Has COVID-19 Killed the FIRE Movement, with Bob Lai
Welcome to The MapleMoney Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. I’m your host, Tom Drake, the founder of MapleMoney, where I’ve been writing about all things related to personal finance since 2009.
In recent years, the FIRE movement, which stands for Financial Independence, Retire Early, has found popularity with millennials across Canada and the US. But this extreme version of early retirement requires a very high savings rate for an extended period of time, which begs the question: Has the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the retirement dreams of FIRE enthusiasts?
To find out, I reached out to Bob Lai, a popular FIRE blogger based in Vancouver. Bob and his wife are planning to retire early within the next 10 years, so I was interested to get his perspective and find out how COVID-19 has affected their FIRE plans.
According to Bob, many who are in the accumulation phase of FIRE welcomed the downturn in the stock market earlier in the year, as it presented an opportunity to buy investments at a discount. On the flip side, however, many early retirees were forced to draw income at a lower rate or rely on their cash holdings to protect their retirement nest egg.
Bob explains that COVID-19 did have a silver lining of sorts. Canadians who are able to are saving more now than they have in years, with some reports of rates as high as 20%. Not all of us have FIRE in mind, but by prioritizing savings, we are putting ourselves in a better financial position.
The pandemic has also brought the concept of remote work to the forefront, with companies suddenly forced to shift to work-from-home arrangements. This has already become a money and time-saver for Canadian workers, and Bob believes it’s a trend that will stick around long after COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror.
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- How stock market returns have affected the FIRE movement in 2020
- Is the 4% withdrawal rule still safe?
- Down markets can be a boon for those in the accumulation phase of FIRE
- Trying to time the market is an effort in futility
- Is COVID-19 changing people’s retirement plans?
- The impact of the pandemic on Airbnb, and the travel industry
- How to use geoarbitrage to lower your living expenses
- COVID-19 has prompted Canadians to increase their savings rate
In recent years, the FIRE movement, which stands for Financial Independence, Retire Early, has found popularity with millennials across Canada and the U.S. This extreme version of early retirement requires a very high savings rate for an extended period of time which begs to question, has the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the retirement dream of FIRE enthusiasts? To find out, I reached out to Bob Lai, a popular FIRE blogger based in Vancouver. Bob and his wife are planning to retire early within the next 10 years so I was interested to get his perspective and find out how COVID-19 has affected their FIRE plans.
Welcome to the Maple Money Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. Do you know that 57 percent of Canadian adults don’t have a will? Willful has made it more affordable, convenient and easy for Canadians to create a legal will and power of attorney documents online from the comfort of home. In less than 20 minutes and for a fraction of the price of visiting a lawyer, you can gain peace of mind knowing you’ve put a plan in place to protect your children, pets and loved ones in the event of emergency. Get started for free at maplemoney.com/willful and use the promo code Maple Money to save 15 percent. Now let’s chat with Bob…
Tom: Hi, Bob, welcome back to the Maple Money Show.
Bob: Thanks for having me back again.
Tom: The last time we talked we were discussing FIRE. One of the things that often comes up in FIRE conversations is how you just wait until the next problem happens and all these plans are going to fall apart. So far there have only been temporary blips to problems that relate to FIRE. But let’s unpack this with things you’ve seen as well as what you’ve heard from other people in the community just to get a wider field of opinion. When I think of the FIRE movement (which is Financial Independence, Retire early) the first thing I think of this year was back in March or April when people’s investments were tanking. What are your thoughts on that for anyone that’s already FIRE and trying to live off their investments? What position did they see themselves in at that point?
Bob: Back in late February, everything was firing on all cylinders. Then March hit and I think it started tanking. In late March, it was at rock bottom then it started climbing back up again. So for now it’s a very short blip. It’s interesting to see whether FIRE can really seize overall. is. When you’re like us, in the accumulating phase, you actually like the fact that the market tanked because you could buy more stuff at a discount. But when you’re retired or you’re living off your portfolio, that’s certainly not an ideal situation because if you’re doing a 4-percent withdrawal, that means your portfolio is smaller. Therefore, your 4-percent is lower. Now, having said that, there’s tons of research and online debates on whether the 4-percent withdrawal rule would really save. I don’t know. But the one thing people are doing now is withdrawing a lot less at maybe 3-percent or 3.5-percent. I’ve seen people who, instead of having 6 months of cash in their emergency fund, have up to a year in living expense saved up in cash accounts like high savings accounts just in case something happens. So I think the FIRE movement is still going strong. It’s just that you need to plan for various things. And certainly the important thing is you have to have a buffer in your planning. Don’t just assume that your portfolio could provide you with $50,000 on the 4-percent withdrawal, so you’ll only spend $50,000. That’s not giving you any buffer. If you spend $50,000 you should aim for your portfolio to generate $60,000. That way you have a $10,000 buffer. And maybe have a year to year and a half of expenses in cash saved up in case you need to do anything. Now the biggest thing I seen– and maybe this doesn’t apply to Canadians, but for Americans, the whole health insurance is a big question. They say, “What if I got COVID and need to get tested?” I’ve seen people have to pay out-of-pocket—something like $200 to get tested, which for Canadians seems crazy, right? And what if you have to go to the hospital? It’s just strange. I mean, what if the hospital you went to isn’t on your insurance coverage, then what do you do? For us Canadians, it’s a lot simpler when it comes to health insurance and health coverage in general. If we get sick, we just go to hospital and everything will get taken care of. But overall with FIRE, if you’re still in the accumulating phase, is great. You kind of want to see the market continue to go down but the market has come up since which is really strange. I can’t make sense of it.
Tom: I hate to do the crystal ball thing, but I think depending how the next 6 months play out, if we get a second wave and how the US election goes, all these things could lead to the market going back down again. We don’t know if we’re out of the woods for sure. You mentioned the 4-percent withdrawal rate. I see the concern there. If you’re someone that’s already retired, even if it’s temporary, your investments are half their value. That’s when that 4-percent starts to feel like 8-percent for how much you’re really pulling out of your investments. Thankfully, this time it was quite a blip. You’re right. It’s unbelievable how quickly it recovered. It doesn’t make a lot of sense but here we are. And for people like us, it’s just a good buying opportunity. It’s like when something goes on sale at the grocery store. Now you can buy more of it for the same dollar. I did take advantage of some of that as best I could during the drops. I do not recommend buying or trying to time the market but I did a little bit in that I was and that I was at least trying to buy when things were looking bad. It’s not like I perfectly bought at the bottom of the market. I was at least buying it on the way down and wondering if I got in too early. But looking at it now, I think I did okay with that.
Bob: Yes, likewise. I don’t believe in timing the market. We try to be as fully invested as possible. When the market was going down back in March, we were moving money. We usually save money for next year’s TFSA and RSP because we maximize TFSA and RSVP usually by early January. I thought, should we move our and save it later so we can buy a bunch of stuff? And like you, Tom, did perfect with timing. I think the bottom was around March 23rd or somewhere there. We may have bought around March 20th or something. But in the long-term if you don’t “long game it” it doesn’t matter. When people buy ETFs and stocks, they over-emphasize where they believe they need to buy the 29-90A instead of the 29-90I because it’s a penny less or vice versa. But if you look at it long-term, it doesn’t matter. For example, if you tried to buy it when the market was going down—let’s say the Royal Bank was trading at $60, you would want it to be trading at $59. But stock price never went down to $59 so you missed that. You missed on an opportunity. You’re probably kicking yourself now because I think the price is now back to $90 or something. So you miss out on the $30 gain. It’s obviously good to get a good deal, but you kind of have to look at the big picture. Don’t fight over pennies or quarters. That’s important. We do hyper investing. We do dividend investing also, index ETFs. I think it’s important to just regularly invest. We know these guys who just sold their house and got a huge chunk of money. Let’s just say it was $200,00. They wondered if they should invest it all together or divide it up into four different chunks. I told them it depends on what they feel comfortable with. Are you going to be kicking yourself if you buy everything at once and two months from today, the market went down—you’d be kicking yourself. And, vice versa, if you spread it out into four different buying time slots—you buy your first $50,000 and then the market goes up, are you going to kick yourself for not buying everything back then? You just need to figure out something you’re comfortable with and then execute your plan. A good phrase I’ve heard is, “your ego is not your amigo.” Amigo is friend in Spanish for those that don’t know. When it comes to investing, you really need to separate your emotion and ego out of your strategy, because if you’re getting emotion about when the market goes up or down, you’re going to be losing sleep and you’re going to be changing your strategy all the time. I learned I really like these phrases. I’ve written about them on my blog. Another phrase I learned is, “Get inline, stay inline.” Imagine a grocery store line up at the cashier. The person in the front of the line, waited. They were at the back of the line at one point and they waited. If you switch lines all the time, it might actually be faster. It’s kind of like when you’re stuck in traffic. You quite confidently change lanes so you’re not stuck there. But eventually, the original lane becomes faster. So you’re probably not doing yourself any favor by changing strategy. Stick with something that you’re comfortable with and go with it. That’s the biggest advice I would give to people.
Tom: I’ve thought of it like traffic too. It’s a good reminder because I seem to always pick the wrong lane. If I change a lane because it’s going faster, sure enough, within 30 seconds it’s going to screech to a halt. So it is a good reminder not to constantly be jumping around. When I think about any form of timing the market in my own life, I’ve never really sold anything. If you’re buying ETFs there’s not really a reason to sell an ETF until you’re actually retired (if you’re saving up for retirement.) In these cases, when you have a little extra money, try to buy on the “bad news.” But yes, 100 percent, normally I would recommend that people just put away their monthly or biweekly savings and see where it ends up because we don’t have this crystal ball. We don’t know. Like your example with the $200,000, we don’t know if four times $50,000 will work out better than $200,000 now because who knows? You can only look back at it later and have regrets. But what good does that do either?
Bob: Exactly. And there’s been a lot of research on that. Do you do a lump-sum purchase or spread it out? There is no concrete conclusion from what I’ve read. It also depends on when you buy. So just pick something you’re comfortable with and then go with it. That’s more important.
Tom: Exactly. And there’s always that question if you have a lump sum. But for a lot of people, they only have the money as they’re earning it. So the most long-term correct answer is to put it away over time. You’ll get some of that down some of the ups, but you’ll get in sooner than just sitting on it, waiting for the perfect moment.
Bob: Exactly. Dollar cost averaging. And my motto is, “Keep it simple, stupid.”
Tom: You also mentioned how we’re accumulating and still have careers. That provides a lot of safety. Do you think that’s changed for some people heading towards F.I. (financial independence) that maybe they’re a little more hesitant? Let’s say someone was thinking, “Gee, I’m going to retire in a year.” Have you heard any stories or anything of people second guessing that and maybe wanting to delay a little bit?
Bob: There’s always the “one more year” syndrome, right? It’s where they say, “Okay, I hit my numbers but why not hold off and just wait for another year?” Then that turns into two years, five years, 10 years and then 18. Now they never retire. Just to be clear, even though I consider myself a FIRE blogger, I focus more on the FI part versus the retire early, because in my view, you can never retire fully. If you think of the traditional retirement age of 65, quite often some people retire from their 9 to 5 jobs but they’re still doing something on the side. Some people may work in part time in something they enjoy. Some people never fully stop working, and that’s perfectly fine. The mentality that early retirement means you stop working completely, I think is a misconception some people make get from the term FIRE. To me, early retirement just means you have the power to choose what you want to do. So, if you decide to continue to your full-time job and earning an income because you enjoy what you do, that’s cool. But if you decide to quit your job and start volunteering at a charity because that’s what you want to do , that’s perfectly fine too. And, if you just happen to get paid with those volunteering jobs (which is not volunteering anymore) and get some sort of income, technically you’re working but you’re not working because you have to. You’re working because you’re choosing to. I think that’s where the empowerment lies. Take me for example. I enjoy photography. Once I early retire, maybe I want to do photography full-time. Some people may think that’s not really early retirement because I’m still working. But for me, maybe that doesn’t count as that working because it’s something I enjoy. The other thing is, once you’re FI, you’re no longer relying on that paycheck so you’re less worried about how much income you’re generating from a job. And ironically enough, sometimes money comes to you when that happens—when you’re not forced to make money. It’s just a shift in mentality. I think that’s important in terms of FIRE.
Tom: Yes, there’s nothing better than not needing to work. The mindset just changes. Thankfully, I’ve had a business that has helped supplement my income. And while I still have a career, it’s nice to know you can go without it. It actually makes you enjoy your work so much more when you don’t feel like you’re doing it for a paycheck. You’re doing it because you somewhat tolerate it at the very least.
Tom: And you get paid for it as well. It just changes. You don’t feel there’s some sort of desperation to it where you say, “Oh, no. What if I lose my job?” You can work a little more freely and maybe give your opinion in a work environment where you don’t have that fear that some people might be under with their careers.
Bob: Yeah, and in a sense you might care less. That way you can express your opinion more freely. When you can do that, it can be quite liberating.
Tom: It actually makes you a better employee if you have the right boss. It might depend on your situation. But, yeah, an employee that can speak their mind and says something because of an actual passion for their job and not just because of the paycheck, I think they actually get a better employee out of that. Another common trait with a lot of people in the FIRE community is rental income. Whether they’re renting a place out to someone long-term or even if they’ve got a second place that they’re using as an airbnb. I’ve seen issues with both of these over the year. People that can’t pay their rent on the long-term side. And with airbnb, people that just aren’t using it at all. I don’t think you fall into this category, but in your opinion, how is this going for people in the community right now?
Bob: It’s tough when you have rental income. Rentals are generally are relatively stable because people do have to live somewhere. But I have heard cases where their renters are out of a job and having difficulty paying. Fortunately, with the Canadian government there is some protection or something you can apply for as a landlord. I don’t do real estate investing, so I’m not going into too much on that topic. What I think hurts a lot is I’ve seen a few cases where people were investing via airbnb and now people are not traveling so that market has basically dried. That’s where it’s tough. I think people are reevaluating the whole airbnb investing, passive income, side of things because I don’t think the whole hospitality industry is going to recover anytime soon. Last year I traveled a lot for work and also for pleasure. This year, I definitely haven’t travel as much as last year. And for me to consider hopping on the plane, I don’t even know when that will happen so I think the hospitality industry is going to be suffering quite a bit. The hotels, airbnbs… that’s got to be tough. It’s going to help when people can do staycations and travel within their cities or provinces or states. But international travel is going to be tough. So, for people that rely on airbnbs and tourists coming into their cities to rent their properties, yeah, that’s tough. And trying to sell those properties now, I would imagine would be kind of tough too.
Tom: Yeah. Just like stocks. It might be a great buying opportunity if someone is able to get in on that. But it certainly comes with its risks to buy a buy a property and hope you can benefit from it on airbnb be a year from now. There are still a lot of questions on that. Speaking of travel, I want to cover geographic arbitrage which is another very popular thing in the FIRE movement. Have people been hurt with that or do they just hunker down where they are? Do they come back to their home country? Have you heard anything around that?
Bob: I know a few people. One was in Panama, who actually came back to the States because he wasn’t sure what was going to happen. And a few people I know in Europe have come back to their home countries too. I do know one Canadian who is sticking around in Spain. He’s not in the FIRE community, I guess. It kind of depends on what your circumstances are. Some people just feel more comfortable coming back to their home country. Some feel fine sticking around in their travel destination. Now, for people that have plans to travel around the world, that makes it very difficult. For those people, I heard they typically either just stay longer in a country they were previously in and, hopefully, the Visa situation works out. Or they come back to their home countries. Yeah, it’s tough. And with quarantines and stuff, some countries don’t even welcome visitors anymore. So, for you to go into the country is nearly impossible.
Tom: I realize I didn’t set that up too well either. Can you just explain what geographic arbitrage is? What the point to this is?
Bob: Okay, let’s use Vancouver as an example because living expenses there are pretty expensive. Geo arbitrage, essentially, is like moving into a lower cost of living area where you spend less money. The less you spend, the more you can save. So, assuming you’re earning the same amount of income, the less you spend, the more you could save. In Canada, for example, if we move to a smaller town in B.C. or the prairies, our living expenses may go down. That’s a way to do arbitrage. Now, this does might be difficult if you’re still working full-time. It might be difficult because you are kind of tied to a location. I work in in high-tech so, typically, high-tech companies are only in major cities like Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Quebec, Waterloo and so on. You’re forced to live close to the major city. But, with COVID, now everybody’s working from home in B.C, in high-tech. You’re free to move somewhere else, right? A good buddy of mine, he was living in San Francisco. He works in company in the Valley. He actually moved back to metro Vancouver. He’s still working for the same company but he was seeing a lot of his coworkers working from home so he moved back to Canada. When you get on video conference, people don’t know where you are. For him, this is a perfect setup because he’s earning U.S income. And with the currency exchange, he’s earning a lot more. That’s kind of geo arbitrage. Another way to think of it is, you can move somewhere else. For example, Southeast Asia, where the living expenses are lower. If you want to accelerate your financial independence journey, instead of staying in the same city as you are today, you move to a different city in a different country where cost of living is lower. Thailand is a popular destination, Malaysia, and Eastern Europe. Spain seems to be pretty popular in Portugal, where cost of living is cheaper or lower compared to some of the major cities in Canada. So the idea is to basically lower your living expenses. Some people go as far as to stay in a city for 3 to 6 months then they move on. There are a lot of possibilities when it comes to geo arbitrage. That’s something we’re looking into today as well. I’m originally from Taiwan and my wife’s originally from Denmark so one of the things we are considering is moving to Taiwan for one or two years and vice versa with Denmark. Now, Denmark is really exactly geo arbitrage because it’s pretty expensive there. But Taiwan will certainly be cheaper. When you get into geo arbitrage internationally, Visas get pretty complicated because if you want to live in Europe, typically you can only live there for 90 days. There are different ways to get around it but it just requires a bit more research.
Tom: Yeah, yeah. It sounds like you might constantly have to be on the move. That’s why I was concerned that it might be a bit of a problem nowadays. I love the idea of doing it within Canada. I just can’t find anywhere that’s better than where I am right now. I’d like it to be maybe a little warmer, maybe a little cheaper, but there’s only so many options, unfortunately. I think you being in Vancouver, you could come up to Alberta and see instant savings just by moving out here.
Bob: Exactly. It’s kind of funny because you definitely see Vancouver, because the real estate, a lot of older Vancouver folks have been selling their house and moving to the outskirts of metro Vancouver where housing is cheaper. And similarly, I heard that in Silicon Valley, people who don’t have to work from their offices so people are spreading now. They’re buying properties in Lake Tahoe, the outskirts of San Fran. They’re even just moving to the east or midway west in the States where they could still just work remotely. It’s interesting. I think COVID is going to change the way we work and the way we see work. And hopefully, there is some positive coming out of this whole global pandemic.
Tom: Yeah, I think that is the big positive. A lot of companies have had to really change fast. I think we basically had 10 years of progression in 6 months in how companies look at this.
Bob: And I think it’s also good because I can see companies making their offices smaller and allowing people to continue working from home once everything’s back to the old normal. I don’t think we’ll ever get back to equaled normal. But once we get more open. And that might be good because maybe downtown Vancouver is not going to have as many office spaces but those spaces could be turned to residential properties. That may help with the homeless level, housing prices and the availability of housing. I think maybe that’s going to be a positive thing. We don’t know. We’ll have to see.
Tom: Yeah, I think so. When these companies look at it in a long-term way and not just to survive in the 2020 way, if they can reduce their office expenses… My sisters worked for a big corporation, who, for a long time encouraged people to work from home. They did reduce their office size as they were doing this. Basically, she gets a rotating desk if she needs to go into the office. She doesn’t get her own setup, she just gets a spot. And they’ve been able to reduce their office size doing this over the last 10 years. I think these companies will see a huge savings with that. There’s also the huge productivity jump people see when they don’t have to go into the office. They’re not watching the clock when it’s five minutes until the end of their day thinking about how they’ve got to beat the traffic and get home. People often work a little more fluidly. They may start a little bit earlier or work through lunch. When they’re at home it sounds like people might get lazy with it, but a lot of people are just finding they’re kind of just integrating it into part of their day.
Bob: Yeah. I think a lot of people still have the concept that you can’t work efficiently unless you’re in an office. And I think COVID is helping to change that mentality. And that’s really, really great. I go to Japan quite a bit for my work and in Japan the traditional thinking is that people stick around because their managers haven’t left the office. It becomes almost a game where you don’t have anything to do—you’re just sitting in an office waiting for the manager to leave to show them your dedication. I think that’s completely wrong.
Tom: I had a manager that used to joke about that. If he were leaving early on his way out the door, he’d kind of yell out, “Manager plus 5,” meaning we’d need to wait 5 minutes before we could leave work. And he was leaving early so it really was a joke. It wasn’t that he was staying late and we were expected to stay. But it’s the same mindset. That was a thing. Just before we’re finished… We’ve already talked about this a bit when it comes to employment, but how do you see this playing out? How has this changed things in the long run? We certainly don’t have a crystal ball but I’m asking you to use yours now. How do you see the FIRE community and FIRE movement in the future based on what’s happened lately?
Bob: Well, before jumping to FIRE, for employment, I think that opens quite a bit of possibilities. For example, if you’re engineer you want to get a job at Google or Facebook, you no longer have to move to Silicon Valley. Although that means there is going to be a lot more competition. But you could apply to that job. There are some positives and negatives to it. And remote work doesn’t just apply to high-tech. It could apply to many industries. Now for the hospitality industry, that maybe doesn’t apply because I can’t imagine working remotely if you’re a waiter or waitress, that kind of stuff. So it depends on your industry. With FIRE, I think it opens up a lot of possibilities. People are thinking more about remote working. For one, you’re no longer tied to a specific city. Geo arbitrages becomes more of a possibility. For me, working in high-tech, I could never imagine myself living in, say, Alberta doing high-tech work at the same company and still have the same functionality, doing the same work so that opens up the door. The other thing is being able to lower your living expenses because now, again, you’re not tied to a specific location so that helps. In terms of the investment part of things, people have seen financial crisis and now the COVID crisis so they may better understand that during the accumulation phase, it’s normal for any market to go up and down. People will be more comfortable with it. And with COVID, I saw an article the other day, where they were saying Canadians are actually saving a lot more. I think the savings rate has jumped to something like 10, 20 percent. It’s not gone super high yet. But the average Canadian savings rate is hovering around one or two percent, which is super low. Going from one to two percent, then jumping to 20 percent because of COVID, I think is causing Canadians to have a shift in mentality in terms of saving money. The whole FIRE movement is about saving money, living below your means so you can have a better future. So I think COVID is actually maybe getting more people onboard with this whole FIRE moving because they’re saving more and thinking more about their future. They’re investing. They’re looking at their bottom line. In a way, they’re actually doing their own FIRE journey without realizing it. And I think that’s super cool. Looking at Canadians and the accumulation of debt, household debt is getting higher and higher. Hopefully, with COVID, it’s going to reduce that average Canadian debt and get people to start thinking about living below their means and not racking up credit card bills, lines of credit so they can get a fancy new car every two years or do a home reno every year. I think this is a good—the whole FIRE movement for people’s finances overall.
Tom: I think so, too. You mentioned that even if someone doesn’t consider themselves on a on a FIRE journey, it’s just good personal finance fundamentals, especially thanks to a brief moment in time, hopefully. We’ll see what happens in the future. But so far, it was sort of just a wakeup call. This way people can see it does go up and down. If I’m about to retire, maybe I see the benefit of things like bonds now. It’s not all in equities during these kinds of events. I think we found the most positivity about COVID in this episode than any other episode where we’ve covered it. So thanks for being on the show. Can you let people know where they can find you online?
Bob: Sure. I blog under tawcan.com. It stands for Taiwanese Canadian. You can find my articles on there. I’m pretty active on Twitter so if you find me @tawcan. And thanks, Tom, for inviting me back to the podcast. It’s been great chatting again.
Thanks, Bob, for giving us some perspective on how COVID-19 is affecting the FIRE movement and for sharing some advice on navigating through the current economic uncertainty. You’ll find the show notes for this episode at maplemoney.com/118. The Canadian Financial Summit is happening in mid-October. This is a virtual summit that features many of Canada’s top experts in the personal finance and investment communities. Next week, I will be giving away free tickets to the entire summit. Be sure to get your free tickets. Sign up for our newsletter at maplemoney.com/newsletter and wait for the email. I look forward to seeing back your next week when we’ll have Jason Butler here to discuss his side hustle, flipping items on eBay.