FIRE Update: 1-Year Post FIRE Review

Wow – time really does fly. In mid-April, I officially reached my 1-year “FIRE-versary”. As a quick recap, a declined job relocation and subsequent hiring freeze during the pandemic last April led to a somewhat reluctant departure from my long-time employer. At that time, my departure met the definition of FIRE (financially independent, retired early), in that the financial criteria was met, I turned down relocating for work, I departed from work, and whatever I decided to fill my time with (e.g. paid work, continuing the work of this website, passion projects, volunteering, etc.) would not be led by the pursuit of a paycheck. One year in, I’ve stuck to that.

So, how has year 1 of FIRE been? As with most things in life, it’s been a mixed bag.

In COVID-Adjusted Terms…

Any 1-year review or comparison of life pre-FIRE versus post-FIRE is nearly impossible to do in light of that year entirely overlapping with with the largest human pandemic of the last century. It was around the 1-month mark after the big COVID shutdown last March when I left the workplace. What’s post-employment life really like? I’m really just scratching the surface on that.

The freedom of time and choice that FIRE promises had largely been completely absent in a COVID lockdown world. No bars, no restaurants, no travel, no events, no visiting family or friends, limited volunteering opportunities, shuttered doors, etc. In many ways, despite reaching FIRE status, the last year has been more limiting than any in my previously full-time working adult life. I think most of us felt that existential lockdown angst, one way or another.

FIRE 1-year review

While Mrs. 20SF, a nurse, has been fully immunized since January, I’ve only been fully immunized for the last 3 weeks. In just those 3 weeks, we’ve been able to get together, without masks, with immediate family 3 times already. We’ve been hitting the biking and hiking trails, without masks or concern. We have dinner and drinks out on the town planned with some friends for this weekend. I just bought my first set of concert tickets in well over a year. And we’re starting to consider local and long distance travel adventures again. The dark cloud that is COVID is starting to lift. If you haven’t already – get vaccinated – it’s selfishly pretty damn nice, in addition to being the right thing to do.

Another important note: I am fully aware that I’m in a privileged position. I’m worrying about personal fulfillment, not health or personal financial impact from the pandemic. And I’m endlessly grateful for that.

Back to the question of the day: what is FIRE really like? My 2-year FIRE update (if there is one) might be a much more accurate depiction, if enough people get vaccinated and we avoid a COVID relapse.

Work? Nah. I’m Good for Now

Back when I announced the FIRE news, I said the following about my future employment status:

If I had to summarize the path forward for me, it’s this:

  1. I will continue to look for things to do that I’m excited or passionate about.
  2. When I find those things (or they find me), I’ll do them.
  3. If those things result in income, that’s a bonus.

At the 6-month FIRE mark and now one year after starting, the same framework was and is just as relevant. I’m currently not actively seeking a typical “job”, but I don’t know that I will ever 100% rule that out either. That, and earning income from this site, may result in stern warnings from the Internet Retirement Police, but I really can’t be bothered to care about that. Financially independent individuals these days rarely fit into the tightly defined traditional retiree box that many individuals want to stuff them into. At the very least, I’ve had a 1+ year financially independent gap year, and I don’t see an immediate end in sight, by my own choosing.

Do I miss work? I had a strong 13+ year track record at my employer. There were many wins and accomplishments along the way, including triumphant projects, bank account inflating bonuses, multiple promotions, and becoming the top grossing revenue-producer (by my estimate, well into the 9-figure range) in the history of the org at my company (among thousands of employees). Those wins were great when they happened, but the dopamine euphoria hit they provided was always fleeting, quickly vanishing into the dark, sad, and lonely “what have you done for me lately?” abyss that is capitalistic “meritocracy” within days, if not hours. Yeah, it was a pressure cooker.

While I don’t miss most of the work, or any of the stress or politics, I do miss the people. Most work friendships and acquaintanceships are as thin as the employment status or close proximity that temporarily binds them, I’ve found. Once out of sight, those friendships become out of mind, for both sides. A few have persisted, to a lesser degree, but the large majority of that work network (of hundreds) completely fell off the map the day I left the company. Reach out, you selfish jackasses! But seriously, I’m not placing any blame or throwing any shade here, as it takes two, and I think that it’s just the reality of modern day humanity, sadly. I expected this, even prior to leaving, but it doesn’t make it any less jarring.

While many of those friendships weren’t the deepest, I miss the camaraderie and sense of place within that network. The need for a network is hardwired into the core of our being, even if the connections aren’t the deepest. We’re social creatures. Tribal connection is an evolutionary survival need. In his book Friends: Understanding the Power of Our Most Important Relationships, Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist and former director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, found that “natural human communities and personal social networks seem to have a typical size of about 150″ (showing up again and again in numerous studies). My 50+ hours per week for the last 13 years tribe shrunk by the hundreds when I left my employer, and that has been doubly tough in the isolated quarantine reality of the past year.

All-in-all, the absence of employment from my life has been a positive, but there is work to do on the friendship and community-building front. That will likely be a multi-decade project, with or without a traditional job.

FIRE Passion Projects

Perhaps the biggest win of post-employment life has been the available free time to pursue passion projects and other assorted areas of interest. I won’t lie – that aspect has been pretty glorious.

My main passion pursuit right now (and for the foreseeable future) is biking. My weekly schedule is built around the weather and what will make for the best rides on a given day. If a particular day has punishing winds or is scorching hot, I’ll typically hit the heavily-wooded, sheltered mountain bike trails, where wind and sun become muted as a misery factor. If there are low winds or its a bit on the cooler side, I’ll often hit my favorite local gravel or road bike routes.

Before FIRE, biking was limited to the weekends or a weekday where I found the rare combination of 1. a very open schedule, 2. good weather. If a weekday, I often had to use PTO to ensure that if an issue popped up at work, I’d be off the hook to put out the fire. This was pre-COVID, and I’ve wondered if this would be different without the expectation that employees are in the office at all times. But, then I remember: “I don’t have to worry about that kind of shit anymore”.

I’m also learning a ton about bike maintenance and performance and upgrading parts here and there to improve performance and/or comfort levels, which is a great lifelong skill to have that will save me a lot of pain, waiting time, and money. I’m very lucky to have a friend who is at least as equally into biking at the moment who has served as a great mentor.

How About the FIRE Finances?

All good on this front. Yeah, I miss getting a bi-weekly infusion of a sizable amount of cash into my bank account. Who wouldn’t? But, investments have produced income, this website produces a few bucks of income, and Mrs. 20SF is still working. Net worth has gone up a healthy amount since leaving work. Personal savings rate is down, but still at rarified levels (above 75%). We’re also far below the recommended safe withdrawal rate of 4% (technically, a “negative” withdrawal rate in that we actually are still adding funds).

As of right now, FIRE has afforded me the luxury of having zero stress about finding new income to pay for my existence. That’s a huge benefit. Unless global supply chain disruptions turn from temporary inflation to permanent (not likely) or the stock market permanently tanks (also not likely), I don’t see any major threats at the moment. That could change.

Let’s Keep it 100 About FIRE

FIRE, for many, is imagined to be some nirvana-like state of perpetual self-actualized bliss. That’s just not reality. I enjoy the added free time, lower stress, and freedom from financial concerns. I still don’t have enough time to do everything I want to do, I’m mostly the same guy, and I miss my old work network. Like I said, a mixed bag. Something to be continually worked on.

While FIRE status and content is now a part of this website, this website will never solely be FIRE lifestyle focused in nature, because I think that can be a comparatively light topic area built around a highly individualized temporary status. A significant number of FIRE blogger pioneers (all but 1 of which, Early Retirement Extreme, got their blogging start after this site was founded, for the record) have run into unexpected twists and turns in their lives, post-FIRE: divorce, unhappiness, depression, returning to work, health issues, becoming cult-like icons and then disappearing without warning, etc. That’s not a knock on them – I don’t think they have/had bad intentions (though I do appreciate those who have painted a fuller portrait of reality, warts and all). It just is what it is. Life happens. Situations change. People change. The lesson is that we should take good ideas from people – not try to replicate our lives after them in an attempt to escape our own. Every life is in a constant state of change.

FIRE is a worthwhile and attainable goal that can provide a number of huge benefits, but it’s not a be-all, end-all. It’s a destination, and often times, not a permanent one. The journey – all of the personal finance basics, and details, and work pre and post FIRE – is the meat and potatoes. Those often small incremental gains result in more money, more freedom, and more time, whether you ultimately reach “FIRE” or not. I’ll most likely continue to focus on that stuff, rather than paint a picture of the destination to be achieved (and later changed).

Until next time.

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