FIRE/ Frugal Millionaires On Fire

Frugal Millionaires on FIRE – Joyful Frugalista

November 27, 2020 (Last Updated: December 1, 2020)

Today we chat with Serina from The Joyful Frugalista on her journey as a Frugal Millionaire on FIRE. A frugal hero in Australia, here’s some great tales and tips that helped Serina grow her net worth to over 2 million dollars.

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Frugal Millionaires on FIRE – Chapter 3 with The Joyful Frugalista

I first came across Serina after reading her book The Joyful Frugalista that I’d picked up at the library, and then moved onto her blog. It was great to read a frugal filled book of ideas from an Australian perspective, and I picked up quite a few new tips. My favourite was learning about the Buy Nothing groups – we’re now very involved with out local group, and have loved the community we’ve met as a result.

If you missed Chapter 2 with Dave from Strong Money Australia, you can read all about that here.

Serina in her kitchen at her home in Canberra.

The Journey to FIRE

Tell us a little bit about yourself, what you do and what your blog is all about:

My name is Serina Bird. I started blogging at The Joyful Frugalista (originally named Ms Frugal Ears) back in mid 2015.  I had just gone through a separation and was single parenting.  Money was tight – despite having a full-time stable job – so I started creating low cost, budget recipes.  And then my writing on frugal lifestyle just grew from there! I realised that financial resilience was super important, and that fear of lack of money was holding people (especially women) back. It was often trapping them in bad relationships, toxic jobs and situations they didn’t want to be in.

How long has your journey been to reach your goal?

Confession here:  for a long time, I didn’t identify as being part of the FIRE movement. I was saving money and investing, but not with the intention of leaving my job. I had a career as a diplomat. I was proud of the work that I did. It was high status. I had glamorous international travel, and lots of dinner stories about time on my (one) posting. I got to meet interesting people and show off my language skills. I had spent years studying and applying to get in, and I knew that thousands of people were waiting in line to do what I did. NO WAY was I going to leave that job early! Plus because of my divorce, my financial situation was severely impacted. In my book, The Joyful Frugalista, I even say I am not part of the FIRE movement. I kept doing these media interviews where I would say ‘I’m not really part of the FIRE movement’, yet somehow the article would say ‘Serina Bird is a key figure in the FIRE movement’. 

I don’t fully understand it, but perhaps what happened is that the FIRE movement somehow won me over and changed my thinking. It happened slowly and gradually. I began to question my values and what I wanted in life. I watched other people obtain financial freedom to do cool things like writing full-time, and then started to daydream about leaving my job. And then my job got toxic. I put it down to protracted rounds of funding cuts and the negativity that promoted. But to be honest, I always struggled being part of a bureaucracy. I come from a long line of creatives. My Grandmother (Nana Irene), who passed away recently at the age of 99, got her break as a commercial artist at age 14. My mum was a fashion designer, my two aunts were artists and I grew up around creative people. While my Dad was a Commonwealth public servant all his life, my brain didn’t quite think and process things in the same way as people around me.  Being a short, bubbly WOMAN, when I had inspired ideas about new strategic directions, it was hard to influence change. On my last day in the job we had a strategic talk fest where three of the topics were things I had tried passionately to work on to install change years before (to no avail) but were now deemed ‘really important’. I felt it was a sign.

In terms of financial goals, my first husband and I declared in 2005 that we would purchase ten residential investment properties in ten years. We achieved that by 2014. I also put out to the universe in 2010 the ambitious goal of achieving a combined net worth of $2 million by 2020. (2020 was the magic year back then – who would have thought the big 2020 would have ended up this way!) Sadly, the relationship (which had become violent) ended in 2014. We had achieved our ten property goal by late 2013, but then needed to divide and sell properties as part of the property settlement process. I ended up with the family home (mortgage free) plus two investment properties. I later sold the family home to move to a secure, inner city apartment to streamline my life a bit, and in the process took on a small mortgage.

The second part of my goal was $2 million by 2020. I *thought* that was impossible following divorce, but I kept to that dream and continued to work towards it. I remarried in September 2018, and with my new husband Neil began to work together to rebuild in different ways. We hit a combined net worth of just over $2 million by December 2019. I’m not sure if it’s cheating to include a new husband in my goal, but I’m claiming it!

What age were you when you achieved it?

I was 45 when I calculated my personal net worth clicked over to $1 million, and 47 when our combined net worth tallied at more than $2 million.

How did you feel when you hit “your number”?

I checked and rechecked my spreadsheet several times hoping I didn’t miss anything! But it was huge. It was mentally liberating to get to a point that I never thought I would reach.

What (if anything) changed for you when you reached millionaire status?

Initially, not much changed. But ten months after reaching the $2 million as a couple goal, I left my secure, public service job.  For me, I was like ‘well, I’ve got all these investments and assets – why am I putting up with shit at work? I am worth more than this!’ By that stage, I’d met more and more people in the FIRE community and I was starting to think in different ways. I could see there was a possibility to craft a new life, and being in a good financial situation gave me confidence to do it.

Did a significant other, friend or family help you reach your goals?

Over the last three years, I’ve worked together with my husband, Neil. We share frugal values and this has helped us work together to reach our financial goals. For years, my family has made fun of my frugal ways – but to be honest, a lot of my values actually come from family (I’m just a tad more focused). And also, oddly, I’m the one who tends to be more generous financially when it comes to things like gifts for major events.

Serina in a kitchen with plates and bowls in front of her, ready to cook a delicious meal.

Do you worry more, less or the same about money or your finances?

This is an interesting question. I guess that I am realising now that money to me equals security and choices. As a domestic violence survivor, having money is a security crutch. I like to hang onto my money, and sometimes I struggle to enjoy spending it. I’m learning to work on relaxing my spending a bit, to lean in and allow myself to enjoy things like holidays and occasional splurges. Yesterday, for instance, I even got a manicure and pedicure (not something I do very often, and paid for on my ‘sanity’ allowance.) Although realistically I know that we are in a very good financial position and there is plenty of buffer, I can get a bit over focused about wanting to pay down debt and improve my financial situation over consumer things.

Are your investments weighed heavier in shares or property or something else entirely? Why?

  • Property – My mum is an avid property investor, and I grew up hearing about property – how to negotiate, how to renovate and how to sell. My ex-husband is Asian, and as a new migrant he felt that buying bricks and mortar was especially important. I liked property, too, and was nuts about playing Monopoly as a kid. I’ve reduced the amount of property that I hold and now I’m moving towards other forms of investment such as ETFs.
  • Superannuation – I kind of kick myself that I didn’t find out more about my superannuation scheme earlier. As a Commonwealth public servant, I had a scheme that had some particularly good benefits. Yet I was always so ‘busy’ running around attending to urgent bushfires and being a good employee, and didn’t take the time to go to free info seminars or do my own research. There was also a culture of not talking about money, investments or work related financial issues in the work place.

Do you still work? If not, what do you do to fill your days?

I’m probably working harder than ever before, yet aligned with passion and purpose. I’m a freelance writer for a variety of publications including Australia’s Best Recipes (budget recipe creation and articles), Canstar, Kidspot and Money Magazine. I used to also write for The Daily Telegraph.

I am host of The Joyful Frugalista podcast, and hope to move more into YouTube videos in the future. I also started a sister business called The Joyful Business Club, which champions women shining at their full potential by offering networking, training and support. I hope to move towards offering funding for women-led businesses and startups.

What book do you recommend someone should read if they’re just starting on their journey?

Aussie FIRE: The Ultimate Guide to Financial Independence for Australians. This is a free eBook prepared by Pearler. 

Keepin It Frugal Note: We also contributed to this book and highly recommend it! You can read our chapter here.

Living Frugal

What are your top 3 purchased items that bring or hold the most value in your life?

  1. The couches my ex husband and I bought from Salvos maybe 13 to 14 years ago.  While I’m sure most interior decorators or anyone with an ounce of modern taste would insist we throw the couches out in favour of a more zen look, they are hard wearing, durable and pass the kids crayon test. I keep thinking I should replace them now that my kids are no longer little tots, but then I realise how my kids love jumping on them and (sometimes) lying across the back of them. Priceless!
  2. Our $50 dinner table purchased from the Kippax Monster Garage Sale run by the Kippax Uniting Church. We don’t know what wood it is, but it’s walnut look and solid. We can expand it to be big enough to seat up to 10 people. My (now) husband, Neil, and I bought it over three years ago together. It was one of the first house items we bought together, and I remember feeling so blessed that I had met someone with similar frugal values.
  3. Our Ford Territory 2015 car. When I met Neil, we had a car each. The logical thing was to consolidate. I gave my 17-year old Toyota RAV 4 to my Dad. (To digress on a side story, it was kind of funny, actually, because he’d been on my case for years to upgrade to a more reliable car but as soon as he knew I was thinking of getting rid of it, he wanted it. Three years on, he and my step-mum are still driving it and it worked fine. They needed an extra car because Dad’s second-hand Mercedes, of which he had been very proud, ended up requiring extensive maintenance and he pretty much wrote it off. We don’t talk about that car😊). 

    Neil had lived in a rural area when I met him and owned a solid ISUZU D-Max. It was hard to park in my apartment carpark, but more the point, because I am super short, I couldn’t drive it. So 18 months ago, we bought an easy to drive, easy to park Ford Territory. After extensive research, Neil purchased it for $17,000 from Pickles Auctions in Melbourne. It was a few years old and had only 35,000km on it. The insurable value was $23,000. Even after paying to have it shipped to Canberra, installing a tow bar and roof racks (for our ski trips), we were still ahead. Since owning it (and pre COVID), we’ve done several road trips to Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and the South Coast. Having a reliable car means we can drive rather than fly and it has saved us thousands.

What’s your favourite frugal tip?

Just one? I’d have to say that so much of what I practice about frugality starts in the kitchen. There is something deeply significant about being able to produce a budget, home cooked meal. Not only can you save thousands each year with home cooking, but it’s better for your health and better for the environment as well.

What’s your favourite frugal activity?

During COVID I’ve become addicted to jigsaw puzzles. I buy them cheaply from op shops, or I get given them for free from friends, neighbours or in my local Buy Nothing project group. Actually there’s a bit of jigsaw karma going around (something I have blogged about a fair bit this year). Often I will gift a jigsaw through Buy Nothing and then will watch as the recipient passes the same jigsaw puzzle onto others.

How does living a frugal lifestyle align with your values?

I’m so glad you asked this question. Four years ago, before I met and married my frugal husband, I was dating someone who I refer to in my book as Mr Red Sports Car. He was a high income IT salesman who lived a high consumer lifestyle. I doubted my frugal lifestyle, and while I stuck to my basic principles, I felt a bit uncool, kind of like a ‘second hand Rose’. I didn’t talk much about my frugal values, and wondered even if I should pivot to focusing more on investing and innovation. Our values were not aligned, and unsurprisingly, we broke up.

During that recovery process I asked myself: do I want to be frugal?  Is it important to me?  And the answer was a resounding YES. I love how I have created a secure and stable environment for my two sons, and that would not have been possible without being frugal. I love how prioritising people over ‘things’ has meant that I am more connected with family and community. I’m big on the sharing community, for instance.  And I especially love the fact that many of my principles are encouraging sustainability.

Serina next to a red sports car.

While you’ve been living frugally, have you felt like you have ‘enough’?

I definitely have enough!  Actually, if anything I still have more than enough. I’ve been dabbling with minimalism this year, that is, I’m committed to giving away at least 1,000 items. You would think that would mean that our apartment would be empty, but my husband Neil would be the first to tell you that there is plenty of excess in my full cupboard, coat rack and five bags of clothes stuffed under the bed. 

Disclaimer: most of my clothes are op shopped, bought at church fetes, obtained at clothes swaps or gifted. I regularly give away items of clothing. But oddly, the more I give away, the more I attract back. And actually, it’s not just with clothes. The more I give to others, the more I attract back. I don’t give with the ulterior motive of receiving, but I understand that when people give, it comes from the heart. And when people receive something that is significant for them, they often want to give back. So I always receive with gratitude and pass on with love what doesn’t suit. And then the cycle continues.

The Joyful Frugalista Blog

The Joyful Frugalista is my personal blog about how to find joy from living in an intentionally frugal way. This year, I’m on a challenge to give away at least 1,000 items with intention (joyfulgiving) and my blog posts are focused on that. I also share recipes and other bits and pieces.

The Joyful Frugalista Podcast is about saving, investing, living sustainably and following your dreams. I interview some amazing people and share their stories. I have a big, ambitious dream of reaching 100,000 downloads by Christmas this year. I would love your help to get me there.

Where can people find you?

What’s the first blog people should read on your site and why?

The Households Hacks page – this is a growing collection of frugal and sustainable home cleaning and organisational tips.

Thanks so much to Serina for sharing her journey with us on the blog today!

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