The goal for most of the audience of this site is to retire, probably earlier than most, from their occupations.
What that retirement looks like, what income sources and expenditures are required, how much side work or hustling is involved, is deeply personal and varies from individual to individual.
But some lessons are universal, and they’re only really learned from experience.
In this guest post from Clipping Chains, we look at lessons learned from two years of retirement — lessons not just from a financial perspective, but a lifestyle view, too.
It’s been almost exactly two years since I last worked for anyone else. Two years since I made a paycheck. Two years since I commuted. Two years since I waited too long, ran like a fool with a backpack smacking me in the ass, missing my bus home anyway.
Two years since I rushed to the gym, exhausted after a full day of work, and ground out a training session anyway.
It’s been two years since I hurriedly traded slacks and dress shoes for chalk-covered pants and approach shoes in a cold parking garage. Two years since I told any inappropriate jokes to coworkers before a meeting began. Two years since I lived in an old house in Denver with “character” and loud, hateful neighbors.
Two years since we bought a tiny A-frame camper, eventually living on the road. It’s been two years since so much changed, and today I’m here to tell you about what this sense of freedom is really all about.
A year ago, I downloaded my thoughts on the first year away from work here: Six Lessons From a Year Without a Job.
Start there, but let’s see how things have changed with another passing year.
Beautiful boulders for days at Little Rock City, near Chattanooga, TN.
Major Life Events:
- I sort of quit my job in February of 2020.
- Traveled to Sicily for two weeks in February of 2020, narrowly missing the first Covid surge there.
- Rode the wave of the Covid economic downturn, recalling the highly relevant headlines from the 2008 financial crisis.
- We sold our house in Denver and lived the simple and complicated life on the road for five months in our tiny A-frame camper. Our goal? Relocate to a new town using these key criteria.
- Mrs. CC left her job in late 2020.
- We bought a new house in St. George, Utah.
- Late spring and summer 2021 travels: North Carolina, Grand Canyon, Wyoming, Colorado, Salt Lake City/Uinta backpacking/Maple Canyon, Utah.
- Winter 2021-2022 travels: North Carolina and Tennessee.
Freedom Lesson #1: Wherever You Go, There You Are
I knew this was coming, thought it would be different for me, and am now here to confirm it for you anyway:
Quitting your job won’t automatically change you.
In fact, this new vacancy in the hotel of life provides a large, previously unoccupied mirror, ensuring regular self-reflection. And of course, I realize there are a lot of people in this world who would happily sit and stare at themselves in a mirror for a fortnight, pausing only for snacks (if at all). I am not one of those people.
What you prioritize now is what you’ll prioritize later.
If you are letting work get in the way of the things that are “important” to you, then they probably aren’t that important anyway. If you aren’t nurturing relationships, you won’t start later just because you don’t have to catch the bus.
The beauty and/or horror of being “retired” is that I no longer have cover for the changes I wanted to make. I can’t blame the 40-60 hour work week anymore, and as it turns out, it wasn’t in the way as much as I thought it was anyway. In fact, the work week provided hustle and focus for my limited free time, something I discussed in this podcast interview with Mark Anderson.
It’s now so easy to say, “eh…I’ll do that later.” When there is an abundance of later, it’s much harder to stay focused on “now.”
If spare time is filled with television, social media, or other forms of doom scrolling, more spare time will mean more television, more social media, and more doom scrolling.
Making changes requires intention, and you may not need to quit your job to achieve the changes you desire.
Freedom Lesson #2: So Far, It Works
I’m occasionally asked via email or over casual conversation whether this pursuit of financial independence actually works. Despite millions of words written by thousands of bloggers and no real voices of consternation, there is still clearly a high degree of skepticism around the idea of financial independence, especially at our age (mid-30s).
Well, I’m here to confirm it does work, so far at least. And due to the continued steamrolling of the economy and the stock market (yes, despite all appearances the economy is doing well), things are going much better than we anticipated.
I’m not one of those bloggers who shares all the intimate details of our personal finances, but I’ll show you a little cleavage, all right? Maybe the top of a butt cheek if you ask nicely.
By the way, if you want the full frontal of someone else, I’d happily point you toward The Frugal Professor. Professor Frugal is a husband, father of five, and posts each month about the intimate details of his personal finances. It’s kind of the Hustler of personal finance. We also traded interviews, which was really fun, and those can be found here and here.
Important note: I’m always hesitant to share financial metrics because I fear it comes across as boastful. I just hope this serves as inspiration for the great power of saving.
When I left my job our expected spending level would require us to withdraw 3.3% of our total portfolio each year. Put another way, we had saved approximately 30 times our annual expected spending.
As a primer or reminder, most FIRE enthusiasts recommend saving at least 25x annual spending and having a withdrawal rate of no higher than 4%, known as the 4% Rule. It’s a good start, but for those serious about early retirement, I’d consider this.
Two years later, despite more than a full year of living nearly 100% off of our savings (Mrs. CC continued to work part-time until late 2020), our savings have grown by nearly 71%.
Related Post: Value Spending: How to Really Save Money
There are two elements contributing to this impressive growth:
1. A Hot Market
We are experiencing the wonderful compound growth of a hot market. That could (and will eventually) come with market fluctuations, in the form of corrections, a bear market, or continued growth. As always, I’m happy to ride out the adventure.
Another large part of our savings growth is the differential equity we locked in by selling our first house in Denver (high cost of living) and buying our second house in St. George (low cost of living, at the time anyway!), a process known as geoarbitrage. We sold our first home for quite a bit more than the cost of our second, so we put the difference into our investments.
As a result, we’ve bumped up our spending by a hefty 38%, still only expecting to withdraw around 2.7% of our total portfolio each year. Our average withdrawal rate for 2021 was approximately 2.9%.
We have the flexibility to greatly reduce spending if needed, and plenty of room for reduced or negative market returns.
- Expected Withdrawal Rate in February 2020: 3.3%
- Withdrawal Rate in January 2022: 2.7%
- Net worth in January 2022 (relative to February 2020, or x): 1.7x
- Spending in January 2022 (relative to February 2020, or y): 1.38y
Clear as mud?
So we’re spending more, but our rate of savings gain is greatly outpacing our increase in spending. If things change, and they inevitably will, we are ready and adaptable.
Freedom Lesson #3: I Enjoy Being My Own Boss
I don’t really have much more to add here.
This level of autonomy and freedom to design my day, week, month, and year is something I’ve grown to feel is intrinsic to my being. It’s a perfect fit for my personality. I put a high value on individualism, self-direction, and self-motivation.
Especially in the era of Covid, I’ve felt so thankful, blessed, and frankly lucky to have opted out of that workplace pandemic experience. I truly can’t imagine what it’s been like for some folks out there trying to navigate all the usual demands of work amongst so many new and challenging requirements: at-home parenting, constant testing, snotty and damp masks all day long, and simply the risk of continued exposure.
In a dream world, everyone would have this sense of freedom, but at the same time, I know not everyone can or will. But I also know many people flounder when given too much free time. Dictating the course of my day fits me like a tailored suit, and I love this suit.
I don’t, however, believe this is a one-size-fits-all lifestyle. The pursuit of financial freedom is a very worthy objective, as it provides us the freedom to choose. Early retirement in its purest form, alternatively, is an optional end-game probably only best suited toward those who are either (1) at peace with plenty of unstructured time, a saintly character trait; or (2) self-motivated to fill this new time with hobbies or other passionate pursuits.
Freedom Lesson #4: It’s Hard to Let Go of Busyness
This is my biggest realization of staring into the mirror of life. I always assumed that school or work (or both) kept me bouncing around like a deranged lunatic. But I now know, in absence of traditional work, that pacing around the house with a sense of urgency at 2:00 pm for absolutely no reason whatsoever is something clearly inherent to me.
I can’t sit still unless of course the FAA insists that I remain seated while the “fasten seat belt” sign is lit.
Being productive is sewn into the fabric of my soul. And in many ways, I love that trait about myself. Over the years I’ve produced a lot of work, learned many skills, and accomplished things that make me very proud.
The Downside of Going Hard
The downside is that I’ve begun to notice the physical and mental manifestations of my wide-eyed tendencies to go too hard at all times. I put a lot of pressure on myself for reasons I can’t clearly elucidate, even when there’s no need. And I’ve always felt “outside the box” (for better and worse), also finding it incredibly difficult to show my true colors, as it were.
I’ve been diagnosed with an autoimmune dysfunction that has very real physical implications. Although this disease is believed to be genetic and is poorly understood, I can’t help but notice the growing (and admittedly largely anecdotal) conversations about the relationship between autoimmune disease and personality.
I deal with a tremendous amount of muscle and neural tension which results in pain and limited mobility. It’s frustrating and leads to a vicious cycle: Feel “tight” > get frustrated > feel tighter > perform poorly > get frustrated > feel tighter. These southern, slopey boulder topouts are a spotlight on the “not currently capable” aspects of my physical abilities.
A mirror still helps.
Freedom Lesson #5: I Don’t Worry About Money (Yet)
The idea of transitioning from saving to spending was distressing during my corporate years.
I’m happy to report that this has been a surprising non-issue over the last two years. I attribute my comfort to the following:
- My wife, the lovely Mrs. CC, ensured we saved more than I believed to be necessary. I would have handed in the two weeks’ notice at least a year prior to when I sort of quit my job. She’s really great, isn’t she? This is the most important factor in my comfort these days.
- We’ve collectively spent hundreds of hours studying this financial stuff. We are not financial professionals, nor do we have any certifications, but we’ve put in the reps on understanding markets, withdrawal rates, and most important of all (by a large margin): human psychology. If we can predict how certain events affect our feelings, we can alter our behavior in response to those stimuli. With enough exposure, our feelings change.
- The market is doing well. Other than the ever-so-slightly-terrifying little sled ride in February and March of 2020, the market has been doing very well. Too well? Seeing your money grow even as you spend it is a Swedish massage for the soul.
- We take a minimum-effective-dose policy to the news and especially social media. I want to be informed, but I refuse to sit on an IV drip of anxiety and anger for the bulk of the day.
Related Post: Digital Minimalism: Give Me Back My Brain
Freedom Lesson #6: Social Contact Is Far More Important Than I Imagined
I am an introvert who is often left drained by prolonged social interactions. I enjoy playing the game, however, and I have shifted myself toward the extroverted end of the spectrum over the years. That said, I so deeply cherish simple quiet time alone or with my wife. This is the preferred foundation of my existence.
Surprisingly, it didn’t take long to realize how much of a social deficit I was facing after leaving work and the beginning of lockdowns in the spring of 2020. After the smug, self-satisfied wave of early retirement washed over me, which took maybe one to three months, I started to realize I was living an increasingly lonely life.
If I’m being brutally honest with myself, that situation hasn’t markedly changed in two years.
The one saving grace is that I’m a climber. I’ll always have other climbers with which to interact on a regular basis. Unfortunately, so many of these relationships are both fleeting and transactional. We so often seek partners not for friendship, but for a belay or a spot on our own individual ambitions. Of course, if we can have both it’s a beautiful thing. Often, however, one or the other is lacking.
Too Much, Too Soon
A big issue here is that my wife and I, admittedly at my direction, changed too much too soon, an issue I discussed in last year’s post. Instead of transitioning gently into this new life, I decided to turn all the knobs at once, like a toddler on a pre-9/11 tour of a plane cockpit.
We sold our house, lived on the road, and resettled relatively impulsively in a new and very different state –where we knew essentially no one—all the while navigating all the garden variety pandemic stuff that everyone else was facing.
Chris Mamula warned me not to change too much, but we did anyway. Listen to Chris.
My hope is that I’ll look back on this phase as a prolonged transition not so unfamiliar to me from years past. I’ve always maintained that everyone should move far from home at least once in their lives, if for no other reason than to experience the pangs of self-reflection and learning required to meet new and different people. I’ve done this dance perhaps too many times, and I know it takes time. This is especially true for those of us who don’t exactly walk into a room with jazz hands and oozing charisma.
Freedom Lesson #7: Climbing a Lot Makes You a Better Climber
I made you climbers hang all the way to the end to get the confirmation you seek. Yes, this lifestyle provides a lot of time for rock climbing. And yes, that is a very good thing.
Certainly, many of us aren’t surprised by this realization. If we do more of the thing we hope to improve, we will improve at the thing. It’s taken me years to transition from overemphasizing physical training, despite knowing all along that training is only a small slice of a big pie.
During my working days, I generally spent 50% of the time climbing and training in the gym, and 50% outside, which was respectable for a working stiff. Now in prime season, I don’t train in a gym of any kind for weeks or months on end, instead focusing on a Monday/Wednesday/Friday outdoor-only climbing schedule. And without a doubt, I’ve become a better climber.
It’s important for me to clarify what better means. I haven’t materially changed my top-end numbers on paper. I’m not redpointing or flashing/onsighting much higher than I was two or three years ago, which might be seen as evidence of a failed experiment.
The important distinction, however, is that I’m completing harder climbs faster. Climbing is (usually) so much more enjoyable now. I spend 80-90% of my time working on routes or boulders that I can complete in one to three sessions. Once or twice a year I engage in something bigger when the inspiration (ego?) strikes.
I’m completely content with that approach. Increasingly unconcerned about grades, I now feel less attached to how these achievements on rock validate who I am as a person. The scary thing is that two or three years ago I might have told you a similar narrative, so the journey is far from complete.
My focus now and going forward is to find enjoyment and silver linings in climbing. I’m constantly in search of that newbie mindset, happy to flail, enjoy the weather, and appreciate this amazing privilege I have for this freedom anyway. It’s easier said than done, but I think I’m on the right path. Most of the time.
Summary: Two Years of Freedom
The best gift of financial freedom is the enhanced opportunity to discover who we really are. Especially in the United States, where so much emphasis is put on hustle and busyness, we are left with precious few hours of quiet time for reflection. And when we do have that time, we are prone to filling it with television, social media, or even podcasts to distract us from our uncomfortable truths.
The greatest win for these last two years is mental clarity. I’ve learned a lot about motivations, strengths, and weaknesses. Many of these epiphanies have come from conversations on the podcast, a new wing of this project that I now greatly enjoy. I look forward to more years of this wonderful opportunity for improvement.
And finally, I want to thank you all for making this so fun and fulfilling. You guys are the best, and you ask great questions.
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If you’re retired, what lessons have you learned?