Lessons Learned One Year Into Early Retirement

Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you’ve lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that’s good.
–Elizabeth Edwards

12 1/2 months ago, my wife and I retired. I semi-retired, as I was (and still am) on several boards, but, otherwise, our lives went from the 8-5 grind (and way beyond the 8-5 as a co-founder of a startup private equity group) to the occasional board work and nothing else.

We had planned on doing some trips in 2020, to Poland, Machu Picchu, and China, as well as combining ski trips with one board I was on.

Then, as we all know, coronavirus affected everyone, and most of our plans got put on ice.

We were fortunate enough to be in a position where we could afford to hunker down and do nothing.

In fact, hunkering down and doing nothing was cheaper than normal life; our daily spending was down 51% from 2019. As I said in April, the pandemic was probably going to benefit early retirees, and, for us, that turned out to be financially true.

While I did think that there was a chance that the COVID-19 pandemic could turn into our generation’s Great Depression, for most people (and I realize that the bottom 25% percentile of the U.S. got hammered), this wasn’t true, because a) there was stimulus money (not saying it went to the right place, but it was there), and b) after about April, the markets started looking forward to a post-pandemic world.

We, like most investors, stayed the course in being invested in the market, and even threw moonshot money at some speculative investments, which paid off for us.

However, we thought that, on day one of retirement that we were renters for life. We hadn’t planned on a pandemic making isolation the safest action possible and a jarring change of ownership and management of the L2 Uptown, Dallas apartment complex that we lived in, causing us to decide to move.

Had the ownership and management change occurred outside of the pandemic, we would have moved to a different apartment complex. Had COVID hit and the previous management stayed in place, we would have continued hunkering down where we were.

But, both factors conspired to drive us to break our lease early and buy a house in a suburb of Fort Worth. Fortunately, there are no stairs that our now 14 year old dog has to climb up and down every time we take him out. Instead, he has his own yard to claim as his empire, and we back up to a park, so we have a nice nature area to look at and walk through on our dog walks. It’s nice, except when the coyotes are feeling frisky and decide to vocalize at 3 AM.

We also were less active in rebalancing our real estate portfolio than we normally are, with only 3 transactions in 2020. I suspect that will change in 2021, as we already have one accepted offer under our belts and continue to look at opportunities.

Given that 2020 was a year that was unlike any other, and, hopefully, starting in 2022 (which I hope will see the world vaccinated and COVID-19 relegated to an endemic status rather than a pandemic status), will be like no other in our lifetimes, is it possible to learn any early retirement lessons?

Here are a few.

You need time to decompress.

One of the investors in our private equity group told me, when we were talking about my then pending retirement, that he needed about 3 1/2 years of spending time with his kids, doing outdoor activities, and the like, before he got bored and went back to being more active on boards and something more closely resembling full-time work.

I get the need to decompress. I can still point to many days and wonder, as I’m going to bed, what I did all day.

Sometimes I read.

Sometimes I played games.

Sometimes I wrote.

Sometimes I looked for real estate deals.

Sometimes we watched our Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime (#aff) queues (though, for example, we’re still only in season 3 of Monty Python’s Flying Circus).

Now that we’re starting into year 2, and there’s a vaccine on the horizon, I’m starting to get a little antsy and itchy.

We tentatively have travel planned in the latter half of 2021, assuming that we’re going to be vaccinated and that the data will show that those who are vaccinated are not a risk to spread COVID-19 to others (currently, the data is pretty iffy).

We also have a European trip and our rescheduled China trip on the docket for 2022. We’ll see what happens.

But, we did get a lot of outdoor time in. Since our dog has slowed down significantly as he’s moved from senior dog to geriatric dog, we really tried in the latter half of the year to do some outdoor, socially distanced activities of our own, like hiking and discovering Texas nature.

I’ve also been trying to learn Spanish through Duolingo, as I think that, when we start actively traveling, we’ll probably travel more to Central and South America due to its proximity to Texas. I can say that my 16,171 XP in Spanish so far means that… Yo no hablo Español muy bien, pero entiendo algo del idioma. I was fortunate that I still know enough German to be able to completely test out of Duolingo, but I still do quizzes to try to keep sharp.

That said, while we’re starting to get a little antsy to no longer live our isolated lives going to Costco and getting the occasional Kroger delivery, neither of us is antsy to get back to work, either.

You do need to find things to fill the time.

If you have infinite amounts of money, then you can hire people to do everything except that which truly interests you.

We are not in that position.

Even before the pandemic, we weren’t the type of people who went out to restaurants often. We do have a couple of our favorites (Malai Thai Kitchen, From Across the Pond, and Mariachi’s Dine-In) that we still try to support, but, mostly, since I read Tim Ferriss’s Four Hour Chef (#aff), we’ve cooked at home.

For my birthday, right before lockdown, I got a Ninja Foodi air fryer (#aff) and a SodaStream (#aff). That’s made it much simpler to stay at home and cook.

We have gotten into a rhythm for food: eggs late in the morning, and then a bigger, protein heavy meal in the late afternoon. We have a semi-rotation of what we cook, which makes shopping at Costco and Kroger easy; we’re typically in and out of Costco in under 30 minutes.

Where, in a non-pandemic world, we might be going out to restaurants a couple of times a week, seeing friends, doing brunches, we haven’t done that. The dog walks are much shorter now than they were even this time last year.

So, we have to fill in the time.

Pre-retirement, that was easy. It was work.

Now, particularly since we’re both through, for the most part, the decompression period, 2021 will certainly be about truly discovering ourselves and what else we want to do with our lives.

That’s not to say that I don’t often enjoy taking a moment, sitting there, and relishing the fact that I have absolutely nothing that I have to do. I do.

But, obsessing over COVID, vaccines, politics (from BLM to ludicrous claims of fraudulent elections) only fills up so much time, and those, too, will wane over time (hopefully, BLM because it’s been righted).

In effect, for us, 2020 was like a year on pause.

We didn’t lead the lives we thought that we would.

We didn’t spend like we thought we would.

So, we’re still a little uncertain about what our retirement lives will actually be like.

And we probably won’t know in 2021, either, as I suspect that at least half of 2021 will look a lot like March – December, 2020.

Thus, we will need to start to find other things that provide meaning and enjoyment until we are truly at a point where COVID is behind us.

We also, learned…

Stay the course on the financial plan.

We had a decent gameplan going into retirement on what to do with ourselves. When the markets crashed in March, we didn’t panic, and we didn’t pull out of the markets.

As a result, our patience paid off.

We don’t have crystal balls.

In fact, it’s very much the opposite. Aside from our moonshot, for our public market investments, we’re unabashed index fund ETF investors. We can’t create alpha in investing in the markets, and we hardly try.

It certainly leads to a much calmer approach to finances. We look about once a month, and that’s it.

I am much more active in our real estate investing, and somewhat active in our privately held company investments, but that’s a matter of choice. We’ll eventually get to the point where those investments liquidate and take up zero time.

That said, until we have a “real” year of retirement, likely 2022, we’ll still wonder how the plan will hold up.

For now, though, in a pandemic, we can continue to enjoy our lives and be glad that our spending is down because of these external constraints.

I admit, I don’t know how much I’m going to keep writing here. I think I’ve solved most of the intruguing (to me) questions that I wish to answer. Sure, we’ll come upon some random nugget here and there, and it’ll drive me to write. I actually wrote 83 articles in 2020. Some of them were my own way to work through uncertainty with COVID. Some were ideas that I had in the hopper already. Some where spur of the moment evaluations of questions that intrigued me. But, I cannot imagine that pace of writing on this website in 2021. Plus, if the revenues generated from the ads and affiliate links don’t pay for the hosting, then there’s no point in keeping the lights on. I know what I wrote. I saved it. I can always go back and reread it if I need to reference something.

I’m sure that once we start traveling, I’ll get back to writing, as much to diary as anything else. I love the expat travel blogs, like All Options Considered, Earth Vagabonds, and Senior Nomads (and I’m looking for others if anyone has ideas).

I may even write political things. My views of the world have changed over time, as I’ve gained awareness and perspective. Maybe I won’t. I’d like to keep Thanksgiving dinner cordial!

For those who have read me over the years, thanks for coming along and sharing. I’ve made some blog friends and Twitter friends whose interactions I enjoy and hope to continue. I do occasionally write 280 character or less blurbs on my Twitter account.

Enjoy your own journeys to FIRE!

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Jason Hull, CFP®, was the co-founder of Broadtree Partners, a firm that acquires $1-5MM EBITDA companies. He also was the co-founder of open source search consultancy OpenSource Connections, a premier Solr and ElasticSearch firm. He and his wife FIREd (financial independence retire early) at 46 and 45, respectively. He has a BS from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a MBA from the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business. You can read more about him in the About Page. If you live in Johnson County, Texas or the surrounding areas, he and his wife are cash buyers of Johnson County, Texas houses.

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