Three Years of FIRE and the Point of No Return

It’s been over three years since I stepped out from the call room I called home for the weekend, changed into plain clothes in the locker room adjacent to the operating rooms, and wondered if I’d ever put on a pair of scrubs again.

Three summers ago, I moved my family back to northern Michigan, settling briefly into a small home that should have worked well as a home base while we traveled extensively for the next three to four years.

Man plans and epidemiologists laugh. No, these last few years haven’t looked entirely like we expected, but we’ve made the best of an unusual situation, and I don’t regret the decision I made to set aside the laryngoscope and my career as an anesthesiologist at the ripe young age of 43.

I’ve been asked many times if I might go back to work as a physician. My early answer was “probably not” and the likelihood needle has moved closer and closer to zero ever since.

 

3-years-of-fire

 

The Point of No Return

 

In certain careers, a person can leave for an extended period of time and pick up where they left off with relative ease, even if it’s years down the line.

Physician careers are not among these, especially the ones in which procedural skills are important. To be frank, if I were in need of a medical procedure, I would not want to have a surgeon, anesthesiologist, interventional radiologist or cardiologist who is in his first few days back after an extended absence of many months.

As the doctor, I’d want to be confident in my skills and up to date on the latest literature. After a year or two away from medicine, I can’t imagine many physicians would have that confidence. I sure wouldn’t. After three years, forget it.

I have heard that it can be difficult to get malpractice insurance coverage after 24 months with no clinical work. The insurance companies see an absence of that length as a risk factor, and I’m sure that’s based on more than just a hunch.

A lot of effort and money goes into the maintenance of Board certification, medical licensure, various certifications, and maintenance of hospital privileges. I started letting some of these lapse after my first year out of the game, and now, all I’ve got left is my ABA certification, which will officially expire in 2027.

All of this to say I reached the point of no return some time ago, and I’m more than OK with that. If my life circumstances were to change drastically and I was looking for a way back into the field of anesthesia, I believe I could find it, but it would be a complex and expensive road that would most likely include some refresher training with a residency program.

 

Semi-Retirement

 

I don’t identify as a fully retired person. I did retire from medicine, but I haven’t stopped working or earning an income. This website has kept me as busy as I’d like to be in that regard; I ran it for three and a half years while working as an anesthesiologist and it’s been my sole “job” for the last three years and change.

I put the word “job” in quotes because I’ve got the valuable ability to work as little or as much as I want on it from wherever I choose to be. Retired not retired, if you will.

I rarely wake up to an alarm clock, and if I do, it’s usually to catch a flight or get in an early morning run before it gets too warm out. I never wake up to the beep of a pager anymore, and that’s a beautiful thing.

It’s not unusual for someone I’ve recently met to approach me with a quizzical look and try to substantiate the rumor they heard about me being retired. My typical response is to shrug my shoulders a bit and tell them that, yes, I retired from my old job as an anesthesiologist, but that I still run a website. I consider myself to be semi-retired, I tell them, and I think that’s about right.

 

Retired Not Retired

 

FIRE Year One

 

I do identify with the FIRE acronym. I reached financial independence and retired early. It may be just the first of several retirements, but I think FIRE still fits.

In the first month or two of FIRE, we completed the move from Minnesota to Michigan and started to get settled into our new hometown.

My wife got the homeschool ball rolling, and we made all sorts of travel plans.

My boys turned 9 and 11 that fall, and we took off for two glorious months in Mexico, spending time in Guanajuato, Queretaro, and Mexico City.

After returning home for the holidays, we were off again on another two-month adventure. We spent two to four weeks each in the Spanish cities of Valencia, Barcelona, and Madrid.

 

Two Months in Spain: a Family FIRE Adventure Part 1: Valencia

 

It was the first winter in a long time where we barely experienced any actual winter weather. In both Mexico and Spain, we typically had high temperatures in the upper 50s to low 70s and plenty of sun.

We planned to be back in The States in early March so that I could be a part of WCICON in March of 2020. The day I arrived in Las Vegas for the meeting was the day a pandemic was declared.

I spent two weeks quarantining at our cabin when I returned to Michigan, and we kept our bubble small all spring and summer, spending a lot of time with our awesome neighbors and their young boys.

Knowing that extended slow travel was unlikely to be a viable option for a long time, we opted to start our older son in phase II of orthodontic work, a process that is ongoing and will hopefully wrap up in FIRE Year Four.

 

FIRE Year Two

 

We were booked on a 30-day cruise with friends to Shanghai, China by way of Hawaii, Guam, Japan, and South Korea! Yeah, that was for the fall of 2020, and it obviously didn’t happen.

After five and a half months of traveling around southeast Asia (and probably New Zealand and Australia), we were to return on a 15-day cruise from Japan to North America with several stops in Japan and one in Russia! Of course, that didn’t happen either.

We settled for Plan B with some domestic travel to keep us from going stir-crazy in our 1100 square-foot house. That included an RV road trip down to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and Asheville, North Carolina.

We also got annual passes to Universal Orlando and used them on 39 different days over the course of three or four trips to Orlando.

Since we were actually spending time in northern Michigan in the winter, we introduced our boys to downhill skiing and I hit the hills for the first time in at least 25 years. The boys and I loved it.

My wife and I volunteered with the local health department, working dozens of vaccination clinics in the first four months of 2021.

That spring, after three to four years of looking for the ideal family home on a nearby inland lake, we found the next best thing. It was a house across the street from the lake with a large building site across the street on the lake. We moved in and got right to work tearing up carpet, removing wallpaper, arranging for the hardwood floors to be restored, painting, and more.

We spent the summer getting settled at our new place and getting to know new neighbors in our wonderful lakeside neighborhood.

 

How Early Retirement Prepared Us for the Pandemic

 

FIRE Year Three

 

Year three started a lot like year two did with more canceled travel plans.

Three of us were vaccinated, but our younger son was too young to qualify, and his age group wasn’t approved until November.

We decided to opt out of a September trip to Texas that was to include time in San Antonio, Big Bend National Park, and Austin for FinCon. We had all of the flights, hotel stays, Airbnbs, and a rental car reserved, but we felt it was best to wait, as the COVID numbers in Texas did not look good.

By late fall, we were all vaccinated and the adults were boosted. We finally got to take a cruise, and we squeezed in two weeks back in Guanajuato, Mexico before the holidays.

In 2022, we made up for lost travel time. It started in early January when we started a trip that had us spending a week each in Athens, Malta, Sicily, and Rome.

 

Family FIRE Travels: Rome, If You Want To

 

After a few weeks in Michigan where we found time to do some more skiing, we took another month-long trip, spending time in Orlando visiting the Universal theme parks, a week on the west coast courtesy of a generous reader, and a few days in Ponte Vedra Beach for the DLP Prosperity event.

We found a great round-trip fare from Orlando to Medellin, so we spend a week in Colombia in the middle of that trip.

We finished winter out back in Michigan, visiting the orthodontist (whose office is 90 minutes away) among other things before taking off on one more springtime trip of about 5 weeks.

This one started with a road trip to Boston with a stop at Niagara Falls. We left our car in Massachusetts with a relative (Thanks, Aunt Shell!) and flew to Houston where we visited the Johnson Space Center and had a four-day beach vacation before taking off on a 13-day cruise with FI friends.

The boat took us down to Central America, Colombia (Cartagena), the Caribbean, and finally left us just outside of New York City.

We spent a day and night in the Big Apple, seeing the Harry Potter production on Broadway, Times Square, Wall Street, Battery Park, Central Park, and visiting with friends who live there.

Then, we were off to Boston and Cape Cod before spending a week in Maine splitting time between Portland and Bar Harbor where we hiked in Acadia National Park. We drove back through Canada, dropping down into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in Sault Ste. Marie and settling back in for a great summer by the lake.

 

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FIRE Year Four

 

August 12th, 2019 was the day I woke up post-call, quietly ending my anesthesia career. The date came and went without me noticing for the first time in 2022, and my fourth year of FIRE began unceremoniously.

The next day, my wife and I ran a half marathon at a Michigan winery, and we celebrated my wife’s 40th birthday with more friends from the FIRE community in Longmont, Colorado after spending a couple of days in Denver doing dinosaur stuff with our kids. We saw petrified dinosaur bones embedded in rocks, authentic dinosaur tracks, and super fake baby dinosaurs at the Jurassic World Experience.

Most recently, I spent time with my parents and brother in Minnesota, caught the Golden Gophers football home opener, went to summer camp (Camp FI) with some great folks, hung out with friends in Florida before and during FinCon, caught another Gophers game, and finally returned home!

We’ve got almost 11 months to go in Year Four, and while we want to be around some for the home build, we’ve got big travel plans for the fall and spring that include visiting a number of countries and one continent that we’ve never seen before, and we’ll be spending more than a month at sea between both a trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific cruise.

Ground was broken on our new home in late May, and the framing is nearly complete now. We expect to be busy choosing fixtures and finishes among other things and taking regular evening strolls through the house while we’re in town.

This is our last year to travel before our older son starts high school in person, and it’s going to be a challenge to balance our desire to travel with the importance of being around for key issues with the home build.

When winter comes, we plan to take advantage of the Indy Pass that lets us ski for two days at over 100 different ski resorts. There are quite a few in the upper midwest, and we may take a big road trip east or west to find some true mountain skiing.

 

Downsides of FIRE

 

Those are the highlights of how we’ve spent our time, but I don’t want to present solely a dry-cleaned, social-media-approved look at this FIRE life.

If you’ve read up on happiness, you may have learned that only about 10% of your happiness is derived from your current life circumstances.

I changed my circumstances drastically, but if that stat is to be believed, the happiest I could be is about 10% happier. The rest is determined by your genetics, past, and your actions and responses to situations in life.

I’d say that 10% number sounds about right. I am happier, and I have less stress in my life, but it’s not all puppy dogs, ice cream, and rainbows.

If your identity is wrapped up in your profession, FIRE may leave you feeling a little lost. If work was your primary social outlet, FIRE can leave you lonely until you find a way to replace that human contact.

I wouldn’t say that either was the case for me, so the transition has been pretty easy. It helps that I’ve had this blog to work on, and although the in-person interactions aren’t all that frequent, there is a strong social component to interacting with readers via the comments section, emails, social media channels, and so on.

Another potential downside that I have yet to experience is the loss of income. Even if you’re in great financial shape with a very low planned withdrawal rate, shifting from accumulation to decumulation can be a difficult transition to make psychologically.

 

 

Upsides of FIRE

 

Fitness

When recent retirees tell you that they’re now in the best shape of their life, believe them.

When your mornings aren’t rushed, there’s no good excuse not to get some exercise. I made body weight exercises a part of my morning routine two and a half years ago, and I estimate I’ve done about 100,000 pushups and an equal number of situps in that time, along with tens of thousands of air squats.

In my first year of FIRE, my wife and I ran a half marathon in Barcelona. I had some nagging injuries that slowed me down afterward, but I’ve been running again in 2022, and I plan to run my first marathon next month. I’ll run my second 20-mile training run later this week.

My Garmin watch measures my heart rate 24 hours a day, and my resting heart rate, which Garmin measures as the lowest 30-minute average heart rate (typically when sleeping), has dropped to the low-to-mid 40s. I recorded a 41 three of the last four nights.

I may have been a faster runner ten years ago, but overall, it’s not a stretch to say that I’m in the best shape of my life, and it’s much easier to make physical fitness a priority when work never gets in the way. Now if I could just touch my toes when I bend forward… my body is not as flexible as the FIRE lifestyle!

 

Sleep

Fragmented, inconsistent sleep is the norm for a hospital-based physician. Going back to medical school, which I was in before duty hours were reduced for students and trainees, that’s the life I lived for over 20 years.

Babies are born at all hours of the night, and medical emergencies have little respect for our natural circadian rhythms.

I sleep much, much better now. I never go to sleep wondering if I’ll get to sleep for 1, 4, or 6 hours before the pager beckons. Waking up naturally is a beautiful thing.

The same Garmin watch that measures distance when I run and heart rate around the clock also tells me how much I’ve slept. I think it overestimates a touch by counting pre-sleep rest as actual sleep, but it’s pretty accurate. According to the watch, I’ve slept an average of 8 hours and 46 minutes a day over the last week, and that includes a poor night’s sleep after getting my COVID booster mid-week.

 

garmin-sleep-monitor

 

I’m aware of the 0500 clubs and I’ve tried my own version of the Miracle Morning, but I’ve come to accept that I’d rather get 8 to 9 hours of sleep, rousing sometime between 0700 and 0800 most days.

 

Freedom

FIRE may seem to be all about the money. Get to 25x to 30x your anticipated expenses, or whatever dollar value or passive income level you’re most comfortable with, and then you can do the FIRE thing.

Money matters most in the accumulation phase, but it takes a back seat once you have enough to buy the thing we most want, and that thing is freedom.

Here in the U.S., we already have many freedoms, and I thank our democracy and military heroes for securing and protecting our many basic freedoms.

FIRE grants you additional freedoms. Namely, the freedom to spend your time as you wish and the freedom to be wherever you want to be.

Unless you rapidly skimmed over the first 3,000 words of this post, you know that we’ve taken full advantage of location freedom. We’ve been traveling extensively with our children, and they will have spent time in more than twenty countries before starting high school.

Location freedom is not exclusive to retirees; digital nomads are becoming more common as the work-from-“home” movement has gained steam in the last few years. Still, a week in London, Barcelona, or Medellin will be much more memorable if you’re not spending 40 hours a week staring at a laptop.

Time freedom is the other key freedom of FIRE. I don’t enjoy this quite as much as some our fellow FIREd friends — these posts don’t write themselves — but I like to think I have found a good balance, and I’ve prioritized things like family adventures, fitness, and sleep over business all along.

 

50 Years of FIRE?

 

I’m excited to see what the coming decades will bring! At age 46 with no chronic health conditions, arguably in the best shape of my life, and with a family history of longevity, I may easily have another 46 or more years to go.

If I make it another 47 years, and this blog still somehow exists, and people still read the written word rather than binging exclusively on short-term video, I’ll be sure to write that 50 years of FIRE post. Or maybe I’ll tell you about it in person in holographic or avatar form, sitting across from you in a virtual brewery somewhere in the metaverse.

Either way, cheers to the next 50 years! 🍻

 



 

20 thoughts on “Three Years of FIRE and the Point of No Return”

  1. Leif,

    If you decide to run even farther than a Marathon and on trial, I recommend the North Country Trail Races over at The Big M in Manistee every August. Get races, at a good price.

    Also I’m so looking forward to being able to work out when I want every day in FIRE, not when time is available.

    Reply
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  3. Great read! Out of curiosity, have you ever done the math to show what your FIRE life would look like if you only survived on your built up nest egg? Not every doc will have a blog making a few hundred grand per year to keep up their clinical income after leaving medicine. But as one of the leaders of the physician FIRE movement, I think they look to you as inspiration.

    Would be very interesting to see how you would feel if you had the decrease in nest egg most of us experienced in the past year while counting on it as your sole income source during your FIRE lifestyle. Maybe another blog post? 🙂

    Reply
    • Of course — I came up with the FIRE plan before starting a blog, and that plan had us retiring with 40x to 50x our expenses at the time, meaning we could abide by the 4% rule and spend roughly $125,000 to $150,000 a year.

      That plan assumed we’d stay in the house or one of a similar cost. Having this “retirement” income has made us more comfortable building a house that’s going to cost about 4x what we got when sold our Minnesota home.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

      Reply
  4. For all the knowledge and information you have shared, you have won a free stay in ft lauderdale, florida. Come visit us if you get tired of the winters and need a warm escape

    Reply
  5. Congrats!
    I wouldn’t however say “point of no return”. While you may not be able to find commercial insurance coverage, the federal government (VA) will most likely take you….

    Reply
    • Ah, the good ol’ VA. I spent time at the Minneapolis VA as a student, Gainesville, FL VA as a resident, and Pittsburgh VA as a resident. Loved working with the veterans. Do they still use that text-based CPRS EHR? It didn’t change one iota throughout my various stints, as far as I could tell.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

      Reply
  6. Congrats, Leif! Three years is something! My wife and I are runners too and on those days when we’re just not into it, we try to at least make it three miles, because… “three is something!”

    Are you still home schooling the boys? Does the 11 year old not miss being in school with his friends? I kind of thought age 10 might be our cut off when that time comes.

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Thank you, Ben!

      We are still homeschooling / worldschooling, and my wife wrote this update on how that’s going fairly recently. We’ve been happy with both the process and results, and our boys prefer what we’ve been doing to traditional schooling. As far as missing friends, when we left public school, we also moved states, so going back wouldn’t reunite them with old friends, but we anticipate they’ll be back in person next year making new friends. They do know some kids from the neighborhood and activities like cross country, swim club, and tennis.

      Regarding the running, I mentioned that I was faster a decade ago when my 5k pace was just under 7-minute miles, but what I failed to mention in the post is that at the time, I started working in January for a hospital that didn’t open until sometime that summer. I was essentially on a mini-retirement working a handful of hours a week, being a stay-at-home Dad to toddlers, and running consistently.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

      Reply
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  8. Man plans and epidemiologists laugh

    PoF, that quote alone is worth 50+ years of FIRE! Congratulations on being retired not retired, and for being a stay-at-home Dad. Nothing could be more important than that!

    Reply

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