The last several months of our careers were more procedural drama than victorious epic, with a long string of to do items and trips keeping us focused on checking things off the list rather than really absorbing what was happening.
Fly to DC, give notice, tell colleagues and clients, reveal ourselves on the blog, go to FinCon, wrap up work projects, go on more work travel, plan first post-retirement trip, more work travels, go back to DC for farewells, travel for Christmas, take first international trip…
And though we’ve had plenty of days so far when we’ve really felt this whole early retirement thing in our bones, to us it has felt, more than anything, deeply normal.
We’ve been planning this life in a serious way for six years, after all, and I’ve written well more than 300 blog posts about it, and have chatted with you all to the tune of more than 25,000 comments and responses. And that’s not counting the emails (which I’m still embarrassingly slow on — working on this, friends!), the Twitter chats and the real life meetups with so many of you, all of which have brainwashed us into believing that early retirement is something that lots of people do — because we talk with a lot of people about it!
But of course it’s not. It only feels that way when we surround ourselves with people who are as bought into the idea as we are. That’s the power of the echo chamber.
It’s only been in the last month or so, now that we’re spending more time at home than at any point since we moved to Tahoe six years ago, as we’ve been talking to more people in real life and telling them our story that we’ve actually started to see:
This is a Big Freaking Deal. We did something kind of amazing.
Not that we are especially amazing. Nor that we overcame any particular obstacles. On the contrary, we had plenty of boosts in life that put us in a position to do this. And not that early retirement is all that hard to accomplish if you have the means to do so. But just that, in the scheme of things, almost no one does this. (Yet.)
I wonder how many people who do big things really feel the bigness of them in the moment when they achieve their goal, or if it takes them until later to appreciate it. Because when you set out to achieve a big goal, you plan for it, you work toward it for years and then you eventually get there, it doesn’t feel momentous. It just feels inevitable.
But it’s not inevitable at all. It takes much more than the passage of time to achieve the big things.
Reaching a multi-year goal that defies societal expectations takes sustained determination and focus. In the case of early retirement, it’s for sure helped by more income and lower expenses, though those aren’t required. But it takes more than all that.
What does it really take to achieve early retirement? Let’s dig into it.
Psst! For folks who are local to Tahoe or Reno, or who are frequent visitors, I’ve started a Facebook group to organize meetups. Join in if you’re in the area!
This isn’t about how much money you earn or what kind of savings rate you can achieve. Those are a given. That’s like saying that to win a boxing match, you have to know how to land a punch. To even get into the ring for early retirement, you need to understand that living as far below your means as you can will accelerate your journey, and that your wealth will grow fastest in low-fee investments. But if you want to do more than get into the ring, and actually win the match, there’s extra stuff you need to have within you.
(I swear that’s the end of the boxing metaphor. And I almost said something about needing the right stuff, but I’m not going to mix a space program movie into my boxing analogy, because I like you and you deserve better.)
Beyond all those financial knowledge givens, here’s what it really takes to retire early:
Conviction That You’re Right
While some of the underlying acts that precede early retirement — basic saving, debt payoff, frugality — can be practiced without any strong convictions, to achieve early retirement, you must know that this is what you want, and that you’re right for wanting it. Because you will be tested. You’ll be tested by the big spending temptations like trips and nicer places to live, and by the insidious, everyday pull of mindless spending. And you’ll be tested by other people who don’t share your vision and want to dictate how you should spend your money. To get through all that — over the multiple years that it takes to save — you’ve got to believe with every ounce of your being that you’re right, and that early retirement is what you truly want.
Willingness to Be Wrong
But. Get ready to embrace some paradoxes. Because not only do you have to be sure you’re right, you also have to be completely willing to be wrong. Because you will be wrong, a lot. You’ll be wrong about how parts of the journey will feel. You’ll be wrong about how early retirement will feel. Not because you’re dumb or haven’t thought it through, but because you can’t know without experiencing it for yourself. And you’ll be wrong about when the markets will go up or down, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be wrong about how long it will take you to reach early retirement, because you’ll actually take less time than you imagined.
More Hard Talks
Every relationship involves some hard talks. But if you’re partnered up and you both decide to pursue early retirement, prepare yourself for many more of ’em. Even if you’re lucky like we were and immediate got on board with the FIRE idea, and one of you didn’t have to convince the other (more hard talks!), you’ve still got lots to hash out. How much is really enough to let you both sleep at night. How long you both have to keep working. How much you’re spending when your partner is feeling more frugal. How much your partner is spending when you’re feeling more frugal. What to do about big offers at work that you know you can’t take. What to do when you’re burned out and exhausted and want to quit already but haven’t hit your number. If you want to get to early retirement with your marriage or partnership intact, these hard talks over the years aren’t optional.
Retiring decades early requires taking complete, radical responsibility for your life and your circumstances. It means never saying, “Well I could never do that because…” You have to know that what happens is ultimately up to you, and is the direct result of the actions you take or don’t take.
Willingness to Surrender Control
But then you have to be just as willing to let that mindset go, because you truly can’t control everything, perhaps nothing less than the stock markets (and whether it snows in Tahoe). When we’re talking about investing, it’s up to you to do everything in your power to make smart choices, but then to surrender to the fact that you can’t control a thing. And regardless of what your emotions tell you you want to do, and regardless of what the markets are doing, you keep investing, over and over and over. And you ride that wave wherever it takes you.
Even in the best case scenarios, achieving early retirement takes years. It’s far less time than most people imagine it takes to save for retirement, but we’re still not talking about a goal you can achieve overnight. To ride it out with your sanity intact, you have to possess a deep well of patience. Patience to keep going to work every day and stay engaged there even though you know you’ll be peacing out soonish. Patience to keep saying no to things you might like to do or purchase in service of your larger goal. Patience to keep explaining to people who don’t understand, over and over, why you aren’t spending money on this thing they think you should be spending money on.
But if you’re too patient, you’ll just be happy riding it out in a conventional career like everyone else. To achieve early retirement, you need a big dose of impatience within you, a fire that tells you to hurry the hell up and save your money so you can get on with the rest of your life. Just don’t let that impatience out at work.
Acceptance of Uncertainty
You saved your magic number. You made yourself in expert in tax rules, the Roth conversion ladder, rental property math or whatever other knowledge you need to pull off your plan. You map out multiple contingency plans to make your plan bulletproof. But there’s still health care. Or the potential for bad sequences that jeopardize your security. You can never remove all the risk from your plan, even if you save 10 times what you need. All you can do is accept that there will always be uncertainty.
Willingness to Fail
We are wired to fear failure. And while no one wants to fail, to pursue early retirement doggedly, and — most importantly — to take the leap and kiss your steady paycheck goodbye, you have to be willing to fail. Because despite your best planning, everything could go wrong to the point where no amount of flexibility or cost cutting will save you. You have to look that fear in the face and say, “Yep, I’m okay with that possibility.” Because you know that the possibility of failing in your plan is still better than spending your whole life at work.
Passion for Life
Perhaps most of all, you must have a deep reservoir within you of passion for life. You must be so excited at everything there is to do besides work that when people ask you what you’re going to do with all your new free time, you respond, “What am I NOT going to do?!” Those who focus only on the math and not on what they’re actually going to do with their lives, and how they’ll have purpose in the next phase, and the ones who usually go back to work or end up unhappy. But that’s not you. You’re fired up, full of stoke and raring to go.
There’s a lot of paradoxical stuff in the mix here, and to achieve early retirement, you must embrace that. Balancing patience and impatience, control and surrender, conviction and openness. Fortunately, if you’re willing to stretch yourself, you can learn much of this while you’re on your journey.
What Do YOU Think It Takes to Retire Early?
Your turn, friends. What do you think it really takes to achieve early retirement? Based on where you are in your journey at this moment, or based on what you’ve read or observed from others, what do you think I’ve missed here? Or what do you think is most important on this list? Anything you disagree with? Let’s discuss in the comments!
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Categories: we retired early