Escape the 9-5 and Live Life on Your Terms, with Paula Pant
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.
More and more, it’s becoming the dream of people to escape the cubicle and live the life they want. While there’s nothing wrong with the traditional path to retirement, I want to show you that there are other options that are possible.
My guest this week is Paula Pant, of Afford Anything, and she did just this. Today, we’ll walk through how she was able to quit her job and travel the world. When she eventually returned home, she realized that a regular 9-5 wasn’t going to work for her, so she decided to create the lifestyle she wanted.
Paula shares how she began her career in a job she loved, but one that also had a couple of major issues she knew she couldn’t live with long term. So, she began a freelance side hustle as a way of making extra money, and within three years she’d saved enough to quit, and begin travelling the world.
Paula and I discuss the role that frugal living played in her saving enough money to leave her job, but she points out that frugality has its limitations. At some point, you need to find ways to increase your income to reach your financial goals.
Whatever your plans, doing freelance work alongside your 9-5 will help you increase your income faster than you ever could at your job. Paula explains why that is, but you’ll need to listen, to find out more!
Our sponsor this week is Wealthsimple. The biggest myth about robo advisors is that they are all tech, and lack the personal touch. If you’re curious about moving over and have questions, you can now book a 15-minute chat with an experienced Wealthsimple portfolio manager. Head over to Wealthsimple, and book your call today.
- Early issues with a dream job
- Can you feel stuck in a job you love?
- How a freelancing side hustle allowed Paula to quit her job
- The risk of placing all of your income ‘eggs’ in one basket
- Frugal living produces immediate results, but has its limitations
- Save money while travelling by living like a local
- How geoarbitrage can make it easier to live in a foreign country
- Travel experience can be great for your resume
More and more it’s becoming the dream of people to escape the cubicle and live the life they want. Now there’s nothing wrong with the traditional career path to retirement but I want to show that there are other options possible. Paula Pant from Afford Anything did just this. Today we’ll walk through how she was able to quit her job and travel the world. Then when she came back she decided that the regular 9 to 5 wasn’t going to work for her and created the lifestyle she wanted.
Welcome to The Maple Money Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. You’ve heard me talk a lot about Wealthsimple but the biggest myth about robo advisors is that it’s all tech and you’re on your own. If you’re curious about moving over or have some questions, now you can book a 15 minute call with an experienced Wealthsimple portfolio manager. Simply head over to maplemoney.com/wealthsimplechat and book your call today. Now here’s Paula…
Tom: Hi Paula, welcome to The Maple Money Show.
Paula: Hi. Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Tom: I followed your story from the beginning. I think we met before you first started blogging. Going way back to then you had an interesting story because you ditched your job and decided to go on to travel and live the life you want. Can you go right back to the beginning there and talk about what it was like working your 9 to 5?
Paula: Yeah, absolutely. I graduated from college in 2005 and started interning at a local newspaper. I interned there for about six months after graduation and eventually the editor offered me a full time job. I was thrilled because I really wanted to be a newspaper reporter. Those positions were very, very hard to come by especially since I was not journalism major. I already had a disadvantage going into it not having “appropriate” degree for that the occupation. So by the end of 2005 or beginning of 2006 I got offered a full time position as a newspaper reporter. I had my dream job and if things had been a little bit different maybe I would have stayed there forever and I’d still be there today. But there were a couple of issues with it. One was that my starting salary was $21,000. And remember, we’re talking 2005, 2006 dollars. This is not like 1970s dollars. And the other major problem was that I got exactly two weeks of vacation per year—10 business days of vacation per year. That includes Christmas in the holiday season by the way. That had to come out of those 10 days. What that meant is that realistically I would never be able to travel, and I really wanted to travel overseas. I was so aware that there were all of these places in the world that I’d never seen. At that point in my life I had never gone to Southeast Asia. I’d never seen in Thailand, Cambodia or Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia or the Philippines. I’d been a little bit to Western Europe but I’d never been to Eastern Europe or any of the former Soviet nations. I’d never been to Africa. I’d never even really been to South America. There was no way that I was going to be able to quite literally cover the map with two weeks of vacation a year. Really, it was only one week because one week was Christmas and then one week was a trip to Croatia. It’s just not going to happen. So I realized I had a choice. I could either keep working a 9 to 5 job which I really enjoyed—I loved the job itself. Or I could travel, but I couldn’t do both. So, for the three years I worked at that newspaper I freelanced during the evenings and weekends and saved all of that freelance income. I made a starting salary of $21,000 and by the time I quit, my ending salary was $31,000. That was the most that I was actually making from my employer. But I was freelancing and saving all of that freelance money and by the end of those three years (in 2008) I had saved up $25,000. Which, if you think about it, that was about a year salary for me. With that in the bank, I quit my job about and bought a one-way plane ticket to Cairo, Egypt and for the next two years I lived out of a backpack and just traveled around the globe. I backpacked around and freelanced a little bit. That was really how I learned the power of freelancing, the power of being self-employed, the power of really choosing your own destiny and not accepting the confines that an employer hands to you.
Tom: So you really liked your job which is a little different from stories I often hear. There are a lot of people that are stuck in jobs they don’t like. How much worse does that make it for them?
Paula: I can’t imagine being in a job that I dislike. I had some like part time jobs in high school that I disliked. But to actually be in a job that you dislike as a profession, 40 hours a week, as an adult, that just sounds awful. In my story I really did love the newspaper. I loved the work itself. I loved the people that I worked with. My editor was very much a mentor. One of the things that I missed the most was the social aspect of being in the newsroom surrounded by the other reporters and other editors. I really miss that and I still do miss that even to this day. To this day the editor who was my boss—we don’t talk often but I still very much consider him a mentor and a big influence on my writing career. If I were to ever publish a book I would absolutely thank him in the acknowledgments. If you don’t have that type of feeling about your job—I can’t even imagine.
Tom: It’s something where I think people get trapped. They’ve chosen their career and making an income but they don’t feel as though they have somewhere to go. But you’ve shown for much less of a reason. It’s great to travel but there are a lot of people that should be considering other options for much worse reasons. It’s something to look at. Not necessarily that you have to continue doing what you’ve always been doing, right?
Paula: Yes, exactly. If I had been at exactly that same job but had six weeks of vacation a year and was making $70,000 a year instead of $30,000… If those two things had been different, I would’ve stayed because I loved the job itself. But I was making $30,000 a year at my peak and that was after a promotion—after they promoted me to assistant news editor. That was when I got the $30,000 a year. The raise to making a salary of $31,000 was in 2008. It was my 2008 income. I just I knew I couldn’t live like that forever. It was unsustainable.
Tom: You decide you need to make this change. What were the first steps? I assume if you were like me you kind of had to get your money under control.
Paula: Well, a large piece of that was built around freelancing. While I worked to that newspaper I lived on my normal day job salary. I put 15 percent of it into the company 401k and the rest of it I lived on. Then everything that I saved in order to quit my job came from freelancing. So it was that side-hustle that allowed me to save up the money that allowed me to quit my job.
Tom: I’m a huge fan of side-hustles obviously. We’ve talked about it a few times on the show too where I think it’s almost a need nowadays whether you’re quitting your job or not. Just to bridge that gap. If you’re a single person with just one income or even if you’re married and just one income it seems like you do have to do something else, right?
Paula: Yeah, if you think about it, you know how in investing they say to always diversify and never put all of your eggs in one basket? If all of your income is coming from a single employer, then you have no income diversification. You’re putting all of your income eggs into a single basket. And so you need to hedge against the possibility that you might get laid off or the company might collapse. Something might happen. And if something happens, if that single employer constitutes 100 percent of your income then going from 100 percent to zero percent—that’s rough. That’s a rough fall. Freelancing or a side-hustle or some side business doesn’t have to be a major piece of what you do. But if you could even get it to the point where 80 percent of your income comes from your day job and 20 percent comes from some type of a side-hustle and then you save and invest that entire 20 percent, over time that will create some significant padding. That way, when the unpredictable events of life happen—it might be that you get laid off, your spouse suddenly leaves you. It might be that you get a very unfortunate medical diagnosis—you never know what life has in store. So to have those savings in place won’t solve all your problems but it will at least soften the financial component of those problems.
Tom: Yes. I’ve had many readers and listeners give me this exact question, “Oh, I’d love to be saving but…” and normally they’re living paycheck to paycheck. And with lower incomes or bad spending habits, it can happen. You can only do so much on the frugality side. You can only cut your expenses so much and at some point you have to increase your income.
Paula: Absolutely. One of my favorite expressions is that you can’t shrink your way to greatness. You know if you’re brand new to this and you’ve never really thought that much about your money before, I think frugality for a lot of people is attractive because it’s the low-hanging fruit. Ironically, it provides immediate gratification because it’s something you can do immediately that produces instant effects, instant results. If you encounter this notion of money management or frugality for the first time in your life and all of a sudden take a look around and realize you have subscriptions to HBO NOW, Hulu, YouTube Red and Netflix, Spotify—I’m just thinking of everything I can name. If you’ve never taken the time to add it up, all of these subscriptions combined come to $100 a month. So just keep one of them and cut all of the rest. Let’s say the one you keep costs $10 a month. You’ve now saved $90 a month. I think frugality is attractive because it’s something where you don’t have a fear of failure. You don’t have a fear of rejection. You don’t have the uncertainty of not knowing how to start a business or knowing how to invest in index funds or in rental properties. You don’t have any of those fears. So it feels accessible, immediate and gives you that instant result. For that reason, I think that frugality is very attractive. It’s not that I’m anti-frugality per sae. Although, sometimes I joke that I am but there’s only so much of that you can do. And at a certain point it becomes inefficient to try to keep tweaking at the margins when you could instead be focusing on bigger wins. An example of this is, I spent three years working on an online course and there were many points during that time when I could have been working on it. I could’ve been working on this thing that I would eventually go on to release and enroll students in it for an enrollment fee, and it would become part of my income, my earnings. Maybe I could have done it in two years instead of three. There are so many hours where instead of working on it I was tweaking my subscribe-and-save in Amazon so that I could optimize it for the 15 percent savings rather than the 5 percent savings. I would spend hours doing that. I would spend hours driving to Costco because I could get toilet paper in bulk cheaper than I could at the normal grocery store. And if I were to truly be honest with myself—let’s say I spent an extra three hours a week doing that type of stuff. Three hours a week over the course of a year is more than 150 hours. If I had just taken those same 150 hours and put it towards building out this course or building out something else—creating an e-book I might sell on Amazon. Heck, even just offering one-on-one coaching for three hours a week. Any of those things would have yielded far greater financial returns.
Tom: I think even someone that is still in a career can look at this even based on their current hourly rate. There is value to their time and if they’re wasting their time on small little things that don’t actually return anything, then yeah, like you basically said, it’s like a few weeks income time-wise, lost in a year. That’s just terrible.
Paula: Exactly. I struggled with this for a long time because the rational part of my brain would then argue, “Yeah, but would you actually spend those three hours a week working or would you spend it watching Game of Thrones fan theories?”
Tom: Are you staring at my computer right now? (Laughs) You really nailed it. Even now that I have this business with the website and everything where I’m being more efficient with my time; I’m doing something better than just watching Game of Thrones, it’s still very easy to get distracted by these little things that don’t matter and not always focus on the bigger things that would actually help our lives better.
Paula: For so long I was so inefficient with my time. If I were only more efficient and more productive, I could do it all. Then I could tweak my Amazon subscribe-and-save and also double the revenue in my business. The best framework I found for answering this question came from an author by the name of Laura Vanderkam. She said, “First, fill your schedule with all of the things that you cannot outsource,” and that doesn’t necessarily just include work related tasks. That also includes calling your mom, exercise, sleep, yoga, or stretching, prayer. You cannot pay somebody to do those things on your behalf. You can’t pay somebody to call your mom on your behalf and inform her that you’re doing fine. Your mom would be very mad if you did. And so her suggestion was to first fill your schedule with all the things that you cannot outsource. And, if upon doing that you still have additional time left over to start in-filling things you can outsource or delegate. Don’t ever play something that can be outsourced or delegated above the things only you can do, regardless of whether or not those things are income producing. So exercise, sleep— those are things you can’t pay somebody to do for you so it has to take priority in your life.
Tom: Actually, I think I’ve mentioned on the show where I don’t always prioritize sleep. There’s so much to get done that I don’t schedule it the way I probably should. So I want to jump ahead here a bit. You kind of found your way to escape your job and travel. What I’m wondering is how you were able to do it with $25,000 in the bank. Were you still freelancing while traveling?
Paula: I was for a little bit. But the biggest most important thing that I did was go to countries where the US dollar stretched a lot further. It’s called geographic arbitrage. That’s where you earn money in one currency and spend it in a different currency. A big, big piece of how I was able to make that work was that I earned money in US dollars and spent it in Laotian Kip, Cambodian Baht or Indian Rupees where it’s very reasonable to live on $800 a month. The other thing is, because I was travelling for so long I wasn’t moving around a lot. If you think of the costs of travel, the actual transit itself; the airline tickets, the train tickets, the buses, those are extremely expensive. Once you get to a city the cost of renting a little guesthouse and eating local foods that you get from the local market is really not that much. Again, particularly in places like Lao or Cambodia or Malaysia—I mean, there are expensive parts of Kuala Lumpur. But, there are many places outside of the US where your dollar stretches far, particularly if you’re not moving around very much. Then you are really kind of living like a local. So that’s the other piece that I would say is, living like a local; eating local foods. I wasn’t trying to buy cheese and alcohol when I was in countries where those weren’t really a big part of the culture because you could go to some foreign grocer to get it but you’d pay a pretty hefty markup. Adapting to the surroundings has helped a lot in terms of cost savings.
Tom: That makes sense. When I go on vacations it’s far from cheap because of the airfare and hotels as opposed to being able to rent an apartment or going out to restaurants instead of buying groceries. My vacations look very different unfortunately.
Paula: Yeah. For those two years I was travelling, I ate vegetarian food and I almost never drank alcohol. During that two year period I probably had a drink maybe on my birthday or once every two months at the most—a couple of beers. I was watching my budget pretty closely. It just doesn’t cost too much to live if you’re not doing the fancy stuff.
Tom: After you travelled all over the place for a couple of years, then came back, I believe you came to a decision. You had to decide if you were going back to work or looking to do something else?
Paula: Well, I don’t know if I could really truly call it a decision because once you’ve been out of the workforce for two years the idea of sending out your resume to a bunch of nameless employers who might give you a job offer for $45,000 a year (if you’re lucky) and then you would wake up… You know when your alarm goes off and it’s still dark outside and it’s cold? You would have to scrape ice off your car and then drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic. That just sounded terrible. So I don’t know if I would really call it a decision. I would call it a, “I just didn’t want to do that!”
Tom: You had moved on from that, right?
Paula: Yes, exactly. When I came back I started freelancing right away. I briefly worked at a company my dad owned. I worked there for about six months. He started me at $45,000 and within about a month or two we realised he didn’t have any money to pay me so he paid me $1 per month. I worked for free. I was employed but I was employed for free, or technically for $1 per month while I was helping out the family business. And then the rest of the time I was freelancing. In terms of freelancing, it started very slowly. I started off writing these articles for ehow.com which was a website that operated on volume rather than quantity over quality. And so they paid $15 per article. Theoretically, my goal was to try to write three articles an hour which would have put my pay rate at $45 per hour which would’ve been great. Realistically, I was able to write about two articles an hour for them so I was making around $30 an hour. The articles were terrible. I wrote under a pseudonym because I didn’t want my name to be associated with those articles because they really were not my best work. That was how I kind of paid the rent and got some Costco groceries for a while when I first came back. Eventually, I got a position with about.com. These days the referred to as the balance. But at the time they were called about.com and they were owned by the New York Times. There was sort of an instant credential—kind of like the prestige of working for this website that was owned by the New York Times. They hired me on as their budgeting and personal finance expert. That was what I would call “my big break” because once I had that credential, from that point forward it became relatively a lot easier to go to AOL Daily Finance, various certified financial planners, registered investment advisors who had websites and needed blogs or content written on their company website. It just became a lot easier to go both to media outlets as well as to financial service companies that needed content on their site and come to them and say, “Hey, look at me. I’m the about.com guide to budgeting.” Credibility builds on itself. Pretty soon any niche you write in is going to be pretty small. And, inside of niches people often know people. And even if you don’t know somebody directly you know of them. You know their reputation. Maybe you know somebody who they’ve worked with. So the more you stay inside of a niche, the more your reputation within that niche grows. That’s why they say, “The riches are in the niches.”
Tom: There is a momentum to it that you can’t really get in a career. When you’re out doing your own thing you can actually get these gains. At a career you might get a three percent raise but you can kind of take this into your own control a little more. One thing I just wanted to go back to was the idea of you coming back and not going back to a regular career. For some people, that might actually work just fine. If they want to save up and work to take this time off and travel the world, it doesn’t mean they can’t come back and go into a career. You can leave a job, travel the world and then go back and do a career. There’s nothing wrong with that. But obviously, it wasn’t for you. For some though, that might work just fine.
Paula: You know, at the time I quit my job, that’s exactly what I thought I would do. In fact, as I was quitting my job I had all of this anxiety around how am I going to explain this gap on my resumé to my future employers? And so all of the questions that were dominating my mind—the worries I had when I quit was very much at the forefront. How do I explain the gap? What I came to were two conclusions. Number one, if you can’t live it down, play it up. I’m not going to try to hide that gap on my resume. I’m going to emphasize it. When I apply for jobs I’m going to be say, “Look at this super cool thing I did! Every other applicant has just done the traditional thing like going to college. Maybe they went to grad school and now they’re applying for your job but I flew on a one-way ticket to Egypt and learned how to stand in 110 degree heat and negotiate with a cab driver in a language that I don’t even speak. So if you want me to do some negotiating on behalf of your company, well, guess what? I have been tested and I have done some stuff!” That’s the type of thing where travel can really be an asset. Show that you have initiative, that you are ambitious and unconventional. That you think outside the box and that you have a lot of exposure to different cultures, different languages, different types of people and you’re comfortable in a wide variety of situations. There are so many life skills that come out of traveling. And so my thought was, if I’ve got to apply for a job, this trip that I took—this two-year backpacking trip… I could go in thinking this is a gap on my resume would go unnoticed or I could go in thinking they would be lucky to hire me because I did this.
Tom: This has been great motivation for anyone that’s considering this whether they only want to take off six months and go back to their job, or if they if they want to do something more like you did and take longer time and maybe never go back to a normal job. I think it’s been very motivating. I like how you filled in that idea of how to deal with the resume because I could see a lot of people wanting to do this and maybe still go back to a regular job. Can you let people know where they can find you online?
Paula: Yes. So you can find me at affordanything.com. And I have a free e-book. It’s called Escape. It’s all about escaping the 9 to 5. You can download it for free at affordanything.com/escape. Also, if you enjoy podcasts, I have a podcast called, Afford Anything. Just search afford anything in your favorite podcast player.
Tom: Sounds perfect. Thanks for being on the show.
Paula: Thank you.
Thanks for listening. And thanks to Paula for sharing her path to escaping the 9 to 5. You can find show notes for this episode at maplemoney.com/paulapant. If you like this episode and haven’t been listening since the beginning why don’t you go way back to one of the very first episodes where Pat Flynn discusses his journey after being laid off from his career as an architect? I think you’ll love it. Paula Pant’s, Afford Anything Podcast, is great and you should definitely check it out. Like many of the top personal finance podcasts, we both share the same editor, Steve Stewart. He’s my guest next week. But we’re not going to be talking about podcasts. He’ll be on to talk about his belief that you don’t need a credit card. I’m very much for responsibly using credit cards as a tool but Steve makes some great points, so check back next week.