we've learned

Our Sliding Doors Weekend // The Expensive Future That Could Have Been

happy monday, amigos. we’re freshly returned from our favorite way to travel while we’re still employed: the add-on weekend. work pays for our flight, we stay the weekend, everyone’s happy.

this weekend, though, was a total eye-opener. call it our sliding doors weekend. you know the concept even if you haven’t seen the movie: you rush into a train station, and just barely catch the train. but then in an alternate reality or parallel universe, you rush for the same train, but the doors close before you can hop on. that triggers a sequence of events that leads you to a completely different future.

this weekend, we were back in the city in the east where we each lived for a number of years.we’ve been away for quite a few years, and for the first time, we got a clear-eyed view of what our lives might be like if we’d stayed. our expensive future that could have been. we’re suddenly feeling especially glad that we caught our train to the west!

this particular city in the east is definitely a pricy place. the mandatory stuff like housing and transportation is expensive. and the optional and tempting stuff like restaurants and bars are decidedly upscale too. plus, there’s the culture: people definitely like their labels, their hand bags, their luxury cars. people have nannies, get fit at yoga and barre studios, and regularly visit the spa. we left said city in our 20s (though at different times, if you’ve been following the history of us). but not before racking up pretty major credit card debt to keep up with the young joneses. we felt like we had to dress a certain way for work, but also outside of work. we felt like we had to get our home decor up to a certain standard. one of us (ahem) felt compelled to drive a very fast car. and then there were all those happy hours and dinners out. so many. so so many.

here’s a sense of the weekend: to celebrate a friend’s milestone birthday, friends stayed for the weekend at a very upscale hotel. on day one, there was high tea ($50+ per person), then drinks in the lounge ($16 per cocktail) followed by dinner (entrees starting at $30). but before getting to those meals, there was the primping. people came down to dinner in name brand clothing, $500 shoes and much make-up. there were expensive clutches, expensive haircuts, expensive suits. a few of those engagement rocks were knuckle-sized.

then there was us: simpler clothes, unfancy shoes from dsw, minimal make-up, no expensive haircuts. and let’s be real: we felt a little self-conscious. it never feels great to be underdressed. (though nothing a few $8 beers couldn’t fix.) it’s not like it was a black tie event and we dressed for a beach party. we were dressed just as appropriately, but it was a little like going to the prom in your hand-me-down tux and feeling upstaged by the rich kids with the brand new duds. or maybe not upstaged, since didn’t care whether we impressed anyone or not. just different leagues. like we were visiting the big leagues from the farm.

and the conversation was even more striking: nanny drama, private school decisions, deliberations over whether to vacation in the caribbean or europe, tales of extravagant home renovations. as you all know, we can talk finance with anyone, but this was different: this was the talk of people who spend a freaking huge amount of money and see no problem with that. or no alternative. people who’ve let their lifestyle inflate so much it’s floating away. we kept our mouths shut.

it’s not the city’s fault, per se. in fact, we moved from there to a more expensive city in the west. maybe it’s just the people we know in the east, or the industries we work in. though research shows that where you live significantly influences your values and your politics, so it makes sense that it would affect your spending too. but this weekend showed us that, if we’d stayed put, there’s a good chance we never would have figured out how possible early retirement is, gotten our spending under control, and forged ahead with our fire plan.

so much of your life is influenced by whom you surround yourself with. people whose friends and family are thin tend to be thin, and those with heavier friends and family tend to be heavy. it turns out that the people we were friends with back in the day are on the heavy side — the heavy spending side. and if we’d stayed, there’s a good chance we’d be heavier spenders now than we ever were before. our lifestyle inflation might compel us to say absurd yet often stated things such as “earning a quarter million dollars a year makes you basically middle class.”

granted, this was a big group gathering, which is rarely when people share their insecurities or troubles. it’s all too often a time for strutting, and showing off how well you’re doing. maybe if we’d had time for more one-on-ones, we would have heard some tales of financial anxiety, or attempts to turn things around or deflate lifestyles. but we didn’t. and we felt one thing over and over:


all we could think was: thank goodness we got out when we did, when we could still form a new perspective. thank goodness that where we landed was somewhere that made us feel more grounded, that let us get outside more and figure out that that’s what we really care about. thank goodness we now surround ourselves with people who know the value of a dollar, and don’t care what we wear or drive. thank goodness we can go back into that lion’s den now and see it for what it is: a living example of rampant spending and poor financial planning. thank goodness we can see that and not want to keep up with the now-older joneses.

thank goodness we caught that train. because we’ve seen our alternate sliding doors future, and it’s bleak.

have you had any moments in your life like this? have your friends gone off the spending deep end and seem entrenched in that way of life? do you ever wish on some level that you could still drop that kind of cash? please share!

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44 replies »

  1. One of my closest friends fills an emotional void with stuff. She has the latest gadgets, custom furniture, you name it…she owns it. She also said that she “accepted debt is just a part of life” and goes about her day as such. Granted, we were on a similar path in a while, we wised up. But I guess to each his own. I know that her S.O. reads our blog posts, so maybe it will inspire a little bit of change.

    • I get chills thinking about “accepting debt as part of life.” What a bleak future! I mean, there’s something to be said for acceptance and finding peace with your circumstances, but those are circumstances your friend can change! How tough that must be for you to witness that. It is SO hard for us not to give financial advice when we see friends struggling, but we’ve found that we are getting asked more and more questions when people sense how at peace we are with regard to money… maybe your friend will still get there one day.

      • Good advice. I really strive for not providing advice, but that gut reaction is chilling for me, too. Sometimes I have trouble with restraint, but it’s because I care and I want to help. Watching the struggle is so difficult. Maybe it’s one of the reasons I share my own struggles via the blog.

  2. Yeah, I can totally relate to that. Just listening to our colleagues talk about the same type of financial drama. Some have financial anxiety but don’t want to do anything about it, others just spend, spend, spend, so everyone can see they have a lot of money to spend. I’m glad we nipped our lifestyle inflation in the bud when we did. You nailed it though with feeling more gratitude than anything. Just grateful to be where I am, and in happy with the situation I’m in.

    • Amen, brother. :-) We often liken FIRE to finding some secret treasure map to an alternate life that others don’t even know could exist. And we just feel so grateful, like you do, that we figured it out before we were too far gone financially!

  3. It is so very true how much alike you tend to be with your friends. Choosing your friends wisely is perhaps the most important deciding element (aside from family, of course) in what kind of person you turn out to be when older. The old adage “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” rings true even at a young age. Heck, at every age!

    I grew up in a very similar metropolitan area, also on the East coast (hmm, I’m seeing a pattern emerge, here). Honestly I’ve never been back. I have no interest in seeing that area. But the ideals and tendencies of that area very closely match yours. It’s an affluent area, so the BMWs, Mercedes and Porsches flow like butter.

    I am so very thankful that I no longer get hung up on superficial materialism like that any longer. After all, if people sit down and truly calculate the value of their time, or their true hourly wage, by working a job – I think a heck of a lot more people would quickly figure out that, even though the expensive cars, luxury homes, diamond bracelets and designer clothes, they are getting a raw deal.

    Worse, it’s a deal that they signed up for.

    • I think part of the reason we relate to you so much is that you, like us, used to be into all the stuff, and you can relate to wanting to have a fast car. :-) It’s different from the many FIers who seem to have always been overachievers on the frugality front, which does not describe us in the least! And that’s part of why our sliding doors experience is so alarming, because we feel pretty certain that we would have been completely susceptible to that lifestyle inflation that all of our old friends gave in to, probably without ever giving it a second thought. It’s so easy to just go with the flow and do what your friends and neighbors are doing, and never bring that extra level of awareness to it. That’s probably what we’re most thankful of all for: that at some point we were able to take a step back, decide that we want something different, and choose a different path (or a different train, to stick to the analogy). So glad you guys did the same!

  4. I have a close friend who has very different ideas on money from me. Her and her husband bought a house for about 4x what I bought my condo for. The condo that felt huge and luxurious for just me and still does for me and my boyfriend. It’s all about perspective. I’ve never really been a big spender. They also seem to always like to have the newest car, clothes, gadgets, etc. It’s strange to me because I feel like we mostly buy whatever we want whenever we want and we don’t come anywhere near close to spending what they do with a similar philosophy. I guess we just want less!

    My office parking lot is full of luxury cars, but me, I’m happy with my now-five-year-old subcompact. I have so many other things I could be doing with the $70k you can easily drop on a luxury car.

    • It’s great you can have that friend and not let it get you off-course! We don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with spending a lot, if that’s what you want for your life. We just want freedom, and know that that requires a very different way of looking at money. But for people who want lots of stuff and are happy working forever, we say “great!” We just don’t want to surround ourselves exclusively with folks with those values! :-)

      And we’ve said this to you before, but you just seem to be on such a great path financially, and it at least seems to come so easily to you! It’s hard to imagine your internal compass leading you very far astray, even if you have friends making different choices.

  5. I’ve never heard that analogy described that way, but I like it. You caught the train and what a difference that made.
    I haven’t had any of these moments financially, but I have physically. In college, my weight spiraled out of control and I was up to like 240 which is huge for my frame. Thankfully, I woke up to the damage I was doing and I was able to right the ship. My sister was small at the time, but is now bigger than I was then. Every time I see her, it’s a reminder that I made the right decision to lighten up. Now I just hope she can do the same.

    • I hope you’re super proud of yourself for being able to “right the ship” — that’s so awesome, and you must know the stats on how rare it is for people to do that. You rock!

      • I am proud, but I wish I could finish the job. I’ve righted the ship, but to continue the analogy, I can’t seem to bring the ship into harbor and finish the job. As I wrote about, my body isn’t happy with my current weight, but I’ve been stuck here for 5 years. Something’s gotta give and I really hope it isn’t my knees. We’ll see.
        Curious though- what made you switch course? What made you catch the train?

      • Why we caught the train: Long story, having nothing to do with money. Short version: I didn’t like the vibes in said east coast city (too self-important, people wearing stress like a badge of honor), and didn’t like the rate at which I was getting gray hairs at age 24. Craved the west, where I had been for college. After moving, met the Mr through a work project as referenced in our Best Bad Money Decision post, and after some time of long-distance dating, he decided to move to the west too. Because it’s naturally less stressful out here, we felt less need to treat ourselves, or the treats were camping weekends instead of spa days or shopping trips. And we met other people who weren’t obsessed with money and status. We always knew it was a good thing to escape, but didn’t really see HOW good a thing it was until this past weekend!

  6. Influences are most important. That’s why I surround myself with all you good online FIRE friends. Well done getting out to the West. Alaska has no real standard of living expectation, which is great for us. We can borrow other people’s adventure stuff if we want to give something a try, and we can rent the state’s public use cabins all over rather than having our own.

    • What a good point — that it’s entirely possible to find your community virtually! We LOVE the FI community online so hard, and feel more motivated to save more every day! So even if you’re surrounded by a bunch of poor financial decision makers in real life, you can still find your good influences online. It’s just a whole lot harder to get started when everyone around you is spending like it’s going out of style! The Alaska public use cabins sound amazing, by the way! We’d love to hear more about those!

      • They are amazing. Our favorite is one in Denali State Park that looks right at Denali (which is rarely out, but when it is, it’s glorious!). They’re definitely bare-bones – just bunk beds and a wood burning stove usually – but you don’t have to worry about bears while you’re sleeping and it gets darker at night in a cabin then in a tent (with the sun up all night in the summer).

      • Thats our favorite too! You should try the Barber cabin and Dale Clemens cabin down on the Kenai (winter), and the ones at Halibut Cove Lagoon are some of our favorites too!

  7. I often wonder how much easier it would be to reach early FI if we didn’t live in NYC. Of course, it is possible to live frugally even in an expensive city. But the high cost of housing is nearly impossible to reduce, especially if you want to live in a decent neighborhood with good schools. We don’t have plans to leave being that all our family and friends are here, but I sometimes wonder how life would be if we did catch the sliding door to a lower cost area.

    • Like you said, it’s possible to be frugal anywhere. We saved a lot while living in one of the most expensive cities in the west, though we certainly save more living in a smaller place now. You have to decide what’s important to you, and plan accordingly. For you, it’s being close to friends and family, and living in a good school district. As long as you budget for that, it’s all good. We don’t think living in that expensive city where we used to live would have brought up happiness, so we’re glad we’re now in a situation that’s better for us. :-)

  8. It can be very entertaining to look back on certain aspects of life and ponder what could have been. I often look back on my childhood (when I lived in a much bigger city in Texas than I do now in Montana) and think, “I wonder what my life would be like today if my parents hadn’t chosen to move my sisters and I to a different part of the country.” But I know the answer. Or at least I think I do based on the lifestyles of my friends and family down there live. As you said, you tend to be like those you spend time with. My friends and family in Texas that I would have spent time with spend money. They buy the newest stuff. They strive to be “presentable” in a definition much different from that of people here in MT. I mean, where we live you can walk into one of the fanciest restaurants downtown in jeans and not get a second glance. Granted, they should be “nice” jeans. We’re not hillbillies. ;)

    At the time when my parents moved us, I was devastated and angry. Now, I couldn’t be more thankful for where I am and the people I spend time with, because it’s made me the frugal, future-focused person I am today.

    • We can definitely relate to all of that — jeans are definitely acceptable everywhere here too. :-) And we just love how much more grounded everyone is where we live now, which I’m sure you feel in MT as well. Something about being in touch with nature that makes people recognize what’s truly important!

  9. Are you talking about where I live today??? Sounds very familiar :) I haven’t mentioned it on my blog, but I’m in the process of figuring out my escape from the big city. The issue is my line of work is pretty specific and companies that perform the service are for the most part in the big 15 cities or so in the US. Also, I’m greedy and want to maintain my COL income but decrease my COL expenses. So once I figure out what I’m doing – I’ll be sure to post about it. I’ve just gotten accustomed to saying no which makes it a lot easier and don’t care if people whine as a result. Do you want to go have boozey brunch, then go here and spend money, and then go there and spend money? No – I don’t! But thanks for asking :)

    • Our east coast city was not your east coast city. :-) But there’s much in common! And, it’s for sure possible to make better choices in expensive places, as we started doing in our expensive west coast city, and as you’re doing now in the most expensive city in the country. But the people we surrounded ourselves with would not have naturally fostered that in us! Glad you’re starting to think about your escape plan! Can’t wait to hear more.

  10. As someone who left a big expensive city for a small town, I totally relate. I’ve never been able to formulate it so eloquently though! Amen on the gratitude. Personally, I’m not sure I could have ever felt content in the city – it’s always a race to be smarter, hipper, have better things, etc.

  11. Definitely get a sliding doors moment when I meet up with my friends from home. They are so caught up in things I now care so little about. If I hadn’t moved away, I would still find my way to this FIRE lifestyle. But progress would be much slower since I’d have a huge mortgage, would be married to a big spender (my ex), and would still be caught up in the cycle of expensive clothes + restaurants + drinks + vacations. I do think it’s possible to FIRE in a rich city though, but it takes (me) a lot more effort to shut out the spendy influences.

    Btw, this is my favourite line: “but it was a little like going to the prom in your hand-me-down tux and feeling upstaged by the rich kids” !!!!

    • Wow — Your sliding doors scenario sounds exactly like ours! Completely agree with you that it’s possible to retire early anywhere, including in an expensive city, but the influences are the part we hasn’t fully appreciated until last weekend!

  12. I’m from the east coast and moved to Texas three years ago. I find that my east coast friends make way more than me but also spend way more than me. Manicures, new clothes for every event, cocktails. While we’re still young and haven’t invested in houses or nannies I can see that we’re on very different tracks. I am also happy and grateful to have come out of that mindset and be able to focus on living my frugal and authentic lifestyle.

    • So you can definitely relate — and just wait. I’m sure the differences will get even more pronounced! When I’d visit five years ago, none of this stuff jumped out at me. But now — BAM! — the difference in priorities is HUGE. Good for you for finding your own way. :-)

      • 6 months late to the party, ah but isn’t this a timeless post?

        My wife and I moved from a high cost of living area to a much more affordable area 5 years ago. Not only did she stop working full time, but shrewd budgeting let us pay off our house down here already, which set us up huge for phase two of saving and investing for FIRE.

        Our glass door moment? When a good friend bought a house near my mother in the neighborhood we grew up in, his new home cost 8x more than our new home! If you ripped it out of that area it is a perfectly nice house, but on paper it is almost identical to ours. All the excitement of saving and getting totally debt free would be replaced by the drudgery of paying a soul crushing 30 yr mortgage. I get heartburn just thinking about it.

        Great blog here, back to reading some more of it.

      • Hi David. Wow — 8 times the price of yours! That’s pretty crazy. Yeah, when we see how our friends in the big cities we left behind spend, we are SO glad that we peaced out of that world. How cool that you guys paid off your mortgage and put yourselves on the FIRE fast track!

  13. I’m really late to the party here, but I thought I’d share my story. I had a sliding door moment way late in life, but it was an eye-opener all the same. Condensing…moved from a big city to a small, rural area, loved it. Never would go back. But the eye-opener is when my widowed sister, in her early 60’s, became critically ill. I traveled back and forth to see her and help her, and I took over her bills when she could no longer. I was shocked at how much she owed, and she could no longer work because of illness. She had next to nothing coming in. She was in such dire financial straits that I cried the whole way home one day. And then, it hit me…there but for the grace of God go I….as I had a similar lifestyle at one time prior to my move. Who was I to judge? I cry as I write these words. She has passed now, several years ago, and I look on it now as her parting gift to me…a wake up call. She was quite a bit older than me and always looked out for me, and I consider the knowledge I gained as a gift. I had time to save myself, and I have. It is so wonderful to look at so many young people out there who have their act together at such a young age. Keep doing what you do….you help more than you know.

    • Wow, Bev. Thank you for sharing that deeply personal and moving story! What a wonderful way to choose to view your sister’s financial troubles. I think you’re right that it’s so easy to judge without looking at ourselves, and you are pretty amazing for being willing to do the hard introspection. I’m so glad that you “saved yourself” as a result of what must have been a truly crushing experience! :-)

  14. After I divorced I met many single women who all joined a singles club. So did I. They liked to go to clubs, spending weekends at retreats for singles, and eating out all the time. Eventually, they accused me of being a snob for not going to the retreats, partying, or eating out. Thirty-years later, I met a few of them. All had lost their homes. I paid for mine. Many remarried and divorced several times. I remained single. They worked in grocery stores. I had earned two BAs and a MA, had a professional job, and was headed for a PhD. They were downwardly mobile from the moment I met them. I disengaged myself, stayed home, was frugal and found new friends at university.

    We were all young and struggling to keep cars going, a roof over our heads, and our kids fed. They did not have a lavish lifestyle, just a lifestyle they could not afford. I don’t think any of them ever understood that, even now.

    • Another thing: I had an old, elegant treasure of a house. It was hard to heat, but the cold did not bother me. My furniture was eventually all nice antiques. They described my furniture as “old and mismatched.” I paid $192 for the mortgage. They all lived in “cute” apartments with very shabby furniture which they replaced with rented furniture and appliances. They encouraged me to get an apartment with no lawn to mow…or enjoy. The cheapest apartment was $350, but they never saw my logic in keeping what I had–a house that would soon be mine. It took me 30 years, but for ten years it has been paid for with no mortgage or rent to pay. They still rent!

      • I’m sure you have everyone drooling at the thought of that low mortgage payment — whoa! Hooray for enjoying that gem of a paid off house!

    • Stories like that make me so sad, because I’m sure those women you knew thought that’s what they were supposed to do, perhaps to prove to the world that they weren’t broken or unworthy or whatever else. Good for you for breaking the mold, going your own way, and finding success as a result!