In my years of planning for our early retirement – especially the early years – I had a lot of thoughts that you might sound familiar:
In early retirement, I won’t feel any stress.
When we’re no longer working, I’ll get tons of sleep.
After we’re done with our careers, I’ll have plenty of time to exercise and will be outside every day.
In early retirement, I’ll never feel sad or depressed, because there won’t be anything to be sad about.
When we’re retired, I’ll feel so much healthier.
Can anyone relate?
These thoughts are magical thinking, of course, and they aren’t really reflective of how life actually goes, something I started to realize in my last few years of planning for early retirement.
But now that we’re here, now that we’re actually retired (mostly, anyway), which of those thoughts have come true and which haven’t? Let’s take a look.
Psst. If you’re a woman interested in both financial independence (FI) and meeting other women who are, too, then check out the official site I’ve built for the retreat series: Cents Positive. (It’s true – I love my pun titles.) Our first event is November 2-4 in Denver, Colorado, and if you sign up on the email list at Cents Positive, you’ll be the first to know when registration opens this week or next!
Those thoughts I had back in the day, what I’d probably now characterize as daydreaming in response to work stress, fell into two major categories: 1.) tasks that I didn’t have or make time for before, and 2.) more abstract ideas like “health” and “happiness.” All of those daydreams were in response to something that felt broken and needed fixing, so what has early retirement actually fixed?
Tasks I Didn’t Have Time For Before Early Retirement
In my life while working, there was so much I didn’t have time for. All of the time I wasn’t on planes or about to be on a plane, I was thinking about everything I had to do before I took that next flight. I missed out on normal home things just by spending so many nights away in hotels. Time felt scarce even when it wasn’t – though it virtually always was. Mark and I both constantly felt behind on housework, on keeping up with friends and taking care of ourselves. Surely having more time would fix all of that, right?
It might if we actually gave ourselves nothing but free time, but we haven’t. Mark is president of the local avalanche center (a volunteer position that takes a lot of time) and is also consulting part-time on a passion project, in addition to canvassing for local candidates and doing other volunteering. I’m president of a local conservation group, I do a lot of volunteer fundraising and organizational work for the local animal shelter, I write this blog (though less frequently lately while working on the book), I wrote a book, I co-host a podcast, and I randomly find other things to take on. While the consulting and book are time-limited projects that will end later this year, I don’t ever see us not doing a number of things at any one time, whether or not they pay. That is just what happens when you’re a curious person who also gives a shit about the world around you – you fill up a lot of your free time with meaningful, purposeful projects. That’s as it should be, but it means that the vision you might once have had of endless free time never quite pans out. And that impacts all the things we thought we’d have time for.
Sleep – Catching up on sleep was our very top priority after we quit, and for the first few months we were sleeping massive amounts, often 12 hours a night. And while I wouldn’t say I totally feel caught up yet, a big part of that might be that I spent so many years feeling like I could never catch up on sleep. We weren’t in financial debt anymore, but we were massively in sleep debt by the last few years, and unlike monetary debt, there’s no statement that will arrive to tell us that we’re done. And so those thoughts we had for years and years are still here in large part, and I’m not sure when we’ll break out of those thought patterns. I do know that it feels truly glorious not to set an alarm most days, and to be able to nap if we feel like it. But that nagging thought is still there that we have sleep debt to pay off, and it might be harder to get rid of that voice than it actually was to catch up on the sleep itself.
Exercise – We had the grandest plans on this one. We were immediately going to level up our fitness to tackle big endurance goals like long mountain climbs. And maybe we still will! But we’ve been mostly focused on recuperating this winter and spring, and I’ve also had some physical setbacks recently that have forced me to be less mobile than I’d like. We’re getting into summer now and have had a few fun outings in the mountains, so this is about the time when I’d expect us to pick up momentum. But it’s a good reminder that just having time won’t push your butt out the door. You still have to dedicate time to it consciously and find the discipline to exercise, something that can be more challenging when you don’t have any structure built into your day. All of that said, we’re getting more exercise than we were while working, just not at the level we assumed would be automatic.
Cooking – We had grand plans here, too! No more frozen foods – only fresh foods we’d make from scratch. Sooooo, yeah. About that. We’re not there yet. An interesting observation has been how easy it is to have a “vacation eating” mindset while early retired, and to eat worse than we should. Now that summer is here, we’re shifting most of our food purchasing to the farmer’s market, which will certainly help. We always cook the most and eat the best in the summer, so the trick will be carrying that energy into autumn and beyond.
Hobbies – I’m a person of many interests. Beyond writing the blog, I love reading books and have been making a list for years of everything I’d read after we quit. And I’ve read exactly zero of those books so far. Likewise for the projects I’d hoped to sew, the Japanese lessons I’d planned to resume, and the piano I’d hoped to relearn. But I have written the first draft of my book, produced the first half of the second season of The Fairer Cents, organized the Cents Positive Retreat, and gotten involved in some new clubs. So I have plenty to show for my time and am good with how I’ve apportioned my energy thus far, even if it’s not on the hobbies I’d thought would be the top priority.
Time to Spend with Friends and Family – Social circles become even more important in early retirement, and we’ve on the whole been prioritizing social time. We hosted meetups in Tahoe and New York City with other FI enthusiasts. We’ve had a few out-of-town guests visit. And we’ve done the new friend hustle as much as possible. And I’ve gotten much more time with my dad, who lives nearby, which has been really special. Still not as much friend time as I’d like, but that’s on me and my book deadlines.
Reminder for those new here – because the internet retirement police seem to have stepped up their patrols lately, and my notes on free time may spur questions – that I don’t make money off the blog (see the resources page disclaimer for what I do with the tiny amounts generated from my few affiliate links), the podcast sponsorships cover costs and help subsidize blog expenses, and other side projects like hosting the Cents Positive retreat for women aren’t money generators – by design! I am making a little bit to write my book, as I explained in this post. Them’s the facts.
Abstract Concepts I Believed Early Retirement Would Fix
The tasks are easy to grade with a pass/fail, but the abstract stuff is harder. Even after I saw that so much of my daydreaming was magical thinking, I’ll confess that I still assumed we’d be happier, healthier, less stressed and more connected in our relationship after work was out of the way. Particularly with the all-encompassing careers we had, work was by far the biggest force. It seemed completely logical that subtracting it would take pressure off every other area of our life. And that’s been both true and not.
Health – I’ll share more on health soon, but bottom line is that I do not feel healthier, at least not yet. I don’t know if I was just subconsciously pacing myself to get to our retirement, but I’ve definitely seen some things worsen since we quit. I had the longest migraine of my life this winter, and I’m feeling more limited by my body than I ever remember feeling. And that was all before I got sick two weeks ago and landed in the hospital. (I’m good now!) Expect a post on health and health care after those charges shake out and we see what we’re on the hook for.
Stress – Not all that long before we retired, I remember thinking, “I wonder if too little stress will be bad for us. If we need some stress to keep our minds active and to stay engaged in the world.” Which now just feels like such a charmingly naïve thought that I need not have entertained. There’s still stress in retirement because it’s still life! That said, I feel zero money stress, which is a surprise, and we undoubtedly feel dramatically less stress from sources you could call “work.” Which is incredible! So overall stress level is way down, but I’m no longer convinced that stress ever disappears entirely, or even mostly.
Happiness – Jim Carrey gave a fairly woo-woo interview with The Talks about his various spiritual beliefs, and while I’m not recommending that you run over and read it, in it, he dropped this little nugget: “I guess just getting to the place where you have everything everybody has ever desired and realizing you are still unhappy. And that you can still be unhappy is a shock when you have accomplished everything you ever dreamt of and more and then you realize, ‘My gosh, it’s not about this.’ And I wish for everyone to be able to accomplish those things so they can see that.” I wouldn’t describe myself as unhappy at all, though I have been unhappy at times while retired, but I relate to Jim’s quote so much. I’m full-on living the dream, or at least living my dream, and while that fact is amazing and wonderful and I feel grateful for it every day, none of that makes happiness automatic. Because we aren’t happy about things or sad about things. (A fact made painfully clear by the recent suicide deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, people who “had it all.”) On paper, I have everything to be happy about and nothing to be sad about, but that fact doesn’t make me immune from sadness. I’m still a person living life, and that comes with the full range of emotions, even when there’s no easy reason to cite. But see above – on balance, I’m feeling way less stressed, and given what a dampening effect stress has on happiness, I would have to say I’m happier overall.
Fulfillment – Once upon a time, I would have linked happiness and fulfillment together, and assumed they were two sides of the same coin. They are not. While happiness hasn’t been automatic or something I feel every day, I feel deeply fulfilled, and for that I’m massively grateful. I know it comes entirely from having the privilege to use my time as I wish, on projects that speak to my soul, and that feel like they add up to something. I may not have done many of the things I’d hoped to have done by this point in early retirement, but I’ve done other things that feel even better, and if that doesn’t speak to the power of financial independence, I don’t know what does!
Share your thoughts with all of us! What daydreams do you think might end up being magical thinking? Which ones are you sure you’ll see come true in early retirement? For those who’ve already retired, did you have any surprises like I have? Anything you ended up not making time for that seemed so important before? I’m allllmost ready to be back to a normal blogging schedule, so responses coming soon! xo
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Categories: we retired early