An interview with RESET author David Sawyer

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An interview with RESET author David Sawyer

David Sawyer is a very distinguished PR professional who discovered FIRE and decided to reset his life. His new book, RESET: How to Restart Your Life and Get F.U. Money, is the result of his mission to synthesize all the knowledge he has acquired after tonnes of wide-ranging research, primarily in the self-improvement and personal finance space. 

The UK was crying out for a FIRE book of its own – and I believe this is IT! In fact, the book seems to have hit a nerve, having already sold almost 3,500 copies. (Given that just 1% of authors manage to sell more than 1,000 copies in their book’s lifetime, that’s one hell of an achievement.) David is a lovely chap to boot, and kindly agreed to doing this interview with me. Enjoy…

Mr Millionaire Marathon: RESET is pretty much the first book on the Financial Independence Retire Early (FIRE) movement written specifically with a UK audience in mind. Whilst we have many really great FIRE bloggers in the UK, this does seem to suggest we’re a little behind when it comes to the uptake among the general public. Why do you think it’s taken so long for the FIRE movement to make an impact this side of the pond? 

David Sawyer: There’s not much cross-pollination between the FIRE bloggers this side of the pond and over there. 

Since I started getting into learning again, six years ago, I’ve found that most of the best writing takes place in America, and the thinking is further advanced, too. There are some great bloggers over here, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a lot more of them over there, and in general people are more comfortable with the idea of self-improvement in the States (they see it as a strength not a weakness). And I’m talking across the board, not just FIRE blogs here. 

My exposure to financial independence began four years ago when one of the world’s top SEO guys, who I’d got to know a little, mentioned Tim Urban and Mr Money Mustache (MMM) as people whose writing and tone of voice he admired. Like millions before me and since, I then went on an MMM binge, discovering all sorts of US bloggers into the bargain and devouring all the FIRE books, from Early Retirement Extreme to Your Money or Your Life. But the only MMM recommendation for a UK source of information on FIRE was Monevator. So off I went on a Monevator binge, which continues to this day. However, as I wasn’t reading the comments on his blog posts, where a lot of UK FIRE bloggers wade in, I was still in the dark as to a thriving UK FIRE blogosphere. 

There’s not much cross-pollination between the FIRE bloggers this side of the pond and over there.

I think this is perhaps common for many people struggling to translate US FIRE to the UK context, and it’s certainly been the feedback from people who’ve loved my book. They love the US movement but if they hear another thing about 401ks or health insurance or the 4% rule or going all in with VTSAX, they’ll scream. And they’re not aware of many of the UK FIRE bloggers or helpful Facebook forums.

As to the recent rise in interest in FIRE among mainstream media (articles in Guardian, Telegraph, Times, and even last weekend’s Moneybox), I’m not sure where this has come from. But I’d single out The Escape Artist for his thoughtful yet populist blogging, which is helping to bring the UK movement to public attention.

Last, I did become aware of some UK FIRE bloggers, at just about the time I was starting to write my book. However, I purposefully decided not to read any of their stuff for fear my RESET would be derivative (I wanted to produce something original and it’s easy to be swayed by collective wisdom). So, it’s been an absolute pleasure reading excellent blogs such as Indeedably, Young FI Guy, Simple Living in Somerset and a host of others whose email lists I’ve signed-up to over the past six months. There really is some great and original writing going on in the UK FIRE community.

MM: I suppose the British attitude to money doesn’t help. Many of us feel really uncomfortable when it comes to talking about money – especially our own. Personally, I think that’s a really unhealthy state of affairs, and it probably helps to account for why so many people get into financial problems with consumer credit. But FIRE also forces us to challenge the way we think about life in general. Was there a particular Eureka moment for you, or did you piece the whole RESET concept together bit by bit? 

DS: I think it was the realisation that FIRE is really about efficiency. This helped me make links between seemingly disparate things like decluttering your house and the time and expense it was taking me to do the shopping. RESET started life in 2015 as the idea for a rather unambitious business card book and, over the course of three years, morphed into what I think is not only the first attempt to translate the learnings of the millions-strong US FIRE movement to a UK context, but also a holistic plan for midlifers to reset and restart their lives. There was no Eureka moment, it really was a case of a hell of a lot of hard work and self-belief that I could produce something on a par with or better than the US self-improvement/personal finance books I was reading for a predominantly UK market, working from the corner of my posh health club in Glasgow.

MM: What was the biggest challenge in terms of translating the whole FIRE ethos for a UK audience? 

DS: The biggest challenge was getting a 4% rule for UK investors that I was happy with, and explaining how I got there without the need for a PhD in Maths. I remember painfully trying the patience of my family for three hours a day while on holiday near Lowther Castle in the northern Lakes last February, while I consulted the Oracles of (Wade) Pfau and Kitces. 

The biggest challenge was getting a 4% rule for UK investors that I was happy with, and explaining how I got there without the need for a PhD in Maths.

MM: What I really like about the book is that it devotes relatively few pages to the finance and investment side of the equation. The vast bulk of the book focuses on lifestyle concepts and furnishing the reader with the mental agility necessary in order to RESET. This is really great, because I firmly believe that too many people get too hung up with the technicalities of investing, which can be quite scary for people with no prior experience. How did you finally settle on the idea that ETFs – passive investing – was the way forward?

DS: Personally, I’m fascinated by investing. However, I prefer other things. I have young kids, friends, family, a life full of responsibilities. So the free time I can carve out, I want to spend doing something I really enjoy, and is good for me. In my case, that’s running (and reading…to foster that mental agility). Perhaps if the dotcom bust hadn’t happened when I was first getting interested in investing, things would have been different, but I don’t have the years to devote to increasing my knowledge so I can become one of the rare few that do well at active investing. 

RESET is aimed at every man and woman, normal people who just have this voice inside them that says: “there must be another way.” I wanted to make that way easy to follow, and not dependent on learning new tricks. For instance, buy to let can be an excellent way to achieve financial independence, but hassle-free it ain’t. There’s a steep learning curve and even after that you either have to devote time every month to collecting rent and dealing with burst pipes or pay someone else to do it.

Last, I did my research. I spoke to people. I read loads of books, hundreds of blog posts, and listened to what the experts had to say (some experts are definitely worth listening to). Everything pointed me in the direction of passive investing as the way forward for midlife careerists who are looking for a simple holistic plan for the second half of their lives (or anyone, come to that – readers young and old are forever emailing me to say how everything outlined in RESET applies to them, too).

MM: As you outline in your book, the investment part can be set to autopilot, and the real challenge lies in putting in place the systems and routines that ensure you’re on the path to success. The trouble is that in today’s world too many people focus on instant gratification and don’t have the patience to follow through with a strategy that might take more than a decade to bear fruit. In a world of constant temptation, how does the Sawyer family stay focused on the ultimate goal and avoid the temptation of ‘wasteful’ spending?

DS: This is an easy one. We have a very clear vision of what financial independence means to us.

My true vision is my wife, Rachel, and me, sitting in one of those white towns in Andalusia, in the hills. It’s an Airbnb: we’ve been there for two months now. We’re in comfy chairs on the roof terrace, reading; her David Nicholls’s latest novel, me Crime and Punishment. There’s a glass of red nearby. As the sky turns crimson, we look at each other and smile. Then I rise, stick on my trainers, and go for a run. I have that mental picture in my head. Others have one on their screen saver at workWherever you place it, having a vision of where you want to go is vital if you are to follow it up with actions.

Day-to-day, it’s that bigger picture, and a fundamental aversion to getting sucked into consumerist spending, that helps you take the right actions. (Oh, and building in treats along the way – no man is a mung bean.) 

Wherever you place it, having a vision of where you want to go is vital if you are to follow it up with actions.

MM: I got engaged last year and my betrothed is a recent convert to the whole FIRE concept (for which I have you and your book to thank!). But it struck me that someone would really struggle to achieve Financial Independence if their partner was not 100% on board too. Do you have any tips for anyone out there who might be interested in FIRE but who thinks their better half would balk at the idea of saving so much money?

DS: It’s that vision thing again. That’s what worked for me and has worked for others, such as big US FIRE blogger, Mad Fientist. Without a compelling vision you both buy into, your “journey to FIRE” will be a short one.

MM: I named this blog the Millionaire Marathon because I believe that the discipline that’s required to be a decent runner is very similar to the discipline that’s needed to become financially independent. It’s about putting one foot in front of the other until you get to where you want to be. I’m intrigued to know how your own running inspired you when it comes to FIRE – and is it a two-way street? Does FIRE help you to become a better runner?

DS: I definitely get you there. There is so much about competitive marathoning (by that I mean setting yourself a stretch marathon goal-time that’s just out of your reach and working hard over a period of years to achieve it) that is similar to the FIRE journey. There are two key sayings when it comes to marathoning, which could equally be applied to the journey to FIRE. “You get out what you put in”, and “you never regret a run”.

Both focus on the need to take small deliberate actions, which become routines, to reach your goal, whether that be FIRE or a marathon time you’ll be proud of until the day you die.

Rather than inspiring me, my running provided an experimentation ground to test certain concepts I’d been learning about and I felt could apply whatever you were doing in life. So in that sense, some of the things I’ve learnt, that have been instrumental in developing my own brand of FIRE, have been useful when it’s come to marathoning. And my marathon PBs, using different types of physical training and mental techniques, have proved that these things work. So in that sense FIRE may have made me a better runner, albeit I’ve never thought of it in these terms before.

MM: Occasionally I get a negative reaction from people when I explain the concept of FIRE and why I’m going down that route. Many people just equate it with miserliness; others seem to think I must be minted or earning a fortune to even contemplate retiring early (I am neither of those things!). RESET has already had a great reception among the FIRE community and indeed the wider media, but what kind of response have you had from your wider family and friends?

DS: Many of my family and friends were involved in the self-publishing process. Because I wanted to do everything myself, I needed a rigorous system to test my book’s progress and see if I’d missed anything/not explained things lucidly. After writing the first draft, I sent the manuscript to alpha readers, and a few months later, after many rounds of self-editing, it went out to beta readers. Then, a few weeks before publication, I issued it to advance readers, mainly subject experts and famous people, some of whom have gone on to become friends.

The reception from these family and friends has been amazing, albeit you have to get used to the fact that some people you know very well will have absolutely no interest in reading your book (and why should they?).

Many of my family and friends were involved in the self-publishing process.

I’m sure people do miss the point of FIRE and focus on some of the easy criticisms, but one man’s miserliness is another man’s “I’m not buying that £3 latte when I can make one in my Nespresso coffee maker in the house and stick it in my Contigo flask for 20p, at a fifteenth of the cost”.  

MM: I often get asked, “Surely you’d get bored if you retired that early?” But personally, I’ve always put more emphasis on the Financial Independence aspect of FIRE than the Retire Early part. I get the feeling that you do too. Am I right?

DS: Absolutely. I’m sure I’ll have some project on the go well into my 70s, but the difference is I want my F.U. Money so it’s my choice. Freedom is attainable. There’s always another way of living.

MM: Knowing what you know now about FIRE and life in general, what’s the one thing you’d have done differently if you were starting your career from scratch?

DS: Seventeen years ago, when I had to tick a box to say what I wanted my defined contribution to be invested in, I wish I’d picked the US index fund for all of my pension rather than the UK one (not beating myself up too much, at least I had the good sense at that young age to pick an index fund). Better still, in the absence of “Suggested RESET Portfolio”, I wish there’d been a box that just said “Vanguard LifeStrategy 100”.

MM: What’s next for David Sawyer? Are there any other grand projects on the horizon?

DS: I expect Zude PR and RESET will be my grand projects in the years to come. While RESET has sold nearly 3,500 copies in six months and been a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface in terms of its potential (and mine). But the biggest grand project is my family, and for us I see FIRE as something that helps us all be a little happier and live fulfilled and meaningful lives, which is kind of the point of it all, isn’t it?

MM: It sure is! 

In my humble opinion, RESET is a must-read for any aspiring FI – or indeed anyone simply wanting to make incremental but impactful improvements to their lifestyle. But if you still need convincing, you can get the first 8,000 words for FREE here: https://zudepr.co.uk/reset/

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