It’s the ultimate fantasy to walk out on your nine-to-five and run away to a Caribbean Island. I made that my reality in early 2016 when I quit my full-time job to join a cruise ship. Was it the right choice? I think so. I certainly don’t regret it, at least. It was life-changing in a lot of ways, but perhaps most surprising was how it affected my attitude about financial independence. Even though the job was a significant pay-cut, it felt like a tremendous step toward FIRE, both logistically and mentally.
#Shiplife is the very definition of frugal living
I touched on this earlier when I outlined some of the advantages to working on a cruise ship. The pay was not good, but the overhead was next to nothing. Really, my day-to-day expenses were Internet, nights in the crew bar, and day trips in port. Since I wasn’t paying for room, board, food, medical, travel, commuting, utilities, or a cell phone bill (I canceled mine), I suddenly had more than $1,000 in my monthly income that I didn’t need to earmark for bills. Not only that, but I was renting out my home and made a small $200 profit from it each month. I put that money to good use. After I budgeted for “Caribbean-beach-margarita-fun-time,” I used the rest of the money toward paying down debts and dumping into a retirement account.
On the other side of things, #shiplife was well and truly frugal living. I wasn’t necessarily making the conscious effort to not spend money, but there just wasn’t as much opportunity. Before signing on, I had a weakness for online shopping from Amazon and Zulily. Additionally, I dined out/ordered takeout multiple times per week. On board, however, window-shopping online meant purchasing an Internet package to do so, which was not cheap. Plus, mail deliveries to the ship were a headache and a half; they could take up to a month or more – middle of the sea, and all. Eating out meant ordering from one of the restaurants on board, paying the automatic 18% gratuity, donning my uniform to go pick it up since it was in guest areas, and then slinking back to my cabin.
Most of the time, it just wasn’t worth the money or the effort. It was just as easy to live without. Speaking of which…
Learning to live with less
As a natural by-product of the limited opportunities to waste my money, it just became easier as time went on to live with less. I didn’t miss online shopping all that much — I actually realized, in hindsight, that I’d been going on spending binges because of boredom, and buying myself presents was entertainment. As far as eating out went, interestingly, I lost my taste for it altogether. I discovered as much when I ate some Taco Bell in the Miami International Airport for the first time in seven months and wondered if my beloved burritos had always tasted that horrible.
So, imposed frugality… wasn’t that much of an imposition. If anything, it simplified my life, and having extra money in the bank is always a good feeling. It didn’t feel like I was denying myself, and the feeling lasted well after I came home.
Plus, I mentioned before, it was an experiment in minimalism. I lived on a ship for the better part of a year, and all my possessions fit into one suitcase, one carry-on, and one backpack. It seems impossible to imagine that you can live comfortably without all of your ‘stuff’, but I found the transition to be completely painless. Living with less was easy, and it just served to remind me that things don’t make you happy.
Take nothing for granted
In case you missed it, Hurricane Matthew was awful.
By and large, I was safe throughout. We canceled one of our cruise itineraries to re-route to other, non-be-hurricane’d ports. Facebook even prompted me to broadcast myself as ‘safe’ since it knew I was in the afflicted regions. All was well…
Until we reached Haiti, one of our regular ports-of-call. That’s when the mental shift happened. Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti the hardest; I was glued to CNN, watching the humanitarian crisis unfold before me. From Wikipedia:
During Matthew’s passage, high winds, heavy rainfall, and deadly tides lashed the Tiburon Peninsula in southwest Haiti. Nationwide, the hurricane nearly or completely destroyed around 200,000 homes, leaving 1.4 million* people in need of humanitarian aid. Monetary damage was estimated at US$1.9 billion. Nearly complete crop damage occurred in Grand’Anse and Sud departments, leaving the impoverished population without a source of food. Communication networks and the road system were also compromised. After the hurricane washed away the Petit-Goâve Bridge, southwestern Haiti was temporarily unreachable from the remainder of the country, which slowed the distribution of emergency aid. The ongoing cholera outbreak worsened after the hurricane, killing at least 29 people
…and there I was, surrounded by first-world tourists who’d come to a private beach in Haiti to drink $15 cocktails.
I don’t mean to vilify anyone with that statement, as there’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking a vacation and enjoying yourself. Haiti is stunningly gorgeous, after all*. But at the time, I was keenly aware that there are people in this world who matter other than just myself. I wanted to help, but short of abandoning ship to stay in port, I didn’t know what to do. I donated what I could to the Red Cross, and in hindsight, I’m not sure there was much else I could have done in the moment.
Humanitarian crises truly bring a feeling of helplessness front and center.
In a roundabout sort of way, it solidified my resolve for financial independence. For better or worse: money and wealth are powerful tools. I know it’s a simplified way of thinking, but money can bring relief, rebuild houses, effect systematic change, etc.
I want that sort of wealth, for two reasons:
- Selfless reason: to be able to help out when the next crisis hits.
- Selfish reason: because I absolutely hated how helpless I felt, and I never want to feel that way again.
Whether or not that’s objectively ‘right’, I don’t know (or care). Plus, it’s a rather ambitious line of thinking for a millennial with a net worth of only about 36k. I don’t exactly have a road-map of how I’m going to change the world for the better, but at the very least, it’s lit the fire under my booty well enough and kept me going.
I’ll figure it out when I get there.
In the end, I think the biggest lesson is that the path toward FIRE requires a bit of lifestyle change and a shift in perspective. I’m sure there are any number of paths in life that would have delivered me to the same destination, but at least this path had pretty beaches.
*I highlighted 1.4 million because, even if that doesn’t seem like that large of a number, keep in mind that it’s approximately 14% of Haiti’s population. To put it to scale, in the United States, that would be the equivalent of 44.9 million people. To put that to scale, that would be everyone in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, San Jose, Austin, Jacksonville, San Francisco, Columbus, Indianapolis, Fort Worth, Charlotte, Seattle, Denver, El Paso, Washington D.C., Boston, Detroit, Nashville, Memphis, Portland, Oklahoma City, Las Vegas, Louisville, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Albuquerque, Tucson, Fresno, Sacramento, Mesa, Kansas City M.O., Atlanta, and half of Long Beach.
*The cover photo for this post was taken in Haiti.
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