How Early Retirement Prepared Us for the Pandemic

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In August of 2019, my family and I underwent a dramatic transformation in the way we were living.

I stopped going to work. We moved from Minnesota to Michigan into a much smaller home. Rather than return to school in the fall, our boys were homeschooled for the first time.

Since then, we’ve spent a lot more time together than ever before. We spent months in Mexico and Spain where we hardly knew anyone and didn’t understand much of the language. At least we had each other.

We thought we’d come home and resume a more social existence seeing family, getting together with neighbors, and making friends in our new community. Instead, we abide by a stay-at-home order. Well, at least we have each other.

 

How Early Retirement Prepared Us for the Pandemic

 

The Pandemic and the Economy

 

The pandemic caused by this novel coronavirus has wreaked all kinds of havoc on both the global economy and the finances of individual households.

In three weeks, over 15 million people in the U.S. alone filed for unemployment. Stock markets dropped my more than 30% and inexplicably bounced about half of the way back in short order. Meanwhile, the price of oil futures has gone negative, meaning someone’s going to get paid to take delivery of crude oil.

By now, I’ll bet you’ve heard the term “unprecedented” an unprecedented number of times. It’s a wacky, sad, scary, divided world, but people all over the world are answering the many calls of duty and there’s been no shortage of inspiring stories of ingenuity and solidarity.

I’m not one to make predictions, but it’s widely accepted and painfully obvious that this pandemic will have long-lasting effects on the global economy.

Production and consumption of goods and services are way down, and they won’t come back instantly when restrictions are lifted. Earnings will suffer, businesses will shutter, and jobs will be lost. Some of the temporary changes in the way we work will be sticky; if you hate commuting and like working in your jammies, that may be a good thing.

If you had not achieved financial independence before 2020, your path has almost certainly been delayed. On the other hand, when you do reach your goals, it will likely be at a lower valuation in the stock market, and sequence of returns risk may be less of an issue than if you had retired in the last year or two.

 

Our Financial Preparation for the Pandemic

 

I wasn’t about to leave a lucrative career as an anesthesiologist without having a nearly bulletproof plan. That plan consists of two main components: oversaving and continued earnings.

 

Oversaving

 

To achieve a 97% success rate as an early retiree, based on past returns of U.S. stocks and bonds, one would need to save 25x anticipated annual spending for a 4% withdrawal rate. A more conservative approach would be saving 30x for a very low 3.33% initial withdrawal rate.

We were very conservative. When I left work, we had somewhere between 40x and 50x our anticipated annual spending saved up. And at the rate we’re spending money in the era of social distancing (i.e. not much), it’s going to be an even higher multiple.

When your withdrawal rate is in the 2% range, if all your investments do is keep up with inflation over the long haul, that money will last about 50 years. The odds are extraordinarily good that your balances will continue to grow over that time rather than be depleted.

 

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Continued Earnings

 

The other component to the plan that keeps us immune from sequence of returns risk (retirement failure due to terrible market returns) is an income stream.

The fact that I have this blog makes me a terrible test case for early retirement. I’ve made no bones about the fact that I do still work in some capacity — like writing this article — and that work leads to income. Retired not retired.

I donate half of those profits (and all of my profits in April, 2020 to COVID-19 relief), but the half that I keep covers our living expenses, so we have yet to begin our retirement drawdown plan. Financial Independence has allowed us to be much more generous with our income, and we now donate more money to charity than we spend on all other spending categories combined.

For years, I’ve heard the naysayers say that the FIRE movement would come to a screeching halt when the bull market ended. That’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard.

How would a movement based on saving a substantial portion of what you earn and setting aside many years’ worth of expenses be exposed by a bear market or recession? Who’s in the best position to ride this thing out for as long as it takes? Those who are pursuing or have achieved financial independence. Obviously.

I’ve argued that a bear market cannot take away your financial independence. The safe withdrawal rate studies account for a nasty sequence of returns. Still, it might not be a bad idea to cut back on spending if the markets tank just before or after you retire. At the moment, it would be difficult not to spend less than projected, at least in the short term.

We’ve had some rough weather, so to speak, these last two months, and I’m not sure we’ve seen the worst of it yet. Regardless, I feel we’re in great condition to weather this economic storm. Preparing for an early retirement in a conservative way gives you a fantastic insurance policy against a potential catastrophe like this.

 

Our Lifestyle Preparation for the Pandemic

 

In the last six months, we’ve spent two months in Mexico, two months in Spain, and two months in the U.S., with much of that U.S. time in some form of lockdown.

 

A Typical Day in Mexico or Spain

 

Wake up after a full night’s sleep. Spend some time online while the kids do their schoolwork. Get some exercise with a jog through Chapultepec Park in Mexico City or Turia Gardens in Valencia.

In the afternoon, do some sightseeing as a family. Take in a museum or check out a market. Decide whether to have dinner out or in.

In the evening, do some reading, maybe some more computer time. After the kids’ nighttime routine, we might have time to have a cerveza or two, watch a show or a movie, or take an evening stroll.

 

 

A Typical Day in the U.S. on Lockdown

 

Wake up after a full night’s sleep. Spend some time online while the kids do their schoolwork. Get some exercise with a jog around the neighborhood.

In the afternoon, do some activity as a family. Get the bikes out, do some yardwork, or play a game of Monopoly. Decide whether to make dinner in or order dinner in (that’s actually predetermined several days in advance).

In the evening, do some reading, maybe some more computer time. A beer or two, Netflix and chill, etc…

 

financial_independence_pandemic

 

Our location has changed and the sites are less exciting, without a doubt. But while talking heads on television speak of fear and panic, our day-to-day routine is the same as it ever was in this once in a lifetime event.

What is upending and unnerving in many homes is par for the course around here. Early retirement and slow travel have prepared us well. Things that are not at all abnormal for us that might be a stark change for others include:

  • Being responsible for our children’s education (we’ve been homeschooling / worldschooling all along)
  • Spending a whole lot of time around one another
  • Having few social contacts outside of the home (other than by phone or online)
  • Working from home (or not at all)

 

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I realize that some of you are working outside the home more than ever and in some very stressful and even unsafe conditions. I am truly grateful for every essential worker making sacrifices and taking risks every day.

I’ve offered my services to my old employer if needed, but until that day comes, I’m content to continue life on lockdown. I’m probably more useful behind the computer I’ll be making grants of maybe $30,000 or so to COVID-19 relief at the end of the month. That’s shy of the audacious $50,000 goal I set, but it’s alright to think big.

 

Back to the point I was trying to make. Retiring early from medicine and traveling together for weeks and months at a time made for a really easy transition to this current lockdown situation. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I realize that it’s not this easy for most people, and I will admit we were looking forward to coming home and doing some things that just aren’t possible right now. Neighborhood gatherings. Making new friends in the town we now call home. Visiting family. Swimming lessons and the homeschool outreach for the boys.

Those things will come in due time when it’s safer for all involved. Life isn’t perfect right now, but for us, it’s not so bad. We’ve been practicing for months.

Apparently, some people are actually thriving in this environment.

 

“Curiously enough, there’s a subset of people who’ve found that they’re more relaxed than usual. They’re sleeping better. They like the way their lives are now. They’re happy. It’s like a mega chorus of people singing, “it’s the end of the world as we know it,” and this group is answering back, “and I feel fine.” – Tracey Anne Duncan in Quarantine Doesn’t Suck for Everyone, Apparently

 

I don’t know that we’re thriving, but I’m making good use of this time. The other day, I outlined how I’ve found a routine that includes learning a second language, exercising regularly, and enjoying the best entertainment that the streaming services have to offer.

I look forward to gradually adding back the parts of our lives that are missing, one careful step at a time. In the meantime, I am grateful for the work of our front-line and essential workers facing this pandemic head on.

I’m also grateful for financial independence and early retirement. They’ve prepared my family well for both the financial uncertainly and lifestyle challenges that the pandemic has delivered.

 

 

In what ways has the pandemic affected your life? How have your finances or lifestyle been impacted?

 

29 thoughts on “How Early Retirement Prepared Us for the Pandemic”

  1. Thanks for this article Doc, well stated. Even though I’m only semi-retired I also have about 50x my annual spending stashed away, and that’s after the market decline. It was higher before. Those who say it’s the death of the FIRE movement have me scratching my head… I mean, who was better prepared than us?

    Reply
    • We’re doing fine here, too, although a little behind in our timing. We had just listed our Iowa home in order to move close to Indiana family when all this hit. Now showings have slowed and it’s taking a bit longer to move than we hoped.

      And… we were homeschooling before, but had chose to enroll the kids in school this year to give me a break. Now we are back to homeschooling because of the virus! We’ve had a good laugh about it though… maybe we’re just meant to homeschool!

      Reply
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  3. Great post, thank you. DW and I were just talking about this, only in reverse, how the pandemic is actually preparing us for FIRE. We have been on our path to pulling the trigger on FIRE for the last year. Ironically, just a few days before we planned to submit our resignations to our respective employers, the stay at home began and we are now working from home. While we have lived conservatively as it is, being on lockdown has been an opportunity to take an even closer look at how we spend our disposable income and more importantly, our free time. We are seeing that many of the things we really value, don’t cost a lot, which bodes well for us. This has only reaffirmed our decision to FIRE which we will do when the stay at home is over. The pandemic is not the “transition” we would have chosen but the time out has allowed us to reassess our plan and move forward with more confidence

    Reply
    • Very interesting. This lockdown situation is giving people a glimpse of what FIRE might look like, and some are finding that they don’t like it so much. Of course, this isn’t exactly our vision of FIRE, either, but many aspects of the lockdown life are what we experienced in our travels.

      Glad to hear that your FIRE plans are affirmed. Best wishes on the transition when the time comes!

      Cheers!
      -PoF

      Reply
      • Thanks. Our original transition plan was a month traveling Northern Spain . We would have been leaving next week ! C’est la vie

        Reply
    • Pre-pandemic, my husband planned to RE no later than June 1, and I was already RE. The new stay-at-home, work-from-home lifestyle has changed that timeline more than the stock market crash. If we can’t engage in the leisure activities and travel that we hoped — and he’s busy and productive with work (thankfully) — it doesn’t seem like quite the same sacrifice to keep working awhile longer, while his company continues to pay for our health insurance.

      Of course, work-from-home may also open up the potential for him to reduce his work hours rather than go cold turkey as he eventually transitions to retirement.

      One day, one week at a time is our current mantra,

      Reply
  4. I always enjoy your posts. In many respects, my family is like your family. This pandemic has helped affirm many things about our lives as well.

    We are FI. I have contemplated RE but I continue to mostly enjoy what I do and will work while the kids are in school. We most certainly are NOT homeschool material, although the kids have transitioned quite well to online learning this spring. 🙂 I continue to explore what it is I might want to do once I do retire. I still don’t have the answer to this!

    Being FI allows us to view the repercussions of this pandemic from a financially relaxed perspective. We temporarily achieved one of the financial goals PoF wrote about at the most recent bottom of the market. It was interesting to talk about but otherwise not financially stressful. It was a big tax loss harvesting event. We certainly worry less because I am still working full time.

    My worries today center more on the safety and well-being of myself, my family, friends and staff. Cancer treatments cannot stop, so while we are not frontline workers, we still have exposure risk. Fortunately, PPE is GRADUALLY becoming more available. I also feel fortunate that we are able to maintain full time employment for my staff. Many of my colleagues in other specialties are essentially seeing a handful of patients/day currently.

    It’s wonderful that you are donating to COVID relief. Big props to you PoF!

    Reply
    • Thank you for the work you’re doing — those cancer patients are some of the most at-risk people out there. I’m glad to hear you’re seeing more PPE. We donated to #getusPPE earlier this month.

      I guess we both got to say #MissionAccomplished on that goal in March. We bounced back more strongly and quickly than I expected, but I anticipate more volatility in the future and I wouldn’t be surprised if we retest those lows.

      Best wishes on your journey and eventual RE when the time is right.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

      Reply
  5. Thanks for sharing your insights! I, too, agree that early retirement has made this adjustment easier. We are semi-retired as of 2017 – and our normal day to day hasn’t changed a whole lot. We have shelter in place orders here in Wisconsin – but the few places we frequented the most often still remain open – grocery store and gas station (for cheap bananas, not gas – same as always!). And they are all walkable (just like we visited them pre-pandemic). While we’re not eating out, that was still not super often anyway. And our local Culver’s still has drive through (weird, though, that we now have to drive to Culver’s since it’s drive through only – instead of walking!)

    Anyway, good to hear the adjustment has been minor for you and your family! Stay well!

    Reply
    • That reminds me of another things that hasn’t changed much on our end. We didn’t have a car in our travels in Mexico or Spain and we always walked our groceries home.

      Part of our routine now is walking at least a mile a day, and that sometimes includes a trip to a local grocery store. We get most essentials via the Walmart Grocery pickup so we don’t have to go in, but if we need an item or two, we walk to the store and grab it.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

      Reply
  6. Thank you for the encouragement for those of us on the FIRE journey that even a pandemic of this current magnitude isn’t going to set up back as long as we’ve been faithfully saving which my family has. I’m transitioning from full time working mom to full time stay at home mom (I may work part time to keep my professional technical skills up), and semi retirement. For now husband will continue to work more for healthcare than because we need the money, bc we’re too young to retire with pension and lifetime healthcare from our employer.

    Due to recent events, I’ve not kept up the blog I started, but fully intend to start back up and continue the chronicling of my journey bc I know I’ll need the encouragement to stay the course and not over worry about being able to quit working as I turn in my resignation letter in a few months. Thank you again.

    Reply
  7. The first step on the FIRE journey is becoming a disciplined spender and prodigious saver – exactly the set of psychological traits that will fare best during lean times. I’m not worried much about the FIRE folks, it’s the people who’ve never really bothered to think much about money and who have put off saving “until sometime tomorrow” I’m genuinely frightened for. They have few reserves at a time when reserves are much needed.

    Reply
  8. Am already retired. Money does not seem to be an issue. Biggest problem is my dog. Dog got sick and the vets only see emergencies. So we were going from one vet E.R. doc to another with no continuity and not much logic and IMHO terrible care. Finally found a vet who will read emails and look at pics i send him. Hope things go better. Lesser problem is the gym is closed, my wife is so germ phobic that she won’t eat even take out food, the triathlons i usually do every year have shut down, softball season looks dead as does bocce, ski resorts closed and won’t give refunds on season passes, forget about long distance travel plans and recently i got a very dirty look from a pretty woman when i passed her too close running on my usual 6.5 mile run. I was maybe 4 feet from her for two seconds on a fairly narrow path. Fortunately there is a lake nearby that i can SUP on with friends, so far no hassles on the lake. Going there this morning. Regarding Netflix- not sure how much more i can take. Finally figured out why people watch the evening news. It is sometimes the only thing worth watching. I have a cousin who normally lives in Jakarta who do to very poor timing is stuck in a hotel room in Vegas for weeks (months?). Probably lots of travelers stuck that way all over the world. OK off to the lake 🙂

    Reply
  9. I think a lot of times when the mainstream media reports on FIRE they’re mostly grabbing headlines on the RE part. “Retired at 30!” It’s obviously a gross oversimplification to say FIRE is dead but I have no doubt there are a few folks regretting having just quit their jobs with 25x saved and then watching their net worth drop by 30%. And many more that will work longer and stretch out RE because of the crisis and shoot for a higher number.

    So, many people focus on the RE but you’re blogging from a position of very strong FI. You got to a fat FI number then switched careers to something less lucrative (so, not really retired as you’ve acknowledged). You said yourself the blog covers your expenses and you haven’t even dipped into RE funds yet. That’s not a criticism; that’s the way to do it most safely- multiple income streams. It’s a great plan, but not everyone is capable of successfully generating an expense-covering side gig from the ground up along with 40-50x saved and still end up in the RE category. And many have lost money trying (like failing at rental properties or house flipping).

    So great points in this article; pursuit of FI will always leave you in a better place in any situation and everyone should follow FI principles. But if you look at it from an RE focus I don’t think it’s completely wrong to suggest it’s on life support, for the moment, for many people. At least in terms of meeting their age definition of RE. So not dead, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a statistical drop in the number of “Retired at 30!” articles for a period of time.

    Reply
  10. Looks like you guys are definitely well prepared. It’s important to have buffers in your FIRE plan, that’s for sure. If the blog isn’t making any money at all, would that affected your withdrawal rate at all given the current market condition?

    Reply
    • Absolutely, since it’s currently 0%. It would be more like 2% if I didn’t have any online income to cover our expenses. I don’t think we would have made any changes in the way we’re living, other than the obvious changes that are necessary to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

      Best,
      -PoF

      Reply
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  12. One of the less well known aspects of FIRE is how likely you are to keep generating income after you “retire”. That’s why I tend to think of it more as FI than RE.

    If this wasn’t the case, and achieving FI meant only living off of what you’ve saved, then you’re right, you aren’t a good test case for FI. But since most of us will do something after FI…well…you kind of are.

    Reply
  13. Good perspective here on FIRE and how it relates to recessions. People love to call the “end of the FIRE movement”, but to your point, those seeking some form of financial independence are likely the most prepared to get through an economic downturn.

    Reply
  14. I’m not FI yet, but I agree that our community is likely to weather this storm far better than most others, mostly because we tend to value a simpler lifestyle instead of our nation’s characteristic constant consumption. We know how to save and how to spend wisely. So many haven’t figured this concept out yet, which is why most Americans can’t afford a $400 emergency. That’s a frightening thing!

    Like I said, I’m not FI, and I lost a chunk of my networth, but I still have more money than I would have had if I’d spent it all instead. What’s upsetting about that? And who are these crazy people calling this downturn the death of the FIRE movement? They’re the ones we need to educate the most.

    Reply
  15. This pandemic has given me an opportunity to see how strong the side income streams I have built are.

    I have a little over 50% of my portfolio in syndicated real estate so it will be telling if they can maintain a semblance of the previous distributions over the next few quarters. I expect that there will be some loss due to inability for some to pay rent. So normally reliable distribution amounts may be in jeopardy but hopefully it is not too severe and short lasting. If they can survive this unprecedented event I will feel like I can weather things later down the road when I truly do retire.

    The most unsettling thing is that what was once ultra reliable (my income as a radiologist) has now been put on notice. Patient volumes have dried up especially with elective procedures banned. We already have had a mandated 40% reduction in our draws which is putting a lot of stress on a lot of colleagues. Being close to fat FIRE myself it was not as problematic so being on the Fire path was indeed a saving grace.

    Reply
  16. When the stock market tanked I thanked my lucky stars I hadn’t yet gotten around to rebalancing to a more equities-heavy mix. Took advantage of the dip to move some money around but still didn’t move nearly enough.

    Oddly my lifestyle hasn’t changed much. I was already living pretty isolated out here on the farm. Biggest difference is NO leisure shopping, no direct contact with family and most friends, and grocery store only every 2-3 weeks. And lots of hand washing around that and avoiding people as much as I can.

    Unfortunately yesterday I discovered one of my horses has had a recurrence of a hoof condition that will necessitate a trip up to the horse hospital in Ocala for treatment. We last did this 9+ years ago. Fortunately I now have a horse trailer/RV combo, so I can load the horse in the back and take him up there, stay one or two overnights as necessary while he has surgery, and bring him back home. I should be able to park the trailer right on hospital property in the grassy area they have, and still stay distant from humans. I can pack my own food and use the RV refrigerator and bathroom, so I will be pretty self contained.

    My employer hasn’t cut staff yet but they did cap my hours and I have gotten wind of a possible cut of one of the 3 of us. As I have cash reserves and my investments didn’t take too much of a hit I will be fine. Like PoF, I have not yet touched my retirement nest egg and don’t expect to tap it for at least 2 years.

    Reply
    • Glad to hear you’re holding up alright, Lynne.

      Bummer about the horse, but it sounds like you’re well prepared for an event like that, as well. Ocala was just down the road from me in my residency training. I spent three good years up I-75 in Gainesville.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

      Reply
      • Thanks! Yes, Ocala is a short ways south of G-ville.

        Went to one of the Freaker’s Ball Halloween events back in the 80s. Not sure if they still do that, but OMG what an event. I saw things I cannot unsee.

        Reply
  17. It must be nice to be able to save at these incredible multiples. Apart from people who have no student debt, it is difficult to envision people saving at multiples of 25-30x of anticipated expenses. Imagine a salary $300k/yr as a physician. After taxes, that approximates $170k in most locales. Add in $24k student debt payments/yr, another $24k for a modest house mortgage payment x 30 years, one is left with approximately $120k. Now if one wants to accelerate that early, say 15 years and double the payments then the working $ figure is down to $100k. Assume a modest car payment and insurance expenses $7000/yr, utilities $3600/yr, gas/food $10k one is staring at ~$80k. Now if one doesn’t spend a penny on vacation, clothes, home improvements, health care, childrens’ expenses, college savings, etc. and assuming a need for ~$80k/ retirement/yr. as long as one saved every penny for 25 years, it would be doable. Not realistic, but doable.

    Reply
    • The timing of your comment is perfect, as I’m recalculating numbers for the 4 Physicians series that goes through income, taxes, expenses, and ultimately time to FI in a bunch of different scenarios.

      The first thing I noticed was your $130,000 tax estimate. That’s about double what it should be. With a $300k salary, contribute $19,500 each to a 401(k) and 457(b), $7,100 to an HSA, and take the $24,800 standard deduction.

      Now, you’re looking at federal income tax of about $38,000, FICA taxes of about $12,600 and state taxes anywhere from $0 and about $25,000. This assumes married, filing jointly, 2 kids. It will be higher for single filers with no kids, of course.

      You can double-check my work in Turbotax.

      tax

      You also have the benefit of investment returns, which were quite good over my career timeframe from 2006 to 2019.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

      Reply
  18. I don’t know that you are coming from the same perspective as the rest of the audience. I’m a family doc and don’t make $300K, but … I also watched my Dad FIRE at 51 having never earned a 6 figure salary and providing for us quite comfortably while saving for college x 3.

    I understand that most docs graduate with more debt than I did 20 years ago (I’ve been paying $340.75/ mos = $4.089/ year at 3%) and some people live in higher cost of living areas (I pay $1,055.56/mos = $12,666.72/year at 3.5%). We don’t drive cars we can’t afford (i.e. pay cash for) and we don’t have kids. We don’t skimp on insurance but we spend next to nothing on “shopping” (which I hate). I don’t spend much on vacations because I live where I would vacation (23 acres of fields and woods far from the urban hum!)

    Turns out that I will probably FI before I RE because I actually love my job (taking care of patients and teaching the next generation of family docs) and knowing that I could walk away or cut back at any time makes dealing with insurance and EMRs (and short-sighted hospital administrators!) that much more tolerable!

    Reply

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