A FIRE movement pioneer who retired early with $3 million at age 34 says he must return to work to afford his kids’ college education
When Sam Dogen retired in 2012 at the age of 34 with a $3 million net worth, he made waves as one of the pioneers of the FIRE—financial independence, retire early—movement. Ten years later, he's making waves again—for saying it's time to go back to work.
Dogen, now 45, has written the popular personal finance blog Financial Samurai since 2009. Through it, readers have followed his and his family's journey, from saving for early retirement to leaving the financial industry to writing a book and more.
There are multiple reasons one of the most popular members of the online early retirement crowd is now joining the ranks of the unretired. For one, his investment portfolio, like everyone else's, took a beating last year. Two, he also misses the camaraderie of a workplace. Early retirement is great, but it can also be lonely, he says. There are only so many pickleball games you can play in the middle of the day.
Perhaps the most pressing, though, is because he just can't make the math work on paying for his young children's college education with his current financial situation. When Dogen retired, he and his wife weren't sure they would even have kids. Now they have two, and are raising them in San Francisco. It's expensive, even when you're earning hundreds of thousands of dollars in passive income.
"Life is full of ups and downs and unknowns. You're trying to predict the future, you don't know what’s going to happen," Dogen, who has grown his passive income from $80,000 to around $200,000 a year, tells Fortune.
And you could also argue that Dogen never really retired. Though he left the corporate workforce and lived mostly off of passive income, he also consulted start-ups, produced his blog, and wrote one traditional book and an e-book over the past 10 years. He just did it from the comfort of his home, something that itself is becoming more and more common as some COVID-19 remote work policies remain.
In fact, the more flexible working policies that many companies, particularly in the Bay Area, have adopted are another reason Dogen feels his desire to return to work growing.
"For most people who want to retire early, the reason why is we’re trying to escape a terrible work environment, or we’re completely bored out of our minds," he says. "Now if you want to take a nap during the day, you can. If I had this much flexibility back in 2010, 2012, I probably would have kept my day job for the next five years."
Making the math work
Though his and his family's day-to-day expenses are still covered by passive income, including from real estate holdings and his blog, he says there's no getting around the insanely high costs of higher education in the United States. He estimates it could cost as much as $1.5 million to send both of his children—currently aged 6 and 3—to college.
Seeing how student loans set back many borrowers from achieving financial success and taking career risks, he doesn't want the debt hanging over his children's heads. He plans to work through their college years and reassess from there.
For now, Dogen plans to try something different: He's interested in opportunities in video production or working with a sports team.
"When you get your first job, you’re super excited. You don't get paid a lot, but the upside potential is huge," he says. "That’s the feeling I want to recreate and feel again."
While it might seem absurd to some people to give up early retirement for a wage that's below even the average starting salary in the U.S., that's part of the beauty of attaining some level of financial independence. Dogen doesn't have to grind in an office or go back to the soul-sucking job he hated. He's looking at jobs that are more passion plays this time around, even if they don't pay a ton. And Dogen loves the NBA.
"I think we could all live three different lives, maybe more," he says. "But we’re forced to choose one path and we’re forced to make the most of that. How cool is it to live a different life?"
Another benefit of his situation, though, is that he's not bound to his decision. If he doesn't like the work or deems it not worth the money, he can try something else. Though money is an important factor in his decision to return to traditional work, it's not the only factor.
"I’ve tried everything I wanted to try. So now, I like that idea of working for the NBA or doing something completely outside of my wheelhouse," he says. But he's prepared for that to change.
"The future won't go according to plan. Stay flexible."
Note: An earlier version of this article stated Dogen had already lined up a new job. He later clarified he has not yet done so.
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com
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