Graham from Reverse The Crush, one of Canada’s top financial independence blogs, has made his fair share of embarrassing money missteps. Like so many of us, he knew that money was meant for so much more than spending. He just didn’t know what to do with it. Graham may not have started his FIRE journey until the ripe age of 30. But long before that, he already had the emotional maturity to recognize that his toxic relationship with money needed to change.
After the allure of excessive partying and mindless consumerism lost its luster, Graham realized he was just coasting through life. Wasting energy on things that fostered neither personal growth nor financial stability. So, while the rest of us are still trying to figure out who we are and what we want well into our 30s, Graham has already achieved nirvana in the profound yet elusive universal truth – time is your most precious resource. Treat it like a commodity. Once it’s gone, you can never get it back. So how much is it worth to you?
Well, Graham certainly knows what his time isn’t worth. And that’s trading his peace, happiness, and sense of self for corporate ladders and professional ass-kissing (it doesn’t matter how nice the three-piece suits are). And for what? To maybe live our “best” lives 40 years later, if we’re lucky? Will we want the same things by then? Will we even have the health to enjoy retirement?
Sacrificing the best years of his life to the North American Capitalist complex felt like a slick trick. Like when that old friend from high school that you haven’t spoken to in 12 years, slides into your DM’s promising an incredible opportunity with unlimited earning potential. Only to find out you’ve been hoodwinked into joining a pyramid scheme and now you’ve got a trunk full of herbal supplements no one wants to buy. Graham could smell that dangling corporate carrot a mile away. And he wasn’t going to waste his energy chasing it.
So, he decided there’s no time like the present to be present. Graham’s philosophy is built heavily on discovering passion, joy and pursuing that which gives your life purpose. He is as intentional with his time as he is with his money.
On Reverse The Crush you’ll find incredible resources for saving, investing, and budgeting. And our favorite feature? A list of jobs to meet you where you’re at so that almost anyone, regardless of their education or income level, can get started on their path to financial independence today. Here, you’ll find everything you need to help you figure out what makes you happy and how to monetize a blog as part of your FIRE strategy. Graham has thoughtfully crafted a website so tranquil and inviting the only thing missing is a Pina Colada in your hand while a Jack Johnson album plays softly in the background.
In a calming, free-spoken interview with Hardbacon, Graham describes how he turned a dumpster fire of money mishaps into fuel for the best kind of FIRE – financial independence.
How has your FIRE journey changed you as a person?
In some ways, I am still the same person I always was. I have always been focused on trying to build a life around my hobbies and personal interests. When I was a teenager, I spent all my time BMX biking and playing basketball. Now, I spend all my free time on blogging and investing. One of the main ways FIRE has changed me is that I am less willing to waste time on passive activities. Just the fact that there is an alternative way to live makes your entire life more intentional.
Can you tell us about what your life was like before you discovered the FIRE movement?
Prior to knowing about FIRE, I partied a lot and wasted a lot of money. I never realized that money could be such a tool, so I spent it frivolously on clothes and partying with friends. To be perfectly honest, it was a lot of fun. But I was like a hamster in a wheel getting nowhere. I honestly partied so much that I feel like I got it out of my system. I see a lot of people doing things, that I did early in life, in their late twenties and early thirties. I’m glad that I partied so much when I was younger that I don’t even want to now. I’ve probably done everything a young person would want to do lol. I could tell you a lot of stories…but I digress.
Was there a moment that changed everything for you?
My ah-ha moment was actually three different moments. The first moment was after a failed attempt at entrepreneurship. I always wanted to be an entrepreneur so I could do fulfilling work. I tried and failed to start a company shortly after college. After that failure, I started looking for alternative solutions and stumbled onto the book Rich Dad Poor Dad. That led me to investing because I realized I needed to acquire assets. Acquiring assets led me to a career working in banking. Originally, I thought I would find other people who were as obsessed about investing as I was, but that was not the case.
That’s when the second moment happened—I started reading blogs about dividend investing. On the way to work, I would read Dividend Growth Investor and Dividend Mantra and dream about becoming a dividend investor. At that point, my plan was to retire as a dividend investor by 40. But then my year off happened in 2016.
That was the third moment. The year off was partially because I was unfulfilled with my career and tired of the long commute. But it also happened because I was unfulfilled in my personal life. Because I was so unhappy, I ended up taking a year off work as an attempt to help myself. That led to blogging and tying it all together with dividend investing. Instead of only dividend investing, I was trying to enjoy the journey through blogging.
Were you carrying any debt before FIRE? Can you tell us about that and how it was impacting your life?
Yes, my financial situation was an absolute disaster after college. I had $23,000 worth of student loan debt, which I just recently paid off in April 2021. On top of that, I had a maxed-out credit card that totalled $1,500. That was all from buying clothes and partying. What’s more, I even had a cell phone bill worth over $2,000 in collections. Fortunately, I was able to quickly pay off the credit card and cell phone bill. And the student loan is now finally paid off as well. As for the impact on my life, it was embarrassing and stressful. But it motivated me to take control of my financial situation and it led me to investing.
In one of your very first posts, you talk about slow growth, enjoying the process and celebrating even the smallest accomplishments. This is such a refreshing perspective to bring to the FIRE space. What inspired you to present your FIRE journey from this angle?
Thank you, I’m glad to hear you find it refreshing. I was inspired to present my FIRE journey this way because I believe the journey is the most exciting part of the process. Most milestones are just a moment of celebration. The anticipation is usually more exciting than achieving the goal. So, I wanted to focus on slow FI to appreciate the journey. In addition, my entire philosophy is focused on spending time on what I enjoy and on the pursuit of fulfilling work. I am not really inclined to climb the corporate ladder and grind it out for 5 to 10 years. I’d rather enjoy my younger years.
Can you describe your investment portfolio for our readers?
Presently, my portfolio is approximately 80% CAD and USD dividend growth stocks, 10% REITs, 8% growth stocks, 1% cash and 1% cryptocurrency.
Why did you choose that particular strategy?
I chose dividend growth investing as my primary strategy because it suits my risk tolerance and it is a strategy I am comfortable with. It’s a strategy that keeps me invested for the long term.
Because I own stocks that pay dividends, I am comfortable if my stocks go up or down. If they go down, I look at it as a buying opportunity to increase my dividend income. If my holdings go up in value, I receive dividends and capital appreciation.
Furthermore, I enjoy chronicling the journey of my dividend income incrementally increasing. Since I enjoy researching stocks and managing my own portfolio, I prefer this strategy over indexing.
Also, my investment strategy is based on how I want to spend my time. One of the reasons I want to become financially independent is because I want my job to be managing my portfolio and allocating capital. Eventually, the dividend income will allow me to allocate capital more frequently.
Do you manage your own portfolio, use a robo-advisor or a mix of both?
I am completely self-managed. I self direct all my positions through a few different brokerages.
Can you tell us about those brokerages and why you chose them?
I actually use a combination of brokerages: WealthSimple, RBC Direct Investing and CIBC Investor’s Edge right now. I have used Questrade in the past as well and plan to open a margin account with them. The main reason I have multiple brokerages is because I like to have money in different places, and each brokerage has different benefits. I use Wealthsimple because they offer zero-commission trades. I use RBC Direct Investing because I used to work for them and I can use my credit card points for free trades. And I use CIBC because I like their research tools. For more active management, I prefer Questrade.
Are you using an RRSP or TFSA as part of your strategy?
Yes, definitely. I am utilizing both of them to manage my investment Portfolio. In my view, a TFSA is the best financial product available to Canadians. The ability to avoid tax on dividends and capital gains is incredible. So, I hold all of my Canadian dividend stocks in a TFSA. As for the RRSP, I use it to hold all my USD stocks because it allows me to avoid a non-resident withholding tax on the dividends. For those that don’t know, USD stocks in a TFSA still have a 15% non-resident withholding tax on the dividends. But since an RRSP is a recognized account, there is no tax whatsoever. Of course, there is a withholding tax when you withdraw and the money is added to your income. But ideally, my income will be lower by then so I will be taxed at a lower rate. For most people, though, I think the best move is to max out the TFSA before investing in an RRSP. That is, unless you have a high income.
What advice would you give to someone who has never invested before? Where should they start and what is the first thing they should do?
The first thing I would recommend is to read books and blogs. Read The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham to understand investment analysis and value investing. Read The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel. Check out Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits by Philip Fisher. And read everything you can find by Peter Lynch. Study quotes by Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger as well. Otherwise, realize that investing is a long-term game. It’s more about saving, paying yourself first and building the right habits.
In your very first dividend income post you mentioned that you had started by investing just 10% of your income over a span of 2 months. Can you describe for our readers how your investment strategy has changed over time as your other income streams have grown?
My investment strategy has definitely evolved as the size of my portfolio has increased. Now that I have more income coming in, I am willing to take on a bit more risk with growth stocks and cryptocurrency. But I limit it to a small percentage of my portfolio. Otherwise, my ability to analyze stocks and just having more experience with investing has led to narrowing my focus on only the highest quality investments. When I started out, I was so eager to increase my dividend income that I focused too much on high yielding stocks. Going through the pandemic changed my perspective as well. Overall, I am still primarily a dividend income investor.
What is the one thing you know now that you wish you knew before you started FIRE?
The only thing I wish is that I knew about FIRE earlier in life. If I was aware of dividend investing and the possibility of financial independence at an earlier age, I’m sure I would have started a lot sooner. It would have been amazing and very motivating to start investing and saving for financial independence at age 18. I always liked to put money aside when I worked back then, but I didn’t really have anything specific to save for. I just liked to have extra money.
One of the most unique things about your blog is the work and research you put into the Flexible Jobs section. Why did you feel it was important to highlight things like low-education jobs with high pay or high paying part-time jobs?
In a way, I feel like it is my unique angle in the financial independence community. At the end of the day, financial independence is supposed to be about the pursuit of time. But I think some people turn it into a net worth competition. Increasing net worth and saving money is great, but if you are not developing any side hustles or real reasons to become financially independent, I question if some people really even want to achieve FIRE. It’s hard for me to see the point in climbing the corporate ladder, wearing suits, sucking up to bosses and networking for 10 to 15 years just so I can eventually retire early. By then, I might not even be the same person anymore, or I might not even have a soul left. I also feel like a lot of finance is catered to wealthy people and high income earners that are willing to give up their lives for money. Financial advisors only care about wealthy people, and only high income earners can achieve financial independence in 5 years or less. So, I wanted to present a different route for lower income earners to gain more time in a short time as well. If you are really pursuing financial independence because you want more time, and if you don’t care what people think about you, a high paying part-time job is one of the fastest ways to gain more time.
You also talk about how you discovered a passion for blogging during your mini retirement. What was the most surprising thing you learned about monetizing a blog? For someone new to blogging, what advice can you give them that you wish you had been given when you were first starting out?
That’s a great question. I made a lot of mistakes when I started blogging. Literally years of mistakes. The most surprising thing I learned about monetizing a blog is that blogging is not necessarily about great writing.
When I started off, I thought I had to become an interesting, whimsical writer. But in reality, blogging is more about sharing what you are doing in a way that helps others. It’s about inspiring people.
Also, I learned that what seems obvious to you is not obvious to others. I used to refrain from writing how-to articles because I thought it was information that other people already knew and I figured it was not original.
As far as advice for new bloggers, I would try to learn from bloggers who have already built something. Don’t make the same stubborn mistakes I did and try to learn your own way, because it will take you a lot longer. It’s worth it to pay for courses and really take your time to educate yourself before you get started. If I was going to do it again, I would have taken a lot longer to plan out what I wanted to accomplish instead of just jumping right in. That way, I would’ve had a more clear focus from the beginning. If you are a blogger starting out, think long and hard about the topic you want to write about. Make sure you have at least 50 posts you can write about before you even start. Then, create a domain name that accurately describes your topic before you begin to write. Also, think about how you want to monetize your blog before you start. Basically, create a business plan before you start blogging.
So even though you’ve established some income from blogging, Can you share some of your favorite money saving hacks?
The best saving hack I know is to pay yourself first. Every dime I have accumulated is through paying myself first. I learned to save this way from working at a bank.
When you work at a bank, you get to participate in a stock sharing plan. In short, a percent of every pay cheque is automatically invested into the company’s stock sharing plan. When you consistently contribute to a stock sharing plan by paying yourself first, you realize how quickly it adds up.
Do you have a plan for discretionary spending that helps you stay on track while also indulging in things that bring you joy?
To be honest, I don’t find it very challenging to resist the urge to splurge. I really don’t desire to have a lot of things because I am usually underwhelmed when I spend money on them. Whenever I really want something I don’t hold back, though. I just make sure that it’s not more than I can afford in one pay. As long as I can afford it within one pay cheque, I am ok with adjusting my budget to buy a larger item every few years. For the most part, my only splurges are new technology, such as a new iPhone or Macbook. My Macbook is currently over 7 years old, so that will likely be my next big purchase. Otherwise, I will spend money on a few road trips per year.
How do you manage slip-ups and unexpected expenses?
I don’t have too many slip-ups or unexpected expenses because I live a very lean lifestyle. It doesn’t feel like I deprive myself. I find that the easiest way to avoid unexpected expenses is to eliminate the chance that they even happen by living lean. For example, I don’t have a car, so I never have to spend money on maintenance or repairs.I don’t own a house, so I never have any unexpected expenses related to that either.
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 don’t agree with Dave Ramsey that you shouldn’t have a credit card. I think credit cards are a great way to get free stuff if you pay them off every month. Additionally, they provide valuable insurance for car rentals and travel.
Personally, I use my credit card to get free trades at RBC Direct Investing. In the past, I have used my credit card to pay for hotels, a paper shredder, a printer/scanner and car rentals. I only have one credit card right now because I don’t see the point in having more than one credit card. Although I think they can be used to gain points, I am not the kind of person that spends time switching or applying for different credit cards all the time. I value my time and would rather work on something I enjoy. As for my credit card of choice, I am an Avioner with RBC.
Do you use any other kind of credit products to enhance your FIRE strategy? Can you explain what you use, how you use them and why you chose those particular credit tools?
I do not use any other credit products at the moment. But I have used a margin account to trade in the past. The only option I would consider is a margin account to purchase more dividend paying stocks. I would use margin to buy stocks and then pay the interest and loan off with dividend income.
Can you tell us who your favorite bank is and why you chose them?
My favourite bank is probably RBC Royal Bank, partially because I used to work for them.
I realize they are not the cheapest option out there. But I am someone who is willing to pay for value. I believe they offer the best value.
What has been one of the most significant moments for you on this journey?
I don’t think one particular moment stands out because it has been such a gradual progression. It’s interesting to look back and realize you have more freedom than you had even a few years ago. If I had to choose a particular moment, it would be the year off or when I started my part-time job. When I first started my part-time job, it was so strange to have income coming in but only be working 15 hours per week. It felt like college but with income.
Was there a moment that made you feel like you maybe couldn’t do this?
I think the year off work was a time that I wanted to give up. Essentially, I had to start the journey over after that. So, in some ways, I regret it. But since I can only move forward, I view it as a trial run for financial independence. I know for sure that financial independence is what I want, and I know how I want to spend my time during it.
From time to time, I feel like I am not saving enough because of my part-time job. It does make me question if I should just work full-time so that I can save more and retire earlier. But then I remember how miserable I was when I worked full-time compared to now. Also, I remind myself that this is more about the journey than the end goal. The challenge of dividend investing and blogging is what makes this journey interesting enough to keep going. The way to overcome this challenge is to consider the alternative. Working 5 days per week at the same job, at the same time every day, for the next 30 years feels like a prison sentence. It’s not fulfilling nor is it an interesting way to live. Whenever I am reminded of that, I understand that I am on the right path for me.
Has the FIRE lifestyle changed how you interact with friends and family?
I think it has. I always want to talk about money and investing, but not many people do, which makes it challenging to find friends. Fortunately, the blogging community helps with that void. Also, it can feel like you are constantly at odds with people in your life who see things differently. People that love cars think you are depriving yourself by not having a car. But then I see them as depriving themselves for having a car loan.
With most people, you just have to make small talk and stay away from certain topics.
Is your goal to retire completely or would you like to continue working in some capacity? Can you tell us why you feel that way?
I definitely want to continue working in some capacity. Frankly, I never want to stop working because I enjoy it. I think retiring to do nothing would be an unfulfilling way to live. I’m just not wired that way. My pursuit of financial independence is more about fulfilling work and controlling my time than it is about escaping work. One of the things I’ve noticed, as a result of having more time because of my part-time job, is that I actually want to work more when I have free time. To be more specific on the work I want to do, I want to blog and invest full time. Hence why I’m pursuing financial independence through blogging and investing.
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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.
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