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My journey to financial independence and retiring early (FIRE) started largely because I was burnt out on my career. This led to an oversimplified solution. If my career was the source of my unhappiness, I should pursue the opposite: retirement.

In the process of planning for early retirement, I realized retirement with no work and no income would solve some of my problems while creating new ones. A traditional retirement became less interesting.

This is a common pattern I’ve observed among those who write about FIRE. It leads to a common refrain from critics. We’re “not really retired.

It would be easy to dismiss critics as internet trolls who lurk in the shadows and sling arrows. But it’s not that simple.

Recently, Carl Jensen was featured in the New York Times article How to Retire in Your 30’s With $1 Million in the Bank. Jensen shares his story, which contains many parallels to my own, at 1500 Days to Freedom.

In response to the article, Dirk Cotton tweeted: “The only way to fund 60 years of retirement with a million bucks is to totally ignore the math.” Cotton is no internet troll. He’s the creator of the respected retirement planning site The Retirement Cafe.

 

Cotton’s comment is probably accurate if we’re talking about a standard American lifestyle and a traditional view of retirement. Many of us who write about FIRE use the word retired, because there’s not a better term for what we’re doing. But we advocate for something genuinely different than common perceptions of retirement.

For the week of August 27th to September 2nd, I tracked how I spent my time in a “typical” week. I’m sharing details of our life to demonstrate some principles of FIRE, allowing you to assess if a similar lifestyle makes sense for you.

Our Lives Contain Work…

On the week I tracked my time, I “worked” 22.5 hours. This consisted of a variety of tasks including publishing a blog post, responding to emails, interacting on social media, rewriting a book chapter, meeting with a potential blog advertiser, and being interviewed for an upcoming podcast.

I spent another five hours performing house work; cleaning the house, mowing the lawn, running the weed eater, grocery shopping, and doing laundry.

My wife continues to work 80% of a full-time work load (32 hours per week). This consists primarily of doing analytical work with a flexible schedule. She is location independent, with the ability to work anywhere in the world with a secure internet connection.

She has occasional meetings that require her to be at her computer at specific times. This generally ranges from 2-8 hours/week. The rest of the time she is free to determine when she wants to work.

But Work Looks Much Different Than Pre-FIRE

There is a misconception that people who write about FIRE “aren’t really retired.” Instead, we leave full-time jobs to become full-time bloggers making 6-figure incomes from our websites.

I left a full-time professional job with a high five-figure salary, four weeks of paid vacation, and a generous health insurance plan. On the positive side, I also left behind a 40 hour work week with a fixed schedule of often repetitive tasks, ever increasing paperwork, and an hour daily round trip commute.

I now work on this blog and have been writing a book. I’m highly unlikely to earn five figures this year.

My schedule is variable. I work when and how much I want from anywhere I want. Over the summer, I didn’t average 4-5 hours of work/day as I did in the week I tracked. I was working closer to 4-5 hours/week while focusing on being a stay at home dad, exploring our new area, and settling into our new home.

It’s rare for me to have more than 3-4 scheduled obligations in an entire month. I had two meetings the week I tracked, because I’d been putting off any scheduled obligations until my daughter started school.

My wife’s job requires more stringent obligations to her employer. Though she hasn’t retired, she’s used our financial situation to gradually improve her working conditions over the years. She hasn’t worked a 40 hour week since the birth of our daughter nearly six years ago.

She began working remotely for her current employer about four years ago. Her work involves no commute, rare mandatory travel, and considerable flexibility in her schedule.

She has also benefited from my retirement. She previously did the lion’s share of housework when I was working. Her household duties now consists of doing the cooking and fixing our daughter’s hair in the morning, mostly because she doesn’t approve of my way of doing either.

Our FIRE Life Has Structure…

A common refrain I hear from those nearing retirement is they can’t wait to throw out their alarm clocks. Many people looking forward to retirement crave having freedom with their time. While I understand the sentiment, too much of anything is a bad thing. (See water intoxication).

After a summer with very little routine, I’ve realized I need structure. My original motivation for tracking my time for the week was not to be the basis of a blog post, but trying to re-establish a routine like I had from the time I retired last December until we moved in July.

This means having a regular bed time and regular wake-up time. Good sleep is vital to good health and being productive. We try to be in bed reading with our daughter between 8 and 8:30 each night, have her sleeping by 9 o’clock, and for us to be asleep no later than 10 o’clock. On weekdays, we set an alarm for 5 AM, though it’s rare that either of us sleep that late.

We prioritize the most important things to us and do them first each morning. For me, this means taking the first 30 minutes of each day for quiet time and spiritual development. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I do a different twenty minute HIIT workout routine followed by about thirty minutes of stretching and postural exercises. Thursdays and Sundays I do an hour of yoga. Tuesdays, I clean the house so I have it done and my time is free when I may want to do other things. Saturday is free to catch up on anything.

This daily routine allows me to accomplish the most important part of my day before we wake our daughter and have breakfast with her.

But Life Also Has a Lot of Freedom and Flexibility

When I was working full-time, life revolved around work. My wife and I frequently went weeks without getting out and doing our outdoor hobbies together. We often struggled to find 10-20 minutes of uninterrupted time to have a conversation. Weekends were often spent catching up on housework we couldn’t get done during the week.

Now, we fit work around life. What does this look like?

On the week I tracked my time, we spent significant time together four of the five weekdays. Monday we walked for an hour at lunchtime. Tuesday we went rock climbing from 11 AM to 3 PM. Wednesday we did a long hike from 8:30-11:30 AM. Thursday morning we did a 90 minute mountain bike ride.

Not only did we have the time to do things together, we chose to do the less strenuous things in the afternoon when it was warmer and do the more strenuous activities in the morning when it was cooler. Friday, I spent the entire afternoon with my brother who arrived the night before for a week long visit.

We were able to fit in all of our work and house work obligations, have abundant time together, and still be done with our work days by the time I would pick up my daughter from school.

Saturday was completely free of any obligations. My brother, wife, and I hung out all afternoon while my daughter was in and out playing with the neighborhood kids.

Sunday morning, my wife and I hiked to Snowbasin resort. My brother drove my daughter up to meet us. The four of us spent the afternoon watching a free concert.

Lifestyle Is Built Around Intentionality, Simplicity, and Frugality …

We have achieved a lifestyle of financial security, freedom, and flexibility far earlier in life than most. For us, achieving FIRE was as much about learning to be happy with less as earning and saving a lot of money and building our investment portfolio.

Part of our low spending is because we enjoy low cost activities, centered around outdoor adventure. Part is because we meticulously work on eliminating things that add no value to our lives. Examples are apparent when looking at how we spend our time and money.

We’ve focused on minimizing driving. Most days I spent less than 15 minutes in the car and I rarely drive 10 miles in a day. My wife didn’t get in a car on four of the seven days I tracked.

Almost everything we do on a recurring basis is within 1-3 miles of our home including our daughter’s school, the grocery store, restaurants, bike and outdoor shops, and the library. Our church is an eight minute, 5 mile drive. We walk to trailheads with abundant hiking, mountain biking, and climbing. Our only regular activity that involves driving 20 minutes or more with any regularity will be skiing in the winter.

We made a contrarian move of downsizing our living space, even as we are now spending much more time at home and have a child.

Our old home was two stories, had three bedrooms, 2 ½ baths, a formal dining room, a living room, a family room, and a formal entryway. It was about 2,200 square feet. We also had a large yard, an attached two car garage, and a large unfinished basement. We found it brought more stress than pleasure.

Our new home has a primary living space of just over 1,000 square feet, all on one floor, with three bedrooms, one bath, and an open kitchen, eating area, and living room. We also have a one car garage and a smaller yard.

This means far less time spent on cleaning and yard work I detest. I was able to perform all our weekly household chores in about five hours, about the time it took just to clean our old house.

But Our Life Is Not One of Minimalism, Extreme Frugality, or Sacrifice

Spending money in alignment with your values is not the same as not spending any money. We spend freely on things that add value to our lives. A few examples were apparent during the week I tracked.

On Thursday, my brother arrived to stay with us for a week. My wife and I have always been close with our families. We moved across the country, away from them, after I retired. It’s important for us to be able to make them welcome and comfortably host them when they visit.

Even though our primary living space is much smaller in our new home, this house has a separate mother-in-law suite with an additional two bedrooms, private bath, kitchen, and small living room. We paid more for this space, furnished it, pay higher than necessary taxes, and have higher than necessary utilities to maintain it.

It’s worth every penny to us. We’ve already had people stay with us three times since moving here in July. My parents will be spending a few weeks in October.

On Friday night, we took our daughter and my brother to a Jack Johnson concert at USANA Amphitheater in Salt Lake City. It wasn’t the most frugal way to spend a Friday night, but Johnson is my wife’s favorite artist, one of my daughter’s favorite albums is the Curious George soundtrack (recorded by Johnson), and my brother likes seeing live music. Going to the concert also gave us a chance to spend an evening with our neighbors, who told us about the show and invited us to join them. It was well worth the cost to us, so we went and had a blast.

FIRE Means Assuming Risk…

Returning to Dirk Cotton’s tweet in the introduction, he is right that FIRE involves an element of risk. Where he is wrong is to assume these are not calculated risks and the math is being ignored by those who pursue FIRE.

As we assess our situation, running out of money by retiring early is a risk. That’s why we’ve taken multiple measures to mitigate this risk. Building an investment portfolio to 25 times our annual spending (the inverse of the 4% rule) was only the starting point of our plan.

We’ve also incorporated other strategies and contingencies. They include:

So while there is a risk that I left my job too soon and we could run out of money, the risk is small. There are bigger financial and life risks.

But Nothing In Life is Without Risk

Analyzing our situation, there are at least three risks which would have an equal or worse negative effect on our finances and/or quality of life. They are divorce, one or both of us developing serious chronic health issues, and regretting missing the once in a lifetime opportunity to spend more time with our daughter while she is young.

Leaving the workforce early will cost us financially. Not leaving early enough can have different costs.

I’m not suggesting FIRE is a panacea that can solve all life’s problems. Having a better marriage, improving health, and being a better parent all take ongoing work and effort. I’m also not so ignorant as to suggest that those who choose a more conventional path are doomed to divorce, disease, or that you’re poor parents.

I will say that our time is now being spent in much greater alignment with our values than when we worked full-time. We sleep longer and better. We spend much more time together as a couple and as a family. Daily stress is less. We’re able to get out and be far more physically active. More time is spent on preventative health measures.

All of that was considerably more difficult when our lives revolved around jobs. Since I left my job, we’re seeing improvements in our relationship, in health issues we each were experiencing, and we have far more time with our child.

Is This “Really” Retirement?

I’ve written and talked frequently about the need to redefine retirement. Many people are stuck in the dichotomy of full-time work followed by a traditional retirement.

They consider anything outside of these norms as breaking the rules about what retirement is or should be. It’s important to realize that most of the rules that trap us are created in our own minds.

What is the ultimate goal for anyone seeking early retirement? I’d argue it’s the ability to align your daily life with your values and to do it as soon as possible while achieving financial security. I did that and walked away from my career, so I say I “retired”.

Whether you call it retirement, FIRE, financial independence, location independencelifestyle design, a fully funded lifestyle change, what author Brian Portnoy would term funded contentment, being a stay-at-home parent, or anything else doesn’t much matter.

I don’t know exactly what to call what we’re doing. It doesn’t fit neat labels, but it’s working for us. 

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