Bob Lai is the influential voice behind the powerhouse FIRE blog, Tawcan. Infact, his website currently holds the number three spot on Hardbacon’s list of 25 Best Financial Independence And Early Retirement Blogs In Canada For 2021. Originally, the purpose of the blog was to chronicle how a single income family with two small children could achieve financial stability in Canada’s second most expensive city.
But it wasn’t long before Bob’s calm, unpretentious voice of the everyman created a wellspring of information. He unpacked the previously complex and intimidating world of investing, and turned it into the buffet table at a community potluck.
On his blog, readers can access, understand and apply critical personal finance information that they were previously told was far too sophisticated and complex for anyone without a laundry list of financial advisory designations. So Bob, in his trademark voice of equal parts kindness and matter-of-fact truth telling, called BS on the whole thing. The only person who has your best financial interests at heart is you. Now, He’s fighting back against institutional elitism by giving you access to the financial resources that were once intentionally mystified by financiers ad nauseam.
But that’s not even the best that Bob has to offer. For as much as he focuses on the fundamentals of wealth management, it’s all laid on the foundation of emotional freedom, the pursuit of happiness and a less-is-more commitment to holistic wellness – for what shall it profit a man, should he gain the whole world but lose his own soul. On the path to FIRE, if you’re not maturing, you’re doing it wrong.
Bob takes the time to focus on the importance of building character alongside your portfolio. If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, it’s critical that the first step be towards the cultivation of a rich inner life. While money can amass freedom of choice, it can never bring you happiness. Meaningful personal growth is hard work, but without it the FIRE journey will ultimately leave you wanting.
In true Tawcan fashion, Bob Lai talks to Hardbacon about his no-fuss path to FIRE, personal growth and his quest for happiness.
On your blog you talk about how FIRE won’t make you happy without addressing the root cause of your unhappiness. Can you tell us what you mean by that?
Happiness is externally driven, whereas joy is internally driven and can last much longer. Rather than trying to find happiness by buying new and expensive toys or thinking that FIRE will magically create happiness, find the root causes of your discontentment and work on resolving them so you’re not stuck in the endless cycles of unhappiness.
I will admit, the process isn’t as easy as step one, two, and three. Sometimes we need to face our own internal demons. For example, I have had some struggles with mental health. Recognizing that and finding help I needed was a big step forward.
For me, the key is finding what makes me content and peaceful inside.
You also write about how your money epiphany inspired your blogging journey. Can you describe that lightbulb moment for our readers?
When my wife and I discussed our dreams and some of our plans, we quickly realized that we wanted to have the ability to decide what we want to do with our lives. We wanted to empower ourselves financially rather than having to rely on the paycheck every two weeks.
Having grown up in a family where my dad retired early also gave me some valuable hands-on perspective on FIRE movement.
What is the one thing you know now that you wish you knew before you started FIRE?
FIRE isn’t just about saving money and building a portfolio that would generate passive income. FIRE is a journey. Like all journeys, the path may not always be straight. There will be setbacks and times that you question whether this is the right thing to do. Don’t feel discouraged with the slow progress. Reach out and connect with like-minded people and encourage each other during the FIRE journey.
How did you decide what your budget would be?
We use a six category budget system and allocate a certain percentage of income each month for each category. This budget system helped us to increase our net worth by 250% in five years.
We loved the post about the weird things you did to save money when you were younger. As a dad, what are some really weird things you’ve done to save money on child costs?
Kids are only as expensive as their parents make them. One great way to save money is using second hand or passed down items. You can purchase items like clothes, cribs and strollers at a discounted price in the used market. For both of our kids, we bought used cloth diapers off Craigslist. About five years later, we sold them on Craigslist again and recouped about 40% of the original purchase price.
What are some of your other favourite ways to save money that you’ve discovered over the years?
We always pay off our credit cards in full every month, so we try to use credit cards to earn cash back and travel points. So, one of my favourite ways to save money is calculating how much money we are getting back from credit cards. Our main credit card gives 2 reward miles for every dollar spent. So before purchasing something, I would calculate how much money we’re getting back.
- That $5 latte we just purchased? We made $0.10!
- The $1,500 plane tickets we just booked? Wooho, we made $30!
For buying discretionary items, I like to calculate how many hours I need to work for that item. Rather than using the before-tax hourly rate, I would calculate the after-tax hourly rate. Do I really think it’s worth it to work for a full week to pay for a big discretionary item? Or can I better use the money elsewhere?
In the blog post about how you and Mrs. T saved money on your wedding, there were a lot of DIY hacks that you were able to pull off because you already had some experience or skill in that area. As a professional in the wedding industry, what is the single best money saving hack for someone with zero DIY experience?
We got married 3 times for $8,812 Canadian (twice in Vancouver and once in Denmark) and have a lifetime of stories we can tell to our families and friends. We wouldn’t change a thing if we were to do it again.
If one doesn’t have much DIY experience, my best advice is to consider what people will remember and spend money on those things. Most people will only remember specific wedding moments.
Recall the weddings you have been to. Do you remember the table centre piece? Do you remember the guest gifts? Rather than elaborate decoration and guest gifts, strive for simplicity and save money that way.
Also, merchants have a tendency to charge significantly when the word “wedding” is used. So rather than a “wedding” flower bouquet, ask for a flower bouquet, and be OK if it doesn’t have the typical flowers used for weddings.
As someone who loves to save money wherever possible, is there one thing you could save money on but choose not to?
I used to want to save every penny whenever possible. Over time, I realized that depriving ourselves just to reach financial independence a little earlier isn’t worth the sacrifice. We enjoy going to a local cafe to have some coffee and treats from time to time. Yes, we could have easily saved that money, but we chose not to.
For me, it’s about finding the right personal balance between saving money for the future and spending money to enjoy the present moment.
Travel is also another thing that we enjoy spending money on. The memories and experiences we get from travelling are things we will remember for the rest of our lives. Besides, travelling when we are in our 30’s or 40’s will be a lot different than travelling when we are in our 60’s, 70’s, or 80’s.
What is your opinion on credit cards and do you use one? If so, what would we find in your wallet?
If you pay in full every month, credit cards are a great tool to amplify your earning power. We use rewards credit cards to collect cash rewards and travel points. Currently, we have the following credit cards:
- HSBC World Elite MasterCard – our day to day card for earning travel points
- PC Financial World Elite MasterCard – for shopping at Loblaw stores and earning PC Optimum points.
- American Express Marriott Bonvoy – for collecting Marriott Bonvoy points
We also occasionally apply for other credit cards to take advantage of the welcome bonus points. A few years ago by taking advantage of credit card rewards points we travel hacked our way to Maui for 12 days and saved over $10,000 along the way.
Do you use any other kind of credit products to enhance your FIRE strategy?
No, we don’t use any credit products to enhance our FIRE strategy. However, some people may choose to utilize the Smith Manoeuvre or take out a HELOC and use the money to invest. We have considered investing on margin but do not like the potential downsides and possible restrictions during a market downturn.
If you choose to use credit products for investing, you must be OK with the potential risks and make sure you run calculations to go over possible scenarios.
What was the biggest personal finance mistake you didn’t know you were making before FIRE?
The biggest personal finance mistake I made was relying on financial advisors to provide investment advice. In my younger days, I was investing in high MER mutual funds, making the financial advisors rich.
I later learned that many of the financial advisors working in banks are more like sales people. They are trying to sell Canadians products that would give them high commissions. They rarely have the best interest to help you grow your money.
Lesson learned here? I have the best interest for my money. I need to take charge of my money, not relying on other people.
Can you describe your investment portfolio for our readers?
We are hybrid investors. By that I mean we invest in individual dividend paying stocks and index ETFs.
For dividend stocks we invest in companies that produce products we use daily. The more reliance we have on a particular product, the more likely it is for us to invest in the company behind that product. For example, we use natural gas from Fortis, so we invest in Fortis. Dividend investing can be pretty straight forward, especially if you own one of the best Canadian dividend paying stocks.
We use index ETFs for diversification. It is simply not possible to own all the individual stocks that we like. Furthermore, many stocks are not traded in Canadian or US stock exchanges, which means it is difficult for DIY investors like us to hold these stocks. So we utilize an ex-Canada international index ETF like XAW to increase our international exposure.
Why did you choose a hybrid investment strategy?
We utilize dividend paying stocks for the stable and predictable dividend income. We utilize index ETFs for asset and geographical diversification.
How are you using your RRSP and TFSA in your investment strategy?
We try to max out our RRSP and TFSA contribution rooms every year. We have self-directed RRSPs and TFSAs with TD and Questrade and invest in a mix of dividend paying stocks and index ETFs. We see RRSPs and TFSAs as important vehicles for our FIRE journey.
We manage our own portfolio. However, for many Canadians, it might be wise to consider using a robo-advisor to keep your investment as passive as possible. If you want to do a bit of DIY investing, you may consider a mix of both DIY investing and robo-advisor.
What investment brokerage do you use and why did you choose them?
We use TD, Questrade, and Wealth Simple Trade. We use TD because my parents set up an account for me when I was a teenager and I simply stayed with TD rather than switching to another financial institution.
When we started our DIY investing journey, we opened accounts with Questrade because of the low trading fees. Recently we opened a Wealth Simple Trade account for our kids because of $0 commission stock trades. This is really a game changer for us Canadians.
Which one would I recommend? Questrade and Wealth Simple Trade have their pros and cons, so it really depends on the individual.
What has been your biggest investing challenge so far?
The biggest challenge is staying on course and moving away from our core investing strategy of dividend and index ETF investing. It would have been easy to jump in and out of different investments and always chase the next shiny big thing. For example, we stayed away from investing in cannabis stocks a few years ago because we didn’t want to get caught in the hype. That decision had paid off in the long run.
It is also a big challenge to stay on course when people are screaming that the sky is falling. For example, last March when the stock market was tumbling down due to COVID-19, many people were recommending selling everything, holding cash and waiting for the market to recover once the global pandemic is over. We were down as much as $250k in our portfolio at one point last year. Instead of selling, we moved more cash in our investment accounts and purchased more dividend paying stocks and index ETFs.
What advice would you give to our readers who have never invested before?
If someone has never invested before, using a robo-advisor is a great way to get started. Alternatively, you can rely one one of the all-in-one ETFs or one of the all-equity ETFs for your investment portfolio.
The first thing someone should do before investing is to know their risk tolerance level and remember to only invest with money that you don’t need for at least the next three years.
Right now, over half of all Canadians are just $200 away from not being able to pay their bills. What advice do you have for Canadians who are struggling financially?
Many Canadian face this challenge. It is a significant challenge when you are living paycheck to paycheck and just can’t seem to save enough money to invest.
My advice to Canadians who are struggling to get by?
- Take a look at cell phone, internet, and cable bills and see if you can cut back on them. Can you reduce your cell phone and internet bills by calling your service provider and negotiate a better rate? Can you get a lower data plan or get by without a data plan at all? Do you really need all those TV channels? Are you watching them all or can you cut back a bit? We’ve been cable-free at our home for over 10 years and we don’t miss a thing.
- Can you walk more to reduce your transportation cost?
- Rather than dining out every week, can you cut back and dine out only once every two weeks? Instead of each person ordering a three course meal and a drink, can you share appetizers and desserts and cut back on the drink?
Another thing is start tracking your expenses in the different categories and see your spending trends. Often, people underestimate their actual spending significantly. When you know exactly how much you’re spending on categories like food, dining out, insurance, utilities and have a trend over a course of six months or a year, it becomes easier to understand your spending and develop a plan to optimize it.
I think FIRE is accessible and realistic for everyone. But if you have a lower income, it is more challenging to increase your savings rate. There are only so many expenses you can cut before you deprive yourself. It is, therefore, easier to earn more income to increase your savings rate.
Did you focus on budgeting to increase your savings rate for investing, or on increasing your income, or was it a mix of both?
It is important to look at things holistically. FIRE is not about penny pinching and living in a self-deprived environment. Such a lifestyle is simply not sustainable.
Therefore, you need to look at both reducing spending and increasing your disposable income together and finding the right balance that works for you.
How has your FIRE journey changed you as a person?
Overall my wife and I are more open to different and new ideas. We don’t just shoot down ideas that may be foreign to us. Just because someone else is doing things differently, it doesn’t mean they are wrong. See things with an open mind and learn from other people.
Is your goal to retire entirely or would you like to continue working in some capacity?
We haven’t quite decided yet. I enjoy my work so I probably will continue working in some capacity. For us, FIRE is more about having the power to decide what we want to do with our lives, and not having to worry about the paychecks every two weeks. Financial independence means that we can pursue our hobbies and interests without having to worry about whether we get paid or not.
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About The Author: Heidi Unrau
Heidi Unrau is the senior Finance Journalist at Hardbacon. She studied Economics at the University of Winnipeg, where she fell in love with all-things-finance. At 25, she got her first bank job as an entry-level teller. She moved up the ranks to Credit Analyst, Loans Officer, and now a Personal Finance Writer. In her spare time, you'll find her hiding in the car listening to Freakonomics podcasts, or binge-watching financial crime documentaries with a pint of Häagen-Dazs. When she's not chasing after her two little boys, she's in the hot tub or arguing with her husband over which cash back card to use for date night. She’s addicted to coffee, crypto, and obsessively checking her credit score on Borrowell.
Fun Fact: Heidi has lived in five different provinces across Canada, loves her free Tangerine bank account, and will never cut back on Starbucks. Like ever.
More posts by Heidi Unrau