If you’d have told me a few years ago, earlier in our early retirement journey, that six months out from quitting our jobs, it still wouldn’t feel real, I wouldn’t have believed you. Or that four months out, it would suddenly and finally feel real, but the overwhelming emotions would be stress and sadness, not pure elation, I wouldn’t have believed that either. Or that only a month after that — three months out — we could be feeling a strange sense of peace and early percolations of what we suspect is massive joy… you get the idea.
The financial aspects of this years-long run toward the BIG GOAL have been relatively unsurprising. But the emotions? They’ve been nothing like what we would have expected. And a big part of that is this:
Though early retirement is still a niche concept, the principles of it and the steps to take are well covered at this point. But there’s no guidebook for the emotional part of the journey.
The Unexpected Emotional Arc of Financial Independence
That emotional journey is no small thing, as we’ve found along the way. Last year — only a year from retirement! — was one of the hardest years of my life, certainly the hardest work year. Knowing that we were already financially independent didn’t make it any easier, or at least not discernibly so. Months later, and from a much better headspace about it all, I still can’t totally wrap my head around that. It seems so logical that becoming FI would relieve our work stress, right? Because we’d know we don’t need this $#!% anymore, or so the thinking goes.
I’d have guessed going into all of this that the emotional arc would look something like this:
But in reality, it has looked a whole lot more like this:
The narratives we tell ourselves shape how we think, and there are some powerful narratives out there in the financial independence community, especially some oversimplified ones around the relationship between early retirement and happiness. In particular, there’s a common focus on figuring out what makes us happy, stripping away the stuff that doesn’t, and then living in a state of blissful happily ever after.
Which is a lovely idea and all in the abstract, or in the long term. But we’re still humans. As Veronica Sawyer says in my favorite comedy ever, “If you were happy every day of your life you wouldn’t be a human being. You’d be a game show host.” Right on, sister. Right on.
And while we should all hope that our long-term emotional arc bends toward happiness, that doesn’t mean that the emotions of early retirement are straightforward or simple.
Some of this I’ve said before, that early retirement isn’t a magical cure-all, and that in positioning early retirement as the recipe for happiness, we create the false impression for ourselves that we can’t be happy while working, which isn’t true at all. But there’s still a missing piece beyond recognizing that early retirement — or the journey toward it — won’t itself make us happy. And it’s this:
Recognizing that the emotional journey may not be what we expect, and that’s okay.
The “and that’s okay” part is the most important piece.
Emotions on the Path to Early Retirement
Here are some of the (sometimes unexpected) emotions one or both of us have felt at various points in this journey, including some of them very recently, when we’re in our final approach:
Excitement at the adventures we get to undertake in a few short months. Sadness at having to let down those we respect and care about at work. Elation that it’s actually happening. Self-doubt about whether we’ll really feel fulfilled or worthy without work, as detrimental as it is to our health and happiness. Amusement at watching our numbers grow while we seemingly do nothing. Anxiety about whether we’re about to take a big sequence of returns hit and retire into a recession. And on an on.
I may be one of the more overthinking voices in the FI community, but I don’t believe for a second that we’re the only ones who’ve found the emotional journey to be nonlinear. After all, if having more money made us happy, rich people would all be stress-free and blissed out, and we all know that’s not remotely true. But in those moments of stress or sadness, especially close to early retirement, it’s easy to judge yourself for feeling those things and believe that you’re doing it wrong. (You’re not.)
Giving Ourselves Permission to Feel All the Feels
I know that not everyone reading Our Next Life cares about my precious little feelings, and I absolutely don’t expect you to. But I have a megaphone here, and I think it’s important to talk about some of the aspects of all of this that don’t get a lot of attention elsewhere.
And let’s be honest: a lot of people who talk about financial independence and early retirement sound a little like press secretaries for the movement, talking only about the positives, and slathering it with happy spin. Of course we all want to justify our own life choices, and getting people to agree with us certainly helps that. But even assuming that’s not the motivation for most folks, writing about something on a blog or on social media has a way of making us oversimplify our ideas or present the journey in the most reductive sense.
And while overly simple may be good for talking about money and financial concepts, it’s pretty crappy for talking about feelings.
Your journey may be and most likely is pretty different from ours. We each have our own set of work and life factors impacting how the process unfolds. We have our own money stresses and wins. We’re working toward different future visions. So my big thesis here isn’t that your happiness arc will look anything like ours. Instead it’s this:
Your emotional arc on the early retirement journey may look exactly like or nothing like you expect. But don’t try to make it one thing, because of what you think you should be feeling. Give yourself permission to feel whatever you actually feel along the way, without judgment.
Listening to the Feelings, For the Sake of Your Money
For those who still need convincing, here’s an actual financial argument for not trying to ignore or shut down those negative emotions because you believe you should feel something more positive:
Feeling anxious at some point in the journey? That anxiety might be telling you something useful, like that your contingency plans aren’t robust enough, or that your margin of error is a little too small. And if you’re feeling twinges of regret? They might be telling you that you haven’t achieved all you wanted to achieve at work just yet, and you might be happier pursuing semi-retirement in the near term instead, instead of quitting, realizing you’d made a mistake and then having to go back to work at a lower level because of your employment gap. (I have gotten many letters describing this scenario. This happens more than any of us want to believe.)
Our less positive feelings along the way have absolutely led us to make helpful changes to either our plan or to our approach. They’ve helped us beef up our contingencies and explore things like umbrella insurance. They’ve made us super intentional about when and how we give notice at work. They’ve helped us realize that, duh, of course we’ll earn some income in retirement, which will help take some pressure off our portfolio. They’ve helped us think about the aspects of work that we’ll miss and that we should try to replicate in our post-retirement projects. They’ve made us slow down this year and appreciate the positives of work in a bigger way, like nostalgia in the present moment, which has also made our work better and may improve our bottom line at year end.
The Emotions of the Home Stretch
So how will we feel in a week or a month? Your guess is as good as mine. We’re trying to just go along for the ride at this point, and stay open to whatever feelings come up.
Mr. ONL gives notice next week (%&@#$!!!!?!?!?!?!!!!!), and I give notice two weeks later, so this is prime time for the big feelings. We’ve been with our companies a long freaking time, and this isn’t the same as quitting jobs we’d been in for a few years. I suspect we’ll feel a lot more of that impending joy after the news is out there and we can stop living the double life, but I’ve been wrong about so many aspects of this emotional journey that being wrong about that won’t surprise me. Either way, I’ll share it here.
Feeeeeeelings. Let’s talk feelings.
Now some questions for you guys: Have you found yourself surprised by what you were feeling at any point in your journey, good or bad? Any feelings catch you totally off-guard? Have you let any of those feelings guide you in adjusting your financial or life plan to be more robust? (Or realizing you probably should do that?) Or, conversely, have you found your emotional arc to be more like that linear path I expected? (Also, are you robot?) ;-) I’d love to chat more about all of this with you guys in the comments, so lay it on all of us!
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