Getting through the middle saving years slog en route to early retirement and financial independence // OurNextLife.comthe process

Getting Through the Middle Saving Years Slog

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.

Getting through the middle saving years slog en route to early retirement and financial independence //

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. ;-)

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38 replies »

  1. Thank you for writing this post. I found the FI movement about a year ago and started coming out of the honeymoon period a few months again, and having the slog hit you is rough. Rough!!!

    Like you did, I find myself looking at the numbers on a daily basis. I’m also still stuck in the cycle of trying to optimize everything. I think for me I’m looking for some kind of golden egg that is magically going to save us a ton of money. The reality is though, we’ve cut expenses way down, and automated our investing and saving. I need to stop with both of those habits.

  2. Yes, automating the contributions to your investment accounts and not following the results compulsively will reduce stress for sure. There is no point in obsessing over the short term ups and downs of the markets. Great analogy with the Hail Mary! Baby steps – Take small steps consistently and yes, celebrate milestones along the way. Another good one is you want to be getting singles consistently over a long period of time instead of aiming for home runs all the time.

  3. “Live a life you enjoy while planning for your next life.” This is SO important! We all know we aren’t guaranteed tomorrow, but our actions often say otherwise. I’ve been on this FI journey for several years, but last year I had a wake up call. I can promise you that one very scary diagnosis reminds you of all the things you put off doing in a hot second. That’s what happened to me (my prognosis is great now). I don’t prescribe throwing caution to the wind and forgetting about all your goals. I do think understanding your motivations for saving are important so you can stay the course. But living in the present while building the future is important too. Don’t forget to invest in other things besides your savings account, like yourself, relationships, hobbies, and great experiences. Many of those things won’t cost you a dime.

    • I want to second what Kara wrote here in terms of what I also took to be a very important–and sometimes overlooked–point when planning for (early) retirement: “Live a life you enjoy while planning for your next life.”

      With our own increasing number of (albeit) minor health issues and the more serious health problems facing our parents, my husband and I are constantly reminding ourselves to be very “present.” My mother–who was recently diagnosed with a serious illness–told us that when she was younger she was thinking about the future. She now regrets only and always thinking about the future. As she advised us: Plan for the future, but also live for today.

  4. Thanks for this post. I particularly liked your thoughts on staying engaged at work. Nothing makes the slog days go faster than challenging work. To someone pursuing FIRE who has a job that is simply awful to the point she feels she can’t be engaged, I would suggest trying to find something else to generate income in those middle years, whether that’s simply a different employer or a whole career change. The best laid plans can go awry, tomorrow is promised to no one, and life is just too short to hate 40+ hours of it every week.

  5. I agree that sometimes of you have to cut back on your triggers, I had to stop looking at some of the facebook groups because I felt like I was way behind most (lower single income) I also try and get out and do things with different people too, I belong to a few meetups where generally the talk isn’t about money (by chance one girl is into it too Lol)
    I get a ton of vacation time, I don’t think I could take all my vacation (first world problems) It rolls over till I hit 320 hours so I save a lot saved for emergencies. I have taken 4 -week plus trips this year and I still have 280 hours, we can only take off certain times and there is a limit to how many people can have off, I had to take a week in June just to use it up. We cash out options but only get 90% and gets taxed higher so wasn’t the best option
    I need to stop looking at my balances, what the stock market does is out of my control and I have a long way off till I will be retiring so it serves no purpose, yet I still do it.

  6. Agree with all of these points. I would add, spend time with people with a different perspective on time (significant overlap with people who don’t care about financial independence.) My kids and my elderly parents aren’t looking years off into the future, for different reasons. They are living in the here and now.

    I appreciate the reminder to take one’s vacation. Like a previous commenter, I’ve been rolling over the maximum number of vacation hours, partly due to workload and partly due to a hoarding tendency. And I haven’t taken a single day in 2018 so I need to get on it!

  7. Great post Tanya! And so relevant to us at this moment. “…near-obsessive mindset of focusing on your money and your progress all. the. damn. time”. Yes! This is so me. I’ve been feeling the slog lately (we are looking at 5 years to FI), scruitinzing our budget, saying no to anything that comes up last minute (not in the budget for the month!) and stressing when little unexpected expenses pop up that weren’t accounted for. And I know this has been dragging me down. So my husband and I had a frank discussion and decided to change things up a bit. Instead of aiming for a specific savings percentage (which was taking all of his pay and some of mine) we decided to save all of his monthly pay and use all of mine to budget. This means we have a bit extra each month to plump up our travel funds, fix up our sporting gear…etc. The little extra that we aren’t saving now made about 1-2% difference in our savings percentage but makes a huge difference for my ability to not be so obsessed about every detail. We also created a “float” category in our budget that gets a little money allotted to it each month for those unforeseen events that might pop up. This is only the 2nd month we’ve tried this new system out but I’m hoping it allows my brain to take a break from the constant budget/savings/investing thinking and enjoy the ride a little more!.

  8. I’m finding the slog is also making it hard to get ideas for new posts to write because “did the usual things this week, still moving at my snail’s pace of tiny, incremental, barely-perceptible progress” doesn’t lend itself well to the creativity that would produce posts that people want to read or that I would want to write. I love all of these ideas, and know that I’m a better person when I hang out with friends and make time for things like hiking. Working on weekends makes all of that much, much harder, so here’s further incentive to actually follow through on my plan to not sign up to work every weekend I’m available and make time for things on weekends that don’t earn me money, even if I’m finding it surprisingly hard to pass up the opportunity to earn more!

    Getting lost in a good fiction book helps too. I finally picked up one of those last night for the first time in a few months and it was amazing how good it felt.

  9. i agree strongly with the planning of fun stuff. it happens to us every year as we’re still working some, but we often take our last big trip around october or november and then winter comes to ny state. unlike your skiing winter loving selves we get no joy from winter. it’s something we endure and even after all this time we haven’t learned to plan something for early march or late february to get out of dodge and out of stir crazy. it’s the same slog but for only 3 months every year. just writing this makes me think we’re not too sharp, having not remedied the problem. next year i think we’ll go to key west, mark it down!

  10. Ugh, love this blog. I’ve been reading for a couple of months, and I don’t think I’ve left a comment yet. Anyway, I’m in my debt pay-off phase and I’m totally obsessed. It’s all I think about most of the time and I’m impatiently awaiting the end goal. I find it incredibly difficult to not put a ton of energy into thinking about how to pay off debt faster, and what life and finances will be like once I’m debt free and how I can finally save for early retirement. I appreciate your tips to combat obsession. I do need to stop checking my accounts daily and maybe I should just enjoy the ride. *sigh*

  11. I am in the home stretch, as you were just a couple months back. When I really start pondering FIRE, I can hear the Final Jeopardy music in my head. Yes, I need a distraction.

    I love the comment about reducing FIRE blog reads. Just read this one, and ditch all the rest! Yes, even the one you read more then ONL.

  12. Love, love, love this post as we’ve been feeling the middle slog for a long time. What helped us most was figuring out how to incorporate elements of what we hoped would be in our next lives into our today lives and prioritizing to make it happen soon instead of someday. While Coachella isn’t possible in our today life, packing a picnic dinner and attending a free outdoor concert in our city is. Bonus that we get home too tired to worry about account balances or what everyone else is doing.

  13. Tour first point is key in my opinion. Automate the whole thing and go do something else. Once you have it automated there is no reason to obsess over it. Go have fun and work on the other aspects of your life.

  14. These are helpful tips, especially for someone like me who is new to this whole thing and wondering how the day-to-day slog feels over time.

    I would love if you could talk more about balancing expensive hobbies and saving. I’m frugal in almost every other way, but like you, I’m a skier and it’s inherently expensive. I keep my gear for a long time, look for deals on lift tickets, etc., but there’s no getting around the fact that skiing costs money. Even getting into backcountry skiing has had insane start-up costs and I don’t even have all the gear yet! Do you have any advice for keeping spending down while still pursuing the activities you love?

    • Fellow skier/mountain biker/expensive outdoor sport enthusiast here. Honestly, for me, these things are just part of the budget. They’re factored into our FI plans, just like pet care and good cheese and other “optional” things that make my life worth living. I’d much rather work an extra year to endow my skiing habit for life than stop working earlier and sit around not skiing.

      One strategy that I’ve just started experimenting with is trying to pay for optional stuff with freelance/side hustle income. We backcountry ski but wanted resort passes for 2018-19, so I told myself that I would only buy a pass if I could cover it with freelance money. This not only keeps the value of these luxuries in perspective (which I’ve found difficult since we make more money than we need), but it has the added benefit of forcing me to build up my freelance chops, which I’m hoping to use in post-FI.

  15. I’m gonna give a “+1” to the comment about engaging at work. I’ve had some weeks lately of pretty empty to-do lists at work, where I found myself killing time instead of actively working on something. It was these times that I most felt the intense impatience and desire to be FI already. In contrast, when I’ve got a project going on that requires engagement and most of my work hours are focused, it’s much easier to just live in the present and not stress out about how much longer until I’m “free”.

  16. Okay I seriously love the football analogy. As someone who ran A LOT of wind sprints down the field thanks to softball practice, I can really appreciate how big 100 yards can feel. I should probably do a realistic update on our net worth / FI number to see where we are really at instead of just ballparking, and then split it into 10 yard increments.

  17. Hi, I have to admit I have started to get a bit impatient recently, even tho I also enjoy my life now. I think it’s because I am travelling a lot, and I get to imagine my FIRE life when I can travel all the time, with no restrictions.

    Anyway, I’ve only got three years to go, so not long to wait!

  18. Hey Tanja,
    Well first of all, that picture from Coachella is premium. Great pin too.

    As for the slog, I think its about enjoying the journey. Particularly when it comes to your career. Low job satisfaction drives a lot of people to want to retire early. But if you don’t like your job or career, you can do something about it. I went through a cycle where I wasn’t happy with my job and it was hurting my spirits. I only realized it was a problem in hindsight. I’m in a much better place now. Pursuing an aggressive early retirement strategy became a way to deal with my dissatisfaction at work, but it wasn’t the right short-term solution.

  19. I love this post, it’s very timely for me, haha! I find that being engaged in my work helps. It takes my time off the MONEY and focuses it on MEANING. And ultimately that’s what I’m after, and many more probably are, also. When I focus on my work I tend to feel happier and more fulfilled. A byproduct of that is that I tend to do better at that work, and that results in more money, which minimizes the time of that ‘middle part’.

    Less of a slog because it’s just easier and better, and a condensed timeline, too. Win-win.

    Also I didn’t realize you grew up in GB! I’ve got a lot of friends from there. I grew up south of you, around Waukesha – woooooot cheeseheads! :)

  20. Making the current life good on the way to the great next life is definitely something I can agree with! With all of the life changes in the past year, I’ve received the opportunity to step back and figure out what I can do for current me. My hopes and dreams are different from a few months ago, but they are exciting to learn. As long as I take care of future ZJ, too, I think this is a good bet.

  21. What a great post! I think the part about staying engaged at work is probably the most important part, and sometimes the hardest to do too! I am going to focus more on that from now on, luckily I have a job which really benefits from ever more engagement! :)

  22. Such great advice in this post, Tanja. It’s just on 12 months since I discovered FIRE blogs and starting setting our course for early retirement. We’ve come out of the honeymoon period after optimising and automating our finances over that time and just moving into the middle slog territory. I started out being obsessive about monitoring investment accounts almost daily but found that wasn’t at all productive so now check them less frequently, pushing this out to fortnightly (there’s that word!) at the moment. The biggest challenge I find is trying not too look too far ahead at how far we have to go instead of enjoying today and shorter-term stuff. So I’m focusing on doing and planning things I really enjoy, one of which is hiking. Have just started plans for several multi-day hikes already within the next 12 months including one that is on my bucket list, the Overland Track in Tasmania. The planning for these trips in itself is so exciting and contributes greatly to my happiness in the now.

    I’m fortunate to have moved to a new job late last year which I thoroughly enjoy after having worked the last few years at a job which was soul-destroying and far too stressful. My renewed enjoyment of my job really does make daily life so much better. I’m engaged at work and just as you have said, this results in better output and hopefully as time goes on, increasing remuneration and in turn a greater savings rate.

    I think it’s also important to look back on how far you’ve come from your starting point to see just how much you’ve achieved already. It’s easy to look at your end goal and feel like you’re never going to arrive at it. I was doing the annual clean out of old tax files recently and saw what our retirement account balances were five years ago compared to now. It’s amazing to see how much they’ve grown in that time! I also think celebrating those milestones along the way, no matter how small or large, is really important. We like to have small celebrations each time we hit another $10K and plan for bigger ones as we work towards huge, round six figure milestones.

    These things have all contributed to addressing the feeling of this quest being a slog and making it into more of a fun adventure with all kinds of treasure being discovered along the way.

  23. I think I’m in the middle years portion (though I still have things to do, like majorly revamping some 401ks I’ve been neglecting to change because I’m intimidated to take responsibility for them myself).

    But, it does feel like a bit of a slog at this point. There’s not much more I can do to save. My accounts tick up at an unsurprising rate. Yes it seems to slow.

    I think part of my problem is the planning ahead stage. I don’t plan to completely retire, but I am beginning to try and put the pieces of the puzzle together for what I will do when I don’t have to work (nearly) full time. I’ve got this blog going. I’m working on re-establishing my professional network and some branch out opportunities for myself. But I’m not ready to take the plunge yet and probably won’t be for a few years, so this long term planning stage while not being able to reap the benefits is frustrating at times.

    This slog mode probably also has to do with family age. With a toddler, we’re not inclined to do much by way of vacations etc right now, and I also find myself thinking about trips we’d like to take in the future. I’m trying to keep focused on the good of right now and how relaxing not having much going on can be.

  24. I began working on it before I really invested in FIRE, but I would nominate developing a meditation practice as the single most beneficial tool for avoiding getting mired in the muck.

    Live in and appreciate the moment: check.

    Acknowledge the ephemeral impact of achievement and failure upon wellbeing: check.

    Provide a channel for long-term growth: check.

  25. What a great post!

    I’m currently struggling with exactly this issue. We found the FI/RE movement little over a year ago and made some drastic changes to our lives, budget, spending habits and a dozen other things. It changed our lives profoundly and we’re well on our way to retire earlier than would’ve been the case.

    But, that mid-saving slog is starting to weigh us down. Getting up in the mornings, faced with 3 hours of commuting and spending 9 hours in a cubicle really puts a lot of strain on one’s enthusiasm.

    Thanks for the post, it reminded me that this is all normal, part of the process and is to be expected. Re-framing the problem, finding some outlets, etc will make a big difference in getting “our groove back”


    • It is all TOTALLY normal, and you are not remotely the first to feel what you’re feeling. Focus on living a good life TODAY and not trying to put off all joy for the future. (What a lot of pressure to put on the future!) Good luck! :-)