Blogger Chrissy from Eat Sleep Breathe FI is the FIRE fanatic who’s passion, warmth and generosity of spirit is so palpable that even her emails feel like a warm hug. And it’s that almost tangible earnestness that has not only fuelled her FIRE journey, but her desire to elevate those around her with the knowledge and resources she has spent years cultivating.
In our postmodern age, technology has served to shrink our geographical expanse down to a global village we can hold in the palm of our hand. But in a world that has never been so small, what was meant to bring us closer together has effectively pushed us further apart – for all that we have gained we have also lost. Most of all human connection.
When so many FIRE journeys are born from the indignation of financial dependency, Chrissy’s journey is one centered on lifting others up – to unyoke the ones she loves and empower those around her. To offer opportunity untethered from obligation. Her motivation for financial independence digs far deeper than the oft cited desire for comfortable living, and is rooted deeply in her core values: family, purpose and intention.
So often we struggle to achieve our goals because we think we lack talent or discipline. But what we actually lack is community. We struggle to find the kind of goal oriented peers that are just as committed to our success as theirs. And that’s Chrissy’s superpower – community. She’s built the kind of space that feels like coming home. Her breadth of knowledge is accessible and free from the air of superiority that can sometimes run roughshod over new converts.
In an interview that felt more like coffee with your bestie, Chrissy opened up to Hardbacon about her FIRE journey, what motivates her and how you can live the FIRE life too. And she did so with the same balmy authenticity that distinguishes her voice from the rest.
Can you introduce yourself to our readers and tell us something interesting we may not know?
I’m Chrissy—the blogger behind Eat Sleep Breathe FI and one of the co-hosts of the podcast, Explore FI Canada. I’m a FIRE fanatic and love sharing everything I know about FIRE. I live in beautiful Vancouver, BC with my husband, two sons and our Shiba Inu, Mika. Since our first son was born almost 16 years ago, I’ve been a stay-at-home mom. Something interesting that you may not know about me is that I’m a huge foodie, but one of the few things I refuse to eat is escargots. I’m pretty adventurous, but I just can’t eat snails. Ugh!
Can you describe your life before FIRE?
We were always very good with our money and saved a high percentage of our income—right from the start. However, we weren’t fully optimized with our expenses and investments. We also weren’t as intentional with our money decisions; we knew we should save our money and that some of it should go towards retirement, but we had no idea how much we really needed or how to get there.
What inspired you to start this journey?
As with many others in the FIRE community, my introduction to FIRE was via the incomparable Mr. Money Mustache. I first stumbled across his blog in 2014, when I googled “How much do I need to retire?” That brought me to his Shockingly Simple Math post, and down the rabbit hole I went. My inspiration was and still is to free my husband from having to work. He has an eye condition that caused him to lose most of the vision in his left eye. As much as he loves his job, it would be really nice to give him the option to retire if he wants to. (Or at least alleviate the pressure of having to work, in case his vision continues to decline.)
What was the very first thing you did to prepare for your new FIRE lifestyle? What did you do next?
Whenever I discover a new passion, I get slightly obsessive and want to know all the things about that topic! So, to prepare for our new FIRE lifestyle, I found every blog, podcast and book I could find about FIRE, personal finance and investing. I took in a crazy amount of knowledge, then made a plan to implement it. After that, it was just going through the process of making changes and setting up systems to move us towards our FIRE goal.
We are loving the “What Does It Cost To Live Here” series. How did you come up with that idea?
After more than two years of blogging, I finally decided to share my family’s annual spending. As I worked on the post to share our numbers, I had an “ah-ha” moment: why not interview others about their annual spending too? I’d always wanted to have an interview series on my blog, and this series could potentially be more than “getting to know you”-type interviews. By sharing numbers and tips, I saw the opportunity to turn the series into a resource for all FIRE seekers. As for how I find my interviewees, I directly reached out to a small handful of them. However, I’ve been very fortunate that the majority have come to me on their own. Some find me by word-of-mouth, some are blogging friends, some are readers, and some find my series via social media. I couldn’t be happier with the response I’ve had to the series so far—both from participants and readers.
What has been the most surprising thing you have learned about yourself on this journey?
I learned that I’m more capable at investing than I ever thought I could be. I used to believe that investing was for people who were smarter than me and paid close attention to the markets. DIY index investing has proven my old beliefs wrong! I’m proud of the knowledge I’ve gained by using my free time to learn about investing and how to manage our finances.
What were your spending habits like before starting FIRE?
Our spending habits were pretty much the same pre-FIRE as they are now. However, I do believe we were on the cusp of slightly inflating our lifestyle and would have done so had we not discovered FIRE. Finding a greater purpose for our money (buying my husband’s freedom) gave us a more meaningful goal to work towards than simply saving for our next vacation or a far-off retirement.
Did you focus on reducing spending to increase your disposable income for investing, or did you start a side hustle to increase cash flow, or was it a mix of both?
At the beginning of our FIRE journey, I focused a lot on reducing our spending. This was an easy, satisfying way to get the ball rolling. Once we ran out of ways to save, I started focusing more on increasing cash flow. We continued hosting homestay students and I put more effort into earning credit card rewards and rebates from sites like Rakuten and Shopper Army. However, I knew those moderate sources of income would only get us so far, so I continued to learn about investing so that we could be more effective and earn more with our investments.
How did you decide what your budget would be?
This may be surprising, but we don’t budget and never have! I do, however, track our spending—down to the penny. This gives us valuable info about where our money is going and allows us to make changes if we notice we’re spending on things we don’t value.
How do you resist the urge to splurge outside your budget? Do you have a plan for discretionary spending that helps you stay on track without giving up the things you enjoy?
Since we’re so aware of our spending (and have a high saving rate) we can easily allocate more money to occasional splurges. As a result, we never feel deprived nor feel the need to “cut loose”. It also helps to be clear on our “whys”. For example, we know why we’re a single income family (so that I can be the one raising our kids) why we’re saving so hard (so that we can reach FIRE) and why we don’t spend on certain things (because we want to spend on other things that we value more). As Paula Pant says, “You can’t afford everything, but you can afford anything.”
How do you manage slip-ups and unexpected expenses?
Like everyone else, we do incur unexpected expenses once in a while. I wrote about how we handle this in a post titled, “You Don’t Need an Emergency Fund (You Need an Emergency Plan)“. Basically, we avoid holding a huge sum of cash to cover a multitude of unknown what-ifs. Instead, I list all the possible emergencies we may need to cover, then come up with a plan to cover them. For the most part, we can use our cash flow or sinking funds to cover large, one-off expenses (such as home and auto repairs). For larger emergencies, we buy the appropriate amount of insurance to cover ourselves.
What has been the most difficult part about reducing your spending?
For me, the hardest part of living frugally is being different. We live in a nice neighbourhood and many families here are higher income than us. They own multiple fancy cars, have all the latest gadgets, and send their kids to the best classes and camps. While we consciously choose not to spend on those things (and are happy with our choices) I do feel like we stand out sometimes. Being the frugal weirdo can be hard!
Can you share some of your favorite, unexpected money saving hacks?
My favourite money-saving hack isn’t really a hack, but it’s something most people overlook. I always encourage others to revisit their recurring expenses at least once a year. Not only can you start saving money right away, but you’ll continue to save every month—year in and year out. If you repeat this with all your expenses, it can add up to thousands per year (and tens of thousands over many years). Our most unexpected hack was our decision for me to stay at home to raise our kids. Most would assume this is a more expensive decision than it really is, but there are significant cost savings that can largely offset the loss of one partner’s income. I share more about this “hack” in my post: “Spouse FI: Everything You Need to Know About This Amazing Lifestyle Option”.
Can you describe your investment portfolio for our readers? What exactly are you invested in?
My investments are currently managed by our financial planner and his investment manager. I’ve been very happy with this arrangement, but it took a lot for me to hand over my assets to be managed by others! I was previously a DIY investor and enjoyed it immensely, so it was hard to let go. Our portfolio was loosely based on recommendations from Canadian Couch Potato and PWL Capital. (I say “loosely” because I also followed Paul Merriman and added a slight tilt to small-cap value to our portfolio.) We held a mix of Canadian, US and international index ETFs.
Are you using an RRSP or TFSA as part of your strategy? Can you tell us why or why not? How are you using that particular product?
Most definitely! Since discovering FIRE in 2014, we have maxed out all our RRSPs and TFSAs every year. RRSPs give us a valuable deduction that helps to reduce our taxable income and TFSAs are particularly valuable because of their flexibility. When I stopped working, we put almost all of my husband’s RRSP contributions into Spousal RRSPs under my name. This will enable us to split our income in retirement while giving him the tax deduction now. We plan to keep our TFSAs untouched for as long as possible. However, in retirement, we may strategically draw from them to keep our tax rate low in higher-spending years.
Did you already have some investing experience or were you brand new when you started FIRE?
I had a very strong foundation of investing knowledge, thanks to my mom. She worked at one of the big banks and taught my siblings and me about RRSPs, TFSAs and how to buy and sell stocks through a brokerage. However, I didn’t know much about what to invest in (beyond the bank stocks and bluechip mutual funds my mom had us in).
Before switching to a Financial Planner, what investing brokerage did you use?
When I was a DIY investor, I used Questrade and was very happy with their service. It wasn’t always perfect, but I was willing to accept the hiccups and minor annoyances in exchange for the low fees.
What advice would you give to someone who has never invested before? Where should they start? What is the first thing they should do?
Start by getting yourself educated on investing. There are so many blogs, podcasts, books and online forums out there to help you do that. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the info that’s out there, I have a free ‘course’ on my blog called FI School. In it, I’ve curated the best resources to help you learn about FI (including how to get started with investing).
What is your opinion on credit cards and do you use one? If so, which one do you have and why did you choose that particular card?
I am a huge advocate for responsible credit card use! The main cards I use are cashback cards like the Rogers World Elite MasterCard, PC World Elite MasterCard, and the Scotia Momentum Visa Infinite. Cashback is simple and easy to use/redeem, so that’s where we focus our credit card rewards. However, we do love to travel, so I also throw in the occasional travel points card to help us rack up points and miles.
Do you use any other kind of credit products to enhance your FIRE strategy? Can you explain what you use as well as how you use them and why?
As part of our “emergency plan” strategy, we also have several LOCs which we reserve for emergencies only. It’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever need them, but it’s nice to have them as a backup in case we ever do. In addition (I’m not sure if this counts as a credit product) but we’ve also borrowed from the equity in our home and used it to invest. This strategy is known as the Smith Manoeuvre. (But because our house was paid off, it’s simply leveraged investing for us—not the Smith Manoeuvre.)
Can you tell us who your favourite bank is and why you chose them?
My favourite bank, by far, is EQ Bank. There’s too much I love about them to list it all, but I’ll share my favourite features: the hybrid chequing/savings account; no fees or minimums; one of Canada’s best bank account interest rates.
Do you believe this way of life is accessible or realistic for everyone?
I think it’s presumptuous and unfair to say that FIRE is accessible or realistic for everyone. The truth is, it’s not. Some of us face difficult life circumstances or systemic issues that make it much harder (or even impossible) to even achieve financial stability—let alone FIRE. This is why I feel strongly about lifting others up as we move towards FIRE. This can be in the form of donations, volunteering, coaching, or sharing knowledge. We can also speak up and support causes that fight against the injustices and systemic issues that plague so many of our financial systems. As a woman and BIPOC, I try to shine the light on a variety of people and voices in the FIRE community—both on my blog and podcast. I hope that, by hearing from someone who looks or sounds like them, my readers and listeners will be inspired to keep working towards financial stability.
In my 10 years of working in the banking industry, trying to help Canadians save for their future has proven to be a significant challenge. “You need to have money to save money,” was something I heard frequently. What advice do you have for Canadians who are just struggling to make ends meet?
Admittedly, this is a challenging topic. While it’s possible to achieve FIRE on a moderate or even low income, earning more does make it a lot easier. If you’ve truly exhausted all options to save more of your hard-earned income, the only other possibility is to earn more money. I realize this is easier said than done, but extra income doesn’t have to come from finding a higher-paying job. For example, my family earned extra income by hosting international homestay students. Some people take on extra projects or overtime shifts to squeeze more income out of their current jobs. You could also pick up side hustles in your free time or monetize a hobby to make some extra cash. Again, I realize this is easier said than done. Family obligations, illness and other challenges could make it impossible to earn more money. If this is the case for you, take the pressure off and acknowledge that you’re doing your best. FIRE may not be an option, but retiring at a traditional age may be more realistic.
What has been one of the most significant moments for you on this journey?
By far, the most significant moment for me was discovering FIRE and the whole mindset behind it. I still can’t believe how most of us are blind to FIRE being a realistic possibility—including my husband and me, pre-2014. We were on the “traditional” life path of working your butt off, enjoying a few weeks of vacation each year, then retiring at 65 (hopefully, with your health intact). My whole worldview changed once I discovered FIRE… and I’ll never go back!
Can you describe a time that made you want to give up? What helped you to keep going?
I’ve never had a single moment of doubt when it comes to FIRE. However, my husband has had multiple moments like this. He’s never wanted to give up, but he has questioned how realistic or achievable FIRE really is. Thankfully, the closer we get to our goal, the more his doubts melt away. It’s also been very helpful to have our financial planner to turn to. He runs calculations for us and shows us that we are, in fact, on the right track. This is just one of the many reasons why I’m more than happy to have professional help with our investments and financial planning.
How has your FIRE journey changed you as a person?
I’ve become even more mindful with my money and the impact I have on others and the planet. I’ve also been awakened to the abundance that’s all around us. While I’ve always been an optimistic person, FIRE has helped me cultivate even more of an abundance mindset. I now see that there’s enough for us and others, and that it’s not a zero-sum game. We can generously share our abundance and know that it will spread and help others—and even come back to us in unexpected ways.
Has it impacted your relationships or how you interact with friends and family?
We’re incredibly fortunate that our families (both immediate and extended) are on the same page when it comes to money. All our lives, we’ve been surrounded by parents, siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins who consistently do the right things with their money. Because of this, FIRE isn’t all that “out there” to them. As far as friends, we’ve only revealed our FIRE aspirations to a small handful, and the response is usually neutral. They’re neither surprised nor very interested to learn more. So, while it was a huge revelation to me when I discovered FIRE, most friends don’t give it a second thought. That’s okay with me. I’ll be here if they want to know more, but I’ll never force FIRE info on them if they don’t ask.
What is the one thing you know now that you wish you knew before you started FIRE?
I wish I knew how easy it can be to get started, and that starting earlier makes a huge difference. For example, if we’d started investing and used the Smith Manoeuvre back when we bought our first house in 2001, we likely would’ve reached FIRE years ago—possibly in our thirties. I’m consoling myself by raising our kids to be second-generation FIRE and sharing what we’ve learned with younger family members. Hopefully, by sharing my knowledge and guidance with them, they won’t ignore their investments for years (like we did).
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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