Momentum Series Interview – The Three Year Experiment: Location Independence
This marks feature #25 in the Momentum Series – an interview series to share the stories of bloggers from across the personal finance community.
The goal is to showcase their story, the wins, the losses and the actionable advice that others can take value from and insights about their blogging journey. Whether that be conquering debt, maximizing career earnings, the road to financial independence or other strategies for financial and blogging success.
This week I’m very excited to welcome Laurie from The Three Year Experiment to the Momentum Series.
Laurie writes content that shares her families journey of building a plan to be location independent within three years and now recently, achieving that. From financial advice for everyday families and stories of the great adventures they’ve experienced on their travels, Laurie is always a guaranteed great read.
If you want to connect with Laurie:
With that said, let’s get into this! Ladies and gentlemen, please enjoy the Momentum Series Interview – Three Year Experiment: Location Independence.
Yourself & Website
I’m Laurie, a 39-year-old writer, teacher, wife, mom, runner, blogger, cook, reader, and traveler, among other things.
My family recently became location independent and moved to the Lake Norman area of North Carolina. I blog about our life and financial moves at The Three Year Experiment.
Your Education & Career
I graduated with a BA in English/Spanish from Furman University, a small liberal arts college in SC. After college, I moved to Santiago, Chile, ostensibly for a year, to teach English and perfect my Spanish. Instead, I met Mr. ThreeYear, a tall, dark, and difficult Chilean and we fell in love and got married. We stayed in Santiago for two more years, and I worked for Catholic University’s MBA program, in marketing.
After we moved back to the US, I joined an ad agency as an account executive and plotted how to climb the corporate ladder. But, I completely abandoned those plans after my first son was born, and I realized nothing was as important to me as giving him a good start.
Fast forward seven and a half years to when my youngest son was three. I went back to work part-time as the Director of Marketing for an opera company. It was a great job and I loved it, but it took up way more time than I could give (like many part-time jobs) so I decided to take a job as an ESL teacher and get my Masters in Education. I worked as an ESL teacher for three years and will finish my masters this fall.
In recent years you began to question what the potential road ahead could be for your family. Can you share that mindset shift and what your family settled on as the new path or vision?
When Mr. ThreeYear and I met and married in Chile over fourteen years ago, we knew that, because we were from different continents, one of us would have to compromise about where we lived. Mr. ThreeYear moved to the US and left his entire family. This was hard because we’re both extremely close to our families.
When we moved to New Hampshire because of his job eight years ago, we effectively left my family, too. We saw them more often than we saw our Chilean family, but we were raising our kids with no extended family around.
We were on a path toward financial independence, but ultimately, that felt hollow. I crave adventure and love to travel, but I also missed our people. On my 37th birthday, when Mr. ThreeYear asked me what I really wanted, I named the impossible–the ability to live part of the year on one continent (North America), and part of the year on the other (South America). I envisioned being free to move where we wanted, when we wanted. I wanted to be… location independent!
You set the goal of doubling your net worth as part of that shift, what are the strategies and tactics that have delivered the most success with that financial goal?
Without a doubt, the simple act of maxing out our 401ks has been huge. We were fortunate to have graduated college with no debt and to start investing early, which helped our net worth grow despite a bunch of mistakes and debt along the way. But when we automatically invested, right off the top, that money was no longer available as part of our budget.
We started by investing 7%, then, as Mr. ThreeYear got raises, we increased the amount we put in our 401ks by the same amount as his raise. Pretty quickly, we’d maxed his out. When I started working, we figured out how much it would take out of each paycheck to reach our goal, and switched that amount over to my 401k account (because mine wasn’t an automatic draft). Then, we just kept saving a little bit more and putting that money into savings or a taxable investment account.
Another thing we’ve done is to get rid of payments. We do have a mortgage payment, but everything else has been paid off. We paid the mortgage off for our apartment in Chile, we have no car payments, and we have no other debt. That freed up a lot of money each month that can fund our taxable account.
Now, we’re working on decreasing our monthly spending (that’s always been a challenge!). We’ve been working on increasing our incomes for years, but now that we’ve moved and I’m not working this year, we need to be more focused on keeping our spending lower so that we can invest more.
On your blog you’ve written about life being short and spending on the things that matter. What are those things for you and your family?
I have come to realize that there are the things that I want to matter and the things that actually matter. A lot of those realizations have come about after our move. Our three core values are family, travel, and financial independence. Those things are important to us, without a doubt. That means we prioritize travel and spending time with loved ones.
But, we spend money on other things, too. We love to spend money on food. We’ve done it consistently throughout our married lives. While we have worked very hard this year to reduce our grocery bill, eating brings us pleasure and we love to go to the grocery store and eat out.
We also never realized how important community was to us. The people with whom we interact, each and every day, bring us a huge amount of life satisfaction. Being part of a vibrant community, interacting with lots of different people every day, and being part of a community are important to us, more so than we realized. It was also one of the reasons we weren’t as happy living in New Hampshire. We were isolated and didn’t have many friends.
Things that we’ve realized don’t matter: cars, the size of our house, the clothes we wear, sports and sports equipment, fancy haircuts, pedicures, etc.
Is there an area of your own personal finances you’re still looking to improve and master?
Oh yes. Part of me envies people who grew up in really frugal households and are natural savers. I’m a spender. I love to buy stuff. So I’m constantly working on how much I spend. That directly impacts how much we save and invest. For example, this year, we’ve challenged ourselves to spend no more than $775 per month at the grocery store for our family of four. For some of your readers, that might sound like a fortune! But it’s a 20% reduction (about $200 per month) in average grocery spending for us from 2017. We’ve gone over one month, but the rest of the time have stayed in budget. And this is after 10 years of trying to spend less at the store!
A lot of people in the personal finance community are these mega, mega frugal individuals who manage to save huge percentages of their incomes. I think that can feel overwhelming and off-putting for the “average Joe” reader who’s just trying to save a little bit more. So I hope our much more average spending and imperfect plan to FI can encourage people that even if you’re not saving 70% of your income, you can still create some impressive wealth for yourself just by tweaking small habits.
For example, my parents (the same spendy ones I mentioned previously) have started maxing out their 401Ks after many conversations about not only the investing and growth potential, but also the tax benefits that 401Ks bring. They don’t really notice the difference in their final paychecks, but they’re saving $18,500 per year PLUS match that they weren’t’t saving before. And they’re decreasing their total taxable incomes, saving tons of money on their tax bill. It’s a small tweak, with huge implications for their retirement portfolios.
If you could write a memo that would then be delivered to all 18-22 year olds about taking control of their money and life but that memo could only be 4 sentences long, what would it say?
You can be free. But you have to learn to tell yourself no. Spend less than you earn and invest the difference. The more you save, the sooner you’re free.
What are some of the most influential resources that have shaped your money mindset?
I read a lot. I’m a big believer that “we’ll be the same person in five years as we are now, but for the people we meet and the books we read.” Currently, I’m reading a lot about cognitive psychology, why we act the way we act, fallacies, heuristics, etc. In the last month I read The Elephant in the Brain about how we lie to ourselves about our true reasons for doing things, The Organized Mind about ways to manipulate your external world into keeping your internal mental space more organized, and Stumbling Upon Happiness about what makes us truly happy. Building awareness of why we do what we do helps us stop ourselves from making bad decisions.
For example, this weekend, my dad, who has been known to spend excessively, was throwing shade at my shopping behavior. I was sharing my happiness at finding Fair Trade coffee at Aldi for only $4 a package. “At what point,” he asked, “do you allow yourself not to worry about what something costs and just buy what you want without worrying about the price?”.
I thought for a second about why his comment bothered me, then explained my reasoning, “The reason we pay attention to what things cost in the grocery store,” I explained, “is because we realize that every purchase we make is a trade-off. If we spend more money on coffee, then we have less money to spend on other things that matter more, like traveling. Everyone has to deal with scarcity. Money, time, energy, are all scarce resources. So we’re always making trade-offs about how to use them.”
Those are ideas that came directly from books I’ve been reading about the brain. The idea of mental scarcity, and how the brain can only handle so much cognitive load at one time, has changed how I conceptualize a lot of my decisions. And it makes me more aware of what’s going on when I’m spending money.
We all know that personal finance is 80% behavior, so I’m fascinated by the ways our brains can either hurt or help us on our journey to FI. Creating good lifestyle habits (planning, systems, routines) can be the difference between saving a lot and saving a little.
Mrs. Frugalwoods is so frugal that she’s a huge inspiration. I’m not a naturally frugal person, and she has a lot of great, practical tips on how to save money (especially on food).
I’m also a huge fan of Mr. Tako Escapes. He’s actually one year younger than me, and is already retired with $3M in net worth. His blog has so many great ideas as well. I made his salsa recipe last night and it was awesome!
Paula Pant consistently delivers incredible guests and advice on her Afford Anything podcast. I also listen to the Minimalists Podcast for advice about keeping life simple, and Jen Hatmaker is a great podcaster for people of faith. She has incredible, thought-provoking guests on almost every week.
Apps or Services
I’ve recently taken all of my apps on my phone and put them in three folders that aren’t on the home screen. That way, all I see when I pick up my phone is the photo of my kids that’s the wallpaper and my phone, text, and What’s App apps at the bottom of the home screen. I’m working on looking at my phone less during the day and being more present. It’s hard!
You recently shared some ‘Big News’ on your website, can you highlight that major change for the family? And how that decision came to be?
I still can’t believe this crazy plan of ours came to fruition. Mr. ThreeYear and I didn’t know exactly how our location independence was going to work. We thought about traveling around the world for a few years, or moving to a foreign country and getting jobs there, but when it came down to it, he told me, “I love my job and don’t want to quit.” Okay, fair statement. He also saw how much I wanted to be close to my family again, so one day this winter, after we’d taken a three-week trip to Chile (traveling always creates these big realizations for us), he told me, “Okay, I’m ready to move. I’m going to ask my boss if I can work remotely.”
This was a year and a half before our timeline for location independence. It took several months of negotiation, but eventually his boss said yes.
We sold our house and decided on a place to live that satisfied our requirements:
- Close to family
- Close to a major airport
- Good schools for our kids
We settled on Davidson, North Carolina. It is a small town (about 12,000 people) right next to a big metropolis (Charlotte) with excellent schools, an awesome sense of community, and, best of all, a 12-minute car ride from my family.
When we made the decision for our location independence to look like this (us buying a house in a specific town and Mr. ThreeYear still working a traditional job) we had to make some trade-offs. Yes, again, the idea of trade-offs. We wouldn’t be able to travel around the world, because Mr. ThreeYear needed to travel domestically in the US every month. It would mean putting our kids in public school, and therefore being somewhat constrained by a school schedule. It would mean a certain amount of structure in our lives that I hadn’t imagined when I first thought of dividing our time between continents.
But it also meant: summers to travel and spend many weeks in Chile and/or anywhere else we wanted to go, more time with family, cousins growing up together, being rooted in a community and enjoying being part of that community.
This is how life looks these days: I get up and run on our neighborhood “greenway” (a 3-mile paved and non-paved trail system), get the kids up, we have breakfast together, then Mr. ThreeYear and I, along with our new puppy Lucy, walk the kids down to our bus stop. We chat with neighbors, catch up, then walk back down to the house and get started with our day. Mr. ThreeYear goes upstairs to his office to work and I go to mine to begin writing.
At lunch, we come downstairs and eat together, then take a bike ride or go for a walk as time allows. I pick up the kids from the bus in the afternoon, we do homework, and then eat dinner as a family.
After dinner, we try to go on a walk or bike ride as a family. Sometimes we’ll have dinner with my sister and her family.
So far, it’s been amazing.
Are you able to explain the concept of location independence to Making Momentum readers?
Location independence can mean different things to different people. To our family, it means the ability to live where we want, when we want.
While our location independence has some explicit parameters because my husband works for a US-based company and he is required to return to company headquarters once a month, it has allowed us to move back to live right next to my family, and have the freedom to visit his family for long stretches during the summer (they all live in Chile).
If someone may want to explore more about potentially pursuing this location independence lifestyle, what advice what you give them?
First off, figure out what you really want. Not what you think you want, or what someone else wants for you, or the Instagram version of what you want, but what’s really important for your family.
I thought I wanted our family to travel around the world. But then I realized that all three of my boys (Mr. ThreeYear and my two sons) have anxiety and attention issues, and they need the security of a routine. My boys need a traditional school setting, and asking them to travel around the world from place to place would not be fun for them. Mr. ThreeYear also really loves his company and his job, and didn’t want to give it up anytime soon.
So we figured out how we could make location independence work given those needs and wishes. My husband works remotely, we moved to NC, right next to my family, to a town with excellent schools. And we’re twenty minutes from a major airport hub so we can travel easily and quickly wherever we want to go!
Where is one place that you’ve yet to visit with the family but know would be an amazing experience and plan to visit in the future? What in particular intrigues you?
After we went to Southeast Asia a couple of years ago, I’ve been hankering to make a trip to New Zealand and then up to Fiji. I think it would be such an amazing trip. But there are soooo many places I’d love to go that it’s hard to pick just one. We have Hawaii on the radar, because our oldest has been dying to visit. All these places are long plane rides but luckily our kids are used to it because of all the trips to Chile.
Are there some essential tips on travelling you can share for other families with younger children?
Just kidding. Sort of. True story: we were going to have three kids, and then after we did an interminable plane ride to Santiago with our 18-month old, we decided there was no way we could manage three kids between two adults. So that’s why we’re a family of four instead of five. 🙂
But, traveling with kids (especially once they get out of that toddler phase, so around 3) is not as hard as people make out. Have VERY low expectations for how much you’ll get accomplished and the level of culture you’ll be able to experience. Kid-friendly activities are a must.
When did you first start blogging? Was there a specific launching off point or what influenced you to go down that path?
I started blogging in October of 2016. I’d been trying to start a blog for ages. I love to write and always have. I also need a creative outlet, and it turns out that blogging fills that hole.
Is there a mission statement or underlying purpose to what you intend to accomplish with The Three Year Experiment?
Yes–I want to help average families with average financial habits learn to make slightly better decisions about their money, so that they can decrease their financial stress and pay off their debt.
What was the that first “big win” on your blogging journey that kept you motivated and reinforced your belief?
Liz from Frugalwoods reached out to me when I was still living in NH (about 45 minutes away from her homestead) and she met me at the library and gave me tips and pointers about starting a blog. I still find myself thinking back to the advice she gave me that day and applying it.
Do you have any specific goals with your blog(s) over the next 12-18 months? What tactics are you planning to leverage to accomplish these?
I would like to increase my traffic a specific amount, get ahead with post writing (I’m notorious for writing same-day posts), and eventually monetize my blog so I can continue to work from home. I struggle with consistency and am sort of flailing as I figure out my new routine, but I’m getting better.
If you could recommend 3 of your blog posts for Making Momentum readers to check out, what would those be?
Any final pieces of advice or recommendations?
It takes longer than you think to change your habits and your life. What’s that one thing, that if you know you could change, eliminate, or add, would radically change your life? Keep working on it no matter how long it takes. Because it will change your life. And it’s worth it, no matter how many times you fail in the process of getting there.
Any special shoutouts?
I am such a fan and supporter of women bloggers in the PF sphere. Liz at Frugalwoods, Liz at Chief Mom Officer, Vicki and Amy at Women Who Money, Penny at She Picks Up Pennies, Lily from The Frugal Gene, and one gazillion other people who I’m forgetting right now.