I was an avid reader of financial independence, retire early (FIRE) blogs on the path to my own early retirement. They served as inspiration and education.
However, I found them to be an echo chamber. Each tries to outdo the next in an effort to show you how to optimize your life. Then you can retire sooner to a lifetime of carefree bliss.
That’s all great. Except it’s not true.
Sure, there are elements of truth in every FIRE blog. Just as reality TV reflects some elements of reality.
Any time we tell a story, we share details to help convey the message we want. Simultaneously, we leave out parts that don’t fit the narrative.
My wife and I worked hard and planned diligently to achieve financial independence far earlier in life than most people. Last year, I retired from my career as a physical therapist at the age of 41. Seven months later we moved across the country to start a new life we had dreamed of for years.
I envisioned living a life of freedom, purpose and happiness. At times, that has been the case. But that’s only part of the story. In reality, the past year has been one of the hardest of my life.
Here are five challenges we underestimated. Consider them to better prepare for your own early retirement.
1. What got you here won’t get you there
Shortly after leaving my job, I was interviewed by Todd Tresidder on the Financial Mentor podcast. He asked one question that stumped me: “What price did you pay to achieve financial freedom?”
I couldn’t identify anything substantial we sacrificed on the path to FIRE.
Todd made the astute observation that we didn’t experience sacrifice because our actions were in alignment with our values. That never clicked for me until hearing him say it.
Still, there is another layer to this analysis. Both my wife and I are natural savers, but that comes from a different place for each of us.
I’m driven by goals and purpose. I always felt that saving would enable a better future. This made it easy to save money in anticipation of that better tomorrow.
My wife is driven by a feeling of safety and security. Living well on only one of our incomes while saving the other fulfilled those needs.
She started cutting back her working hours about six years ago. Simultaneously, I was figuring out the technical aspects of investing and tax planning.
Even as her income dropped, our savings increased and our net worth grew considerably. Our actions remained in alignment with our core values.
Once we reached our savings goals, I was ready to move on to a new stage in life. For my wife, the idea of shifting from accumulation to decumulation is terrifying.
We realized the need to redefine retirement to line up with both our values. But taking this unconventional path in life is messy as we figure things out.
We’re in the best financial position of our lives. Simultaneously, we have more conflict than ever.
2. Change is hard
I’m fairly stoic. I can count on one hand the number of times I remember shedding a tear in my adult life. Yet on my last day of work, I found myself overcome with emotions.
For nearly 15 years, I worked at the same clinic. Like any workplace, it wasn’t perfect. But it was very good. I was the third newest employee in the core team of eight in my office.
The career I invested so heavily in, the group of people who had become my second family, the place where I spent the majority of my waking hours — in an instant all were gone. With that, a piece of me died.
I found myself unable to fight back the tears as I said my goodbyes. When I left the office, it got worse. I sat in my car and sobbed for a few minutes until I composed myself. Then I drove the whole way home with tears rolling down my cheeks.
Seven months later, we took the next big step in our new life. We moved cross country from Pennsylvania to Utah.
We envisioned our dream life. Living in the mountains. Pursuing our passions.
Again we underestimated how hard change would be.
Changes we thought would be easy were hard. A perfect example was selling a house we didn’t love. Still, that house harbored 15 years worth of memories. It was the only home our daughter ever knew.
Changes we knew would be hard were crushing. Most challenging of all was saying goodbye to family and friends.
It’s important to realize that when you choose something, by default you are rejecting everything else.
That doesn’t mean you should avoid hard decisions. Nor does it mean we made bad choices.
But no matter how well you plan or how much you prepare yourself, change is hard.
3. Transitions are even harder
I didn’t anticipate the magnitude of the emotions that came with these major changes. But I assumed things would quickly get easier as we transitioned to a new phase of life. I was wrong.
When I retired, everything familiar changed in the course of a weekend. On Friday, Dec. 1, I went to the same job I had gone to for over a decade. On Monday, Dec. 4, I woke up to an entirely different role in life.
I had to learn how to prioritize my day when no one was telling me where to go, when to be there or what to do. I needed to learn an entirely new skill set.
As we just started to settle into new roles and routines, we put our house on the market and started preparing to move.
Life became chaotic. Everything we would take needed to be packed. Things we didn’t want, need or have room for needed to be sold, donated or trashed.
These acts took time and energy. The emotional toll was greater.
Once we finally made the move, we assumed things would get easier. They got harder.
Everything we knew was gone. The simple act of going to the grocery now took an entire morning of wandering aimlessly around an unfamiliar space.
We needed to build a social network from scratch. Yes became our default answer to every offer. In the process, we had little time for ourselves, our relationship and the activities we moved to the mountains for.
We’re now a year into my early retirement and five months into our move. I don’t know when we’ll feel settled. We’re not there yet.
4. You’ll never have enough time
I worked a standard 40-hour workweek. I was required to take an hour unpaid lunch. My commute was about an hour round trip.
Add it up. That’s 50 hours accounted for every week. Over the course of a year, that’s about 2,500 additional hours freed up to do what I want.
Darrow [Kirkpatrick, founder of the Can I Retire Yet blog] wrote a post several years ago about why you’ll become busier after retirement. He also cautioned me personally about not taking on too much too soon.
It wasn’t that I didn’t listen. Things just didn’t compute. How would I fill all that time?
A year after leaving my job, I still feel too busy. I’m waiting to experience my first day of boredom. I wonder how I ever got anything done while working.
A common refrain on FIRE blogs is you shouldn’t retire from something, you should retire to something. I agree. But for those with a Type A personality who is most likely to put themselves in position to be able to retire in their 50s, 40s, or for some even your 30s, this advice probably isn’t necessary.
Here’s better advice. You should retire to something, but you can’t do everything. There aren’t enough hours in the day. You still need to prioritize your life.
5. Priorities won’t magically change
When I was planning early retirement, my mind drifted to all the things I would do with my free time. I would definitely ski more. I had plans to write more and reach more people. Both visions came true.
Despite a substandard season for snow last winter, my wife and I skied more than we had in years. We also frequently got our young daughter out with us. Over the course of one winter, we witnessed her progress from skiing between us with hands held to her leading us down black diamond slopes.
I had similar results with my writing. I finished the manuscript of a book, which I hope to have published by the first quarter of 2019.
My introductory post on this site was picked up by MarketWatch and continues to be popular. In May, I was shocked to find another of my posts syndicated by MarketWatch on the front page of MSN.
But skiing and writing were already priorities. We always managed to ski at least one day a week and do a ski trip every year. I wrote my original blog for a tiny audience and making no money for 3 1/2 years — while working full time.
Other things I envisioned happening didn’t materialize this year. I’ve always wanted to be a better rock climber. I used my work and living too far from climbing as excuses for not climbing more and better. With no job and moving to the mountains … I climbed less than ever this year.
I also thought I would volunteer more of my time. By the end of the year, I’m embarrassed to admit that of my 2,500 newfound free hours … I volunteered five of them this year.
This isn’t to say you can’t change and improve. But to think priorities will magically change because you have more time once you retire is a fallacy.
Financial independence makes life easier…
We all think life will be better and easier after retirement. To a degree, that assumption is correct. Otherwise why pursue this goal?
When my daughter is up all night sick, it still isn’t pleasant. But I can catch up on my sleep the next day instead of having to go to work exhausted.
She recently had a Friday morning field trip. Instead of having to work, I enjoyed spending the morning chaperoning her and her buddies at a local museum.
The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Snowbasin ski resort opened. Our family was there. It was the first time I ever got to ski an opening day. I was always working.
The following Wednesday night we got nine inches of snow. On Thursday morning, my wife and I were on the first gondola for a crowd-free weekday powder day.
There are many perks to an early retired lifestyle.
… and harder
But there are also new challenges. Following the standard path through life provides a lot of convenient excuses.
If you’re not being the parent, spouse or friend you should be, it’s easy to blame your job. You “have to” work hard to provide for your family.
It’s easy to stop exercising, to eat poorly or to not pursue goals and dreams when you’re working long hours at your job. Who has time for working out, planning and preparing healthy meals or doing other hard things? After all, you “have to” work.
Many people “have to” move away from their families to find higher-paying jobs. When you choose to leave family to pursue a different lifestyle, it’s harder for those you’re leaving behind to accept your decision.
Creating financial independence means you no longer are beholden to a job or employer. This gives tremendous freedom.
However, with that freedom comes greater personal responsibility. There is no “idiot boss” or long hours to blame for what ails you.
You own all of your decisions. The only person to blame if you’re not happy with your life looks at you every day from the mirror.
I hope this doesn’t dissuade anyone from following a similar path to the one I’ve taken. The freedom, security and options that financial independence provides outweigh the negatives.
Just recognize that financial independence and early retirement are not some magic bullet that will fix your life.
You can, and should, learn to be happy wherever you find yourself in your financial journey.
In some ways financial independence and early retirement will make your life easier. In other ways, FIRE creates new challenges that make life harder. Don’t underestimate that.
Chris Mamula used principles of traditional retirement planning, combined with creative lifestyle design, to retire from a career as a physical therapist at age 41. This was first published on the blog site Can I Retire Yet?