In the eleventh installment of the Educators on FIOR series, we hear from Dragon Gal of The Dragons on Fire. I started the series to share the stories of educators pursuing FI (and optional retirement) – no matter how they were doing it, or their place in the journey. I’m so thrilled to be able to share all
This is a great one – including our first elementary teacher! (Well, she taught lots of things, but I’m highlighting the elementary…) The Dragons are financially independent and have an inspiring story. After reading her interview, you should definitely read their blog.
Also – as a note of gratitude: Dragon Gal was the very first person to reach out to me on this site when it was brand new. She tried to comment, and my comments were broken. Thankfully, she emailed and I found the fix. I’m forever grateful, and so excited to feature her here.
Tell us about you.
I taught high school English for 3 years after college, and then worked as a creative writing teacher and all-subjects tutor. My last nine years in the workforce, I was as an elementary school teacher.
I retired from teaching in 2017 at the age of 40. Since then I’ve been volunteering at a local cancer non-profit and at various locations that offer food to underserved communities. I’ve also started a blog with my husband Dragon Guy where we write about my early retirement, his cancer diagnosis, and our travels.
I’m so excited about the new opportunities I’ve been able to explore since quitting, and I’m so grateful that I was able to retire early!
What did you like most about working in education?
I really enjoyed being with my students! They were fun, funny, and cute. I also enjoyed being creative with my lesson plans and watching my students being creative as well.
What did you like least?
In my school district, there seemed to be a shift in education towards an “education as business” model, where schools are being run like businesses, and parents are the customers. This gave a lot of power to parents, and it felt like their opinions mattered more than what teachers thought. I think empowering parents in education is important, but only if there is a feeling of partnership with educators, not if their voice always trumps everyone else’s.
What is your Why of Financial Independence?
When I turned 40, I started reflecting on my life. I realized I wanted total freedom! I wanted to use my time and energy however I wanted.
And while I do think teaching is a very meaningful and wonderful profession, I wasn’t in a sustainable situation. I was teaching Mandarin to 34 classes per week, about 800 students, and I was completely exhausted all the time.
In the future, Dragon Guy and I also want to be able to travel the world more. Travel has always been a big part of our lives; Dragon Guy used to work in the airline industry, and we were lucky to travel standby to numerous fun places through the years. Now our focus is slow travel: we want to be able to travel to places for long periods of time and really immerse ourselves in different cultures. This will have to wait until he retires as well.
- FI Curious – Just learning and becoming interested in financial independence
- Future FI – On the path, but still learning. Destined for financial independence!
- FI Success – Financially independent!
I consider us an FI Success: mostly financially independent except for concerns about health insurance.
Share any financial numbers you are comfortable sharing.
We are lucky in that we both started our adult lives after college with no student loans. Both sets of parents were very generous in paying our college tuition, and we are forever grateful to them.
After about ten years of working, we were pulling in a combined income of 6-figures.
We’ve diligently saved the max in all our retirement accounts. On average, we’ve been able to save 80% of my salary every year since we started working. We’re mostly invested in index mutual funds, CDs, and high-interest online accounts.
Currently, Dragon Guy is still working but is looking towards retirement. I have occasional side hustles as a tutor/teacher, and earn money with my rebate apps, but all this brings in less than $5,000 per year.
Tell us about your path to FI.
What are your successes/wins?
We’ve had a lot of successes on our path to FI. We paid off our mortgage and our cars. We’ve both earned a decent income since graduating college, and we’re very thankful that we’ve been so fortunate.
But our biggest success has been that we’ve always had the same values in regards to how we spend our money.
Though Dragon Guy has always made more than me (and also understands more about finance), he’s always made me feel like I have equal voting rights in what happens to our money.
Since discovering FIRE, we’ve started communicating on a weekly basis
We’ve worked as partners to build our wealth, and it feels wonderful to know that we totally trust and respect each other in regards to money.
What are your challenges?
One of our major challenges is this: while we are essentially FI, we don’t know how things will be regarding healthcare policy in our country. Right now our country seems to be in a holding pattern regarding healthcare, but it seems like things could change at any time.
Dragon Guy was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in 2011. He’s a candidate for getting off his drugs in 2020. If he remains in remission without taking drugs, he’ll be cured! I’m 100% positive that this will happen.
But getting off the drug means he’ll need more lab work done to monitor his blood counts. And while Dragon Guy wants to retire as well, there is currently only one marketplace insurance plan that will cover the cancer hospital Dragon Guy goes to. The deductible for this plan is $15,000.
Dragon Guy doesn’t feel totally comfortable retiring under these circumstances. If he does retire, that would mean we’d need to budget over $20,000 per year just for his healthcare. That’s a very high number and would eat a huge chunk of our portfolio every year.
What is your long-term goal? Do you have a FI target?
Our long-term goal and FI target is to help Dragon Guy retire early as well. He has crunched all our numbers and looked at every single spending category and all our investments. He’s made some changes to our portfolio and done a lot of research on his options for healthcare.
We still want to travel, but now, we need to be more vigilant about offsetting these expenditures by cutting other expenses where we can.
I’ve worked to cut expenses on groceries through growing a garden, couponing, shopping sales, and using rebate apps. We decided to let go of our cleaning lady, and I’m cleaning our house now. I’ve also stopped buying books/magazines, clothes, home décor, and kitchenware. Every little bit helps!
If you become financially independent will you:
- Retire early?
- Continue to work in education? (How/why?)
- Do something different?
I retired early after Dragon Guy and I realized we could live off of his paycheck. We learned about FIRE in February 2017 and had four months to plan before I turned in my resignation in June.
Right after I quit, I taught part-time for about 4 months at an adult English language school. But while I really enjoyed being with my international students, it was too much like regular work (with a long commute!) and didn’t afford me enough freedom, so I didn’t sign on to teach any additional semesters.
I am enjoying the freedom that comes without having a job: I exercise, read, blog, and garden. I’m getting involved in my community through volunteering and connecting with my neighbors.
Going into the second year of my retirement, I realize I miss teaching and being with children. But instead of going back into teaching full or part-time, I’ve started thinking about how to be “project based” with my teaching.
In April, I’ll be tutoring 2 students from Switzerland. In June, I applied to teach creative writing to elementary school students for two weeks. And later in the summer, I’ll be an advisor for a youth camp; I’ll be working with counselors as well as campers.
I’m very excited about the upcoming months!
Tell us about a short-term goal you’re working towards.
Since Dragon Guy was diagnosed with cancer, we’ve become passionate about living healthy lifestyles and enjoy playing tennis, doing yoga, and cooking together.
Currently, Dragon Guy and I have started a support group for cancer survivors and caregivers who are interested in developing healthy habits in their lives as part of their personal healing process. We are offering this program with a local cancer non-profit that I have been volunteering with. This is a seven week program and currently we are on week 4. After we get through the program, I hope that we’ll be asked to return for a second session.
Who/what inspires you?
Inspiration is everywhere! I love that feeling of awe and joy I get when I encounter something or someone that is inspiring.
A short list of what inspires me: ideas, anything in nature, art—visual, music, theater, writing, and dance.
There are also so many amazing people out there—helping others and making the world a better place.
There’s not a day goes by that I’m not inspired by something or someone, and I’m truly grateful for this, as I consider inspiration as an opportunity for me to learn and grow.
What’s something you want to say to other educators about financial independence?
The FIRE movement taught me how to be aware of what we spend our money on, and this awareness has been such a huge awakening for us. We started tracking every single expenditure. Since then, we’ve really asked ourselves if we’ve needed all these things we were buying, and just by having more awareness and being more reflective about our spending habits, we have been able to cut about 20% of our annual spend. So my advice is to track your expenses, to evaluate what you are spending on, and to keep saving!
Is there anything you’d like to get feedback on from the community?
In 2017, we paid off our mortgage; however the cost to live in our home is still over $10,000 every year (property taxes, insurance, lawn care, maintenance, and utilities). The home is honestly too big for us, as it’s just two of us and our two cats in a four bedroom home.
Whether or not to downsize is a conundrum for us. My parents moved into the same neighborhood to be near us, so we have that to consider.
We’re thinking of maybe renting out part of our home as a shared space on Airbnb. But we feel we’d have to renovate our bathroom in order for people to even want to be in our home. Also, our city isn’t exactly a place where people come to “vacation.”
We’d love any feedback or ideas on what to do with our home!
Where can readers reach you if they want to connect?
Please connect with us on Twitter @DragonGuyAndGal and on our blog www.thedragonsonfire.com. We look forward to connecting with you!
Thank you, Dragon Gal! Your story is inspiring, and I can’t wait to hear about Dragon Guy being declared cured soon. Health care continues to be the biggest challenge for retirement projections, and your story highlights it so well. I hope we get it figured out soon in this country.
TFI and I also have been struggling with choices about our too-large house in an ideal location. On our recent road trip, we made the decision to downsize. We weren’t comfortable renting out part of it, and realized that in our retirement we’d be traveling so often it would stand empty. It wasn’t an easy decision, but we feel good about it. Readers – what are your thoughts?
Don’t forget to follow her on Twitter and check out The Dragons on Fire.
Small Budget Retirement says
I bet most of us teachers would go over the same line. We all love spending time with our students, seeing them grow in all areas, how funny they are, the relationships that unfold with the families, etc. But, but , but… the educational system has really taken a turn and it SUCKS to be under that magnifying glass of scores, business-like meetings, propensity scores, the bureaucracy and endless hours of clerical work to back up things that won’t ever see any light after getting to the file cabinet. Administrators who read a book in the summer and want to change everything in the first trimester of the school year, until they read something else. Publishers and test companies making millions of dollars with “new research” and curricula. Standardized tests that require endless weeks of preparation…and list goes on and on.
Therefore, there is a shortage of teachers all across the nation and even substitute teachers.
So Dragon Gal, you are not alone; I am sure you know that.
I wish you guys the best in this new journey, and my best wishes for Dragon guy and kicking the Leukemia hard in the arsch.
Dragon Gal says
Hi SBR, I completely feel for you about your frustrations, and I lived through all of those exact same frustrations myself when I was teaching. In fact…I’m wondering if we taught in the same school district, ha! Thanks for your validation, in letting me know that I am not alone. This is what I love most about the FIRE–the community! I appreciate you for your good wishes for Dragon Guy–he will kick butt with encouragement such as yours! Cheers, Dragon Gal
Diana E Sung says
I love this interview so very much. Yes to the limits on healthcare. I’m hoping Dragon Guy kicks cancer’s patootie.
Thanks for sharing your (very inspiring) story!
Dragon Gal says
Thanks your comment! We really appreciate the encouragement! Dragon Guy has been doing great, and it really is due to everyone’s support! Cheers, Dragon Gal
Savvy History says
It was really awesome to learn more about Dragon Gal through this interview. Concerning FI, I find it very sad but not surprising that health insurance is getting in the way the most. Also, I understand “the big expensive house” conundrum. We also have a mortgage-free place costing over $10,ooo a year. For us, we love our home, love our neighborhood, and simply realize we won’t be moving anytime soon and that decision alone will save us money. Settling in and just going with what we’ve got will help us avoid opportunity costs associated with time, figuring out the quirks of a new place, the stress of buying and selling, etc.
Everybody is different though. I wish them the best and hope to follow their blog closer now to see what happens with the house!
Dragon Gal says
I loved your post about your mortgage-free place costing over $10,ooo a year, and was glad you put it all out there in full detail–that even though a person can pay off their mortgage, there are still so many costs that go into owning a home. It was a huge shock to me when we looked at our annual spend that it still cost that much to live in our home, even with zero mortgage!
I really appreciate your thought provoking comment–that there is a cost benefit to not moving and remaining in this house.
Cheers, Dragon Gal
Yes and yes. What I mean by that is that we realize our house will be expensive even without a mortgage (thanks, Illinois!). And healthcare is the biggest financial reason we aren’t full throttle with the RE part of FIRE.
For us, while our parents are still living (that was painful to type), we plan to stay in Illinois. I’m hoping that means we have another 20 years here. It’s expensive to live here with property taxes, but we think the value of being close to family (I’m an only and my parents are 70+) is too great to look at it from just a financial perspective.
TLDR: I’m not very helpful, am I? 😀
Dragon Gal says
We Dragons went to college in IL and loved it! But IL is expensive, agreed.
You are right in that there is value to being close to family and that this value can never be translated into dollars. I appreciate your perspective! Cheers, Dragon Gal
Thanks for sharing your story. Wow, you moved very quickly after you discovered FIRE.
That’s the advantage of living a sensible lifestyle and saving from the beginning. Great job.
The healthcare issue sounds like a big hurdle. Hopefully, you can work something out. Good luck.
Dragon Gal says
I appreciate the encouragement! In retrospect, four months might have been short for planning my retirement. Because I had the added benefit of Dragon Guy still working, I didn’t do my due diligence with my state teacher retirement service where my pension is being held. That is the only thing I would have done differently if I could have a do-over.
Thanks for the good wishes! Cheers, Dragon Gal
one cup of rice says
Another great interview! I like the idea of being “project-based” in teaching. I can’t imagine not teaching even after reaching FI but also can’t imagine still pulling the hours I’m pulling right now. Doing sequential teaching projects in varied roles sounds like a great way to still teach without it being a job.
Dragon Gal says
Hi OCOR, I’m excited to try being “projects-based.” There’s a lot I still enjoy about teaching–being creative with the students is something I really missed. And of course, being with the students themselves. I’ve taught in smaller class settings since retirement, and I really enjoy being able to establish deeper relationships and get to know my students better. It was harder to do that when I was teaching 800 students per week, ha!
Cheers, Dragon Gal
Dragon Gal says
Hi PFI, Thanks so much for your lovely introduction! It’s been amazing to see what you’ve done with your blog. It really is a great place for educators to connect and get personal finance information. I appreciate your encouragement for Dragon Guy in your conclusion and sharing about your decision to downsize. I look forward to reading about the process you and TFI will be going through in downsizing. Cheers, Dragon Gal
Principal F.I. says
Thanks for the kind words. I think our downsizing will likely be a long process, but we’ll see how it plays out. Thank you so much for participating in the series!