

That’s when I came to realize, that no matter how much I would push myself, how much effort I would put into my job, how much time I would dedicate trying to appease everyone who is higher in rank, I would never get to the point where I would consider myself to be free. Even IF I would pull off the impossible and become CEO of a hotel company, between shareholders, the board of directors, and majority stakeholders, I still wouldn’t be free to do things the way I want.

So there is only one solution. I need to do what I can to become financially independent, and then, only then, I will have the freedom to do things the way I want.

Starting my own business will be another key step, but given my current responsibilities towards my family, I need to be cautious. Every successful entrepreneur tells you how liberating it is to be your own boss, but having worked in a bank, I also know that more than 80% of businesses fail in the first year of operations. I can’t put my family through that.

So, I am working diligently, saving and investing. And in about 4 years from now I should get to the point that I can give real independence another try. I will be 45 by then. Maybe a little late. But the game is not over at half-time.