Sterling From The Canadian FIRE Blog, Learning To FI, Opens Up About His Journey To Financial Independence And Why The Numbers Aren’t Everything

Sterling, the 39 year old Canadian behind Learning to FI, one of Canada’s best FIRE blogs , understands better than anyone how difficult change can be. To change your lifestyle often means changing your values, and for a lot of us that can feel more like loss than growth. An extreme shift off course can leave you feeling disoriented – even if that shift was necessary to put you on the right path. 

With extreme frugality and hyper attention to detail among the defining characteristics of the FIRE movement, for many of us, too much change too fast can mess with our emotional wellbeing. And if you’ve ever struggled with mental illness, you know that any kind of stress can be crippling. Coupled with all the other curve balls life inevitably throws at us – like the social isolation and economic chaos of a global pandemic – we can quickly flip from thriving to surviving. 

Sterling shines a big, bright, unapologetic light on the two most taboo topics of the day – money and mental health . And rightly so. If you want to create the kind of community that lifts others up and prepares them for the road ahead, then go there . Be all in. And that’s exactly what he’s done with a true-to-self vulnerability that is so relatable you’ll swear he pulled his content straight from the anxious inner voice that keeps you up at night. 

Sterling has some sage advice – the best thing you can do is to keep personal finance personal. You cannot compare yourself to others. Trying to walk your own path in someone else’s shoes will only lead you astray. At the end of the day, your FIRE journey has to be tailored to fit you, and not the other way around. Sometimes, it’s ok to let go for a while. Loosen your grip, put your feet on solid ground and stretch your legs. The numbers are just not as important as your sanity. No one can walk this path for you, so the shoes need to fit comfortably.

When you’re ready to jump back in, Learning to FI has everything you need to start fresh. In a world that thrives on personalization, this tech savvy blogger has used his coding acumen to provide you with all the tools you’ll need to design your one-of-kind FIRE strategy. And that careful attention to detail earned him a Sunshine Blogger Award nomination. Sterling has built the kind of resource rich refuge that emphasizes the importance of your emotional well being just as much as your financial success.

In a fresh, thoughtful, down-to-earth interview with Hardbacon, Learning To FI opens up about his journey to financial independence and why the numbers aren’t everything. 

In one of your posts you talk about how your mental health was a contributing factor in missing a few bill payment due dates. In my 10 years of banking experience, I have witnessed how profoundly mental health affects someone’s financial stability. Thank you for being so transparent. How has your FIRE journey affected your mental health? Does the structure help or have there been unexpected triggers?

Yes, that’s right. There was a time when my mental health was especially suffering and I had missed some credit card payments (among some other things). Work was terribly busy during this time and the work and personal stress contributed to my absentmindedness. I was occupying my evenings with distractions like video games and tv.  

Generally, I find learning about personal finance and digging into my own numbers and planning a good distraction during those times of stress. It gives me a sense of control as it’s up to me with what I’m spending and how much I am saving. Having structure helps, and has provided a stable footing so luckily when I realized my payment lapses, I was in a good position to pay them and not suffer any substantial consequences.

As for triggers, with most things, I start off excited when learning something new. I started reading and learning as much as I could about FI – consuming podcasts, blogs, and other resources. I realized how much there is to learn and it’s at that point that I find it becomes overwhelming and deflating. 

For example, I learned about Mr. Money Mustache (MMM) in 2012 and enjoyed a lot of his posts but after a while I found I could not cut out all the things he cut out. I was not the handy builder and I found it difficult to bike everywhere and so I started to feel disappointed in myself that I couldn’t (or didn’t want to) make those drastic life choices. I had to step away from that for quite a while as I just felt I wasn’t doing enough. I would still think about saving money and would reference his stuff for others, but I had to stop focusing on trying to live his life.

I’ve taken time off a few times and it’s always benefited me to let go of the pursuit of more and I fall back to relying on my foundational habits of saving.

Can you describe a time that made you want to give up? What helped you to keep going?

I can’t think of a time I wanted to give up, but I can think of a few times where I needed to stop focusing on personal finance. I overindulged on FI content and started feeling disappointed in myself that I wasn’t able to put the time in to find more efficiencies with spending, savings, and increasing income. I was struggling mentally and so I had to get my mind on other things. I’ve taken a step away from FI content a couple of times and that’s been really helpful to come back when I’m feeling better. So patience and persistence is key. With personal finance, there is SO much to learn, it can be daunting. You just need to take it one step at a time, be patient and persist in your learning and applying.

Can you tell us about what your life was like before you heard about FIRE?

I was always a decent saver and fairly frugal. I would delay purchases until I had researched all my options and came to a decision on quality vs. price. Even then, I would delay purchases for months or years if it wasn’t truly needed.  But I also overspent. I used my LOC to pay off my credit card and I was in a constant cycle of having to pay it down.  I would get it to zero, and be right back into debt again. 

How was that debt impacting your life before FIRE? 

I had some line of credit debt that would slowly build up over time and I would have to focus on.  I was using my LOC to pay off my credit card and it was too easy to overspend.  It takes up mental bandwidth having to constantly calculate how much you can pay off each month. It was always fluctuating so it was difficult to know how well I was doing. 

Are you still carrying any debt?

Only mortgage debt.  I paid off my consumer debt last year! I only had the LOC so it was low interest and I deliberately paid it off monthly to force the habit.  I had enough cash savings to wipe it out but I wanted the discomfort of having to work at it slowly and not use up cash savings.

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?

Credit cards are great if you pay off your balance every month. If not, or you’re using a LOC to pay them off in full and then paying down the LOC – beware, it is easy to overspend. I use the Scotiabank AMEX Gold, RBC Infinite Avion, and Scotia Infinite VISA. The first two are travel rewards cards. I like getting reduced travel expenses. The AMEX card is awesome because you can “buy-down” travel expenses with your points. This means I could take my family to any hotel for free rather than restricting my rewards to flights and travel packages. 

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? 

No, I have available lines of credit, but they are not being used.

Did you already have some experience or basic understanding of  investing or were you brand new when you started FIRE?

I was a beginner but had knowledge of RRSP and my work pension and how they worked. I had never executed a trade or purchased a stock/ETF before. 

Can you describe your investment portfolio for our readers?

I’m an index ETF investor. 25% Canadian Equities (XIC), 25% US Equities (VTI), 25% International Equities (VXUS), and 25% Canadian Bonds (VAB). I use Norbert’s Gambit and US listed Vanguard ETFs for my US and International positions. I am fortunate to have a work pension that is a 75% equity and 25% bond split there as well. I also have an investment property but the bulk of my assets are in the market.

Why did you choose that particular strategy?

I chose this approach because of the Canadian Couch Potato. I read everything I could on his site and I felt this approach was the highest chance of success with the least amount of effort. I’m diversified into thousands of companies around the world and in two currencies. It’s also easy to rebalance.

Do you manage your own portfolio, use a robo-advisor or a mix of both? 

I’ve been managing my own portfolio since 2012.  I am trying out WealthSimple and Questrade/Passiv to see how well they work and so that I can inform beginners of their benefits.

What investment brokerage do you use and can you tell us why you chose them?

RBC Direct Investing – I’ve been with RBC for a long time so it was the easiest transition to open an account. I also have small accounts with Questrade and WealthSimple, and my wife’s spousal RRSP is with BMO Investorline. I’m looking to consolidate at some point in the future but not a high priority right now.

Sounds like RBC is your bank of choice, can you tell us why?

I’ve had free banking with them for a long time due to having multiple products. They’ve always done a good enough job for me to stick with them. I have our cash savings in EQ which has been a great switch.  I like the high-interest without the need to bounce from bank to bank.

What advice would you give to someone who has never invested before? Where should they start? What is the first thing they should do?

Just start…just start saving and investing, then learn more as you go.

The recommendation depends on the type of person.
1) For someone who does not care to learn how to execute a trade and wants it automatic, and
2) For someone who wants to learn more as they go and can execute trades.

For person one, open a WealthSimple Investment account, set your portfolio, and set your regular contributions.
For the other type of person, open an account at your broker of choice (Questrade, BMO, RBCIC – whatever makes sense for you and buy an all-in-one ETF like VBAL/VGRO/VEQT.

Are you using an RRSP or TFSA as part of your strategy?

I focus on RRSP for the tax benefit and contribute some to TFSA as well. Most of my TFSA is in cash savings (aka emergency fund). I have it parked there to save the interest tax.

My  favorite thing about your site is how many resources you have included like the savings and MER calculators. I’ve used them and the results were jarring. How did you come up with the idea to include those on your site? Did you build them yourself? 

Thank you so much, I’m glad those were helpful. Yes, I did create (code) those myself. They’re one of the most satisfying things I’ve created so far. I created the calculators because I wanted to make it easy for beginners to understand how a bunch of small changes added together over time can lead to big savings. I got the idea for the savings calculator from Mr. Money Moustache’s “Eliminate Short-Termitis” post and expanded on it.  I created the MER calculator for a similar reason as your investment choices can greatly affect your portfolio.  I left my financial advisor in 2012 and wanted to show others how much you can save by going the DIY route.

My background is in IT as a business analyst so I like numbers and data, I’m comfortable with excel. I really enjoyed programming the calculators on my site. I hadn’t coded in a long time and I had a great time relearning those skills.

When it comes to spending, how did you decide what your budget would be?

I basically look at what I’m currently spending on living, food, and discretionary, then I try to scale back on what I can. It’s not easy. That’s why the whack-a-mole approach is easier.  Focus on saving first, pay the home and living expenses, the rest we can spend how we want.

What were your spending habits like before starting FIRE?

I was always a decent saver and fairly frugal. I would delay purchases until I had researched all my options and came to a decision on quality vs. price. Even then, I would delay purchases for months or years if it wasn’t truly needed.  But I also overspent. I used my LOC to pay off my credit card and I was in a constant cycle of having to pay it down.  I would get it to zero, and be right back into debt again. 

Have there been any unexpected challenges when it comes to controlling your spending? 

Deciding what you get value from.  The emotional or psychological side of spending.  You may think buying this thing will make you happy – long term it won’t.  Realizing that and trying to direct spending to things that will provide a long-term benefit.

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 while also indulging in things that bring you joy? 

I use YNAB and unfortunately, I’m a whack-a-mole expert (take money from one category to cover another).   Budgeting is never easy so we save off the top then spend normally. I WAM to cover areas that we spent more in. My wife and I are not big spenders in the first place and my wife is a fantastic saver so that helps us keep on track. We do have indulging things that we spend on but honestly this is an area we can work on to make sure we’re spending on us, and not just the kids and house.

Can you share some of your favorite money saving hacks?

I bought a $60 trimmer 4 years ago and I’ve done my own haircuts since then. I keep it short so my hair and beard are the same length. Also, shaving my face in the shower makes my blades last longer. I had switched my wife’s car insurance into my name and saved 20%. I’ll be changing my home and condo insurance to another company to save nearly 50%. On a broader note, I find selective frugality and delayed gratification to be the biggest traits to savings success.  Being frugal with everything and spending where you get value. I’ve always delayed purchases, sometimes for years and that has helped me realize how easy it is to get with less.

What is the one thing you know now that you wish you knew before you started FIRE?

That you should be saving way more than the usual advice of 10-15%. Having a higher target savings rate would have been even better while you’re young and to help limit lifestyle inflation.

 “You need to have money to save money,” was something I heard frequently when I worked in banking. What advice do you have for the person reading this who is struggling to get by? 

You are not alone. There are 100’s to 1000’s of people that would love to help you – for free! I’m referring to the FI community, including bloggers and podcasters and the ChooseFI Canada Facebook group. There are so many people willing to help and the number of conversations that you can be a part of with those people can help give you the confidence to take on your money challenges. You just have to put in the effort to ask, learn, and connect.

Do you believe this way of life is accessible or realistic for everyone?

Yes, absolutely. Being mindful of your choices and how they impact you financially is a skill that everyone should develop. It doesn’t matter where on the spectrum of wealth or income you are, everyone has blind spots and things to learn.

What has been the most surprising thing you have learned about yourself?

That I really like talking with people about personal finance and that I enjoy helping people who are starting out. I try to bring a different perspective to their financial habits.

What has been one of the most significant moments for you on this journey? 

Leaving my financial advisor. I left my financial advisor in 2012 after I started learning about ETF’s and index investing from the Canadian Couch Potato. I had been with him for 3 years but once I saw what was happening with my MER’s and the price I was paying for advice, I could not stay another minute. (This is why I created the MER calculator)

How has your FIRE journey changed you as a person?

I would say that I’m better at being frugal but also better at determining what I value and spending on those things. I’m also more relaxed and have a sense of security when it comes to money. I know we will be OK.

Has it impacted your relationships or how you interact with friends and family? 

Yes, initially trying to get my wife on board was a tough sell. I was too excited and kept bringing up money saving tips all the time.  That didn’t go well as she felt deprived. She was already a saver and here I was saying to spend less. When what really needed to happen was that she needed a fun account that she can spend without guilt. She buys for the family and rarely herself. Luckily, I’ve since scaled back on the constant savings tips and I’m just trying to model the behavior rather than push all these ideas onto her.

For family and friends, I will bring up the topic of money to get a sense of how people conform. I like to chat about it and get other perspectives. I’ve worked to expand my FI circle and make connections in the community. A former blogger and FI community member and I have become good friends and try to chat regularly. We also make time to chat once a month and catch up on money and life. This has been a great experience as I’ve learned a lot from him.

Is your goal to withdraw entirely or would you like to continue working in some capacity? Can you tell us why you feel that way?

I plan to keep working. I get a sense of purpose and accomplishment from my work. If I can find something else that brings me those feelings, then I’ll move onto that instead. But for now I haven’t found that thing so I anticipate I’ll keep working.

Heidi Unrau is a 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 kicked-off her financial career in retail banking as a teller. She quickly progressed to become a Credit Analyst and then Private Lender. This hands-on industry experience uniquely positions her to provide expert insight on loans, credit scores, credit cards, debt, and banking services. She has been featured in publications such as WealthRocket, Scary Mommy, Credello, and Plooto. When she's not chasing after her two little boys, you'll find her hiding in the car listening to the Freakonomics podcast, or binge-watching financial crime documentaries with a bowl of ice cream. Fun Fact: Heidi has lived in five different provinces across Canada and her blood type is coffee.