1 Year in to Early Retirement

Lessons from Early Retirement on Living a Fulfilled Life

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My campsite this morning in Montana on my 1 year anniversary of retirement

For anyone interested in early retirement, what it’s like, how to plan for it, and how to embrace it to live a fulfilling life after you are done being an employee, this story is for you.

I retired from my day job at 36 years old on August 30th 2019, exactly one year ago. I’ll go over some details of my early retirement, my experiences and thoughts from this first year, and where I plan to go from here now that I have a year to judge and plan from.

Retiring Early

After spending my twenties post-college bouncing around taking whatever low paying job I could find, and then finally going back to school to get started on a career, I spent just under four years working in a career in Software Development in my thirties before calling it quits and retiring at 36.

I was able to go from being about $80k in student loan debt with no savings or investments and looking for my first job as a software developer to retiring early just over four years later. I don’t currently live off any passive investment income, but I saved about two years cost of living before leaving work, and I have enough invested in high growth assets that I expect to be able diversify into income-producing investments and live off that investment income within a few years, plus I make roughly enough now to live off of one stream of income that requires no actual work and very little time. Additionally, my cost of living is low because I live in a van so that I can travel the country full time, with a plan to eventually buy some land and mix living on my land with traveling in the van. I had already been living in my van for 11 months before retiring.

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My home in Monument Valley

I chose vanlife for my early retirement (or at least the first few years of it) because I wanted to travel and be totally free to live where I want, and because not having to pay rent made it possible to retire a bit earlier than I otherwise could have — if I was paying rent right now my one income stream would not be enough to cover my cost of living yet.

When you aren’t working that is literally when you live your life, and in retirement it’s your whole life, so you better damned make it a fulfilling one.

Some might call the decision to live in a van a sacrifice. Though I would laugh at the idea that I’ve sacrificed something. I travel full time, see the country, for the most part stay where I want, when I want, for how long I want. This first year I’ve visited 11 national parks, traveled through 21 states, visited family members for over two months, been to a bunch of the places in America I’ve been wanting to go for many years, and overall had a year of amazing experiences. All on the cheap and none of this would be possible if I were living in a house or apartment somewhere.

Retirement Year One

I’ll admit, I’ve been pretty lazy my first year in retirement. I mean sure, I’ve traveled up and down southern half of the east coast, across almost the entire southern end of the country, up through the southwest to the pacific northwest, and now across the north from the coast to Montana. But outside of traveling I’ve been pretty lazy. In terms of expanding myself in the ways I’ve been looking forward to — learning new skills, picking up knowledge in different topics, getting fitter and healthier than ever, and building income streams/businesses/ways to make money through passion projects — I’ve taken a pretty chill year and only dabbled in such things. The nice thing about that is I now know what not to do in early retirement, and I still had a fantastic adventurous year despite being pretty lazy.

Start everyday working towards the goals you’ve set out for yourself and you will achieve them.

What follows in the next section are some lessons I’ve learned on how to live a more filled and fulfilling life when you don’t have a job taking up five out of every seven days of your existence. If you aren’t an extremely driven person, or your drive comes from your job, it is very easy in retirement (early or not) to fall into a state of just relaxing and not really doing much as the days, weeks, and months roll on by. Right now, sitting at your desk or wherever doing your job, you might think it’d be great to just do nothing, but trust me, after a year of mostly doing just that (other than traveling a ton), I can tell you you’re going to want to occupy your time with things and people you enjoy.

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The sky’s the limit in early retirement. (Big Bend National Park)

You’re going to live a much more satisfied life in retirement if you fill it with social connections, learning new skills, picking up knowledge in topics you are interested in, accomplishing new things, exploring your creative side, etc.

Occasionally I’ll come across an article on the internet by someone who retired in their 30’s and went back to work after a couple years just in order to have something to do. They didn’t have the drive to actually spend their time wisely doing fulfilling things once they had nothing but free time, so they got bored and lonely.

That is a lesson not just for when you retire, but for everyone on how to spend your time when you are not at work — live your life in your free time! Don’t equate your free time to just relaxing between working. When you aren’t working that is literally when you live your life, and in retirement it’s your whole life, so you better damned make it a fulfilling one.

Year 2 and Beyond: How to live a great retired life at any age

Today I close out my first year of retirement and begin the next year. With the lessons learned from my first year I expect the future to be very fulfilling. Here are some of the main lessons I’ve learned so far and how I plan to make year 2 and beyond of my retirement even better and a lot more fulfilling than was year 1.

Lesson 1: Make sure you are financially secure

Due to a couple unforeseen events related to the Covid pandemic I got pretty dang low on liquid cash by the beginning of the summer. I’m a little better now and will be back to having a very good buffer of cash in a couple months, but I should have planned a little better for unforeseen events. Make sure to always keep at least a year’s worth of money in the bank in case income streams go through a dry spell or some expensive cost suddenly comes your way. Being imminently worried about money is the last thing you should be concerned about in early retirement because the whole point of being able to retire early is the fact that you aren’t worried about money anymore.

Before you retire early make sure you have plenty of liquid cash, with a plan to keep your bank account at that level at all times, and ideally have more than one income stream. My one income stream right now is short term trading, but with the huge market crash in March I went from being $6k up for the year to $3k down for the year in just a few days. I met someone also doing vanlife when the quarantine was just starting who probably makes well more than they need to live from renting out their real estate properties through Airbnb, but she was freaking out about money all of a sudden because every one stopped traveling so suddenly her very healthy real estate income entirely disappeared and she had to be able to pay for months of mortgages on several houses without any income. People talk about diversifying investments, when it comes to income streams you absolutely want to diversify those as well and at the very least have more than one.

Being imminently worried about money is the last thing you should be concerned about in early retirement because the whole point of being able to retire early is the fact that you aren’t worried about money anymore.

The final part of this lesson is to keep a monthly budget so you make sure to keep your expenses below whatever income level you are at, especially if you retired at a point where your income only just covers your expenses. I keep track of my budget in a spreadsheet and can track how much I spend on different categories of my budget and see if over the long term I am hitting what I expected to be my average monthly budget in retirement.

Lesson 2: Set Goals. Figure out what you want to achieve in life

This is probably the most important lesson. If you aren’t achieving what you want to in life, especially when you haven nothing but free time, what the hell are you doing with your life?!

Before retiring, think about your passions, things you are interested in, things you want to learn, things you want to achieve, places you want to go, and improvements you want to make on yourself. Write these down. In retirement you should be working towards these every week. Heck, before retirement you should be working towards these every week, but work can get in the way. You have no excuses when you don’t have to work for a living anymore.

Here is my list of things I want to accomplish in retirement that I can be working towards right now:

  1. Get fitter and healthier than ever
  2. Start writing and possibly turn that into an income stream
  3. Learn lots of new things in software development and eventually make money on my own from creating software as passion projects
  4. Read a ton
  5. Learn Art: drawing and painting
  6. Learn to play Music: Piano and Ukulele
  7. Study topics I have interests in like Math, Philosophy, Engineering, and several sciences most notably Physics. Maybe even try to learn some foreign languages even though I’ve always been terrible at that.
  8. Travel and explore

In my first year I’ve done a bit of #1, just this past week or so really started on #2, barely done #3 but at least figured out the things I want to focus on with regards to coding and plan to really start working on this goal today, #4 done more reading than the past few years but still a paltry amount compared to what I want to do and have time for, #5 I’ve drawn a few times but haven’t painted at all so this is something I need to start in year two, #6 I’ve played my piano and ukulele only probably three times each but as of a couple days ago I just started learning Ukulele so this is also something I’m just starting to focus on now that year one is closing out, #7 I studied Math for a week a couple months ago but that is it so I need to slowly start incorporating learning new fields into my life, #8 is the one goal that I’ve been very successful at so far.

After a year of having nothing but free time, six out of eight of my goals have barely even been started. And I feel that in my life. I know I’m not living up to my potential and am wasting lots of my time when I could be building a future I can be proud of. This weighs on me, it’ll weigh on you. Set goals and be dedicated to striving toward your goals on a weekly basis.

Lesson 3: Make more social connections

If you are free all day while most people you know are at work or otherwise busy, you might find yourself kind of lonely. You lose the social interaction you received at work and also don’t have new social interactions with which to replace it. This is the hardest thing for me because I’m on the move traveling full time, but recently I decided to create a sort of home base region in the pacific northwest where I will stay in a region of a few towns/cities and the surrounding area between periods in which I’m traveling. This way I can actual create connections and foster a social community to engage with while I’m not actively traveling.

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A cold night of star gazing with friends in Marfa TX

This is definitely important for being happy in retirement. More important if you aren’t constantly traveling like me, because at least I get to be constantly experiencing new places, but even with that I still yearn for a community to come home to. If you have a family, spending more time with your spouse and children can definitely be part of this lesson, but even then you still want to expand your social contacts and find social things to do during the day when most people are at work. This, along with achieving your goals from lesson 2, are the two most important things in leading a fulfilled life in retirement.

Lesson 4: Be productive to start everyday

This applies to everyone, but it is more important and more doable when you aren’t waking up to go to a job. As the day passes, it gets easier and easier to tell yourself you’ll get this or that done tomorrow because it’s already late in the day today. The best way to accomplish things in retirement, and live up to lessons 2 and 3, are to be at your most productive early in the day. You can then allow yourself to relax later if you want, or just be super productive doing stuff all day if you’re in the mood. It also helps to wake up early. Start everyday working towards the goals you’ve set out for yourself and you will achieve them.

Lesson 5: Take time for introspection each week

It’s good to check in with yourself every once in a while and keep track of how you are living your life. I recommend once at the end of each week just think about your week and if you did a good job working towards the long term goals, or engaging in social activities or family in the way you want to be doing. It’s pretty easy for days and even weeks to sort of blend together when you don’t have a job. You’ll live a more satisfying life if you do a little introspection each week to think about whether or not you lived the past week the way you want to be living, and if you didn’t, how you’re going to do more the next week.

I recommend weekly rather than daily because you might have a bunch of things you want to be doing in life during your retirement at any given time, so you can’t expect each day to be working on all of them, but in general everyday you should be working on some of your goals or creating a more fulfilling social life for yourself. I also find that daily habit tracking apps help and are an easy way to look back at the past few days to see if you’ve been accomplishing things or not.

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Top of Lassen Peak in Lassen Volcanic National Park

Early retirement is fantastic. The hardest part can just be living up to your full potential when you aren’t used to having all this free time. Know that small daily effort creates huge life changes over the long term. Retiring early isn’t reaching the peak of the mountain, it is just getting to the base of it and starting your climb. Don’t get stuck at the base, the views are better on the way up, and the journey up is what life is all about.

Written by

American nomad, semi-retired/entrepretrying, coder, cryptocurrency investor, dog owner, burgeoning human. Briefly caught across a few ordinary moments in time.

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