living with money

I Retired at 38. Here’s What I Didn’t Expect.

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photos Getty

Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want.

A lot of people think that early retirement is for spoiled, entitled millennials who think they’re too good to work, or for tech bros who make a ton of money. But I’m neither of those things. I’m not even a millennial. More importantly, I was always excited to work. For most of my career, I was perfectly happy being totally committed to my job.

My career was in political consulting. I enjoyed my job and did well at it. But the farther up the ladder I got, the worse my lifestyle became. I got a number of promotions and suddenly, in my early 30s, was like, “Wait. we used to take all of these cool camping trips in the mountains, and now I can’t go backpacking in areas where my cell phone won’t work because I have to be reachable at all times.” Isn’t the idea that you’re supposed to achieve more to get a better lifestyle, not a worse one? It was like my work advancement came at the expense of the rest of my life.

I also have a genetic disability that’s progressive, and work was taking a toll on my physical health. My dad has the same thing, so I know what it’s going to look like when I get older. I’m not thankful for this condition, but I am thankful for this visible reminder that I don’t have infinite time. I want to travel and ski and do all the things I dream of doing before I can’t move around with full mobility anymore. Another factor was that job stress started weighing on my relationship with my husband, Mark. We realized that we were drifting apart bit by bit, and we were like, “We need to find a way to stop this. If we do this until we’re 65, what’s going to remain of our lives at that point? What’s going to remain of our marriage?” That’s when we got serious about retiring early. I was 32 at the time.

Retiring early isn’t just about saving up enough money, although that’s obviously a huge part. It’s also a huge emotional and ideological transition. One big question I struggled with is, how can I be a feminist and believe we need more women leaders in the workplace, and then retire early and remove myself from my leadership role? But once I started planning to leave, I got much better at helping other women at work because I stopped competing with them. I realized that I had gone through my career with this mindset that there can only be so many women at the top, and I wanted to be one of them. In my final years at my job, I became a good advocate instead of just looking out for myself. In hindsight, I wish I’d done that my whole career, but it’s certainly better late than never.

Ironically, engineering my exit from the workforce made me love my career so much more. It became much easier to shake off the dumb, day-to-day annoyances that used to stress me out. Because I had this fun secret — I was retiring and nobody knew — I had this new perspective. That made it harder to leave. The first person I told at work was my first boss and mentor. I definitely had a couple of drinks first and then cried when I gave her the news. But ultimately, I never second-guessed my choice to retire early, in part because Mark and I were both in it together and he didn’t have the same hesitation. Also, my body was hurting more, so the clock was ticking.

It took us about six years to save up for our retirement, and we were not starting from zero. I want to be very clear about that. We had retirement savings and home equity before we began the process. I don’t think most people can retire at 38 like I did. What really helped us do it was that we moved from L.A. to Tahoe, which has a much lower cost of living. We bought a home here in 2011, when the housing market was in our favor, and telecommuted for years. And we’ve always been big savers, so it wasn’t a complete overhaul. If you’re used to living a Carrie Bradshaw lifestyle and then you’re like, “Okay, I’m only going to eat rice and beans from now on,” then yeah, that would be jarring and isolating, but that wasn’t the case for us. It also helped that I started a blog about what we were doing, Our Next Life, about four years ago, and found a community of people online with similar goals.

My blog becoming somewhat popular and ultimately leading to a book was a total accident. However, I now know that retirement would very hard for me if I didn’t have them. I’ve always been ambitious, a gold-star seeker, and to go from a position at work where people asked for my opinion every day to having no one care — that would’ve been difficult. I want to feel important. Even though I’ve made peace with leaving my career, I think I will always have that deep need for people to value what I think.

I do recognize the irony of turning my retirement into a new career for myself. People will say, “You write a blog so you’re not retired,” but I’ve made zero dollars from it. I don’t even care if I get royalties from my book. The biggest thing I didn’t expect about retiring is that I’ve found I enjoy tasks that look like work. They don’t feel like work because there’s no deadline — with the exception of the book, which had one deadline, but I had a great time writing it. I’m now pursuing public speaking, but only because It’s fun. It’s funny — I’ve realized that I actually like working. I’m wired to want to work. I’m just not wired to live in our current work culture where I’m supposed to be excited to be connected at all times.

Some people feel it’s necessary to police whether those of us who say we are early retirees are actually retired or not. But I never pictured my retirement as endless Saturdays. I think that’s a recipe for unhappiness and a very empty life. I still feel retired. I’m sure there are lots of people who would say, “That’s not retirement,” and if that’s what they think, fine. They can plan a different retirement for themselves. I do know a couple of early retirees who are perfectly happy playing video games all day. To me, that sounds so awful. Not that video games are bad, but I want to do things that I can look back on and feel like they added up to something.

Another thing I didn’t expect about retirement was that Mark and I had some rocky periods in our relationship in the last year. There’s this idea that work is the villain keeping you from having a good marriage, so if you take work away then your marriage will be perfect. That’s not true. I know some people whose early retirement exposed unfixable problems in their marriage, and made them realize that they wanted to do different things with their lives. A fair number of people do split up after they stop working.

Mark and I have always been one of those couples who’s happy spending a lot of time together. But we’d always said, “Our dream is to be able to wake up in the morning and say, ‘What do we want to do today?’” And it turns out that we both had different interpretations of what that meant. For me, that was very literal — to wake up and say, “Hey, is it snowing? Is it sunny? What should we do today?” But for Mark, he’s more like, “What do we want to do this week?” He will fill up his calendar with mountain biking and community stuff, and I felt left out of that. We were each doing what we said we would do, but it turned out that wasn’t the same thing. We’ve been working through that.

Being retired while all our friends are still working hasn’t been that weird. It helps that we live in a ski town and know almost no one with a traditional work schedule. Now, we wake up between 8 and 9 a.m. without an alarm clock almost every day, and I hope that never gets old. We have a long, leisurely breakfast unless there’s fresh snow and we’re trying to get out and ski. For many years we were always rushing to be on our phones first thing because we worked East Coast jobs and lived on the West Coast, so we always felt behind when we woke up. I love that we don’t have to do that anymore.

After breakfast, I usually sit down at my computer for a bit and do some writing. Some days I’ll go skiing with Mark, some days I won’t. At night, we usually watch a movie. We almost always cook dinner from scratch, instead of eating takeout and frozen food like we used to. We’re often planning our next trip, too. We were in France for basically all of November.

I can’t imagine feeling like I don’t have enough to do. I thought that once I retired I’d finally get caught up on email, but inbox zero is as elusive now as it ever was before. But I can very easily fill my days with reading, or putting together a puzzle, or going for a hike, visiting my dad — the list of things to do is not hard to come up with. I miss my job even less than I expected, to be honest. Occasionally, I’ll have a moment on a Tuesday when I’m like, “Oh my gosh, everyone I know is working.” But that’s really it.

I haven’t experienced much resentment from people, which is a little surprising. We did get a little bit of, “Oh, you’re retired. That must be nice for you.” I actually retired before my mom. She’s still working because she’s made a series of bad decisions. But I also think it’s important to acknowledge the role of luck and privilege. Yes, we worked hard for this. Neither Mark nor I came from any money. I was raised mostly by my dad, a single parent who’s on disability. But I still got so lucky in many ways. I had a full ride to college and graduated with very little debt, for example.

I want to say I don’t get stressed out anymore, but there are always dumb little things to worry about, like our local postal service sucks and mis-delivers things all the time. It’s mundane, but I spend a lot of time chasing down mail, which is annoying. And I do worry about health care constantly. If something happened to the Affordable Care Act and a ton of our budget suddenly had to go to health care, then that’ll be a challenge. But the flip side risk was that I spent all my healthy years working. Which is ultimately worse? You can’t get those healthy years back.

Tanja Hester writes the blog Our Next Life and is the author of Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way.

I Retired at 38. Here’s What I Didn’t Expect.