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My wife, daughter and I loaded into our rental camper van and hit the road on June 4th. Thirty-one days, twenty-one states, and over 5,000 miles later we returned to Utah with a lifetime of memories. 

Sioux Falls Mural from Road Trip

Our road trip gave me a chance to reflect on why we started pursuing the path to financial independence and retiring early (FIRE) that enabled us to do this, how we achieved our financial goals, and what we want to do in this next phase of life.

Our Why

The math and tactics required to achieve financial independence quickly are pretty simple. Most people don’t pursue financial independence aggressively, even once they learn it is possible. That’s because they lack the motivation to do what it takes.

We had two strong motivators that caused us to seek a different path in life, a love of family and desire to pursue adventure. Both were on full display on our road trip.

Family

I was raised in a family that was incredibly tight-knit. That is a value I want to share with and build upon with my daughter. 

Our biggest motivation to get serious about financial independence was to be able to free ourselves from lives that revolved around working for money when we found out we were going to become parents. We wanted to cherish the time while our daughter was growing up and not look back a few decades later with regrets.

We were also intentional with our planning to assure that we would have the time and financial resources to have access to the rest of our families, even as we would move to a new location after I left my career. This included being able to travel regularly and buying a large enough home to be able to comfortably host guests when they visited.

Our plans worked well until the pandemic. After cancelling our travel plans over the past year and having no one visit us, we were eager to reconnect with our families in person. My mom’s health deteriorated substantially in that time, adding urgency to our planning.

We initially started kicking around the idea of a big road trip as a way to isolate ourselves to protect my immunocompromised mom’s health. Kim’s parents were celebrating their 50th anniversary this summer. We decided not to tell them we were coming back to Pennsylvania. Instead, she and her siblings planned a surprise anniversary party.

As vaccines rolled out more quickly than anticipated, we had the option to hop on a plane and fly back to Pennsylvania. Instead, we elected to stick to our plan. 

After a year with too much isolation, we were up for a big family adventure.

Seeking Travel and Adventure

Having time for more travel and adventure was the other big motivating factor for us to pursue financial independence. However, in the first three years since I left my career, we failed to take advantage of our newfound freedom with any major travel.

The first year after leaving my job was dominated by moving across the country, settling into our new lifestyle, and our daughter starting school. We did more in our second year, but I devoted a lot of time and energy to the launch of my book. Like everyone else, last year was dominated by the pandemic and all of the travel restrictions that came with it. After a year of microadventures, we were eager for a proper full-sized adventure.

High (and Not So High) Places

On the second full day of our trip, we climbed the incredibly fun Freeway route on the 2nd Flatiron in Boulder, CO. This was really solid and easy rock climbing, but it was a committing route to do with our eight year-old with few places to bail out. She did amazing, except for a  small but understandable freakout on the diving board feature, about two thirds of the way up the climb.

Top of 1st pitch of Freeway

Kim and I decided soon after learning we would become parents that we wanted to pass our love of adventure onto our daughter. We took our first family road trip when she was only 6 months old. On that trip, we hiked to the top of Mt. Mitchell, North Carolina and Mt. Rodgers, Virginia, carrying her in a backpack carrier. After later realizing those were the highest points in each of their respective states, I joked that we should try to get to all 50 state highpoints as a family.

That idea has grown legs and prior to our trip we had reached 18 state highpoints. After mapping out a route, we decided we could get 12 more state highpoints on this trip. On the way east, we went to the highest point in Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky. On our way back we hit Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska, bringing us to 30 state highpoints by the end of our trip.

Notable (and Not So Notable) Places

More important than checking boxes on a list, our travels took us to some interesting places on the way that we would have likely never otherwise visited. They included major attractions like Great Smokey Mountain National Park, Pigeon Forge and Dollywood amusement park in Tennessee, Devil’s Tower, WY and Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

road trip pic in front of Mt Rushmore

Even more memorable for us were the random unexpected places our trip took us. Some of the highlights of our trip included squeezing in unexpectedly beautiful and uncrowded hikes in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Palisades-Kepler State Park in Iowa between rain storms. Another unexpected highlight was spending an afternoon exploring Paul Smith Children’s Village in Cheyenne, Wyoming. 

Yet another prized find was the Petrified Wood Park in Lemmon, South Dakota. We’ll forever treasure the time spent with the adorable older husband and wife, Bill and Yvonne, who worked the visitor center there. They beamed with pride as they showed off and taught us about their little corner of the world.

Our How

We reached financial independence by being frugal in relation to our incomes. We lived far below our means, living off of one salary while banking the other to reach financial independence in about 16 years. There were certainly instances of our frugal nature being on display on our trip.

However, some people think that FIRE is a get rich scheme that requires extreme frugality and depriving yourself. We never felt we suffered or sacrificed on the path to financial independence. I doubt many people could sustain deprivation for the decade or two that it takes to achieve all but the most extreme versions of FIRE.

We always found a way to do the things that were most important to us, enabling us to enjoy our journey to financial independence. This idea of living with an abundance mindset was also on display throughout our road trip.

Leaning Into Frugality

I’ve wanted to do a cross country trip like this for a while. The idea of living simply, with minimal possessions, entertainment, and technology to distract us holds a lot of appeal for me. While on the road, we mostly lived very frugally. 

Frugal Accommodations, Meals, and Entertainment

We didn’t book a lot of campgrounds. Having the freedom of a flexible schedule was important to us. We stopped in multiple spots late in the evening and slept in the van for free in places like Walmart parking lots and at trailheads where we would hike the following morning.

van cooking

While living out of the van, we spent about the same on food and drinks as we would have at home. We made good use of the camping stove and our small propane grill, eating “home” cooked meals and drinking coffee brewed in my insulated french press pot.

We typically did our dinner stops at a local park where we used an empty pavilion and had access to public bathrooms. While we cooked, our daughter enjoyed the playgrounds or kicked around her soccer ball.

When we weren’t at a destination for camping, but we wanted to get off the road for a night we utilized travel rewards points. We stayed one night at the Marriott Courtyard Pigeon Forge in Tennessee and another in a Holiday Inn & Suites in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Each was strategically chosen for their outstanding pool facilities to reward our daughter for all the time sitting in the van. Total cost for those two hotel nights including taxes and fees: $0.

Related: Travel More and Spend Less With Credit Card Travel Rewards

When we arrived in Pennsylvania, we stayed with family. This allowed us to maximize time with family that we haven’t seen in over a year while saving on accommodations.

Living Abundantly

That said, we certainly weren’t skimping, suffering, and sacrificing at any point when on the road. We spent freely on the things that were important to us.

The Big Splurge

Our biggest splurge of all was renting the van. The idea of a road trip grew out of the ability to avoid crowds and minimizing the chance we would expose my mom to Covid-19 when we got back to Pennsylvania. 

Once the vaccines rolled out quickly, we had the option to simply fly east. Through a combination of credit card travel rewards points and staying with family, we could have done a trip this long for a few hundred dollars. Instead, we spent thousands to rent, insure, and fuel our road trip. 

But the road trip was something we really wanted to do, so we did it.

Sidenote: We rented from Escape Campervans. The van was great and their staff at both the national and local level were a pleasure to deal with. If you’re looking to rent a campervan for an upcoming trip, I recommend checking them out. Use my referral link at booking to save 10% on your first reservation while supporting the blog.

Smaller Indulgences

Our next biggest splurge was a day at Dollywood. Our daughter somehow (neither Kim or I are country music fans) has become the world’s biggest Dolly Parton fan over the past year. She knows the words to all of her greatest hits, has watched the documentary about Dolly on Netflix, and even has a t-shirt with a picture of Dolly and a Dolly Parton wig! 

Road Trip stop in Dollywood

So once I accidentally let it slip out that Dollywood was on our route near Great Smoky Mountain National Park, there was no avoiding a stop there. It was an incredible day we’ll always remember.

My daughter also loves all things art. So when our sister-in-law told us about a week-long art camp one of the weeks we were in town, we signed her up with her cousin and they had a blast learning and creating together.

Restaurant meals on the road were unappealing. They would have added unnecessary cost, slowed us down, and meant even more sitting still after all the time we were already spending in the van. However, once we were back in Pennsylvania, Kim and I took advantage of having grandparents who were dying to spend time with their granddaughter.  We escaped to enjoy two “date nights” out together at our favorite higher end restaurants.

Our most frequent indulgence was finding local ice cream stops daily at different spots across the country. It was not great for our waistlines or bottom line… but we were on vacation!

Living Large for Less

I included the hotel nights under frugality because we didn’t spend a penny on our accommodations. What I love about using travel credit card rewards is they enable us to experience a luxurious experience in a frugal way. The total retail cost for the two hotel nights would have been over $500 with fees and taxes if we would have paid cash.

Road trip hotel night

The Marriott property was chosen because it had a lazy river, pool, and hot tub; the Holiday Inn because it had a ninja warrior style obstacle in the pool. Each kept our daughter entertained for hours. 

I was also able to get up early, put the finishing touches on, and publish the “June Best of the Web” blog post on my IPad from the comfortable Holiday Inn workspace. I used their reliable wi-fi and sipped their free coffee while working before hitting the road. The alternative would have been trying to do it from the van on my phone with a sketchy data connection without waking up my daughter or sitting in a coffee shop working while everyone waited on me.

What Comes Next?

When we discovered the concept of FIRE, our plan was to retire in the sense that most people think of the word: little or no work or earned income and living off investment income. As we got closer to our financial goals, we moved the goalposts and started thinking about redefining retirement

After three years in our new lifestyle and location, it was nice to have an extended period to get away from our routines. Experiencing a different way of life while traveling in the van was a great opportunity to reflect on where we are and where we want to go from here. 

Working After Financial Independence

One thing we’re reconsidering is the role of work in our lives now that we’ve achieved financial independence.

Part-Time Work

Kim continues to work remotely 28 hours per week. Her work situation gave her the ability to completely disconnect for the 19 days we were on the road.

She also was able to work from my parents’ house for the middle two weeks we were away, enabling us to do this trip. Working while on the road was stressful and less than ideal for her. 

We have more financial security than we did when we started our transition to early retirement three years ago. All of this has her thinking about how much longer she wants to continue working as much as she is. This is something we’ll continue to explore on the blog.

Related: Exploring the Pros and Cons of Retiring Before Your Spouse

A Retirement Hobby-Business

This blog is more of a HOBBY-business than a hobby-BUSINESS. I worked ahead during the mud season of April and May to be able to unplug on our trip. 

During our 19 days on the road, my only work-related activity, aside from publishing the monthly Best of the Web post, was to check email and blog comments so they wouldn’t be overwhelming to do all at once. That was done on my phone while pumping gas.

I did take along some books to read that I’m considering for reviews. I also planned to do some writing while we were in Pennsylvania. Neither happened. 

It was a luxury to be able to enjoy down time and just be with my parents. They are both struggling as my mom navigates worsening health issues, and it was nice to have time to just sit and talk with them, play cards, help them with chores while we were there, and enjoy a few rounds of golf with my dad.

A Healthier Role for Work

On the path to financial independence, both Kim’s and my relationship to work and money were unhealthy. 

Kim dealt with serious harassment at work for a several year period. She didn’t have the courage to leave because she valued the financial security of her job. 

I suffered from burnout and was unhappy at my job for years. I also lacked the courage to change course because I thought financial independence and retiring early were my only way out.

This trip made us realize how different the role of work is in our lives now.  Each of our work gives us the opportunity to do work that matters to us while making social connections with people who share common values and interests. Those social connections were evident throughout the trip.

Social Connections

Planning for the trip was aided by Darrow and by Mary from Reflections Around the Campfire, who are both experienced RV travelers. Each went above and beyond to answer my questions in an effort to help us have the best experience possible.

On the first day of our trip, Carl of 1500 Days to Freedom graciously took time to meet up with us and show us around the Mr. Money Mustache Headquarters in Longmont, Colorado. Later that day, one of Kim’s coworkers, who has become a treasured family friend, drove two hours to meet up with us in Boulder, Colorado for dinner and a hike.

When we told our friend Jay who writes the blog Slowly Sipping Coffee that we would be coming through Oklahoma, he immediately invited us to spend a night there with him. He greeted us with dinner, a fridge stocked with drinks, and a great night of music and conversation.

J.C., a blog reader who wrote a popular guest post on the site earlier this year, gave us suggestions of things to see and do in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We met up with him in Custer State Park for a hike around gorgeous Sylvan Lake.

Living Our Best Post-FI Life

The pandemic made us appreciate how important family is to us. We’ve had serious discussions about whether we made the right decision to move across the country in the face of the challenges created by the pandemic. It was great to get to once again spend time with our families in person.

The last year also made us appreciate how much we love and value travel. We thoroughly enjoyed the varied experiences and many new places we visited over the course of the month. This type of extended travel was something I envisioned for our lives in early retirement. Being able to spend that much time with our daughter is something we’ll always treasure.

However, by the end of the month all three of us were ready for a return to normal life. On the path to financial independence, a lot of our thinking was shaped by the desire to escape. We were trying to escape demanding working conditions that didn’t fulfill us. We wanted to escape a geographic location that didn’t match our personalities and interests.

Beyond financial considerations, this blog has focused on the importance of determining the right place to call home in retirement and finding purpose after financial independence or early retirement

After a month on the road, we were all ready to be back in Utah. We missed our friends, outdoor activities, work, exercise, and eating routines. That desire to get home, despite having such a great trip, reinforced that we’re living the life we should be living in the place we should be living it.

I’m also excited to get back to writing in an effort to help you to do the same.

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[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.]

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