Immigrants on FIRE is an interview series on Bayalis Is The Answer. In this series I chat with first generation immigrants to the United States who are pursuing financial independence and/or early retirement. Immigration requires a certain measure of boldness, and a certain aptitude for adventure. I find the stories of the folks who decide to undertake these adventures irresistible, and I hope you will too.
Today I chat with Mr. Gorden Lopes, a reader of this blog. I enjoyed Gorden’s interview because he isn’t shy about sharing all sorts of juicy financial details mixed in with interesting titbits about his life. I hope you have as much fun reading his story as I did. I’ve added in a few pictures of the Bay Area, which is both Gorden’s home and mine.
Which country did you immigrate from and how old were you at the time?
I moved to the U.S. from India on July 30 2007. I was 23 years old.
Why did you decide to move to the U.S.?
I moved to U.S. to pursue my Masters. I really did not have any clue on why I wanted to move and why I chose the U.S. To be honest, I just followed the herd! In Bombay or any big cities in India, taking the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) and pursuing your masters is considered one of the easiest ways to make it big if you cannot crack the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) to get into an IIT (IITs are the most prestigious engineering colleges in India).
What was your net worth (in USD) when you moved to the U.S.?
Zero Zip Zilch Nada! There is this famous old Bollywood dialogue – Agar mere paas kuch hai toh maa ka diya hua aashirwad! (Mrs. BITA, acting as your friendly neighborhood translator: if I have anything then that is my mother’s blessing).
I had taken an education loan of INR 9 lakhs ($13,500) before coming to the U.S. I never used it as I got fully funded from the get go and my education here was paid for by Uncle Sam!
Tell us a little bit about your life now
I am living in the Bay Area, married to a beautiful desi gal (Mrs. BITA: desi == Indian) who has given me a lovely son who is 19 months old and he has truly become the center of our universe!
We discovered “FIRE” about 8-10 months back when my wife started reading this book called Your Money or Your Life and it just completely changed our perspective on Life, Happiness and Money! I highly recommend this book to anyone who is on the FIRE journey! After this we stumbled upon the great Mr. Money Mustache blog which was truly a game changer for us in our FIRE journey!
Currently, both my wife and I are on H1B visas working for tier-2 tech companies and my gross income until just recently was around 145K and my wife earns around 130K. During the time that I was working on this interview, I got laid off from my job which ended up being a blessing in disguise as I landed a job with a big tech company with an annual compensation package of 230K! So hoping to race to FIRE with this new change! (Mrs. BITA: Holy fuck! That is a phenomenal jump. I take full credit for it – it is clearly the direct result of the good karma you were accumulating by doing this interview. Congratulations!).
We got married in 2010. We were the classic DINK couple (double income no kids) and splurged most of what we earned! We were disciplined enough to make a budget but in that budget we allocated $1000 to weekend spending in a month! i.e $250 per weekend! We went out almost every weekend and our average restaurant bill would be around $120. Then once in a month we would go bar hopping in San Francisco where we would easily spend $200-$300 in a night! As I am writing this I am feeling like going back in time and just shooting myself! What was I smoking! (Mrs. BITA: I think we are all at least a little familiar with the feeling of youth misspent and the folly of ignoring the Great God Compounding when He was at His most powerful. If it makes you feel any better, at the age of 30 I was worth $60k, and I didn’t invest a dime outside of my 401k until I was 37).
Now we have cut back on our spending but we have definitely not cut back on our happiness! Rather than saying cut back, I guess optimized is a more apt word. By just reading through the FIRE blogs I got to understand more about investing in index funds, maximizing retirement account contributions (Mrs. BITA’s blog post on step by step guide to a backdoor Roth IRA is a must read) and one of the greatest eye openers for me was travel hacking! With travel hacking we have been able to save almost $4000 in travel in past year! (Mrs. BITA: Travel hacking is like taking candy from a baby. And thank you for recommending my post).
We now are constantly trying to optimize our finances and I enjoy doing it because we have a GOAL (achieving FI) which is just too amazing and these small sacrifices don’t even seem like sacrifices when weighed against this vision! Now our monthly weekend masti budget (Mrs. BITA: masti == fun) is $200 and we don’t feel like we are missing anything!
One other optimization that I have done is house hacking. We recently bought a house in the Bay Area. It is a 4 bed 2 bath single family home. We were just using one bedroom. It’s a two storey house with good separation between the two floors. We decided to rent out a couple of rooms which gets us $1600 per month. Some people might balk at the idea of renting out rooms in the house they are staying in, but in our case it boiled down to a simple decision: do I want to work till 50 by living with privacy or do I want to retire by 40 by renting out two rooms in my house which I never use. (Mrs. BITA: Well played, Gorden! I am one of the balkers, but I admire your attitude and determination to reach your financial goals).
Tell us about your life before you moved to the U.S.
I am originally from a faraway suburb of Bombay (similar to how Fremont is to San Francisco). I was born and raised as a devout Christian in an average middle class family where I was the youngest of the three sons. By the time I was college-ready, my parents had already used up most of their savings in educating my two elder brothers. My dad slogged day and night at his regular cashier job at Mahindra motors and my mom was a homemaker. She side hustled by running small businesses from the home like selling milk pouches (those amul ones) to earn some extra money. The seeds of frugality and side hustling were sown in me at an early age.
Being the youngest in the house you inadvertently follow your elder brother and in my case that lead me to pursue engineering. At my not-so-great engineering college I did not end up learning much, but I did end up with this ability to study like crazy just 3-4 days before the exam and get decent grades.
Although I was just an average student, I always excelled at extracurricular activities which has helped in my FIRE journey. I play the guitar well which has helped me to make a lot of great friends and meet new people. I am also a good dancer and was part of my college dance team taking part in inter-collegiate competitions and was naturally inclined towards sports and the outdoors. These skills are great because then you don’t have to spend a lot of money to unwind, you can just take your guitar, create music and get extreme happiness or learn salsa with your wife by watching youtube videos! (Mrs. BITA: I tried briefly once to learn how to play the guitar. I cursed a lot, was shocked at how much my fingers hurt and promptly decided that if I wanted to make music I would do so by pressing a button on an appropriate device).
What is your net worth now?
My wife and I together currently have a net worth of about $395,000.
- Around $150K in retirement accounts (Roth, 401k etc)
- Around &15-20K in stocks
- Around $230K in a home that we bought a few years ago in India.
I don’t consider my house in the Bay Area in my net worth. Why not? Because there is not much equity built into it; we have just put 12% down.
What is your FIRE target number and date? Is your goal financial independence or also early retirement?
At this point we are just aiming for FI till we figure out what we want to do in life after achieving FI. At this point our goal is to get to 1 million dollars in liquid assets diversified in index funds: stocks and bonds. We have kept an aggressive target and want to achieve this by age 40, which gives us 7 years.
Our vision is that we want to move back to India and spend our time making an impact in the lives of people who are not as privileged as us. Having spent most of my time in India and having experienced the poverty up close each one of us should realize just how lucky we are to be living this great life of comfort!
Related post: Immigrants on FIRE, interview with Lazy Retiree
Do you consider your move to the U.S. permanent, or do you plan to go back ‘home’?
We are planning to move back to India after achieving FI. One important reason for this is that we will get more value for our dollars back home. There are also many other reasons like staying close to your family.
What was the most difficult part about migrating here?
Leaving all your loved ones behind and coming to a completely new country and culture was certainly one of the most difficult parts of migrating here.
But one of the thing that was the MOST difficult was switching from using water to using toilet paper! Which I have not yet gotten used to! You can take an Indian out of India but you can never take India out of an Indian!
(Mrs. BITA: I hear you. My rear end was not appreciative of that transition. You might want to consider a bidet).
What do you like the most about this country?
This country has Vegas, which is by far one of the most amazing places in the world!
On a slightly serious tone, the opportunity that this country offers is just amazing! You are limited only by your own thoughts and vision, so if you think big and can back it up with effort there is absolutely no one who can hold you back!
As someone pursuing FIRE, what do you think was your biggest disadvantage because of your immigrant status?
- The constant worry about being on valid visa is truly a pain in the butt and just holds you back from taking risks.
- With H1B visa I cannot start a side hustle business or venture which is also annoying.
(Mrs. BITA: Preach. Work permits are extremely limiting – in terms of job mobility, and the ability to explore other streams of income. Not to mention the stress when your permit expires and you are unsure whether or not you will be granted a new lease on life).
As someone pursuing FIRE, what is the biggest advantage you have because you are an immigrant?
Frugality is ingrained in every average middle class Indian by default. Before my FIRE journey I was a little embarrassed by my frugal nature but now this is something I wear like a badge of honor. I have come out of closet with my frugality!
Cooking at home
At first this will sound bizarre but stay with me here. If you are a first generation immigrant Indian, you always crave the home cooked food that your mom made (in my case it was the chicken curry and mutton masala) and you end up cooking at home just to recreate that magic. In my case this resulted in me cooking at home and making awesome dishes. Looking around I see that this is the case with many other Indians and added to frugality this becomes a deadly combination on your journey to FIRE.
Do you have words of wisdom that you would like to share with other immigrants that are pursuing FIRE?
I am a complete novice at pursuing FIRE and don’t think I can add much value that other blogs have not already shared but one thought I really connect with is that FIRE is not an end goal in itself, you have to have a purpose/vision in life that is much bigger than FIRE.
I could not agree more. Once again Gorden, thank you for sharing your story and the contents of your wallet with my readers. Your enthusiasm shines through, and I wish you the best on your journey to FIRE.
Are you a first generation immigrant? Would you like to share your story? If so, leave a comment below, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.