A lot has surprised us about the journey to early retirement: how much faster it has gone than we could ever have expected when we first formulated our plan, how many friends we’ve made along the way (Hi!), how much harder it is to walk away from work than we’d have guessed, and even how little pushback we’ve gotten from friends, family and the few coworkers we’ve told over the years (occasionally we get a “Won’t you be bored?” but no one has ever once told us that we shouldn’t do it).
But the biggest surprise of all has been that it hasn’t felt like a sacrifice.
Which doesn’t mean that we haven’t sacrificed. Our spending looks a whole lot different now from what it once looked like, especially in those baller years. We’ve given up entire categories of spending, and made major chops to key expenditures, including in the categories that make us happiest, like travel and adventure. But those were all cuts we think of as “happy sacrifices,” not real pain.
There is a hefty dose of privilege present in this because having the ability to save quickly for early retirement without feeling massively squeezed means that we’re among the lucky few who earn significantly more than we need. We’re grateful for that every day, but we won’t focus on that aspect in this post.
Instead, let’s talk about the ways in which we’ve (often through happy accidents) engineered our life to make those subtractions feel easy or invisible instead of like sacrifices.
The Circumstances Make the Sacrifice
Picture this: Living a baller life, spending within your means, but blowing through all the money that’s coming in. And why wouldn’t you? Everyone you know does the same thing. The housing where you live costs a small fortune, and all those meals out add up. But you work hard, and deserve to unwind and treat yourself, right? Otherwise, how else will you get through another 30 years of working at this otherwise unsustainable pace?
We were never quite at that point — blowing all the money that came in — but we can understand that mindset 100 percent. That’s the sales pitch that comes with high pressure jobs: You’re going to work yourself to the point of unhappiness and unhealthiness, but the rewards will make it worth it!
We are all so heavily influenced by those around us, and if everyone in your life or everyone you work with behaves similarly with money, it’s awfully hard to realize that you’re in a money bubble. Realizing that there’s another way to view money — not as something that buys rewards for the hard work, but as something that can buy back your time so you don’t have to do that hard work forever — isn’t something everyone can do, but only because it’s hard to get out of a bubble if you don’t realize you’re in it and have no one giving you any indication that what you’re seeing with those around you isn’t the only or best way to do things.
Back to that baller scenario. You’ve learned that working for more money and status doesn’t make you happy, and you want to start saving your money so you can quit relying on work to pay your bills. But work still expects you to dress a certain way, which costs money. Your friends still want to go out for dinner and drinks, running at least $100 per outing. Your home still costs you a small fortune. To make real change, you have to learn to say “No,” which means feeling the FOMO every time you turn an offer down. Every change feels like a sacrifice.
A lot of you guys are up against circumstances like that, and I know it’s hard. We’ve been through that adjustment. And if you just keep doing things the way you’ve always done them, but with these big subtractions and the new and unfun habit of saying no to everything, life can get miserable quickly.
It’s one thing to know the financial wisdom. It’s another thing to follow that wisdom when it feels like you’re not really living your life to be able to follow it.
The irony is that the “sacrifice lifestyle” that one person perceives may feel totally abundant to someone else, so it truly is all about what we’re used to.
Lifestyle Engineering to Avoid the Feeling of Sacrifice
The biggest mistake — in our humble opinion — that lots of people make when they find out about early retirement is to try to keep most things the same while they start hacking away at their expenditures. Some folks will get super into that and feel excited about all the optimization wins, but for most of us, that approach will come with FOMO and unhappiness, because that approach focuses our attention on what we’re giving up.
What we should be doing instead is recognizing that we’ve just made a freaking huge, life-changing discovery that changes everything, and engineering our lives to fit this new mission. And that means giving ourselves the perception of additions, even if we’re also making spending subtractions at the same time.
Because while spending may be quantifiable and absolute, “sacrifice” is a comparative perception — a feeling — based on our expectations and past experiences.
How We’ve Subtracted Without It Feeling Like Sacrifice
We took some dramatic steps when we knew we were chasing early retirement. We left the big expensive city we’d called home for several years and moved to a smaller and slightly less expensive mountain town. We never connected the cable at our new place. We stopped eating out and ordering food delivery, mostly because there were so many fewer options than we’d had in the city (plus no one who would deliver us food). We stopped paying for ski trips because we had mountains nearby. We stopped buying most clothes we’d wear in the city and began living in fleece.
Those are all subtractions, but they didn’t feel like sacrifices because they all came with a huge upside: our new mountain life adventure. (Okay, I admit that it was hard to adjust to no food delivery, especially after we’d just moved in and didn’t have dishes or cookware unpacked. But that passed quickly.) We might not have three coffee shops within walking distance, but we now had trails at the end of the block. We visited fewer new ski resorts each winter, but we got more total skiing. We had no access to HGTV or ESPN, but for the first time in our adult lives, we weren’t sharing walls with anyone else, and we could now blast the speakers when we watched Netflix. We got to try fewer new restaurants, but more new recipes.
If you know, as we did, that early retirement would be tons harder to pull off where you live now compared to some place you’d rather live in retirement, you might consider moving there sooner rather than later, if you can make a move compatible with your work.
But you don’t have to pick up and move somewhere new to be able to engineer a new lifestyle that makes subtraction feel positive.
The difference is all mindset. Accept that you’re making a big life shift. You’re on a new path now, after all, and it’s only natural that the scenery is going to look different. It might confuse some people around you, but if you’re preparing yourself for an early retired life, you might as well get used to that early.
Ideas to Engineer a New, Non-Sacrificing Lifestyle
Stay focused on the “why” — Things are so much more likely to feel like sacrifices if we don’t totally understand or agree with the rationale behind them. Get crystal clear on exactly why you are doing this — what you want to retire to, not just from, and what you believe your true calling or purpose to be.
Practice lifestyle stagnation — If your income increases over time, you can boost your savings without every actually giving anything up if you practice lifestyle stagnation and avoid lifestyle inflation. Even if giving a bunch of stuff up isn’t feasible for you, containing your spending will help you get ahead of most people who continually expand their spending to match their income (or their available lines of credit).
Go slow — It’s normal to go straight for the deep end after discovering early retirement, but that’s a surefire recipe to focus more on what we’re giving up than what we’re gaining. Bring yourself back to the shallow end until you can balance subtractions with additions, and then make those subtractions little by little, instead of all at once. (See next item.)
Find the free or cheap additions — The most important idea here. If you don’t want to feel like you’re giving stuff up, you need to add things in proportion to what you’re subtracting. (Not necessarily one for one — most of us have too much going on in our lives, and some subtraction is a good thing for our sanity.) The key is to find additions that require little to no spending, but those are all around us. Free events in parks and libraries. Clubs that do meals potluck-style. Outdoor recreation and workouts. Side hustles that are fun but also pay you, like teaching classes in the community. Or — our favorite — finding volunteer opportunities that allow you to do activities you enjoy while meeting new people with similar interests. Just going to free events loses its luster after a while, if you don’t know anyone there and aren’t really making friends. Taking on sustained roles with local charities, though, lets you form relationships that make it all a lot more fulfilling. (Service activities that are especially fun: Adaptive sports that allow disabled people to do various activities with your help, adaptive art classes for seniors or people with developmental disabilities, tutoring or mentoring students, building or repairing trails, planning fundraising events for all manner of organizations.)
Find your community — The second most important idea here. Going back to that baller scenario above, if everyone you know is still using their money the old way, as a reward instead of a tool to buy back your time, it can feel awfully lonely to be the one person trying to save it. It’s so important to find your community to support you in your goals, and to give you a social circle who won’t make you feel like you’re missing out. I certainly didn’t expect when starting this blog that my blog friends would so quickly become real friends, but that is one of my favorite effects of all of this. This community is especially eager to connect, so reach out to bloggers you relate to and link up. Start conversations with other readers. We aren’t just a bunch of strangers on the internet — we’re a community, and you can be as much a part of it as you want to be. But focus on your in-person community, too, creating a new circle of folks you can call if you want to do some free activity, or who understand your journey in ways your colleagues at work or family may not.
Focus on quality over quantity — When we shift into money saving mode, the natural tendency is to look for the cheapest option, which often means buying crap that’s low quality. I will spare you stories of the horribly processed grocery items I once bought during my extreme couponing phase, because they were nearly free. And that food was not only terrible for our health, it also wasn’t especially tasty. Now, we don’t buy the cheapest stuff, we just buy very limited quantities of more expensive stuff. You will definitely find a fancy cheese in our fridge right now, but it’s a tiny sliver from the Whole Foods remnant basket. (Same unit price, but thumb-sized pieces instead of big blocks.) Likewise, we still buy top quality outdoor gear, we just buy a lot less of it. And we go to music festivals and concerts fairly regularly, but instead of going to whatever is happening just to go, we focus on the ones we really, truly care about, even if they are more expensive. If you told us we had to give up fancy cheese, outdoor gear and concerts, we’d tell you life is no longer worth living. But we didn’t give them up — we just put quality over quantity. And that doesn’t feel like a sacrifice.
Celebrate as a team — Making any of these big changes all alone means there’s no one to celebrate those wins with you, and celebrating them is important to avoid focusing on the subtractions. Make sure you have a support team in place, whether that’s a relative, a spouse, a friend, a neighbor, a blog buddy — whoever makes sense for you. Share your plans and goals, and hold each other accountable. Then celebrate like crazy together. (And if you’re married or partnered up, please for your own sake make sure you and your partner are on the same page before making big subtractions. This stuff can’t be unilateral if you want the partnership to remain happy.)
Maximize earnings — We couldn’t have frugaled our way into retiring as early as we we’ll be doing if our income hadn’t gone up over the years as it had. Earning more has absolutely been what has made it all work for us, and we knew that was all part of the deal we signed up for with our career paths. But if you’re in a job that has small increases and less advancement potential, ask yourself if you must stay in that path, or if you could find another one. The Charltons, who retired around 40 without ever cracking six figures combined, made their early retirement possible by having Robin retrain for a new career as a nurse, which then sped their progress. Focusing on maximizing their earnings not only brought in more money for them, it also opened up a whole new area of interest to learn about and become immersed in.
What Tricks Can You Share?
Let’s add to this list! What ways have you engineered your life to lessen the feeling of sacrifice? What are some great additions you can suggest to folks, to make it easier to make those subtractions without pain? Any tricks you’ve learned to make those transitional moments easier? Secrets for creating your community of fellow savers? Let’s dive into it all in the comments!
Categories: we've learned