Welcome to Money Talks, a new series in which we interview people about their relationships with money, their relationships with each other, and how those relationships inform one another.
Tanja Hester and Mark Bunge achieved financial independence and early retirement in 2017, when Tanja was 38 years old and Mark was 41. Prior to retirement, they were political and social cause consultants who went from entry-level salaries in the low five figures to six-figure salaries during their final earning years. They started saving for early retirement around 2011 and got really serious in 2013.
They’ve been chronicling their pre- and post-FIRE — the movement focused on Financial Independence and Early Retirement — journey at the popular Our Next Life blog, which includes plenty of tips and insights for people who want to follow a similar path. Tanja’s book Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way, published earlier this year.
In this conversation, Tanja and Mark discuss how they learned how to talk about money, why they decided to retire early, how they achieved financial independence, and what it’s like to live a post-FIRE life of travel.
The following conversation is lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
How Mark and Tanja learned how to discuss money
Mark: We started talking finances pretty early.
Tanja: Mark asked me how much I earned on our very first date.
Mark: I don’t remember if it was actually our first date, but it was pretty early on, and I probably initiated some finance conversations.
Tanja: We had a weekend-long date, and I was coming in thinking we were each paying our share. He was a couple years older and I was pretty close to entry-level, so at that point Mark earned about double what I did. So he was asking if he could pay, because he earned more than I did and I had debt. It was out of a spirit of trying to be more equitable based on our means.
In the early years, it was like a whole new world. I was used to eating at only cheap restaurants, and all of a sudden we were going to nicer places, and it was a very different cultural shift for me. I had only ever had friends who were broke, I never had friends who could afford to splurge on things. So we did that for a while until we decided to dial the splurges back and focus on some bigger goals.
Mark: By the time we got together I was willing to foot more of the living expenses so that Tanja could really be aggressive about paying down debt. But it’s not like I was dragging Tanja into these conversations. Most of the time we’re pretty much on the same page with financial goals.
Tanja: We were really lucky. I managed to find a way-below-market-price rent-controlled apartment in LA so our rent never exceeded $1,000. In LA, I think we should get an Olympic medal for that. We had one car, a little Honda Civic that we still have, so our base living expenses were very low relative to the market. We could splurge quite a bit and not be talking massive numbers, so we didn’t run into trouble.
It was about having low fixed expenses and earning more than we needed, to tell you the truth. I don’t want to act like we did this by being the most principled or the most virtuous with our money. We earned more than we needed and we didn’t have kids, so that gives you a lot more freedom than other folks might have.
When we first got married, for a few years we used those — how long do you think the allowances lasted? A year and a half, maybe?
Mark: A couple years. Not that long.
Tanja: We used our individual checking accounts and gave ourselves a monthly allowance because we each wanted to be able to spend without questions. We ultimately decided that wasn’t necessary because we had enough trust in each other to say, “Okay, I know that if you’re going to splurge on something, it’s for a good reason.” I may not always agree that Mark needs a new mountain bike and he might not always agree that I need a new pair of shoes for one presentation —
Mark: Way to make those perfectly gendered, by the way.
Tanja: They’re not always so gendered! But we respect that the other is not being capricious about those things, so it works out.
Mark: I think it gave us space to trust each other. Having his and her accounts gave us time to realize that we could trust each other without having to scrutinize each other’s spending. If we had been completely combined with no allowance from the beginning, maybe it wouldn’t have worked.
Why Tanja and Mark decided to retire early
Tanja: We both had careers that we got a lot out of and that were fulfilling in certain ways but they really just took such a big toll on us, on our health, on our happiness, and on our marriage. We were political consultants before, and it’s the kind of work that you do because you feel very invested in the cause, but it’s also just really relentless in terms of the pace and the pressure.
As we moved up the ranks, it was always more work, never less. It was always being more reachable, never less reachable. We started to get to a point where we couldn’t even go out of cell range on our vacations. We felt like, “Okay, we can’t do this forever.” If we have to do this for 30 more years, what will we even be when we get to the end of it?
That was our overall motivation for the two of us, and then for me in particular, I have a genetic health condition in my family that forced my dad to retire when he was 42 and I knew that could be in my future too. A lot of the stuff we like doing is outdoorsy stuff and travel, so I had a lot of motivation to hurry up and get to early retirement while I was still physically able to do all of the stuff that I wanted to do.
Mark: We were living in Los Angeles and spending as much free time as we could in the mountains. Then we moved to Tahoe and bought a house after the market crashed. We realized if we just shoved all the money that we had been spending in Los Angeles and just started saving and investing, we would have a lot of extra money. We jokingly started talking about a 10-year plan to retirement, but it wasn’t a plan, it was just kind of a running joke. We hadn’t put any numbers on paper. Then we did sit down and start making spreadsheets and realizing we could do it.
How Tanja and Mark became financially independent
Tanja: Right before we got married, we fully combined all of our accounts. We have our own credit card accounts, which is really because we both had a lot of work travel when we were travelling, and we each have a separate checking account, but that’s really where we park money to pay the separate credit card bills. We don’t do anything separate otherwise. We have joint checking, joint savings, joint investment accounts, obviously legally your 401(k)s and IRAs have to be separate, but we have access to each other’s. We’re fully combined in that sense and have always thought of the money as fully joint, not as we pay some share each.
When we first moved in together when we were first dating, I had some debt, almost $30,000. Considering that I was earning barely more than that, it felt huge. So we at that point decided that paying off my debt was the top priority, so Mark started paying for more stuff and I focused all of my money on the debt. By the time we started saving for early retirement, it didn’t feel like a new thing. It just felt like the next progression in some habits that we had been building for a number of years. We were reaching for a bigger goal, but the process to get there was the same as it was for the other goals.
The truth is that I did have an extreme couponing phase, but that was short-lived, it was time-consuming and I don’t recommend it. Really what we did [to save] was that we tried to get to a spending level that felt comfortable but not extravagant, and any new money we earned we automatically banked. New raises would go directly into savings, investments would come out of our checking account on payday so we’d never see the money, it would come in and right away leave, and that was the strategy we used from my debt payoff all the way through saving for two places and retiring early.
As we earned more, we saved more, and we never really saw the money. It was all automated. It didn’t take willpower, and I honestly think that’s the most powerful way someone can save. Not every career path has the same ability to grow your earnings, but if you’re in one where your pay can go up, if you just don’t see raises as an excuse to spend more and you just spend the same and save it, that stuff really compounds quickly over time.
What early retirement life is like
Tanja: It’s kind of a new world. We’re experimenting with giving ourselves more of what feels like a paycheck, a regular infusion into our checking account, but we haven’t totally figured out what feels right yet. We’re still learning as we go.
We’ve saved enough to not ever need to work again. To not need to write the book, to not need to have the blog — though I don’t make any money off the blog, I always want to be really clear about that — but we did earn more in our first year than we expected because I did get a small book advance, Mark did a little client work that he felt really passionate about. So we spent more the first year since we earned a little more. We’re calling it the gravy approach to budgeting. We have a fixed income floor, but if we earn a little extra, we’re allowed to spend that.
Mark: We did a lot more rigorous planning in terms of the saving and investing side and projecting the growth in our nest egg. When it comes to the spending side, our general approach has been a little less line-itemy —
Tanja: A lot less line-itemy.
Mark: When we were working, we always did the pay-yourself-first approach, where we would put X amount [of your paychecks] in savings and X amount in investments and keep doing our 401(k) and the rest would go into our checking. We found that once we had been together for a while we naturally spent whatever was in our checking, so if we had a car repair, we would without discussing it just go out to eat less. Or if we went on a trip that month, we would not do XYZ when we got back home. We found a way to accidentally budget, but it wasn’t like we would sit down and look at our spreadsheet this month and say, “Whoops, we had this expense, so we can’t do these other things we’d planned.” I’m not advocating that method, it’s just what worked for us.
When we started making progress toward financial independence, we started ratcheting up our savings and tightening our spending. We’d still find ways without discussing to make it work.
Tanja: The bottom line is that we don’t let money sit in our checking account that we are not allowed to spend. Now we’re experimenting with different accounts. We paid off our house so we don’t have a mortgage payment, but if we hadn’t we would set up an account for the mortgage payment and put the money there. Then whatever’s in checking is discretionary, and we can spend it — but if we spend a lot on groceries, we can’t spend as much on everything else. As long as we don’t run out by the end of the month, we’re fine. [Tanja and Mark have a “life happens” fund to cover any unexpected expenses that can’t be funded through their checking account, and any money pulled from the “life happens” account is replenished in subsequent months.] Our tracking is really in our investments. How are our accounts doing and are we running through our money too quickly?
Mark: Now that we’re in this brave new world of fixed income, we might need to do a three-month analysis and actually scrutinize our spending a little bit. Be a little more deliberate about it than we have been.
Tanja: We’re traveling so much that it’s hard to define what a normal month of spending looks like. It might be easier to define a normal year than a normal month.
We just got back from the UK, where we were for almost a month, and we did have a moment because — I’m laughing because we didn’t throw money at a problem, but we did throw points at a problem. We had a bad hotel and we needed to find another, and I was able to quickly call Marriott and say, “Hey, can I use some points to fix this?” It’s helped that we both travel a lot for work and stockpiled a lot of points during that time. We’ve used credit cards for points for a number of years, so we’ve got a pretty good cushion there.
Mark: That’s one of the things, both when we were saving and ratcheting down our spending to save more, and now that we’re early retired and trying to spend on a modest budget, we’ve sort of had to get out of the mindset of throwing money at problems generally. So far we’ve been lucky and not really had to do that on travel. We’re traveling at a pretty modest level these days, not staying in five-star hotels or anything like that. We’re doing hostels and Airbnbs.
Tanja: This last trip I took was for my 40th birthday so I was pretty particular about what I wanted to do, but the other travel we’ve done has been pretty opportunistic. We went to France last fall for a month when we basically just put into Google Flight Search “look at fares from San Francisco to Europe,” or “from San Francisco to Asia,” we priced the whole world and found that France was the cheapest. That dictated that trip. Not being attached to a particular trip or a particular set of things also helps diffuse a lot of that stress.
Mark: After each trip we try to figure out when we were feeling stressed and what was it in the trip planning we could have changed. For example: not spending just one night in places. The quick turnaround doesn’t give you time, you feel like you’re rushed. We try to spend at least two nights in places, even small cities where there’s not much to see.
I think when you’re talking about money or life in general, most people think about where you want to go, and then life just starts happening. Your spending habits start getting engrained and you get a job and the career path often has a kind of inertia to it. For us, once we had this big and audacious goal of retiring early, it just got us thinking more deliberately about money, what it’s for, the life choices we were making and why. Realizing that you can do something different, to align with your goals, is the biggest thing.
If you have a compelling story about how money comes into play in one of your relationships — whether with a partner, a friend, a sibling, a coworker, or what have you — we want to hear about it! Email firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com with a little about yourself.