Two Years of Early Retirement, by Tanja Hester, author of Our Next Life blog and Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way // financial independence, financial freedom, FIRE movementwe retired early

Two Years of Early Retirement // Impact, Lessons and Future Changes

Today marks exactly two years since the first day we woke up as early retirees. Mark was completely done with work at that point, while I still had to do a few wrap-up tasks from home on December 28 to qualify for my 401(k) match. But December 16 still felt like the first day of the rest of our lives, of our next life.

Last year, I reflected a bunch on our first year of early retirement, and you can read those posts here:

Virtually everything I wrote in those posts still feels true a year later. (Though, in all honesty, I wear onesies a lot less now. Not for any good reason.)

Like our first year of early retirement, year 2 felt looooong. Maybe even longer than year 1. When I posted on Twitter yesterday that we’re at our two-year retirement anniversary, the comments were all that the time had flown by and people couldn’t believe it had been two years already.

Meanwhile, I can’t believe it’s been only two years. It feels like five. At least five. All of which affirms my believe that early retirement slows down time in the best way possible.

And in that slowed down time, we did a ton this year. I did a ton this year separate from “we.” But most of it didn’t feel rushed or like the way we used to go through life while working. It felt like we set the pace.

Last year I did a whole recap of all the places we saw and all the things we did, and I’m sharing some of that with the e-newsletter this year, but mostly I’ll sum it up here:

  • Recorded the audiobook version of Work Optional
  • Hosted multiple video crews at our house
  • Survived publication and the promotion period of Work Optional
  • Wrapped up the third season of the podcast I co-host, The Fairer Cents
  • Went to our 7th Coachella
  • Spent a few days in Las Vegas and the Mojave Desert
  • Did a book event in DC and spoke at CampFI Mid-Atlantic
  • Did book events in LA, San Francisco, Sacramento and Reno
  • Visited Denver, New York City and Philly
  • Spoke on the mainstage at FinCon19 in DC
  • Spent a month in the UK, mostly Scotland, and turned 40 while there
  • Hosted Cents Positive events in Seattle and Chicago
  • Spoke at a few conferences and companies by invitation, including Tesla
  • Spent a week at the Ecuador FI Chautauqua with Vicki Robin, Paula Pant and a bunch of rad participants
  • Spent the remainder of the month in Ecuador touring the central highlands and Galapagos Islands
  • Brought The Fairer Cents back for season 4

It’s a long list, but except when I was promoting the book, life never felt frantic. Which tells me that we’re doing some things right, and that we’ve hitting our stride at this whole early retirement thing. What else did we do and learn? Read on.


We’ve always suspected, and since confirmed, that, even though we’re no longer working in a conventional sense, we always want to be doing things so that life feels meaningful, and this year helped us get a better sense of the kinds of things we want to be doing long-term, as well as the things that don’t contribute to our sense of purpose.

The Impact of Our Early Retirement

Fundamentally, we want our lives to mean something, and that means our early retirement has to mean something. Not that every single day must be purpose-filled and goal-driven, and not even that most days must be like that. Early retirement lets us experience the singular joy of wasting whole weeks doing nothing but fun stuff. But we don’t want fun and laziness to be the only qualities we strive for in all of our newish free time. So the question I ask myself is: what is the impact of my early retirement? In other words, what am I doing that I couldn’t do if I was still working? This year, the answer was: a lot.

Tanja Hester, author of Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way, speaking at Book Passage in San Francisco, June 2019

Publication of my first book, Work Optional — If you’ve been reading here for a while, you know what a big deal this was for me. Publishing a book has always been on my life list, and I got to do it exactly the way I wanted to: with a big five New York publisher, with content that is true to me and not just a regurgitation of every other financial self-help book out there, and with some really cool media stories to accompany it. It was a huge time and energy suck to finalize it and promote it, but it was 100% worth it, and I’d do it again in a heart beat. Publishing the book has let me reach new audiences who don’t read blogs and opened doors to other opportunities that have been all kinds of fun. I had to learn how to really do makeup to go on camera, put my media training skills to use (I used to train people to go on camera but never did it myself) and find ways to keep saying the same things over and over without it feeling stale, all of which was challenging but fun. It also helped thicken my skin even more because every book gets some bad reviews, and mine was no exception. Some people don’t like what I’m about, some people just don’t believe the early retirement movement is real or based on sound principles, and some people legit didn’t like the book. Learning to be okay with all of that has been some good growth this year. And nothing beats hearing from people who got big things from reading the book. I’ll keep those notes forever.

Psst. If you want to buy a copy of Work Optional as a Christmas present, Amazon is no help as it’s sold out there until Christmas Eve, unless you buy the Kindle version. Here are links to the places that have it in stock and can get it to you in time: Target, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, Books-A-Million, Walmart, Indiebound and maybe your local indie bookstore.


Engaging with the early retirement community in different ways — I blogged less this year than I ever have since starting Our Next Life, and while I still don’t totally feel great about that, blogging less has created more space to engage with people interested in work-optional life in some new and different ways:

  • A Q&A every Saturday on Instagram Stories
  • More in-person events like the FI Chautauqua in Ecuador, book events and other FI gatherings
  • More Cents Positive events
  • Pushing here and on other forums for more blogger transparency
  • Working behind the scenes to create communities for those who are not often seen as “the face of” the early retirement movement, and promoting their voices however I can
  • Pushing to make media stories about the FIRE movement more diverse and inclusive, which got me named the matriarch of the women’s FIRE movement by the New York Times

The photo and caption from the NYT story // The 4% Rule Is Not Your Friend for Early Retirement Savings //, Tanja Hester, author of Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way, financial independence, FIRE movement

I’m coming away from this year knowing that I want to keep engaging with the community outside of the blog, though of course I’ll keep engaging here, just on my more retirement-appropriate schedule. But knowing that not everyone reads blogs, and that in-person interactions have so much more potential to be meaningful, I want to make as much space for that in 2020 as possible.

Learning how to be retired for real — The truth is that we kinda sucked at being retired in 2018, our first year. For my part, that was because I jumped right into book writing and editing, and didn’t get the decompression period I’d always envisioned. For Mark’s part, it was that he hadn’t yet learned to say no to freelance projects that felt meaningful. This year, though, we’ve gotten a whole lot better at saying no, at realizing that more money isn’t going to change our lives and at actually decompressing. The second half of 2019, after book promotion had finally wound down, I actually felt retired. Like barely read my email retired. And that feels great. It has felt great to be early retired the whole time, of course, but it feels like we’ve leveled up, and there’s probably more leveling up to come as more time passes.

Feeling more free to be myself — Maybe it’s because I knew I’d have to promote the book and thought I should still look semi-respectable, I didn’t immediately go for the punk rock hair that I’d always wanted as soon as we pulled the plug on our careers. I did end up bleaching my hair and dying it various shades of pink and red last year, but this year I’ve committed more fully to expressing myself the way I want to: by stabbing more holes in my head. ;-) I’ve added four new piercings this year, with more to come, and committed to much brighter shades of purple hair than I went for last year. (You can check out the FIRE Hair story archive on my Instagram if you want to see pictures of the full evolution.)

Making real impact through our service projects — Mark and I spent more time than ever this year doing service-focused work. He’s president of the local avalanche center, and I do a range of things, from leading a local conservation group and heading up fundraising for some local humane society events, to putting on women’s FI events without taking a profit. The things we were able to do for those causes felt more meaningful this year, which was really special.

Shifting our definition of what financial independence means and is for — Closely related to that, we’ve always known that service is important to us, and that we wanted to devote significant time to it in early retirement, but this year our mindsets have shifted even farther: we no longer see early retirement as a time of following our passions, but instead as a time to contribute to the greater good in some way. I’m working on a post all about this, so stay tuned.

The Lessons We Learned in Year Two

All of the lessons we learned in year 1 are still true, but we built on them this year.

Early retirement is something you have to learn to get good at, and that takes time — When I say it now, it sounds so obvious, but we really underestimated how long it would take us to feel fully retired and, more importantly, to feel good at being retired. My answer to this now is that it really took us two full years to feel like we’re doing it right. Like we’re using our time in a way that feels right to us. Like we’re saying yes to the right things and no to the right things. Like we’ve got the right mindset about our money and not needing to earn more of it. Like we’ve got the right dynamics figured out for our relationship. Like we know how to thrive without structure. All of those things have taken time to learn — and all of our bad work habits and mindsets have taken even more time to unlearn — and it’s important to allow yourself that time.

Protecting my retired time feels paramount, but that has trade-offs — In year one, we were both more busy than we’d expected to be with work-type projects, even if most of that work wasn’t for money or much money. (Reminder that I don’t make money off the blog or social media stuff, and that book and podcast money is far less than people imagine. It’s all broken down here.) And perhaps it’s in reaction to that, but since book promotion ended, I’ve felt super protective of my time. I won’t schedule more than one thing a day or more than two things a week. I won’t let myself sit at a computer more than a few days a week. I refuse to accomplish anything in the morning, and instead insist on having a long, leisurely breakfast every single day (exceptions: a flight to catch, or a powder day). I also refuse to do anything worklike in the evening. That has meant more time to feel retired, but it has also meant that I’ve accomplished very little since book promo ended, and I’m months and months behind on email. I’ve gotten better at protecting my time and saying no, but I’ve gone too far in the other direction, and often feel like I’m not accomplishing anything on new creative projects I want to take on. This is the next area of early retirement in which I hope to level up: finding the balance between protecting my time and still accomplishing things creatively.

Your definition of “slow” doesn’t have to match anyone else’s — We glorify all forms of slow living in our society, because most of us don’t have the luxury of doing anything slowly. We work more than ever and feel busier than ever, so of course slow travel feels like the best thing we could possibly experience. Slow living feels like the ultimate luxury. And it’s great to aspire to those things, but it’s up to each of us to define slow for ourselves. By any measure, I did a lot this year. And to me it mostly felt pretty leisurely. But virtually every time I interact with people in the community or media, someone will make a comment about how busy I keep myself or how I must not be able to sit still. But neither of those is true. I don’t feel busy and I do know how to sit still. I’m just a doer. And this is the pace that feels right for me, and that — believe it or not — feels slow and leisurely. Doing less just to give the “right” impression of what early retirement is supposed to be would be performative, not fulfilling. So I encourage everyone to figure out what “slowing down” looks like to you, not according to someone else or to society.

Language learning is both possible and good for you — Our first trip after retiring was to Taiwan, and while it was wonderful in every way possible and you should definitely put it on your travel list, we were a bit ashamed that we knew only two words of Mandarin the whole time we were there: hello and thank you. We vowed not to repeat that when visiting future countries, and we haven’t. We had a passable amount of Spanish for Mexico last year, and I studied French for seven years, so could function in France last year. But this year, for the trip to Ecuador, a far less tourist-focused country, we decided to put in more effort and try to do better than just knowing how to order and ask for the check. I spent a month cramming a Pimsleur audio program, and did Duolingo at the same time, but most importantly, I forced myself to speak Spanish to people, even if they had some English. (I don’t want to pretend I was perfect at this. If people were clearly fluent in English, I got a little lazy, but I pushed myself much more than I have in the past.) And by the end of my month in Ecuador, it was crazy how much I improved. We had several tour guides in the Galapagos, near the end of our trip, who spoke only Spanish, and I was shocked how much I picked up from what they said. I still have a long way to go to feel truly competent at Spanish, but I’m keeping at it. What was most wonderful about it, though, was that besides giving us comfort venturing much farther off the beaten path than we have in the past, having better language skills allowed us to have far more meaningful conversations with people than we have on past trips, and that was definitely special.

Longer travel is doable, but it puts life on hold — I spent a lot of this year on the road — like 10 days in my own bed between the end of August and the start of December — and found that my three- to four-week limit I decided on last year isn’t a hard and fast rule. I can definitely do longer travel with the right attitude. But, I don’t feel like I can do the rest of the business of my life while traveling. Others certainly can, but for me, traveling means pressing pause on everything in life (and of course not everything actually can be paused). So while the travel was wonderful, I had huge chunks of time this year when nothing moved forward in the rest of my life, and that’s something I’m taking into consideration for next year.

What We’re Changing in Year Three

At the end of last year, I wrote in the final wrap-up post that I (and in some cases we) wanted to change these things:

  • Go back to paper (as opposed to doing everything through our phones or other tech)
  • Schedule less (so we’d feel more retired)
  • Do less (so we’d feel more retired)
  • Finally create the bank account structure we’d planned
  • Serve more in our community
  • Continue noticing our personal and collective evolution

With the exception of the bank accounts, which are still fairly simplistic (and which is still working mostly fine), we did all of these things, except during my flurry of book promotion, which I count as a totally justifiable exception. Even though we did a lot, it was still less than we did in year 1, and we truly felt retired this year.

But as we get better at some things, and get to know retired us better, we want to keep refining the way we’re doing things, including:

Re-embracing certain technologies after rejecting them — Last year, I said I wanted to get my calendar and notes off my phone and apps, and onto paper. And for the first quarter of so of the year, that worked just fine. But as book stuff wrapped up, and I found myself sitting at my desk less and less, I started missing appointments that were only on paper and not in my phone. Not good. And I realized: paper is great when you’re sitting at your desk for at least a little while every day, but it’s not so great when you’re barely visiting your desk. So I’m reversing course: all my appointments are now back in the phone, and though I’m still using paper for my notes and keeping a duplicate paper calendar, I’m taking advantage of my phone for reminders that I might otherwise miss when I’m away from my desk for days or weeks at a time.

Planning the year more holistically — Out of necessity, we planned almost nothing the first half of this year, because we had to keep things open for book stuff. But we got to the summer and suddenly had to scramble to plan a whole bunch of things. For 2020, we’re already looking at the year in total and trying to plan out our trips so they feel more spaced out, and so we have lots of open calendar time to be spontaneous. Leaving time for spontaneity is huge for us, but we’ve realized that scheduling nothing leaves us feeling paralyzed because we know we should be scheduling some things. So scheduling our travel farther in advance is the goal so that we actually feel free to do whatever when there’s nothing on the calendar.

Doing more goal-setting — This is really my hope for 2020, not necessarily Mark’s, but by being so book focused for the first year and a half of early retirement, I haven’t given myself as much time to reflect and look forward as I would have liked. I’ve tended to look backwards and think about what I can do better instead of think about what I want to accomplish in the next year or decade. So now I’m working on looking forward again, and thinking through what I want to be able to say when I write the yearly wrap-up post next year, or the year after that. Stay tuned.

All in all, this was a pretty spectacular year with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to checking big things off the life list. Which is exactly what we’d hoped our retirement would be. Now back to trying to keep getting better at being retired!

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19 replies »

  1. Wow has it bee 2 years already? Time sure flies (or slows down in your case). Lots good insightful knowledge in this post and I’m sure we’ll have to learn the same thing ourselves once we hit RE too.

    You wrote “first” book, does that mean there’s a second book in the plan?

  2. So glad to read your new post! Sounds like early retirement is still treating you both well :)

    I look forward to your contribution post – it’s an area I’m trying to do more in myself as well (though I’m not early retired – yet!).

  3. Excellent and comprehensive review on your 2nd year! We just finished Year 1 and I’m glad to know that I wasn’t alone in “not feeling retired” and being insanely busy. I, too, am a “Doer.” Also nice to confirm that being retired early is a skill you need to work at continuing to develop. Thanks for the insight and here’s to a fantastic Year 3 for you!

  4. Glad to see a blog post from you. I’ve been missing your voice and was wondering what you’ve been up to. Nice to see you are reaching the point of fully living life on your terms.

    I LOVE Scotland. It’s so beautiful. Although I don’t care for those single track roads!

  5. Thanks for sharing your learnings from your second year of early retirement. I’m 18 months into my RE journey and still learning how to allocate and structure my time, and your insights are great food for thought.

  6. Hola de Chile, Tanja! We are doing a not-quite-FIRE (or maybe “barista FIRE”) sabbatical year of travel and learning Spanish is one of my life goals so we are traveling South America. It’s great that you were able to pick up so much from app practice and then just speaking! I hope to continue when we get back to the States but I hadn’t really thought about possibly joining the PF community and language practice but I bet that could be done. Will have to do some exploring on that!

  7. So behind you and so much coming in the next year. Many of things you are dealing with I find similar to what goes through my mind each day as I try to navigate the FI life. Your maximizing of financial independence is a great story of which you have shared widely and openly helping so many. All the best to you and Mark.

  8. Time is so weird. I’ve been retired for 8 months now, and it feels simultaneously like it’s going really fast and also like I haven’t been at work for a decade. Enjoy year 3! I’m sure it will be the best one yet.

  9. Life is certainly a journey! It’s really impressive how you’ve channeled your energy into projects that help others and give a new perspective or path. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’m a busy body. If retire early, I’d jump into the next project and the next … Decompression is a concept I need to explore more. Thanks for sharing all the fun and good work you guys are up to. Keep inspiring!

  10. So glad to see your post, I’ve missed your blog! I find your posts really insightful, exploring a topic in depth just doesn’t happen in tweets or pics…. and it’s great to see *your* choice of topic vs being q&a’ed on instagram. Your in depth writing on your blog has helped me get more comfortable with escaping the rat race early myself.

    Congrats on two years of freedom.

  11. Thank you for the post and the update on what retirement is like. Do you have any recommendations on finding your passion in retirement? Connecting with people and community service seems to be your ‘ikigai’, but how did that come to be? Was it something you were always interested in or has just evolved? If you haven’t written a post on this already can you please point me to the link. If not, I would love reading your next blog post on this :-). Happy Holidays!

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