I’ve had a difficult time finding a way to create a new entry on a blog that has essentially been dead since 2015. Yet, I have had a persistent feeling that I owe my readers an update.
Consider this an effort to encapsulate the last five or six years into a single post containing fewer than
seven eight nine ten thousand thousand words so you can hopefully finish reading it in under half an hour.
I retired early on a shoestring, something called lean-FIRE as dubbed by the early-retirement geeks: a sub 4% withdrawal rate (appx 30Kish a year spend — renting, no home ownership) taken from a nest egg of approximately 950K.
During the year, I went on a few modest vacations and enjoyed myself.
I decompressed from work, stopped worrying about how productive I was, and more-or-less became accustomed to living out my days while not worrying too much about status. Or getting ahead. Or anything at all, really.
Despite the mental challenges, I was overwhelmingly happy for the duration.
What can I say? It was a great year.
More vacations and travel. A trip to Hawaii. Another to Portugal and France, taken together, two straight months out of the country. My wife has family in Portugal close to Lisbon, where we stayed for free, treating them to meals out and paying for the cost of various leisure activities for them in return for lodging — a fantastic trade.
I sucked down an awful lot of media — movies, video games, books. Way, way too much to document here. A day would often consist of exercising for an hour or two, spending some time my partner, and weaving reading/movie/videogames/tv stuff and/or listening to new music and/or playing guitar throughout the rest of it. A favorite activity was just laying on the couch with my wife, both of us reading for hours, facing each other while leaning on opposite arms of the sofa, with our legs intertwined.
I also continued to spend a lot of time with family — my aging mother, my wife’s nieces and nephews and parents, talking on the phone with folks. I saw old friends, getting together with them usually during a lunch hour where they’d stolen away from their own employer for a while just to see me and grab Thai food or something.
Toward the end of the year, I decided I wanted to pursue writing in a more serious way.
During this year I was overwhelmingly very, very happy. I think it was the best year of my entire life. I’d decompressed from work during the previous year and so this year I sort of let it all hang out. My wife and I were excited about the changes we’d made and felt closer than ever. Fantastic.
A lot of writing and reading. The majority of my day, most days. It’s terrific.
At the same time, I have a growing sense of disconnect from some of my old friends.
Time spent with family continues to be, you know, family time. Fine. Sometimes boring, sometimes dramatic, sometimes painful — particularly when a family member is having difficulty with something in their life and I can’t help. That kind of thing is just hard. But most of the time it’s awesome. Laughing and reminiscing and sharing meals and watching dumb comedies together and feeling close and happy.
But peers — people my age that are still working that I’ve been friends with for decades. That situation is another matter entirely. I find this year that I am losing a sense of intimacy with some of them. They work a lot — I do not. We are starting to lose some common interests and activities that helped to create our friendships in the first place. Some of the threads that bound us together for 20 plus years were perhaps unravelling.
Not going to lie. These developments bothered me. The first couple of years it didn’t seem to matter, the differences in our lives. Here in the third year, they do. I speculate that initially they viewed my change of lifestyle as temporary, but after a while, it stuck — they realized that I would not be working again and I am therefore, ahem, officially and forever different. (This is no temporary thing.) I feel sure that some of them also felt that they were, you know, continuing to move and shake and improve their lives whereas, from their perspective, I’d sort of given up — my life appeared to be a static thing, unchanging, and therefore pretty fucking boring.
I should point out that this (the growing feeling of disconnection) wasn’t true of all of my friends. With some of them I felt as close as ever. For example with my three best friends there have been very few changes to our relationship dynamics. They are the kind of people that don’t care whether or not you have recently updated your kitchen, if you catch my drift. But virtually everyone else — my more casual, normal-type friends — these are the people that I have more trouble relating to as time passes.
At any rate, I didn’t realize that this happened to so many people: Once they have been established in their careers for a decade or more, they 1) feel secure in their job 2) have accumulated some money and 3) feel compelled to start spending. And once everyone in your peer group is spending more money — well, then everyone is looking over their shoulder at everyone else’s spending and this is really how the whole Keeping Up game begins. This tendency overtook even people I would not have suspected to be vulnerable to the treadmill — one of my old friends from college for example, who grew up poor and didn’t spend much back in the day, now has a summer home in New Hampshire and a 4000 sq foot McMansion and all the trimmings. There is no going back. It’s strange to watch your own friends change their spending and living patterns right in front of your eyes as you get older. It fills in some of the blanks that you had when you were younger, looking up at the older generation, wondering how people and families turned into what they were.
Also throughout this year, my partner and I perhaps felt less close to one another. She was restless and according to my journal entries for the year I suspected she was growing depressed but trying to hide it from me. Late in the year, I confronted her on my observations and she didn’t deny it — she was having trouble with the new lifestyle. She also indicated that maybe she wanted to go back to work. This year we are mostly doing well, particularly in the first half. But there is a gradual and ominous shift to something else, something not so great, and we can both feel it.
During the year, I try to support her: I encourage her to either find employment again or look for something that might make her happier but she refuses both options. She said this despite telling me that she felt she was happier back when she was working. (She said this in Oct of 2017). A large part of our relationship in the final quarter of this year is examining things that might make her feel better, because she is not doing great anymore. (She rejected the idea of seeing a therapist to help her think things through.)
More travel: Multiple Canadian cities, Niagra Falls, Austin TX, a ton of little 1-off trips to drive-able cities that I’d never before been to: Portland Maine, Rockland Maine for the annual Lobster Fest, Albany NY. We saw at least 20 museums this year, too many to list. We walked outside for an hour and a half nearly every day, smack in the middle of it, when normal people were at work. And there are just a bazillion little fun things that we did that would take too much space to document. This year we took full advantage of our freedom.
I am still fairly happy this year although toward the last couple of months I can see that things are perhaps beginning to move in the wrong direction.
The writing stalls.
In 2017, it was fun and I did it for its own sake. Here in 2018, the practice is still enjoyable but I have more difficulty completing stories. Or feeling like I am making measurable progress toward any definite milestones or goals. I suddenly feel like it’s important to get some kind of external validation for my work: I submit completed work to publications and am rejected. Most of the time I feel as though I’m adrift at sea with this ancient fantasy of mine — the fantasy that I might be a writer. I start to think: I’m not good enough. I’m too old. I will never achieve mastery, and even if I do, no one will notice. My brain tells me it’s over — that my window of opportunity has passed — with that familiar subjective (and often wrong) complete certainty that your internal voice loves to provide.
I am perfectly aware that it took most established writers years and years and years of practice before anything significant happened – a published story, finding a publicist that believed in them, readers who clamored for more. And I know that most people who want to be writers wind up writing a lot and never going anywhere. Further, I also know that many writers who are Quite Fucking Good go completely unnoticed throughout their lives. As is the case with virtually everything in the arts, it’s not exactly an easy thing to do — to be externally successful.
So this year I’m frequently wondering if I have the stamina to make it through this phase, the middle-territory, where I’m reasonably competent but not good enough to do anything other than amateur hour shit that lives in a file on my computer.
I start to understand I need new friends — people that are into what I’m into. I sign up for Creative Writing evening classes at a local state college and make it through the semester just fine and my professor loves me but I’m underwhelmed by the whole experience and don’t make friends. (I have a lot to say about this but won’t unpack it here because I’m trying to keep this post at a high-level-summary for the most part.)
My partner and I are doing well overall, particularly in the first half of the year. She’s still struggling to be happier, but on balance our relationship continues to be pretty awesome. We continue to spend a lot of time together, taking trips, laughing about dumb shit, going on daily walks, sexy times, cuddling, all of the good stuff that makes relationships great.
Toward the end of 2018 though, in December, we had an argument that still haunts me. She said she wasn’t “kind of sort of” unhappy anymore. Nope. Now it was official. Unhappy with a capital U.
She revealed that she felt like she wasn’t “going anywhere.” And when we were both working and getting richer, she felt like we were secretly getting ahead — making forward progress of sorts — even though nobody else could see it because we weren’t broadcasting our early retirement goals and corresponding asset sheet. (See: Stealth Wealth.) The sharp yearly increases in account balances we experienced during our working years gave her life some sense of momentum that had been since lost since we stopped receiving paychecks. She also said that she now felt her friends’ lives were better than ours. This was her phrasing. I disagreed: They’re working, we are not. I said that I personally love the hell out of this, that we’ve stopped performing activities which so frequently made us miserable. I see our current lives as better. Theirs appear to be a constant struggle most of the time.
It didn’t matter. Her comments were telling. She felt like she was ‘falling behind’ and this sense made her anxious and uncomfortable — it contributed to feelings of worthlessness, and she felt like she was doing something wrong with her life. Another phrase, similar to the first one but turned on its head: ‘We should be further along in our lives.’
In other words, she still felt pressure to keep up with the mythical Joneses. She was no longer on the treadmill of work. She was instead standing still on the sidelines, watching all her friends. They moved their legs on the exercise machines and money came out of the side of them. They moved a little more and new hardwood flooring appeared in their bedroom at home. More yet and they’re rewarded with a brand new sunroom.
To me, these people on their exercise machines were standing still — nothing was happening in their lives. But to her, they appeared to be going somewhere. Because: Instagram and Facebook and posts about their Very Awesome Timeshares and summer homes and expensive vacations and whatever else they were blowing money on. Their acquisitions signaled progress to her in a way that they simply did not for me.
I suppose this is is a testament to the different reactions one can have to the same experience — the experience of watching your friends work away at through their jobs while they spend money on <stuff>.
Something else that I’ve come to believe is this: She felt that her friends were jumping upward in class. It wasn’t just about the material stuff — and it also wasn’t about the fancy vacations per se. It was the fact that upper-middle and lower-upper class people talk a lot about these things — the homes, the upgrades, the travel. It’s their language. Then they weave the material stuff into a narrative about how they’ve earned it, how their life is a struggle and they’ve done incredibly well to pull off this level of comfort, and it all somehow has to do with how incredible they are as people. There’s a self-satisfaction in the conversational rituals that she was missing out on. Perhaps by extension, she was lower class by not being able to participate directly in these spending patterns and conversational games.
This is no longer as simple as FOMO. This is feeling estranged and lost — excluded and isolated. I wrote about this sort of problem way back in this ancient post.
My hypothesis in that post: Certain people are just wired to be like everyone else. To move with the pack, stay with the herd socially and so on. Others don’t feel as constrained and aren’t as bothered when they find themselves fifty yards away from where everyone else is. These tendencies and preferences are part of our core personality makeup.
I have to say — my spouse’s behavior was on-track with everything I wrote in that post. She’s a Rational and a Guardian rolled into one. I tried my best to convert her — to make her more comfortable being different and pursuing her own path, but in the end, she had too much Guardian in her. Instead she wanted to follow the trail that was blazed by so many of our peers. She needed to stay with them and not be so different.
If you want to read some details of our conversations, you can. I don’t want to clutter this supposedly brief summary with too much of the nitty gritty.
It’s not the ED you are thinking of — I’m not going to get gross in this blog, relax.
In February of this year, I blew my back out. Normally when someone fucks up their back it gets better in a couple of weeks. Mine did not.
I go through the health-care rigmarole to try to figure out what is wrong. Appointments with a lot of different doctors, who are all having trouble understanding what’s wrong. It’s terrifying to be honest: At times I feel like I will never be OK again.
In April, after a couple of months of diagnostics, I have a genetic test for the connective tissue disorder Ehlers-Danlos-Syndrome. ED, or EDS to be more complete. Confirmed. My tissues and joints are loose, everywhere. I’ve known my whole life that I was flexible and had more discomfort than most people in certain parts of my body but always chalked it up to being double jointed and it didn’t seem to seriously impact my life until this particular physical trauma.
So look, it’s a rough start to the year. I spend a lot of time doing physical therapy, building up my muscles so I can reduce stress on my joints, which don’t hold themselves together as well on me as they do on normal people — my tendons are too long, my skin is too elastic. It can be a struggle to get through days. I have a lot of appointments with doctors. My life basically sucks during this period.
So around late May of 2019, I’m finally on my feet again. (My core is amazing at this point, btw, I basically built it up so that there’s a lot less stress on my spine and hips.) I feel more or less all right. I still have to do close to an hour a day of exercises to keep my body stable so I don’t fall apart again. I don’t care. It’s a small price to pay for being able to have a normal life.
During this time of physical rehabilitation, while I was struggling with the physical issues, my partner finally figured out what would make her happier. It was a relationship with another man. Disgusted and disappointed <a million unwritten feelings and descriptions go here> I take steps to end our relationship — this is June of 2019.
For anyone who thinks that we could have worked it out, I must say that I’m one of those people who won’t get past infidelity because it is a core trust issue. After that detail came to light, I lost all interest in trying to reconcile. And she wasn’t trying that hard anyway, because she had acquired, somehow, New Life Dreams, which had to do with Conspicuous Consumption and Keeping Up and being Visibly Awesome — dreams which are at odds with my own. Her (updated) definition of best life and my own definition of best life were irreconcilable — the disconnect was real. On top of it all, she decided I was going to be crippled the rest of my life, and couldn’t stomach the thought of being a caretaker. (I am not crippled, I look pretty good at 5’10 155lbs, and am healthy, still muscular, totally functional, and do not need anyone to care for me. I just have to do an enormous amount of daily physical maintenance in order to stay this way.) Anyway, I’ll stop there, I don’t want this to turn into bitching about my failed long-term relationship. The bottom line is that by August of 2019, we were done. (The 2021 update on her is that she moved out of state to be with that guy for a year and then dumped him just a month ago.)
I lost my running group. I was an avid runner for decades but I can’t do this form of activity anymore. Running was a major source of release for me — a social outlet, a way to burn energy, be outdoors, and feel good about life in general. Gone.
After the breakup — this is late summer 2019 — I find myself to also be Officially Unhappy, with the capital U and everything. I felt isolated and alone. I questioned everything. Early retirement. The whole financial independence (FI) goal. They say that if you aren’t thinking about happiness then you are probably happy. This, the end of 2019, is the first year since retiring that I think about my happiness — or lack thereof — an awful fucking lot. So there you go.
My own genetic gods were not so kind.
The New Job
In other news, my previously calculated FI math suddenly no longer works because I am single and it’s more expensive generally to be single than part of a couple with shared expenses. Plus I’m spending more — quite a bit more actually — because of the health issues.
Toward the end of the year I began working again in an attempt to fix this problem. I was on my own.
Not-So-Fun Fact: My relationship status and ED altered the Early Retirement Math. I had to confront this head-on and make some changes. I was still quite well-off but I wasn’t in great shape to go the rest of my life without adding a bit to my nest egg.
Conclusion: I needed income again. Luckily, the job market was hot and as such my time away from the workforce wasn’t a deterrent for employers. At the end of the year, I get a job consulting in my old field — Information Technology, Software, Infrastructure-as-a-Service, DevOps for those in the know.
The job isn’t bad — I don’t have a manager to directly report to, I work from home 4 out of 5 days a week, (5/5 now due to Covid) there’s no travel, the pay is good, the people are all right. Very occasionally I have a stressful day or two when I can’t figure something out or someone is leaning on me and I sweat things. Overall, though, I find I’m mostly okay with working again, especially because I suddenly need and value the money. Back in 2015, when I first quit, I had trouble understanding why I was bothering to earn money, since we had “enough” to retire on, given our spending as a couple. This is no longer the case — I, as a single entity, suddenly needed and valued the income and health-care benefits. I also should point out that working helped to reduce my feelings of isolation and loneliness — it gave me something concrete to do, people to interact with, that kind of thing. It provided problems and situations to keep my brain busy in the wake of the split up so I couldn’t ruminate/obsess on it endlessly. This might sound like I’m trying to hard to find positives about working again but holy shit I am not. Staying busy helped me to get through this period of my life.
I don’t view this — going back to work — as a “give-up” move. It was pragmatic and necessary. I also valued the low-deductible health care — I continue to have physical therapy and checkpoints with specialists for the Ehlers-Danlos condition. For example, I will continue to need MRIs a couple of times a year which cost 2-3K a pop.
All that being said — all of the positives and so on — work still sucks. I am good at what I do and I sometimes feel good about accomplishing stuff but I don’t particularly enjoy it in and of itself. It’s great in the sense that it passes time and gives me some social interactions and feelings of accomplishment — plus money of course — but I still do not have any sort of sense that this is my calling. I would certainly not do this for free.
Also: The CV-19 driven zoom meeting craze in 2020 can go fuck itself.
Attempts to Reach Out
In the second half of this year I decided to, for the second time since leaving work in 2015, take classes in writing at a (different) local state college and the experience was again overwhelmingly negative for surprisingly similar reasons to the first attempt. My thought was that maybe the socialization and structure would help to jump-start my brain, getting me back in the mindset to be more productive with the pen again. Maybe it’d even inspire me. But it didn’t work out.
I also decided to see a therapist again, for the first time in about seven years, and the guy I selected turned out to be close to useless. After five sessions I realized he’s rather unimaginative and cannot comprehend the sort of challenges I have in my own life, which are: I am returning to work unexpectedly after years off (unusual for a previously high earning dude), I am single and lonely, I am kind of mentally shot and discouraged about my newfound physical problems, I’m extremely disappointed in both myself and my ex for complicated reasons, and I am having major issues with the sort of “what is the point of my life exactly, again?” kind of questions that of course periodically plague us all but are, at this particular point in this particular year, not even close to periodic, they’re absolutely unending — so I dump him after just a month. I call around and find another therapist and the exercise is almost exactly the same. (This is not good. I start to think that I’m just massively damaged and can’t relate to anyone anymore. Even professionals.)
Living A FI
I start to have disturbing Thoughts about This Blog
Specifically, a lot of shame. I barely thought about this thing in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 when I was relatively happy. But here in late 2019, I begin to think:
Holy shit, maybe I’m steering people in the wrong direction. There’s so much left of life, so much that will change, so much that will deviate from peoples’ original plans. Most folks think they’re going to live and love without major hurdles or changes. Maybe the vast majority of them won’t. But surely some of them will have similar challenges. Am I giving folks terrible advice? Telling people to just say fuck it and quit because their financial numbers “work” based on their current situation?
I looked at other FI bloggers who quit work and retired. They all appeared to be blissful. Stoic. Confident and without reservations. Since I ran into problems myself, I started to feel like I was defective. Like something was wrong with me and that’s why it didn’t work so well. Maybe it has to do with my personality (a nerdy introvert). Or it could be because I’m not trying to sell product and make money off of my choices, like almost everyone else who blogs about FI seems to. Maybe I needed to feel like reaching FI itself was going to help me to continue to make money or socialize — maybe publicizing it and earning some dough as a result and getting together with groups of people who shared my goal would have helped me to retain a sense of progression and momentum in life, along with more connection. I’m not negatively judging those other bloggers — I know it sounds like I am but I’m not. I was exploring why they seemed to be doing better and I think there’s something to these ideas.
But instead I was anonymous. Just a random dude with a blog who quit working. I wasn’t holding conferences with disciples. I wasn’t trying to turn this shit into a hustle. Becoming financially independent — it was just something I did, as a life choice. I didn’t consider it to be who I was. It wasn’t a new kind of career or something. It wasn’t and isn’t something I’m trying to push on people. Maybe that was my mistake. Maybe I should have embraced this thing as my identity instead of just being my regular ‘ol self.
I can barely stand to think about it. Specifically what I can’t stand to think about is this idea: I retired on a sort of “lean-FIRE” budget, confidently told the world I’d be just fine, and five years or so later, I’m a wreck, I’d lost my partner, and I had to make sizable changes. I kept feeling that I’d failed somehow. Like I’d done something wrong — I felt guilty.
I thought I’d be fine forever after I quit. And I wasn’t.
Still, I don’t think that I am example of a stereotypical “Early Retirement Fail” exactly. There are threads in certain internet forums (MMM for example) where this topic is discussed and the focus seems to be on financial ruin. This is not me.
Look, I need to be clear about a couple of things:
Nothing terrible happened to me financially. My relationship went south and the numbers no longer worked so I found employment again. I can’t consider this a failure of the whole financial independence goal. It was instead a result of my unexpectedly changing life, plain and simple. And that failure forced me to re-examine the overall plan. I’m in good shape generally, but I’ll be in better shape if I continue to work and save for a few more years.
Yeah, without my former partner, I became depressed and anxious and again struggled with one of the great questions that terrorizes us all: Purpose. But let’s characterize the failure. I didn’t have difficulty filling my days with stuff to do. I didn’t start drinking or smoking a lot of weed or fall out of shape or gain a bunch of weight. What did happen was that I realized I needed more out of life. The discomfort — that growing sense of unhappiness, the creeping edges of depression just out of my direct line of sight as though it’s hiding in the periphery at all times — well. That discomfort did exactly what it was supposed to do. It prompted me to make some major changes that moved me in the right direction.
As far as failures go, it was a good one.
Despite all of my issues and some amount of depression, in November of 2019, I found the energy to mess around with dating apps, the Tinders and the Bumbles and the eHarmonys. (Special thanks to my good friend Testosterone for the motivation. You’re my homey, 4ever.)
After a number of horrific experiences, going out on first dates over and over again with women that I knew instantly were the wrong match for me, people I would never be comfortable with (this is women who are heavily invested in social media and status, broadcasting a lot of details about their life and so on, which is fine for a lot of men, but simply not a good fit for me due to my personality), early in 2020, I finally met a wonderful, kind, grounded person: A reader, a writer, a nerd, a librarian.
We hit it off. (Thank fucking god..)
And life gradually starts feeling better.
The year of Covid-19.
This year my net worth starts climbing crazily, despite the bomb-out in March of 2020.
I manage to hold on without selling. Barely. Watching the totals drop is wrenching, a total gut-check. It reminded me a lot of 2008 meltdown that I wrote about in this post, except the drop was more sudden. I was tempted to sell constantly — every day, every hour! — but I didn’t. I had to re-read John Bogle’s Common Sense on Mutual Funds to help me stay the course.
During this tumultuous period, I find myself being incredibly grateful that I have a job that allows me to work remotely so I can continue to earn income and have access to the health care benefits that I need.
When things start climbing again with the US DOM S&P 500, I can hardly believe it. First back up to break even, then upward and onward and what the fuck is happening type-shit.
Note: This is why you just stay in the market. You don’t know what is going to happen and nobody does. Stick to your Stock/Bond asset allocation and keep dumping money in and tune out the financial chatter and let it go. You will do OK. (Probably. According to history, anyway.)
I continue to spend a lot of time this year with my new partner. Our relationship flourishes. Despite CV-19, we spend many weekends embarking on short trips, often after taking a covid test, which are free in our state and help set us at ease. I am painting a little bit again. I start writing again as well. I do my physical therapy and submit a bunch of good work for my employer. I also take care of my mother when she needs it — she is in my Covid bubble.
I persist in doing the things that I enjoy, despite all the bullshit in the world. I read more books this year than I can remember reading in any year in my entire life. I expand to new authors. I read books that my new partner recommends, things I might have never been exposed to otherwise, Shirley Jackson and May Sarton and Margaret Atwood and Rachel Cusk.
In the middle of the year I try again to find a therapist and this time I find someone that is much better. It’s hard to express why but we clicked and I felt she understood me in ways the previous two did not. She puts me on an antidepressant. (I have a family history of depression. Bet you didn’t see that coming </sarcasm>) This is the first time that a therapist firmly told me to take medication. I agreed because I wanted to feel better and was willing to try things. It helps — I feel as though it’s prompting me somehow to get unstuck, to some extent.
Despite CV-19 and political unrest and a lot of economic uncertainty, despite my continuing health problems and slowly grinding myself out of the fog of what was clearly, in hindsight, depression, it’s a good year all things considered, and a year that gets steadily better as it goes. By the end of it, I realize it had been terrific overall, if you want to know the full truth. I feel a little bad having such a wonderful year when so many are suffering but that’s how it ended up.
The most important cog in the machinery of my personal happiness turned out to be a simple one: Having a wonderful partner. This will sound like a dumb 90s pop song written by a boy band but whatever, I’m head over heels for her and that makes everything better, despite my physical issues, despite CV-19, despite fucking everything.
I have meaning and love in my life — daily meaning, meaning that’s easy to define and pays off constantly — and it has nothing to do with employment and money.
It’s been said a billion times that money doesn’t make you happy. People do. Connections and relationships do. Purpose helps, too.
This year makes me a believer in all of the above. 100%. If that’s cheesy, so be it — I’m the Mayor of Cheese.
Odds and Ends
The White Space Issue
The English author Martin Amis once wrote: Happiness writes white.
We all sort of instinctively know this. If this post consisted of all of the joy I took from not working for several years – the food in France, the mansions in Newport RI, the lazy mornings, the walks around ponds with adorable ducklings following me around hoping for breadcrumbs, the billion details I can’t even remember myself — it’d frankly be intolerable to read.
It’s not nearly as fun or interesting to read about someone’s satisfactions than someone’s struggles.
So please consider this: The fact I had almost nothing to say about 2015, 2016, 2017, and most of 2018 is a tremendous indication that I was quite happy overall, and simply didn’t want to share the specifics. I was happier during these years than I was in the years prior when I was working, easily, not-even-close, full stop.
Besides, we don’t learn a hell of a lot from other peoples’ happiness very often, do we?
Holy shit do things change.
The best laid plans, right?
I thought I had everything set. I had a financial drawdown schematic in place. I knew what my yearly spend rate was. My partner was on-board and excited. I absolutely had plans — lots and lots of plans — for how to spend my time.
I got older. My long-time lover and partner-in-crime and I split at the end of summer in 2019 — I mean we’d been together for two decades. Who isn’t going to get down about a relationship of that length ending, regardless of the circumstances?
Plus, my monthly expenses went up somewhat as a result. I was diagnosed with a health condition that requires constant care and feeding (and cash). I met a new person that I feel certain I am going to spend the rest of my life with. (We’re currently engaged — awesome!) I went back to work because circumstances indicated this was the right move to make, for the time being.
Is this an early-retirement fail? I don’t think so. I was met with challenges and I adapted to them. I’m generally happy now.
I just had no idea what sorts of things might happen after I retired.
The bottom line is that I made a financial plan that would have worked out just fine had I not had a crushing relationship termination plus the discovery of a permanent and expensive health condition.
The initial plan itself was fine.
But the plot twisted: My life decided it didn’t want to conform to the plan.
If you are yourself working on becoming FI and you have any specific takeaway from this post, let it be this: You are making future plans based on what your current life looks like. Your current job, your current income, your current partner, your current percentage of savings, your expected market return, your housing costs, your location and so-on. You’re assuming large parts of your life will remain static over the next X years, where, for many early-retiree hopefuls, X is 30+ years, perhaps even fifty.
They may not be static. It might be a mistake to think that things will be as smooth as you believe they will be. The ability to recover from changes and disruptions — to be adaptable and resilient in the face of adversity — will show itself to be perhaps the most critical Early Retirement skill of them all. I hope sincerely that nothing changes for everyone on this path — that your happiness meter goes up to max and stays there. But for some percentage of us, like myself — well. We will hit bumps in the road, potholes, areas of the street that are flooded out where you need to slow down or even turn around and find another route. And we will all need to be flexible enough to deal with it.
I now view my personal setbacks as a net-positive, no doubt. I mean, I found a new partner who is a much closer match to my values. Her idea of a nice car, for example, is the Ecto-1. The Lego version, specifically.
She doesn’t care about peacocking and keeping up people and looking great on Facebook or any of that shit whatsoever. (I know because we talk about this sort of thing a lot — our level of communication is honestly much better than between myself and my ex.) She just wants us to be happy together. And she doesn’t think that the path to happiness is buying stuff and/or taking expensive vacations and bragging about it on social media platforms.
Mostly, she says, she just wants to be comfy in a nice hobbit-hole with me and some friends and family around us. We’re also almost certain to buy a house and have a kid together, too, and this is something I couldn’t do with my ex for <reasons>.
I find all of this to be incredibly exciting and amazing.
Extremely Rough Financials
I retired early 2015 with about 950 in assets. 60K of this was cash. I spent about 30K a year. (My spouse also spent 30k, making our combined total 60k /yr — but the focus of this section is how my own net worth fared over the last 6 years, so we need to focus on that 30K number.)
Had things gone exactly according to plan, I would have spent about 180K over the duration as a result (6 years at my planned 30K/yr withdrawal amount). But truth be told, I spent a bunch over that due to problems I’d listed above in this post. So I came in at closer to 240K — 40k annually — 33% higher, a 10k/yr difference.
Of that 890K that wasn’t cash, I had a 70/30 stock bond split as per my investment policy statement.
Very long story short, I spent an average of 40k a year, I rebalanced yearly to retain my 70/30 allocation, and I wound up with about 1.3 million.
This seems like a ton of money but keep in mind that 1.300K in 2021 dollars equals approximately 1.150K in 2015 when I retired.
So we can say that inflation adjusted, my net worth has gone up by about 20%. There’s some rounding and fudging here as I don’t care to crunch everything exactly for the purposes of this blog but it’s a good enough percentage to ballpark it for the readers that care (and yeah, I know some do. Full disclosure, I didn’t even bother to run these numbers until writing this blog post — my personal give-a-shit meter on this topic wasn’t high enough.)
You read that right. My net worth has gone up despite not working for nearly 5 years. I can’t quite believe it myself. And I thought I was retiring at a market peak and had virtually no hope of getting this kind of performance over the next 5-6 years.
It just goes to show: You just never know how things are going to go.
Only one. At the time I quit working in 2015, I had to leave my job for a shit-ton of reasons that are well-documented in the historical pages of this blog. Mostly I was just tired of continually working. I’d been working 48 out of 52 weeks a year or more for 18 straight years. Make no mistake about it: People aren’t meant to work like this. It’s totally absurd.
So I don’t regret going for something along the lines of lean-FIRE and I don’t regret trying to live a life where I wasn’t spending much money and I don’t think that being frugal had any impact on my happiness overall. I don’t regret quitting when I did, and I don’t regret taking time off from work. Quite the opposite. I needed the break, the change of pace, the new experiences and the perspective.
I am sorry that things didn’t work out between my (ex) wife and I and sometimes I wonder if I could have done some things differently that might have held us together. (Almost definitely I could have.)
But in the end I know that I am a kind and caring person — a person who tried to communicate with her, to support and help her to be happy, no matter what she felt she needed. She said earnestly, hundreds of times, that she wanted to take this journey with me, and she changed her mind a few years in. Then, before we could work it out, there was that little adultery thing I’d mentioned before, at which point we really had no path forward together — she closed off any possibility of sharing a future with me. I’m upset about all of this, of course. But I’m not sure I have any regrets. I tried my best. I believe that.
So far I don’t regret going back to work in my old field/industry although I don’t love it and I am aware of the irony given how much I have complained about work in the pages of this blog and insisted I would never go back.
It’s also worth pointing out that all of my saving and investing in my 20s and 30s has positioned me to do whatever I want, more or less. It has given me freedom to make choices, exactly as I’d hoped it would all along.
I still have an amazing stash of money. I mean, I was able to take close to five straight years off work and still have more than I started with, inflation-adjusted. How many people get to take this amount of time off work when they’re 40? As of this writing, after a year and a half or so of additional work, I now have about 20% more, inflation adjusted, than when I initially quit. This stash still gives me options and freedom that most people don’t have. I could, for example, leave the country, go to a cheaper place, and live out the rest of my days there comfortably with virtually no financial concerns.
It just so happens that I’d rather stay in Massachusetts (US) with my new partner. I want to make a life together here, surrounded by our families and friends and familiar roads and shops and communities, without worrying too much about money. The stash still absolutely allows me to do this and I’m grateful for this every single day — still grateful for the actions that I took when I was younger that allowed the current version of me, at age 43 here in 2021, to be as free and confident as I am now.
So what was that one regret? It’s that I didn’t take my partner’s initial unhappiness more seriously. I encouraged her to explore her own life and find activities and goals that would help her feel better. I suggested therapy and offered to go with her. I was clear that if she wanted to go back to work I was eager to support her in this. I wanted her to do anything that might help. But my suggestions and support weren’t enough — I never could figure out what she wanted or how I could help — from my perspective it seemed as though she rejected most of my attempts to talk about this. But I still have this sense that I could have and should have done better here.
Bottom line: We didn’t communicate effectively in this area, and of course that’s at least 50% my fault. I wish I knew what I could have done differently here but it’s clear to me that I didn’t do enough. By the time I understood what a huge problem this was for her – the lack of direction/progress/purpose in her life – that she just wasn’t excited about anything anymore — it was too late.
I’ll never have full closure on the relationship but I no longer care. Part of being a healthy adult is sometimes accepting the behavior of people without understanding all of the reasons behind their actions. Closure is great, of course, but we don’t always get it.
It’s sort of exhausting to think about coming up with a new plan to quit work and retire again.
But it will happen at some point, for sure. I’m currently working on finding a place to live with my partner. We may get married. We may have a kid together. These things — the house, a possible child — they will surely change the retirement math yet again.
My fiancé is a librarian and she doesn’t make a ton of money. This drastically changes the early-retirement numbers for the two of us. My ex had a lot of scratch — a roughly similar asset sheet to my own. However, although my fiancé is frugal and debt free, she does not have a large nest egg nor an enormous earning potential — she frankly needs some help in order to do this thing with me. And says she doesn’t want to stop working, regardless . She actually — honestly and truly — loves her job. (She helps individual people on a day to day basis and this is instantly gratifying and awesome for her — it sort of continually fills her daily energy meter, if I can do a video game analogy. In contrast, the societal benefits of my own work are so heavily abstracted as to be basically unrecognizable and unmeasurable — I sure as hell don’t see the results myself. If there are any, at all.)
Anyway — bottom line is that my own asset sheet funds the lion’s share of our future together. (I don’t care in the slightest, I’m just stating facts. And I did not plan for this, or expect this. It’s just the way it is, now.)
Additionally, I’m spending more than that 30K/yr I had estimated back in 2015. I’m at 40K now and we’ll be at 55K together I think, once we consolidate assets and buy a home. It’s also possible that I might spend more in the future, too. Not ridiculous amounts. Not on cars or excessive housing or anything stupid. I enjoy being fairly minimalist, not just because it saves me money, but also because it reduces my negative impact on the world (less energy consumption and waste, etc.)
But I really want to travel some with her — at least a couple of substantial international trips a year. And my window to visit other countries — to experience life and be out-and-about, walking and sightseeing and behaving like a normal person, may be closing a lot sooner than I previously thought, due to the whole ED condition. I might not be fully mobile in a decade. (I should be — I hope to be! — But I don’t know for sure.)
Travel isn’t free. While we won’t be taking luxury vacations, neither do I want to blink if we want to, say, eat at a cute café or take a ferry to an island or pay money to get into any and all museums or whatever. I want to go and do the things we want to do instead of agonizing over relatively small dollar amounts. I want to be present in the moment and not restrict our activities out of some desire to not spend as much. And I don’t want to talk or think about money all that much while traveling, either. We will think about money while we do the planning, absolutely — set a budget, spending targets and so on — but once we’re out and about, no thank you. I feel like if you are so paranoid about being cheap while you are on vacation that you forget to enjoy yourself, you’ve missed the point.
Anyway. The bottom line is that I won’t quit my current gig at least until we’ve gotten to a place where I feel we’re stable. The housing thing in particular — it’s a huge variable. At current mortgage interest rates (3%) I have decided it’s better to carry housing debt than pay off a residence. But it’s much easier to get a mortgage if you have a job with the accompanying paystubs. So I’m sure I will at least carry my job until we find a house together and the mortgage/finances are accounted for — this will help me to project our future together and create a financial plan that works for our family.
Aside: COVID and low interest rates have really made housing prices in suburbs of major cities spike to absurd levels, which is where we’re looking, and it is a problem. The home I sold in mid 2015 for example for 850K just sold again in 2020 for a whopping 1.150 Million. A 35% increase in 5 years. Raise your hand if your salary went up 35% during that time. I didn’t think so.
Another Aside: When I was younger, I often read on financial forums that so-called comfort spending would probably go up as I became older — that it’s hard to maintain the same level of vigilance with regard to being frugal as the years pass. You get tired. And at the same time, your asset sheet (probably) increases. You want to spend a little more in order to have a few more pleasures here and there. I brushed this shit off at the time. I thought comfort spending was silly and dumb. And yet here I am, at 43, with slightly higher year-over-year spending than I projected. I must admit, this is a direct result of comfort spending. I turn the heat slightly higher, especially if my partner is uncomfortable, despite my thoughts about both the money and the increased CO2 emissions we’re producing. (I am a huge climate change nerd, I just don’t write about it much because it’s so polarizing). I don’t worry as much about going out to eat once in a while, particularly if we are both exhausted. Part of me hates myself even as I make these decisions, because I know I could be doing better — I could be more efficient! I could have a lighter impact on the planet! — but despite the awareness, I find myself making the easier choices more and more. I feel embarrassed to admit this but at the same time I wanted to get these facts about my life out there, in the interest of full disclosure. I mean this is a blog in which I admitted my partner cheated on me — could I possibly reveal anything worse? A meth addiction? I’m not sure… At any rate, the years have changed me somewhat. I’m not a different person exactly — but my edges have become more rounded and smooth. I view this as a positive development.
On another note, at this point, time is my enemy, much more so than money. Luckily, because of my role at my current company, I can take weeks off (unpaid) between projects, and this time will allow me to do the things I want to do with my significant other. I should be able to balance things together in a way that allows me to be free and live my life my own way.
So you want a date as to when I’ll quit and retire again?
Look, I do too. But looking forward to a life without work isn’t as important to me as it used to be. It helps now that I know what it’s like. (It also helps that I’m not burnt out anymore.)
Not working is awesome, for sure — I was able to do whatever I wanted with my time, and I didn’t miss work at all. (I know a lot of people who retire wind up missing work but honestly, this just never happened for me. Sure, other life-type problems cropped up that I had to deal with but I never once thought for example I really wish I was broadcasting my recent corporate achievements to a manager in a fake-hierarchy instead of pursuing my own interests during the 4.75 years without employment. I just… didn’t. Didn’t miss the job, didn’t miss the function, didn’t miss working.)
Still, I learned that having freedom in and of itself didn’t automatically bring me happiness. Happiness is more complicated than that.
So in the short term, it’s easier to get a check and work the job and focus on my life with my partner instead of the future. I simply no longer see working as a huge impediment to my overall happiness.
And by extension, I no longer see quitting my job and retiring early as the most direct path to bliss. It was five years ago, but now?
Happiness is not thinking too carefully about the finances.
Happiness is spending as much time as I possibly can with my partner.
Happiness is thinking about growth and joy and changes in the days to come.
Happiness is a mix of thinking about now and ten or twenty years from now — pleasure in the moment, satisfaction through the week, and some sense that you have a lot to look forward to as the world continues to turn.
There’s no point to Early Retirement if you haven’t properly positioned yourself toward the light of future happiness.
So people might say:
Retire again. Retire now livingafi. You have the money. Do it. You’ve said in the past that you hated work. And you said yourself that you have a bit more money now than you did five years ago. You know what you want to retire TO. You want to be a a reader, a writer, a husband, a family-man. You can do it right now. Quit again.
And so I could. But I’m not so much worried about a life without work as I am a life without meaning or purpose or love.
So I will work until I am sure that all of these things can exist in harmony, and without a ton of financial stress.
It is going to be a couple more years, given the abundance of unknowns.