FIRE and financing the journey

It’s Saturday, 107 days ATN and 67 days into chemo.

It’s the start of another weekend and the side-effects from infusion #5 have finally subsided. So of course it’s time for another post!

Early on in the journey a few people inquired if I was going to be able to manage things financially. I’m extremely fortunate on this front and it seems that my financial mindset and career path led me to the perfect place to begin a cancer journey.

(For those of you hoping for another food blog, well there’s not much new on that front. For the adventurous I’ll suggest natto sushi made with ajitsuke nori and a bit of gari. Natto is one of the best sources of vitamin K2, which helps to ensure calcium ends up in your bones rather than soft tissues.)

FIRE and financing the journey

Dealing with cancer is time-consuming up front with all the tests and consultations involved in the diagnosis/staging phase, and fatiguing in the treatment phase. Trying to work through them can be challenging, even if you’re on a regimen that’s generally well-tolerated (FOLFOX, the systemic chemo I’m on now, is well-tolerated by many. And though I suppose I’m tolerating it well I’d still say I lose four or five days every two weeks to appointments or fatigue.)

Fortunately money isn’t something I’ve had to worry too much about.

So how did I end up in such a lucky state? As it turns out my financial mindset is along the lines of what people are now calling FIRE – Financial Independence, Retire Early. (My previous microwave was also a believer in FIRE, though of a slightly different variety. It was retired at the age of two and a half, so I guess it works for appliances too.) Simply stated FIRE involves living below your means, saving as much as you can, and generating passive income. Joe Udo has a really good blog on FIRE at Retire by 40.

While I’ve always been financially conservative, I suppose you could say I got FIRE’d up in 2006, when I came down with some still-undiagnosed mystery ailment that led me to resign from TGC to recuperate. Things resolved themselves after several months and I started my consulting company Koherence, but the experience drove home: What if I were unable to work for an extended period (say, due to cancer?) or forced to retire?

My first thought was to eliminate debt, which in my case was the mortgage. I bought my house in 1998 and had always made additional payments. I started accelerating those and paid off the house in 2011. And I resisted the temptation to buy up (or, was prevented from doing so – the one time I thought to buy a single family home in a better part of Mountain View, the seller decided she wasn’t going to sell. I have to wonder if the Universe has ways of guiding us…)

With debt out of the way there was figuring out passive income to pay the day-to-day bills. Fortunately I live a rather frugal lifestyle (by Bay Area standards anyway). In 2020 I spent about $32k. According to Quicken the largest line items were $7k for health insurance premiums, $8k for property tax, and $4k for HOA assessments. (If you don’t track your expenses in Quicken or some other software, start! You’ll never really know how well you’re doing if you don’t know where your money’s going.) In 2020 I also had about $29k in dividend and interest income in my taxable investment accounts (and another $30k in various retirement accounts – those aren’t terribly helpful in paying day-to-day bills and yes, it’s been on my to-do list to move things around for a decade or so. Doing so without paying a lot of taxes is…tricky.) Things were almost there on the passive income side. A small amount of stock sales made up the difference.

So on embarking the cancer journey I was in somewhat reasonable shape financially and didn’t need to worry about additional income to cover normal day-to-day expenses.

But what about the journey itself? Well, knock on wood but so far my plan through Anthem Blue Cross has in fact covered everything above the deductible (which at ~$6K isn’t exactly a small amount, but something I had planned for). Of course I also keep expecting that letter from Anthem saying they’re dropping me from the plan. (It’s a pre-ACA grandfathered plan I got in 2008 that fit my needs then, and seems to still do so now. As everyone who’s discussed the ACA with me knows I’m not fond of it. While it certainly helps some people, it does so by sticking it to people who were in the individual market like yours truly. Since the ACA my premiums have been going up by an average of 14% a year, and in 2021 they’ll eclipse my property tax bill to be the largest single annual expense I have!) I also wonder if I’ll get a bill from El Camino Hospital for that $27k Anthem denied for the medi-port surgery that occurred during their contract dispute. I’ll keep my fingers crossed they sort that out now that they’re talking to each other again.

Now the more observant of you may recall that the RE in FIRE is Retire Early. Obviously you don’t need to retire to reap the benefits of FIRE. It should really be Financial Independence, Do Whatever You Want – but FIDWYW doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as easily. In my case in 2015 I was able wind down a good chunk of my consulting to take care of Caper-the-canine-cancer-magnet in her last year. I wouldn’t have traded that for any amount of income. And after she departed to that great squirrel- and skunk- infested forest in the sky (I’m quite certain that was her conception of heaven) I was able to wind things back up in an area I found interesting – ATSC 3.0 aka Nextgen TV – though that has yet to bear any significant income. Fortunately I have the luxury of time, and meanwhile enjoy the technological challenges and people I meet along the way.

Now I’m sure there’s another question some of you have – suppose I didn’t have insurance? What would the journey cost then? Well, that’s something that I’d always wondered too, and one of my greatest fears was that even with health insurance some medical incident like cancer would end up depleting my savings. Well, being the meticulous bean counter type I’ve been adding up the claims going to Anthem and will get to that in a future post.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *