Well, it finally happened! Today was my very last day of cubicle life! To be honest, I'm a little surprised myself, seeing as how determined I was to make it until January to help us hit our FI number.
That's right. I'm RE before FI. I don't know if this qualifies as retired early, since we haven't quite hit our FI number yet. All I can say with confidence is that I am now unemployed, and loving it! These past few weeks have been a blur… so what the hell happened?!
Breaking the Golden Handcuffs
I've griped about work a few times on this blog, so it's no secret that I dislike my career. I don't want to come off as a complainy-pants, but my job had been getting worse and worse these past few months, filling me with unnecessary anxiety and exhaustion.
A few months back, I found myself in the following thought spiral: “This job is making me miserable and I really want to quit! But if I stay five more weeks, my 401(K) vests! If I stay an extra month past that, I'll earn my year-end bonus! If I stay through January, I can front-load my IRA for the year. An extra six weeks after that, and…” You see where this is going, don't you? There's no end to all the mini-milestones I can achieve by working longer. “A few more months and I'll be FI! Another year after that- we hit FAT FI!” Ah, the sweet, seductive cushion of FAT FI. These rewards are so nice, I can't afford to stop working!
This mind game troubled me because I could feel myself losing control, becoming a slave to the golden handcuffs. The mental pressure to keep the fire-hose of cash flowing and keep passing more and more arbitrary milestones was literally making me sick. The demands at work kept increasing as the program schedule slipped further and further to the right. I no longer had the time or energy to spend on physical fitness, my blog, my music, my friends and family. Everything was second to work. I was chained to my cubicle. A cog in a machine. A mindless zombie. Eventually, I hit my breaking point. After a long walk with the wife, I realized I needed to set a firm exit date, and stick with it.
My Two Weeks
There's a phrase I've heard repeated these past few months: “leaning into” your fear. If something makes you uncomfortable, it's likely signaling a growth opportunity, and you should get out of your comfort zone and lean into it. Embrace it. Learn from it. For me, I noticed I became extremely uncomfortable with the thought of actually putting in my two weeks notice.
You'd think our quite substantial pile of FU Money would have lowered this anxiety, but this wasn't the case. The night before my meeting with management, I didn't sleep a wink.* I kept playing every scenario through in my mind. What was I going to say? What was my narrative? “Hey Boss – I saved up a bunch of money so I'm going home now and never coming back!” wasn't a graceful way to end my decade in the cubicle world. I didn't want to burn any bridges, either. I just needed a break.
A break! Bingo. I found my story. I was extremely burned out and needed a break. It was honest, simple, and to the point. They didn't need to know that the break would likely be perpetual. They didn't need an explanation of financial independence. They just needed to know that I was burned out.
The day of the actual meeting seemed never-ending. My 10 am discussion got pushed all the way back to 4 pm, so I spent the entire day wondering how things would play out. Why was I so nervous? It was like my brain was preparing for a really nasty breakup or something! When it was finally go-time, the entire conversation was over in the blink of an eye:
JOEL: “I'm really burned out and need a break. I think leaving the company is my best bet. This is my two weeks notice.”
BOSS: “Oh… well, what if we give you a few weeks off? If you can just hold out until we reach our next milestone we can…”
JOEL: “No, I've given it a lot of thought and I need longer than a few weeks off. Leaving is best for me.
A bunch of other things were said that I don't remember, then we shook hands and I walked out. The whole thing was a surreal blur, but I instantly felt a weight lifted off my shoulders. I went home early, wrote a thank you letter to my wonderful wife for being so supportive of my decision, and then enjoyed the best nights sleep I've had in months. The anxiety was gone. I was free.
Rear View Mirror
On my last day in cubicle land, I gave out some handwritten thank you cards, cleaned out my desk, and left. No fancy retirement party, no long and uncomfortable farewell email. Just a quick and uneventful exit. I took the long way home, driving by the ocean, reflecting on my stressful decade of full-time cubicle life.
I realize now, looking back, that I should have left sooner. Health and sanity are worth more than a few thousand dollars incentive. The irony is that many of the requests I made to management in the past (switching to another position, working from home, part-time employment, etc.) were all eventually offered after I put in my two weeks notice. Unfortunately, it was too little too late, but good to know for the future: walking away from work can give you incredible negotiating power. Just be sure you are actually willing to leave.
I like to think of quitting my job as taking my foot off the accelerator and coasting down the cash-flow highway. These past few years, the wife and I have been driving towards FIRE so fast that we can't even roll down the windows to enjoy what's outside. The exit signs fly by so quickly that we have to try to catch them in the rear view mirror. Quitting full-time employment isn't slamming the brakes on our FI timeline; rather, it's simply easing my foot off the gas.
Throwing the Dart
One of the reasons it took me so long to quit is that I was aiming for perfection. I wanted to perfectly hit my FI number, with a nice cushion baked in, all within a specific timeline. When things started sucking at work earlier this spring, I didn't want to quit and find another job. I only had to stick it out a few more months, or so I told myself. Besides, I didn't want to move to a new company, only to leave a few months later and possibly burn a bridge. If I just put my nose to the grindstone, I thought I could power through the toxic work environment. But I was wrong.
The truth is, perfection… doesn't really exist. Those who seek it waste the majority of their time and energy. This amazing video from Hank Green of the Vlog Brothers says it best:
“Everything creative I do, I do my best to get it 80% of the way to as good as I can make it, and go no further. I just don't try to get it to 100%… I'm not saying you can't increase your odds of getting into the bulls-eye… I'm saying you never really know where you're going to hit until you actually. Throw. The. Dart. And if you spend a ton of time thinking about how you're going to throw the dart and you never throw it, you might be doing a whole lot of work that isn't actually helping. So when I get to 80%, I throw the dart. Because I know that ‘perfect' doesn't exist.”
It took me a decade to learn what that video summarizes in under four minutes: ‘Perfection' is subjective, and always changing. It reminds me of the Pareto principle we covered in the post Investing Can Be Simple: trying to reach the moving target that is perfection will take 80% of the effort for a measly 20% improvement. To reach perfection in FI, I still need to figure out my detailed draw-down strategy. I need to read up on dozens of tax optimization techniques and start my Roth conversion ladder. I should probably build a large five-year cash buffer, just for safety.
Perfection be damned- my time has come to throw the dart! In Go Curry Cracker's recent post, Jeremy discusses the idea of working a few more years after FI to build a bigger cushion than you need, and how that's allowed his family to stay well under the 4% rule. While I appreciate this concept, I think it depends heavily on your current work-life balance.
If you're enjoying your journey and have time to do the things you really want to do, then, by all means, work that extra year or two. It really is a small amount of time in the grand scheme of things. But if you still have years left on your FI journey and are in a similar work situation to me, why not take a break instead of powering through? Use that FU money to take a gap year, like Noah and his wife at Money Metagame are doing. Don't push yourself to the point of burnout like I did!
As we discussed in the Milestones of FI, The benefits of financial independence are gained gradually over a smooth continuum, not all at one specific dollar amount. If you take a break from work for a year or two, or take a lower paying job for a few years, you don't go backward. You don’t lose the benefits you’ve gained along the way! This is essential to remember during your working years to keep a healthy work-life balance.
Spreading the News
Other than my wife and a few select people close to me, I haven't really shared the news of my early retirement with friends or family. I guess it's not technically retirement: I still plan to work on the things I love, but now it's on my schedule, as much or as little as I want, with no pressure to profit. Most of my friends and family won't understand this concept. And with the wife choosing to work for another year, there's an old-fashioned stigma associated with a guy who stays home and doesn't help provide for his family.
There's also a good bit of tension that comes with wealth when the majority of your friends and family don't understand money. The way I see it: “I have carefully constructed my perpetual money making machine, and can now start enjoying up to 4% annual withdrawals whenever I'm ready. I'll never take out more than that: you don't chop down the tree when you've picked off all the apples- you plant more trees!”
The way most people see it: “Wow you've saved so much money that you never have to work again?! That's like infinite money! Why don't you use it to help everyone do everything? What do you mean you won't fly out to visit on a moments notice and bring lavish gifts!?”
OK, I'm obviously exaggerating here, but you get the picture. If someone knows you have a pile of money, their expectations of you change! It's just the way it is. Even if you explain exactly how the machine works, and how you have to withdraw less than 4% per year to keep it from breaking down… most people simply won't understand.
That's why I've been working on a different narrative: I'm starting my own business. I'll get to test it out at the Thanksgiving table in a few weeks.
FRIENDS & FAM: “Oh, starting your own business? That sounds risky. What does the business do?”
JOEL: “It's a financial business! I'll be doing financial advising and account management.”
FRIENDS & FAM: “Aren't you worried about losing your steady income?”
JOEL: “Well, you know how it goes with new businesses. The first few years will be a lot of work, so I'll have to keep my spending low so it can grow.”
FRIENDS & FAM: “You're braver than I am! Good luck!”
The self-employed narrative helps frame things in a way most people can relate to. Now, their expectations are set realistically: I'm not the rich guy with money to spare, I'm the guy who's living lean to try and get his business off the ground. And this isn't a lie… I will be living lean, I am a sole proprietor, and I will, in fact, be working on account management: they just happen to be my own accounts!
I'm extremely excited to be in control of my own schedule. For the very first time, I'm my own boss! I get to work on what I want, when I want to, as often as I'd like. I'm pretty much jumping out of my skin with excitement at the creative possibilities opening up for me right now! Not to mention – this is the first break** I've had since my junior year of high school over 15 years ago.***
I like to think of my upcoming year of freedom as my FIRE beta test. The wife will continue working another year to smooth the ride, while I test out the early retirement waters. If things go great, she'll join me next year. If the market comes crashing down or our plans change significantly, I can always go back to work! Remember: my worst case scenario is everyone else's every day scenario! And when you're close to FI and your expenses are low, every job in the universe becomes a ‘high paying' job!
I'm so excited for this next phase of my life to begin. There's time now for so many things I want to do! Just a sampling of my plans:
- Sleep in for like a week straight and relax
- Get back into excellent physical shape
- Write more often on this blog
- Collaborate more with other awesome people in the FIRE community
- Work on my ‘Ted Talk' style presentation for CampFI
- Get back into my songwriting side hustle
- Complete my backlog of 100+ todo list items I've been putting off for months
- Convince The Wife to join me next year!
- Learn a new language. Pick up a new instrument. Literally anything I want to do!
I'm so incredibly thankful to this amazing financial independence community for showing me that this path was even a possibility****. It's my turn to give something back, so stay tuned… for the next Financial 180!
*This was actually like a week, not a night. The wife was concerned.
**Longer than two weeks at least!
***I had to do the math on this and wow – time sneaks up on you when you stop paying attention to it!
****I should take a minute to acknowledge how privileged I am to be standing on the shoulders of giants. While the wife and I have worked extremely hard to get where we are now, we had a head start. Parents who paid for our education, high demand careers, the list goes on. I have an entire post in the works on this very subject for Thanksgiving, but it's important to mention it here too.