There is a certain segment of the FI/PF community that really embraces the “personal” and “independence” aspects of the journey, while mostly ignoring the importance of “community” in a way that extends beyond blog comments and tweeting at each other. Social media is great – I love it, and I’m probably a bit obsessed. But for me, pursuing FI has raised some real questions about where I stand in the community – in the FI/PF community, in my field of employment, and in the town and state where I live.
Let’s back up a bit. In order to achieve my career goals, I spent a full decade of my life with my head in a science book (or knee deep in a pile of journal articles), and I didn’t have much bandwidth to pay attention to the world around me. I’m sure many people in the FI/RE community that work demanding jobs can commiserate – the only difference being that my long hours didn’t come with high pay. My few service activities during grad school were science-focused. I went to work, I came home, and if time allowed, I’d manage to occasionally cook a real meal or get some exercise. On the weekends, I worked. On holidays, I worked. I’m not complaining about that decade of my life, but it was a rather monk-like existence.
And then… I got a Real Job. A job that was 9ish to 5ish with my weekends free to do as I pleased. I was able to look beyond my own life and truly commit to my city in a way that I’d never been able to before. Five years later, I am knee-deep in volunteer activities that come with their own varying levels of stress and time commitments. However, it’s also incredibly rewarding to be an advocate for things on the local level and see the immediate impact of a freshly planted tree or an improved park, and to be able to serve my fellow citizens face-to-face at a the community kitchen or town festival.
My Many (Unpaid) Side Hustles
My city, like many in the Midwest, currently has very low unemployment rate. Many retail stores and restaurants are having a hard time finding reliable employees and, consequently, are paying well above minimum wage to attract and retain people. I’ve often thought about how easy it would be to get a part-time job and make a reasonable side income that could significantly accelerate my FI timeline. However, I’ve done the 60+ hour workweek before, and spending my evenings and weekends working a second job would mean abandoning most of my community commitments. So that leaves me to wonder, what are my goals? To have the shortest FI timeline as possible? Or to invest my time and energy in my community while continuing to work my 9-5?
I fell into community advocacy somewhat by accident, when a neighborhood issue arose and I started attending city council meetings. In the past five years, I have learned a lot about city governance, codes, zoning, planning, and how to work with city staff on advancing issues. I have also developed a personal vision for the future of my city. If you find yourself saying, “LGR, why don’t you run for something?” Well, campaigns honestly sound like a real drag. I have door knocked and phone banked for local candidates in the past, and to say that I hate it is an understatement. I understand that when you’re on the other side of the dais, you’re the one making the big decisions. However, you’re also listening to all sides of a particular issue and making sure that the vote you cast is in the interest of your constituents, the city budget, and in line with the city’s code and vision. As an advocate, I can work with city staff on an issue I am passionate about, and educate myself and my elected officials about why this particular issue is important for the community. I can work to change the vision that my leaders have for this community.
In addition to my advocacy role, I’m involved with a group that plans and hosts community events, another group that provides financial mentoring for women, I serve on a city board, and I try to help friends with their community activities as much as possible. I’ve definitely manage to fill the extra 20 hours a week that I used to spend in the lab with community and advocacy work.
Is Volunteering Delaying My FI Timeline?
I see lots of posts from people who will buy furniture on the cheap from Craigslist, dust it off, shine it up, and re-sell it for twice what they bought it for. I see Penny busting her ass to supplement her teaching salary. I see Kara working long hours and extra jobs to pay off her debt. As a result, there’s a part of me that feels like I could #sidehustle a lot harder than I do. But to be honest, I haven’t really struggled with my decision to spend my time outside of my 9-5 on community endeavors instead of making more money. I decided that my interests and talents are better utilized as a community advocate as opposed to working a part-time job. I decided that I busted my ass for 11 years in college and grad school, and now I have a good-paying job to show for it. I decided that, given my nebulous FI/RE timeline, I don’t want to wait until I’m retired or financially independent to make a difference in my community. I live here now, I’m planning on staying here for a while, and I’d like to see my vision for this community become a reality.
I’m not knocking those who choose to spend their time making extra money. The best parts of pursuing a more frugal lifestyle are the flexibility and options that come with not living paycheck to paycheck. I don’t need a side job to pay my bills, and that’s really wonderful. Penny doesn’t need to make extra payments on her mortgage, but her side hustles enabled those extra payments and her ability to save money for the birth of her son and subsequent maternity leave. We get to decide our own priorities. Extra money I make through my very modest side hustle (only about 10 hours a month) or selling junk on Craigslist is just gravy. I can bank it or I can spend it on travel or entertainment without chipping away at my paycheck. I don’t need to do any of these things to make ends meet or even to meet my early retirement goals. But the flexibility is the key here.
One interesting example of community activism I have seen recently is the MMM World Headquarters. Mr. MM has decided to become the founder and benefactor of a facility that can serve as a space for workshops, trainings, health and fitness activities, DIY classes, co-working, etc. We have something similar in my city that I have been tangentially involved with, and I think it’s such a cool effort. However, it takes A LOT of capital and A LOT of time to get something like this up and running, and the financial success of the Longmont space will not make or break Mr. MM’s early retirement. To throw all of my money and energy towards a project of this magnitude would definitely derail my financial goals, not to mention send me to an early grave if I were to start this project while still working. It’s awesome – but file under “cool stuff to do after RE.”
Another awesome example is the work Kara is doing within her business, Bravely Go, hosting workshops and seminars to increase financial literacy among women in her community. Some of my advocacy work has a major educational component, and I’m working towards getting certified to host educational workshops in my city. While arranging these workshops will take a fair bit of time and effort on my part, it’s not so all-consuming as founding a co-working/maker space, and it’s (probably) something I can tackle in addition to my day job.
I also don’t discount the fact that volunteerism may lead to other opportunities. I’ve met a lot of fantastic people through community work, and many of them have become close friends. It never hurts to have a large network of people who can help you or your organization when shit hits the fan or when it’s time to take your next big step in your life or career. Or vice versa!
Time is Our Most Precious Asset
It will come as no surprise to anyone that spending time with my family has become very important to me after losing a parent this past summer. My parent’s death has also made me reevaluate how I spend my time more generally. If I value my community commitments, family, and friendships above a slightly accelerated FI/RE timeline, and I don’t need additional income to reach my goals, then I feel that my focus should be to spend my time on those civic and family relationships. I’ve also spent A LOT of time getting rid of junk in the past few months (both my junk and my parents junk) and that, in an of itself, is a very time consuming endeavor. (Especially when you’re trying to sell or give away most of your junk and not just throw it in a dumpster – more on that in a future post.)
Most people pursuing FI/RE are educated and intelligent individuals. We’ve all taken the time to understand things like index funds, the Trinity Study, taxes, health insurance, and many more complex ideas. You don’t have to value exactly what I value, but I hope I’ve convinced you that it’s so important to give time and energy (and not just money!) to your local community. There are approximately one zillion ways to do this, and you’re almost certain to reap some benefits in return. If you love budgeting and taxes, you can volunteer to help people with their tax preparation or to coach them on topics of financial literacy – and you’ll probably pick up some great skills and knowledge along the way. You’ll get a free workout in exchange for planting trees, a free lunch for helping with a city-wide cleanup, a safer bike commute after going to a planning meeting, or just the satisfaction that comes with making your city a better place. The rewards of volunteerism are numerous, and your efforts will certainly pay dividends to you and your community for years to come.
How do you volunteer in your community?