A common argument against the financial independence community is that anyone who “retires early,” really isn’t – that they blog or side hustle or do something for income after their retirement from their day job. And to that argument, many people’s contingency plans actually do contain the idea that worst case, they “can always go back to work.”
While that works when you’re much younger perhaps, and in a good economic job market, there are too many reasons why I would never rely on that as a backup plan to not running out of money. And then, of course, there is no guarantee that you will want to do anything that pays an income after early retirement.
I’ve mentioned my husband’s godfather on this blog any number of times (he’s gone with us to Hawaii both times and will be heading with us to Iceland this winter, as well as any number of local and weekend adventures). A big reason why he’s able to join us so often is that he retired eight years ago – at the age of fifty six. And he hasn’t worked a day since – or earned any money outside of his investments.
He’s considered part time work any number of times, but he always has something more fun to do and doesn’t want to be tied down to any schedule – even if it is just an online commitment. (Case in point: he’d written half of this story three months prior to sending it to me but then got distracted by a trip down to the southeast and only more recently got around to finishing it).
He’s been such a wonderful part of my life ever since my husband and I got married almost a decade ago, and more so since our son was born four and a half years ago. He’s the kiddo’s favorite, and ours too. We are so lucky to have him as part of our everyday story – and so much more because he isn’t limited by a job these days.
He pursued financial independence and early retirement without knowing there was a term for these things, well before the internet had coined the phrase for FIRE. But thanks to the power of the internet (and a suggestion from me to join some online groups where frugal weirdos like us abound), he’s realized there are a whole lot of us living with intention and frugality, much like he always has. And with that, I’ll turn the rest of this post over to Bob Norris, early retiree and all around wonderful human.
Early Retirement Without The FIRE Community
I first want to say thanks to everyone in the FI community for sharing their ideas and experiences! I’ve learned a lot of money-stretching ideas from you all, even as I approach my eighth year of retirement.
When I retired early at age 56, I thought it was just another case of “coloring outside the lines,” one of many sideways turns I’ve taken in my life through a combination of choice and circumstance. I never realized until recently that that there is a whole movement of people trying to do the same thing, who plan decades in advance to get there, in fact.
I’m both pleased and slightly amused that Angela has asked me to write about my experience as a pioneer of early retirement, as I’m rarely an early adopter of any trend! I’ll say right off that there are personal and historic aspects to my success that played at least as much a part as any planning I did, and some of them would be difficult or impossible to reproduce in today’s economic environment.
My economic life began amid the inflationary shocks of the 1970s and frenzied interest rates (imagine paying 12% mortgage interest, and six-month CDs yielding more than 10%!). It crossed the chasm of the 1987 stock market crash, rode the rollercoaster of the 1990s tech boom, and got hit hard when the housing bubble burst in the last decade.
The biggest event, of course, was the advent of the Internet. It completely changed the face of business and connected the world in ways that very few foresaw. (You can laugh at my obtuseness of the mid-2000s, when I thought the Internet revolution had matured… then came social media!) Perhaps the best take-home lesson from my experience is to remember that the best-laid plans are subject to the whims of history, which can affect them for good or ill.
I have to say I had a lot of good fortune to start out with – born into the sort of middle-class family that was common in the 1950s, with my dad working in various aerospace companies and a stay at home mom juggling 4 kids. My life went sideways early, though, with an accidental near-death from poisoning at age four that left me physically and socially delayed compared to my schoolmates.
I was fortunate to have supportive parents, teachers, and friends, and soon caught up academically; but it left me unusually small in stature and prone to being bullied. I dealt with it by firming up emotionally, befriending other nerdy kids who were going through the same thing, and learning to be an activist in my own life – taking charge to ensure my own safety and well-being.
In the end I benefited from those years, building long-lasting friendships (one is still going strong after 55 years), and a self-reliance that became a cornerstone of financial independence later in life. As college approached, my academic interests were split between earth science and education, as I had enjoyed working with kids as a summer camp counselor, sailing instructor, and tutor.
I attended the University of Washington in Seattle during the mid-1970s, benefiting from the lower COL and tuition compared to today. It was quite possible to attend classes and pay for them with a part-time job, as I and many of my friends did. My father beckoned me toward accounting classes and a career in the airline industry, but I was too bull-headed to listen and homed in on a career in hydrology, which was of great interest to me by then but much less lucrative.
I landed a few entry-level field jobs, including two with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) that allowed me to graduate debt-free. However, they delayed my graduation for two years, and I watched my classmates depart for well-paying jobs in the oil industry or outside of the field entirely while my savings dwindled.
By the spring of 1980 I was nearly 25 and nearly broke, with no further jobs in sight and no clear idea where to go next. Graduate school was a possibility, but it would mean going back to my parents for more money or taking out a loan – neither of which was attractive.
Fortunately, adversity again turned to luck – Mother Nature saved my butt (and nearly took it!) with the historic reawakening of the Mount St. Helens volcano in Washington State in March, 1980. Suddenly shorthanded amid the crisis, the University of Washington Seismology lab made a slew of new hires to help run the lab equipment and assist with the huge onslaught of attention from the public and news media.
Here was a chance to save my earth science career – and thanks to six years of fumbling toward graduation and some USGS job experience, I was in the right place and time to be hired. Fascinated with the eruption, I also volunteered at the USGS’s Coldwater 1 observation post for 3 days in April (only 8 miles from the mountain), and made plans to view the volcano from the Norway Pass area near Spirit Lake on the weekend of May 17-18.
Fortune put me on Mount Rainier instead of St. Helens on the morning of May 18, so I wasn’t among the 57 victims of the immense landslide and eruption that devastated 150 square miles of timberland. It put a somber face on my new job, though, as I had briefly worked with David Johnston, the USGS scientist who died in the blast.
There was little time to grieve, as additional eruptions followed that summer and I had much to learn. The computers and lab equipment of the day could be maintained by anyone with basic electronic, keyboard, and mechanical skills, but the public information aspect was quite another matter!
There was almost no time for our supervisors to train us amid the crisis, so like the others, I simply waded into press releases, gave live interviews, and went on national television for $5.35 an hour. Someone dubbed us “Captains of the Mount St. Helens Watch”, and we took on names according to the shift we worked – Captains Daylight, Twilight, and Midnight – to the amusement of reporters and scientists.
Even then it was clear that my employment had been born out of crisis and might not last, so I took a long-term outlook toward developing this gig into a stable career. I made a point of taking on the worst jobs, volunteered to work on holidays, and a bit of sheer luck (it didn’t feel like it at the time!) put me in charge of the Seismology lab when St. Helens blew up again one night.
All of that gave me a good reputation, so when St. Helens quieted down and “Reaganomics” made significant cuts to the DOI budget in the following year, I survived the layoffs. I had good working relationships with scientists in several USGS offices by then, and after some extended canvassing on my part, one of them hired me as a project assistant in 1984. Advancement in Federal science positions tends to be slow, however, so I didn’t achieve a permanent position with retirement benefits until 1992.
Heading Off Lifestyle Inflation
Most of my peers with steady incomes were now buying lots of “stuff” – audio equipment, TVs, new cars, furniture – but perhaps due to my earlier insecurity, I focused on putting money away in savings and IRAs. Used cars, shared housing, and secondhand clothes were my norm. My parents had mixed feelings about this frugality, lauding it but badgering me to open my wallet a bit more. Some of their reasoning leaked through when I awoke to gunfire late one night in the house next door!
By my late 20s my savings were growing every year, and a conventional life-path of marriage, kids and a full-length career seemed well at hand. I should have returned to school for a graduate degree at this point, but the job and my newfound financial security were simply too alluring to take a break.
It didn’t help that the 1980s and 1990s were geologically active in the western US; California alone was racked by quite a few magnitude 6-plus earthquakes, as well as ominous signs of activity in the huge Long Valley volcanic caldera. There were special assignments, too – how can you leave a job when the Branch Chief asks you to book a flight to Colombia to help out with a volcanic disaster… next week? (I did).
I only lost graduate school to crisis addiction, but others lost marriages to it – or even their lives. Years later, the mystique of the hero-geologist was written up by journalist Dick Thompson in Volcano Cowboys, and featured in the plots of disaster movies such as Dante’s Peak, Supervolcano, and San Andreas.
I had the career mostly nailed down by my early 30s, and kept in close touch with several friends and cousins as they married and had kids. By this time I knew I had little capacity for romance of any kind, however (perhaps an aftereffect of the childhood trauma, but who knows), so friends and family became the cornerstone of my life.
Being a jack-of-all-trades friend and a godfather to 3 boys, helping out with house projects, childcare, travel, (and a funeral or two) has been the most meaningful part of my life and remains so to this day. Being able to join people on short notice for these events has been one of my favorite perks of retiring early.
Deciding on early retirement
The events that drove me toward early retirement began in my mid-40s, most notably in 1994 with the sudden death of my father and the meteoric rise of the modern Republican Party in the midterm elections. I had a strong urge to move to Arizona to be closer to my mother and several other aging relatives; I would lose my career, but was willing to do so if she needed me there. It seemed I might lose it in any case, as the new majorities in the House and Senate had targeted the USGS (and many other Federal agencies) for elimination.
Fortunately, the crisis eased within a year; my mother came to live with me part-time in Washington, and vigorous public support for the USGS saved it from the chopping block. It completely changed my outlook, however, and I began to consider how I might handle a forced early retirement in my 40s in the face of family obligations or being let go from my job. Such uncertainty is the norm for many people now, but it had been completely off my radar.
The next seven years brought a cascade of events that drove the idea of early retirement from a scary, vague contingency to an active goal. My father’s death was followed rapidly by others; I lost four meaningful people in 1997 alone, including my brother, and the year seemed to be an endless heartbreak. By my 47th birthday in 2002, only my sisters and I were left of our original family of 6. Not surprisingly, it all changed my outlook on life, and time became the most precious thing I had left – time with loved ones, time for giving, time for experiencing life to the fullest. Once it’s gone, we don’t get it back. Having the most time to do all these things became more important to me than finishing out my career.
In any case, the allure of that career was fading. My failure to get an advanced degree had been a serious mistake, and in time I was shunted away from the front lines of crises and research toward instrument maintenance – a vital role, but my heart wasn’t in it.
As my 50s approached, I seemed to be in a weird place – no parents left, no relationships or children, and a waning career; yet much was good. I had great friendships, enjoyed traveling, and my earlier frugality had allowed me to pay off my condo and build a portfolio of savings and investments (well into six figures). Two competing scenarios began to play my mind for the future: revitalize my career with scientific or IT training… or cut loose from it all and do something different!
Mapping out the details
There was no single point in time where I consciously chose the early retirement path, but by my 51st birthday I had mapped it out and knew it could work. I would retire from the USGS at the minimum age of 56, covering the 30% shortfall in my pension with withdrawals from savings and IRAs until other income streams (such as Social Security) matured in my sixties.
At that time I had chosen Flagstaff, Arizona for my retirement base, as it’s a fine mountain town, relatively LCOL, with lots of outdoor recreation. I also hoped to reconnect with my two sisters and their families after years of strained communications, and one of them lived in Flagstaff. We jointly owned a rental townhouse that I could easily move into, so the pieces all seemed to be in place. Upon retiring in September 2011, I moved into that townhouse and everything was settled… right?
It wasn’t long before I learned that early retirement isn’t an endpoint… it’s simply a financial inflection, and your life and the lives of others around you continue to evolve. In spite of my plans to adopt Flagstaff as my new home, it never really “took”; my sister and brother in law had already left for Colorado by the time I got there, and I found that I was too attached to lifelong friends and relations in Washington State to really let go.
A three-year stint in Bend, Oregon got me closer… but not enough, and I’ve now returned to my home state of Washington – something I never foresaw, driving to Flagstaff with Seattle in my rear view mirror nearly eight years ago. I’m now renting a room from a cousin in Mount Vernon, Washington, paying reduced rent in exchange for yard maintenance and part-time care of his 92 year old mother.
Staying financially independent: the plan
When I stepped away from work in 2011 with well under seven figures in assets, I was quite aware that yachts and parties would not be part of my retirement scene! With care, I expected to be able to live quite comfortably on $30,000 a year or less, with adjustments over time for inflation and the occasional unexpected expense.
My initial income sources have been a pension of $804/month, IRA withdrawals that vary considerably from year to year, and withdrawals from savings. In retrospect that was a bit optimistic; some years have strayed closer to $35,000 in expenses, and I took a huge loss on the Flagstaff townhouse when I sold it to return to the Pacific Northwest.
To make a long story short, I had too little income to qualify for a housing loan and needed the cash to buy a house in Bend, Oregon, so renting the townhouse wasn’t an option. Fortunately, my investments (mostly held in IRAs) have done well, and I’ll be able to tap into Social Security income at my full retirement age of 66 years and 1 month.
While inflation has not been a huge concern recently, I well remember when it hit double-digit annual rates in the late 1970s, and I have additional income streams in reserve – one IRA, and an annuity that I was talked into before I knew better.
So how has it been?
The past eight years since pulling the plug on my career have been just as dynamic as any eight years of my working life – and often happier to boot. In some ways it feels as if I’m recycling my 20s; moving twice, going to weddings again as younger friends marry, holding babies, sleeping on couches, and taking to the road for weeks at a time.
I’ve enjoyed volunteer work too, including trail construction with the Flagstaff Biking Organization, chaperoning high school field trips, a mentorship with the Central Oregon Partnerships for Youth program, and doing yard work for elderly neighbors (including lots of snow shoveling!).
Since I’ve been frugal much of my life, I haven’t really had to make major lifestyle changes; and with the help of friends, I’m traveling more now than I did when I was working.
I’m fully aware of how fortunate I have been to retire early with a modest pension; however, in some ways, I believe the more modern FI-based approach to the latter part of our lives is healthier. I have an unending list of things to do and places to see, but am open to taking on paid work as the need arises. We’ve come a long way from the rocking-chair idleness cartoon of retirement, and I can’t wait to see what the coming years bring!
– Bob Norris
Have any questions / comments for Bob? Please drop them in the comments here!