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Reached traditional FI this month

2020-05-09

Something remarkable happened this past week that has been on the center of my attention. Each month I calculate my net worth to see how my savings are going. Being COVID time, my net worth has been suppressed for about three months now. So I've been sitting perplexed by how slow my savings were progressing for a few months. But while calculating April, I realized that the stock market had nearly recovered to its pre-COVID levels. And as such, I made much more money in that single month than I had in my entire working career. That number was also about three times my current yearly living expenses.

Now, it's worth saying I've been going for the jugular on my 401k during COVID, putting in 70% of my paycheck for 2 and a half months. Still, I did not anticipate much from buying the dip, and expected the recession to suppressed market gains for a good long time, maybe even years. So to see my account higher than when COVID started was unexpected. I realize this month was unique, it was a massive market recovery representing the "V-Shaped Curve" talked about by COVID optimists. So I'm not ever anticipating making thrice my yearly living expenses in a month again, this was a very rare situation. But it prompted me to run the figures, and yes, I had reached "traditional financial independence."

Traditional FI is when your investment returns exceed your yearly living expenses. Traditional FI doesn't mean much anymore because most personal finance bloggers have focused on the 4% rule. Am I 4% rule financially independent? No. But my yearly investment returns I anticipate to exceed my yearly expenses, and so in that case I am traditional FI.

Let's just say I've been standing around looking at trees outside in the sun and crying a lot out of joy the past week. I continuously think how much my life has changed because the Topeka Public Library subscribed to Treehouse, which got me my first junior dev job and, through Ryan Carson's Educate Yourself podcast, introduced me to Mr. Money Mustache and JL Collins, which revamped my personal finance knowledge right at the time I started my CS career. My life has so drastically changed to the point that I was unemployed art historian 5.5 years ago to the point that I am a traditionally financially independent computer scientist with a great job. With the 4% rule, I am able to pay for rent (with roommates) in a cheap part of my hometown for the rest of my life without working. So now I am going to aim to reach the 4%-rule-sense of financial independence, where I can cover my rent, food, transportation, insurance, and health expenses with 4% of my net worth. That will take some time, and even then I'll keep working to embellish my potential retirement lifestyle, but I feel exquisite reaching traditional FI right now too.

Let's just say I've been re-reading a lot of Mr. Money Mustache, making sure I actually had done what he said I could do if I just took his advice. Everything looked good, in fact the numbers he published were matching my numbers at my savings rate (in fact I was exceeding them). And everything he wrote had a bit more pithiness and meaning, knowing that I was reading not as a neophyte mustachian but as a financially independent computer scientist reflecting on three years of hard work.

Which brings me to this blog. With just a few more years of work ahead of me to reach a place where I could live a happy leanFIRE life, what's the point of spending a lot of time creating a web site no one uses? While I've enjoyed putting down my thoughts about my experience being a beneficiary of free computer science education through my local public library, apparently no one else is interested in researching the topic. In fact, I had logged into my Treehouse account and looked at my group's leaderboard, only to discover to my horror that, for all the Topeka Public Library group accounts on Treehouse, only four people had watched a single tutorial the past 90 days. This is at a time when you would think a) unemployment is high, so people would be looking for free professional development b) everyone is unable to go to school, so online education would be more relevant and useful. To find only four people in the entire city of Topeka had watched a computer science tutorial, when it was completely free, made me realize that there simply is no one interested in learning to program for free.

The topic is greatly interesting to me as an art historian that spend my post-college years studying the sociology of higher education. I could talk about the student debt crisis for days with anyone willing to listen. I thought this blog could reach people who had that interest. But alas, it seems no one finds much use out of a free curriculum for learning to program through OER.

My emotions were also affirmed by the fact that Perlego was released in the United States. I basically think this marks the death knell of OER in America, since when you're looking to study college-level textbooks, it makes sense to pay just $12 a month to access hundreds of thousands of proprietary textbooks. The world of open source textbooks is especially interesting to me, but I realize that I am a bit of a unique screwball in that regards since I've been obsessed with open source since ninth grade. (I used to wear copyleft t-shirts in high school) I think there is just too dominant of a distrust of open source anything in America. People are suspicious of open source, not understanding it's because some computer scientists are so successful they can donate their time to programming or writing products without a copyright. In a world where more people are interested in Top 40 Hits and pop stars, open source is just a little too counter cultural. Even computer scientists, it seems, like to take pot shots at open source. Working as an open source-trained programmer in a .NET shop is a bit like wearing a bowler hat to the "anti-funny hat" convention. You might survive, but people are throwing punches. I realize this is probably true in open source education, my other pet interest. It's not like people are particularly excited about school, let alone school released in the public domain. Most students don't care. I don't blame them. Worrying about licensing for school material is a bit like worrying about spilling blood on your favorite shirt at your execution by firing squad. It comes off as inanity.

So now that I'm FI and feeling super introspective, I just don't feel like there's much of a need to continue this blog/site. I realize that a list of free CS textbooks is ridiculous deprecated when a Perlego subscription costs $12 a month. Why go through the work of education yourself about OER and open source and how to find free educational resources direct from the author when a nice new textbook is just a few bucks a month from the publisher? People in Topeka aren't even using a free college-equivalent education from their public library. Because no one wants to be a computer scientist.

As my sister said, my website is just too "niche." I thought FIRE would find fruitful interplay with open source, because both seem to appreciate frugality and freedom. But I guess I'm just too early, and in that regards I'm not going to "force the movement" by being really active with my web page but just wait for things to diffuse to the general populace. My blog's not going anywhere, but what's the point of updating an OER curriculum when Perlego has been released in the United States?

I kind of feel like the question of "Free College Education" has been solved, now many times over. It is possible to get a massive amount of tutorials and books for just a few hundreds of dollars a year. Anyone who pays thousands of times that amount by going to university is just paying the price for their ignorance of not taking a few minutes to google around. Honestly, I feel like traditional university is completely dead. It is obvious that online education is the future, and I don't need to write a blog telling people that because the online education movement has the momentum of a freight train. I don't think anyone really needs to be told there's no reason to fork over a hundred thousand dollars to get what is free on the internet. Sure, some people still do it, but why concern myself with the decisions of the ultra rich? I don't think I'm particularly saving Working Class Mika by telling her university is a scam for anyone other than the ultra-wealthy. I realize some people get bitten by private university (I did), but I think that that situation was more something for my generation to deal with as it was a powerful transitional phase, when higher ed was falling apart at its seams. No one young today is ignorant of the situation like my generation is. In fact, I suspect youth today are even more adept at finding free educational resources than I am. I suspect that's why no one visits my site, as my own research is probably worse than their own research of the topic. Sure, this was good to teach someone stupid enough to go to private university (me) that I never should pay a cent again to a "nonprofit" school, and I guess a blog is basically a diary while I pursued this path of realization and confirmation, but it probably doesn't help anyone outside of myself.

So now that I have reached FI and can, hypothetically, do "whatever I want" within my (admittedly restrictive) budget, why should I work on this website? I am focusing more on this website than I probably should, as I've noted I'm no longer really studying computer science myself but just promoting other people studying computer science. That's an obvious clue things have reached diminishing returns, when the effort of drawing people into studying computer science is precluding my own ability to study computer science, the very thing I'm promoting. I think I'd rather study the Holm School curriculum that I've made rather than spend any more effort enhancing it. My whole point of reaching financial independence was so I would have more time to study computer science and maybe do some significant work in the field, rather than just being a code monkey. But it seems this attempt at "significant work" -- a nonprofit promoting computer science OER -- has very little interest, and hence very little impact. When you've been working on a site for nearly two years and you get about a hit a month, you realize it's time to close shop (even if it doesn't cost you anything, as does this website). Maybe I'll find a different research topic where I'll find something novel and hopefully not so niche.

But, for example, I had recently come to the conclusion that I shouldn't pursue my tuition reimbursement benefit at my job as a means of getting a free master's degree in computer science. I figured, I don't have much time to study anyway, why suffer? Now, I realize that if I don't have enough time to study, that in itself is the problem that needs to be conquered. And the thing taking up my time is researching and developing for this website that nobody uses. I would gladly do this volunteer labor if people found it useful, but it's apparent nobody does. I had sort of anticipated maybe even starting an endowment that paid for people to attend UoPeople through the Topeka Public Library, but if only four people watched a tutorial on Treehouse the past three months, no one wants to even learn computer science anyway, free or not free. Treehouse through the public library is already a scholarship, yet nobody uses it? Why put a focus on paying for other people's further study of computer science? $1000 a year is so minimal, anyone can pay it off working just a few hours a week. Centralizing rather than decentralizing that cost would be extremely expensive to me, and to what end if no body in Topeka even wants to learn to program? I'm not judging them for that choice, it makes a lot of sense, but I'm going to read the writing on the wall when I see it and choose my behavior accordingly. Niches are niches for a reason, and the computer science education niche is something that probably appeals to "gifted" kids exclusively. I'm not worried about gifted kids finding open source, I think it's impossible to throw a rock in programming circles without hitting GitHub. But why seek water from a rock by hoping there will be a world-wide interest in computer science? I remember a few years ago I told people, "In the future, everyone will need to learn how to program." I realize that's totally false, the movement in computers has been to greater ignorance of the technology that produced the very same technology you're using, rather than the reverse. Is that necessarily bad? Maybe? Maybe I'm just dating myself as a boomer thinking people need to learn how to program. Honestly, I've always kind of thought computers were stupid, and one of the reasons of learning how to program was to reveal how computer are kind of stupid and not worth your entire life's dedication. Computer science? Sure. Computers? No. I could be wrong, but it appears the more people become less able to code thefacebook.com (circa 2004) themselves from scratch, the more time they spend on thefacebook.com. That's just sort of how I live my life, not sure that's a universal truth. But I know the closest "facebook" equivalent website when I was growing up had the tagline, "the internet makes you stupid." I doubt the facebook would ever have that as their slogan. According to them, the facebook is going to spread freedom around the world. Mmmmhmmm.

Freedom was always a central focus of this blog. Freedom from student debt. Freedom from restrictive proprietary licenses that wind up costing you your wealth when you are most vulnerable. But I admit I don't think my own website has "spread freedom around the world" one bit, so touche thefacebook.com. Creating CS EdTech is a mixed bag with which I'm familiar. I know it can get frustrating when it seems coding, one of the most important skills of the 21st century, is simply ignored by most youth. What I need to realize is that it's wrong to think coding needs to appeal to "most" or "all." I need to realize that coding only really speaks to the few who have that spark of interest within them. While it's true that coding needs to be taught to everyone at an entry level in order to ignite that spark initially, and then those uniquely touched by computer science can move forward and beyond on their own initiative, computer science (and by fiat open source) will only resonate with a few. It's kind of like how I thought everyone would be interested in linux when I went away to college, but other than the RUUG (Reed Unix User Group), people simply weren't. I knew one guy who used linux in my freshman class (and he went on to found a successful software company). Other than that, there was a free culture club my senior year that focused on talking about open source and CC licenses for art and creative works. So maybe I'm being harsh, but my point is interest in open source at Reed College was limited to a handful of students. So will this website, a culmination of being a programmer for 25 years and using open source software for 22 years, and being a researcher into the sociology of higher education for 12 years, appeal to the average person who googles "free programming classes" into google? It appears the answer is no.

Is open source successful? Yes, beyond limits. But it's a niche success, and one that doesn't affect anyone beyond the engineers creating the software that everyone uses. CC licenses only have resonated with teachers and educators, not with artists at large. It seems very few other camps of culture use open source. The intersection of my interests just happen to be the intersection of all the camps that DO use open source, so it's a bit of a chicken and egg whether it's a coincidence my interests are all pro-open source or whether my interest in open source defines my camps.

The point is, some changes are going to occur at Holm School. I am going to start incorporating Perlego into the recommended readings. Thus, the entire curriculum won't be free. It'll hypothetically cost $12 a month to subscribe to Perlego. Obviously, if you can't do this, you can ignore the Perlego recommendations. But I think it would be foolish to act as if like Perlego doesn't exist, when it solves a very important problem in the world of DIY education. As I've said in the F-You Degree writeup, I don't think it's asking too much for someone to work 4 hours a week (at minimum wage) to pay for their undergraduate degree in Computer Science. You'll still have plenty of time to study. And you'll have a B.S. in C.S. with absolutely no debt, prepared to take a junior dev job that'll pay well and have benefits like tuition reimbursement. It's a win win situation. So I don't think it's unreasonable to recommend books that are on Perlego. For a few hours of labor a month, the number of textbooks on CS you can read is exponentially raised.

I think in time, public libraries will subscribe to Perlego. But until then, I think a DIY education in C.S. can take two routes: a) a completely free route. b) a $5600 F-You Degree (Treehouse, Perlego, UoPeople). $5600 over four years is very doable, and that's why I don't feel especially guilty saying that finding a minimum wage job for a few hours a week to fund a great curriculum in C.S. is especially demanding. Can you fund your CS education for free? Yes, you can learn enough through your public library to get a junior dev job, which will then pay through tuition reimbursement your UoPeople and OMSCS degrees. But a F-You Degree is also a good choice, and so I'm going to focus on developing that line of thought for a while too. I first built the entirely open source version, let it be noted that it garnered two stars on GitHub. Maybe the Perlego version will resonate more with the edupunk crowd.

Here's to the changes coming to the Holm School curriculum! Good EdTech changes the world!

Addendum: I've thought about this a bit, and realize I am sort of a special snowflake in my life. I suffer from a mental illness, and most people don't really give people with mental illnesses any time of their day after they learn about the person having one. I'm not complaining, I'm just pointing out that stigma is really prominent in society. I know people aren't to blame for that, things like movies and comedy shows probably are. Whatever. But what I can do is continue to work until I'm 65, and then fund a huge endowment for Topeka students. Considering I don't have much of a social life (that disappeared with my diagnosis), there's no reason not to work until I'm nice and old. Retiring early would be pointless, I'd just sit around and read books all day every day. So I think I want to be a philanthropist and exchange my ability to work without interruptions (ugh...) to benefit Topeka. It's so simple just to live frugally for 30 years and at the end donate your RMDs to the Topeka Public Library's computer science endowment. Maybe I'm depressed, I've written a few weird posts on this site lately, but I'm not really feeling motivated to leave my job. Of course, I could lose my job or whatever, but in the future finding a remote job will be even easier than it is now. I think I'd like to position myself towards philanthropy once I get the 4% rule thing down, then live a life where instead of spending money on socializing and travelling, I spend my money funding kids' computer science education. That seems like a pretty satisfactory life. All I have to do is work until I'm 65. Given that my life is a bit... unique... given my health circumstance, I think this is a satisfactory way to participate in the Topeka community since I can't otherwise. It's worth giving it a try. Like I said, I suspect even if you offer free computer science college not a lot of people will be takers. That's kind of my diss on the Topeka educational system.


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