What We Would Have Done Differently While Saving for Early Retirement (If We’d Known Better)

Today's post comes courtesy of a blogging friend I met a few years ago at FinCon in San Diego.

Work OptionalAt the time, she was anonymous, working in politics (I'm sure you can understand the need for anonymity!), but well on her way to early retirement (another good reason to remain hidden!). In the couple years since then, she's has continued to write one of my favorite blogs, officially retired early, and even found time during her travels to write a book about retiring early titled Work Optional (love the name!).

The book comes out this week and you should check it out. (also, a pro move is if you to request it from your local library too!)

Now that she's been retired for a bit of time, I was really eager to hear what she would've done differently if she could do it all over again and she obliged. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did.

Take it away Tanja!

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Hi Jim! Thanks so much for hosting me here on Wallet Hacks! Your guest post on Our Next Life about the biggest surprises of early retirement has continued to be a perennial favorite of my readers, so it’s a pleasure to return the favor and share some of what I’ve learned with your readers.

My husband Mark and I retired early a little more than a year ago, when I was 38 and Mark was 41, after saving aggressively for six years. Along the way, we made plenty of mistakes, both financial and mental. And if I can spare you a little stress by sharing them, then I'm glad to do it! This is what we'd change if we got a do-over, some of which I discuss in more detail in Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way.

What We Would Have Done Differently While Saving for Early Retirement If We'd Known Better

1. Use all of our vacation time

The entire point of retiring early was to have more time away from work, and yet as we got closer and closer to achieving our goal, we got so focused on reaching it that we didn't want to take time away from earning as much as we could. That came to a head in our second-to-last year of work, when we both hit a point of total burnout, and weren't even sure if we could make it through our last year of work.

The reason? We took hardly any vacation that year.

If we had it all to do over again, we would slow down just a little and use all of our vacation time along the way, because resting and relaxing are super important, and we forgot just how important self-care is on your journey.

In our last year of work, we did it right and used all of our vacation time, including taking a two-week trip to Japan that was beyond wonderful.

If you're pursuing a similar goal, focus on pacing yourself, and on living a life you enjoy while you're saving, rather than deferring all joy to the future. That future is never guaranteed, after all.

2. Institute a work complaint ban sooner

One of the very best things we did to help us along on our saving journey was institute what we called the “work complaint ban.”

Just as you are what you eat, you are what you think, and when we complain about things, we focus our minds on the negative rather than the positive. So we banned all complaining about work.

We were allowed to recount things that had happened and if something was truly egregious, we could complain about that in a very small dose, but we stopped allowing ourselves to complain about the fact that we had to work, the annoyances that would be normal in any job and the annoyances specific to our jobs that would always be true.

The result: We actually enjoyed work more and found that the journey to save for early retirement passed a lot more quickly. We instituted the ban with about two years left to work, and if we had it to do again, we would have put this rule into place much, much sooner.

3. Appreciate work more, sooner

Similarly, in addition to stopping our complaints, we also would have taken the time sooner to appreciate our work.

During my last year of work especially, I started practicing something I called “nostalgia in advance,” and it worked miraculously well to help me enjoy the work and feel more grateful for it. Whenever something I enjoyed at work was happening, I'd start a mental video recorder and say to myself, “I'll look back on this fondly one day.”

It really helped me appreciate those good moments, but even more, it helped me get through the bad ones. When times were stressful, I'd tell myself, “Someday soon I'll look back on this and laugh about how serious it felt at the time, but how insignificant it was in the long run.”

And reminding myself of that helped me keep the bad moments in perspective, which made the whole journey more enjoyable.

4. Invest more in Roth IRAs

On the financial side, our biggest mistake was not taking advantage of Roth IRAs while we were income eligible.

We were fortunate to earn six figures each in our last several years of work (unlike our early years, when we each earned peanuts while living in DC and LA, two expensive cities), and it wasn't until we were in that income bracket that we realized how helpful Roth IRA savings can be. By then, it was too late to take advantage of them.

We consider this a good problem to have, because obviously, we were better off earning more than we would have been earning less but saving in Roths, but still… hindsight is 20/20.

If we'd gotten wise earlier on, we might have put money into Roths rather than spending that money in our lower earning years.

5. Not wasting energy clipping coupons

Before we got all gung-ho on saving for our work-optional life, we were gung-ho on saving to buy our first home in Los Angeles where property is super expensive.

And before that, I was really focused on paying off my credit card, car loan, and student loan debt.

In many ways, saving for retirement is exactly the same as pursuing those other financial goals, it's just a smidge more ambitious. But during those earlier saving periods, I took a very penny-pinching approach to saving and spent huge amounts of time trying to track down the best grocery deals, which involved clipping coupons, matching them to the best deals, and shopping at multiple stores every week. (And, in all honesty, it also involved walking around our neighborhood in LA to find coupon flyers our neighbors did not pick up, so I could have multiples of every coupon)

And it's true that while I shopped that way, we were spending very little on groceries… but I was also spending a ton of time on all of it and we were eating a lot of junk food because that's what coupons tend to be for.

Looking back, it wasn't worth it.

Now we'll happily pay a bit more for groceries but eat healthier stuff and avoid wasting all that time tracking down deals and driving all over town. I learned an important lesson from it all that it's far better to look for the big opportunities to save money – like by minimizing housing and transportation costs – and to skip the savings methods that only save you a few pennies at a time, especially if those methods consume a lot of time. Your time has value, too! (That's why “non-penny-pinching” is in the title of the book!)

6. Not stocking up right before we left work

In the months before we quit working, I started to worry that we'd never be able to buy anything again, and I stocked up on a bunch of things, including new socks, underwear, soap, shampoo, and a few other random things.

In hindsight, that was so silly!

We built a strong and conservative early retirement financial plan, and we'll always be able to afford those things and much more. But the gravity of what we were doing – walking away from well-paid careers and leaping into the great unknown – got to me a bit and made me take on a scarcity mentality temporarily. Fortunately, I learned from that and got over it quickly.

7. Gotten smart about airline and hotel points sooner

We retired with about 3 million hotel and airline points banked, thanks to a lot of work travel over a lot of years.

I was always smart about sticking with one airline, and we each had United credit cards, but we didn't pay attention to other travel hacking opportunities until our last few years of work. Unfortunately, we squandered a ton of hotel points by not focusing on one or two chains. We even let some points expire.

If we had it to do again, we'd focus on staying with one hotel chain and making sure we didn't lose any points due to inactivity. We could probably have another million or more hotel points if we'd done that!

8. Enjoyed the journey more

Honestly, the biggest thing we'd change is not financial.

It's that we'd let ourselves enjoy the journey more.

It's so easy to get impatient when you see that an exit from mandatory work is possible, and we let ourselves get impatient. We had great careers with great employers, and even if that hadn't been true, we wish we'd been in less of a hurry and had focused the entire time on enjoying our lives in the moment, rather than focusing so hard on the future.

Sure, that future focus helped propel us, but if we'd taken seven or eight years to reach our goal instead of six, we still would have retired incredibly early compared to the norm.

We could have spent a few thousand dollars more a year on things we enjoyed and not slowed ourselves down all that much, and we could have appreciated work more.

We're still ultimately proud of what we've accomplished, and thrilled to be living work-optional lives now, but if I could go back and share one lesson with past us at the beginning of the journey, it would be: “Don't forget to look around and enjoy the present, even if it means going a little slower.”

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About Tanja Hester

Tanja Hester is the author of Our Next Life, a work-optional, purpose-filled, adventurous living blog that follows her (and her partner-in-crime Mark's) journey in early retirement.

Tanja is a lontime political communications strategiest, a community and environmental activist, an insatiable reader and audiophile, an obsessive searcher for the best gluten-free beers and baked goods, a one-time mathlete, a former yoga and spinning teacher, and a still-certified health coach.

Tanja is also half of the podcast The Fairer Cents.

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  1. Pai says

    Great advice. I am going to start working on your work complaint ban idea. It seems so basic and obvious, yet so difficult to achieve. I definitely see the positive thinking/emotion benefits.

    I have noticed that work became more enjoyable once we developed a long term retirement plan. We are still a little more than a decade before we retire, but we are already happier. It seems like just having a plan has provided a sense of control over what’s next. Work mishaps and negative interactions are less bothersome than they were just a year ago. Thanks for the advice!

    • Jim Wang says

      I remember years ago that when I’d have chats with my wife about our day, I never wanted to talk about work. Work was fine but it was just work and I didn’t want to recount/relive it, I was happy to be done. 🙂

      That said, now that I work for myself, I enjoy it but no one really understand it. haha

  2. Mighty Investor says

    So interesting to me, Tanja, that as a fellow FI-er I actually disagree with a number of these suggestions. That’s what makes the world go round, eh? 😉

    On your suggestion 4, since 2010, you could also have been doing backdoor IRAs every year regardless of your income. (Max out non-deductible contributions to a traditional IRA and then immediately convert to a Roth).

    I love that you see things differently than I do. I will definitely check out Our Next Life.

  3. Denise says

    I’m still a penny pincher but stopped wasting time on clipping coupons by doing the following:

    1. Become a Costco executive member and get the Citi Costco card. Executive member gets 2% rebate on Costco shopping including Costcotravel where rental car rates are almost always the best, another 2% off on the citi card(and 4% on gas worldwide!),I save 4% on groceries and gas at costco this way without coupons.

    2. Plan ahead one week’s meal before my shopping trip and cook at home. This way I never waste any food even I buy bulk food at Costco.

    3. I used the time saved on coupons on reading personal finance blogs like Jim’s, and instead of saving pennies I started to earn money by better investment ideas, earning bank and credit card sign up bonus etc. (One top tip I learned from blogs I wish I knew earlier: don’t close old no fee credit cards and applying new cards will end up having higher credit score! )

    Time is money, knowledge is also money. Save the time on clipping coupons and use it to gain some financial knowledge will accumulate more wealth.

    • Dr. Saves Alot says

      Shop in Aldi, Lidl or SuperWalmart and you won’t need coupons. I love Aldi. Milk is $1.80. It is $2.50 to $3 elsewhere. All of their meat is 25 to 40% less. Check out Justin’s (root of good) post on comparison shopping.

  4. Joe says

    Every year state governments are making millions of dollars in interest by holding money in accounts that became abandoned. You will never see a public service announcement, ‘Did you lose money? We found some for you.’ Why? States are making money for the politicians’ pet projects off of your property.

    The national site to check for abandoned money is http://www.missingmoney.com Some states do not share their information, so you would ‘Google’ Dept of Treasury (state) ENTER….After you click on the link, look for ‘Property Search.’ In this short 6 weeks of 2019 i have found money for 25 people! So, if you have lived in different states, check….Look for relatives, friends, yourself. The money sits in the Treasury fund until it is claimed by the owner or the owner’s heirs. It is like a Treasury Hunt! Spread the word! Knowledge is power and can put some free money in your wallet!

  5. IMdunDDS says

    *Great non-airline credit cards (Not well known, but for many THE VERY BEST!):
    1) Alliant visa – 3% cash back on EVERYTHING for 1st year, NO SPENDING LIMIT
    – 2.5% cash back forevermore, No limits
    -59$ fee waived 1st year, so if you spend > $11,500 annually, it outperforms a 2% no fee card – PLUS the benefit of 3% no fee for 1st year. My default card when 2) thru 6) below do not apply
    2) Blue Cash from AMEX – 6% on GROCERIES, No annual fee
    3)PenFed Cash Rewards – 5% on GAS, no fee
    4)Uber visa – 4% on all RESTAURANTS and use of UBER, No Fee unlike Capital One Savor card
    5)Amazon Prime Visa – 5% on all Amazon purchases, plus all that extra prime stuff like movies, music, concierge sv, etc. So if you spend $3333/yr, it covers the Amazon Prime $100 membership fee relative to a conventional 2% no fee card. Many spend much more on Amazon, plus all the perks of Prime.
    6) Chase Sapphire Preferred – $500 bonus (or $625 in travel related costs) after spending $4000 in 3 months
    -0 fee 1st yr, $95 fee/yr after
    -Best, in my opinion, to take bonus, then cancel card before annual fee kicks in as my other cards offer better ongoing rewards!
    So, ‘1) thru 5)’ gives either 6%, 5%, 5%, 4% and as default after 1st yr 2.5% – and the other gives an easy $500 bonus. So you can easily average 3-4% overall!

    • IMdunDDS says

      Forgot –
      Capital One Savor also gives $500 bonus w/ no fee for first year only – consider taking the bonus, then canceling (use Uber Visa for Restaurants, no fee).

  6. RoseMcK says

    This is a great life lesson in general. It has a ripple effect which is quite remarkable.

    I’ve been happily married for years now, but along the way, I had a previous marriage which was horrific. I vented to a very good friend, who commiserated with me but did not give advice or exacerbate the situation in any way.

    Nevertheless, I found that the more I gave voice to my dissatisfactions, the lower my opinion of both my marriage and my husband became. This was not a marriage that should have survived, regardless. But over the years during and even since, I’ve come to realize that I would have tried longer, and worked harder on the marriage if I had not magnified my misery by focusing on it quite so much.

    And I have discovered a much more positive outlook in general as that attitude bleeds over into other areas of my life. I’m happier, I like myself better, and I find that others seem to, as well.

  7. Mike@mikesmoneytree says

    The comment about wishing you enjoyed the journey more I find interesting. I to have realised this point that FIRE is all about happiness so it may be better to work an extra year if it greatly increases your happiness. It would be depressing retiring at 30 but having no friends and no one to share your new find freedom. What would you have done to make the journey more enjoyable?

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