Today I have this week’s installment of our segment: Interviews with Money Experts. I talk to DGuy and DGal from Dragons on FIRE.
Without further ado, here’s the interview.
Would you mind giving a little background about yourselves and how you came to start your blog?
DGal: I quit full-time teaching the summer of 2017 and have zero regrets! In my retirement, I’ve been focusing on biking, meditating, reading, traveling, volunteering, and writing.
Initially, I saw our blog as a creative outlet for me. I’ve always believed in the power of story and its ability to heal. But as I blogged, I’ve also come to realize the writing process helped me deal with DGuy getting cancer and the struggles of caregiving.
Even though we had a great support system, I still felt so lonely after DGuy’s diagnosis because I hated being a caregiver and experienced so many intense emotions
I want to be completely honest in our blog about the challenges we’ve faced with his leukemia, even if it shows an ugly side of me. I hope our story might help others feel less lonely and also show there is hope for every cancer survivor and caregiver.
DGuy: I work in finance where I enjoy building models and crunching numbers. I love to travel and follow the airline industry with a passion
Together we have reached FI, but due to my chronic leukemia, I have not yet retired, because I need to have good health insurance.
I learned about the FIRE movement in early 2017 and immediately began binge reading blogs: Mr. Money Mustache, Root of Good, Go Curry Cracker, Millennial Revolution, JL Collins, and Physician on Fire.
What I was really impressed with was the camaraderie that the bloggers and commenters had with each other.
The back and forth interaction and community was appealing to me and made me want to start a blog.
With my chronic leukemia, I knew it would be harder to just quit my job and retire early. I felt that was the one thing lacking from the FIRE community: the perspective of someone dealing with a chronic illness.
So this blog is a chronicle of my leukemia story and the challenges of my pursuit of early retirement.
From the beginning of your careers, how did you get to FI?
We were very fortunate that we didn’t have any student loan debt, thanks to our parents, nor any other debt besides our mortgage (paid off last year) and 0% car loan (will be paid off in June).
We’ve always been a dual income couple. For the past ten years, we’ve had a combined income in the low six figures. DGal has been on a teacher salary for most of her career (other times she earned less), and DGuy has always worked corporate jobs.
For almost twenty years, we’ve saved DGal’s salary and lived off of DGuy’s. By living below our means and never really wanting a bunch of stuff, we’ve been able to build a comfortable nest egg for ourselves.
We’ve each only had three employers in 19 years of working. The loyalty to our organizations has paid off with promotions and higher pay—this has also helped our ability to save.
Do you have any tips for someone trying to figure out the right environment, the right culture for long-term employment with one or two organization?
I consider myself lucky because I have been at my last two jobs for over 8 years each. I tried to be patient and give myself a chance to learn the organization and get comfortable with the people and environment.
I always believe that the grass is a different shade of green, meaning that it might not be better to leave and find a new job.
Additionally, both organizations were growing. This meant that I got to come in and build new excel models from scratch, and design processes from start to finish. I wasn’t stuck in an organization that had been around forever and was set in their ways.
I essentially became the resident expert in how a process or set of models worked. This made me feel valued and made me want to stay with my employer.
Are there any lessons you’ve learned from your travels?
DGal: I fall in love each and every time I travel: with the world, a new culture, and my own life.
It’s so amazing to see all the wonderful things this world has to offer—it is truly beautiful to meet new people and have new experiences. On our trip to Peru, I got to see Machu Picchu and marvel at the work of the Incans.
After a good trip, I always come home feeling a sense of appreciation for my own life—that I was given the gift of travel.
DGuy: Live like a local. Visit their markets and parks, and just explore by walking through neighborhoods. Look for activities and events that are unique to the location you are visiting.
Last year in Hong Kong, we went to a badminton tournament. We had never seen badminton live before, but it was a ton of fun chanting and cheering like the locals.
Are there any sort of travel techniques you use to make it easier/more affordable?
For airfare, the more flexibility you have in your schedule, the cheaper the flights you can find.
When DGal was teaching, her schedule was strict in that during the school year we could only do weekend travel from Friday evening to Sunday evening (excluding school holidays). So tickets to visit family were usually $300.
Once she quit, we were able to stretch our weekend trips by adding an extra day or by returning home early Monday morning.
Most of our recent trips to visit family have been $200 or less, resulting in several hundred dollars of annual savings (assuming 3-4 family trips).
Especially in international destinations, taking public transportation in a city can save you a ton of money and you get to experience living like a local.
We also like to walk around just exploring neighborhoods and parks. There is a tendency when traveling to see things that cost money (such as museums), but you can have just as rewarding an experience by simply walking from neighborhood to neighborhood.
Finally, look for a local hotel versus relying on the chain hotels. We went to Chile last summer and instead of paying approximately $250 per night staying at the Sheraton, we paid half the price by staying at a local hotel (which also gave us free breakfast).
I like to use Trip Advisor to find these local places. If I see hundreds of positive reviews, then I feel comfortable booking the place.
Are there any lessons you were taught growing up that you appreciate now?
DGal: I was taught how to be frugal by watching my parents. They came to America with very little money but they worked hard, spent carefully, and invested wisely.
As a result, they were able to retire in their 40s and 50s, pay off their mortgage early, and pay for both my sister’s and my college education.
They were FIRE before the movement even began. My parents showed me it’s important to save and that I could build wealth no matter what my starting point was.
DGuy: My parents never lived above their means. I grew up in a city that had a ton of gated communities, but our house was not in one. My parents could have easily afforded to live in a fancier neighborhood, but they didn’t.
We traveled every summer as a family but it wasn’t extravagant (domestic US).
My parents drove Hondas and Toyotas, not BMWs. Additionally, my parents always paid their bills on time and never got into debt.
Although DGal and I travel a lot, we don’t really spend money on anything else. Just like my parents, we could live in a much more expensive house and drive fancier cars. Living below our means has enabled us to save our money and build up a comfortable nest egg.
What are some lessons you hope to pass onto the next generation?
DGal: Choose happiness. I spent a lot of my life unhappy and dissatisfied. There were thousands of things to be unhappy and stressed about: crazy coworkers, traffic, and pointless staff meetings.
But DGuy being diagnosed with leukemia and my turning 40 were huge wake-up calls for me. I realized I was beginning the last 40-60 years of my life, and ain’t nobody got time for anxiety or depression!
Now, this is easier said than done, and of course, I still have my down moments. But the sad or frustrating parts of my life don’t take center stage like they used to, and I’m learning how to face my life with more happiness and gratitude because it doesn’t matter how much money we have if I’m not happy.
DGuy: The earlier you can start to save, the better off you will be. Try not to buy a lot of stuff. Eat as healthy as you can. Find a passion and devote your free time to it (mine is travel and aviation).
Any tips you could provide regarding health insurance? Any tips you could provide regarding medical bills?
DGuy: Health insurance in the US can be frustrating and confusing. With all the different plan choices, price levels, and fancy words, it can easily overwhelm someone.
If you have insurance, take advantage of the free services such as your annual physical and basic immunizations (like Tetanus shot).
Each year during open enrollment, try to do the math to determine the best plan, based on your projected needs.
If you don’t expect to use the insurance much, a high deductible plan might work best because it will have the lowest monthly premiums.
If possible, try to understand what you have to pay before undergoing a procedure or visiting the doctor. You can call the doctor’s office and they should be able to tell you the charge.
Afterward, it is important to review the explanation of benefit (EOB) that your insurance company sends to you. This document shows the amount you are expected to pay and the amount the insurance paid.
You’ll want to check that the numbers are what you already paid the provider (or what the provider said you would owe).
If you get a bill that you don’t understand, always question the provider and the insurance company to make sure you are being billed correctly.
Unless it is a standard office visit (which is usually a set amount like $25), try not to pay the provider until after they have filed with insurance.
I once had an ultrasound on my leg and the doctor charged me $400, which I paid. When the insurance claim was filed, the insurance company ended up paying the full amount.
It took me over a month to get that $400 back from the doctor, not because they disagreed with the refund, but because that is just how long their refund process took.
Do you use an HSA or FSA? If so, what can you do to use those products to their full potential?
We use an FSA.
Since an FSA is “use it or lose it,” I make sure to slightly under-fund the amount we need for a year.
I would rather use all the funds but not cover all expenses, than cover all expenses but end up with leftover funds in the account.
We also try to time larger, known expenses so that we can ensure we have enough funds in the FSA. We both see the eye doctor every other year, so in those years, we add more to the FSA account.
Currently, I need some extra dental work done. It is not critical to have it done now so I will plan to put additional funds into the FSA in 2019 and have the work done next year.
If you have a qualifying life event happen mid-year, such as the birth of a child, getting married, or changing jobs, you can benefit by making sure you spend all of the money in the account before the change.
In 2017, we put away $600 into our FSA account. When we knew DGal was going to quit her teaching job mid-way through the year, we made sure to spend all the money before she quit.
When she lost her insurance and I put her on my plan (a qualifying life event), I changed the FSA contribution to $0 for the remainder of the year. Because of this, I came out ahead for the year.
We spent $600 of the eligible FSA funds, but only had eight months worth of contributions deducted from my paycheck ($400).
So we ended up getting a benefit of $200. I don’t think many people realize that they can utilize the FSA in this way; I didn’t until someone from HR actually told me to do that!
I would love to use an HSA for the long-term benefits, but I haven’t been able to make the math work for me due to the cost of all my lab work that I need every six months.
Any tips you could provide to someone currently battling an illness and/or someone currently in the role as caregiver?
DGal: For me, what helped the most, in the beginning, was taking it one day at a time, one moment at a time, or one minute at a time, when things got really bad.
The first few years I was in survival mode, and I focused on one task at a time and tried not to worry about anything else until I had to move on to the next task.
Joining a support group helped a lot as well—listening to others talk about their challenges really helped me put my own into perspective; everyone could relate to what I was feeling and I could share the hardest moments without holding anything back.
I hated being a caregiver at the beginning; it’s very hard and it changed my relationship with DGuy.
Seven years later, I’ve made my peace with the role for the most part, though I still struggle occasionally.
What I’ve learned is that it helps to try to live as normal a life as possible and continue to do the things I’ve always enjoyed—don’t let cancer control your life!
DGuy: Learn as much as possible about your illness. A lot of fear, in the beginning, comes from not knowing what to expect.
By doing research on the potential causes of the illness, the treatment options, and the side-effects and expectations of any drugs, you can feel a bit more at ease.
Look for internet message boards where you can share experiences with and ask questions of other people going through the same symptoms and feelings.
What’s a book and blog would recommend to someone that wants to improve their finances?
DGal: The Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder are good books for children (and adults). Laura was a pioneer woman, and I read all her books as a child. What she taught me is I don’t need to have a lot of money to live a full and happy life.
She taught me how to live a frugal life, which has helped me save for my true passion in life: travel.
There are many fascinating FIRE bloggers out there, with different backgrounds and money situations—with children, with debt, fat FIRE, extreme frugal living, nomadic, with all different occupations and income ranges.
No matter what your current money situation is, you can find bloggers that you can relate to, who are sharing their stories online.
Is there anything else you would like to add that would benefit the reader?
Focus on your own journey and try not to compare yourselves to others.
Everyone moves at a different pace and will be at a different point in the process, whether it be pursuing financial independence or managing through a health issue.
Where can people go to learn more about you and your work?
People can find us on our website at thedragonsonfire.com.
We are also on Twitter – @DragonGuyAndGal.
That concludes my interview with DGuy and DGal. I hope you gained some new insights into how to improve your Financial Health and grow your Wealth.
Come back next week for my interview with Mr. Heartland on FIRE.
So readers, what was your favorite point made here? Any questions for them?