When we think about early retirement, we tend to focus on the money. That’s natural because we need money to retire early. Building up a portfolio is a crucial step to early retirement. When I was trying to retire early, it was all about how much we spend and how much passive income we need. However, it takes more than money to retire early.
We have done well over the years and saved up a good amount. That’s true for lots of people. There are over 11 million millionaire households in the US now. Most of these millionaires are still working hard. Clearly, money isn’t the only requirement for early retirement. Some people just aren’t a good fit for early retirement. Finance is a big part of the equation, but there is more to early retirement than that. I thought it’d be interesting to see what that elusive something is. That’s why I’m doing this interview series.
Today, we have David Cox from I Retired Young. He worked abroad for many years and retired to the French Alps in 2016. Let’s see how he did it.
Can you give us a brief background about yourself? What career did you retire from?
Hi, I’m David. I’m married to Sally and we have two kids, the eldest is 25 and the youngest is 22 and about to finish university. We’re therefore empty nesters. I’m 51 years old although I have no idea how that happened – I’m pretty sure I’m really younger and the date on my birth certificate is wrong!
I retired early in 2016 when I was 47 – it’s great, I love it. Despite that, I enjoyed most of my career, even though being an accountant doesn’t sound very exciting?. I started on the bottom rung of the ladder as an accounts clerk earning minimum wage and worked my way up to be a finance director. I earned more, but had more stress too.
Originally I’m from the UK, but we lived and worked overseas for many years, in Jamaica, Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates and South Africa. Right now, we live in the French Alps.
Early retirement means different things to different people. Lots of people don’t think I’m “retired” because I blog a few hours per day and I’m a stay-at-home dad. That’s perfectly fine. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. What does early retirement mean to you? Do you work at all?
First, the easy bit, do I work at all? The answer is no. Now the more difficult question, what does early retirement mean to me? I think it’s stepping away from the job that I used to do. If I exchanged that for a full-time job in a coffee shop, would I still be retired? I guess I’d say not, because I’d be working a job and being paid for it. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter, the aim is to be happy whatever it is we do. To me, the key thing is being financially independent which is what opens up choices for us.
What were your financial goals and how long did it take you to achieve them?
My goal was to have security for my family so that if something happened to my job we would still be OK. I’m not the smartest guy, so tended to look at disaster case scenarios only, ignoring the fact that I could get another job, even if it didn’t pay the same money.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, aiming for security turned out to be much the same as aiming for financial independence. I never really had a long-term plan to get to early retirement, but an accidental by-product of wanting security for my family got me to the point where early retirement was an option.
When I was planning my early retirement, I was consumed with the money part of it. I didn’t put much effort into the other details. I’d say it was 90/10, financial/non-financial. What about you? Did you put much effort into the non-financial side of early retirement planning?
I focused on three things in my early retirement planning:
- Did we have enough money, which was broken down into:
- how much would our savings and investments generate? and
- how much would it cost to live the life we wanted?
- What would I do, would I be bored?
- Would I be lonely?
I’d say that I put equal focus on the money and what would I do questions, but less on the would I be lonely question.
In hindsight, there are two important things that I’ve learned.
- There is another question that I should have asked but completely missed…what impact would my early retirement have on my wife and, on the basis that she wasn’t planning to stop working, what impact would that have on what I wanted to do?
- That it’s OK to not know the answer to every question about early retirement ahead of time. My planning, although not perfect, certainly helped, but I was still left with having to make a leap of faith because it’s simply not realistic to be able to foresee or plan for everything. Once I accepted that a leap of faith was OK, I found the go/no go decision for early retirement much easier.
Where are you in your life cycle? Most people retire around the traditional age – late 50s to early 70s. Their children are grown, their partner and friends are stepping back from work, and their parents may have passed. In short, you have a lot fewer obligations at a later age. To go against the grain and retire in your 30s or 40s can be lonely and challenging. Do you think it is difficult to retire early with all these obligations?
I retired when I was 47 at which time my daughter had left home and was working and my son had one more year at home before heading off to university. In terms of financial obligations, we had our son’s education, which was a known cost, but no mortgage or other debts.
I’m confident that our kids will be OK standing on their own feet, and our wider family are independent, so I don’t have any care or financial obligations in that direction.
Do these things make it easier for me to retire early compared to others who may have dependent children or a need to support parents or siblings? I guess the answer is yes, from both a financial perspective and also having the freedom to do what I want when I want rather than being tied to school holiday dates or perhaps having to care for family members. Having that freedom is an important part of my early retirement life.
It takes more than money to retire early
Now let’s focus on the intangibles. To be blunt, lots of people have more money than you. Most of them aren’t retired. They still work and contribute to the economy. What makes you special? How can you retire when almost everyone else in your position continues to work? Why are you different?
The first thing I’d say is that of the FIRE acronym, the Financial Independence part is the important bit. Once you’ve got to FI, or even partial FI, it opens up new choices. Retiring early is just one of those choices. Continuing to work is another option, and so long as you’re enjoying it, that can make perfect sense.
That said, aside from people simply loving their job, there are other reasons why they might continue to work, such as:
- They say they don’t know what they’d do if they didn’t work, that they’d be bored. I think it’s a shame when I hear this because it suggests that they don’t have the imagination to find other enjoyable pastimes. Surely they miss out on so many things, whether they’re still working or not, if their mind is lacking imagination or not open to new things.
- They need to keep earning to afford the big house, luxury car, latest gadgets, and generally to keep up with the Joneses. We used to have a five-bedroom home with a swimming pool, now we live in a two-bedroom 650ft² (61m²) apartment, and I’m just as happy. It’s awesome when you realize that real happiness isn’t about having the biggest, best or newest stuff. In the interests of transparency, I still splurge sometimes, but only if we can afford it, and I definitely wouldn’t trade my early retirement life for some new gadget.
- Society still doesn’t regard retiring early as normal. I guess a few years early, maybe five, possibly ten years early doesn’t raise too many eyebrows, but I retired 20 years before the normal date, and some others are even earlier. That’s not what society expects and people can find it difficult to deal with. When people ask what I do, it doesn’t fit their expectations when I say I’m retired and the conversation gets kind of stuck because my answer doesn’t fit the script. Most people prefer to stick to the norms rather than go against them.
Optional questions from the readers
If you live in the United States, what’s your plan for healthcare?
I don’t live in the US, but I thought I’d comment anyway. I think many people outside the US are bemused by the healthcare system. I saw a blog post recently where a couple was budgeting over $20,000 a year for health insurance – that seems unbelievable to me and I’m very grateful that I don’t have the same in my budget!
Why did you pursue early retirement? What made the FIRE folks evaluate life and said this path is the right one for me?
As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t pursue FIRE, instead it was security for my family that motivated me, and that just happened to move me towards FI. I also didn’t spend years dreaming about retiring early. Instead, my early retirement decision went like this. I was working in an industry that was going through a tough time and, on top of that, there was a tipping point at work that made me kick my office door shut and ask if I really needed to put up with this $#!*. That evening, I thought about it and was surprised to find the answer was that maybe I didn’t. I pretty much made my mind up within 24 hours that I wanted out of the corporate BS, although it took another couple of months to garner the courage to hand in my notice.
Now that you don’t spend 8-10 hours working in a full-time job, what are you doing with your time? What’s your typical day like? Do you have a problem finding things to do?
I did worry about having enough things to fill my old work day, but it hasn’t been a problem. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve twice kept a timesheet of what I do, once in April 2019 and also in November 2017 in case you want to have a look. I guess the summary is that I enjoy running, cycling, skiing, meeting friends for coffee, doing my blog and reading some other blogs, I’m trying and failing to learn French, have done some shorter trips and some longer travels, and also take care of the chores.
What was your biggest challenge after early retirement?
Without doubt it was that I wanted to do things with my new freedom, such as travel, but I hadn’t factored in that my wife wanted to continue to work. Our plans didn’t match up. When we both worked and were raising our kids we seemed to have lots in common, but now I find that many of the things I’ve become interested in aren’t what Sally wants to do. This is something I hadn’t expected or planned for at all.
Would you change anything about the way you retired from your job? Sometimes, I wish I stuck around for 6 more months. I could have worked out a deal and get a severance package instead of walking away with nothing.
I was talked into returning to the company in a part-time consultancy role for four months which was a mistake. My mind and heart had made a decision to leave and I found those four months painful. It added extra money to our bank balance, but it wasn’t worth it.
Did you make any big mistakes? How can we avoid them?
I think my one mistake was not getting my retiring early plans aligned with what my wife wanted. It may sound stupid, but it simply didn’t cross my mind. Perhaps this was a bigger deal for us as we were expatriate workers.
How much time do you spend (per week or month) reviewing your finances, or reading about retirement finances/investment/etc., now that you’re retired?
I’m not sure, but if I have an educated guess, I’d say somewhere between half a day and a day on our finances, mostly because I enjoy it. I also regularly read four or five FIRE blogs, including Retireby40 of course!
What are you still not getting done/postponing, even in retirement? Perhaps some goal or something you said you’d always do when you have more time…What’s your next big dream?
What I’m not getting done is learning French – I’m trying a bit, but not nearly as much as I could, should, and need to do.
I also have an idea to buy a cargo van to convert into a camper and spend a year traveling through North America in it. Sally says this is a stupid idea, and it’s on the back burner for now, but I’m not giving up on it completely just yet (we currently have a plan B campervan plan). More recently, the idea of building a tiny house has been knocking around my head (I just asked Sally and she didn’t say this was completely stupid?). To be honest, I am completely hopeless at do-it-yourself projects so these things may not be completely sensible, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. YouTube has a lot to answer for!
Looking back on your journey, any regret?
No regrets at all, my life is great. Since retiring early, I’ve moved to the French Alps, done my first ski season, cycled from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean, traveled for four months in Australia and Asia and another three months in California, Costa Rica, and Colombia. I became a vegetarian and then a vegan. Currently, I don’t drink alcohol and just feel my mindset has changed for the better. I’m smiling just writing this…no regrets!
Thank you, Dave!
That was a great interview. Dave raised a great point about retiring with your spouse/partner. What you want might not exactly align with what they want. I suspect I’ll have a similar problem when Mrs. RB40 retires. She thrives in a structured working environment. I’m not sure if she would really enjoy early retirement. That’s why we plan for her to take a year off and we’ll go travel. If she doesn’t like it, she can go back to work when we get back.
Ok, I need your help. I love this interview series, but I need more people to interview. The problem is this is a long post. It’s a lot of work! Please volunteer to be interviewed. I’m desperate to continue this series.
Let me know what you think of this interview series. If you have any questions you’d like to ask, leave them in the comment as well. I’ll add them to the interview. Thanks!
- Bob aka. Tawcan
- Adam and Jane, our long-time readers retired in 2019.
- Financial Freedom Countdown
- Mr. Tako Escapes
- Jim from Route to Retire
- Joe, Retire by 40
Passive income is the key to early retirement. This year, Joe is investing in commercial real estate with CrowdStreet. They have many projects across the USA so check them out!
Joe also highly recommends Personal Capital for DIY investors. They have many useful tools that will help you reach financial independence.
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