As promised, I’m back with an update about my early retirement. It’s been six months since I stopped working. As I alluded to in a recent article, shit kinda went off the rails for me since retiring early.
You know, I didn’t have a solid vision for what my first six months of being permanently funemployed would be like… but whatever I had in mind, it sure wasn’t this! Life is full of twists and turns, ain’t she?
Do I have extra juicy, highly personal anecdotes to share? WHY YES, I DO! Navel gazing of the highest degree—dead ahead!
Today’s article is published in collaboration with the Plutus Foundation’s Impact Series. Their theme for October is the financial independence movement. Seems like a fine opportunity to give everyone an update on how my own financial independence is going! If you don’t already follow them, please consider doing so. The Plutus Foundation has amplified a lot of amazing voices over the years—our own fried and scratchy drawls included! They share amazing content. We’re lucky to have them as a leader in the personal finance space.
How it feels to stop working
This may not be true for everyone who’s retired, but here’s a metaphor to help explain how it feels for me.
Have you ever carried way too many grocery bags in at once? Because you were too stubborn to make more trips? Maybe you had to haul them up a hill, or down a long driveway? And the handles of the bags pressed deep marks into your hands, and your arms shook with exhaustion? But you finally got them to the front door of your home, and sighed with deep relief as you finally set them down?
In an immediate sense, that’s how it feels to stop working. Working felt just like carrying a heavy burden for no good reason. The first week after I retired, I felt flooded with the same “ahhhh” feeling you get when you can finally lay that burden down.
So that’s what it feels like to stop working. An instantaneous, thrilling moment of triumph and joy and blessed relief. But that’s not how it feels for me to be retired.
How it feels to be retired
Remember that heavy load of groceries, and how good it felt to set them down? Now imagine it’s an hour later. You put the groceries away and you’re on to other things around your home. Your arms no longer ache. The red marks on your hands have faded away. You’re not still basking in the glow of that “ahhhh” moment of setting them down. It’s nice not to be weighed down anymore, yeah—but you don’t live your life inside that state of ecstatic happiness for long. You just return to the way things always should’ve been: you, unburdened, doing other things. This is normal.
And that’s how it feels to be retired.
When my day was full of work, it was like having arms full of more groceries than I could carry. It was all I could think about because it demanded more from me than I had to give. But now that it is gone, I do not think about it at all.
Retiring from compulsory labor is a return to a way of living so natural, and so intuitive, that I barely think about it. Even though I’ve lived only a tiny slice of my life like this, it feels so right that I don’t notice its rightness unless I make a point of doing so. It’s the feeling of an absence of a heavy burden. Retiring felt so right that it took no time at all for me to forget that I haven’t always lived this way.
How I spent my first month of early retirement
The first month after I retired was pretty heavenly.
My top priority was reconnecting with myself and rediscovering the sources of my own joy. (Good gravy, that’s a douchey sentence…)
With the support of both my partners, I basically didn’t do anything. Piggy, my business partner and Work Kakarot, kept the BGR plates spinning without me. And my partner-partner pampered me with what women really want: low expectations for emotional labor and household management. I told pretty much everyone in my life that I was going dark for a month. And I let myself go.
I distinctly remember opening my eyes the first Monday morning after I quit, and seeing light peeking around the edges of my curtains. I reached for my phone to see what time it was—then stopped myself. “You don’t need to know what time it is,” I told myself. And that was true. Whether the clock said 7:49 or 11:08, it didn’t matter. My day was my own. The satisfaction of that epiphany is a memory that will warm me on a cold night fifty years from now.
“This is fine.”
I was very clear about what I wanted from my first month of early retirement. But I struggled to explain to others what it was, and why I wanted it. No, needed it.
And by “it,” I mean “nothing.”
During that first month of early retirement, I felt a pleasing and intentional numbness. I refused to create anything, whether that meant writing or cooking or setting new goals for myself. Instead, I tested my body’s ability to sleep, and found its capacities truly Olympic. My diet went from home cooked meals to processed garbage I hadn’t craved in years. I only did what I felt like doing, when I felt like doing it, even if that meant acting like a boring slob.
See, becoming a boring slob was one of my unvoiced fears about retirement. So leaning into it in a time-bound way felt kinda great. I’ve often moved through life at the speed of a swimmer chased by Jaws. Letting myself go slack and drift wherever the waves carried me was novel. I enjoyed it, though the enjoyment was tempered by shame. People expected great things of me, and I expected great things of myself. Why did it feel so good to hide away from my modest remaining responsibilities? If I was a better person, I’d take a few minutes to answer a lovely email from a reader, or a good friend’s text message—wouldn’t I?
“That wasn’t early retirement—that was burnout with style!”
My body and my subconsciousness understood exactly what was happening to me. “You are very, very depressed,” they told me with crystal clear enunciation. “Sleep ten hours a day, invest 200 hours into a video game you don’t particularly like, and put cheese on EVERYTHING until this passes.”
Despite these unmistakable red flags, my brain was slow to catch up. I genuinely thought that the rush of dopamine I’d get from stopping work would make up for running at a deficit for, uh, decades?
Obviously it didn’t.
I’d spent years grinding myself into a fine corporate powder. Of course a month of slacking to my heart’s content wasn’t enough to undo the energy deficits, creative deadening, and bad habits I’d developed to cope with decades of pushing through unfulfilling jobs.
To paraphrase Woody, I didn’t retire early—I burned out with style. And when the manic forward momentum of quitting wore off, next came inertia, and a hard impact with the floor.
The new job I didn’t want
As I was struggling to come to grips with all this, life presented me with my next job. It was a job I didn’t want, but had no choice in.
My partner’s doctors confirmed he needed major surgery to correct a painful defect in his hip. It’s a long recovery process requiring many hours of physical therapy every day. In some ways, it was good timing. If I’d still been working, I would’ve had to take FMLA or quit to take care of him.
I’ve been a caregiver a few times throughout my life. Although I can do it, and will do it if I must, there are few experiences I dread more than the crushing responsibility of caregiving for another person. As any caregiver or parent can tell you, the bulk of that work is tedious, messy, chaotic, backbreaking, and utterly exhausting. It may be worth it for someone you love—but it sure ain’t enjoyable.
- The Ultimate Guide to Helping a Sick Friend
- Ask the Bitches: “I Took a Career Break to Care For Someone. How Do I Explain My Caregiving Resume Gap?”
- Ask the Bitches: I Was Guilted Into Caring for a Sick, Abusive Parent. Now What?
- Ask the Bitches: “How Do I Protect My Own Mental Health While Still Helping Others?”
Is it worth retiring early?
My attitude sucked shit during this time. I was pulling 18-hour days as a nurse, chauffeur, cook, and maid. Whatever easygoing Cool Girl charm I have fucked off around day three. I’d used all my stores of patience to get through my final months (and years) of unfulfilling career work. To my misery, I found I had no grace left for the one person to whom I most wanted to show grace.
Instead, I was a nasty and ill-tempered shrew. I’d put in my time. Now I felt entitled to a convenient life. I was angry and depressed to be hit with caregiving duties right away, while I was still processing my deep burnout.
I’d retired early to make the most of life when I’m still young and mobile. I’d done it to make space for work that really matters, like caring for the person I love best when he needs help. But I’d dug too greedily and too deep to get there. And I was tormented by my own shortcomings.
It sucked so much we did it again
Although it was challenging, my partner and I got through his surgery and recovery. It took longer than expected. He was doing well; then he backslid. Eventually, his doctors told him he’d need the same surgery again, on the other hip. Four months after the first surgery, he went in again. We’re two weeks into his second recovery. And doing so, so much better this time.
Why is it better?
First, pain. He’s in much less of it with both hips done. And less pain means less stress and fear for both of us.
Second, experience. Unlike last time, we’re not learning as we go. We have a routine. We already reconfigured our home to fit his recovery equipment and to be easily navigable on crutches. And we aren’t struggling to get through the last of his PT after midnight, like we were last time.
Third, we had help. Our friends knew what a struggle it had been, and arranged to deliver meals to lighten our load.
Fourth—and most crucially—I fixed my fucking attitude. Knowing his second surgery was coming, we made it our mission to “fill the well” as much as we could. We visited family, hung out with friends, and did a lot of activities that boiled down to touching grass. Instead of going into the experience depleted and depressed, we approached it refreshed and ready. We had much more to give to each other. And this time, it actually feels… intimate. Encouraging. Hygge with a touch of compression socks.
I did this to myself
Do y’all remember the story of Philippides? He was a messenger in Ancient Greece. After the battle of Marathon, he ran from Marathon to Athens (26 miles and change). Stumbling into town before the anxiously awaiting crowds, he cried “joy to you, we’ve won!” He then collapsed and died on the spot.
My early retirement strategy was identical to that of Philippides. I intentionally overextended myself to reach the goal of never working again, as quickly as possible.
… Which isn’t all that different from traditional retirement at normal retirement age! The cliché of the oldtimer who drops dead of a heart attack six months after retiring? Hits pretty close to home. I may be younger, but I hit the dirt just as hard.
What I’ve learned—and what I want all my readers to know
In retrospect, much of the sadness and frustration I’ve felt in the past six months could’ve been mitigated if I’d slowed the fuck down. Cut myself more breaks. Let go of the allure of making just a bit more money. I had a cash emergency fund, but I had no such emergency fund for spoons. The utensil drawer was empty when I needed it most. I knew I was likely to burn out, and I waited too long to do something about it.
That is a mistake I will never repeat—and I want anyone reading this to understand that too.
It would’ve been smarter for me to avoid burnout as soon as it appeared, even if it meant delaying my goals once they were already in sight. When I first noticed symptoms of burnout, I could’ve changed jobs just for the change of pace. I could’ve taken a mini-retirement, or sabbatical, or long vacation. But I didn’t. I plowed ahead toward Athens, limitations be damned, only to bite it after announcing my own victory.
I can’t control everything that happens in life, but it’s my responsibility to be as prepared as I reasonably can be. Financial independence is a really commendable goal. But it’s not worth sacrificing health, present happiness, or emotional preparedness for life’s uncertainties.
Early retirement is still a dream come true
One of the major stresses of caregiving is coping with the unknown. What if the surgery doesn’t go well? What if it doesn’t fix his pain? How will our lives change if he can never hike or swim or run again? It puts pressure on both the caregiver and patient to make progress quickly, and makes setbacks feel catastrophic.
But that fear of the unknown is a helpful reminder too. None of us know how many go-rounds we get on this cosmic merry-go-round we call Earth. There is no guarantee of continued health, wealth, or happiness. The goal of early retirement is to seize the maximum amount of joy we can on our trip, however long it lasts. It’s easy to slip into a dogmatic focus on hitting that FIRE number as fast as we can. But truly, that is beyond the point.
I’m writing this article from my partner’s sickbed. It’s where I’ve written every word of this blog for the past four months. My partner is on his last hour of machine-assisted therapy for the day. He’s playing the (EXCELLENT) Friday the 13th video game while he does, and he’s muttering hateful curses to the idiots who left the back door of the cabin open for Jason to waltz right in. I’m next to him, typing away, occasionally tuning in to watch, or reading bits of this aloud to him. There’s a thick New England autumn fog outside, and the crickets are still at it.
Enough nights like these—quiet nights, doing what I love, next to the person I love—have restored me.
How much do you need to retire early?
Financially, I picked a terrible time to retire and stop bringing in income. The markets tanked, inflation soared, and my nest egg of retirement savings is worth 5-10% less than it was six months ago. But I haven’t stressed about that much at all. My partner’s health struggles recontextualized my desire to retire. (Side note: does anyone have a PF blog called “Desire to Retire?” Omfg I googled it, yes, someone does! Leave it to the PF community—only thing we love more than alliteration is a rhyme.)
This is exactly why I wanted to be financially independent. Early retirement is still a dream come true for me. It took me a while to figure out how to use it, and to recognize its true cost to me. But I look forward to many more nights like this, where the only work to be done is work worth doing.
So there you go! An honest, navel-gazing look into what early retirement is really like. I hope it’s helpful to those of you who are chasing the FIRE dragon. If any of our readers have retired, let us know what your experience was like for the first six months! My ups and downs may make me an outlier. Maybe everybody else was backpacking through Thailand or whatever? NEXT TIME, TAKE ME WITH YOU.