Bloggers on FIRE – What Life Could Be

In our Bloggers on FIRE series, we interview European FI bloggers to find out what makes them tick. Our aim is to build up a “who’s who” directory for the European FI blogging world. We hope you enjoy the series and discover some new blogs to follow. You can find a full list of our Bloggers on FIRE interviews here.

Bloggers on FIRE Profile Card What Life Could Be exp

Please briefly introduce yourself to readers

Hi there! We’re Emma and Robert, a Scottish-Hungarian couple in our mid-thirties. We have two kids aged five and seven, and we live in Timișoara, a city in the west of Romania, which is near where Robert is from. We moved here two and a half years ago after living in Germany for twelve years. We came here to be closer to Robert’s family and to give our kids the chance to grow up in a strong community where they have roots.

We’ve been blogging over at What Life Could Be for about four years now, and through the blog we started organizing the annual Financial Independence Week Europe (FIWE) meetups. At FIWE 2017 we co-founded along with four other participants, and here we are!

What is your backstory?

Robert: I was born and raised in Romania. My family was pretty frugal and hard working. I guess that shaped me a bit. As a self-employed IT consultant I had to find ways to make sure I’ll have some sort of pension so I started with private pension funds which turned out to be a joke. The next step was to learn about investing and real estate.

Emma: My backstory is pretty boring to be honest. I grew up in Scotland in a completely normal family. My parents didn’t really teach me anything about money, but we always had enough. Money was basically a non-topic since we never had either a lack or an excess of it. I had zero traumatising experiences, zero character-building struggles to get through, and zero money-related epiphanies. It really is extremely boring – sorry!

Why did you want to reach Financial Independence?

Robert: Since I was self-employed and didn’t have to pay state pension contributions, I started looking into investing and ways to generate passive income. We drifted without a clear goal into real estate and later the stock market and ETFs. But securing some sort of pension or passive income was my mission.

Emma: We weren’t actually officially on the path to FI for very long. We didn’t discover it until 2014, and then we FIREd in summer 2015. We’d been saving and investing for years beforehand without aiming to retire super early. We could see the logic of it but weren’t obsessed with it. We didn’t constantly track our progress to some big target number and we didn’t talk about it that much. It was just something that happened quietly on the side. I did hate my job though, so it was nice when I could quit. Although I didn’t spend the time we were working towards FI dreaming about quitting.

How much is your “enough”?

For us, “enough” is more of a feeling than a specific number. Our net worth is pretty irrelevant since we’re invested mostly in real estate and it would be impossible to know how much our flats are worth unless we tried to sell them, which we don’t want to do. The important metric for us is cash flow. As long as our flats bring in enough net income to cover our expenses comfortably with a bit of a buffer, we’ll be fine indefinitely.

For several years now our flats have been bringing in more money than we need, and we’ve been putting the excess in ETFs and throwing some of it at overpaying our remaining mortgages. So we’ll be fine even if we have serious unforeseen expenses, either personally or related to one or more of the flats, or if one of our tenants moves out and we can’t find a new one immediately. (That’s never happened to us in the eight years we’ve been landlords, and the situation in Germany is completely crazy, with hundreds of applications for each flat that comes up for rent. But who knows what the future holds?)

Where are you on the road to Financial Independence?

We FIREd in August 2015 when Robert was 32 and Emma was 31, and we’ve never looked back!

What do you do all day now that you’re FI?

Robert: I have two main passions: community and environment. In both areas there are always plenty of smaller or bigger projects to sort out. I hate seeing all the rubbish lying around and all the junk thrown in lakes and beside roads so I started an initiative in my town to tackle this problem. Being an expat in Germany made me understand how important is to have a community, to belong somewhere, to have like-minded people around. I am constantly looking for ways to connect people, for example for the FI community, or in our local communities (online and offline).

Emma: I hate to disappoint you, but being FI doesn’t get us out of doing boring, repetitive chores – we still have to do the dishes and clean the toilet! Also, since we have kids a lot of our time is automatically accounted for and the school and nursery day imposes a structure on us. I quite like that because I find it difficult to cope with loads of unstructured time, like the summer holidays.

I get up at 6am and spend one glorious hour enjoying the peace and quiet before everyone else gets up and starts demanding things from me. I meditate, write in my gratitude journal, do some Romanian on Duolingo, and other random stuff like writing this.

Then the kids wake up and much chaos ensues.

Once we’ve managed to get the kids off to school and nursery I go running, work on FIREhub, and work on my own projects like learning Romanian and figuring out how to be more zero waste. Then it’s time for lunch and we go and pick up Little W from nursery. While Little W is chilling with his lego I finish off the last bits and pieces of whatever it was I was doing before, then it’s officially kid time for the rest of the day. We pick up Little Miss W from school around 3pm and then we normally go to the playpark or go to play with the kids’ friends. Then it’s dinner and bed for the kids, and around an hour and a half of downtime for me and Robert.

Weekends are generally more chilled. We go back to Robert’s hometown where we used to live until September 2019, and we sleep, meet friends and enjoy the nice fresh air of the countryside. (The air in Timișoara is pretty pungent.)

Our life isn’t particularly glamorous, but we’re enjoying having a balance between working on our own projects and spending lots of time with our kids while they’re still small.

I love to learn new things and pursue whatever topics take my interest. I usually get totally immersed in a topic for a couple of months then move on to something else. A few months later I get really interested in the original topic again and I go back to it. I love having the freedom to do that. It’s one of the most valuable aspects of FI for me – the freedom to choose exactly what I spend my time on. When I have to do something because someone else expects me to, I get grumpy!

What was your strategy for reaching Financial Independence?

Buy rental real estate, make sure the monthly rent more than covers our expenses for the flat, and max out our special repayments allowance to pay off the mortgages asap.

It turns our we’re not very good at spending money, so even with average salaries and no particular effort on our part, we managed to save up enough money from our jobs to buy a flat to live in in cash a few years after we both started working. (Prices were different back then, I’m not sure how feasible that would be now that the market has gone crazy.) That allowed us to live rent-free, which in turn helped us to save even more of our salaries.

Then we started buying flats to rent out, and we did a rough estimate of how many paid-off flats we’d need so that the rental income would cover our expenses. Our estimate was a bit inaccurate because we calculated way higher monthly expenses than we actually have, so it was a nice surprise when we ran the numbers again and realised we had enough!

What is your financial strategy after reaching FI?

We reached FI earlier than we expected, since in our heads we always assumed we wouldn’t be FI until we’d paid off all the mortgages on the flats. But we completely forgot to factor in the fact that we had enough savings to bridge the gap until we paid off all our mortgages.

Since we moved to Romania in May 2017 we’ve also been able to rent out the flat we lived in in Germany, which contributes significantly to our cashflow. We were still FI back in Germany though.

Now we live off the rental income from our flats in Germany. The money Robert earns from his online business stays mostly in his company. It’s our backup in case things go wrong with the flats.

What was your biggest financial mistake?

Robert: Signing a private pension plan in Germany with thousands of Euros in (more-or-less hidden) costs.

Emma: My biggest financial mistake was probably signing up for both a state-sponsored private pension (called a Riester Rente in Germany) and a workplace pension (Betriebsrente). I didn’t know what I was doing at the time and the fees were really high! I cashed them both in once I saw the light and stuck the money in ETFs instead.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Robert: Get into self-employment sooner. I worked maybe far too long for others. Get a mentor.

Emma: Study something different at university! I studied languages because I really like them, but the courses were heavily based on literature rather than linguistics and language itself. I didn’t enjoy studying literature at all. I should have used my time at university to study something that would have allowed me to build a more widely-useful skill. I’m not exactly sure what that would have been, but I’d approach choosing a course with a much more open mind.

What’s your wildest dream?

Robert: To have an idea or invent something that replaces most single-use plastic on Earth. Start an NGO and hire some good lawyers to fight corruption.

Emma: I’d love to walk the Camino de Santiago and some of the long-distance paths in Scotland. I’ll either have to wait until the kids are older or figure out what to do with them while I’m out walking! Oh, and an immediate and total worldwide ban on plastic would be nice! 😊

What is your favourite just-for-fun activity that brings you joy?

Robert: Wine-tasting surrounded by great people. Collecting rubbish and working on not-for-profit community/environmental projects.

Emma: Listening to Brexitcast while knitting manically to cope with the stress of it all!