One year of early retirement is in the books. I almost put “early retirement” in quotes because having an active blog makes this more of a semi-retirement, but compared to the doctor job I once had, this blogging bit feels like a breeze.
I’m not going to lie; I’ve had a great year, but it has not been the year I expected. This next year looks a whole lot different than the one we had planned, too.
I’ll recap how my family and I spent this first year of freedom, highlighting the best of FIRE, touching on the downsides (yes, there are downsides), and I’ll make my best guess as to what the future may bring.
One Year of Early Retirement: Is the FIRE Still Burning?
On August 12th, 2019, I walked out of the hospital as an employee for what may very well be the last time.
I was post-call with a 10+ hour drive ahead of me that day and roughly half of my life expectancy remaining as a man 43 years young. That’s a lot of life left to live, and a long drive to contemplate them, but I’m trying to take them one year at a time.
August & September, 2019
It was nice to have that work stuff out of the way, because we had a lot going on that summer. We had sold our house in Minnesota in June and started moving into a much smaller home in Michigan in August.
We had hoped to find a lake home nearby, and we had one but it failed inspection. We ended up buying a nice little mid-century modern place in town, keeping our lake cabin about 80 miles up the road.
We figured we wouldn’t need a whole lot of space since we’d be spending most of the next several years traveling. Good plan, right?
September took me back to Minnesota for a little Golden Gopher football and another Camp FI event. From there, I flew out to Washington, D.C. for FinCon, joining my family who road-tripped it with the WoWs via Niagara Falls.
After the conference, we did some sightseeing in our nation’s capital before heading back to finish settling in at our new home in northern Michigan. I never did see that D.C. swamp that was drained; I’ll have to look for it the next time around, I guess.
October to December, 2019
One of the key tenets and benefits of FIRE (that’s Financial Independence Retire Early) is flexibility, and flexibility was key for us in the fall of 2019.
Our first big slow travel adventure was slated to begin the second weekend of October in South America — Ecuador, to be precise.
We had our Airbnbs booked for two months in total, flights out of Chicago, and tickets to Hamilton before leaving the country.
Hamilton was the only part that happened.
The Ecuadoran government decided to dial back a generous gasoline subsidy a week or two before our arrival, and that decision led to massive civil unrest.
Most roads were blocked, cities were burning, the capitol was officially moved from Quito, cops were held hostage, and store shelves were empty.
The violence was peaking on October 13th, the day we were scheduled to arrive, when the gas subsidy was reinstated the next day, the protests ended, and the cleanup began.
Much like we did recently with a scheduled cruise, with these flights to Ecuador, we had to play a cat-and-mouse game with the airlines. Maybe it’s more like a game of chicken. Some kind of animal game, I’m sure. Anyway, our flights would be refunded if the airline canceled the flight, but not if we canceled ourselves.
We left home with bags packed just two days before our scheduled flights not knowing where we’d be heading. A day later, I found a decent fare for next-day one-way flights to Guanajuato, Mexico, a destination we’d visited and loved before.
We managed to avoid cavity searches at the airport despite booking next-day one-way flights to Mexico, and we proceeded to spend 9 glorious weeks south of the border.
We split our time between Guanajuato, Queretaro, and Mexico City, and I detailed our Mexico trip in the following two-part blog post series:
Our original flights to Ecuador were finally canceled by the airline within 24 hours of departure; I’m not sure any flights made it into Quito that day.
I actually did make it down to Ecuador for a week in the middle of our Mexico trip. The original impetus for that particular destination was my participation in a Chautauqua retreat mid-November.
I made it back for a final month in Mexico, and my family and I returned to the States mid-December, celebrated Christmas with family in Minnesota and Michigan, and prepared for our next big adventure!
January to March, 2020
The year kicked off in a most auspicious way with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers defeating the Auburn Tigers in convincing fashion in the 2020 Outback Bowl on January 1st, capping an 11-win season for my alma mater.
2020 was looking up right from the start!
A few days later, we boarded a plane for Spain, the location of our second multi-month slow travel adventure.
If it weren’t for my friend Jim Dahle and his White Coat Investor conference scheduled for the second week in March, we would have maxed out our 90 days in the European “Schengen Area,” but we made plans to come back home in early March so I could fulfill my duties as a speaker and panelist in Las Vegas.
That turned out to be a fortuitous plan.
I can’t say enough good things about our time in Spain. I’ve written a more complete report on our two months in Spain elsewhere, and below I will share some of the most memorable and meaningful places and experiences from our time on the Iberian peninsula.
Running through the five-mile long riverbed turned lush park known as the Turia Gardens.
Visiting the animals at the “fenceless” African Zoo called Bioparc.
The futuristic architectual marvel that is the City of Arts & Sciences.
Selections on draft and to-go from Las Cervezas Del Colon at Colon Market.
Running the Barcelona Half Marathon with 23,000 athletes from around the world.
Viewing and touring the fanciful architecture of Antoni Gaudí.
Strolling down Avinguda Diagonal and La Rambla and getting lost in the Gothic quarter.
A visit to the historical buildings and tunnels of the Hospital de Sant Pau.
Not running while nursing a stress fracture in my left foot from too much running.
The history and opulance of the Royal Palace.
World-class museums, many with free entrance days or hours.
A craft beer crawl Airbnb experience.
A day trip to Toledo, and not the one in Ohio.
Our final weeks in Spain were tainted by a bit of uneasiness as the novel coronavirus had begun to wreak havoc in northern Italy and sporadic cases were popping up in Spain.
We left Valencia on March 6th, arriving home in northern Michigan on March 7th, and made a quick turnaround, landing in Las Vegas on March 10th.
On March 11th, a global pandemic was declared.
Over the next few days, I spoke on stage and in smaller groups, but I shook no hands, used hand sanitizer liberally, and canceled plans to stick around Vegas for St. Patrick’s Day and the tipoff of March Madness (which was also canceled, obviously).
I flew home early and spent the next two weeks in isolation at our cabin, just in case. Months later, I would test antibody-negative for COVID.
The Big COVID Curveball
Our plans all along had been to spend the spring and summer in northern Michigan, so in some respects, the pandemic didn’t change our lives all that much. I have previously written about the ways our early retirement lifestyle prepared us well for this pandemic.
We feel so fortunate to be in a position where we don’t have to worry about employment or unemployment, where our finances feel secure (despite that brief million-dollar loss), and where I’m able to avoid high-risk situations.
What has changed over the last few months are the places we can go, the things we can do, and the people we can see and in what capacity.
Since all of our first year post-FIRE travel plans were behind us before the world shut down, the impact on year one for me was rather minimal.
Year two is a very different story.
We were supposed to board a cruise ship in October to Shanghai, China, leaving Los Angeles with stops in Hawaii, Guam, Japan, South Korea, and other ports in China. That’s not happening.
We’re also not going to hop around Southeast Asia checking out Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, visit New Zealand or Australia, or take our scheduled cruise back from Japan to Vancouver via Russia after six months of international travel.
These are first-world problems, and I believe our globetrotting has been delayed rather than canceled. In the meantime, we’re praying for an effective and widely available vaccine, and we’ve begun some orthodontic treatment for our son that will keep us from traveling for many months at a time. We might as well get that done while relatively homebound, we figured.
The Best of Early Retirement
Flexibility is wonderful.
Yes, I still do some work by writing for this blog, but the work is very flexible and it’s done on my own terms on the schedule I’ve created. I like to say I’m “retired not retired,” but the freedom I’ve enjoyed over this past year is like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
This year, with all of our upcoming travels on hold, we’ve had to be more flexible than ever. We purchased a travel trailer, and at some point, we’ll take the rig on a lengthy road trip. I don’t know where, when, or for how long, but we have the flexibility to make it up as we go.
Freedom is wonderful.
I have more input into how my day is spent than at any time in my 44+ years. I rarely set an alarm, and if I do, it’s usually because I want to get in an early morning run before the summer heat sets in.
I can be as lazy as I want to be, but so far I’ve chosen to do things like train for half-marathons, do daily sets of pushups, situps, and dips, and maintain a pretty busy publishing schedule here on this website.
I’ve got the freedom to set my own schedule (or have no schedule) and the freedom to prioritize my family above all else.
When this effing pandemic is behind us, we’ll once again have the freedom to be anywhere in the world we want to be, and we’re looking forward to that!
Family is wonderful.
In the past year, with the exception of a couple of weeks at conferences and a couple of weeks in quarantine, I’ve spent most of my days and nights surrounded by family.
This was our first year homeschooling — worldschooling, actually — and that has gone exceptionally well for our boys. My wife has done all the legwork and 99% of the ongoing work of keeping them educated and on-task, but the boys are good self-directed learners and are progressing nicely in their studies.
The four of us do so much together now. Three times a week this summer, we’ve gone running together. We eat nearly every dinner and many other meals together. We explore new cities, neighborhoods, museums, ruins, and candy shops together.
I know it sounds sappy, and yes, we do need some time for ourselves when we get fed up with one another, but there has been more togetherness in this family over the past year than ever before, and that was true even before the pandemic forced it upon us.
The Worst of Early Retirement
I could have just left some blank space here. What’s not to love, right?
So far, the worst thing that has happened is the massive change in plans with the cancellation of an epic year of travel.
The fact that we’re not leaving the country any time in the foreseeable future and will be living between two small homes also has us rethinking our living arrangements. We’d like to swap out the two places for one ideal place on the lake, but the ideal place has not come along yet. We’ve actually made a couple of offers on properties over the summer, but nothing has worked out in our favor in this crazy, competitive real estate market.
I will also say that true 100% retirement may not suit me well. Intellectually, I know we don’t need more money, but I also know that I always have, and maybe always will, enjoy making money.
Having an online business has scratched that itch in this semi-retired kind of life that I lead, but I can’t say how I would feel if I didn’t have that something to occupy some time and help pay the bills.
I stayed true to the pledge to donate half of my profits from this venture, and we’ve now donated over $300,000 over 4-plus years as a result. It would be really hard to walk away from a fun enterprise that has had such an impact.
That last bit belongs in the “Best of” section, but my point is that I’m realizing I may not be cut out for a traditional sort of retirement any time soon.
The Second Year of Early Retirement
What does the future hold?
The answer depends on factors that are mostly beyond my control. When it’s safe to travel, we will. When the braces come off, we’ll do more.
I expect to have some RV travel reports on the blog by this time next year. There are so many incredible national parks and state parks to explore.
Could I go back to work in a hospital setting? It’s possible.
I have not had the itch, but I did feel a twinge of guilt in March when COVID cases were rising exponentially, and I volunteered to go back to my old employer if and when I’d be needed.
While in Minnesota to visit my parents nearly one year to the day of my last day on the job, I sat down for lunch and beers with my old anesthesia chief to discuss the possibility of filling in some gaps that may be coming due to attrition in the group rather than the pandemic effects.
When I first learned of the possible need via a text message, I felt surprisingly and underwhelmingly indifferent to the idea, but I immediately responded that I could cover those potential gaps and we could figure out the details later.
I’ve since realized that would mean doing some more CME, renewing a license again, renewing ACLS and re-doing PALS, and completing the hospital’s annual compliance training. I’m not thrilled about any of that, but I would do it to help my former colleagues out in a pinch if that’s what I need to do.
I’m not sure how likely it is that such a scenario will play out, but I’ve said all along that I’d keep the ability to go back to medicine for at least a year or two, and I’m a man of my word. Do I have to turn in my FIRE card if I put a few more weeks in on the job at some point?
The First Year of FIRE
In summary, this first year out has been busy, wonderful, and forever altered by one big, bad curveball.
Although I am willing to consider a return to the operating room, I have no particular hankering to do so, and I don’t regret the decision I made to walk away for a minute.
At 44, I still have nearly a decade with my kids at home or with us away from home, and I should get several more decades of empty-nest life after that. I hope to make the most of each and every year I’m granted, whatever surprises may come my way.
I’ll be taking them one year at a time. Cheers to year one!