When Jean Voronkova decided to quit her $120,000-a-year job as a mid-tier lawyer in a Big Four law firm close to 10 years ago, her dad didn’t speak to her for two years.
It’s not surprising that many around the then 29-year-old could not wrap their heads around why she would quit her lucrative lawyer job which afforded her many luxuries of life — one of them being Dior bags which she admitted to having a soft spot for.
For Jean’s parents, it took a longer time for them to accept that their daughter was never going to be the lawyer they’d wished for her to be.
“My dad thought it was a sabbatical for a few months because I was burnt out. When they clued in, he stopped speaking to me for about two years,” Jean shared.
Her father’s reaction, she added, was “the one which hurt the most emotionally”.
“The rest was all stuff I could take in stride and deal with,” said Jean, now 39.
The pursuit of “shiny things”, as Jean calls the money, prestige and status that having a ‘good job’ brings, was never on her agenda.
Becoming a lawyer, Jean says, was achieved in large part to make her parents happy.
“I’ve always been dissatisfied with the way life options were presented to us in Singapore,” said the self-professed high achiever who was from the gifted programme in Raffles Girls’ School and went on to Victoria Junior College before graduating from law school at the National University of Singapore.
Of the expectations that she felt were placed upon her at the time, she shared: “Everyone just expects that later in life you’ll be a doctor or a lawyer. Not even an accountant or an engineer, that’s not good enough.
“That’s like, four life options in total? And they’re all similar and look kinda horrible, she shared, adding that she knew since she was in her teens that it wasn’t the path for her. “I didn’t like it at all.”
“I wanted something else, although I didn’t know what it was I wanted.”
That “something” became clearer, however, when she actually became a lawyer. Despite the fat pay cheque that came with her job, envisioning herself eventually rising the ranks to be a senior lawyer gave her little comfort.
“I didn’t feel inspired at the thought that if I kept at it and was industrious I could potentially be where the bosses were. The life ahead of me made me despair and feel depressed instead of motivated. When this last realisation set in, I understood I had to leave.”
Her age also played a part in her decision. “I felt like if I persisted into my thirties, I might never gain the courage to walk away from my life back then, golden handcuffs and all.”
After quitting her career of over six years, Jean dived headlong into her new life, running through a gamut of jobs, all while hopping from country to country.
PHOTO: Jean Voronkova
From being a surf instructor in Vietnam and Sri Lanka to doing freelance legal work, she was also a guest relations manager at a five-star resort, a language tutor, a personal trainer and Zumba instructor, to name a few.
Jean also started four different businesses along the way — “selling beanbags, luxury Brazilian swimwear, then having my own yoga sole proprietorship, and owning a surf school with my husband”. The pair had met as surf instructors in Vietnam before getting married and starting their business.
Jean and her husband Vitaly. PHOTO: Jean Voronkova
Most recently, during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, Jean returned to Singapore from Vietnam for a few months and even took on a three-week stint as a FairPrice staff — “one of those Covid jobs” — before rejoining her husband Vitaly, who’s Russian, in Moscow.
More change was to come.
When Jean turned 38 last year, the couple packed their belongings and moved to Bali, a move they’d already been dreaming of for several years and had begun actively planning for.
PHOTO: Jean Voronkova
The tipping point came during the pandemic, when business at the surf school they’d set up in Vietnam had came to a halt “and there was nothing else to hold us back”.
“Once our monthly passive income coming in could cover our all-in monthly living expenses in our target retirement destination of Bali, which is about US$1,500 (S$2,098) per month for both of us, off we went.”
So how were they able to do it? Jean credits it to four main factors — planning, luck, what she calls geo-arbitrage, and sacrifice.
In fact, she shared these tips on how to achieve her goal in a YouTube video published in June this year.
“It took only four years of dedicated investing and financial planning to get to my target amount,” Jean told AsiaOne, which we agree is a modest sum by most standards.
Rental fees from overseas properties that the couple had purchased contribute to the bulk of their passive income of between US$1,500 to US$2,000 each month.
Jean counts herself lucky that the couple’s surf school business in Vietnam and their investments had been profitable.
The concept of geo-arbitrage or geographic arbitrage is also another factor that allowed them to save money more easily.
“Living in Vietnam allowed us to take advantage of the modest costs of living whilst still making money from our business in US dollars, which accelerated our savings rate,” Jean shared.
“With regards to retiring in Bali, we are also lucky that the life we want to lead and the dream place to be in is actually very affordable, cost of living wise,” said Jean, noting that they wouldn’t have been able to do so if they had wanted to settle down in Singapore.
That the couple don’t live a lavish life and contend with a basic but comfortable standard of living is also another important point to mention. In Bali, home is a decent-sized property with a garden which they rent for less than $500 a month, and they zip around on scooters by means of transport.
Of course, such a life comes with sacrifices as well. Luxuries such as shopping sprees and designer handbags were the easiest to give up.
“I think the most difficult thing (about my life choices) is how it has stifled my ability to be generous towards my family, such as bringing my parents out for expensive meals and giving them luxury gifts,” Jean revealed.
When she’s back in Singapore, meetups with friends would also be at places such as Ya Kun instead of Raffles Courtyard, for example.
She’d rather maintain friendships with those who don’t mind meeting at more casual places rather than accept treats from friends at more lavish settings, she says, as she is “not super into shifting the financial consequences of [her] life choices onto others”.
On the flip side, however, what makes it well worth the sacrifice is the absolute freedom that she is able to enjoy.
“Life is on my own terms, I decide the how, when, what and why for most of the things I do. That sense of self-determination is what I enjoy most.”
To Jean, hers is a story of how one doesn’t have to conform to the typical Singaporean mould.
“Many people who make less than I did as a lawyer have actually walked down similar alternative paths,” she shared. “And they have found a myriad of ways to make it work for themselves.”
“I know other ex-professionals who are now pilates instructors, pottery teachers, or who became chiropractors, bakers or restaurateurs. Of the people I do know, I think very few actually turned away from their pursuit of this path because of actual financial failure. In fact, I can’t actually name one.”
Jean’s parents too, have come round and accepted her way of living, once time had made it clear she wasn’t turning back, and she wasn’t “struggling to survive” either.
The “big turning point”, she shared, was when her parents went to visit her in Vietnam.
PHOTO: Jean Voronkova
“They saw my life in the village and saw me at work on the beach teaching kitesurfing. They basically saw how happy and contented and at peace I was, which was a huge departure from how I was when I was still in the corporate world.”
For those who hope to traverse the “alternative path” in life as Jean did, or perhaps aspire to what’s known as the financial independence, retire early (FIRE) movement, she offers some quick tips on how you can prepare yourself for the journey ahead.
1. Save money
“Save money in advance. Don’t buy into any get-rich-quick schemes. Conservative and steady slow increases over a long period of time works more reliably and better.”
2. ‘Downgrading’ isn’t that bad
“For a lot of people (even if they don’t really know it yet), life is less about things and more really about great experiences and relationships so don’t worry too much about downgrading your lifestyle.”
3. You can always change your mind
“Life is never really fixed and final so one can always change the course of things (back, if necessary) if stuff doesn’t work out. But at least you tried and you’re not left wondering about it till the end.”
This article was first published on AsiaOne and republished on theAsianparent with permission.