Women on FIRE – Laurie from Three Year Experiment

Hi all! I have an awesome interview for you today. Some time ago, I published a great post about moms seeking financial independence. People in the personal finance community often think there aren’t a lot of women out there, but they couldn’t be more wrong. Just check out this post from Tread Lightly, Retire Early with a hundred different sites from women from all walks of life writing about money!

One of the reasons I started my original Breadwinning, Six Figure, Millionaire Moms series was to showcase the stories of successful women. But I knew that series was leaving out other amazing women who didn’t fall neatly into those three categories. So I’ve been thinking about starting a new series, one that showcases women seeking financial independence. I’m calling this series “Women on FIRE” – Financially Independent, Retire Early (or Financially Independent, Retirement Elective for those that don’t want to actually retire).

And for the first entry in this series I’m excited to share with you the story of my online friend Laurie from the Three Year Experiment. We’ve met in person before at a Boston meetup, and I can say that she’s as awesome in person as she is online. She’s on a mission to double her families net worth in the next three years and become location independent. I’m really excited to get to share her story with you today!

So let’s learn all about Laurie, her family, and their financial independence journey.

Tell us about yourself!

 My name is Laurie, and I’m a 38-year old writer, mom, wife, and ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) Teacher. When I was 22, I decided to move to a continent I’d never been to, with no job, no prospects, and only a month stay lined up with a family I’d never met.

 I guess you could say I’ve always been an adventurer.

 My idea was to “conquer” Santiago with the force of my mind. “Don’t worry,” I told everyone, “I’m going to get a job my first day looking!” The dark underside of all this false bravado was that I developed an ulcer before I went, lost 20 pounds, and couldn’t eat or drink anything when I first arrived. I was scared, see. But something in me pushed through with this plan I’d hatched and I went anyway.

 The crazy thing was, I found a job on my very first day looking. I found a place to live with three amazing roommates. We negotiated a contract with a Chilean landlord in an “un-negotiable” market. I figured out how to speak the language. And I met the love of my life.

 It was definitely an accident. All of my friends had told me before I left that I was going to meet a Chilean and fall in love. “Not happening,” I told them. “Those Latino men are way too machismo for me.” But on a random Friday morning, in an insurance company, a tall, dark, and handsome Chilean started asking me questions in English, and that was the end of that. Apparently, he figured out I was the new American working at our language institute because it was clear to him I hadn’t showered that morning. I still haven’t put the pieces of that one together. But that meeting started us off on a lifetime of two strong personalities making a life together.

 Fast forward sixteen years, and we now live in New Hampshire, have two boys, aged 10 and 7, and work as a marketing manager and an English teacher. Part of the reason we live here now, even though I was born and raised in South Carolina, has to do with our other story, that of achieving debt freedom and financial independence, which I’ll cover below. But it’s definitely not the end of our story.

The ThreeYear Family at Mr. ThreeYear's US Citizenship Ceremony last May
The ThreeYear Family at Mr. ThreeYear’s US Citizenship Ceremony last May

 People move away from New Hampshire to get to South Carolina, and not the other way around! But we moved up north, so that my husband could take a job that would provide a great work life balance and lots of stability. And here we are, in our seventh winter here, trying to ignore the -12 F temperatures and endless gray, snowy skies.

 The only problem with this state, which is truly a lovely outdoor wonderland and a great place to raise the boys, is that it is very far from everyone we love. My family is still (unsurprisingly) happily settled in the Carolinas, currently braving the 60 degree winter chill, and debating whether to move the orange tree inside this year. My husband’s family is all in Santiago, a 22-hour travel time away from us.

 Being far away from our families is difficult, especially because we’re both very close to them. But it’s hard to leave stable jobs, good schools, and hike-able trails without a serious incentive. So one year ago, right after I turned 37, our family hatched another wild plan, which we dubbed The Three Year Experiment. We decided to double our net worth in the next three years, or when I turned 40, and become location independent, so we could be closer to family, relocate internationally, and/or cut the golden handcuffs that currently tie us to one geographic location. I document our journey on my blog, and write about what we’re doing to make our big, hairy, audacious goal a reality.

 How did you become interested in personal finance and financial independence? 

It was back in July of 2008, when Mr. ThreeYear (as he’s known on the blog) and I were living in sunny Atlanta, Georgia. We had just had our first son, Junior ThreeYear, and I had transitioned to stay-at-home-mom, from an account executive at an Atlanta advertising agency, which meant a 45% drop in our income and a loss of our (until then, free) insurance. Mr. ThreeYear had been laid off that January as a result of the giant recession we lived through back in 2008-2010, but luckily found another job quickly. It was a contractual, not-so-stable job, but brought in a steady paycheck. We’d just bought a house at the top of the real estate market with 5% down, and carried about $38,000 in car loans and credit card debt, not counting our mortgage. To say that our economic prospects were uncertain was an understatement. We felt stressed about money and it showed–in constant arguments, weight gain, and general insecurity and stress.

 It was with that backdrop that I found myself in Barnes and Noble on Independence Day (foreshadowing!!!), browsing in the personal finance section of the store. I’d always been interested in money, and we’d done on-again, off-again investing in the years leading up to our son’s birth. But we knew nothing about debt, or getting out of it. So when I stumbled across Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover, it was a revelation. I vowed it would be the last book I’d buy that year, took it home, and sold Mr. ThreeYear on the idea of killing off all our debt and starting on the path to financial freedom. It took 18 months, and lots and lots of willpower, dedication, gifts, and selling things, but we finally got rid of our debt. During that time, Mr. ThreeYear was laid off again and subsequently rehired by the first company that had laid him off (you can’t make this stuff up). He even negotiated a 20% raise. But, it was contract work again, so our sense of an unsteady financial future still loomed.

 Mr. ThreeYear was tired of worrying about job security, so he started to look for work with other companies. When he found a company in New Hampshire with a no layoff policy and great benefits, he was sold! We moved to New Hampshire after one visit, when I was eight months pregnant with our second son. During the seven-and-a-half years we’ve lived here, we’ve continued to learn more and get better at our finances. We’ve gone from a negative net worth in Atlanta to a sizable net worth in just under ten years. And last year, we increase our nest egg by 32%! But we’re still not at a place where we can live off our investments, so we keep saving.

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What does FIRE mean to you? 

For our family, financial independence means the ability to reduce, but not completely eliminate, our dependence on paid work, at least for right now. When we reach our goal of doubling our net worth, we won’t be completely financially independent, because our spending levels are high (at least within the FIRE community). But that level of net worth will give us several options:

  1. The opportunity to take a few years off from paid work completely and travel
  2. The opportunity to take one or two lower-paying or part-time jobs
  3. The opportunity to relocate without jobs in place
Junior ThreeYear floating in the Cejar Salt Lagoon in the Atacama Desert
Junior ThreeYear floating in the Cejar Salt Lagoon in the Atacama Desert

A higher net worth will ultimately give us the flexibility to explore several living/working possibilities. We eventually plan to become fully financially independent, so that we don’t need to rely on paid work for income. But, we also know that if we keep working until we hit full financial independence, our oldest son will have already started high school, and we don’t want to delay our travel or relocation adventures that long. We only have a few more years while the kids are relatively young to have adventures as a family, at least without disrupting their high school years (where they’re more likely to have activities, sports, and friends that would make them want to stay in one school). So we want to do it now, rather than wait until we’ve possibly missed the window.

 What’s unique about pursuing financial independence as a woman – and a mom? 

I don’t know a lot of other women or moms (outside of the personal finance space on the web!) who are as interested in pursuing financial independence as I am. In fact, many women I know seem mystified by the process. I have poignant conversations with female friends all the time about the financial issues they’re struggling with. For many of them, college loans are a huge concern. I was sharing with one friend how college costs are so ridiculously high (meaning for my kids) and she thought I meant my own college loans. She told me that she and her husband still have the same principal to pay off—over $100,000! – that they did thirteen years ago, because they’ve just been paying the minimum on their college loans. Of course her husband has made all of those decisions about deferring those loans and paying thousands in interest.

 It’s rare that moms who aren’t the main breadwinner feel empowered to make financial decisions. But why shouldn’t we? Families make conscientious decisions about who works based on earning potential, and one spouse staying home means that the other spouse is able to earn more and worry less about domestic issues. Although I “only” bring in a fraction of our total income with my part-time job as an ESOL Teacher, I allow Mr. ThreeYear to fully focus on doing his best job at work (and thereby earn the highest raise possible, get promotions, etc.) by freeing up much of the decision-making process, handling all the financials, and doing the rote logistical tasks of managing the kids’ schedules.

Mr. ThreeYear and Little ThreeYear in Moon Valley, Atacama.jpg

 One of the biggest issues that single moms (and moms in general) have, I am convinced, is the issue of mental overload. They are juggling transportation schedules, car repairs, making their money last to the end of the month, and getting their kids to dance practice on time. I read a fascinating book called Scarcity that discusses how a limited amount of mental bandwidth makes it almost impossible to effectively manage your time and/or money. I remember listening to podcasts where these lifestyle guru men would say things like, “Invest in yourself! Sit down at 8pm and listen to this podcast about how to better invest your finances!” and I would think, “You are obviously a man, because it doesn’t even occur to you that this is impossible for a mom with young kids who has homework and bedtimes to juggle!”

 This limited mental bandwidth plagues modern-day moms, especially moms who work full-time and still manage their homes and kids’ schedules. It’s why I believe that if possible, couples do well to have one spouse stay home, or take on part-time or flexible work. Ultimately, this frees up enough mental bandwidth to make sure the couple is working focused and efficiently towards achieving their financial goals, and not just being reactionary. Yes, families can earn more if both partners work full time, but that often means less time to think about and optimize saving and investing, and probably less saved over time.

 I fully admit that choosing to have one partner stay home is a decision of privilege, and that not everyone can afford to make such a decision—after all, it presupposes two healthy, employable adults in your house. However, if you think hard about your financial decisions, sometimes it’s more attainable than it might first look. A friend shared with me yesterday that she’s “forced” to go back to work full-time because her son is going to college next year, and she has no other choice. However, I know that she and her husband both drive large, late-model, luxury SUVs. Since she’s going to work as a para-educator, and will maybe earn $18,000 a year for full-time work, she could probably find ways to keep her current part-time, flexible job if they traded their cars in for a smaller, fuel-efficient sedans or hatchbacks. (She also told me they have a “spare truck,” their 4th car, which they only use for hauling things). I’m not judging her choice in cars. I’m just thinking logically about ways she could use her resources more efficiently so that she wasn’t “forced” into a full-time job she didn’t want and be more available to help her household run more efficiently. (CMO note – I have also noticed this habit in friends and co-workers. They feel “forced” to work but have second homes and SUVs).

 What advice would you have for other women and moms on this path?

 I’m a huge believer in the power of habits and goals. But before you can change your everyday habits to achieve your goals, you have to take the time to figure out what it is that you really want. So my first piece of advice is:

 1. Take time every day to think. This is one of the hardest pieces of advice for moms, including me, to follow, but it’s profound. If you think about really successful and creative entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs or Sara Blakely, they carve(d) out time every day for thinking. Find time in your schedule, if at all possible, to take a walk in nature (which has profound benefits on clearing and resetting our minds), stare off into space, and just think. Not about anything in particular. But giving yourself this margin of space in your life will reap tremendous benefits. It’s why I always come back with tons of new ideas for the blog and a renewed list of goals after a vacation, and why taking walks means a less-muddled, more focused brain. I’m giving my brain the opportunity to work out some of the problems and decisions I’ve been faced with, in a sub-conscious way.

2. Create daily habits that work for you, not against you. Last year, I systematically set out to re-work twelve negative habits in my life (one per month) and turn them into positive habits that helped me and my family reach our goals faster. I failed a lot. But I also succeeded in creating some life-changing habits that make my days so much happier and more efficient!For the complete list and how it worked, check out this post.

 3. Don’t be afraid to set a big, hairy, audacious goal, even before you know how to get there (I know this is something CMO has written about too! CMO note – yes, I have). I’m not going to lie: we still don’t know how we’re going to create location independence for ourselves, exactly. We are figuring it out as we go! But we have gotten farther and figured out many more steps on the path than we would have if we’d never set the goal for ourselves. As Eleanor Roosevelt reminded us: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face… You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

The Junior ThreeYears looking out over the city of Santiago
The Junior ThreeYears looking out over the city of Santiago

 Where can readers find you?

 Thanks so much for sticking with me this far!  We would be absolutely delighted if you came to visit us at The Three Year Experiment, gave us a shout out on Twitter, or followed our crazy winter antics on Instagram. Also, leave me a comment or question in the Comments Section here! And thanks to you, CMO, for creating a space where women and moms can connect to talk about finance. I’m so grateful for the chance to share my story with your readers!

CMO Here Again

Of course I’m happy to help share your story, Laurie! I know it will be inspirational to other women – and moms – who might be interested in pursuing a financial path that’s different than the “mainstream.” And I’m glad that I have this platform to help share all different inspiring stories from all different women.

Like Laurie, I know few people in my “real life” interested in personal finance the same way I am. And in fact, the few people I do know are men. So it’s been great to become part of this online community of awesome women, and I’m glad to be able to share their stories and motivate others!

Be sure to leave a comment for Laurie – and if you’re interested in participating, drop me an e-mail at liz@chiefmomofficer.org! I’d love to hear from you.

Interested in more stories on women seeking financial freedom? Find the full list here.

Be sure to follow my blog for more great posts via e-mail or WordPress, or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter and say hello! You can also check out what I’m buying or baking on Instagram,  what I’m pinning on Pinterest, or the latest books I’m reading (or want to read) over on Goodreads.

18 thoughts on “Women on FIRE – Laurie from Three Year Experiment”

  1. Great story! I did the same thing after school – one way ticket to the other side of the Rock with no job or contracts in my field, very little money but the conviction that all will work out. I was based in Southeast Asia for a little over 11 years doing work I loved.

    And good points about the less than realistic ideas from the men in this arena. I have been obsessed with being location independent since returning to this country about 2 years ago. I’m a bit stuck as my elderly mom loves nyc and won’t leave but my family is working towards those goals above.

    Thanks for the many things to think about!

    Any tips on meeting like minded folks? I followed the links listed above.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Nathalie! How amazing that you were in Southeast Asia for 11 years! I can completely understand why you want to be location independent! Check out The Three Year Experiment’s “Location Independent, International Jobs” series for lots of stories of people who are doing the same thing/want to do the same thing we are. All of them have contact info on how you can get in touch with questions. One of the things that’s constantly evolving for us is the idea of how our location independence is going to look. We still don’t know. But working to our goals and taking trips along the way keeps giving us new ideas for ways we can be close to family and travel. Good luck to you and your family!!

  2. Awesome story and I fully appreciate the golden handcuffs and your aspirations for location Independence…I am not a mom but I hear you about all of this. Seems like you are on the right path! Since we are the same age I hope we both find more time Independence by 40!

  3. I love your story! We are nearing 40 too and the desire to reach financial independence is growing stronger every year. I would love for my husband to be able to work less and to do more travel. Keep up your awesome progress!

  4. Thank you for sharing your story, Laurie! As a mom of two boys in my 30s (and also as a new blogger), it is inspiring to me. I especially like the advice about taking time to think every day. As basic as that sounds, it is really tough to find time for with two kids and a full-time job! I look forward to checking out your blog.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this. I’m also a teacher and I used to teach EAL (English as an Additional Language – same thing as you) at my secondary school. 🙂
    Good luck with the three year journey!

  6. ” People move away from New Hampshire to get to South Carolina, and not the other way around!”

    Funny, New Hampshire is VERY high on my move-to list. I love mountains, I love having 4 seasons, and I hate our incredibly oppressive summer’s here in the DC region.

    Great story and great post!

  7. I too believe in the power of small, incremental changes to your habits and behaviours being the most powerful. And making space in your head to think about your financial future is critical! Great story Laurie and Liz 🙂

  8. This is going to be a serious hard act to follow 😉 Laurie, I love your “why” – we live close to family and it would be so hard to see them so infrequently. Do they know your plans or are you keeping them quiet until you’re totally there?

  9. I love reading your story Laurie, thanks for sharing and absolutely I love your adventurous spirit.

    I’m yet another person aiming to be free by 40, and I’m sure we’ll all make it there*, one way or another, and allow ourselves, the freedom of altering what there is!

    Previously I used to think FIRE was a big hairy audacious goal, but do you know what? As I get closer, it seems more like a certainty than aspirational nowadays.

  10. I love the new series!

    What a journey, Laurie! I didn’t know about how you met your husband and how you two found your way into personal finance 🙂 And I love your tip to take time to think every day. I find that when I get overwhelmed and feel like I’m in a “grind”, I’m just being too busy and not taking time to quiet and slow down. Thank you for the reminder 😉

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