FIRE almost one year in: Spoiler Alert: It’s not a sabbatical!
On August 19th 2016, I sent an email to all work related contacts, informing them I was taking a yearlong sabbatical. After changing my out of office reply and voice mail along the same lines, I handed over my company cell phone, laptop computer, passwords and a bunch of other work related stuff to my colleagues later that day and said goodbye.
No farewell party, no retirement gift, just “see you guys in a year or so”, then I drove off to into my new life. We were about to start our travels the very next day, heading to UT to meet some full time RVing friends.
Sitting in the RV fridge, waiting to be used for Champagne Brunch on my first Monday of Freedom was a bottle of Moet Chandon, a colleague had given me as a personal farewell gift. He probably had an inkling that I was not coming back. Officially he said it was for going out of my way helping him during our handover period. Thank you! Enjoyed working with you too!
When I left Phoenix that scorching hot August day, I already kind of knew it was unlikely I’d return to this particular job. Yet I referred to my “break” as a sabbatical. Who was I trying to fool? Mostly myself, probably. The truth is, it is hard to go from being net saver on a decent salary to spending down your savings. I also took pride in my work and generally enjoyed my job. There were just a few circumstances that made it less pleasant in the last few years leading up to that August day.
I had asked my employer for a sabbatical in hopes to keep a door open and not burn bridges. If the economy were to tank, or in case I didn’t enjoy my new freedom (as if!), I wanted to be able to come back without losing face. Telling myself that I could go back if need be, made the decision to jump a bit easier for me. While they were considering it, I had already made up my mind that I would resign should the company decline. I was pretty sure, they would say no and of course they did.
I handed in my resignation the day after HR let me know, that my request was denied. I gave a long notice period, to make sure I could do a good job handing things over. I had been with this company for 18 years and I wanted to do the right thing and not let my colleagues down.
Still, I told people I was taking a sabbatical, when in reality I was FIREing short of my number (my original projected resignation date was April 2018, with roughly an additional 4-6x yearly expenses socked away). It took me quite a while to refer to myself as “FIREd” instead of “on an extended vacation” or something of that nature.
Even now, as my year is almost up, this artificial deadline of the imagined sabbatical is still messing with me. Maybe because I FIREd short of my number, maybe because I just vanished without any official closure or maybe because I feel guilty for the major changes in my original FIRE plans, which had included less time spent travelling and more time spent volunteering.
Do I regret it? No, I don’t. I mean, I could have easily made up for the missing amount by engineering my layoff. Friends who had recently volunteered for a severance package, suggested getting laid off as a more lucrative option and they are certainly right. I didn’t have the energy to go down that route and I did not want to burn that bridge, I mentioned earlier.
On the other hand, some of my FIRE community friends were surprised I pulled the plug that early. They thought I was a solid OMY candidate and that I probably would not stop working even once I reached “the number”. In the end I FIREd twenty or so months shy of my projected date with a lower stash than I could have. Most times, I am truly happy I did, even if I had to make some adjustments.
So? How has it been so far?
One year in here are some experiences that I like to reflect on, I don’t want to call them lessons learned, observations rather, I’d like to share from this first year of Freedom.
When being FREE is priceless
The phone beeps and you get the dreaded message. That situation you wanted to be FIREd for, but hoped would never happen? HERE it is. I woke up to a text message from my step sister: “Please call Dad ASAP, urgent!” Six months into our travels, we were out in the boonies, but luckily did have some cell coverage. I called my dad to find out my mum had slipped on ice, fell and broke her hip. She was in the hospital and was going to have surgery the next day. I spoke to him, then called her in the hospital then talked to him again.
After hanging up, I checked the three closest airports for next available flights (my parents don’t live in the US). Two days later I was on a plane to the other side of the world. Both parents had assured me that this was absolutely not necessary. BS!!!! Of course it was. They needed help and I needed to know they’d be ok.
I was there for a month, organizing the little things they would have had to ask help with otherwise. You know, all the things you don’t think about, until they become an issue because you can’t do them anymore. Neither one of my parents is in great shape, but between the two of them they make a good team. What one can’t do, the other one can. When one side of the equation is out of commission, some of the little things become a lot more difficult for both of them. Me being there gave both of them peace of mind, that stuff gets taken care of on either side, plus I could set up some extra help for them for continued support once I left. I was glad I could do something and I was very grateful to be in a position to just pick up and go.
The funny thing is, when I got ready to head back home to the US, both parents independently of each other confided in me, that it was a good thing I came, so the “other” parent had help. Gotta love my folks 😉
What I miss, what I crave
No, it’s not the paycheck, although I certainly would not have minded had they just continued to pay me. What I miss most is my community and my ability to give back to my community.
When I still lived in Phoenix a big part of my time was spent volunteering and finding ways to help causes I am passionate about. Being nomadic makes this even harder than being employed full time.
Not having stuck around work long enough to fund my DAF definitely induces some guilt as does losing my employer match on monetary donations.
The way our travel has evolved, we spend a lot of time in National Forests and on BLM land and very little time in spots where we can develop strong connections with other people, though it does happen on occasion. My plan going forward, is to create more opportunities to socialize with other nomadic FIREes by aligining travel plans with fellow RVers. I did create online groups for other nomadic FIREes, feel free to join us if you are interested!
Loosing part of the ability to support causes I care about is really what bugs me the most. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I could make some money to give away (if you want to help me, check if there’s something of interest for you here).
The Money, expenses, stash, etc.
It has been mostly fine, really, despite a total of three long distance trips to see my folks and several big initial purchases. One of these days, I’ll publish a post on what it costs to RV travel like we do, I promise.
I had expected to really tighten the purse strings during the first years, because I had stopped 4-6x yearly expenses short of the target number. At the same time I wanted to continue to give on the level I had been pre-FIRE. For this reason I needed to reduce the FIRE budget in other areas. Not having a fixed residence probably has the biggest impact along with sharing expenses with TDA, both of which I had not factored into my original plans.
The advantage of modifying my original FIRE plans to live a nomadic life definitely works with my budget and the reduced number. I don’t stress too much over my spending most of the time. Actually, starting out, I had quite a few bigger purchases (new glasses, new laptop, phone, making the car towable etc.) and we still did fine. About 30% of my expenses are donations, but I’d really like to up that by a lot to offset less in kind donations and time volunteered. I am still trying to find ways to do this while on the road.
To make up for the lower number, I am trying to cap spending at a WR of 3.5% for the initial 5 or so years, if I can stay at 3% even better. My hope is that the stash will catch up, while I live on a reduced budget, so I don’t lock myself into the need for a cheaper lifestyle forever. From today’s perspective there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the nomadic lifestyle and the lower cost that comes with it. But I want to preserve my options, in case we decide to opt for a different scenario in the future.
Worries, contingencies and backup plans
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the death of joy” and boy was he ever right. I love reading / hearing other people’s FIRE stories and blogs. It is interesting and inspiring to see how fellow FIRE seekers reach their goals and learn how they plan for unforeseen events.
However, many of the stories I have read and heard lately have been somewhat intimidating to me. There are so many people who have reached their number and then some, then did OMY and now also can cover all or the majority their expenses with their blog or other side hustle. Then on top of that they have bazillion other backup strategies, plus social security, a pension and possibly an inheritance in addition to tweleven other pots of money they have not even accounted for in their stash. Oh and their spouse works part time for health insurance benefits or some other thing along those lines.
Don’t get me wrong, I AM happy for them, seriously!! Everyone who can reach that level of fawesomeness or badassity absolutely deserves it! Also, there is certainly nothing wrong with having contingencies in place or making extra money! Those folks can be very proud of having accomplished a pretty much bullet proof FIRE situation. High five! I seriously mean it! And I totally get wanting to minimize risk.
But then there is me. Unfortunately, I have no one else to blame but me myself and I. I stopped working short of the number (my fault, I know, but I’d do it again!). I won’t get Social Security (not enough credits). Trust fund? Nope. Pension, $41/a month wohooo! Blog income? Ummmm 96 cents to date (won’t be paid out until I hit a $100 threshold and if it ever gets to that point the money will be donated right away). Inheritance? Negative, not that I’d want that in the first place! Side hustle? Still thinking about what to do, but I really enjoy travelling so much, that I don’t really feel like working (ok, call me lazy, I own it!).
So my backup strategies pretty much consist of two things:
1) spending even less, although we don’t have a ton to cut and
2) resolving to geographic arbitrage should the shit really hit the fan.
That is pretty much it. Reading about others’ levels of additional security tends to make me feel ummmm, inadequate. At the same time, I tell myself, I traded the certainty of working almost two extra years for a small risk of having to go back to work sometime down the road.
I mean, yes, before we starve and live under a bridge, I definitely would consider getting a job, but I really hope we will be flexible enough to prevent this happening through reduced spending and geographical arbitrage.
What helps a bit, when I get worked up, is to stop reading other people’s drawdown strategies and reread The Simple Path to Wealth instead. Whenever I get too worried about finances, rereading The Simple Path to Wealth really does help me personally. It restores the confidence that I could probably deal with most situations the financial markets throw at us. And if something truly terrible were to happen on a geopolitical scale (which currently seems like a possibility, unfortunately) neither a 1% withdrawal rate nor a big pension would save me, but at least I already had the benefit of a year of freedom.
What I enjoy most
Not setting an alarm clock. Really! Waking up naturally without any external factors, other than purring cats is definitely the best part of my new life. Most nights we spend in perfectly dark and quiet locations, so I tend to sleep well and then I wake up, when my body is ready. Pure, utter luxury!
I also love being a stay at home cat mom. It always broke my heart to leave the cats behind, even in good hands with a cat sitter or my SO, when I had to travel for work and I did have to travel a lot. Now when one of the kitties wants to cuddle, I am there! Bring on the cat hair!
The slow pace of our travel has been a real joy as well. If we like a place we just stay. We can do all the hikes we are interested in at a particular National Park, instead of just staying for a night and rushing to the next one. We take our time and go with the flow!
FREE to make things happen and other challenges
Deep down we all know, no one but ourselves is in charge of your own happiness. Freedom makes this clearer than ever. Once all those things you have been blaming for your unhappiness / restlessness / reason to NOT do what you wish you could do, are gone, then everything is up to you. No more 6am flights, long work trips and pointless meetings, no overtime, deadlines, fires to put out, nothing left to blame but yourself. Things don’t just happen in FIRE, you need to make them happen.
It seems, becoming more fit and working out more is a common theme among early retirees. I certainly expected to make huge progress on the fitness front during my first year. That didn’t happen, or let’s be honest and say, I didn’t make it happen YET. Whereas we tend to hike more, walk more and spend a lot more time outdoors, we still have not taken up a regular exercise habit. I am also doing not as much Yoga, as I had hoped to. This is definitely something I want to improve on.
To work or not to work
Just like the improved exercise regimes, many FIREd people report sides hustles falling into their lap, going back to work part or full time, filling the void after leaving a job and other stuff. None of that has happened to me and I have not figured out yet if I want to make it happen either.
I go around in circles about wanting or not wanting to work. I already know I don’t want to go back to my old job. There are fun jobs out there I would consider, but many of them are not compatible with moving to a new place every few days. Also, I have met many nomads with interesting jobs and I am always interested to hear what people are doing to support themselves on the road. I have also met a lot of people who actually really depend on those kinds of jobs, so I would not feel good taking one away from someone who might truly need it.
Honestly, I am so busy with my new life, that I often wonder how I ever found the time to hold a job and we are talking about a 60-80 hours/week MegaCorp with lots of travel kind of job. Now I even cringe at the thought of even doing 10-20 hours a week, unless it is to help a great cause that I am passionate about. Maybe that will change, I don’t know.
What about you? Are you FIREd, close to FIRE, doing OMY just in case? How does FIRE look from your perspective?