Recently, someone I respect a lot, asked me on LinkedIn: “How on earth did you retire at 33??”
I know it sounds crazy and I know it shocks people. But it’s true… and the crazy part is that I didn’t do anything extraordinary or insane.
No lottery, no lucky stock or crypto picks, no forex trading, no multi-million tech startup.
Instead, I applied common sense to important parts of my life: my studies, my job, my savings and my investments.
In this article I cover my journey and explain:
- My (lack of) money-knowledge background growing up in a regular middle-class family
- How going into debt and making stupid expensive mistakes put me on this path
- How I was forced to learn to invest wisely (and how you can too!)
- The key elements that made it possible for me to quit my job at 33 (I know, it’s a bit insane).
- How I left my job and what happened next!
I want to share my journey not because I think it’s an example to follow (we all have very unique personal circumstances, and mine allowed me to do this fast) but because I want you to pick up an idea or two and implement it into your own life.
But it can certainly serve as inspiration, especially given my humble beginnings, and the lack of financial knowledge at first.
So don’t look at my story and say “Of course he can do that because… blablabla, it’s not possible for me because… blablabla”
But rather think about how you could use some of the simple concepts that helped me along the way to improve your own life. Pick one thing and implement it. Progress happens as we take action, one step at a time.
My timeline to financial independence
2003 – 2008: Civil Engineering Studies in Louvain-La-Neuve in Belgium, (and 1 year exchange in the United States)
I had summer jobs every year: packaging plan, Pizza Hut, kids camp animator, math tutoring, assistant professor, etc. All my money was on my current account, with a small part on a regular savings account. No financial knowledge beyond “How much do I have in my bank account?”
2008 – 2009: Project Engineer in passive energy construction in Belgium
I worked for a year and saved money for my second masters
2009 – 2010: Energy Engineering Studies in Southampton, United Kingdom
I wanted to move from the construction field (where I felt my positive impact was going to be limited) to the renewable and sustainable energy field. I spent all my savings to pay for my studies.
2011: Move to the UAE and first big money mistake (I went broke)
I was trying to get involved in the Masdar City project in the UAE, a zero-energy, zero-waste city next to Abu Dhabi. I got an internship in a small startup in a nearby city and took the leap. I used my time there to build my network locally and find my next job.
I was literally dumb with money and lost all my savings (about 630 euros) when traveling with it in my pockets back to Belgium. This was my first big money mistake.
So I had to crash at a friend’s place for several weeks and borrow money from my little brother. All of a sudden I had no job, no accommodation, no unemployment benefits (there is no social security in the UAE) and I was in debt.
That was a pretty humbling experience. I was supposed to be this big brother with 2 Masters degrees working in the UAE… and I had to go back and borrow from my little brother… A big wake up call.
Net worth: – 500 euros
That’s when I realized I really had to understand and learn to manage money well.
And so I opened excel for the first time and started putting my numbers in. Just a few columns at first: how much I earned, how much I spent, how much I saved. At least I got that right 🙂
Luckily I was starting my new job soon after, in August 2011. My main objective became to pay off my brother and save up for emergencies. That’s when my good saving habits started.
Today I realize that while it was a painful experience, it is one that put me on this path, the path to financial independence. In fact, all of this started because of my poor money management skills. I didn’t really become good with money because I wanted, but because I was forced to.
2012: Second big money mistake: I started investing, but the wrong way
As I didn’t have any social security or pension, I figured I had to prepare for it myself. The Belgian system provided a pension for expats but it wasn’t very interesting.
So I asked for advice. I went to the financial experts that were helping expats build a pension. And that was my second big mistake.
I went to my HR, I spoke with advisers at my bank and I reached out to “independent” financial advisors. And they were all recommending the same thing: investing in a long-term savings plan.
I interviewed a few financial advisors and asked tons of questions. I selected the one that was the most qualified. But it was still a bad deal.
I didn’t know it yet but all those long-term savings plans are simply riddled with fees and hidden costs. They’re sold by “independent” advisors that are paid a commission on the sale, so of course they’re incentivized to sell what makes them the most money and not what is best for the client/investor.
With this conflict of interest and all those fees, those plans are often inappropriate for the investor and struggle to deliver returns above inflation. In many cases, expat investors lost money, even while the stock market was going up.
I lost 12,000 euros to the fees and charges of this long-term savings plan, 25% of what I had invested over 4 years. That hurt. It took me a very long time to close the plan because of the surrender fees, even though I knew it was already lost. That is when I realize that loss aversion and inertia are real behavioral biases.
The worst part is that everyone around me was investing through similar products. My boss, my colleagues, my friends. It was a disaster (and it still is). That’s what all financial advisers and banks are selling, because that’s how they make the most money.
2013: How I started teaching index investing
Alongside my research for a financial advisor to help me get started I had started reading and learning about investing. I considered both real estate and stock market investing. And both looked risky and complicated. Until I discovered index investing, the bogleheads and the FIRE community.
This discovery was, to say the least, “life changing”. The challenge was that almost everything was geared towards US investing, so it took me a while to figure out how to do it properly from the UAE. I started DIY index investing with low cost ETFs (a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds) in September 2013.
At first I was simply putting money aside for my retirement at 65. At some point I was managing to save enough to get that goal… and that’s when I realized (with the help of the FIRE community), that if I saved and invested a bit more, I could stop working earlier… first I was aiming for retirement at 60. Then improved a few things and started aiming for 55, then 50… and then 45… I never thought I would be able to stop working at 33… Things just got better gradually. I met my wife, I earned more, saved more and invested more. It’s that simple.
2015: Founding of SimplyFI
And as I was learning, I was seeing so many people falling for the trap of the over-expensive savings plans full of conflict of interests. So I started sharing my findings, first at home and then at work. People wanted more help, so I started teaching the DIY index investing method. This led to the launch of SimplyFI in 2015, a community of people in the UAE and the Middle East who learn to invest effectively, without banks and financial advisors. Today it is a thriving community of 25000 members.
2016: Career progression and increased income
There are many aspects that allowed me to get to FIRE at 33:
- I worked in the UAE where there is no tax on income (there are lots of other taxes, but you can live in a way that minimizes them)
- Me and my wife had very similar value around life and the use of money, we both contributed equally to our FIRE journey.
- We learned to let go of many “ego-driven” expenses and lived simply and happily while saving the majority of our income (while most people spent it all)
- We excelled at work, got promoted and got paid more.
I have always been driven by impact.
My choice of studies and my second master were motivated by impact.
The type of jobs I was seeking were those where I could have most impact, and the projects I wanted to work on were those with the greatest impact potential.
My employer noticed, and let me excel in those areas. I ended up working on the largest energy and water efficiency studies for the governments in the region, managing the biggest clients, the biggest teams and presenting the results to Princes and Ministers. It wasn’t always easy as these were the hardest projects, the biggest budgets and so the biggest pressure. It was stressful and I was working very long hours.
I was often the youngest person in the room and the one presenting the results.
I’m not saying this to brag. I’m saying this because aiming to deliver impact creates value and in the right environment that gets rewarded. I was lucky to be in such an environment (apart from the high pressure at times) and supported by excellent managers.
I don’t think there is a single year in my career where I didn’t get a salary increase beyond inflation. And I was promoted almost every year as well.
There is something funny about raises when you’re on the path to financial independence: when you’re receiving a salary increase, your employer is obviously rewarding you for performance, and also hoping that the raise will make you stick around.
But in your head you know it actually helps you buy more freedom and gives you the option to leave sooner 🙂
So yes, income played a huge part in getting to FI at 33. But it only did so because I knew how to use money.
I knew life and happiness are not expensive. We lived in a shared house with friends, in a relatively cheap neighborhood, but well connected, with access to the beach and public transport. I sold my car and either carpooled with my wife or enjoyed the metro. I learned to cook delicious asian food. We would go hiking or have parties at home with friends, we became the masters of enjoying life cheaply.
I value time with my friends and family over any kind of expensive house, car or experience.
And I learned how to invest, how to use money to get more time and freedom, instead of more stuff.
2018: Reaching FIRE
As we were making progress on our FIRE plan with my wife and were starting to think about our next lives, at work things were going well and we kept being promoted. I was identified as next in line for the regional manager position (Middle East and Africa, across 5 business lines) and put on training to one day fill that role… and while I was thrilled by the opportunity, I also didn’t want to mislead my employer… so I explained my plan to leave work at some point in the near future. That was in August 2017.
My colleagues knew about my work with the investing and financial independence community, but they were still surprised it was actually happening… especially this early…
Technically, me and my wife reached financial independence in December 2017, but we decided to continue for a bit to close projects we were working on and to get a little extra buffer.
Early 2018 I got a new promotion and salary increase. Despite being clear about my intention, there is something about delivering high value at work and being transparent about your plans.
On the first of May 2018, on my birthday, I sent my resignation letter. Best self-birthday-gift ever 🙂
My last day at work was on the 31st of July 2018.
The 1st of August was the beginning of my new life. A sort of liberation of all the stress and pressure that comes with those hughes projects I was managing. But also a new awakening to what life could be. We now had a blank page and we were free to write what we want on it, without the usual work constraints most people have.
We are incredibly blessed to be able to live this way. We’ve worked hard for, we were smart in how we handled our lives and finances, but we still feel incredibly lucky to be in this situation.
We’ve literally bought back decades of freedom. It’s completely insane. It’s very hard to describe how it feels. I guess it’s bit like when you finally get to this one-month holiday you’ve been waiting for, only that it’s… forever (if you want)
And the big question then becomes “ok, but what next?”. To me this is a fascinating question as it comes down to “What gives me purpose and meaning?”
I’ve worked on this question for many years now and what I can tell you for now is that launching FIRE Belgium is for me part of the answer. It’s not the first option I have looked at and tried, and it’s certainly not the full answer, but I see it as a stepping stone to the big stuff I want to do in life. The big impact I want to have.
A few months after we quit our jobs, our first son was born. The timing was so perfect. We had all the time in the world to be with him every minute of his childhood. And two years later we had another boy. Now, being parents is not easy by any means, but our situation certainly helps massively.
So, right now, most of our energy and time is with our families. We spend a lot of time with our 2 boys and our parents, both in Belgium and in Poland.
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