Lessons In Early Retirement

Time flies when you're having fun! This week marks the one year anniversary of Financial 180 – and what a year it's been! Since launching we've been featured on Fiery Millenials, Radical Personal Finance, Rockstar Finance (not once, but twice!), and the Choose FI podcast (here and here), amassing 100 thousand visitors to this infant blog and surpassing my wildest expectations. Jonathan over at ChooseFI even went on to call Financial 180 “The breakout blog of 2017”, which is unbelievably high praise! 🙂

While it's been a bit quiet around here since quitting my job last November, I've been working hard behind the scenes to make 2018 the best year yet. I've got tons of great posts on the horizon: an interview with ‘The Wife', a breakdown of our portfolio and drawdown strategy, our detailed FI budget, and more.

I've also spent the past two weeks at Camp FI in Gainesville, Florida, hanging out with some of the nicest, smartest, and most inspiring members of the financial independence community I've ever met. These camps are truly amazing experiences – check out my detailed write-up of last year's camp if you haven't already. I always leave these events feeling recharged and ready to take on the world! This year we recorded a live roundtable episode of ChooseFI, where I make a cameo on the mic.

There were plenty of other FI bloggers in attendance, including Miss Mazuma, Andy from Aardvark Advisor, Seonwoo from Fiby40, Jason of Winning Williams, Kristine of Frugally Reckless, Ruby and Peter from A Journey We Love, Juan from Finance Clever, and probably a bunch more that I missed. There was even a brand new blog born at camp, taking our torch and carrying on the annual tradition!

This year, I was one of the featured presenters, along with (get ready for more name dropping!) J.D. Roth from Get Rich Slowly, Jonathan and Brad from ChooseFI, Scott Trench from Bigger Pockets, Doug from The Military Guide, Carl and Mindy from 1500 Days, Gwen from Fiery Millenials, Noah from Money Metagame, The Physician on Fire, and Kevin from Clack Consulting.

The presentation I gave detailed the lessons I've learned in my first few months of early retirement, and I wanted to share some of those here on the blog as well, so let's dive in.

Burnout Is Real

As I've said time and again here on the blog, my software engineering job was stressful. But only now that I've been away for a few months am I realizing just how burned out I really was, and how long work stress stays with you even after you quit.

Last month, as I was changing the sheets on my bed, I found myself rushing to complete the task. I was frustrated that making the bed was taking so long. My heart rate was elevated and I was stressed out. It took me a few minutes to consciously realize what was happening- that I was rushing to complete the task at hand as if I was running late for something. After a year of rushing constantly at work trying to save a behind schedule program, that stress bled over into my personal life and stuck around months after quitting.

As I paid more and more attention to the world around me, I started noticing this tendency to rush through tasks everywhere: buying groceries, mowing the lawn, even filling up my cup at the refrigerator. The irony isn't lost on me: the retired guy with all the time in the world doesn't have the patience to wait the ten seconds required to fill a glass of water?! I may have retired from work, but I was far from being at peace. I was creating my own stress out of thin air.

The wife has been wonderful in helping me become consciously aware of my stress levels and has helped me slow down and find contentment in the current moment, instead of always rushing to the next item on my never-ending to-do list. I'm still not finished dealing with burnout, but I'm a lot healthier mentally than I was back in November. To all of you dealing with burnout at work: utilize your FU money and take a break! Don't let it get to the point that I did if you can help it.

We're All Stressed

Once you start paying attention to stress, you start to notice it not just in yourself, but in others as well. A few weeks ago I was at the post office, waiting in line to mail a package for Christmas. After about ten minutes of waiting, the guy in front of me had a meltdown. He shouted that he was done waiting for the slow postal staff, used a few colorful words to describe his emotions, slammed his package on the counter, and stormed out. All in front of children who were also in the line.

Years ago I would have written this guy off as yet another crazy person, what can you do, right? But now I realize he was probably just as burned out as I was and desperately needs a break. The problem is, average Joe consumer living paycheck to paycheck doesn't have enough financial runway to even think about taking time off of work for mental health.

When I quit my job, dozens of my friends and coworkers asked me what company I was moving to next. “I'm just going to take a break” I'd answer, not wanting to get into a whole unsolicited discussion on financial independence. Nearly every single person gave me the same response: “I wish I could take a break…”

I'm hopeful that as this financial independence movement continues to grow, more and more people will recover from chronic job-related stress. Until then, the best I can do is continue to spread the word. And now, when I notice someone stressing out in line, I'll let them go in front of me. I have the time to spare.

Getting Outside Is Important!

Who knew getting outside every day could be such a big deal? As it turns out, staying inside and letting the days blur together is NOT a recipe for happiness! It took a few weeks for me to realize that being a cooped up recluse is a problem.

In FI, pants aren't required, but they are encouraged! Image by The Oatmeal.
In FI, pants aren't required, but they are encouraged! Image by The Oatmeal.

The key for me was putting together a solid morning routine to help build the momentum for my day. A brisk half hour morning walk outside does wonders, as does a jog or other cardio out in the sunshine. I can't emphasize the importance of this enough: without momentum, the days just melt away, leaving you with a feeling of ‘blah' that causes lethargy and frustration.

I don't know if it is the sunshine, the fresh air, the sounds of nature, or something else, but getting outside early in the day makes all the difference for me. A very wise friend at Camp FI said it better than I ever could: “Humans are basically houseplants with more complex emotions. Ensure you get lots of water and sunshine every day and you'll be fine!” Wise words indeed.

Don't Turn Fun Into Work

For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to set aggressive goals in early retirement from day one: “I'm going to write three blog posts a week! I'm going to produce two new songs every month! I'm going to finish my book before Summer!”

Along with the chronic stress of always feeling behind schedule, this aggressive goal setting technique is another gift from my software engineering career. After a few weeks of self-imposed stress, the wife subtly pointed out the error in my logic:

The Wife: Why are you so stressed out?

Me: I thought I'd have more posts written by now. And have more progress done on my book.

The Wife: You quit your job to get away from the stress of arbitrary deadlines. And now you made more of them? You're dumb.

She's right! I have all the time in the world now, and I need to slow down and find a balance that works for me. I realize now that if I keep making aggressive goals and deadlines, eventually all the fun stuff I enjoy, like writing, producing music, etc, will all start to feel like work. Why rush?

My new goal is simply to write whenever I feel inspired. When I feel passionate, when something gets me fired up, excited, or angry, this is when my best writing flows. It's true for all my creative projects: blogs, books, music, you name it. There's an honesty behind an inspired creator that makes their creations really shine.

Along these same lines, I've also learned that early retirement opens your eyes to many new opportunities that weren't visible during the daily grind of the 9 to 5 (or in my case, the 7 to 7). Doug from the Military Guide referred to this as “The Fog of Work” this weekend at camp, and the phrase really stuck with me.

In my case, all these new opportunities became overwhelming in number. But I remembered something JD Roth presented at last years camp: Say “Hell Yeah!”, or say no. JD credits the idea from Derek Sivers, and it has had a really positive effect on me lately in terms of life balance. The idea is simple: when presented with opportunities, if the answer isn't “HELL YEAH!”, then just say no.

There Are No More Excuses

So yeah, most of the lessons learned so far have been bummers. Stress can follow you into retirement, it's easy to turn into a pants-less recluse, and all the fun things you were looking forward to can turn into work. Where's all the good stuff??

Well, it turns out that being my own boss is pretty freakin' sweet, now that I finally got the hang of it! My schedule is flexible. My due dates are elastic. My plans are spontaneous, and my vacation days are unlimited. These are some of my favorite things about early retirement so far! 

I come from a long line of self-employed family members. My dad owns his own small home repair business, and his father and grandfather were both general contractors with their own businesses as well. While not financially independent, my dad is still able to leverage the power of being his own boss, setting his own schedule and choosing how much or how little he works. There's a Bob Dylan quote that sums it up nicely: “A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.”

While incredibly empowering, this is also a double-edged sword because there are literally no more excuses. For the first time, all your life goals and passion projects are suddenly staring you in the face. Not in the physical shape you want to be? You can't blame your lack of fitness on a busy work schedule anymore.

This can be quite intimidating because reaching all your goals and following all of your passions requires hard work. But as Mr. Money Mustache says, hard work leads to happiness! Specifically, having time to work hard on the things you are passionate about makes you happier than almost anything else in life.

This is probably why I went overboard setting goals and turning fun stuff into work.  The key is in finding the balance of hard work and leisure that works well for you. After lots of tweaking, here's what seems to be working for me, on an ideal day:

  • Physical fitness: 2 hours/day
  • Creative work (writing, music, etc.): 2 hours/day
  • Errands / housework: 2 hours/day
  • Reading / learning new things: 2 hours/day

The two-hour blocks seem to work well for me. It's enough time to make real progress on goals, but not so much to throw the rest of the day out of balance or stress me out. And because all the above only adds up to eight hours, I still have plenty of slack in my day to go on walks, cook, spend quality time with the wife, and just goof off.

The Important Stuff

So there you have it! The majority of my lessons learned in early retirement revolve around stress management, building effective routines, and finding the right balance between hard work and leisure. It's interesting that I'm finally tackling these issues in early retirement, because I probably should have dealt with them years ago- they seem to be useful lessons regardless where you are on your journey to FI.

Perhaps more than anything else, the biggest lesson I've learned since quitting is that I need to make time for the important stuff in my life. Because I have a surplus of hours for the very first time, I have to figure out the best way to spend them. Unlike dollars, I can't save up these excess hours! They get spent whether I like it or not, so I have to be very intentional in what I spend them on.

So far I've been spending them on quality time with family, weekly dinners with friends, hard work on things I love, and, when I remember – stopping to smell the roses. Slowing down to actually enjoy the present moment. Because time is more important than money. You can always earn more money, but you can't buy more time. So, you need to spend it on the people and experiences that matter most.

This is what FI is all about.


Thank you, dear reader, for an amazing first year! The support from this community has been unbelievable, and I could not have accomplished so much in such a short time without you! Your comments, emails, and social media shares keep me inspired and make this a project I truly enjoy working hard on. Here's to another great year! 

Interested in starting your own Financial 180? You've come to the right place. The math is easy: create a gap between what you earn, and what you spend. If you can save half your income, your working career will only be around a decade long! Want to shorten it even more? Read on to see exactly what expenses the wife and I cut from month to month. Track your progress against the milestones of FI, and gradually build up your own savings snowball. Check out the books and links in our resources section and jump-start your journey to FI. The you ten years from now will be glad you did! Ready? Start here.

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37 thoughts on “Lessons In Early Retirement”

    1. Thanks Gwen! It was great seeing you again this weekend. ‘The Wife’ and I are super excited to follow along this year as you get ready for your mini-retirement!

  1. Hey!! So nice to meet you at CampFI and sorry I missed the wife at week 2…although I am happy I missed the flu a bunch of you got! #SilverLining Congrats again on a stellar year!! Hope to see you guys soon. 🙂

    1. Thanks!! It was really great to finally meet you! I told The Wife all about you; I’m sure you guys will meet at a future event. She is especially jealous she didn’t get to see the new pavilion with us on our private tour!

  2. A great introspective post with practical advice for the FI, the FIRE walkers, and anyone really. I am glad you found your routine (and nature!). The schedule you list looks like wonderful days over and over again. Working towards that freedom is certainly worth the journey.

    One item I do worry about that you brought up is the guy in the post office. We have been in a 10 year bull market, unemployment is very low, interest rates allow us to afford virtually anything and we have all the technology we need to make our lives easier. If people are stressed now, what will happen when things even turn slightly worse?

    Or, will people find more meaning in life when they have a struggle, like someone who has been to war or someone who has been diagnosed with cancer? Sometimes a struggle can make it so that we don’t see waiting in a line with other humans a big inconvenience. Perhaps things are so good right now that even the slightest annoyance sets people off.

    In any case, great post and congratulations on your success and readership. If you’d be willing to share any tips for blog success I’d appreciate benefitting from your experience.

    1. Thanks, Drew. I worry about the same things… Bull or Bear market, people tend to spend every dollar, setting themselves up to be slaves to the daily grind, with no financial leverage and no escape in sight. Perhaps the best bet is simply for those of us in the FI space to lead by example. Live lives others want to emulate. The FIRE really is spreading, perhaps we’ll eventually hit a critical mass where average Joe Consumer realizes he has another option.

  3. Well I’m way behind you, but I just made my Vanguard IRA contribution for the year and was just thinking about you Joel! Be sure to say hi next time your in Orlando!~

    1. Good thinking on the IRA contribution- we haven’t made ours yet this year. We will certainly drop you a line next time we are in Orlando!

  4. Happy blogiversary! As of last week, I’m halfway there myself 😉

    Getting outside – at least for me – is EXTRA important in these winter months when the daylight is so fleeting. Even a half an hour outside with daylight (I won’t say sunshine – Seattle here) makes such a difference in my overall mood. Lately I’ve been letting my work end time bleed over (which should be 2-2:30pm) which means I don’t have much time to go outside. Thanks for the reminder that it needs to always be a priority.

    1. Yeah it’s so crazy how much a little time outdoors can change your mood for the entire day.

      Oh and congrats on making it to Half FI! The second half goes faster!!

  5. I got out one year before you so I’m starting year 3 with no full time employment. I had no idea how stressed I was before! But since I started my reboot life it has been mostly gone. And life is so much better. I haven’t noticed the residual stress you talked about. I have had a dream or two where I was back at the facility I used to run and it was on fire and everyone was in a panic but that’s kind of like a super mild version of PTSD, no slight to those who suffer the real thing, I just was reaching for a way to describe the dreams. Anyway, it is interesting reading your story and comparing your thoughts with mine.

    1. Glad to hear the stress didn’t follow you far into early retirement. Sounds like you were able to get out before the stress took over your subconscious. I bet if I took a break just six months earlier, I could have avoided the majority of my burnout. Lessons learned I guess!

    1. Thanks! Yeah, the two-hour blocks work well for me. Sometimes I split them into smaller pieces (for example, my fitness block usually breaks into 30 minutes of cardio in the am and a 90-minute weight training workout in the pm), but for the most part two hour blocks are just enough time to make real progress without sitting on my butt working on a single thing for too long. It’s taken many iterations to come to the current schedule, and it’ll probably go through a few more before it fully stabilizes, but I have time to experiment now! 🙂

  6. Fantastic rundown Joel. Post like these really help me prepare for when I can leave the 9 to whenever you get done grind. It sounds like you’ve really got it put together now after some learning pains.

    I can very much relate to the work stress. I had a time when my work stress was unhealthy. It’s been better lately. Knowing anything can change and add more stress to the pile is the motivaition I need to save for FI.

    Thanks for sharing and for giving those of us still chasing FI a sneak peak of what we can expect.

    1. Thanks, Jason! Glad your current work environment is less stressful. Sometimes we get so obsessed with optimizing salaries and worrying about small gaps in resumes that we forget there are other, better jobs (or even careers) out there waiting to be discovered.

      These lessons were all learned in just the first few months of ER. I’m sure I’ll be learning a ton more in the coming months, so I’ll definitely continue to share what I learn as I go!

  7. Glad I read your blog after hearing you on ChooseFI. It sounds like you’re getting it all worked out and The Wife is smart 🙂

    1. The Wife is super smart! She doesn’t get enough focus on this blog… partly because she doesn’t like the spotlight, but I have plans to fix that. An in-depth Q & A with the wife is around the corner… stay tuned!

  8. Great meeting you, Joel. Glad the wife allowed you to return to blogging 😉

    I’ll look forward to following along with your posts this year and dreaming about the day when I’m also free!

    1. Awesome meeting you too, Andy. Your freedom date is closer than you think! I’ll also be following along with all the adventures over on your blog, too – I really enjoy your writing. I’m sure our paths will cross again soon!

  9. Welcome to my world! After leaving a similar job and crazy commute 7 years ago, it’s fun to hear your description of arriving over here, on the other side. I found it took me about 6 months to get my bearings. Now I can’t figure out how I’d ever fit in a job again.

    The ability to get outside more is really the most valuable thing. I feel it is the complete opposite of the cubicle cage. It is funny how hard it can be though! I think we software geek types are drawn to the keyboard, even without the handcuffs.

    I also love the advice from JD Roth. It is difficult to say “no” when there aren’t easy excuses. It is really easy to have other people start dictating how you are using your time on their to-do list. Go with the “Hell Yes” or not at all. If you dare!

    1. I feel like I just ran a marathon, and I finally crossed the finish line, but I can’t just stop running or I’ll die! Hopefully I’ll be fully ‘cooled down’ by the six-month mark, similar to what you’re describing.

      Isn’t it crazy how much effort it takes, at least initially, to do something that obviously makes us happy? Getting outside for an hour or two every day is the best thing we can do, but as you say, it’s like we’re drawn to that computer keyboard. I recently setup a nice chair swing in my back yard, in wifi range, so I can at least bring my laptop outside and enjoy some fresh air while writing.

      And yes, the HELL YEAH trick is life changing. I’ll leave it at that.

  10. Thanks for writing such an honest post Joel.

    I found myself smiling and nodding along as you recounted the transition challenges from full time work to life after work. My own experiences parallel most of them.

    Your wife sounds like a wise lady when it comes to goals and arbitrary deadlines.

    1. She really is! If only I could get her to quit… she’s got her eyes on that Fat FIRE milestone though. Plus she’s working with friends on a pretty neat program. If you enjoy what you do and get paid for it, that’s pretty much the dream, right?

      I’m sure I’ll have a part two of this lessons post, as I’m still learning as I go. Cheers on your own ‘life after work’ transition. How long has it been for you now?

      1. Full fat with all the trimmings, that is the kind of financial freedom I like the sound of!

        Doing what you enjoy and getting paid for it = winning.

        I’m nearly 2 years into semi-retirement, and approaching the end of my second winter hibernation spent a nice warm office solving genuinely interesting problems. I am very much looking forward to “retiring” again, at least until next winter.

  11. Hi Joel!

    It was so nice to meet you at Camp FI week 1. I just got around to checking out your blog and this was the first post I read. So far, so good.

    Let me know if you head further south sometime in the future. We need to do a south Florida meetup!

  12. BTW, what is this FI countdown to March 1, 2018 on the left side of the screen all about? You are already FI! Or is that when your wife plans to FI?

    1. Hi Margie, It was great meeting you at Camp FI! Regarding the countdown clock: I set this up a few months back as an estimate of when we’d hit the 25x number. With the markets lately, the wife and I are currently floating over and under our number on a daily basis… we are on the cusp of FI! (Although the wife disagrees what our FI number even is – new post on this coming soon!) 🙂

  13. I died laughing at the “pants” cartoon… while I am a long way from FI, I work remotely and often live in my workout clothes (those count as pants, right?). Getting outside is huge for me… working in a home office can lead to days without stepping outdoors if I let it, especially in the winter!

    Glad FI is treating you well so far 🙂 Hopefully I’ll get a chance to say hi at a FinCon or CampFI someday!

    1. The pants cartoon became one of the themes of Camp FI this year: In financial independence, pants are optional – but encouraged! 🙂 Check out ‘The Oatmeal’ if you haven’t already – he’s got many more gems.

      I’ll likely be at FinCon this year, as it’s going to be in my neck of the woods! Would love the chance to meet more fellow FI bloggers in person!

  14. Welcome to the RE world Joel! Just past my 2 year RE milestone. In my case I worked until fat FI (age 52 so not super early by the standards of this group!), partly because of role changes at the office. The last year was super hard psychologically but I’m so glad I did it for a bunch of complicated reasons.

    Two years in I have a few tips from my POV:
    – don’t spend too much time managing your money. I have a friend in FI, mentor really, who works half time on money mgmt, nope, no better results than I get with a few hours a month.
    – find a once a week volunteer thing, at least for a while, the social interaction is good and giving away some of your time is good for your self image.
    – Think about “passion projects” and bucket list plans…make a list. A personal one and a joint one. Talking about such things may be the trigger your wife needs to actually walk away when her time comes.

  15. I’m looking forward to reading about your FI budget, although I wonder if there’s an existing blog or blogs that has this laid out for someone with a young kid and both partners leave the workforce. I’m thinking the FI budget goes way up. Things like health insurance, costs for the kid to get to 18 or through college, if you have to help support aging parents etc.

    I haven’t been able to find a FI blogger with these considerations but they don’t seem that unique.

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