040: Boot Camp to Budgets | Gnomadic Norbert

Norbert Kallai (aka Gnomadic Norbert) immigrated from Romania at the age of two—the second youngest of six children! He tells us how he went from scarcity to abundance; boot camp to budgets; and frugality to FIRE. We also discuss the perks of a career in the reserves (and what he’s planning to do with that military pension)!

Special thanks to listener Ashley M. who generously volunteered his time to edit the transcript for our show notes. Ashley, we’re so grateful for your help!

Click to view transcript

Money Mechanic
Hello, listeners. Welcome to Explore FI Canada, where we sit at the roundtable with Canadians, and share their thoughts, ideas and personal journeys to financial independence.

Thanks to Matt McKeever for sponsoring Explore FI Canada. Matt is a Canadian investor, CPA, entrepreneur, and real estate expert who achieved FIRE at age 31. Do us a favour and check out his YouTube channel by searching Matt McKeever or using the link in our show notes.

Alrighty, here we are at the table again, Explore FI Canada, the roundtable where we share the stories of other Canadians on their journey to financial independence. Money Mechanic is here and of course my neighbor just across the strait, Chrissy.

Chrissy Kay
Hi. How are you doing Money Mechanic?

Money Mechanic
I just got home from work. It’s sort of mid September here. And I realized that I have completely slacked off in the latter part of the summer. And there’s a lot of chores that I didn’t get to do before winter kicks in. And I’m not gonna say that there’s any serious winter concerns on the West Coast, but there’s a lot of rain. So there’s just definitely some outdoor stuff I need to take care of. So I’ve got some stuff to look after. What about you over there?

Chrissy Kay
Yeah, the rain is coming. So we’re trying to get our outdoor time in but it’s a bit tricky with all the smoke. So we’re doing our best to avoid the smoke, but still try to get outside.

Money Mechanic
For sure. Well, we’re indoors today and we’re recording a show here and we’ve got a guest on with us from the other side of the country in Quebec City, I believe it is? We have Norbert Kalai. Welcome to the show.

Norbert
Thanks a lot. So the rain is coming? I’d like to say the winter is coming, Chrissy.

Chrissy Kay
Yes, you’re right.

Norbert
Yeah, we can feel the cold approaching every single day out here.

Chrissy Kay
Oh, boy. Yeah, not quite the same on the West Coast, but it is getting cooler and darker.

Money Mechanic
So welcome to the show, Norbert. You’ve reached out to us, and you’ve got an interesting journey and story about your path to financial independence and FIRE. And we want to dig into that today and share your story with the listeners so they can learn from you and things like that. So why don’t you start off a little bit and just tell us about you.

Norbert
Yeah, first off, I’d like to say thank you to both you guys. I’ve been listening to both of your shows for quite some time. So big shout out to Explore FI and the FI Garage. My name is Norbert Kalai. I’m 31 years old. I was born in Romania but actually immigrated to Canada when I was two, the second youngest of six children. So you can imagine the upbringing that I had. After finishing high school, I joined the naval reserves at age 19. And I’ve been traveling around with the Navy now for the last 12 years. It’s found me in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Victoria, BC, and now I’m currently posted in Quebec City, where I’m married to my French Canadian wife and our 11 and a half month old daughter, who I’m hoping will be bilingual right off the bat and second generation FI. If I have my way.

Chrissy Kay
Awesome. It sounds like you’ve had quite an interesting upbringing with your parents. They were very frugal and resourceful. And I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about that and how it might have influenced your FIRE journey?

Norbert
Yeah, hundred percent. So yeah, we grew up “poor” (if you want to say that). I mean, imagine six children. My parents didn’t speak that well of English. So they found themselves some general labour factory jobs. So they had to do everything they could do to save money. So when they bought their first house, it was just a two bedroom house. So we ended up changing the living room into a bedroom where four of us would be sleeping. They ended up tearing up the entire yard and planting a bunch of gardens where they grew their own vegetables. We also raised chickens on the property that they would kill at the end of the season that we would use for, I guess, cheap meat. My mom was often home cooking all her meals. My dad would take some scrap wood from the factory that he was working at and he’d bring it home. And he’d actually use the wood to heat the house. And they would even collect rainwater from the eaves troughs and the gutters that they would bring inside and actually put on top of the fireplace. They’d boil the water that they could use for washing dishes and flushing the toilet. So just watching this at a young age, I watched how resourceful my parents were. At the time, it was kind of a point of contention. I was a little bit embarrassed about it. But fast forward now to my 30s: I’m looking at them and just realizing they were frugal before it was cool. So I’m trying to kind of fall in line with what they did. As we were growing up to kind of be more environmentally conscious, as well as financially conscious.

Chrissy Kay
Yeah, I love that story. And do they still live that way? Are they still very frugal? Or have they found more financial stability and are they a little more spendy these days?

Money Mechanic
No, they’re very, very much the same. I like to joke around every time we go back and visit them I like to call their house “Little Romania”. <laughing> You can take the parents out of Romania, but you can’t take the Romania out of the parents.

Chrissy Kay
I love that!

Norbert
They very much still live the same way. So it’s always a treat to go back and visit them just because it is such a simple style of living. So we’ll just walk around the property, and now that I have my daughter—just for her to see the gardens and the chickens and just how resourceful my parents are—I think it just an awesome example of how we can live. I know everyone right now is chasing the newest, hottest thing, but my parents still don’t have a dryer, they still wash their clothes and hang dry everything. In the winter, they’ll hang it up by the fireplace. So these things that they had to do as a necessity to raise their six children, they’re now just doing because it’s so hardwired into themselves. But I look at them now as an example of how we can reach financial independence. Maybe we won’t go to such extremes. But just to see what’s actually possible.

Money Mechanic
So what do your parents think about the whole FIRE movement? Have you discussed it with them and shared the the tents as they are?

Norbert
They’re very impressed with the idea, but I don’t really think they understand it. So my parents were very, very, ummm…. My parents were very keen on the idea of saving when we were younger. They just stressed the idea of how hard you had to work for money, and the importance of saving it. But now that I’ve taken that idea and ran with it, and got into low cost index funds and sort of investing my money, and I have this goal of retiring early, I think they just kind of pat me on the head and say “good job”, but I don’t think that they—or even my friend group or my co workers at work—actually realize what I’m doing. And I don’t think most people will until I activate FIRE.

Money Mechanic
Yeah, I can relate to that, too. I came from a very frugal background, too, with a single mother and I went to work really young as you did when you share some information with us. And one of the things I wanted to ask you was, did you get to a point where you switched from the scarcity mindset that kind of became hardwired when you growing up in that situation—living frugally, and saving and doing as much as you can—to a bit more of an abundance mindset, realizing that there are opportunities to save and invest and earn more money? And it’s kind of a hardwired psychological thing that I found it was difficult to make that transition. Have you encountered that in yourself?

Norbert
Yeah, I like the idea of using the term scarcity mindset, because I 100% agree with that. Like, my parents were kind of fighting for survival. So just to watch that money was very tight when we were growing up, and you can kind of see the pressure that put on my parents. So it’s kind of hard wired in most of the kids to kind of think the same way. But the second I got out of high school and joined the Navy—both my brothers were actually serving members as well—so I kind of knew how much money you could get your hands on when you join the Forces at such a young age. So once the money started flowing in, I started to spend it a little bit more frivolously than I probably would like to have. But definitely once I started reading books, and getting into podcasts, reading blogs, it really opens your mind to what the possibilities are. So I think that if you stay in that mindset, and you don’t realize what is outside of your own bubble, you might be trapped in a way of thinking. But luckily for me, thanks to the internet, thanks to the resources I had, you start hearing so many stories about people that went from rags to riches or turne a bad situation or scarcity mindset into financial independence. So for me, that gave me a light at the end of the tunnel. So I feel like the transition was very, very natural. As I was leaving my parents house and starting to get out onto my own was around the same time I started getting my hands on all these resources. So I kind of grew into that mindset and was never really fixed in the scarcity mindset for too too long.

Chrissy Kay
So you’re mentioning your time in the military and there’s actually a quote I’ll read later, but you say say that there was a point where your older brother introduced you to “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”, and it seems like that’s when the turnaround financially started for you. Because you’re saying you’re, you’re earning a lot, but you’re also spending a lot. And so can you tell us what it was about that book that actually flipped the switch for you?

Money Mechanic
Yeah, so throughout high school, I saved $10,000 while also paying my own way for clothes and school trips. But I ended up losing all that money when I went to school and decided it wasn’t for me and I ended up dropping out. So I joined the military full time after that, but because the money was coming in, and you had that guaranteed pay cheque, I started spending a little bit aggressively and because of the party culture in the Navy as well, we started going out downtown eating food, and I started spending a lot of cash. At one point I was having a really hard time on the east coast and decided that the military might not be for me. But my brothers were serving on the West Coast told me to come out there. So when I flew out there I was sitting around negative $500 of debt. And I’m telling my brother this and he just looks at me and says, before you do anything, make sure you “pay yourself” and then he told me to read “Rich Dad Poor Dad”. So I read the book. Some of the main takeaways that I had was the idea of assets and liabilities. And he says in the book that “poor people buy stuff; middle class by liabilities; and the rich buy assets”, and that was a huge game changer for me. Just realizing that in order to get ahead, I couldn’t just keep spending my money on these things. Consumption, clothes: everyone was chasing cars in the military. When those first big paycheques, everyone’s going out and buying these brand new cars. But just hearing that idea of “pay yourself first” was a game changer for me. So every pay cheque I had some money automatically deducted from my salary. And by the end of my four years on the West Coast—when some people were leaving with no cash—I ended up leaving with $40,000 just from these small, small deductions from my pay. So I think the big takeaway for me, was the idea of “paying yourself first”. And I think it’s a concept that is so simple, yet even today I see it with people that don’t do this: the money comes in, they spend everything and more. But if they just take that little bit off the top and put it into a separate account—even doing it automatically—I think they’d be surprised at how fast that pot can grow.

Chrissy Kay
Yeah, you’re right. It’s the little things often that add up. And it doesn’t have to be hard. It doesn’t have to be a ton of deprivation. It’s just thinking ahead. And like you said, “paying yourself first”, that makes such a huge difference.

Norbert
I made a goal for myself when I got out to the West Coast: $10,000, every single year. It seems like a big goal, but when you work backwards from that and realize I just had to put away a little over $400 each paycheque. That seemed very manageable. So I think when people look at that big number, it just seems astronomical. But if you set the goal and work backwards from there and say, “well, this is what I have to do this year, but what do I have to do this paycheque, or this week, to make sure that I get that goal. And luckily, I had that forward thinking. I don’t know if it was just the way that I was built, or the way that I was raised, but I was always thinking two steps ahead. So trying to have fun in the moment, but at the same time, always thinking about my exit plan. I never wanted to leave the coast with nothing to show for my time there.

Money Mechanic
So would you say that you made friends with “future you”? And the reason I asked that is—now I’m racking my brain trying to remember where I just heard this recently—it was a really interesting concept from a psychological point of view, because, you know, we’ve said this before, is that we’re really bad at predicting, you know, “future us”. And the discussion was (it was a podcast, and I’ll find it for the show notes, I apologize, I can’t remember right now) but basically what they were saying was that “future you” looks like a stranger to you. Because you don’t know what you’re going to be like in five years, right? But one of the exercises they had people doing was create the mental image, get to know “future you”, and then you’re going to be much more motivated to, you know, stick to a diet if that’s your thing, stick to your financial plan that you create today. Because now you’re doing it for a friend. Now you’re doing for somebody recognized rather than this “future you” that’s a stranger. So it sounds like you did a really great job of that, and you set those goals while you were still in the military to get that going. That’s fantastic.

Norbert
I don’t know if I would conceptualize it like that now, just because it’s hard for me to look back, but I’m definitely in that state now. Not only do I listen to a lot of podcasts regarding financial independence, but I also started listening to a lot of podcasts regarding mindset. And they’re always talking about this as well. Think 10 years out. Don’t think about what you’re going to be like in a year from now. Because people tend to overestimate what they can accomplish in a year, but underestimate what they can accomplish in a decade. So when you flick the switch like that and start thinking about “where can I be in 10 years?”, you realize that it’s not necessarily that big of a challenge. Because if you take the small steps consistently, you can get there in 10 years, but it’s might seem astronomical in just a year’s time span. And that’s why I like the financial independence community: it’s just the small things done right, over a long period of time. But in the grand scheme of things, 15 years is much, much shorter than the average 35 year working life.

Chrissy Kay
It’s true. Complete 180: it’s completely different. So speaking of the future and plans, can you fill us in on your FIRE plan? In your book, you mentioned that you are basing your plan on $525,000 for your nest egg, I suppose? Can you tell us: is that still your number, or do you think that’s not enough?

Norbert
So yeah, when I wrote the book, it was pretty much just talking from my perspective, so wasn’t really considering my wife. The actual number of we’re aiming for is just a little over 1 million dollars using the FI number 25 times your annual expenses. So currently, right now we’re spending around $42,000 a year. So that brings us just a little over 1 million dollars—and that’s still the goal—just right now, though, the second you start to build up that nest egg (because we’re about a little halfway over our financial journey) and we’re starting to realize now choice. So now for me, it’s not so much a rush to get to FI as so much as choosing my adventure. Because I have the option now and I have the security with that nest egg, and the security of having a pretty stable and flexible job, now we’re starting to decide how we want to play out the next several years. So the goal that I had for myself was to retire by 45, and now I think I could probably do it by 40. So that’s the new goal: how can I get there in the next nine years? The plans after FI? It’s kind of hard, because I don’t really consider the whole FIRE thing to be very pertinent to me, because I don’t see myself retiring early. I can see myself working forever, it’s just choosing my work. So right now, with the child, if anyone’s listening has a brand new baby, I have an 11 month old, and that doesn’t leave a lot of time between a full time job, your house chores, and trying to raise this kid. So for me, when I think about FIRE, it’s mostly about time. I don’t really know 100% what I’m going to do with that time, it’ just I know that that’s what I want. I want time to pursue my passions, I want time to watch my daughter grow up. I want time to explore who I am, and not what I do.

Chrissy Kay
So I’m just curious, how did you change your FIRE plan from reaching FIRE at 45 to 40? Was it that you came across a windfall? Or did you change your investing? How was it that you were able to accelerate it by five years?

Norbert
Yeah, when I was writing the book, I wanted to self publish through Amazon but with the baby, it got a little bit stressful. So I just started handing out a PDF version to a lot of friends and family as mostly a chance for me to inspire them or open their eyes to the potential of FI. Because not a lot of people know what this whole community is—I’m really surprised—but maybe it’s just the bubble that I live in, just because I’m constantly submersed with podcasts and YouTube videos. But when I was giving out the information in the book, I was trying to be very conservative. So if I keep working with the military, I can get my pension by that 45 mark. So that was what I was basing it on. But the more I dived into financial independence and these podcasts and listening to other people’s stories, started playing around with calculators, and actually looking at my net worth, I realized that if I continue saving the way I’m saving, I can get there much, much earlier. And maybe I won’t even need the military pension. It’s unfortunate because in our social circles, I think a lot of people want to stay in for those 25 years or more with the military, because they can see that pension at the very end. But for me, because I’ve created a nest egg, I’ve pretty much created my own pension. So I don’t necessarily need to rely on the military to pay me for life. Thanks to finding the financial independence community.

Money Mechanic
Yeah, I think that’s super important. I mean, you couldn’t really set it any better than that is we are all creating our own pensions by being on this journey towards financial independence. Because if you’re at FI, you’ve created your pension, basically. Let’s dig into your book a little bit. We’ve mentioned it a few times and the listeners are probably going “what’s this book they’re talking about?” So you sent it to us and Chrissy and I both read it, and it’s called “Sink or Swim”. And it is an epic tale of financial proportions. Now, what was your impetus for this book? You mentioned that you were sort of handing out some copies, you wanted to help friends and family and co-workers and things like that: who did you write this book for specifically? And what did you want them to walk away with, after reading this book?

Norbert
When I first started the book, I didn’t realize what I was actually doing. I’ve always been into creative writing, and I feel like I excelled at that when I was in high school. But like most things, once you start working full time, a lot of those passions are kind of beat out of you. Especially with the military. I feel like I was constantly sailing and going on courses that I didn’t really have time… I didn’t really have a lot of time to dive into my interests. But thanks to my new position—because it’s more of an eight to four office job—I feel like I started to dabble with things a little bit more: journaling, writing, art. So I started just kind of writing this book for myself just as a creative writing project. But as I started to write it, I realized that through lunches with coworkers and just talking with friends, not a lot of people really understand how personal finance works. So I don’t know why I was so interested in it at an early age, but I’ve constantly been trying to educate myself. And I’ve always been interested in the idea of money. And I was just blown away at how basic concepts like an RRSP and TFSA are mind boggling for some people. So once I started kind of constructing this book, I realized that what I wanted to do was write a one-stop-shop, everything-that-someone-would-need-to-know, pick it up, and could essentially change their financial future. So the reason I want to self-publish through Amazon was not to necessarily make money, but just pretty much: “how can I distribute this to as many people as I possibly can, for free?” Because I wasn’t really looking for a financial gain here. But with the baby and all the craziness that started happening in my life, I ended up just chopping up the book and started making Facebook posts once a week under the title “Finance Fridays”. And then I posted up on to my Facebook. If anyone was interested to read this finance book, I would send it to them. A couple people reached out so I started handing out copies through email. And I started getting a lot of positive feedback. So for me, it was just pretty much “how can I give back to the community that’s given so much to me?” Everything I’ve learned so far, I’ve learned for free through podcasts, YouTube, books, and I feel like most people don’t take the time to read these things. And I felt like for me, I just wanted to educate my friends and family just to make sure that people didn’t end up in a financial hole that I see so many people living in.

Chrissy Kay
Yeah, you sound like one of us, you know?

Money Mechanic
<laughter> “One of us! One of us!”

Chrissy Kay
You discovered the FIRE community and you just want to tell everybody about it however you can.

Norbert
Exactly.

Money Mechanic
That’s the Kool Aid: I’m thirsty!

Norbert
I don’t if you guys have ever heard of a gentlemen named Jim Kwik?

Chrissy Kay
No.

Norbert
No? He’s a memory expert that teaches people how they can remember people’s names or how they can read faster. But he has an acronym called FAST, and it’s for how you can learn something very quickly. But the “T” stands for “teach”. So once you learn a concept, he recommends figuring out how you can teach it to someone else, to solidify that knowledge in yourself. So I feel like as I was writing the book, I was constantly jumping back onto blog posts, and doing a lot of research myself. So really solidifying the knowledge in me, I feel like writing the book, even though I was writing it for an audience—my friends, my family, my co workers—at the end of the day, I feel like it really, really benefited me as well, because it really solidified some of those concepts.

Chrissy Kay
I fully agree with that. With my blog and with this podcast, I find that also: when I have to regurgitate the info that I’ve taken in for an audience, I have to really understand it in a different way. And it really helps to solidify and crystallize all that knowledge.

Norbert
Well, you guys have no idea how much I do that with your podcasts. I literally will listen to your podcasts on the bike ride to work, I’ll show up at work super excited, tell anyone that’ll listen to me what I just heard. Especially the last podcast that you guys had with Ed Rempel regarding pensions. It’s such a good topic for people in the military community who 1) don’t understand their own pensions, or 2) how they can retire early and what they can actually do with that pension if they were to leave before the 25 years.

Chrissy Kay
Yeah, let’s talk about that, because you just brought that up not too long ago in our conversation, and you’re saying how some of them, hang on and hang on, just to get to that pension. And you on the other hand, are now able to say: “Ah, whatever, I don’t necessarily need to take it.” So, what did you take out of that episode with Ed about pensions, and how are you going to handle your own pension with the military?

Norbert
That’s funny that you asked because I actually just posted this on to the ChooseFI group, just to ask the community if there was any ex-military people that had retired to see what they did with their pensions. And I love that community for the feedback that you can get in real time, and the tribe mentality. But for me, I’ve been heavily considering, because I am a naval reservist, our jobs are a lot more flexible than the reg force. I know the ex-co-host here, Ryan, was I believe reg force. And that’s more of a sign-the-dotted-line, 25-years, if-they-tell-you-to-jump-you-jump, if-they-tell-you-you’re-moving-you’re-moving. But luckily for the reserves, you kind of get to pick your own adventure. I’ve heavily considered right now—I’ve been full time for the last 12 years—but I’m thinking about actually transitioning over to the Class A community, which would be more part time. So you can work two days a month, two weeks a month. You could sign up three month contract. So I want to start that transition just so I can slowly get back my time, but still be involved in the community. But when I think about the 25 year long career, I just don’t know if I have it in me to go that long, especially if my financial independence number is reached before then. So I’m heavily considering how I can incorporate that pension into my FI number, transferring over the bulk of it into a LIRA, topping up my RRSPs, and then cashing out the rest. But, I’m trying to figure out the strategy behind how I could do this with the most minimal loss, and the most access to my capital. So I was lucky to read “Quit Like a Millionaire” not too long ago where Kristy talks about how you can access the money in your LIRA. As well, If you don’t work for an entire year, and you get that cash out, it’s not gonna be taxed the same. So right now I’m trying to plan out how I can save up a year cash cushion before I decide to pull the plug.

Money Mechanic
Yeah, there’s been a lot of discussion right now. And it all kind of happened at the same time. Well, by the time this comes out, it’ll be a few weeks old. But it’s interesting, because all of a sudden, there’s been a lot of discussion about commuting pensions. And I didn’t know but—I think it was Kate, right, that we talked about on the episode—she sent us a link from the Alberta government that they’ve actually changed how they calculate the commuted values, and apparently a lot of the provincial governments have decided not to give you your computed values anymore until you actually hand in your notice that you’re quitting. So as interesting as it is that cashing these pensions out, and I know that I read that ChooseFI Canada post that you put up there Norbert and it’s really interesting what’s going on with all that discussion. It’s just going to be interesting to see what happens as we move forward in the future here. What they’re going to do with those values, and it seems to me that the governments and the pension plans are looking at the low interest rate environment that we’re in and saying: “hey, we can’t really use that as a value or a number for this calculation anymore” because apparently that used to be a big part of the calculation. Now, because they expect to be in a low rate environment for a long time, that it kind of skews it. I like one of the pension articles I read said: “it skews the benefit, because the people today are going to get way more than the people that stay in the plan.” So yeah, a lot of discussion about it: it’s pretty interesting.

Norbert
They’re just an example. After listening to your podcast and realizing how it was calculated on those four pillars—and one of them was the interest rate—I actually logged into my pension services portal just to see what my pension was worth. And from last year to this year, it’s gone up $70,000.

Chrissy Kay
Wow.

Norbert
So I know some of that is my contributions. I know some of that is the company match, but at the same time, that is a drastic, drastic change in my pension number. So when I’m doing my net worth calculation (I know some people say don’t add the pension in there or your retirement funds—I disagree with that, because I am paying into those funds—so I like to add that dollar) but I was blown away at the difference in the value of my pension from last year till this year with the COVID-19, and the dropping interest rates.

Money Mechanic
Yeah, for sure. Definitely.


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Chrissy Kay
Can we go back and talk a little bit more about the military. As you mentioned, Ryan, our former co-host was in the military. And I didn’t realize there was a difference between what you sign up for. And we also had another previous guest, who was the Fringe Doc, and he mentioned what you said how you sign on the dotted line, and you have to change everything at the drop of a hat and maybe move your family across the country. So can you explain again: what is the difference between what Ryan and Fringe Doc did and what you think might be a slightly more flexible way to join the military?

Norbert
Yeah, it all depends on what you’re signing up for. But the reg force offers a lot of job security. So I can see the value in taking something like that, knowing that you’re going to have an employer for 25 years. You’re going to have that guaranteed pension. I chose the reserve route just because I’ve always liked the idea of choosing my own adventure and not being stuck in one spot. And both my brothers had actually signed up for the reserves. So essentially, there’s three classes of service within the reserves: Class A, Class B, and Class C. A Class A Reservist can parade anywhere in Canada. There’s 24, naval reserve units in Canada, and they can show up one day a month if they want to. So it can be a really, really flexible side hustle for someone that is already in early retirement, or someone that is pursuing an education and or they already have a profession. You can parade a lot more than that, but normally, typically someone chooses the Class A community because they don’t necessarily have a lot of time to give to the naval reserves. When you get into the Class B, you’re taking a short-term to long-term contract. So right now I’m currently on a Class B position for three years, posted at the naval fleet school here in Quebec. A Class C contract is pretty much the equivalent of reg force pay: a reg force contract. So when you sign a Class C contract, they could essentially post you or tell you where to go. And normally this is more geared to being on a sailing platform or in some sort of dangerous situation. So when I was sailing on the West Coast and the east coast, in those positions, I was on a Class C contract. So if they told me that I was moving, or if I was sailing, or if I was going on course, I had to follow suit with what they were saying, or break my contract

Chrissy Kay
For most of your military career, which class have you been in?

Norbert
I’ve kind of switched between them. So when I first joined after finishing boot camp, I went off to college. So I was a Class A reservist. But at that early age, I saw how much my education was going to cost me because I had to pay my own way. I decided to drop out of school. And then I signed up for a Class B contract to get all my training. So I did all my trades training, I did my naval environmental training, and eventually was posted to a ship. Once posted to a ship, I took a Class C contract. At this point you’re going to get 100% of the equivalent pay of someone that’s in the reg force. In the other class of service. It’s a little bit less, but I got 100% of the same benefits that someone in the reg force would get. So I got a paid move to the West Coast. I received a living allowance. I received sea-pay and after that when I transitioned off of the coast (just because of my long distance relationship with my wife, a heavy sailing schedule…), I ended up leaving and moving to Quebec City, right to a Class B contract. In the process, I probably lost about $20,000, just from higher taxes, losing all those extra benefits. As well, going from Class C to Class B was a reduction in pay. But it was a smart move for me just because I was closer to my wife. As well: you said in the email that you guys sent me that those two people Ryan, and I can’t remember—the Fringe Doc—they said they talk about the hardships of the military. And you can definitely feel that in that Class C position and / or in the reg force, it gets very demanding. At some points, I was sailing over 180 days a year. So you definitely work for your money. Not that I’m saying I don’t do that now, but because I’m in the Class B position—yes, it’s a little bit less pay—but at the same time, I have more flexibility over my life. So I think, especially for people that don’t really know a lot about the military, I think that they’re constantly bombarding you with advertisements for these full time careers. But I don’t think enough people know about the reserved community. You can really sign up as a full time teacher, an engineer, a doctor, and you can just give back as much service as you want: what fits into your schedule. So when we’re talking about side hustles to get to financial independence, I think more people should look at the naval reserves or the reserves in general, as a very, very good option for you to get there.

Money Mechanic
That’s super interesting. I never… I didn’t realize at all that… that (the military) had a structure like that in the reserves, that you could do things like that. I mean, am I too old? (laughing) Go down, and be like the Class A and just do a few days a month. I mean, I love boats! I know how to fix stuff!

Norbert
When I first moved Quebec City, I was actually posted to the naval fleet school when I was actually a boot camp instructor. So I taught basic training for five years. And we had people coming in that were in their 50s, that we had full time moms that were coming out and pursuing this as a chance to challenge themselves. But even on my basic training, I remember being across the hall from a guy that was 55 years old. So I can’t tell you that the top of my head what the cut off age is, but I’m not too sure if you’re 55 years old there, Money Mechanic, you look a little bit younger than that.

Money Mechanic
(laughing) Thank you.

Norbert
Yeah, you can definitely join. Like I said, I don’t think enough people know about this. I don’t know if it’s a failure on the military’s part to advertise well, but at the same time, I don’t think enough people take into consideration the idea of using the military as an employer.

Money Mechanic
That’s interesting.

Chrissy Kay
You mentioned it could be a good side hustle, but it sounds like it wasn’t a side hustle for you was is it? Has it been your full time career?

Norbert
Yeah. So when I first dropped out of school, I don’t know what my intention was, is this, I knew that at that time, I definitely didn’t want to be in school. I just moved out of my parents place, and they were strict, Eastern European, I just finished my basic training—so you can imagine how strict they were on basic training—and I was finally free to be on my own. So I kind of abused that freedom a little bit, and I didn’t really go to all my classes. And because I was paying for it myself, it was really hard to justify the amount of money that I was spending on accommodations and tuition, and books and supplies, if I wasn’t going to take it seriously. So I ended up dropping out of college and signing up for the… I wouldn’t say full time naval reserves?, But I wanted to do it for one year just to get some money, just to get some travel. And that one year ended up turning into 12. So I never intended to go this long. But at the same time, I got a good friend group. I started making some money. I was traveling, and the more and more I learned about how money worked and started reading financial books, I just realized that education is more of a business. And it’s not something I really want to participate in. And I had a lot of friends tell me that this is a big mistake that you’re making: you shouldn’t drop out of school. And the longer you stay out of school, the less likely you are to go back. And it’s funny now because when I look at it, had I stayed in school, I probably would have graduated with negative $40,000 of debt. But at the same time, because I chose the military path, I ended up being plus $40,000 in net worth. So that’s not a $40,000 spread: that’s an $80,000 spread. So yes, I didn’t go to school, and maybe I would have forfeited a higher salary, potentially, but the opportunity costs of not going to school versus going to school, I think really paid dividends with the path that I chose.

Chrissy Kay
And you also got training. You did have some education with the military as well.

Norbert
Yeah, all my education was paid for by the military. All my travel. I’ve got to travel to a lot of great places. And on top of that, we’re talking benefits, and all the things that come with the forces. And even now, I kind of put my head down and kind of grinded up until this moment where I really discovered FIRE. I was really into personal finance before, but it wasn’t until 2017 that I discovered the FIRE community. And that’s when I started to really look at my pension, and I was blown away at how much money was being saved in the background, that I didn’t even know was there. And as well, they started rolling out new benefits for the military. So because I have 12 years of service, if I were to leave now, the military would actually pay me $80,000 to go back to school. That would cover my tuition, my books, they even fund some of your accomodations.

Chrissy Kay
That’s huge.

Norbert
So yes: I didn’t choose to go to school right off the bat. But I chose this path, which has actually played out pretty well for me, because instead of going into debt, I was able to save money. That money now being invested is growing. And if I want to return to school, now, I can now do that without having to fork out the money myself. So for me, I really believe that just following that cookie cutter mold of going to high school, going to university trying to get that job… I just really feel like that path, for me personally is broken. Especially if you’re paying for education yourself, because what happens when you get out of school and you have debt? You’re not going to instantly start paying that off: you’re probably going to buy a brand new car because you deserve it. And then you’re gonna meet a girl, or a boy, and then you guys, you’re gonna get married and probably shell out a lot of cash. And then you’ll buy a house. And then before you know it, you’re not only burdened with student debt, but you have car debt, you have mortgage debt, and who knows what else you have. So for me, not going to school and giving myself that breathing room to be making money. And also spending money: like you’re going to make mistakes in your 20s. Well, luckily, for me, I was making mistakes, while making around $70,000 a year.

Chrissy Kay
Wow.

Norbert
So if you’re going to school, and you’re trying to party like a rock star, but you’re not making a rock star salary, that’s gonna hurt you really bad on top of your tuition. So luckily for me, I got to get all the partying out of my system. I got to do all that fun stuff. But I still left with $40,000 of net worth from the coast. So when I talk to people, even now having a daughter, I am not going to push education on her. Even though I am saving for an RESP for her, because I want her to have that choice, I will not pressure her into school. I’ll let her make that choice herself. But I’m a firm believer that that’s not the path you have to follow if you want to be successful.

Chrissy Kay
I love that you are bringing up this topic. We want to highlight different stories and different perspectives. And I think it’s fantastic that you found your own path. And I want to make this more actionable for our listeners. So can you tell us give us a range of salary that you might expect from the different classes in the reserves, as well as… what you call it? Is it the “reg forces”? Is that what it’s called?

Norbert
The “regular force”. Yeah.

Chrissy Kay
Can you give us just a range of what you would expect to be paid in each of those?

Norbert
Yeah, so it’s kind of hard to say, but a Class A reservist is paid by the day. So they don’t get paid unless they show up to work. And then you’re going to get paid either by a half day or full day, depending on how much work you put in. But when you’re talking about that type of service, you’re getting paid by your rank. So as you climb up the rank structure, you’re going to get paid more and more and more. I know from my personal perspective, when I first joined, I was making roughly about $30,000 a year, if you were to work it out into an annual income. As you start to climb up the ranks, you get to the rank of leading Seaman—which is about two ranks in—and your pay can jump from $30,000 right up to $50,000. But if you’re sailing on a ship, then you get a bunch of extra benefits, such as sea pay. If you’re taking a full time contract on the coast, you could also get a living allowance. So these allowances after taxes while I was living on the West Coast, were $1,000 more every single month. So it wasn’t just petty change that they were throwing at us. So on top of my regular salary, I was getting paid that additional amount of money to help with my accommodations; to help with the fact that I had to go to sea, and I would have to… well, just I guess the discomfort of going to sea. But yeah, when you’re looking at the reg force stream, you’re getting paid 100% of the numbers that you can see online if you were to search, search “CAF military salary“.

Chrissy Kay
Okay, so it’s available.

Norbert
Exactly, you can search stuff online to see what the rank structure is, the pay for reg force on reserve. But when you first start off, you can imagine you’re probably going to be making around $30,000. And that can go right up to about $80,000, $100,000, plus. Both my brothers were in the naval reserves, but they actually switched over to the regular force, Air Force. And they’re actually getting their salary. And on top of that, because they become specialized in their trades, they’ve reached a certain qualification, they’re actually getting spec pay as well. So both my brothers are fairly Junior members into the reg force, but because of their spec pay, they’re making $80,000. So you can imagine that, that compared to let’s say, a civilian salary, I don’t know a lot of friends that were making the amount of money that I was making at my age. At age 24. I was sailing on the West Coast and I was making almost $80,000 a year. Fast-forward to now, I’m 31: I’m not making that much money now because I chose to come inland, but at the same time, a lot of my friends still aren’t making that money. So there’s a lot of potential in the military to make good money, but at the same time, there is a little bit of sacrifice that you have to make in order to get that cash. So it’s not easy to go away from your family for 180 days on a boat. It’s not easy to work long days teaching basic training. But at the same time, from a salary perspective, I believe that we’re paid very, very well for what we do.

Chrissy Kay
And you also have that pension that you’ll have at the end of it.

Norbert
Yeah, I made a post on the ChooseFI page a little while back, and I gave the top 10 reasons why someone should consider the navy as an option, or the naval reserves, or the military in general. And yeah, it’s not just the salary, but like I said earlier, I’m gonna have an education benefit as well for serving these last 12 years. I can get up to $80,000 to go back to school, if I decide to leave. The benefits, the medical, the dental, physio, we have a gym facility in our school that I’m allowed to use during working hours. So for one hour every single day—not right now with COVID-19—but for one hour a day, during my working day, I’m able to go to a gym facility inside my building and train. So I don’t know how many people are trying to fit in their physical training, after work, between their kids, during their chores: it’s a struggle for some people, but for me, it’s built into my day. So I have to actively not go to the gym to avoid that training. So that’s another huge benefit. If you think about it. Uniforms and equipment, the training: everything is given to me and paid for by the military. I know some people that spend large sums of money on the clothes they have to wear to work. And me? I just throw on my blue shirt, my black pants that were issued to me, and off I go.

Money Mechanic
So speaking of that, now that we’re on to these money topics: tell us a little bit about what your life looks like now with as far as frugality, and Mustachianism, and things like that. You ride your bike to work: I caught that out of the conversation. Now, you’re obviously not spending money on work clothes, which is a huge savings like you mentioned. What about other things in day-to-day life that you do to keep on the path towards FI?

Norbert
I’m going to caveat this by saying what I’m doing is just… I’m a little bit more on the crazy end, if you will, now just because once I found Mr. Money Mustache and heard what he was doing, and once I’ve kind of become dedicated to this goal of reaching financial independence, I’ve started doing a lot of things to try and get myself there. But I ride my bike to work during the summertime, the fall and even into the early winter. And then I’ll transition to riding the bus. We do own a car, but at the same time paying for parking, gas… and even the commute is not much faster with a car versus the bike. I pack my lunch every single day. My wife is a great cook, and we’ve gotten down to about $2-$3 per meal. So she’s constantly cooking all of our meals and we’re freezing lunches so I can easily just jump into the freezer and pull something out for my bag, and off I go. Instead of going to Tim Horton’s like most people in the military do—it’s kind of like a thing that you do in the morning: huge lineups, everyone’s trying to get their Tim Horton’s coffee before going to work—I just make mine at home. And that sounds a little bit silly, but this is like a difference of $2 pretty much every single day, or multiple dollars if you are getting multiple coffees. I started cutting my own hair, which was kind of a challenge at first to try and set up the mirrors and get everything looking right, especially when for my job I need to have a certain style of haircut.

Money Mechanic
Don’t they cut your hair in the military? I thought they always cut your hair?

Norbert
Negative. <laughter> You have to pay for it, but we do have a hairdresser on site. And the cost is very, very economical compared to someone in the city. But I just bought the buzzer right off of Amazon for $20. Within the first cut, I already paid myself back.

Money Mechanic
Nice.

Norbert
And I’ve been cutting my own hair now for about a year. So I’m starting to get pretty good. I’m not gonna lie. And also having a child: I know some people say that having a kid is very expensive, but me and my wife just jumped onto Facebook marketplace, we started asking people if they had any old cribs, or clothes, or toys. So we were not shy about asking for used things. We started using washable diapers. So I know some people say that’s a huge hassle, but me and my wife don’t find that to be the case at all. And she’s very much on the environmental side of things, whereas I’m more on the money side of things. So we complement each other really nicely. We’re both trying to get to that goal of financial independence, but I think she’s doing it for different reasons. She just wants to reduce her impact on the globe, and also try not to create too, too much waste. But yeah, even having the kid: I know some people can spend thousands and thousands of dollars on their child and we are barely touching that. All the clothes that she has in her wardrobe right now were either gifted to us or bought used: her crib, her toys, everything we found on Facebook marketplace or were donated to us. So I think for everything that you do, there is a cheaper alternative. And it’s funny because I was listening to the ChooseFI podcast on the way here, and one of the hosts makes this joke: “when you get to financial independence, I want to ask you, how did you get there?” And it’s silly to say that you packed your lunch every single day for several years, but that’s going to be the case. I’m not doing anything out of the ordinary. I’m not speculating on stocks. I’m not looking for gold. I’m not doing anything that the average person can’t do. I’m just doing them. I’m taking the action and I’m doing on a consistent basis. But it still blows me away at how I preach this at the office, but people will still go and buy that $12 footlong at Subway.

Money Mechanic
Every. Day.

Norbert
Every. Single. Day.

Money Mechanic
Yeah, yeah. For sure.

Norbert
Yeah, even alcohol. I don’t want to offend the Money Mechanic here—because I know he likes to enjoy his beer—but even I found that when my wife was pregnant, she couldn’t drink, so we decided to go to the de-alcoholized beer, and it’s funny: ever since she had the baby, I just never stopped. It’s $7 for a case of 12 for the President’s Choice, and I only want that one at the end of the day. So for me, makes me less sluggish, and makes me less slow. The taste is better than water. And for me, the cost savings is ridiculous. So even that small change: I still get the beer or the taste or the satisfaction that I want, but at the same time, I do it for a fraction of the cost. So I think people just need to look at their budgets and see where they’re spending money and realize that there’s a lot of potential there to have savings, or there’s a lot of leaks in your wallet that you can plug, if you just look at how to spend your money in a different way.

Chrissy Kay
Yeah, that’s something I try to stress that FIRE is not about deprivation, it’s about seeing what you value and finding smarter ways to get those things that you value, and not wasting money on things just to impress other people, but really look at what makes you happy and find better ways to do it.

Norbert
It’s funny that you say that because I think that idea of deprivation or sacrifice for me is just ridiculous. When people say that, I just laugh just because if you look at my Instagram, I live a very adventurous life. And I just direct my funds to the things that I care about. So for me, I’m very, very big into traveling, and I’ve been very fortunate to travel with the military. But I’ve also done a lot of backpacking on my own. And people say how can you afford it? But it’s because I’m not buying those other things. I’m not buying the brand new car. I’m not buying the brand name clothes. I’m not buying the supersize house and going out for lunches. So it’s about being intentional with your money. I’m not making any more money than the average person, or I’m not making any more money than the people that work beside me. It’s just that choice on how you spend those dollars that are coming your way.

Chrissy Kay
You remind me of Ryan. He’s says that all the time, right?

Money Mechanic
For sure.

Norbert
I think it’s really big. Just because when I talk to people at work especially, people are always surprised because I am very open. And last year, I set a goal for myself to save 50% of my paycheck and I reached that goal. And I posted it right there on my Facebook page saying that I saved $25,000 last year, and people could not believe it. Like, how did you manage to save $25,000? And I just broke it down for them. But they still couldn’t believe me. Even though I showed them my budget. I showed them my expense tracker. But they still couldn’t wrap their minds around it.

Money Mechanic
Yeah, the question that we would ask like is: “how did you manage to spend $25,000? What do you have to show for that that you spent it on?”

Norbert
I couldn’t imagine. Even if I wanted to push myself to spend every single paycheck, paycheck for paycheck, I don’t even know what I would buy. I don’t even know how I could supersize my life like that. But I guess it could just come down to one thing. If I just bought a really, really nice car. It could be game over for me.

Money Mechanic
Yeah, coming back to the book that you wrote, in part one of it you talk about the money traps, and cars and houses and things like that. You bring that up in the book there. So it’s, yeah, those of us that have managed to avoid the car payments, we’re the lucky ones. Too many caught up in that for sure. Wrapping up here, it’s been a great discussion. Thanks for being on the show we didn’t mention at all: you’ve got a YouTube channel that you got going on now as well: Finance Fridays. Tell us just quickly about that.

Norbert
Yeah, so thanks to the COVID-19 break, I was given a lot of time because we’re doing self isolation and working from home. So I’ve been pretty active on my Facebook page ever since I got back on social media this year of making one post per week. So I’ve been chopping up the book that I wrote into small blog posts, but thanks to COVID-19 because there was a little bit more space to breathe—and at the time, my daughter was still fairly young, and she was taking a lot of naps—I took the advantage of set up a little studio in my basement and start shooting some of these videos just because I found that some people just don’t enjoy reading.

Money Mechanic
Yeah.

Norbert
If I could hit them with a YouTube and get to where people are spending most of their time now, that people would listen. So I started posting a couple of videos and I was blown away at how much feedback I got from friends and family that were watching them. Even though you don’t see those likes climbing on your page, it doesn’t mean that no one’s watching. So it became very time consuming as you guys can probably imagine with your podcast, it was taking me roughly eight hours to put together a 15 minute video with the planning, the editing, the shooting. But after I stopped to focus more on my child during my parental leave, I got flooded with a bunch of text messages saying: “Hey, when are you gonna start up again? Hey, when are you gonna start up again?”

Money Mechanic
Oh, yeah.

Norbert
But I don’t know if you guys listen to Paula Pant, but she has a little quote that she says in the beginning of her podcasts that: “you can afford anything, but not everything. And that goes for your money, time and energy.” And I love that idea of the YouTube channel, and I’d love to start a blog, and I’d love to spend more time fixing up this book and actually self publishing. But at this point in time, I’m spending the majority of my time with my daughter. So the working day eats up a lot of my life, and the chores around the house. And I will get back into the YouTube channel for anyone that wants to check it out—”Gnomadic Norbert“—I will get back on there because I feel like sharing this message is super, super important to me to try and get more people in line with this more optimized way of living. But unfortunately, right now, just because of the restriction in time, I want to focus all my attention on my daughter.

Chrissy Kay
Yeah, I fully get that. I have a hard time actually getting to my online content, whether it’s a blog or a podcast. In the summer, especially because my kids are off of school and they’re around a lot and I want to spend time with them. So it does make it really hard. But you know what, that’s my life. My life is number one, and it comes first before anything else. So sometimes I do have to set aside the blog or get to podcast tasks later. But our priorities are in the right place. Right?

Norbert
And just for everyone out there, don’t be disappointed if you start watching some of the videos and you want more. There is no shortage of good content out there. You simply just need to listen to Explore FI Canada, the FI Garage, check out YouTube. I am just blown away at how much free content is available through the internet.

Money Mechanic
There really is.

Norbert
Yeah, you can simply just stop watching cat videos. You can really educate yourself to a whole other level.

Chrissy Kay
Yes.

Money Mechanic
Okay, okay: so you brought up cat videos, but do yourself a favor and go and watch… Okay, his name is Mark Rober, R-O-B-E-R…

Chrissy Kay
I love him…

Money Mechanic
… I’ll put it in the show notes. Did you watch the one with the squirrel ninja obstacle course? That was less than 20 minutes of my whole week last week. The best 20 minutes.

Chrissy Kay
Yes. You’ll smile the whole time. It’s awesome!

Norbert
There goes the rest of my night.

Money Mechanic
Yeah, there you go. Well take a break from finance and just go entertain yourself with this because it’s really good. Really, really good.

Chrissy Kay
He’s the best. He’s just so detailed. And he’s friendly, and he’s easy to understand. And he’s a rocket scientist, isn’t he?

Money Mechanic
Yeah, he was a former NASA engineer. So this guy is like he’s trying to prevent squirrels from eating his bird seed. So I won’t ruin it, but it’s totally worth watching. That’s my… that’s my plug part. I already tweeted him earlier in the week. So… Okay, listen: so Finance Fridays on YouTube. One more question. Just nothing to do finance: gnomes play a big feature in your your videos and your name. It’s not nomadic. It’s got a silent “G” at the front of it: what’s with the gnomes, dude?

Norbert
Yeah, I think if anyone wants to check it out, check me out on my Instagram, same handle—”Gnomadic Norbert“—so it all comes back to… I like to travel. And I hate when people take selfies, it just drives me crazy. So what I started doing is instead of taking selfies to capture all these great memories, I just put a gnome in the picture, so I can have something kind of humorous to remember all these things. But I started actually stealing them, and someone recommended just bringing them back with all the photos. So the first time I did it, I left a little postcard there saying: “hey, reach out to me and tell me what you think.’ And when the person messaged me back, they said: “hey, listen: we’re about a week away from retiring and you completely changed our lives…”

Chrissy Kay
Awww!

Money Mechanic
Wow!

Norbert
“… We weren’t sure what we were going to do, but now we’re going to continue traveling and continue adding to this photo album that you gave us.” And right there. It just solidified this idea. Like, people think I’m silly. My wife absolutely hates me for it. At the same time, I can’t stop now. So every single year, I steal a new gnome. I take pictures of it everywhere we go. And at the end of the year, I give it back with all of the photos. And I’m hoping that I can inspire people to travel. Just like with Finance Fridays, I can hopefully inspire people to change their financial destiny.

Chrissy Kay
Love it!

Norbert
So it’s all about just helping people see a different perspective on life. And for me, I think it’s absolutely ridiculous and love it. There’s four gnomes on my front doorstep right now. So if anyone wants to come to my house and steal it, I’m more, more than happy if you do.

Money Mechanic
Nice. That’s fantastic. Well, it’s awesome. This community is fantastic. It’s always nice to connect with like minded people. And yeah, I think we’re all here just to try and share, and learn, and promote the journey to financial independence and financial well being.

Chrissy Kay
Norbert, can you tell us how can our listeners get in touch with you if they want to know more or if they want to connect with you on one of your videos or anything. Give us all your social media.

Norbert
I think the best way to reach out to me is going to be through my Instagram or my YouTube. It’s “Gnomadic Norbert” and like Money Mechanic said there’s a silent “G” in the front. But by all means hit me up. If you aren’t already currently on the ChooseFI Canada Facebook page, I definitely recommend you guys sign up for that. I’m pretty active on that as well. I feel like it’s a great community. It’s a great tribe. And I try and get on there every single day to read what people are posting. But by all means if you guys want to reach out to me through the ChooseFI Canada Facebook page as well. I’m more than happy to talk finance. I’m more than happy to talk travel, and it’d be awesome to connect with like minded people.

Money Mechanic
Right on. Well, we’ll have to do another episode down the road here because we didn’t even get to talk investing today. What the heck? We didn’t talk investing in real estate and I really wanted to get into it but, you know, we’re digging deep into the show here. So we’re gonna save those for round two. It’s been a pleasure having you on the show and getting to know you a little bit better, Norbert, thanks again. Thanks again.

Norbert
Yeah, thanks, guys really appreciate it. And for everyone out there, life is an adventure live yours.

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