If you ask Francis the best way to retire early, his answer is simple: don’t.
For years, the now 42-year-old went to great lengths to achieve FIRE, which stands for “financial independence, retire early.” But in reality, a lifetime without work isn’t actually what most people want, he says. It’s a lesson he himself discovered after retiring at age 37 in 2017.
“I think pursuing FIRE is probably the wrong idea,” Francis, who requested to have his last name withheld for privacy reasons, tells CNBC Make It. “I don’t think most people want to retire early. I think what most people want is a sabbatical of sorts. They’re disgruntled with their careers and they want to take a really, really long time off. Maybe a year or two .”
That same disgruntlement led him to leave his job as an electrical engineer where he earned a $120,000 base salary plus $30,000 to $60,000 in equity and bonuses. But Francis describes life without a job as getting “really boring.” In his case, he decided to lean into his YouTube hobby full time, and now earns money making videos for his 350,000 followers.
Francis quit his job in 2017 with $1.2 million in savings and investments. He had first heard about FIRE in 2013 and decided to dedicate himself to achieving it. His strategy to get to an early retirement came down to one main factor: spending as little money as possible.
The first step was to pay off the mortgage on his home, which cost $22,000 a year. As he tackled this, he also worked to cut his spending anywhere he could.
“I jumped through a lot of hoops in order to save money and get my expenses as low as possible,” Francis says. His cost-cutting measures ranged from not paying for any streaming services to making sure he used every single item of food item in his refrigerator to even a short-lived stint without a cell phone.
Going phoneless “turned out to not work very well, but I think it’s important to push a little bit too hard, get a little bit too uncomfortable,” he says. Eventually, with his house paid off, Francis was able to cut his annual spending down to less than $15,000.
His background in electrical engineering helped him slash household spending as well. He installed his own water heater and fixed the door to his garage when the power supply broke. He also built a solar panel system in his backyard that supplies a low amount of electricity for free.
“I never call a handyman because I am the handyman,” Francis says. “All my appliances are really, really old because they never break. If they break, I fix them and they’re good as new.”
Francis is also a master of collecting credit card points. He employs a process known as churning, which involves cycling between different credit cards to maximize points, and has more than 20 active credit cards at any given time.
“In order to churn these credit cards, you need to have a really high credit score,” he says, adding that his own score is 835. “A lot of people think it’s a hassle, but for me personally, it’s giving me a lot of value.”
After two years of early retirement, during which he enjoyed his time off from work and made a point to travel, Francis came face-to-face with the boredom he warns most people will experience if they quit their jobs at a young age. His solution? Getting back to work.
In 2019, Francis began to double down on his YouTube channel and release videos regularly. He originally started the channel in 2013, posting videos ranging from how to make imitation shark fin soup to strategies for beating the popular game “2048.”
He pivoted to financial topics, teaching viewers about credit scores and investing. As his views started climbing up, so too did his earnings. Though his workload fluctuates depending on his mood — some weeks he works almost full-time while others he does as little as eight hours — he has built up a following of more than 350,000 subscribers.
On his best months, he brings in close to $10,000 in YouTube revenue. He still keeps his same $15,000 annual budget and uses the income to pay his living expenses. The remainder goes into his investment accounts.
It’s a project that brings him more joy than his old 9-to-5, and one he plans to stick to for years to come.
“Now I no longer call myself ‘retired’ because I am putting in my full-time effort into YouTube,” Francis says. “I’d like to put a lot more work into it and grow it … I think it’s a work in progress.”
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