I don’t actually work only four hours a week, but I will describe how I have reached a point where I could work only four hours a week if I wanted to. And that, it seems to me, is enough good news to share in my column.
The four-hour workweek concept was popularized by Tim Ferris, now a well-known writer with a franchise on four-hour things, including work, bodies and cheffing. He’s mastered the art of presenting himself as expert enough to write informatively and in an entertaining manner on all sorts of topics. He made his name, however, by arguing that you, yes, you, could make a good living working only four hours a week. How? Well, I’ll get there in a minute.
In my case (since this column is about my four-hour work week, after all, not Ferris’s), I’ve had a dream for a while to be my own boss and to be independent financially. I’ve always been a free thinker and a bit unconventional. I also realized that there is something about my personality that made it hard to get along with my bosses. Almost six years ago I decided to take a big risk and leave my last employer to strike out on my own. I had about a year’s savings and figured I’d give it a go for one year as an independent consultant and lawyer in the field of renewable energy policy and project development, a field I’d been in for about six years at that point.
That plan didn’t work out too well. At least not at first. My savings actually lasted about half a year and my first big client turned out to be a complete dud who didn’t pay me. I quickly began looking for full-time jobs again. Strangely, no full-time jobs materialized, despite many promising leads and interviews, and I was forced to make the consultancy work. The first few years were rough at times and I ended up having to foreclose on one of the two condos I owned in Santa Barbara. I, like a lot of people got caught up in the real estate bubble and I had bought two condos near the height of the bubble. A couple of years later, I ended up doing a short-sale on my second condo and returned to being a renter.
It wasn’t all bad, however: I really like my new rented digs, so do my friends, and I like not having the worry of a large mortgage over my head. (For some perspective, my second, fairly modest, two-bedroom condo cost $680,000, which required a hefty mortgage payment).
Turning adversity into advantage is a key theme in my life, learned the hard way. I lost a major client in the middle of 2013 and was compelled to start doing a lot more marketing and also to build a financial foundation that was more solid than my previous attempts. My increased marketing paid off and I enjoyed more interest from clients after they read articles I wrote for industry press websites (GreenTechMedia.com, RenewableEnergyWorld.com, etc). I also read, finally, Ferris’s book The Four-Hour Work Week and I was re-inspired to shoot for this goal.
In thinking about financial independence, I realized that I could buy land and a decent home on the Big Island of Hawaii quite affordably. I plan to keep Santa Barbara as my home, and I have deep roots here after living here for 13 years, but I have had another love affair with Hawaii since being stationed in the Army on Oahu in the early 1990s. Can one have a love affair with two different places? Clearly, I can, since I am in love with both Santa Barbara and the Big Island of Hawaii (the Hilo side, in particular, which is rainy, warm, lush, wild, and bursting with creativity and spirituality).
After experiencing the uncertainty that comes with losing a major client, I decided I needed to find a place that I could own free and clear and that could be my fallback plan if everything went to hell in my career or in the world more generally. I ended up buying three acres of land near Hilo, Hawaii, with a small cabin that was in very bad shape. I retrofitted the cabin during an extended (and wonderful) stay in Hawaii early last year, with a lot of help from local builders. I am now the proud owner of a highly liveable off-grid “tiny home” in Hawaii with plenty of land to farm on and play with.
When I wrote above that I could work just four hours a week, I was referring to a life I could live in Hawaii in my little off-grid home. The home has a water catchment system, solar panels and batteries, and a rainwater-fed flushing toilet in the cutest outhouse you may have ever seen. I could theoretically grow all or almost all of my own food on my land, get all of my water from rain and all of my power from the sun. My expenses to live in this house are, accordingly, very minimal. There’s even a decent hospital nearby and a very good hospital in Honolulu for major issues.
Adding in the costs of owning a car, health care, cell phone and Internet access, as well as travel, food, etc., I’d need to work a few hours a week to make ends meet.
In sum, I could live very well working just a few hours a week if I wanted to. The rest of the time I could devote to writing, music, photography, film-making and generally having fun. That’s a pretty tempting life, but I’m not ready to call my current career quits just yet. I began my career in the renewable energy field because I feel passionately that we need to transition quickly away from fossil fuels. While we’re making great progress in the U.S. and around the world, we’ve got a long way to go still. I want to be part of this ongoing transition, so I’ll keep doing what I’m doing for a while yet.
Ferris likes to present easily digestible lessons in his books, so let me offer a few ideas for how you too, if you wanted to, could reach the point where you could effectively retire early. I’ll suggest three points:
- Establish a goal and stick to it
- Focus as much on the freedom to be poor as the freedom that comes from wealth
- Enjoy the ride
Establish A Goal & Stick To It
Looking back on what has allowed me to achieve what I have thus far, it seems that the ability to stick with a particular goal and work hard toward that goal is key. In my case, it was deciding to continue with my education through finishing law school and all the knowledge that this educational path entailed that was crucial to getting to where I am. As a lawyer I can charge relatively high hourly rates that are justified by the value I provide to my clients. If the goal is to work as little as possible, charging decent hourly rates helps! Getting a good education and specializing in a field that enjoys high demand would make sense for anyone pursuing the dream of a four-hour workweek.
The Freedom To Be Poor
Most discussions about financial freedom focus on socking away enough investments and passive income sources to allow you to live the lifestyle you want and not worry about financial issues. That’s a fine goal and one I still generally strive toward. There is a different option, however, and that is working toward a lifestyle that simply doesn’t require much money to live. This is what I mean by the freedom to be poor.
My little house and my imagined life in Hawaii would allow me to be poor if I wanted to. I’m by no means wealthy now, but I make a decent living and I have reasonable aspirations of one day building a nice home in Santa Barbara, perhaps up in the hills with oak trees for shade. It’s likely that if I stay on the path I am currently on that I’ll reach that goal within five to ten years. I worry, though, that if I do go down that road that I’ll be locked in to a relatively wealthy lifestyle in perpetuity because owning a home is an ongoing expensive endeavor. Mortgage, insurance, utilities, gardening, and many other expenses can quickly add up to a pretty hefty total. Even when a mortgage is paid off a large home can still be quite expensive.
I remain torn about the relative benefits of a modest lifestyle in a small off-grid home and the luxuries and benefits of a larger far more expensive home and the income requirements that entails. For now, I can let that decision remain in limbo but I do want to suggest here that there are many benefits that come from the freedom to be poor. If one’s expenses are very low this of course frees up a lot of time to pursue non-pecuniary interests. That value should not be neglected.
Enjoy The Ride
It goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway, that it’s crucial to enjoy the ride no matter where it takes you. The point in talking about financial freedom and four-hour workweeks is to reach a place where you and your loved ones can enjoy life without all the normal stresses and worries. But what if you figured out how to enjoy life now despite all the normal stresses and worries that almost all of us do experience? That’s a powerful tool to have in your back pocket, so I hope that Ferris’s next book will be The Four-Hour Enlightenment or some similar title. Learning how to be happy in the present moment makes the questions of financial freedom and worries a lot less pressing.
There is a caveat or two—isn’t there always? I do plan to have a family someday and families ain’t cheap. Raising a family in jungly Hawaii sounds fun but even then it’s unlikely to be that cheap. Multiply that cost significantly to raise a family in Santa Barbara and the worries also multiply. Add in the possibility of traveling back and forth from Santa Barbara and Hawaii and we get additional stresses. I’ll cross those bridges when I get to them but my point is that even the best laid four-hour work week plans will surely go awry at times. It’s good to remain flexible.
It remains a great benefit for my peace of mind to know that I could live on very minimal income, and live quite well, if I chose to do so. For now, I’ll continue to “suffer” in Santa Barbara working (gasp) forty or so hours a week on my day job doing what I can to help accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels.