Retiring early is a lot like hitting other big milestones in life that you looked forward to for years, like turning 16 and being able to drive, turning 21 and being able to drink or reaching some career level you hustled hard to achieve for a long time. Which is to say: As soon as you reach it, it’s easy to forget how slowly time seemed to crawl when you were in those waiting years, and your personal history begins to magically rewrite itself to ensure you remember mostly the good parts and not the bad. I’m not making this up. This is how humans are wired: to let the bad memories fade while the good memories stay vibrant. If we weren’t wired this way, no woman would have a second baby, and a lot more of us would live in fear. Forgetting the bad stuff is a really good survival skill.
But I started this blog so that we’d have an honest, in-the-moment chronical of the journey, and going back and reading those old posts reassures me that achieving our goal did feel like a slog a lot of the time.
I struggled with frustration that time wouldn’t pass more quickly.
I sometimes felt like I wanted to check out at work instead of continuing to try my hardest.
I hit points when I felt like work was taking too much of a toll on my health and wellbeing, and I couldn’t keep going.
Most of all, I was impatient.
And I know from you guys that this is a pretty common thing. Many – perhaps most – of us experience plenty of impatience along the way to financial independence or early retirement. Sometimes that’s just an annoyance, but it can actually completely derail our planning if we decide it’s easier to give up than to continue the slog.
None of us wants that to happen.
So instead of giving up on the slog, let’s talk about how to get through it with your sanity and patience intact, and above all with your big goal intact.
Most of us experience a wave of exuberance when we realize that financial independence is possible, and we ride that wave for as long as we can, using it to boost our savings and to learn all the ways we can magnify our optimization efforts. It’s the honeymoon period of the FIRE pursuit, when everything is fresh and new, filled with magic and potential.
Near the end of the journey, a similar feeling comes back: of nostalgia, appreciation, wistfulness and – if you’re doing it right – massive gratitude for being one of the lucky few in history who’s ever gotten to make this transition at a younger-than-normal age. (There are some less glowy emotions that you might experience as well – I did, and based on the comments, at least some others had similar feelings.)
But man, those years in the middle can be an entirely different story. That’s where the slog happens, the feeling of dragging yourself forward, but not fast enough to make as much progress as you want to be making. Or maybe the progress is fast but the end point is still so far off that you can’t make it out, no matter how hard you squint into the distance.
Our middle savings years didn’t all feel like a slog. But at the times when they did, it was hard not to keep whining, “Are we there yet?!” over and over and over. Fortunately, you don’t have to feel like a pouty kid stuck in the back of a car on a long, boring road trip. You own your journey and you can do a lot to avoid the feeling of dragging yourself through miles and miles of mud to get to your far-off destination!
Here’s what we did do to get through those middle saving years – and what we wish we’d done, knowing what we know now.
Minimizing Impatience and the Slog Feeling While You’re Saving for Early Retirement
Automate your money – and then ignore it. So we all know this by now, right? The financial part of financial independence is the easy part, at least mathematically. Once you get your plan in place, you have your investments set up and happening automatically, there is nothing for you to do. So do yourself a favor and ignore it. In the early days, I was looking at our balances every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and doing that only made me feel more impatient. By the last year or two of the journey, I was only looking at the end of each month to update the spreadsheet, and that made a huge difference in my mindset.
Don’t try to optimize every little thing. The realization that there are so many things you can optimize is part of the initial excitement many of us feel when we learn about early retirement, but it’s super easy to take it too far. After you’ve shaved out most of your needless expenses and put your investments into low-fee funds, there’s a massively diminishing return on most of the other optimizations you could make. But beyond that, trying to optimize every little thing puts you in a near-obsessive mindset of focusing on your money and your progress all. the. damn. time. And that’s no good for your sanity. Optimize the major stuff, and then stop thinking about it.
Celebrate all the little milestones. Given that the “football field” appears to be a valid unit of measurement in the United States, let’s go with that for this metaphor. If you’re in your own end zone, aiming for the opponent’s end zone 100 yards away, the field looks awfully long. But in football, the only time you’re ever trying to go the full length of the field at once is when the timer is running out and you’re in a Hail Mary situation. (Please forgive me for this, non-sports folks. I grew up in Green Bay and can’t help it.) The vast majority of the time, you’re only trying to go 10 yards to get the next first down and keep your drive alive. The announcers will regularly put up on the screen how many first downs you got, what your time of possession was and other things you accomplished along the way like completed passes, yards per carry and passer rating. And the point of all this is: celebrate those first downs! Celebrate the completed passes! Celebrate when you increase your yards per carry or passer rating! Or, in more concrete financial terms, celebrate when you hit round numbers, when you pay off even small amounts of debt and when you pass psychologically significant waypoints. Doing that keeps you focused on how much you’re accomplishing instead of how far you have to go, and that mindset difference is enormous. (That’s the end of the sports analogy for today, I promise.)
Eliminate as many impatience triggers as possible. If you’re feeling the FIRE FOMO in a big way, or you’re spending a lot of time experiencing impatience and frustration that you’re not there yet, notice what you’re doing when you feel those things the most strongly. Does checking your investment balances trigger that for you? Then stop doing that so damn often! Does reading the financial independence subreddit put you into the impatience zone? Unbookmark it! Is looking at Instagram accounts of travel bloggers what sets you off? Unfollow them! It’s sacrilege for me to ask this, but does reading FIRE blogs stoke your impatience the most? Then scale back how many and how often you’re reading! Chances are good you know most of what you need to know, and you can swoop in on the blogs you love and catch up on the stories that are important without having to be fully immersed in early retirement blogs all the time. It’s the same as if you have a spending problem and are triggered by sale emails – the best thing you can do is unsubscribe from those emails and remove the temptation. Figure out what your temptation or trigger is, and minimize its power over you.
Live a life you enjoy while planning for your next life. This is a big one. I’ve long written about the importance of planning not just for later, but for now as well, and if you’re in the slog stage, this is especially important for you. What hobbies are you spending time on? What interests are you feeding? What friends and family are you making time for? If you dislike your life right now, it’s only going to magnify the impatience. But if you’re enjoying yourself, it’s a lot easier to keep going. Don’t put off everything you enjoy for later, or “later” will only feel that much farther away.
Plan periodic events you look forward to. Similarly, give yourself things to look forward to. I always loved knowing that we had Coachella to look forward to every April, and the start of ski season every October or November. That put my future focus in the near term instead of years ahead, and anything you can do to avoid focusing waaaaay down the road is good. Plan trips that you’re excited to take, schedule yourself to go to meetups (maybe getting ahead of the “find new friends” mission in early retirement) and put things you’ve most fired up about on the calendar.
Stay engaged at work. I know not everyone will like this suggestion, but I can’t recommend this enough as a way both to walk away from work when it’s time feeling good about what you contributed there (far better than feeling icky if you know you phoned it in for months or years before peacing out) and as a way to head off impatience. If you mentally check out at work, each day will only feel longer and more boring, and that’s a surefire way to bring on the slog feeling. If, however, you stay engaged and committed at work, the time feels like it’s passing faster. I swear it, you guys. This works.
Use all of your vacation time. But, even if you’re staying committed at work, don’t do what we do and deny yourself vacation time in an effort to maximize your earnings in that final sprint to the finish. Not taking vacation is a guarantee of burnout, something we felt in a bad way, and nothing will make you feel impatient and frustrated faster than letting yourself get burned out at work. Take every bit of that time off and make time for self-care.
Spend time with people who don’t care one bit about financial independence. As much fun as it is to talk to other people who get what you’re doing with your life, and as important as community is to achieving your FI goals, don’t only surround yourself with people doing something similar to what you’re doing. That only keeps your mind in that focused and maybe even obsessed place. Instead, make plenty of time for people who don’t care one bit about FI and have zero interest in talking about money. That will focus your mind elsewhere, which is always a good thing.
Share Your Tips and Challenges!
What have you found to work especially well in keeping you focused and heading off that slog feeling? Please share with all of us in the comments! And if you feel like you’re in that slog, what is the biggest challenge that you’d love to overcome? Throw your concerns out there – I’ll add my two cents and others in the community may have great advice for you. ;-)
Categories: the process