Today on the Financial Independence Podcast, Doug Nordman (a.k.a. Nords) from The Military Guide joins me to talk about how he achieved financial independence at the age of 41 by serving in the military!
Doug retired way back in 2002 so we dive into how he dealt with the market crashes that occurred at various stages on his path to financial independence, what 14 years of retirement has been like, and how he’s found meaning outside of work.
I know many of you enjoyed Doug’s wisdom and insights during the Camp Mustache panel discussion so check out today’s episode for his full story!
- Thoughts on over 14 years of early retirement
- Details of his investing strategy and how it’s changed over the years
- Mistakes he made and lessons learned
- How to deal with market crashes when you’re still working, about to retire, and already retired
- What it’s like to live and work on a submarine
- Difference between pursuing FI as a military service member vs. a civilian
- What angel investing can teach you about investing and why it may be the best way to give away your money
- The Military Guide on Facebook and Twitter
- Doug’s book – The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement
- Mad Fientist’s Credit-Card Search Tool
- Leave a review for the Financial Independence Podcast on iTunes
Before I introduce my guest today, I want to thank everyone for all the feedback that I have gotten on the travel card tool that I created. And if you are not aware of the tool that I built, it is a credit card search tool for travel hackers. I just realized that there was no good way to find the best sign up bonuses for travel credit cards because that whole world is just completely complicated with lots of different flexible points that transfer to programs at different ratios. It is a nightmare to keep up with it.
So I have decided to use my programming skills to create a web application to do it. So you can just click the airline and hotel programs that are most valuable to you, and then it will show you the sign up bonuses that are most lucrative.
So if you haven’t checked it out yet, definitely go to http://cards.madfientist.com. Now that I have stopped working, I plan to build out some more travel hacking tools and improve the travel credit card tools. So I’d love to get any feedback that you have, so just send me an email at [email protected] if you have any. And thanks everyone that has already shared their feedback because it has been very helpful and I have already implemented some of your suggestions.
So, on today’s show, I am excited to bring back Doug Nordman, a.k.a. Nords from The-Millitary-Guide.com. You recall Doug took part in the panel discussion Camp Mustache that I recently released and I wanted to get him back on the show to talk about his story more in depth and to find out how it has been being retired for the last 14 years.
Doug retired when he was 41 and he has been retired ever since. I just wanted to get his feedback on what it has been like and what he has been up to and also to dive into the story a little bit behind on how he was able to do it when he was serving in the military. So his entire career, I believe, was spent in the military. So I am excited to get him on the show.
So, without further delay, hey Doug. Thanks a lot for being here. I really appreciate it.
Doug Nordman: Oh, it is great to be here. I really enjoyed the panel podcast that we did at Camp Mustache a few months ago.
Mad Fientist: That was fantastic. It hasn’t actually been released yet, so I am hoping to get that out next week, which I am so excited about. Actually this morning, I was just editing the audio somewhere and it is just fantastic.
So, I appreciate you taking part in that and joining me on a one-on-one which is going to be great as well.
So yeah, for people in my audience who may not know about your story, could you just give us a little background?
Doug Nordman: Yeah, I was in the US Navy Submarine Force for 20 years and I retired from there in 2002 at the age of 41. My wife is also in the navy and the Navy Reserve. And these days, our daughter is also in the navy.
When I retired back in 2002, my wife and I were financially independent. And we decided not to seek a career and not to go right back to work like so many military do.
So we have enjoyed the last 14 years. We lived in Hawaii. I love surfing. I don’t know if you noticed how much surfing pops up on my site or in the book.
Mad Fientist: Yes.
Doug Nordman: Yeah, it’s coming through. But we have found a lot of information that’s been very helpful in the military. And I have been very busy over the last five years with the book and the blog, letting everybody know that they too can achieve financial independence in the military if they stick around retirement or even if they only do one service obligation in the military. It is still putting you on the path to financial independence.
Mad Fientist: Right. So there are lots of questions popping up there. But first and most important thing, you are also a Pittsburgh boy, right?
Doug Nordman: I did. I grew up in tiny, little Marysville, Pennsylvania and graduated from tiny little Franklin Regional High School in ’78.
Mad Fientist: Nice. That’s awesome, yeah. Wow!
Doug Nordman: That’s why I joined the navy.
Mad Fientist: That’s right. And you also spent some time in Scotland. So we have a very similar path. They’re very different journeys, I would say.
Doug Nordman: I would hope so.
Mad Fientist: Yeah. So let’s go back a bit and start talking about the decision to join the navy. Obviously, there are a lot of benefits to being in the military, which we will touch on. But was that your driving force or was it something else?
Doug Nordman: There were two driving forces. The first one was the horrific winter weather that we had in Pittsburgh in my senior year high school. We had a huge pile of snow at the end of the driveway. I still have a picture of that today that I refer to and call “White Doug Joined the Navy.”
The other thing was the older brother and the best friend. And I am saying this to a serious military audience and to all you impressionable young teenagers and high students and college students out there that it looked really, really good when I was watching my friends and my older brother home on leave. He had a great lifestyle. I was very impressed with everything he was doing at the US Naval Academy and I thought I’d like to do some of that too. So I did.
And after I got the Naval Academy, I have a reputation of being rather persistent, stubborn, perhaps obstinate beyond the point where it serves any useful purpose. I managed to do quite a bit of that in Naval Academy. I graduated and was commissioned into the US Navy and the Submarine Force.
Over the years, I have never expected that I would go 20 years. I always thought that I was going to serve just one more obligation in two or three years and then figure out what I really wanted to do when I grew up. And after 20 years of that, I ended up retiring from the US Navy. And it was a big surprise to me—even today that I managed to get through that 20 years.
So when you see somebody in the navy who looks like they are having a lot of fun, dig a little deeper and learn a little bit more about the lifestyle, not just what they do when they are on liberty and on leave.
Mad Fientist: So you mentioned 20 years. So is that the time that you become vested in your pension when you are in the military? Is that why you are saying that number?
Doug Nordman: Right, right. That’s the military’s minimum time that you need to stay on an active duty or in the reserves or the National Guard to reach the eligibility to retire and get pension.
And by doing 20 years of service, I started my pension in 2002 at age 41. And so I have an inflation adjusted pension coming in as reliable income every year. It has been over 14 years now.
And most people use that as the springboard to figure out what they really want to do with their lives after the military. They can stay on the military. They can continue to serve until they reach their final rank and the number of years that they are allowed to serve or they can go out and start a civilian bridge career or they can start an entrepreneurial career and do whatever they want to do or like me, when we reached financial independence, we decided that we could always go find a career or a job if we wanted to. But I really didn’t have anything that interested me here and I wanted to spend more time with family.
Mad Fientist: Great! So the pension didn’t cover all of your spending when you turned 41. You had also done a lot of saving and investing prior to that, correct?
Doug Nordman: Right! We had saved and invested every year of that 20 years. And as we got more senior in our ranks after the first couple of years when we got a promotion and kept on getting promoted from there, we began to save as much as we could. My wife and I were both on active duty, so we always try to save at least 40% of our income.
And you have probably seen the math before. It turns out that if you can save 40% of your gross income, after about 20 years, you will be financially independent.
So, the way the math worked for us was that we have had a enough in our savings and investments by the time I retired at 20 years to use the 4% safe withdrawal rate. And we started doing that when I retired.
We also managed to have the pension as a back stop. We reached financial independence a couple of years before we retired from the military and we didn’t expect that I would retire from the military. So that was an absolutely nice bonus to have on top of our savings and investments.
Mad Fientist: Right, okay. So when you turned 41, you did start taking 4% out every year because I get a lot of questions of people asking me. I write about it a lot, a lot of other financial bloggers about the 4% rule a lot. But very few actually take out 4% every year because they have some other income coming in or something. Some circumstances cause them to not actually do that. But you actually did that as soon as you stopped working. If so, how did that feel?
Doug Nordman: Oh, it feels a little terrifying because the first thing we did in 2002, we retired at the peak of the tech wreck. The NASDAQ reached its bottom a couple of months after I retired and then things started to recover.
After five years, we got into 2007, I thought things were looking pretty shiny and rosy. And then all of a sudden, the economy locked up again and gave us the biggest recession that our generation has ever seen.
So, we have been through 14 years of financial independence including two world class recessions. I hope those are the only two I would encounter, but I suspect I am going to see a couple of more. And the 4% rule still work.
I have the pension coming in to cover basic expenses, but we also track our spreadsheet, our net worth and we track how our finances would be doing if I did not have the pension and if I was only surviving on the 4% safe withdrawal rate.
And as you know, the math says that when you retire, there is 80% probability of success that nine of times out of 10, you’d end up with more money than you need. That has been exactly our experience. We have a very high equity asset allocation.
But even though two recessions have gone by and even though we haven’t really added to the portfolio at all since we reached financial independence and retired, today we have not just enough, but more than enough that we need for the rest of our lives.
So, the 4% safe withdrawal rate has a lot of flaws in the computer simulation and the study. But lifestyle and human behavior and being able to change you’re spending over the years, that makes up for all the flaws that a 4% safe withdrawal rate studies.
Mad Fientist: Right, right. So have you found that—for instance, I can’t imagine my spending is going to be increasing with inflation every year. In fact, the past three years, I think every year I have gone down and spending. I imagine that’s going to be even more the case this year as I have stopped working. So how have you found your spending habits to have been over the past 14 years?
Doug Nordman: You’re absolutely right. I think that research is going to show in the next couple of years and actually put some numbers on how much retirement spending drops after you leave the work force.
And we all know that when you retire, you are not going to have to spend as much for office attire, for commuting expenses.
But I don’t think it adequately quantifies that you can find a lot of bargains in your life. You can go back and review all your bills and utility expenses and insurance expenses and you can take a really good hard look at what you are spending your money on in retirement because you have more time to analyze your spending. Once you do that, you find that your expenses probably drop a little bit over the first two or three years in retirement.
Now, everybody goes through the initial party phase where you are traveling with friends and you are spending more time with family and maybe taking a fantasy vacation or two. But in the long term—and there’s some research to indicate that this is actually happening for most society—your spending gradually declines in retirement.
One of the guys who’s done the best job at quantifying that is a retirement researcher named Wade Pfau. And he has found what he calls the retirement smile. Your spending drops over the next 10 to 20 years of retirement. And as you reach end of life, medical expenses mainly, it does go up a little bit.
But in general, financial advisers have known this for years that the majority of their clients, once they retire, they spend a little more than they expected at first, maybe the first year or two. And then in the long term, their spending actually goes down. Their personal inflation rate is below the consumer price index and they find other things to spend their money on and enjoy their life without having to worry about their retirement portfolio.
Mad Fientist: That’s fantastic. That’s definitely something I found even though I have only been out of work for a month.
My wife and I are going to be doing a trip around the world for the rest of the year, starting in September. And I have started booking it. And obviously, travel hacking helps with all the big expenses like flights. But even just booking these long term rentals where we are going to be—like this morning, I just booked some hotels in Mexico. It was $28 a night or something. And the food is going to be a lot cheaper than it is here in Scotland.
Everything about our life is going to be a lot cheaper and yet we are going to be doing something really fun and rewarding like slow traveling through Central and South America.
So yeah, it is exciting to think about all the ways that cost will be decreasing and it just shows that the 4% rule is even more robust because that takes into account that you are going to be increasing your spending every year when, in actuality, you probably won’t.
Doug Nordman: That’s right. And if a recession comes up, you may actually cut back on your spending. While you are on your world travels, your biggest problem may be deciding whether you are really ready to move on from the place you are staying or whether you want to extend it a little week or two more.
Mad Fientist: Right, exactly. Now talking about recessions and things, obviously, in your investing career, you have survived Black Monday, the dot-com bubble bursting, financial crisis in 2008.
And each of those is probably quite different because one of them, you are working and earning a lot and saving 40%, the other one, you are about to retire or just having retired. And then the most recent crisis, you were retired and you have been retired for many years.
So, could you talk a little bit about how it was surviving those periods and how different they were to you?
Doug Nordman: Absolutely! I started investing in college and that was right around the time when Business Week came out with their cover story on the death of equities. We were all, at that point in our lives, expecting to invest in gold bullion and raw diamonds. And the stock market bottomed out a few years after that period.
When we got to Black Monday, the big crash in 1987, I was not very sophisticated in my investment techniques, but I was aware enough to know that this was on sale.
Warren Buffett talks about when the price of hamburger goes down, the Buffett household cheers and there’s a lot of cheering in our house. We scrambled around and pull out all the spare change out of the sofa cushions and sent it out to our investments. And we were handsomely rewarded for doing that. Although, I will tell you, we were blissfully ignorant of what could have happened.
When we got into the recession of 2002, the tech wreck, we knew that we had enough to do the 4% safe withdrawal rate. I don’t know how many of your listeners remember this, but the stock market was actually closed for a number of days after 11th of September in 2001. And when the stock market reopened, it dropped 1700 points during one day.
And at the end of the day, I took what was left in our portfolio and ran it through all the financial independence calculators that were available back in 2001. And they all said, “There is enough. It is not a big safety margin, but it meets the 4% rule. You have enough.”
So, when we retired in June of 2002, even though the market had not yet bottomed for a few more months, we knew that we are probably going to be okay. And I had just retired, so plan B would always be to go out and get some part time employment or even start a bridge career.
Mad Fientist: I think that is a great point to emphasize as well. A lot of people email me and they are really concerned about the 4% rule and all these things. And these are people that are in their 30s or 40s.
And my thinking is always if you have put yourself into a position where this is even a possibility at your age, then you are obviously a hardworking person who is more than likely able to generate some income if they need to. So that is always an option rather than working for an extra decade to have way more money than you are ever going to be able to use in your life and give away a decade of your life doing something you don’t like.
Doug Nordman: I agree. And there is no traditional three-phase plan of your life anymore coming up for the millennial generation. I think it is encouraging to see across all the generations where instead of going and getting an education and then spending 20 years or 30 years working and then the rest of your life playing, I think we are going to bounce back and forth among those various phases.
I do want to point out though that when the recession of 2008 came along, even though we had all this investing experience, even though we knew all the numbers and had done all the cold-hearted and logical analysis of our finances, it still hurts. When you watch the stock market melting down like an ice cube on a hot sidewalk, even though you know you have enough money to pay your bills and you have plenty of money to live for the rest of your life, it still hurts to watch that melt away.
And the best thing emotionally is to just stop looking at your bank statements for a while because you know you have an asset allocation plan and you know it’s going to work and you know it just needs time to recover. There is no reason to check it every 10 minutes and just upset yourself.
Mad Fientist: Right. That’s a great advice. I’d like to step back a little bit and just talk about what it was like. You just graduated from the Naval Academy and you said that you pretty much came right out of the gate saving a pretty big percentage of your paycheck. Can you talk about what motivated that and how you made that decision?
Doug Nordman: I am probably hardwired to be fairly frugal. I am the kind of person who always tries to save money. So it helps if, in your genome, you’re able to start doing that.
And when I was a younger kid, I can remember that there were times when I wanted money and I didn’t have money and I had to go work for it. So I got into savings mindset even early in high school.
When I graduated and started my career, saving was actually a lot easier than it sounds because I was working so hard. You spend a lot of time young, maybe learning your trade and going to sea duty and when you are at sea, you don’t really have to spend so much money. All your needs are provided and you are working too hard to really have much time to spend a lot of money in the first place.
So the combination of learning my job and all the time we spend at sea and the fact that I would find other ways to entertain myself worked in my favor.
And there is a big challenge for people that are just starting their career in the military that when you come back to shore from sea or when the deployment happens or when you are done with your mission, you feel like you are entitled to spend a little money on yourself and do something nice for yourself. And maybe you need a big high lift, four-wheel drive pickup truck as well to go with that.
And so the trick is to make sure that you understand that you should be saving your money for retirement and put that in autopilot as much as you can. And also not to make yourself feel entitled after every arduous task that you finish.
The trick is to continue to be frugal even though when you are working in your military job, you quite frequently encounter deprivation. The key is that where the line is between deprivation and frugality and you just have to make sure that you stay challenged and fulfilled and enjoying the savings that you are saving for without feeling like you are deprived.
Mad Fientist: Right. And during your naval career, you spend lots of time under water in submarines. Is that correct?
Doug Nordman: That’s right. We used to go out on submarine patrols for up to 90 days at a time. So we’d be underwater for literally 90 days, unless the guy that was coming out to take over for you was a little late. We had one that went up to 97 days. That’s a personal record and that’s probably a club that nobody wants to be a member of.
Mad Fientist: So this is completely off topic, but I don’t think I have ever talked to someone who spent that long under water. Is it really stressful? I imagine it would be like being in space where you are just constantly thinking one little structural fall could end the game for everyone at any moment. Does that stress you out at first? Or is that something you just forget about and you just get on with your work?
Doug Nordman: You spend a lot of time getting screened into the submarine force, so at first, you have psychological interviews and you have little test drives under way where you get to feel whether or not you really enjoy the feeling of being under water for a couple of days at a time.
And then as you get more experienced, you learn more and more about your capabilities and your submarine equipment and all the safety features and all backups. And so by the time that you go out there and you are getting ready for your 90 days, you are pretty confident you are going to pull it off and you are actually looking forward to the challenge.
I’d say the biggest part is Groundhog Day. Around day 45, you realize you have been out there for over six weeks and life is going to be like that for at least six weeks and hopefully it is the right kind of interesting without getting too exciting, but not getting too boring. And you just have to find ways to grind through and get it out. In my case, that involved a lot of studying, a lot of qualification, a lot of reading, a lot of interviews and exams to get me to the next step in my career.
So I found that I had plenty to keep me busy as I was qualifying and learning my job.
Mad Fientist: That’s great. I am sure it is great for frugality when you get back. It’s either great or it is opposite when you feel like you have to treat yourself. But it is probably great for already frugal person to then come back and then just normal everyday things that we take for granted are just amazing after being underwater for 90 days and then you can just enjoy those rather than inflating your lifestyle like everyone else.
Doug Nordman: I tell people that you already know what it means self-deprivation when you are in the military. You keenly know what deprivation feels like. It’s the stoic philosophy taken to an extreme.
And so when you get back in port or when you get back from the deployment or your mission is over and you are back in the ground, whatever your service specialty, it may be just quite enough for you to go out sit in the beach and have a good time without spending a bunch of money on the material objects or spending a lot of money on entertainment.
And that turned out to be the way that I would recover from submarine patrols. I just want to go hang out and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine without spending crazy amounts of money.
Mad Fientist: Right. So you mentioned military and that is a great way to experience deprivation. What are the other differences between military and civilian life in the world of pursuing financial independence? I know you have written an amazing book called The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement. And you have focused on military readers and you focused on helping them achieve financial independence. So could you just talk a little bit about the differences between military and civilian pursuit of FI?
Doug Nordman: It is about the same for the mathematics. You look at the math or what you have to save or how long you have to save it and how you want to invest it and where you have your financial independence. And the math calculator doesn’t care whether your money comes from the military or whether your money comes from being a cubicle slave in a megacorp in some Midwestern state.
The skills though that you develop in the military have quite a bit to do with how you reach financial independence. And it teaches you right off the bat how to stay motivated and how to pursue a long term goal even though you can’t necessarily see the finish line when you start that goal. You still know that you are going to reach the end of that process and move on to even greater success.
And I think that military service members and their families too develop quite an attitude of resilience and persistence, maybe stubbornness. But in either case, you know that there is going to be something better if you keep working on whatever is happening right now. And you know if you can get through that deployment or get through that separation. Even as a military spouse, you learn skills when you have to take care of the family in the home front while your active duty service member is gone for months at a time.
And I tell all my readers that those skills that you learn in the military, let alone the education you get, the training that you get, carries over to civilian life when bad things happen in civilian life or when an emergency occurs or a crisis pops up, you have seen it, you have been there, you have done that. It is no fun to do it again, but you know how to handle it, you know how to respond appropriately without getting too upset or without locking up.
You also have learned to take a long term perspective on how things are as a civilian compared to what they were when you are in the military. We used to joke in the Submarine Force that the average amount of birthing space for a submariner was less than what the federal convicted prisoners had in their jail cells.
Mad Fientist: Right.
Doug Nordman: And so knew what it was like underway and we knew how little we needed to enjoy life. And when we got back on shore, we knew we didn’t need to have a 4000 square foot house and a great big car to enjoy life. We knew we could do it on a lot less than that although I got to admit, we do have a very big shower in our house.
So that’s what the military background gives you when you cross over in a civilian world. You learned a lot of skills. You learned a lot of character traits that will serve you well in the future. And if you are the person who wants to reach financial independence early if you are willing to try to save, it can take 10 to 20 years, maybe even longer to save up enough money for financial independence.
But again, you have the motivation, you have the tenacity, you have the resilience and the persistence that you learned in the military to be able to do that and to succeed when reaching the goal of financial independence.
Mad Fientist: So yeah, that brings up a good point. It seems like it would be a very good path to financial independence because as you said, 20 years and you get this pension, which, correct me if I am wrong, I believe I read on one of your posts saying that it is roughly about a third of what your salary was before you retired.
So 20 year service, you could have a third of your salary, which I believe when you quit, you are earning six figures. So you got over $30,000 a year pension, which many people could live happily on.
So why aren’t there many more early retired military people? And I know this was maybe one of the questions I think you said that caused you to start the Military Guide. So I was wondering if you have learned an answer to that question over the time that you’ve had the book and the blog.
Doug Nordman: Absolutely. And we have had quite a bit of time to think about it, the time that I didn’t have to think while I was uniformed. So I didn’t spend much time thinking about it until after I was retired, looking back on it.
And part of that grew out of some internet forums where veterans and other military retirees set around and talked about why there aren’t more financially independent military retirees. And gee, why doesn’t everybody want to join the military?
And the answer to the second question is that not everybody should join the military, it is a career that some people join because they want to challenge themselves and be a part of something that’s bigger than themselves, they want to serve their country. It sounds goofy. It sounds probably a little bit silly, but patriotism is a very strong force for joining the military.
And some people see the military as their escape. I joked about escaping from Pittsburgh winters. But the reality is that many people who join the military see that as the only way out of a bad situation in their neighborhood or their family or their careers and they are looking for a way to learn the skills or the characteristics to prove themselves.
So joining military looks like a good deal if you are the kind of person who survives that environment of adversity and even failure from time to time. And there is a very harsh survivor bias in the military. We all read about the headlines in the newspaper even though we are hypothetically not at war in some of the countries that people are serving and service where there are people getting killed every day.
So I tell people don’t join the military because it looks like an easy way to get a lot of money and have a nice life and retire.
The statistics show that only about 17% of the people who joined the military actually served long enough to earn a pension. Only one, out of six service members, sticks around even in the reserves or National Guard to reach 20 years of service and to qualify for pension.
Mad Fientist: Wow.
Doug Nordman: So when you join the military, you can sit in that classroom or in that auditorium and look around and you might be the person that sticks around for retirement, but the odds are that you are probably not going to stick around for 20 years. And as you look around three or four people around, you are also going to get out of the service.
Now the numbers are different for each one service. And I get in details in that a little bit in my site. If you are in an occupation like the Marine Corps Infantry or Army Infantry, you are probably going to leave the military at a much higher rate than to have a much lower retention to retirement than you do if you are an Air Force officer flying a multi-engine jet.
But the fact remains that five out of six people who joined the military leave before 20 years. They take their experience, their skills, their training, their perseverance and they take that into a civilian career where again, they can continue to save for financial independence if they are not already close from the military.
So the idea of joining the military should be done for person reasons, not for financial ones. And once you are in the military, I tell service members to do one obligation at a time.
If you join the military on day one and try to predict that you are going to stay for 20 years, that is just a tremendous burden to lay upon yourself mentally and physically. And what happens is that you will enjoy the military. Initially you will feel challenged and fulfilled. You will find things that you never thought you can do. You will work with amazing people and you will do incredible things, you will have sea stories to bore your grandchildren with for the rest of their lives.
But when you do these things, at some point, your priorities may change. It happened with me at about the 10 year point when we started a family. And I have learned in retirement since then reading, talking with people that that is very common.
When you retire at 20 years and look back, everybody says, “Wow, that’s great. You did a wonderful job. Maybe you have some physical dings and scrapes over the years. Maybe there are a few shipmates who didn’t make it to retirement with you because they died in combat or in training.”
But when you are in the service and you get to that 10 year point and your priorities change, you suddenly realize that there’s a very long time to go until the time ends and the fun has stopped.
So I tell people when the fun stops, it is time to think about leaving active duty for the reserves or National Guard. And when the fun has stopped, it’s best to do that instead of getting it out to try to get to 20 years.
If you do try to force yourself to stay for that extra five or 10 or 15 years that will take you to get to retirement, it affects your emotional health, it affects your physical health, it affects your mental health and your family is going to be tired of dealing with you because you are going to be starting the day grumpy and coming home even grumpier. So it is a bad deal to force yourself to try to stay for 20 because it is such a great deal.
Mad Fientist: That’s great.
Doug Nordman: No, I am not trying to talk everybody out of it. So I would say that when I retired, I had a pension of about a little less than a third of the money, the total compensation that I have been bringing home on active duty. And I had hit the peak of my career when I retired. So I was earning the most money on every sea.
But I started a pension of $28,000 a year and that pension is adjusted upward every year by the CPI, the consumer price index, the cost of living adjustment. So it is an inflation fighting pension.
Even more importantly, I have access to cheap healthcare. The current price for the TRICARE Prime Health Maintenance Organization that I am a member of is about $70 a month and costs are capped every year. It is an annual cap, the catastrophic cap for $3000. So I know that I will never be spending more than $3000 a year for healthcare.
Mad Fientist: Wow.
Doug Nordman: Those two are very powerful ways to continue to save and to stay financially independent. And I tell people that even if you don’t save until 20 years, if you save that 40% of your gross income, when you finish in the military, you will be well on your way to finding financial independence.
And if you work at any job for about 20 years and continue to save at that rate to reach financial independence, if you want an inflation fighting annuity, they are out there, you can buy one. You probably don’t need to have inflation fighting annuity if you got financial independence portfolio of investments and if you are following a 4% withdrawal rate.
And you know what the Affordable Care Act is known for in health insurance over the years and how it was made much more affordable to have a high deductible policy and to be able to leave the employer’s insurance.
Mad Fientist: Absolutely. So let’s dive a little bit into investments actually. So you have been investing since the early ’80s right out the gate. So how was your investing strategy changed?
And I know once we talk a little bit about, we will dive into some of the mistakes because you gave a great talk about some of them at Camp Mustache and I got to enjoy some of those stories. I’d like to hopefully share those with the audience as well. But yeah, just maybe talk a little bit first about how you started investing right out in the Naval Academy and how that has changed over the years.
Doug Nordman: When we started investing in the ’80s, you invested by writing a check and putting it in an envelope and sending it to a corporation like Fidelity or Schwab or a higher expense outfit. Maybe you were one of those weirdos who use this upstart called Vanguard.
And then through the ’80s, I just continued to try to save a little bit more. Every time I got a pay raise, every time I got a promotion and earned a little bit more money or if I got a bonus for what I did as a nuclear trained submariner, I tried to save as much as I could.
So, our savings didn’t start at 40% right out of the gate, but it ramped up to that after two or three years. And we try to keep it at least 40% for the rest of the time that I was on active duty.
It was easy back then as a military guy with a long obligation to know that I was probably going to be deployed for a while. And so I invested in a very high equity asset allocation. And we kept that up.
In fact, I have been reading JL Collins’ book, The Simple Path to Wealth where he talks about maintaining a high equity portfolio of more than 75% equities and we have been over 90% for most of our time in the military. And we continued that in retirement.
And so by investing in a high equity asset allocation, that’s given us a greater return. It’s […] inflation. It has given us some good growth rate. It’s incredibly volatile and it is no fun to go through recession with a high equity portfolio, but on the other hand, if you are not selling shares, then you just don’t have to look at prices during the recession.
And by taking those risks, by living volatility, by knowing enough about investing and understanding the math and getting comfortable with it, you get a much greater return.
So I started out in a high equity portfolio because I really didn’t know any better in the ’80s and that was the thing to invest in after 1982 because the stock market had started to take off again and we all jumped onboard.
There is a feeling that the bull market of the ’80s and ’90s that led to the tech wreck will never be repeated ever in our lives. I can understand that perspective, especially if you are a millennial just starting your investment time today.
But the rally is that history goes through cycles like that every 25 years or so and while there may not be another bull market exactly like the one that started in 1982, there will be other bull markets and they will be spectacular. And so if you get comfortable with volatility and can invest in a high equity portfolio, then you will do better in the long run.
So that was a good thing about investing back then when we got started. And frankly, we automated as much of it as we could, even to the extent we knew we had to write checks. I’d write checks in advance before I deployed and put it letters and give them to a friend to send to Fidelity, so that when I had a paycheck coming to my account, my friend would send that letter in the mail to Fidelity and make more investments for us while we’re away.
And by automating it, you didn’t have to look at it and you didn’t have to suffer decision fatigue every two weeks. You didn’t even have to worry about whether or not you are going to invest in that particular fund or this particular fund. You didn’t have to worry about whether or not you had too much in the stock market or whether you should save more in a cash account for some other project or for vacation or for next month when you get out of navy.
So automating really, really removed all the decisions that we didn’t really need to face every time. By automating those investments, we are able to build a portfolio over the time and it worked out for a very long term.
I think I talked at Camp Mustache about how humans suck at estimating the growth curve of an exponential investment and we just can’t understand how it is going to pay off after 10 or 15 years, especially when you are only two or three years into it. The automation and eliminating all these decisions really helped a lot.
Mad Fientist: Excellent. And any mistakes you made along the way that are worth sharing just to show that it’s not always a completely smooth path with lots of great decisions right from the beginning?
Doug Nordman: Absolutely. Luckily I got a lot of material to work with because we made every mistake in the book. Back in the ’80s, you would invest in a mutual fund that would have an expense ratio as high as 2% or 3% and some of it had front load fees of as high as five and three quarter percent.
Mad Fientist: Wow.
Doug Nordman: Yeah. We invested in what we thought were the cheap mutual funds, the low expenses where you only paid 2% sales charge and where your expense ratio was somewhere between 0.7% to 1%.
In fact, I retired in 2002 just as the military version of the Trip Savings Plan was growing or getting under way. My spouse was in the navy reserve for a number of years after that, another six years after that. And it was just amazing trying to comprehend how your savings plan has an expense ratio of 0.03%, it is less than Vanguard even. And that has been one of the biggest tools for the military I think in the last 25 years for accelerating to financial independence.
We also made a lot of classic mistakes that today we all know are tempting behavioral financial psychology, but are still mistakes. We had actively managed mutual funds. We chased performance. We attracted all the hot managers and chased money in their funds and just generally followed whatever looked like the coolest shiny object in our path and thought we’d make financial independence that way.
Today, we moved to a largely new exchange traded funds. I am a holder of Berkshire Hathaway Shares for a portion of her portfolio because I have come to appreciate Warren Buffett’s perspective and the culture he has created, Berkshire Hathaway.
But if I was starting all over again, I’d be working with the cheapest index funds that possibly manage high equity funds from Fidelity and Vanguard. And I am doing that by proxy because that’s our daughter estate. She has been commissioned now for two years. She’s had her ROTC at scholarship for college and now she is serving the navy for two years and she’s followed that same road through her savings plan and with saving as much as she can and taxable accounts as well as through her savings plan.
Mad Fientist: Excellent, yes. So that’s a lesson I hear from many, many people that I have on the show. It’s that savings trumps everything. So you can make a lot of mistakes as long as they aren’t catastrophic and as long as you are consistently saving month after month or week after week or whatever it happens to be, then you are going to turn out okay.
Doug Nordman: Exactly. And high savings rate overcame every mistake we ever made with our investing techniques.
Mad Fientist: That’s fantastic. Now, I want to move into what you started investing in recently. I really, really like the idea of angel investing. But you also call it angel philanthropy which is probably very accurate as well.
But that is very appealing to me because although my net worth hasn’t exploded into a number that I am now thinking about how to get rid of it efficiently, I am hoping one day that is the case. And I believe angel investing sounds like an amazing way to do it. So could you just talk about that just a bit more because I know you mentioned it during the panel discussion? But just maybe dive into it a little bit more.
Doug Nordman: There are two important points to remember here. One of them is if you want to get rid of a lot of money very efficiently, angel investing is here for you. It will strip the assets out of your account in an unreliably rapid manner because every angel investment that you assess, everything that you analyze and look at looks pretty attractive.
And at some point, when you start learning how to do angel investing and you start seeing the pitches, you feel like a four year old in a candy store. You just want to run up and down the aisles and grab a fistful and everything you see out there before this opportunity is gone forever.
I started angel investing at what turned out to be a very fortuitous time to learn. I started in 2007 and immediately you ran face first into the great recession and that was such savage for starting a tech startup as it was for anything else at the time.
And the reason I started angel investing back then was that a friend who was a retired Intel employee, also financially independent, who is a member of the Hawaii Angels. And I thought, “Well, I’ve got the opportunity here to learn about angel investing in a professional organization from a bunch of people who know what they are doing and have decades of experience.”
So now we are in the angel investing now. I am in my 40s and I am in the peak of my cognition or at least hypothetically. I will be able to learn about it so that when I am older in life and I am in my 70s or 80s and I hear about angel investing, I will understand it and I have done it and I won’t be tempted by it.
So to some extent, I started learning about angel investing just to make sure I understood what was going on there and would be immunized emotionally and I would understand that I didn’t have to do it.
I have done research in just about every aspect of investing over the last 14 years. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what kind of investor I am and trying all the different ways to invest to see if they suited my personality and my temperament.
And the irony is that if you take a logical approach to investing and if you analyze thoroughly and if you could pull the emotion out of it, your efforts will eventually be rewarded. The harder you work at investing, the better you get at it and the better you will do.
And one classic example of that is somebody like Warren Buffett. There are many other people who have succeeded figuring out how to invest in value stocks or in other types of assets and who have done well.
For example, many people do well with rental properties, with real estate. The only issue is that returns that you get from investing tend to be a result of your effort. The better your work, the more you work, the harder you work, the better your returns are.
At some point, you say, “Hey, this is a lot of work.” I would rather invest in a passive equity index funds than have very little expense ratios and get 99% of the stock market’s return for about 1% of the effort.
And the same ratio applies in angel investing. You work tremendously hard trying to figure out whether this is a good investment. Until you start writing checks, until you develop a relationship with the founders and the business and the industry, you really don’t understand what’s involved in angel investing and you don’t understand the emotions you are going to feel when bad things happen.
Everybody wants to invest in the next Google. Everybody understands the emotions they are going to feel when they get a 50:1 return on their investment. That’s fairly straightforward.
But sometimes you will come across angel investment that has just a wonderful idea. Maybe it will be a piece of medical technology that will save lives and reduce infant mortality and do amazing things for humans. And you know that this technology, if it had a chance, would be a great life-saving device and would save a lot of lives and do a lot of great things for America.
But for whatever reason, the founders, the industry, the technology, it just doesn’t work out and you find yourself having invested a little bit of money initially in it, investing more money to help company stay in the business and not run out before they get the next milestone completed. And then you find out that the growth is slower than they expected and the market isn’t quite as big as they thought and the technology has a few glitches in it.
All of these things, you understand when you learn about the investment opportunity when you first see that pitch. But it takes actual experience of going through the cycle of the investment before you really understand how that will affect you emotionally and frankly it bothers you analytically.
The most experienced guy I know at angel investing has done an extensive survey of investors and he says the number one regret that all angel investors is they wish they had done a little more due diligence and analysis because they checked.
So I took that to heart. Today, I wish I had done a little bit more due diligence and research before I started contracts.
Mad Fientist: Right.
Doug Nordman: Having said that, after eight years, I have made about a dozen investments. I have invested in nine different companies and I have made additional investments in some other companies.
I have also invested in an accelerator in Hawaii called Blue Startups. Blue Startups is one of the top 20 accelerators in the nation. Our strengths are that we are in the Pacific and that we are multicultural with the other startups around the Pacific Rim in the West Coast, not just in Hawaii. And we also focus on things that we are very good at in Hawaii like lifestyle or travel or medical tech.
And of course any online business is very easy to start Hawaii, especially in this time. So I have seen a broad spectrum of investments here and I have learned a lot about the kind of people that need to be founders and what it takes to be an angel investor.
And I have nine companies that I have funded. Three of them flamed almost immediately, which is very educational. You learn immediately feedback on whether or not you did a good job analyzing that company.
If your first investment was Google, you learned nothing because of the success. Clearly you are brilliant. I am not bright.
The other three, there are three more that have been working on it and doing okay and encountering obstacles. They have not yet gone out of business, but they haven’t succeeded yet. And they haven’t turned into zombies, but they haven’t sucked additional funds from the other investors yet, but it is not clear yet whether or not they are going to be able to turn the corner and clearly make profit and cash-out.
And those I think are the most educational because you find yourself going to an annual meeting or a quarterly conference and you say, “Here we are. Didn’t all these problems get solved last time we met? Is this not working yet?”
I got three more that are looking pretty good. And I suspect that I will get back all the money that I have put into angel investing over the years. Some of that was because Hawaii had a state tax credit program that, back in 2008, would give you 100% credit for investing in certain kinds of startups. If you invested $25,000 in a certain kind of startup back in 2008, the state of Hawaii would give you a $25,000 credit on your tax return.
Mad Fientist: Wow.
Doug Nordman: Yeah. It is going to be a couple of decades before I am going to have to start paying the state taxes in Hawaii again. But that deal went away in 2010 and I think it has made the startup industry stronger in Hawaii because now we don’t have a bunch of people chasing after tax credits, instead, people are actually looking at companies and analyzing and trying to figure out if they’ll be a profitable company instead of just whether they get a lot of tax credits for them.
There are three companies. It’s going to take another five years. I might get an email that says that one of them is going to have an exit within the next six months. I am skeptical, but they are on the right track. And the longer they continue to do what they have been doing, the more money they are going to earn when they cash out.
I think what I’m personally going to do is not make any new investments in any new companies. I might have one where there is a submarine veteran doing amazing things with civil engineering. I might invest in that.
Otherwise, I am going to let the whole angel investing draw down overtime. And when I say overtime, I mean that the investment I have made in Blue Startups, the accelerator here in Hawaii, that is a 10-year commitment. So I still got eight years to run on that and we’ll see how we have done in 10 years.
That’s the whole idea behind angel philanthropy. When I get an exit, then I will be able to talk to you about angel investing. So you have to invite me back, but don’t hold your breath.
Mad Fientist: And it is worth saying this is a small percentage of your total portfolio, this is your fund money almost.
Doug Nordman: You make a very good point there. Yes, everybody that tries to do something like this should limit it to somewhere between 5% and 15% in your portfolio. And in my case, it is 15%. And that way, you don’t do everything stupidly with your money chasing one asset.
So yes, please feel free to invest in things like angel investing or real estate or any other exotic investments that are outside of the regular traditional asset allocation. But limit it to 5% to 15% of your total asset allocation.
Mad Fientist: Excellent. And now let’s talk about something else that you have been getting into a lot since your early retirement, which is surfing.
Doug Nordman: Oh, there we go.
Mad Fientist: I know you are always excited to talk about that.
Doug Nordman: We should’ve led off with that.
Mad Fientist: Right. So that is something that you picked up after you left your job, right?
Doug Nordman: It is. And it was a joke. We had talked about retiring and people would say, “Why are you going to retire and not get a job? What are you going to do, surf all day?” So of course, that became a challenge.
And on the day I retired, literally when I retired on June, 2002, my wife and myself and our nine year old daughter went down to White Plains Beach in Oahu and took a surfing lesson from the lifeguard on the rental boards they have down there.
I was hooked. I was amazed. I had never done anything like that before and I was actually pretty glad that I had not learned how to surf while I was on active duty because I would have had a lot of difficult decisions about whether to show up for work.
Mad Fientist: Right.
Doug Nordman: But I have been very enthusiastic about surfing over the years and it has a lot of metaphors with life and the way you live your life and the challenges you face. And it’s always different.
I have always encountered different conditions I expected and different things that have to do in a surfboard. It has just become a metaphor for financial independence and for not working.
If you have something that you are interested in, it makes you feel happy, challenged, fulfilled. If you got some autonomy added, that is even better. But if you want to design a life like that, then why would you feel obligated to go to an office and earn a paycheck or start a business if you didn’t feel that same passion for your work?
And in Hawaii, it is especially the case. Many people come here and their attitude is “I surf and I have a job to pay the bills.” But I live to surf and I surf to live.
Mad Fientist: That’s amazing. Like I said, I have only stopped working in August 1st. So this is just the end of my first month.
Doug Nordman: Congratulations.
Mad Fientist: Thank you very much. It has been great. But one thing I noticed is that you can take advantage of things to the extreme.
For instance, people would think maybe it is expensive to live in Hawaii, but if you have this constant source of entertainment that is just amazing that’s right on your doorstep, then maybe that extra cost is actually not even an extra cost because all of the other entertainment expenses that you may have had before are now gone.
Something I have experienced just over the last month in a local gym. I was having a month discount on a gym membership for just a month. And since we were going to be here in another month, I was like, “Yeah, I am going to give that a shot.” And yeah, £28 for a month sounds expensive and I probably wouldn’t have done it before I had all this free time. But now I have all the time.
So I go every single day sometimes for two hours, sometimes I go for even more to rock climb and take advantage of all the things that are offered and it is like, “Wow, I am taking that £28 and just really maximizing and it’s making my whole day and whole month so much better.”
And it really sounds like maybe Hawaii is expensive. But when you have something like that on your doorstep that you can actually enjoy and enrich your life so much with, it may not be that more of a cost. Is that what you found?
Doug Nordman: Absolutely. I made a lot of friends out there in the surf line out and even on a day when the surf isn’t very good, you are still out there on the board, you are in the water and it is warm, you get the sun shining, you see diamond head up to the east, you are watching birds fly by. Maybe there will be a turtle sailing by on the water. You say to yourself, “Wow, I live in Hawaii and I am surfing. Isn’t this incredible or what?”
Mad Fientist: Right.
Doug Nordman: And I go out two or three times a week and I usually surf for a couple of hours. So it’s a very effective workout program if you build up the surfing muscle and the endurance that makes you that much better. And so you find that you are able to become a much more efficient surfer, not just strong.
Strength is not the key. The key is speed of reflexes and efficiency at your movement on the water. And so there’s an endlessly fascinating number of skills to keep working on that all work very well for your health and your agility as you get older.
And I see people out there surfing in their 60s or 70s. I see a few guys in their 80s and they are not going to give up. And I can see that as I get older if I do end up having more limited physical ability that there would still be a way for me to get on the water and paddle something and go surf away.
Early on, when I retired, I’d say around 2008 or 2009, my daughter and I took surfing lessons from professional surfers on winter surf up in the north shore. And so we were out there surfing in 20 foot waves routinely and we attack couple of 25 foot waves.
And part of the reason we took that class was that my daughter grew a little more respect for the ocean and for water safety. And I certainly did. And the other one was to learn what spots on our shore you could go and try to surf and handle the big surf and still be reasonably confident that you are going to survive.
And I learned a lot about my abilities and my skills from that and I have since then been quite comfortable up to 15 feet. Above 15 feet, it makes me hesitate a little bit. Maybe I pull back a little more than I should. I am not as aggressive a surer as I should be in big surfer. That is really the mean skill you need. Big surf has to aggressive.
But on the other hand, I have learned tremendous respect for what a wave can do and what the ocean can do and I challenge myself physically, mentally, emotionally over the years. It’s an occupation that keeps on giving back.
And you don’t have to earn money at it. You just have to go out there and do the best you can do. Every day, it is different and every day, you will get a little bit better.
Mad Fientist: That sounds fantastic. If there’s any way I can come out there one day and you can show me how to get on and how to catch a wave, that would be incredible.
Doug Nordman: It is an open invitation. People that come out to Hawaii, if you are out on Oahu and you contact me, let me know what’s going on, we will either go out there and do a surfing lesson on White Plains Beach or I will make you a surfer. I’ll lend you a longboard and you can enjoy yourself out there.
Mad Fientist: Oh, I am in. It sounds fantastic.
Doug Nordman: See you soon.
Mad Fientist: Yeah, absolutely. So before we head off, I definitely want to talk more about your website and the book. The book, you donated all proceeds to the military charities, right?
Doug Nordman: That’s right. All the revenues, all the writing royalties that I get, I donated to the that military funding charities. That’s Fisher House Foundation and the Wounded Warrior Project. And that’s both income from the blog, the income that I have coming in and from all the writing I do.
Mad Fientist: Wow. And talk a little bit more about the book. It took you a long time to write it, five years or something and you talked to 50 service members. Is that correct?
Doug Nordman: Exactly. We were on a financial independence forum, just a lot like the Mr. Money Mustache Forum.
The one we are spending our time on at the time was EarlyRetirement.org and we had 50 to 60 veterans and retirees and families talk about what they have learned being in the military and trying to save for financial independence.
And I crowd-sourced it. We decided early on that we are going to give all the royalties to the military charities. And the people who helped me write the book or edit it or who contributed their stories or their advice, they all have a vote on which charitable organizations would get the royalties.
And when we did all that, we finished the writing, then I went on the shop for the publisher and found a conditional publisher. This was back in 2010. I had learned a lot more about online publishing since then and I am working on a second book that is going to talk about making good decisions about military programs.
And that is probably going to be a couple of shorter e-books that talk about different aspects of insurance like life insurance and health insurance and home insurance. And as I write them, I also put them together on a Kindle or create space feature final format where you could buy the whole book in print instead of just buying individual topics.
And I am crowd-sourcing that too, so I have military peers connect with me and talk with me about their insurance programs or their insurance questions. I just collected information and added the outline. I will just keep writing books and that’s going to go on for quite a while.
When you are financially independent, when you are surfing twice or thrice a week or when you are traveling for two or three months a year and you don’t get a lot of book writing done, if you don’t feel that same sense of urgency that you would when you got to buy groceries and pay your mortgage.
But on the other hand, I have plenty of time to do research and the book gets written in crowd-sourced reviewed by the time it is ready and I know it’s got everything in it that it needs to have in it and it is the right size. So we will keep working on that and that is part of the project that I am working on now while we are on travel and when we get back home.
I am doing just writing on the blog, I am doing more book-writing and I am doing more reader questions. I get a lot of reader questions, a lot of email. And I love it because they all ask me very good questions and it usually leads to a new research project and a little more information that I can put on the blog or put in the book.
Mad Fientist: That’s fantastic. And all of this can be found at The-Military-Guide.com and there are hyphens in between. Is that correct?
Doug Nordman: Yeah, […]
Mad Fientist: Oops, sorry.
Doug Nordman: No. That’s the best way to find it. We have been around long enough now that if you just enter The Military Guide and the Google will pop the blog up there right in the first page results, probably the first or second result and you will be able to click on that and see all the posts.
The book itself is widely available on libraries. I know a lot of people like to have an electronic version for your Kindle. You can buy that off on Amazon. Or look in your base or your local public library and see if the book is in there.
Mad Fientist: All right. I will link to all that in the show notes. So there will be a handy link you can get to any of those places. And then yeah, the best way to just reach out to you via email if anybody else has questions or wants to chat?
Doug Nordman: That’s right. I check into EarlyRetirement.org every week. I am on the Mr. Money Mustache Forums every week. Or send an email. It’s [email protected] Or contact me through the blog.
Again, I love getting to read your questions because I learn a little bit on each one of them. And if you are coming up to Oahu want to surf, we can handle that too.
Mad Fientist: Nice. So I end all my interviews with asking my guests, what’s one piece of advice could you give to someone who is pursuing financial independence or who hopes to one day achieve financial independence? What would that be?
Doug Nordman: That would be track your expenses and that will enable you to save as much as you can for as long as you can. But it starts with tracking your expenses.
Mad Fientist: Excellent. Thanks very much, Doug. It was a pleasure talking to you. And I am looking forward to seeing you next month in San Diego.
Doug Nordman: All right, I will see you there. We will do another podcast.
Mad Fientist: Nice. All right, take care. Bye.
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