Finding Balance in the FIRE Lifestyle

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By TVR - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=964935

By TVR – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=964935

FIRE: Financial Independence, Retire Early

There are only a few good reasons to work. They are good reasons, of course, but can quickly overrun your personal life, destroying the original goal of working in the first place. The two good reasons I can think of to works are:

  • Saving for retirement, and
  • Love of the work.

In the beginning it is hard to tell if you love your work because you have to work. That is why we preach early retirement here; not to bow out of life as soon as possible, but to live the life you want. Once you have amassed a large enough nest egg you are retired even if you chose to continue working your job. FIRE allows you that freedom.

Once you have moved beyond the need to work a job many people continue to do so. Self-employed people are the worst. I know, I’m living it! Just because you can quit doing what you do to earn income does not mean you should. If you enjoy the work environment, co-workers, clients, and the work itself, why would you quit? There is no shame in doing what you love as you work toward financial independence and even afterwards.

No matter how much you love the work, however, there are always days. My office is living a series of “one of those days”. I want to share how I plan on working through the situation. First, some background on why we are feeling the pressure.




The Building of a Disaster

Every catastrophe starts with a great idea. In this case I had a plan to partner with Mr. Money Mustache on an idea. It went better than planned. The guy is awesome and instead of giving me a minor plug, he gave me a full article. When millions of people see the work I do they want to join the fun. Unfortunately, I have a small accounting office.

It was a challenge at first, but I was on a mission. We accepted about 1 in 120 requests from people/businesses to be a client. This low acceptance rate still increased our client base and workload over 50%. As a good business owner I hired additional staff to handle added tax work. Then the best laid plan started to burn.

51SX3LQaagL._SX285_BO1,204,203,200_We still had to field thousands of emails (sometimes 200 or more a day) just to tell people “no”. My time was stretched, but people understood. The perfect storm was brewing. Then the phone calls came. The people we accepted as clients wanted more personal time than I had to offer. My workload was getting further and further behind. I was no longer keeping promises, never acceptable business practice.

A CPA I hired with 9 years experience proved incompetent. I refused to allow work to go out wrong. Worse, he could barely manage a tax return a day. I let him go. My number one tax preparer contracted a respiratory infection that affected her all tax season; she missed over three weeks during the heart of tax season. Another preparer is attending college and only worked three days a week. The great news is I never get sick. But the work kept piling up as people demanded my attention instead of allowing me to complete work.

Darkest Before the Dawn

By the tax due date I was further behind than at any time in my career. It was overwhelming and clients did not care. The non-stop calls and emails only made it worse. We actually prepared fewer tax returns by the due date than the previous year even with additional staff. Most new clients and many regular clients were suffering my misfortune.

Let me introduce you the two most awesome women I have had the honor to work with: Karen and Natasha. Karen is my office manager and prides herself on quality work. She takes her work personally. Natasha is my front desk and administrative assistant. As the tax season wore on, Natasha never complained, but I could see her efficiency decline. She was worn out by the phone calls and complaints of slow work. The workload was too much, as well. Natasha is like Karen in that she prides herself in doing high quality work. This only made Natasha feel worse.

Karen is another story. By sitting in a chair so many hours she acquired back pain. She started wearing a brace so she could handle the extended work hours sitting.

Keith’s Rule # 11: Never work yourself to injury.

The brace was only a short-term solution, if you can even call it that. My entire team collapsed under the weight of excessive demands. Pain drained Karen even faster. Yesterday it ended in an argument over workflow. Last night she came into my office and nearly broke into tears. Listen to what she said, “I can’t take anymore. We are not serving our clients the way they should. I have never done such poor work. Our clients deserve better.” She didn’t say those words exactly, but it is what the conversation was about.

How do you handle an overwhelming situation? What can a business owner do when he finds himself with more work than it is possible to get done?




My Solution

I love the work I do, but in the accounting/tax industry there is always a due date looming. This means stress can interfere with a balanced lifestyle. Clients are sometime miffed when I take an afternoon walk or jog in the park during tax season or in cases like now when we are so far behind. I still do it.

Keith’s Rule # 12: Health is more important than work.

For Karen and Natasha, they have lost balance in their lives. My job, as business owner, is to bring the balance back so they can serve the clients right. After tax season ended I gave my team a paid day off in addition to their normal vacation days. I required the extra day off. It was a grueling tax season. But one day is not enough.

Karen and Natasha suffered the most because they fielded all the phone calls, complaints, and emails. Each phone call pushed them a little lower and less efficient. It was beginning to feed on itself.

This morning I woke up around five (normal for me) and rolled over to snuggle Mrs. Accountant. We talked a while about the challenges in the office, both worn out employees and clients who need work completed. It was then that I hatched my plan to get my office back.

I am forcing Karen and Natasha to have a one-hour massage on company time and company expense today. I know they will complain they do not have time; I have a solution for that, too. Karen and Natasha both will receive four hours of uninterrupted time each day: no emails, no phone calls (I will take their phone away). Karen will have a DO NOT DISTURB sign on her door during her four hours. If she needs a coffee, it will be brought to her; she can have her cigarette break (yeah, I have an office of smokers, except me) outside a door from her office. I do not want her to accidentally run into a client that starts the whole process of interruption all over again. In four hours she will get more done than she has been in a week. Once she gets momentum and her sanity back she will start feeling better about herself and how she is treating clients.

Natasha is a bit different. It is hard to get away at the front desk. No problem. I am bringing in a temp to answer calls for her 4 hours a day. She can see clients, but can also focus on getting her work done. By getting a break from the non-stop phone calls she will be able to help the clients by getting work recorded and to the clients faster. By reducing the stress level she should feel better as she accomplishes her goals each day.

Well, if clients don’t get the hand-holding, will they be pissed? Sure, a few will. A small number of clients are the ones applying all the pressure and stalling all work efforts. They will be mad until the work gets done. If they persist I will have one less client. There are 12,000 itching to fill the slot.

My team is more important than just beating work out of them. It sure feels that way this tax season. I hate it and it will stop now. Karen fought me yesterday on some of these ideas, but this is coming from exhaustion. I will regain my office after a fantastic surge in new business. By taking actions that treat my employees fair and with respect, we will serve clients better. New clients always take more work as we learn to understand their situation. It was my fault I accepted too many. I will honor my commitment to my clients (even if on the slow side at first) and treat my team with respect. I learned a lot this year. I will use the added knowledge to improve the work we produce in the future.

I know my attitude will make my team healthier and happier than ever while showing respect for their personal life and well being.

* I am not the only one experiencing these types of challenges. Feel free to share your situation and solution in the comments.




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Keith Schroeder

10 Comments

  1. Vida on May 5, 2016 at 8:16 am

    Could you have hired temps during tax season? I know it’s hard to find accountants for tax season, but maybe there were some stay-at-home moms who were CPAs or EAs in a previous life and they would have been happy to work 4-5 hours a day for a limited time. Are there temp agencies near you?

    When I worked in tax accounting, one of the firms closed April 16 (it would have been April 19 this year) so that everyone always got that day off. They also brought in a masseuse on a weekly basis during tax season, and people could have a 15-minute massage in-office (you signed up for a time slot the mornings that she came in). You may want to try that next year, so that neither Karen nor Natasha injure themselves next tax season.

    You sound like a good boss. Keep up the good work!

    • Keith Schroeder on May 5, 2016 at 11:13 am

      Vida, we did hire temps. None turned out. We are still hiring (and training) new staff. Considering tax season is over you would think we would have more people wanting a job. Not so. I did hire a new part-time tax preparer and he really is showing promise. We have had office massages in the past during tax season to help reduce stress. The temp agencies were unable to find any qualified tax pros. Do remember, we have above average in difficulty tax returns. I also have some friends I am using on a part-time basis to run interference while we roll up our sleeves and get the job done.

  2. Scott on May 5, 2016 at 10:38 am

    Keith,
    This article is a great disaster recovery story but I would love to have a little more insight into what really drove your desire to take on new clients. You mentioned you were “…on a mission.” What was the mission? My initial thought, given that you are a retired wealthy accountant, was “Keith, you’re crazy, what were you thinking?” Why accept any new clients given your small staff, your commitment to seasonal work, and the fact that you’ve scaled back your business in previous years? Did you accidentally succumb to the chumps game that you’ve mentioned in previous articles?
    Also, I was wondering if you would be willing to share any of the specific strategies you’ve used to scale back your tax practice if it becomes too large. Do you simply raise prices? Have you ever dismissed clients because they call/email too much or are just a general PITA? Given your wealth it seems that you could constantly prune your list of clients to ensure that you only work with the ones that you actually enjoy.

    • Keith Schroeder on May 5, 2016 at 11:27 am

      Scott, the “on a mission” statement refers to getting work done already in my office. Pete (Mr. Money Mustache) already told me I am crazy to work so hard at my age. The truth is I started acting like a different kind of chump. It was not about money. I wanted the challenge; I wanted to do something more important. Before I wrote today’s post I actually had a different post in the queue: The Retired Workaholic. Regardless, I gave my word and I will honor it even if I am slow. I will produce quality over quantity.

      As for reducing my business size: The first year I decided to cut back I sent 400 clients a letter I was no longer able to prepare their return. I generally only raise prices so I can pay my employees more; my income is rather static at the office since I have less need. People that consume too much time or complain generally get asked to leave. I love what I do. When someone diminishes the joy I remove the irritant versus selling.

      I went from 2,000 returns to about 700 over several years. The real reason I wanted to add a few more is to keep my team employed at the level they wanted to be employed. Not all of the 200 or so people who became clients will remain. Those that called/emailed relentlessly are the first to go. Life is too short and they are the reason I am behind and my team is stressed to the breaking point. I feel a strong commitment to my people. Karen has been with me a long time and I would walk through hell for her. To see her snap breaks my heart.

      Early retirement and financial independence does not eliminate all annoying things. You always have issues to deal with. Business is in my blood. I can’t stop doing business/helping people any more than I can stop my heart from beating. What does not kill us makes us stronger (and smarter and more experienced). That should be a Keith’s Rule!

  3. Kevin on May 6, 2016 at 8:00 am

    As one of those people who you very graciously added to your practice this tax season, I thank you… and apologize if I added to the strain. You are absolutely correct re Karen and Natasha. They are fantastic, true professionals. Thanks for the wonderful work that you all do, and here’s to a hopefully more fulfilling off season for you all!

    • Keith Schroeder on May 6, 2016 at 10:07 am

      Kevin, I still refuse to use office issues as an excuse. My team will work their tails off to get work done timely and accurately.

      As a follow up to everyone: Karen bounced back the next day. Everyone on my team is a true professional. We love our work and our clients. Our greatest crime is our desire to help more people than is possible. Through adversity we will become even better.

  4. Todd on May 8, 2016 at 10:33 pm

    What kind of workflow tools do you use in the office? Are they a key component of running a successful tax business?

    • Keith Schroeder on May 9, 2016 at 7:27 am

      Todd, I will write a post on workflow at work and in life. I love the idea.

  5. Adam on May 9, 2016 at 12:35 pm

    Sorry, if I missed a joke somewhere, but the spelling is off for the “Disturb” sign.

    • Keith Schroeder on May 9, 2016 at 3:19 pm

      Adam, let me be the first to blame my worn out eyes. Thanks for pointing out the error. You know, I looked at that sucker several times and it never registered. This is what happens when I edit my own work.

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