I share a lot of success stories here at Physician on FIRE. I feel that mine is one of them, even if I’m only partially retired.
Not every FIRE story has a happy ending, though. Mixed results abound. One of the original FIRE bloggers out there, whose unmonetized blog still has dozens of well-written, deeply personal posts cataloguing his journey, issued an update in 2021 shared a harsh reality.
Things had not gone as planned. Joe Udo shares his take along with a link to the original article upon this post is based.
This Friday Feature from Mr. Udo was originally published on Retire by 40.
Have you seen this post at Living a FI – The 2021 Early Retirement Update? This post was the best post about the FIRE movement I’ve read in years.
“Dr. Doom” updated us on his FIRE journey and we can learn a lot from this post. I used to follow Living a FI (LAF) when it was active, but LAF stopped updating when he retired in 2015. He was just about to turn 38, about the same age as when I retired from my engineering career. I’m still happily retired after 9 years. Whew! What did I do right and what can we learn from LAF’s journey? Let’s take a look.
If you haven’t read it yet, I’ll give you a quick recap here.
- LAF and his wife retired early on a Lean FIRE budget in 2015.
- They lived a leisurely lifestyle and were very happy for about 3 years.
- LAF tried to pursue writing in a serious way, but never got published. It’s a tough business.
- LAF started to feel disconnected to some of his friends. They were all working; he wasn’t.
- His wife became discontent. She thought everyone else was moving forward while they were standing still. Their friends were inflating their lifestyle and flaunted it.
- LAF discovered he has a long term health condition.
- LAF’s expenses increased so he didn’t feel financially secure anymore. He retired on about a million dollars and planned to spend $30,000 per year. The math didn’t work out when his spending increased due to healthcare and …
- LAF went back to work.
Yikes! This is a quick summary so it is missing a ton of details and nuance. The last two bullets made it look like his early retirement was an epic fail. However, that is not entirely true.
LAF got 5 years off from work to pursue his interests and discover himself. His net worth increased 30%. He found that his marriage had problems and divorced his wife. All these were good things. Even the divorce was good. It freed both of them up to find more compatible partners.
LAF still believes in financial independence, but he’s putting off early retirement until later.
Alright, let’s see what we can learn from LAF’s journey.
Relationships are tricky
LAF and his ex-wife retired at the same time. She was enthusiastic about early retirement and liked the leisurely lifestyle…at first. After a few years, she became discontented and felt abnormal. She felt like she was a loser married to a slacker. She wanted to make progress in her life.
LAF encouraged her to go back to work, but she didn’t want to if he wasn’t working. In short, she is a normal American. She wanted to fit in and she wanted to keep up with the Joneses. She thought she would enjoy early retirement, but she was wrong. She was happier when she was working.
On the other hand, LAF was perfectly happy with the unglamorous early retirement lifestyle. He loved being unemployed. He thought they were winning because all their friends had to spend so much time at work. LAF doesn’t care about material possessions or keeping up appearances. He values time much more than money. This is not normal.
It’s hard to be a deviant. Life is much more acceptable when you’re normal. I think only a few people would really enjoy early retirement. Almost everybody is conditioned from childhood to work hard and amass material possessions. Something went wrong if you reject these deep-seated values. It is even more difficult for 2 people to have the same mindset. Even if you enjoy early retirement, your partner probably won’t be happy with it.
This is the reason why my wife (Mrs. RB40) is still working. She likes contributing to society and gets a lot of satisfaction from accomplishing her assignments. We both understand that. She’s happy to work and have me hold down the fort.
I made myself useful by being a SAHD, blogging, side hustling, and managing our investments. It’s a good division of labor. Mrs. RB40 enjoys being the main breadwinner, but she doesn’t care much about keeping up with the Jones. She also didn’t want to be a SAHM. Every relationship is unique. You have to customize FIRE for your relationship or it won’t work.
Long-term goals are necessary
Retiring to an adventurous and leisurely lifestyle sounds awesome … until you live through it for several years. I think LAF and his ex were too young for this kind of leisurely lifestyle. It might have worked better if they were 60. At this point in life (40 to 60 years old), most people want to make progress. This is when most people raise kids, pay down their mortgages, inflate their lifestyle, and create wealth. It is the wrong time to play defense. The second half just started.
LAF tried writing, but it didn’t work out. I think that was the only serious long-term project he had. His ex-wife didn’t have a long-term project, from what I understand. This wasn’t enough. They felt stagnated. You need to grow and mark your progress somehow.
Fortunately, I never felt stagnant. I have two huge long-term projects I’m working on – our son and my blog. Our son took a lot of time and energy when he was young. However, being a SAHD became much easier when he started school. We’re more than halfway through this long-term project! It’ll be very gratifying when we send him off to college. (I can’t wait, but Mrs. RB40 isn’t looking forward to it.)
On the other hand, blogging has been up and down. We had some good years and mediocre years. I keep at it because I still enjoy it AND it is a way to generate income. I never fully bought into the 4% withdrawal rate. That’s too risky when you retire before 40. My retirement could last 50+ years. That’s a very long time. Our withdrawal strategy is a lot more conservative. I plan to generate some active income until I’m 60. That way, we can continue to build wealth and put off withdrawal.
These two big projects will keep me busy for many years. Also, our parents are all getting older. We’ll need to help out more very soon. That’s another huge project. I plan to visit my parents in Thailand for 3 months next year to help out.
In short, I never felt stagnated because we can see some progress. Our son is maturing slowly and advancing through each grade level. Our net worth continues to increase every year. Sad to say, but wealth is a measuring stick. It’s an easy way to see your progress. Also, it’s better to stay busy. Too much leisure time will make you unhappy, IMO.
Lean FIRE might not work
LAF’s experience also shows that lean FIRE might not work for every situation. Lean FIRE is when you retire with just enough to get by. This is too risky especially if you go straight into the withdrawal. There are many situations that can screw up your finances.
- Divorce – The cost of living is a little higher when you’re single. Also, a contentious divorce could deplete your savings significantly.
- Chronic health conditions – This is another huge problem. Even if you have health insurance, the cost of care would rise due to deductions, extra appointments, prescriptions, tests, procedures, and therapies. Healthcare can be very expensive in the US, especially when you’re unemployed.
- Kids – They aren’t cheap. If you retired early without children and they come along, then your annual expense would increase, for sure.
- Inflation – We got used to low inflation, but 2021 shows us that inflation can be higher too. Everything got more expensive this year. Inflation could wreak havoc on your budget if it’s too lean. Hopefully, the inflation will go back down to around 2% soon.
You really need a backup plan if you Lean FIRE. I retired with a bit more cushion than LAF, but not a huge amount. However, I never stop earning income. I monetized Retire by 40 and worked on various side hustles. It isn’t as much income as when I was an engineer, but every little bit helps. Also, Mrs. RB40 kept working. That’s huge. Our personal finance is much better today than when I retired in 2012.
Failure isn’t so bad
Okay, early retirement failed and LAF went back to work. Is that so bad? He lived the way he wanted for 5 years. The first 3 years were immensely enjoyable. The situation went a bit awry after that. But would it have been any different if he didn’t retire early?
You’ll have to go read his post to find out more details about the divorce and his chronic health issue. The link is at the top. These events would have happened even if he was working. The breakup might have been put off for a few years, but I think it was inevitable. They didn’t have the same values. It’s better to get it over with quickly rather than waiting for it to unravel later.
Now, LAF is back at work and he’s shoring up his FIRE fund. He also found a new partner with better-aligned values. I think this FIRE epic fail turned out okay for him. He is only 43 and could try early retirement again at some point if he wants to.
We also learned from his failure. Most bloggers rarely talk about how FIRE could go wrong. It isn’t all sunshine and roses like we make it seem. Even Mr. Money Mustache and JD Roth (Get Rich Slowly) got divorced. Jacob (Early Retirement Extreme) rejoined the workforce. Bloggers have the same issues as any regular people. I’m the exception, though. It is all sunshine and roses at the RB40 household. 😉
Luck is a huge factor
Lastly, I think luck is a huge factor. I retired early in 2012 and still love being retired. Well, semi-retired because I still earn a little income. Life is so much better now than when I was an engineer. My family is supportive and we are doing well financially. It worked out extremely well for me so far. I’d like to think it’s due to my wise choices, but it’s probably mostly luck. I’m a lucky optimist and I’m very grateful for it. Hopefully, my good luck will hold until we’re both fully retired.
Early retirement isn’t for everyone
For years, I have been saying early retirement isn’t for everyone. Most people want to be normal and fit in. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s the FIRE bloggers who are the deviants. We’re the weirdoes. We value our time and freedom much more than wealth and comfort. We don’t mind being different and we don’t need to fit in. That’s strange. I’m lucky Mrs. RB40 doesn’t mind this huge character flaw. Most women probably are more like LAF’s ex-wife.
In conclusion, I think FIRE is still a wonderful goal. Even if something goes wrong, you’ll still be ahead of most regular people. LAF is doing just fine these days after a little reset. His 5 years early retirement was a good experience to have. We can all learn from his mistake. It’s a useful chapter in the FIRE movement.
What does your retirement plan look like? Is leanFIRE in the cards for you? Comment below!