5 Reflections On a Year of Pandemic Life

Want To Reach FI Sooner? Join more than 18,000 others and get new tips and strategies from Can I Retire Yet? every week. Subscription is free. Unsubscribe anytime:

One benefit of blogging is having a written record of my mindset at various points in time. It is helpful for me to periodically reflect back. How can I grow, improve, and make better decisions moving forward?

Throwing used mask from Covid-19 pandemic in garbage

This past week marked the one year anniversary of the world substantially changing as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic became real and immediate for most of us. In the same week our world was figuratively shaken, my world was literally shaking from a nearby earthquake and ensuing aftershocks. 

So I reread the blog post I wrote at this time a year ago. It was a good time to reflect on my state of mind at that tumultuous time. What did I get right? Where was I wrong?

Here’s what I’m taking away from the past year that will improve my personal planning and impact what I write about going forward…

Be Prepared For the Long Term

A year ago, many people thought the pandemic would lead to the end of a decade plus bull market. This, in turn, would be the beginning of the end of the FIRE movement that was a by-product of this prosperity. Or so that story went. 

After an initial shock to the system, the performance of the economy in general and the stock markets in particular have exceeded expectations. Things could have been far worse. Regardless, I firmly believe this community put ourselves in far better positions to sustain inevitable economic downturns than average Americans following the standard path through life.

Related: What Does Financial Independence Have to Do With Surviving a Pandemic?

My years of saving and planning enabled me to negotiate the trials and tribulations of the past year from a position of strength. Still, I learned a lot about my blind spots and erroneous assumptions.

Be Prepared For Short Term Disruptions

Until the past year, I focused on the big picture and long-term planning. However, I placed too much trust in assumptions that the world would always work in ways I was used to. I overlooked important day-to-day details.

I knew we had decades of living expenses in investment accounts. We had over a year’s worth of savings in cash in the bank. But we held insufficient physical cash, assuming we could easily  access our accounts at any time. I didn’t prepare for even a short term disruption of the financial system.

Despite having ample storage, we held few reserves. I assumed we could always just go to a store and buy more food, paper products, cleaning supplies, etc. It never crossed my mind that having money and stores all around us was meaningless if supply chains broke down and I couldn’t buy what I needed.

As avid campers and outdoors people, we had most everything we would need to survive for extended periods in harsh conditions. However, we had no organization or system to quickly access these things when we may need them most in an emergency.

This past year hasn’t turned me into a full-blown “doomsday prepper.” But I have taken a number of simple, low-cost, and practical actions that will make us more resilient to future disruptions. They include:

  • Keeping more cash on hand.
  • Putting together a basic survival kit of items, most of which we already owned. We now store them in one centralized and easy to access location.
  • Talking with neighbors about larger resources, such as generators, that could be shared in the event of a longer-term disruption.
  • Stocking up bottled drinking water and having ways to purify more water if needed.
  • Filling a pantry with several weeks of non-perishable food.

Be Humble

Retirement planning requires making predictions about what will happen decades into the future with investment returns, interest rates, inflation, health care costs, your life span, and the political climate that impacts factors including tax rates and Social Security benefits. 

Many people place great confidence in their assumptions. This past year should serve as a powerful reminder to be humble in our ability to predict the future.

Consider, a year ago markets were in free fall. Virtually no one was predicting they would be at new all time highs now. Major portions of the economy were shut down or at least slowed. Over a half-million people died due to COVID related causes. On top of that, we endured a summer of social unrest and a contentious fall election season culminating with a January uprising at the Capitol. Yet here we are.

There is merit to the idea that making predictions over longer time periods is actually easier. Things tend to revert to the mean. But that doesn’t matter if you are unable to remain solvent to ride out short to intermediate-term anomalies.

We should remain humble in our ability to predict the future. Never place too much of our future at risk when it relies on a particular outcome coming to fruition.

Be Flexible

One thing that has given me hope over the past year is seeing how adaptable and resilient people can be. Everything from how we work, educate our kids, socialize, entertain ourselves, shop, worship, etc. essentially changed overnight. Yet remarkably, life continues.

This is a lesson that should not be lost on us. With something as important as the retirement decision, it’s easy to obsess about having a perfect plan that considers every possibility. But the past twelve months have proven that’s impossible.

I recently wrote about the importance of having the courage to change the things under your control. But among this crowd, that’s mostly preaching to the choir.

The corollary to that is having the serenity to accept the many things we can’t control. That is much harder for many of us. I’m guilty of this.

The best plan is the one that works even if things don’t go the way you hope and predict. That requires being flexible and adaptable to conditions as they present themselves.

Be Helpful

Reflecting back on my mindset a year ago, there were many things I got wrong. But there was one thing I absolutely got right.

My opening and closing thoughts centered around the need to think about and help others. When I hit my lowest points, it was because I focused my attention on myself, what I lost, and expectations that were not met. Finding happiness and fulfillment only happened when I was able to stop focusing on myself and focus on loving, helping, and serving others.

Retirement planning focuses a lot on getting the financial aspects right. We also focus on escaping careers that dominate our time and don’t fulfill us. We need to focus more on what will fulfill our souls after financial independence and early retirement.

Related: Reasons to Live — Finding Your Purpose After Retirement or Financial Independence

A year where isolation was the norm and genuine connection was hard, if not impossible, was a major challenge for most of us. Let’s all use this opportunity to focus our attention on the  importance of relationships and service to one another.

As the world settles into a new normal, I challenge you, as I am challenging myself, not to fall into old routines and habits. How can we live more robust lives than we did before? How can we use our fortunate positions of being on the path to or having achieved financial independence and early retirement to make the world a better place?

* * *

Valuable Resources

  • The Best Retirement Calculators can help you perform detailed retirement simulations including modeling withdrawal strategies, federal and state income taxes, healthcare expenses, and more. Can I Retire Yet? partners with two of the best.
  • Free Travel or Cash Back with credit card rewards and sign up bonuses.
  • Monitor Your Investment Portfolio
    • Sign up for a free Personal Capital account to gain access to track your asset allocation, investment performance, individual account balances, net worth, cash flow, and investment expenses.
  • Our Books

* * *

[Chris Mamula used principles of traditional retirement planning, combined with creative lifestyle design, to retire from a career as a physical therapist at age 41. After poor experiences with the financial industry early in his professional life, he educated himself on investing and tax planning. Now he draws on his experience to write about wealth building, DIY investing, financial planning, early retirement, and lifestyle design at Can I Retire Yet? Chris has been featured on MarketWatch, Morningstar, U.S. News & World Report, and Business Insider. He is also the primary author of the book Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence. You can reach him at chris@caniretireyet.com.]

* * *

Disclosure: Can I Retire Yet? has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Can I Retire Yet? and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Other links on this site, like the Amazon, NewRetirement, Pralana, and Personal Capital links are also affiliate links. As an affiliate we earn from qualifying purchases. If you click on one of these links and buy from the affiliated company, then we receive some compensation. The income helps to keep this blog going. Affiliate links do not increase your cost, and we only use them for products or services that we're familiar with and that we feel may deliver value to you. By contrast, we have limited control over most of the display ads on this site. Though we do attempt to block objectionable content. Buyer beware.

34 Comments

  1. Great reflections. And spot on, my lowest points have been obsessing over myself and my own frustrations and I’ve felt the best helping others or expressing gratitude for what I am thankful for. It’s still been a hard up and down year, but it has so many good takeaways for life and early retirement.

    1. Thanks for the kind words AR. I agree that those things are easier said than done, thus the need for frequent reminders.

      Cheers!
      Chris

  2. Living in earthquake country, your “prepper” points are ones we were supposed to do anyway and we were happy we got to tune up. Surprisingly, CASH turned out to be pretty useless in the pandemic, what with ordering everything online, even if we picked stuff up ourselves. And when we went to grab quick groceries, we used the CREDIT-only self-checkout to avoid standing in lines. (In fact, I haven’t used cash for a year except for quarters in parking meters).

    For the rest of the points, our experiences may differ– despite feeling good about stocking up, we found the “extra” supplies were never needed– beyond the basics for surviving an earthquake. For example, we switched to cloth dish towels when paper towels got scarce. That’s a good thing, it turns out.

    We already keep water stored, but never touched a single bottle. We already have an emergency food supply, and mostly recycle it every 5 years or so as it expires. So mostly we learned we are able to do longer-term emergency preparation, but most of it was good prep, though never in fact needed.

    And we were literally blocks from some of the unrest day after day, so you got your supplies early in the day when things were quiet. So mileage may vary– a lot.

    1. Pete S,

      As someone from PA, new to earthquake country I agree with you. This is stuff I should have been doing all along.

      Thankfully, we skirted disaster with the earthquake, but having these preparations was helpful when a few months ago we were also hit by a major windstorm with sustained hurricane force winds that left us without power for days (and our neighbors less than a block away for over a week).

      Like most insurance, you hope not to use it.

      Unlike most insurance, these things are very cheap. Food, water and paper products you can eventually use. A few hundred dollars in cash that would be in the bank earning <1%. I'm OK with being overinsured if those are the costs.

      Also, unlike most insurance, these provisions can help us in the event of any number of emergencies (pandemic, natural disasters, civil unrest) in which we don't want or need to be out in public places.

      Best,
      Chris

  3. A thought provoking post Chris!

    Certainly the past year has been like none other, a once in a century pandemic forever changing our lives. Full of upheaval and social unrest forcing us to question the previous status quo. One lesson I learned is to accept what I have no control over and focus on what most matters to me. Such as relationships and keeping a positive attitude. Doing my best and striving to make some difference amongst this craziness.

    The good news, there is light at the end of the tunnel and it will be interesting to see how the new “normal” unfolds.

    1. Agree that the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter. My wife is scheduled for her first dose of the vaccine this week and I’m hopeful I’ll be close behind!

      Cheers!
      Chris

  4. Great post, couldn’t agree more. Regardless of ones individual thoughts and predictions regarding the stock market, the economy, preparing for disaster, etc. , a disciplined, classically – frugal, purposeful, delayed gratification, low-impact lifestyle should always lead to the best outcomes.

    I don’t see the FIRE movement being so much about not working, as it is about choosing what one does with one’s time. We can sell it to other people for money, or we can steadily put ourselves in a better position to follow our passions.

    Happy 2021 to all!

  5. Living 40 miles from the nearest Quik-Mart, fuel, or even a stop light will make most any thinking person a bit of a prepper. “Doomsday Prepper” is a great name to give it to both titillate viewers of TV shows and demean anyone who takes personal responsibility for themselves…and it is a great salve for those who live normal lives, day-to-day content certain that things will always be the same, reinforced by recency bias. Until or unless you live at the end of a very long dirt road (that you maintain yourself) and may become snowed in for days on end, it is hard to see the value in having a large pantry, or having cash on hand…however, let me tell you, when a neighbor decides to come down a long dirt road with their snow plow, you will have a very strong respect for the value of cash, and there will be no end to the help you receive from them the next time you need it.

    It’s not a life-style for everyone, but it is bliss for us. The interesting thing is, we moved here JUST for this sort of eventuality…we just didn’t KNOW this was the exact eventuality. As a result, thankfully, I only know there are problems with a pandemic because I have access to the internet…our lives have not been impacted one bit, and that’s been a huge blessing which I am certain very few are able to imagine. Too bad…it’s a wonderful life.

    As for the booming stock market, I felt it was easy to predict its rise when it became clear that the government’s cash machine was going to treat large businesses to windfalls of cash at the expense of the little guy. Just be ready for the eventual bond market crash and subsequent carnage when the FED ceases to be both lender AND borrower of choice. That little hiccup will be a real doozy…unfortunately, it’s like predicting hurricanes in Florida…you know one is coming for you, just not when…

    1. Interesting insights Scott.

      I don’t disagree that there are some concerning economic, political, and social trends. However, I value personal relationships and social interactions too much to ever choose to be isolated voluntarily. I don’t know what normal will look like over the next couple of months, but I’m eager to resume social interactions that have been sorely missed.

      Best,
      Chris

      1. Chris

        it certainly isn’t for everyone…but the night sky, milky way, the sound of the birds and wind during the day…and nothing else…it’s heaven.

        As for social life, I’m lucky: frankly, everyone within 50 miles is a neighbor and generally will not hesitate to drop everything to help someone out if necessary. In my prior life, I barely knew my neighbors other than to be yelled at by them if I parked in front of their house…and in a downtown neighborhood with exceedingly limited parking, you simply did your best. Sometimes civilization is over-rated, and solitude is deemed to be anti-social. Frequently, as is my case, nothing could be further from the truth

        Thanks for your regular, thoughtful posts. I never fail to read and enjoy them. It’s you and other Retirement BLOGS which significantly contributed to my lifestyle by making me think outside the box. Interestingly, I’ve watched Early Retirement BLOGs become mainstream enough that there seems to be a kind of orthodoxy and rigidity among some respondents regarding “what you must do” to be successful. To that, I disagree…if one is not using your information as well as others to be able to “think differently” with regards to their own unique circumstances then they are shortchanging themselves. It is for this reason that I posted my “out there” description of my life now.

        I would submit that doing what everyone else is doing will result in being in the same mess as everyone else when the market dumps, or employment doesn’t go as planned. I imagine that many readers will read my post(s) and say “that guy’s nuts!” (and that’s OK with me!), but honestly, if you’re not willing to be true to yourself, then you’re just following the crowd, and things like Financial Independence will forever be an unachieved goal.

        Here’s to everyone breaking free from the mold…and finding their success, however that is defined.

        1. Enjoyed your comment and response Scott. I dont mind the usual things with going into town for shopping, food, stores etc., but a big part of me doesnt mind being out and away from people as is probably your situation. Nice to be out in the woods with nature, animals, and the night sky.

        2. Well said Scott! To me, helping more people break free from the mold and find their own path is what it’s all about. The world would be a boring place if we all thought the same way and desired the same things.

          Cheers!
          Chris

  6. We have all seen or experienced the drama, trauma, and deaths of the past year and hopefully we’ll never have to go though any year like 2020 ever again!

    Some good did come out of it though in the form of lower interest rates and lowered health care costs. For me personally I refinanced my home at 2.5% over 20 years and even better, bought my daughter and grandkids a house with a 2.5% 30 year mortgage. I doubt we will see those rates ever again.

    On health insurance I just read yesterday that the ACA will be significantly improved with Bidens rescue plan, opening up to those with much higher income levels and a cap on premiums at 8.5% of AGI. Its only for two years but may get extended. I was resigned to paying $15-18000 a year for my last few years before Medicare for my wife and I. For people who felt they couldnt retire yet because of ridiculas health care costs, this is a game- changer.

    Chris, you need to do an article on the “new” ACA!

    1. I’m actually working on an article for next week on these changes and some other things that aren’t getting enough press in this recently passed legislation.

      Stay tuned,
      Chris

  7. Enjoyed the article. When the bird flu scare occurred years ago we instituted an extra inventory list and have remained stocked on masks, medical needs, food and cash. We also installed a back up propane generator that runs the entire home. it has come in handy many times due to storms and tornadoes. We also keep cash handy and gold coins. I don’t consider us “preppers” but when this pandemic hit we were already mostly prepared. It helped me sleep better at night. I recommend it for the future as well. I believe pandemics may become an ongoing challenge.

    1. I agree Marshall. These preparations come with little financial or time costs and provide peace of mind against a variety of adverse conditions. I don’t see why I wasn’t more prepared, or why I wouldn’t continue these changes indefinitely.

      Best,
      Chris

  8. on getting it wrong….anyone want a 30 roll pack of Charmin TP? Still sitting in my closet from last April LOL.

    1. If that’s your biggest mistake, I think you’re doing OK Wade! 😉

      Cheers!
      Chris

  9. I always had what I call a “zombie apocalypse cupboard” with tinned foods and other imperishables bought in bulk. I learned to do this when I was a SAHM bringing up 4 little boys on my own. If I could buy some of our food at, say, 50% off, that means that we always eat as cheaply as possible. It was a habit that I kept going, even as I worked our way out of poverty and the boys grew up.
    Nowadays, the Zombie Apocalypse cupboard is there more for the convenience of having items to hand.
    Then, late last January, my spidey senses started tingling about this strange virus in Wuhan. I quietly reviewed what I’d put away, then made a few quick trips to Costco and other shops.
    In March, by the time the panic buying set in, I was at the stage of “panic buying” things like paint, fabric and plants to entertain me if things got rough.
    Lucky I did. We had a 13 week total lockdown, one of the toughest in the world.
    That Zombie Apocalypse cupboard saved us from having to go out into the public so many times. We have a veggie garden, so between the two we used to go grocery shopping for fresh items once a fortnight or so.
    Things are now pretty much back to normal here in Melbourne, so I’m now letting the level of stock I’m carrying in the cupboard to go back to more normal levels.
    But 2020 really taught me the value of having food etc on hand. We ALWAYS had toilet paper!!!

    1. You were wiser than me on those counts, Frogdancer. Glad to hear things are looking up for you and you are in a strong position on TP. 🙂

      Cheers!
      Chris

  10. I’m a global nomad, so when I was stopped in my tracks and quarantined with a really great internet connection, I pivoted. Instead of spending time researching travel, I first used my background to sit in with medical researchers, and then translating the advice to Americans who were left in chaos. Even sharing mask making instructions before masks were available to non-medical personnel.
    And then translating and sharing the great advice we were getting from the Colombian Public Health officials.
    Colorado broke out with wildfires, and a friend with horses was in trouble. I could sit in Bogota Colombia, transcribing advice from Texas friends with horses, about tips they learned a few years earlier when wildfires put their steeds in harms way.
    I adopted a young couple starting out their financial journey and did a study group on the great FIRE books.
    There is always someone with a problem we can help with. And it keeps us from fretting about our own situation, which in the big scheme of things ain’t that bad.

    1. Very inspiring Laura. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and experience.

      Best,
      Chris

  11. Our family was fortunate in that we had a well stocked pantry, refrigerator and freezer prior to any lockdowns. I was a little surprised by the toilet paper shortage, but lucky enough, I had just stocked up. What surprised me was shortages of yeast for making bread, plain white thread for sewing machines and elastic for making masks. The temporary reduction in traffic was nice. I made a 50 minute trip across Houston, Texas in about 30 minutes to get my bicycle fixed. Of course, eventually bicycle parts and even bicycles themselves were all bought up.

    Starting on Valentine’s day here in Texas, we had temperatures below 20 degrees and power outages. Our first of six outages lasted 31 hours. The second night, I took everything out of our stand-alone freezer, put it in trash bags and put it outside in a cooler and on top. That worked. When the power came back on, I cleaned the freezer. Unfortunately, over 2 hours later when I started putting items back in the freezer, a water pipe burst in the ceiling above the master bedroom. Because of the power outages, phone service was out. When service did come back days later, I could not get hold of a plumber. Also, all the normal supplies to fix a pipe were bought up at the home improvement stores. Eventually, my handyman neighbor did a temporary fix with car radiator hose and hose clamps! Since then, I was able to get a plumber through a church member contact and get a permanent fix. Now I am trying to get a water remediation company just to come out and measure moisture content in walls so that I can declare everything for insurance purposes. The remediation companies are usually 24/7, but all I can do is get put on a list.

    My point is that until it happens it is hard to predict what you will need in a disaster. It helps to prepare and be organized and sometimes you just have to be resourceful, persistent and even lucky.

    1. Sorry to hear about your horrible luck over the past couple of months John. I agree that we can’t prepare for everything, but the measures we’ve started taking are pretty low cost and minimal effort and would at least help out some in many situations where normal services are disrupted so it’s worth it IMHO.

      Another lesson I’ve learned in the past year is the value of community. Our neighborhood was ravaged by a major wind storm this past year. Our house had little damage and we had power back in a few days, but many of our neighbors were not so fortunate. It was inspiring to witness and be part of a community that helped one another out from sharing generators to helping out with clean up efforts. Stuff like that definitely gives me hope amidst dark times.

      Best,
      Chris

  12. As a long time maintenance technician at a big local rehabilitation hospital near Pittsburgh, I value the concepts of preparedness. Goodness knows we had enough emergency preparedness manuals on hand! You can also learn to do things to help yourself before you need to call the repairman. Might I even say preventative maintenance here?

    Good comments all around and I do like looking back to help us go forward in a better way over time. Being able to help others is so rewarding not only for them, but yourself too, which will pay dividends way into the future. This past year we also were fairly unscathed by the pandemic. Internet access & purchasing truly will be a powerhouse going forward. Virtual meetings, banking online… etc. etc. IS the new normal. Still being a bit of a ‘prepper’ isn’t a bad thing.

    Your insights, comments, and thoughts are always appreciated… even after being retired these last few years!

  13. The hardest part has been how the lockdown cut off most social connections and how even now people a lot of people I knew have become strangers as everyone continues to isolate. It’s been around a year and I haven’t seen most of the friends and people we once knew, not for lack of trying.

    At least family has been close by, so we have had a lot of social connections there.

    I’m looking forward to rebuilding a bit of community, as soon as we no longer need to wear masks by law all the time lol.

  14. Well said Chris. Appreciate the blog and what you do. Fortunately I’ve been following the FIRE and frugal principals for a while so certain aspects didnt affect me too much as I have already been running pretty lean. But we can always learn from these situations and learn to be prepared and adapt more quickly in the future. Your right, being prepared a bit more doesnt really need to cost a whole lot. Some extra food, water, batteries etc could really help get you through a short period without feeling stuck. I did buy a 5000w generator years ago since I have pumps in my basement, but I havent hardly had to use it and the power usually comes back on in less than an hour. But good to know I have it and getting one isnt really that expensive. One thing I’ve read and believe in, is that you have to plan to be your own first responder with the mindset that no one is coming to save you. If they do, great. But I think its better to plan to look out for yourself and not depend too much on anyone else as much as possible.

    1. Thanks for the input Arrgo. If more people took the idea of being your own first responder, as well as principles of FIRE, to heart we’d be in a lot better position as a society with more people able to help from a position of strength rather than needing to be saved. Unfortunately, it seems like the trend is going in the opposite direction.

      Best,
      Chris

  15. All true.
    As an early retiree, I really look forward to your updated ACA post.

    As a pantry type of shopper, I was somewhat ahead on supplies. I’ve increased my store of longer-term foods to live on in an emergency. I used to aim for 2 weeks of supplies. One should certainly aim for more than that. As an anti-clutter person, there were many Items I didn’t have on hand. I’m still anti clutter but I have added more items to my inventory.

    I have helped a few folks out. It did feel good to be of service. I’ve tried to use this pandemic as a teaching point to younger folks on being financially prepared for life’s curveballs. To be honest, I didn’t feel bad for those who had criticized my FIRE lifestyle over the years. I didn’t go so far as to say “told ya so”, but I did emphasize why I wasn’t feeling a financial pinch. I know spendthrifts are a timeless feature of society. But I’m optimistic that this event will push thousands to a more responsible lifestyle

    1. That would be nice. But I’m maybe not as optimistic as you. It seems that memories are short.

      Best,
      Chris

Comments are closed.