How Wendy chose happiness over a high paid career and slowed down her path to FI

And how you can start designing your lifestyle

Today we are having another one of our blog post interviews, and we have the pleasure to have Wendy from Wanderlust Wendy.

How are you doing today Wendy?

Doing well. Today is Friday, and it’s my work-from-home day. I love the flexibility and also the time to work on my passion projects since I’m only working 30 hours a week at my job.

Where are you from and where do you live?

The “where are you from” question always put me in a mild existential crisis. I was born in Taiwan but spent a decade from age 12-22 in St. Louis, Missouri. In July 2019, after a year of full-time travel, I relocated to Saigon with my husband. Before our trip, I had spent six years living in Shanghai.

Your website name says it all, you are passionate about traveling and exploring places. What do you particularly like about Saigon?

We had benefited a great deal from geo-arbitrage, living, and working in Shanghai during its economic boom. After our travels, we were looking for another similar market to take a break from nomadic life, and to replenish our bank accounts. Saigon has the dynamism and growth that we were looking for. In many ways, the city feels like Shanghai a decade or more ago. Riding that wave of development again is exhilarating, though at times challenging.

What are your favorite travel memories? Any other place you would see yourself living?

My favorite memories from our year of full-time travel were experiences that gave me the perspective of my place in the world, whether that is traversing from Shanghai to Strasbourg on the train, or discovering the Atacama Desert in Chile. The Earth’s magnificence reminds me that I am but a small organism in the grand scheme of things.

One experience that we’ve repeatedly referred to was an off-grid permaculture farm stay we had with an American family who had transplanted to Uruguay. Their slow and authentic lifestyle made an impression on us, and we’ve been adopting aspects of that life. Perhaps one day, we’ll break from city living for a slower lifestyle in the countryside.

globe wanderlust
Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

Now Wendy, let’s talk a bit more about your career and important life choices you have made over the past 10 years, where were you 10 years ago?

10 years ago, I was finishing up my two years of Peace Corps service in a Cameroonian village. With grad school acceptance in hand, I was preparing to wrap up two life-changing years and embark on the next phase of my career, by taking on debt. A lot of debt. Two years later, it would be $120k worth of student loan, and a newly minted graduate degree in public administration and international development.

 – Commercial break –

Here is a book that fits Wendy’s unconventional lifestyle choices well  “Designing Your Life” by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.

 

This book was recommend by Jessica from The Fioneers on the Podcast (listen here). And now back to the interview.

You were pretty clear in your job interviews about wanting to pay off your impressive student loan debt of 120K (USD), so first off congratulations on getting rid of that huge amount of debt, number two, how did you achieve that?

During my job search in the US, I was frustrated at the relatively low pay for jobs in my desired field of international development. Even most entry-level private sector jobs would have led to a slow repayment timeline. I was laser-focused at eliminating this debt and decided to pursue opportunities in Shanghai. This was 2012, and the economy was beginning to boom. I knew I could leverage my cross-culture and language skills in China.

Upon arriving in Shanghai, I hit the ground running with tutoring gigs, and then projects began to roll in. I was able to make a decent living while looking for the opportunity that would accelerate debt repayment. This was a luxury I wouldn’t have had in the US I would’ve had to accept a job pretty quickly to merely stay afloat. Once I secured the corporate gig with great pay, I continued to hustle with tutoring and freelance projects. I only gave up these side hustles after a year when the day job became more demanding.

Meanwhile, I aggressively saved and invested. I had tracked my overall expenses since arriving in Shanghai, so I had a good idea of monthly expenditure. Each month on payday, I’d leave roughly that amount in the account, and then divest the rest of cash 50/50 into debt repayment and investments. I created an environment where I lived “paycheck-to-paycheck.” Not having too much disposable income on hand made me feel a sense of urgency to be mindful of my spending, and always waiting for that next paycheck.

Was this paying off your debt your ONLY drive for enduring I quote “corporate jargons and endless meetings, growing cynical of politics and the Silicon Valley rhetorics of “changing the world”. Often, I found myself sitting in meetings, having an out-of-body type experience, looking around the room wondering who’s faking it, and who’s actually passionate.” Wasn’t there anything satisfying at all? I mean you have studied at an Ivy league school, don’t you want to continue capitalizing on that?

I actually really enjoyed my corporate gig for the first three years. I was very fortunate to have had really wonderful and supportive bosses. The fact I was hired at the admission of debt repayment said a lot. They were honestly the only reason I lasted as long as I did. I learned a lot during my years in the corporate grind, understanding how a large and powerful organization functions and makes decisions had been eye-opening to my understanding of the world. For me, it’s always important to gain the first-hand experience whenever possible to unveil the myth, and the corporate experience is no different.

It was quite remarkable how my mindset shifted the month that net worth turned positive. I suddenly felt free to explore other options. In fact, it was precisely because I wanted to put my expensive grad degree to good use in the social sector that I felt I was in the wrong place.

Teamwork nonprofit

What are you working on these days and where do you see yourself going in the coming months/years? 

Those career dots have connected for me, and I began the new year with a new role at a nonprofit here in Saigon. I am cherishing the opportunity to work within a nonprofit organization at a management level, understanding the inner workings of this world and its intricate relationship with philanthropy. Meanwhile, I am still working on my blog, writing about approaching a global life simply and with financial freedom. The quest to live unconventionally hasn’t stopped, and I continue to explore unique ways of living for the future.

I really like your story Wendy and am pretty impressed by the bold moves you made, these are pretty unconventional. Where did you get your inspiration from? What triggered you to live this nomad lifestyle? 

My earliest inspiration to look beyond the conventional path was from a study abroad trip in college. I was exposed to individuals pursuing a wide array of life options that I had never heard of – taking a gap year to travel, to work, etc. Once my interest in living abroad was piqued, I turned to Google to find blogs of people living the life I wanted to live. I began writing as a way to pay it forward since those personal stories were an invaluable resource.

The blogging medium has changed a great deal, and these days, YouTube videos also serve as an excellent platform to see what possibilities are out there. Before embarking upon a year of full-time travel, my husband and I spent our evenings watching travel vlogs. Yet, YouTube videos are highlight reels, and I wanted to have the experience first-hand. I firmly believe in trying out life options to get at taste of reality. No amount of YouTube videos can replace living the real deal.

Living abroad and trying new experiences has a snowball effect. The more perspective I gain, the less I want to return to a pre-prescribed life.

Read the inspiring story of Wendy on how she changed her lifestyle completely quitting the corporate grind to life where she pursues a more meaningful career. #happiness #slowFI #careerchoices #careeradvice #choosehappiness
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Making all those lifestyle moves implies taking control of your finances in the process, do you have a worst financial decision story?

Up until moving to Shanghai, I had pursued unique life options while carrying student loans. I don’t regret taking out loans to study abroad and travel. Most in the personal finance community would advise against this, but these opportunities gave me that perspective to confidently go after outside-the-box ideas.

While I don’t regret the loans, I do wish someone had taught me that I didn’t need to wait until l had a “real job” to open a retirement account. I had dabbled in a bit of investment in college since I studied finance, but I didn’t invest consistently. I began earning money at age 15 as a piano teacher, but I didn’t get a full-time job with benefits until I was 27. During those 12 years, I missed out on a lot of compound interests had I known to consistently put away a percentage of my earnings, even if they weren’t “real jobs.”

What advice would you have for the readers who are just getting started with their careers? Or for people currently feeling stuck in their corporate job (you know stuck in those inspiring meetings)?

My advice is to have a clear picture of what an ideal life looks like, even if the path there feels really far away at present. Then, work backward and plan out how to achieve that picture. Excel should become your best friend. Make a plan, then sit with it, review it weekly, and modify as life goes along. Sitting with my Excel plans has become a rather meditative exercise.

The modification component is critical. Life decisions don’t need to be all-or-nothing. You don’t need to be 100% debt-free to travel, nor need to be FI to quit a job you hate. Understand what the trade-off is, and be sure you are willing to live with the consequences.

My crystal clear goal to eliminate debt made the first few years of corporate life actually enjoyable. I had a clear purpose, but I still enjoyed my journey. Once my net worth turned positive, I then had the goal to become FI. But as I sat with my spreadsheet weekly, it became clear to me that there is another way to get there without continuing to sit in uninspiring meetings. I am still on that FI journey, though progressing along much slower speed, I am much happier, and that’s worthwhile to me.

If you could advise your younger self about anything – what would you say?

The advice to “do well in school and get a high paying job” doesn’t actually equate happiness. Earning money is still essential, but knowing how much we actually need helps to set boundaries. Don’t be afraid to dream big, and experiment life ideas to live without regrets. Along the way, invest at least 10% of every paycheck, and more if possible. This is the foundation that will grant financial freedom to live that dream life.

lady with hands in heart sunset happiness
Dream big

And now just like on the podcast, here are the same “Quick FIRE” questions:

  • What has been your best investment so far? On top of retirement contribution, I also contributed the maximum allotment (10% per paycheck) toward discounted company stock during the corporate grind. Since those investments were automatically deducted before I get my paycheck, they didn’t require any effort on my part and feels like surprise money.
  • What is a book you would recommend to anyone? One of the most influential books I’ve read recently is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. I’m always looking for a better perspective to help overcome petty stress and anxiety in daily life. For me, this book gave me a unique zoom-out view of the world. My takeaway was that all rules in life have been created by a bunch of monkeys. We are the monkeys running around, and trying to figure things out. I can’t take anything too seriously when I have this literal image in my mind.
  • What is the best purchase you have made for under USD/EUR100? I purchased a Sony Bluetooth portable speaker before we set off on our around-the-world travel two years ago. Small but mighty, the speaker provided endless hours of music and podcast entertainment during long train rides and countless evenings in our short-term accommodations. Now that we aren’t traveling, I still use it daily for entertainment.

Inspiring Interview series – Meeting personalities with unique money stories

What a story! I really liked how Wendy took steps to live life according to her values and made bold moves in her career choices even if that means slowing her path to Financial Independence (FI).

I want to quote these two passages because they are so well-written and will hit home with many: “Life decisions don’t need to be all-or-nothing” and “I am still on that FI journey, though progressing along much slower speed, I am much happier, and that’s worthwhile to me“. (I know you read them less than a minute ago but they are great!)

Wendy, thank you again so much for according us this interview and speak to you on Twitter @wanderlustwlee!


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2 thoughts on “How Wendy chose happiness over a high paid career and slowed down her path to FI

    1. Hey Grace, thanks for stopping by and yes indeed, I really like Wendy’s story as well 🙂

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