Early retirement is something most people write off as a pipe dream. For me, I didn’t even know it was possible until I read some articles online about people my age throwing in the corporate towel forever. Turns out, what it takes to retire early was way more than my husband and I bargained for — and not worth our happiness.
The fall of 2015 was a transformative time in my life. I was planning my wedding to a fabulous guy and we were under contract to finally buy that big, suburban house I had dreamed of living in since I was a kid.
With our pending nuptials consuming the bulk of my time I hadn’t given our post-wedding finances a proper analysis, because let’s face it, planning a wedding in an underground cavern is way more exciting than planning a budget. Unfortunately, I couldn’t put it off any longer. Late one evening I began to dissect our future finances.
My initial exuberance about our future and the new house quickly shifted to full blown panic. The reality of a big mortgage and equally big expenses started to kick in. And I wasn’t alone. My fiancé was also experiencing the same anxious thoughts. Our anxiety manifested itself in bouts of irritability and sleepless nights. We realized that what had started out with a casual open house quickly ballooned into a serious search that resulted in a purchase agreement that wasn’t well thought out.
Fortunately, the home inspection revealed sheets of black mold hiding in the attic and we were able to pull the plug, get our deposit back, and breathe easy once again. On the heels of that relief we both decided it was high time to get our financial act together.
As soon as we said our vows we started to focus on debt elimination and wealth accumulation. I remember spending an entire Saturday scouring the internet to see how other people approach their finances and what we could do to make better choices with our own money.
Enter the FIRE movement.
If you’re not familiar with it, FIRE stands for Financial Independence/Retire Early, and it totally blew my mind. FIRE adherents are typically folks in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who are saving upward of 70% of their incomes in an effort to stash away 25x their annual living expenses. During early retirement they’re pulling roughly 4% out of their nest eggs each year to live on — sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on stock market performance and the state of their investments. Once they hit their magic number, they’re ditching their fluorescent-lit corporate cubicles for lives of adventure, travel, and, oftentimes, side hustles to support their flexible lifestyles and subsidize downturns in investment returns.
After watching my parents struggle with their finances in retirement, barely scraping enough together to pay for basic expenses each month, the idea of FIRE was appealing. The fact that people just like me were retiring in their 30s and 40s was something I never even imagined. Before I knew it, I was down a virtual rabbit hole reading every single FIRE blog I could find and fantasizing about stepping away from my own corporate cubicle to live a life of freedom.
I pitched the idea of FIRE to my husband and, even though we’re both Gen-Xers, on the older side of the movement and with a shorter time horizon, we jumped right in. I even started my own personal finance blog, Mad Money Monster, to chronicle our journey and keep us motivated. Even though I wasn’t earning a dime from my blog, sharing our financial wins and losses online was motivating and I found myself becoming entrenched in the virtual world of personal finance and the FIRE movement.
But, there was a bit of a catch. Although I had a higher than average salary, my husband’s work was project based and unpredictable. That meant we needed to optimize our finances in every way if we wanted to retire early. We increased our monthly income through side hustles and committing to a lifestyle of extreme frugality in an effort to bolster our savings rate.
Our extremely frugal lifestyle took shape by cutting out almost everything we ever enjoyed. We cut our cable, slashed our mobile data plan, halted our habit of going out for dinner, and even put an end to our Sunday coffee dates. You name it, we cut it. But hey, we were going to retire early so we didn’t mind making necessary sacrifices to reach the FIRE finish line. But then something unexpected happened. As we watched our net worth climb higher and higher, we realized that our happiness level seemed to be in free fall.
Not only were we not as happy as we used to be but I suddenly started to dread going into the office and sitting under those fluorescent lights – something that never bothered me before.
I used to love watching HGTV before bed, going out for pizza on Fridays, and having coffee at our favorite downtown spot every Sunday. Sure, these things cost money and by cutting them out we were saving even more toward our early retirement goal. But cutting these things out came at the price of our day-to-day happiness.
Time dragged on and after about two years of extreme frugality, my husband and I just couldn’t shake the feeling of self-imposed deprivation.
On top of it all, I started to experience some minor, age-related health issues. My eyesight started to wane and I begrudgingly gave in to glasses. Then, my doctor told me that if I wanted to have another child we would likely be facing (pricey) fertility treatments. After having my daughter without any issues a few years prior, it’s something I didn’t expect to hear and something we never budgeted for or even considered in our early retirement plan.
In addition, my mother was — and still is — in need of financial support from us to meet her basic living expenses. And, looking forward, we also want the option to pay for our daughter’s college or her wedding or to travel the world in style. All of these line items were things we didn’t budget into our initial FIRE number.
Around the same time, I noticed a common thread with some of the FIRE folks – the majority of FIRE bloggers writing about their early retirement adventures, weren’t really retired in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, they were earning supplementary and sometimes full-time incomes from their blogs, podcasts, courses, or coaching. So, in essence, their early retirement was nothing more than a thoughtful career change. Granted, they were now working for themselves doing something they enjoyed, but in my world, work is still work and retirement means ceasing to work.
Although I absolutely love running my own blog and making money from it on the side, I’ve now been doing it long enough to know that it’s still work with deadlines and deliverables. But, unlike my corporate job, it doesn’t come with perks like a consistent salary and excellent benefits.
Yes, I realize that I am one of the lucky ones and that not everyone works for a company that offers these things. And yet I also realize that I would be a fool to walk away from it in exchange for living frugally off of our savings and crossing my fingers (and toes) hoping that nothing catastrophic happens for the next few decades.
In the end, our time pursuing FIRE made us realize that we’re not cut out to sustain the extreme frugality lifestyle and deprivation it would’ve required to reach early retirement in a short amount of time. We also decided the risk of retiring early, considering life’s unexpected curveballs, simply wasn’t worth the reward.
Instead, we bailed on the idea in exchange for reaching financial independence at a leisurely and more enjoyable pace. We will reach our magic number long before traditional retirement age but we’re not planning on pulling the plug on our jobs even when we do. We like the idea of being financially independent but still having the luxury of not having to live off of our savings.
Ditching the notion of retiring early felt like a relief because we now have the option to enjoy our lives along the way. And, yes, subscription TV, pizza Fridays, and coffee dates have been reinstated.
These days, those fluorescent lights over my cubicle don’t bother me anymore. Our balanced financial approach and overall smart money moves are creating a life of options and the life we want to live both now and later and we couldn’t be happier.
Lisa is a mother, scientist, and financial enthusiast. She founded Mad Money Monster, a personal finance blog chronicling her and her family’s journey from doing money all wrong to doing it all right. She and her husband are known as Mr. & Mrs. Mad Money Monster on the site. They pride themselves as being Gen-Xers who have turned it all around and are now charting a course toward financial independence.