What would you be doing if you weren’t working

Most of us have been socialized to let others decide what we do with our days. We start in kindergarten (or even earlier). They tell us when to have meals, when to listen to a story, and when to take a nap. As we grow up, the limits on our time are even stricter. There is the hour to do math, the hour to write an English paper, the hour to do art. If you go to College, you get a bit of a break. Most students take about 15 credits, which means they are in scheduled classes roughly 15 hours per week. They have some flexibility with the rest of their time, but there is homework to do and books to read. Even social events that College kids feel like they must attend to have a real College experience take away from their ability to make their own choices about their time.

Most people’s jobs have a pretty strict schedule. Even if the job is interesting, it is pretty regimented. I am in meetings an average of about 6 hours a day. Answering email takes probably another three hours. I like my job, but it does dictate how I spend most of my waking hours. Self-employed people often have less of an external schedule imposed on them but for most people, being self-employed still involves working hard every day to make and keep their business successful.

Most people don’t experience the opportunity to truly decide what to do with their time until they retire. It is tough to learn how to make decisions about your time at 65 when the last time you got to make that decision was when you were 5!

I have no desire to retire, but it seems like a good thought experiment to think of what I would do if I did. For me, the most important components of a fulfilling life are having a circle of friends, having challenges, and doing something impactful. I would like to become good at some physical skill. I like ballroom dancing, and I can probably be good at it if I put in the time. It is also a great way to make friends. I would also get a small camper and travel with my lovely wife, child, and all the animals. Traveling and biking around the country would be really fun.

For a challenge, I would start a business based on teaching all kinds of kids useful math skills. I hate how math is taught in US schools. On average, I can do about 80% of my kid’s math HW correctly on the first try (she is now in 6th grade, and my percentage has actually been improving), and I have a Ph.D. in math. If I have to think hard about a problem, my 6th graders shouldn’t be expected to know how to do it. At the same time, many of her classmates still don’t know the multiplication table. There is a lot of help available to kids. For example, Sylvan has a pretty good program, but it is $50 per hour in my area (and I live in a low-cost area). That is not something most families can afford. I want to contribute towards giving all kids the same opportunities for a good education.

It would be kind of terrifying to wake up and not to have the schedule my employer has predetermined for me. And it is kind of sad that I don’t have the skills to do my own thing. I’d like to think I would figure out how to live my life without being told which meeting to go to next, and I won’t spend my days eating potato chips in front of the TV, but it would be a challenge.
What would you do if your schedule wasn’t determined by your employer or by the need to make money? Are you looking forward to such a time?


For the novice, FIRE stands for Financial Independence Retire Early. Followers of this movement often save 50%-80% of their income to accumulate enough invested capital to be able to retire early (sometimes as early as in their 30s) and live entirely on passive income. If you hang out in the FIRE circles, you will hear about the 4% rule, which says that you can safely withdraw 4% per year of your investments and, assuming the market doesn’t do anything crazy, your money should last forever. If you don’t like percentages, this means that you need to have 25 times your annual spending in investment accounts to be able to quit your job and never need to earn money again.

There are, of course, variations on this theme. Some people go to great lengths to cut their budget to be able to retire as early as possible (lean Fire), some work longer in exchange for higher spending ability (fat FIRE), and some retire from stressful jobs but still work at some low-stress job they enjoy to supplement their investment income (barista FIRE).
I am totally not interested in the RE (retire early) part of FIRE. I love my job and expect to continue working for many years, regardless of our net worth. I am, however, very interested in the FI (financial independence) part of FIRE.

Sometimes I wonder why to me, FI is such an important goal. My wife thinks FI is a good idea, but she certainly doesn’t obsess about our FI number and how close we are to it. And people around me seem perfectly happy buying stuff they don’t need, so I am pretty sure they don’t even know there is such a thing as an FI number.

I am an immigrant from a relatively poor country. I came to the US for College with $500 and my tuition for the first semester covered. From there, I needed to figure it out on my own. Without even the ability to borrow money (foreigners can’t take out student loans), I was in a pretty tight spot.

At some point in College, maybe in my sophomore year, I got a terrible toothache. I didn’t have dental insurance, so I did the only thing I could – I took lots and lots of painkillers. It lasted for weeks. Much of the time, I was so drowsy from the pills I could barely function. I got a permanent case of an upset stomach. Eventually, I saved about $100 and went to the dentist. For me, at that time, $100 was a huge amount of money. The dentist looked at my tooth, took a couple of X-rays, gave me a proposed plan for how he can fix it, and charged me $100 for the consult and the X-rays. I still had a terrible toothache and no money.

Eventually, I learned about a free dental clinic. I found someone with a car who drove me there. They fixed that tooth and all the other teeth that were rotting in my mouth (I used to have a lot of tooth problems, probably due to very poor dental care in my home country), and I could get off the pain pills.

This is the sort of experience I never want to have again. And so when I have a choice between getting the newest iPhone or increasing our money stash, I opt to add to the stash. The stash is what keeps my family and me safe from at least some of the bad things that can happen in life. The iPhone can’t do that.

Take a minute and figure out your FI number. Imagine having that amount of money and the freedom that would give you. Now, look at the latest gadget you bought. What optimizes your happiness profits?