If you’d like to be considered for an interview, drop me a note and we can chat about specifics.
This is a special interview for me as it’s with my good friend, Steve, from Think Save Retire.
Steve and I worked closely together on Rockstar Finance (he managed the tech stuff and our syndicated content), and it’s great to share his story with you today. I think you’ll find it to be very compelling. (As you’ll see, he’s an over-achiever in the retirement department.)
You may also recall that Steve’s wife, Courtney, wrote the guest post 10 Reasons Why You Might Want to Consider RVing Full-Time for me.
I assume that most retirees in this series will be more traditional in nature — the 50+ crowd like me. That’s why I asked Steve to do this interview — he and Courtney retired MUCH earlier than that. Their story is interesting, compelling, and inspiring.
My questions are in bold italics and his responses follow in black.
Let’s get started…
How old are you (and spouse if applicable, plus how long you’ve been married)?
I am 37 and my wife is 34.
We’ve been married for a little over 4 years and, despite living in a microscopic 200 square feet, we still love every minute of it.
I retired at 35 and my wife officially called it quits, after taking two different sabbaticals, last year when she was 33.
Do you have kids/family (if so, how old are they)?
No kids, but we do have two dogs named Penny and Patti.
We consider them our K9 kids and they will be the only “kids” that we ever have. Neither of us has harbored any real desire to raise children.
What area of the country do you live in (and urban or rural)?
This is a tough question for us to answer because we are full-time travelers in an Airstream. So, we live in all areas of the country.
We last owned stationary “sticks and bricks” homes in Tucson, AZ, but we sold both of those properties and own no property today.
We travel full-time and get to experience everything that this country has to offer.
Is there anything else we should know about you?
I’m one of those rare species who considers himself a nerd, but I don’t enjoy spreadsheets or details. In fact, I find talk about investments exceedingly boring.
My wife, on the other hand, is an actual rocket scientist and she handles the large majority of the money. She’s a spreadsheet queen and does everything using simple rows and columns. It’s all about the old school stuff with her.
How do you define retirement?
To me, retirement is analogous to freedom.
Both my wife and I have the freedom to pick and choose exactly what we do with our time – whether that means working a full-time job, a part-time job, a consulting gig or nothing at all.
We are free to do as we please every second of the day and have no plans to ever hold down a full-time job again.
We are 100% independent and, at a moment’s notice, can stop all of our passion projects to pursue other interests without a second thought about income or cash flow.
This type of freedom is simply indescribable.
We haven’t retired from being productive. In fact, I feel way more productive now than I did back when I worked a full-time job.
The difference lies in what fills my time during the day. We control our time, not an external entity. So long as we maintain the ability to live a life where we feel genuinely free, we will remain retired.
How long have you been retired?
I retired on December 23rd, 2016 at the age of 35. My wife, after two sabbaticals, officially retired in September of 2017 when she was 33. We are 37 and 34 now.
Is your spouse also retired?
Yes, my wife Courtney is now 100% retired. She took a 6-month sabbatical in 2016 before we began our life of full-time travel.
Her company bent their own rules to allow her to take another sabbatical in 2017 in the hopes that she would come back to work once again. But, she officially called it quits after her second sabbatical.
What was your career and income before retirement?
Both my wife and I worked in technology. My wife was the rocket scientist and earned a masters degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics. I was a software developer and database administrator during the vast majority of my career working in corporate America.
The last year that both of us worked full-time, we pulled down about $250,000 that year. We also saved 70% of our income, which adds up very quickly.
Yes, we did make significant incomes, but you might be surprised at how many high-income earners still live paycheck to paycheck.
However, we didn’t live paycheck to paycheck because we gave our money purpose.
We could have bought expensive dinners at restaurants, taken costly vacations or bought high-priced collectibles. But instead, we saved a significant portion of what we earned because achieving financial independence and early retirement was much more important than buying stuff and taking vacations.
Why did you retire?
I never liked the concept of working. Ever.
The moment that I set foot in my first office building out of college, I silently asked myself, “This is it?”
My assumptions about working were completely off. I just assumed that I’d enjoy the experience, that I’d be working around brilliant minds who gave their all, and that I’d derive deep-seated satisfaction nearly every day I stepped into the office.
Wow. I couldn’t have been more wrong about every one of those assumptions.
My wife was always indifferent about corporate America. She liked working with her team, but she was receptive to better offers. If it wasn’t for my insistence, she’d probably keep working. As a result, I was definitely the main impetus behind our early retirement.
I hated working for other people. I despised the entire concept that arbitrary performance review numbers affected my raises and, quite frankly, always believed that each and every one of us is 100% expendable. Regardless of what we make ourselves believe, our companies could get rid of us at any time, leaving us to fend for ourselves.
It reminds me of that Friday where I got laid off without notice. Well, sorta.
That’s not the type of environment that I want to work in. All the time and energy devoted to another company, including overtime and weekend work (which is common in technology) always rubbed me the wrong way, and my heart and soul never gained traction working in corporate America.
I wanted out, and fast.
PREPARATION FOR RETIREMENT
When did you first start thinking seriously about retirement and when did that turn into a decision to do it?
Shortly before my wife and I got married in 2014, we had a major financial decision to make. We both worked in technology and earned fairly nice salaries. Together we’d combine to earn north of $200,000. That’s a lot of money for Tucson AZ’s standards, and we could do one of two things with that money:
- Live like kings and queens; take expensive vacations, go out for nice meals, upgrade to a BMW 5-series and live a life where we looked successful, or
- Save the vast majority of what we earned to rapidly accumulate wealth and quit our jobs to pursue a life of travel and adventure
Ultimately, we decided to pursue the second option.
As I said before, I never liked working in corporate America. I wanted out as quickly as possible. For me, this change was fairly easy to stomach because, with every buying decision that we had in front of us, we asked ourselves a very simple question:
“Is buying this item worth another month or year working in corporate America?”
Almost every time, the answer was no. And, once I found the right way to think about early retirement as I still worked a full-time job, it got much easier to forego expenses that I probably would have made in a previous life.
What were the major steps you took from deciding to retire to developing a plan to do so?
The steps that we took looked something like this:
- We went through our expenses with a fine-toothed comb and looked for monthly costs that weren’t necessary. Magazine subscriptions and our cable television service were among the first to go. In fact, they were easy to lose.
- We gave ourselves a very strict budget where we spent almost nothing on things that weren’t deemed “essential”. Very little restaurant spending. No cell phone upgrades. No camera purchases. We lived on a very thin and streamlined budget for several years.
- We both maxed out our 401k retirement accounts at work during our last full year of working full-time jobs.
- We decided to save my wife’s entire salary and live off of a portion of mine. In the end, we ended up saving about 70% of our combined income, which added up fast!
- Lastly, we accumulated nearly four years of living expenses in an Ally savings account, which now earns around 2% interest. We’ll use this in case of emergency or when the market decides that it’s ready for a crash.
The toughest part of this process was getting started. I like to think of these major life changes as if we were going on a new diet. It’s tough at first because it’s not something that we’re used to. But after a while, we get more comfortable with our new way of life.
The more that we live that new life, the easier it gets. Meaning, it’s no longer something that feels “new”. It’s just the way we live.
What did your pre-retirement financials look like?
We retired with a little under $900,000 in net worth, which is far below what most people consider “enough”. But, retirement isn’t just a function of how much money you have.
The bigger component is how costly your lifestyle is. The cheaper that one lives, the less money one needs to fund the lifestyle. Our way of keeping our lifestyle cheap was to ditch the house and move into an RV.
We are heavy index-fund investors.
We both owned homes (that we sold before we hit the road as full-time travelers).
We both contributed the company-match when we worked full-time jobs for traditional companies (usually around 4%). We maxed that out during our last year.
I am a big fan of targeted retirement and life strategy funds. They are automatically diversified and slowly transition from stocks to bonds as we reach our “retirement age”, which is a completely arbitrary number set by the investor. It makes investing easy and straight-forward.
What was your overall financial plan for retirement?
The key for our retirement was to live completely in the Airstream before calling it quits. And, that’s what we did.
In April of 2016, we bought our RV and sold both of our homes. We lived in an RV park in Tucson and kept a close watch on our expenses.
This helped us to determine how much we’ll need to spend as digital nomads.
We used the Trinity 4% rule as a foundation. Our initial estimates put our yearly spending in the neighborhood of $30,000 a year. Using the simple 4% calculation, we had plenty to maintain that level of spending, and a little cash flow from my blog and our YouTube channel helped chip in a little money into our estimates.
Living a life of full-time travel in an RV can be almost as cheap as you need it to be. Some months, our expenses were less than $1,000 – total, including food, rent (camping fees) and everything else. Other months, we might spend twice that amount.
That’s one of the nicest things about the RVing lifestyle. Aside from healthcare and insurance, we don’t have fixed utility costs. If we need to live cheaper for a period of time, we’re more than capable and willing to do so.
In other words, our plan for retirement includes living a frugal life through full-time travel, which provides us with the flexibility that we need to live extremely cheaply when we need to.
Did you make any specific moves to prepare your finances for retirement?
You could say that. We sold both of our stationary sticks and bricks homes and the majority of our possessions, none of which we miss to this day.
We bought our Airstream travel trailer and live in this little 200 square foot cylinder 100% of the time.
We didn’t shift any assets or do anything special from a financial standpoint.
We didn’t sell any businesses or enjoy any windfalls or lottery winnings. I guess we’re not THAT lucky! 🙂
Who helped you develop this plan?
We were big-time blog readers (and I started my own!), but honestly, none of them were all that helpful in our situation. We figured it all out on our own, and it was a big trial-and-error sort of thing. We weren’t experts going in, and arguably, we still aren’t.
But, we had the willingness to just give it a shot and remain flexible as much as possible throughout the process. And, flexibility remains the single most crucial factor in early retirement for almost anyone.
What plans did you make in advance to leave your job?
I gave my boss about six months notice, that’s it.
My wife gave her boss around nine months as I recall.
For me, my last day of full-time work couldn’t possibly come soon enough.
What were your pre-retirement concerns (financial or non-financial)?
Honestly, I didn’t have very many concerns other than just being happy. I’m a very risk tolerant person and knew that we’d do whatever we needed to do to make it work.
My wife is much more risk-averse and she wanted to make sure that she was leaving her job (that she didn’t hate) for something demonstrably better. Meaning, her worst-case scenario was quitting her job only to go back to work later on doing something that she didn’t truly enjoy.
From a financial standpoint, no worries. We both understand that there are always ways to earn money, even when you’re living a life on the road. In fact, that is the thing that has surprised me the most about early retirement. The ability to earn money is way easier than I had thought.
I’ve found that once we no longer have that cloak of full-time work over our eyes, we are able to see the world for what it truly is, including opportunities that are all over the place. Opportunities to earn money. Opportunities to get involved. Opportunities to volunteer. There is so much out there that, with full-time jobs, we never truly considered.
In early retirement, we now have the opportunity to take it all in and decide what we want to do without having to think or worry about money.
How did you handle deciding on and paying for healthcare?
As full-time travelers, we don’t have the luxury of a primary care physician.
We need to be able to go to any medical facility at any time, anywhere in the country. Traditional health insurance doesn’t work for us. It doesn’t work for many travelers who don’t hold full-time jobs and aren’t retired from the military (which includes healthcare for life).
For us, Liberty Healthshare fits the bill nicely. We can go to any doctor. Any hospital. We are treated like cash-paying patients, which makes the process insanely easy. We’ve also found that when you’re treated like a cash-paying patient, hospitals may drop the price to make it easier to pay.
Liberty is one of the most popular options in the RVing community and more and more hospitals are working directly with Liberty to process payments. That’s a good sign!
How did you tell your family and friends about your plans?
Nothing special. With my friends, I just mentioned it in conversation. Many of my friends work in technology and make high salaries (and enjoy spending the majority of what they make), but to their credit, they’ve all been very supportive.
My family is similar. In fact, my dad retired at 49 to pursue full-time travel. So, I have a little bit of early retirement in my blood. They weren’t at all surprised and were very encouraging throughout the process.
In the end, telling friends and family was relatively uneventful.
THE ACT OF RETIRING
How did you ultimately retire?
Both my wife and I gave our companies pleeeeeenty of notice. Then, we went about our jobs as normal. Nothing really changed from a work-responsibility or performance review standpoint.
The last day for me is something that I’ll never forget. I worked from home at the time, so there weren’t very many “goodbyes” that I had to say. But, the feeling of never having to work a full-time job again was a feeling unlike any other.
Actually, my company just put me on “overhead” the last two days to free up some project funding. As a result, my last two days of full-time work were some of the best two days that I’ve ever had working a full-time job.
I didn’t really have to do anything.
I made a specific point of leaving on good terms. I never burn bridges, even if I feel like I’ve been wronged in some way. I’ve found that it never pays to leave angry. And truthfully, I wasn’t angry at the last place I worked anyway.
I just didn’t like the entire concept of corporate America.
During this time, we continued saving as much as we possibly could. During the last year of work, while living in the Airstream, we streamlined everything that we did. We spent very, very little money to prepare us with a little buffer for our first year of full-time travel.
It went off without a hitch.
What went well?
Everything. My boss admitted to me that he’d probably do the same thing if he were in my position. No conflicts. No arguments. He didn’t retaliate by giving me crap work.
I went about my job as I always had and so did he. In my view, this is how this sort of scenario SHOULD plan out for everybody (I understand that doesn’t always happen, though!).
Our estimated budget was pretty close to the reality of what it costs to do this. As the months passed on, we continued to try new things and to tweak our budget so it worked best for us and kept us happy, healthy and smiling every day.
What didn’t go so well?
Honestly, I can’t think of anything that didn’t go well or that I would have done differently. I hate giving these types of answers, but in this case, it’s the whole truth.
How did you ultimately find the courage to do it?
I suffered from the opposite: “Why can’t I just quit now?”
I never felt “just one more year”, ever. I had to keep myself sane throughout the process of the last year of work because I wanted to quit so badly. I mean…so, so badly.
And the closer I got to my last day, the more I wanted it.
For me, it wasn’t really about courage at all. I didn’t need to muster up the energy to do it. I didn’t have to look myself in the mirror, uttering words like “You can do this!”
I just did it. My bigger problem was having to wait before I called it quits.
How was the adjustment, especially the first few months after retirement?
No sweat. I enjoyed my new-found freedom immediately.
The first Monday after retiring early, I sat at my desk in the Airstream with a big, fat smile on my face. It was quiet. I was alone with the dogs (my wife was still finishing up some work commitments at the time).
It was just me and I had the entire day to do with as I pleased.
It was an amazing feeling of freedom. The ability to completely manage your time is one of those feelings that cannot be described because words simply don’t do it justice.
I fell into my element nicely, and I’m still enjoying everything about early retirement.
My wife, however, struggled a bit during her first year. She’s the type of person who needs to feel as if she’s leading a purposeful life (as do many of us!), and her job has always been that source of purpose. Without the job, the idea is to find something else to fill that need for purpose.
While I had the blog and consulting gigs around the Internet that made me feel fulfilled, my wife doesn’t do that stuff. And, she struggled to find her purpose in the first year of full-time travel. In fact, she got depressed for a couple of those months.
It’s not that she wanted to go back to work. It wasn’t the work that she missed. She missed the feeling of being needed. Of adding value. Of spending her time every day doing a job that needed to be done.
In early retirement, we don’t have jobs that need to be done every day. In fact, that’s sorta the point of retiring early. But on the other hand, we need to feel like we’re productive.
We need a purpose. And, finding that purpose is going to be easier for some people than it will be for others.
How is retirement life now? What do you like about it and what do you dislike?
As always, I love every minute of it. I love waking up each and every morning and deciding what we want to do that day. I love not knowing what day of the week it is and leading a life where we don’t feel like we have to disconnect from anything.
If I want to take a day off from the computer, I will. It doesn’t matter if it’s Saturday or Wednesday. If I want some time away, I take some time away.
We love to hike and explore. We enjoy going to breweries around the country and sampling the local foods.
We take walks when we want to, enjoy happy hours out in nature whenever possible and thoroughly enjoy seeing everything that this country has to offer.
It might sound like a cliche, but retirement life is everything that I thought it could be.
What do you do with your time? What does an average day look like?
We usually crawl out of bed around 7:30 a.m. local time. I make coffee for me and some tea for my wife and we sit down and get some computer work done.
This computer work typically involves blog stuff and YouTube. I’m also very involved in consulting projects that I’ll spend time on in the morning. In general, this is our most productive time of the day, and we like to get the most out of it.
Around mid-morning, we break. If we are around a Planet Fitness gym, we tend to squeeze in a workout and a shower, then spend our day exploring. Sometimes it’s a hike. Other times it might be a museum or a tour. For lunch, we might visit a brewery.
Our style generally has us exploring for a portion of the day, but generally not all day. Though we enjoy seeing new things, we also don’t want to burn ourselves out by doing too much. By mid-afternoon, we’re generally back at the Airstream getting ready for our 5 p.m. happy hour.
We use our happy hours as a time to talk or play games (Monopoly, Phase 10, etc). Living so close to one another, we don’t have an opportunity to ask the other person how their day was because, naturally, we already know that answer. There isn’t much to talk about when we’re around each other for such a large portion of the day.
And thus, happy hours is our way of getting us away from our computers and doing more organic things. We will chat about what we want to do the next day, or plan our next YouTube video, or just chit-chat about whatever’s on our minds.
Looking back, what would you have done differently?
I know that I probably sound like a broken record now, but I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I would like to say that I would have saved more when I was younger, but I also know that’s not a realistic thing to say. It just wouldn’t happen.
The fact is I’ve gotten a lot of that spending out of my system now. I’ve had the supercharged Corvette, the house in the suburbs, the restaurant spending nearly every day. I’m no longer tempted by a lot of what drives our consumer culture because I had already fallen trap to all that stuff.
I have no idea what my mid-life crisis will look like, but I know it’ll have nothing to do with buying some sports car or race motorcycle. Been there, done that. 🙂
Was there any emotional impact from leaving the workforce?
Yup – I was ecstatic. I don’t miss it a bit and hope to never have to go back.
My wife was generally happy for the exception of that time that she was struggling with her purpose during the first year. Other than that, we’re both very happy.
What surprises (financial or non-financial, good or bad) have you had since retiring and how have you handled them?
The only major surprise that we’ve discovered is how many more opportunities there are that we never really considered when we were working full-time jobs. The first-world United States has a ton of things to do and ways to get involved, volunteer and make money.
I’ve discovered that the risks that surround early retirement are largely overrated.
Yes, it’s true that sometimes things go horribly wrong. Anything can happen and neither my wife nor I am under the impression that we’re invincible. Even though we’re retired early, this is still life.
But, what a lot of people underestimate is the strength of their own resolve. The motivation and determination to make it work even under less-than-ideal circumstances is very often stronger than most people realize. For us, the worst-case scenario is being forced back into corporate America to earn money.
“But Steve, you’ll never be able to get your old job back,” people tell me. And, that’s true.
Here’s the thing, though. I don’t want my old job back. That’s the job I spent years of my life trying to escape. I won’t need to earn that much money any longer because I don’t have a lifestyle that demands that much money.
Like I’ve said before, there are always ways to make money if we need to.
What are your future plans?
For now, we’re going to continue doing what we’re doing.
Sometime in the future, we plan to travel overseas but that’ll have to wait until our dogs are no longer with us.
We’re targeting low-cost countries like Panama, Costa Rica and Thailand as destination spots.
How has your financial plan performed compared to what you had estimated before retirement?
Thanks to the stock market, our plan has worked out wonderfully. But, we can’t take any credit for that. As I said, the market is what’s doing the majority of it at the moment.
We’ve learned over time to adjust our spending based on the market and our cash flow situation rather than blindly follow a static withdrawal percentage throughout the year. If we’re doing well, we might spend a little more. If we aren’t doing as well, then we will spend less.
It’s this kind of flexibility that’s keeping us happy and ready for almost anything.
Did you return to paid work? Why or why not?
Neither of us has returned to full-time work. However, we have figured out how to generate positive cash flow by doing things that we truly enjoy.
First, I’ve monetized my blog. And, we run a growing monetized YouTube channel.
In the fall of 2018, we also launched a course about how to plan your next RV road trip that earned us several thousand dollars in just the first couple of weeks after its release.
While we are earning money, we are not working full-time jobs and never plan to again.
In fact, we don’t consider what we do to be jobs at all because what we do simply doesn’t have the demands of a “job”. We don’t have to do them and we aren’t held to some arbitrary standard. No insane deadlines. No bosses. No pointless meetings.
We earn cash flow doing things that we thoroughly enjoy. The moment we stop enjoying those things is the moment we stop doing them.
Did you find it hard going from being a saver to a spender?
Nope. Though I understand how this can be difficult for some people, it hasn’t been for us.
Maybe it’s because we are so young and haven’t spent 30 years in corporate America grinding it out for a salary.
We think of early retirement simply as the next phase of our lives…nothing more and nothing less. It makes spending the money that we’ve earned relatively easy because, well, that’s the nature of the game. We’re done with the accumulation phase of our lives and we’re now in the retirement phase.
Looking back, what do you wish you knew in advance?
I wish I knew how easy it would be to earn money in retirement. Heck, that might have convinced us to retire even earlier. 🙂
What do you say to those people who don’t believe that you “paid your dues”?
My wife and I retired at 33 and 35, respectively. It’s true, that’s super early. I’ve been accused of not paying my dues by calling it quits so early in life, but frankly, I don’t buy it.
I don’t buy the fact that there are dues to pay. I don’t accept the notion that someone (or something) has established a set amount of time, energy or life moments that we need to pay or achieve before we can call it quits to pursue a life of happiness.
This isn’t a videogame where we’re aiming to unlock achievements along the way.
No, this is life. Life is what we make of it. There will be some of us who’ll never retire. Others will retire at the traditional retirement age…somewhere in their 60s. Others might retire in their 40s and 50s. Others still will call it quits in their 30s.
It happens. It may not seem fair. Some people will need to work harder than others to achieve the exact same goal. That’s life.
I believe that each and every one of us needs to take what we can get in this world. That isn’t about being “selfish”. Instead, it’s about doing whatever is in our best interest. I’m not going to work longer just because someone else is.
And, you shouldn’t either. If you have the means to retire even though your neighbor doesn’t, that should not impact your willingness to call it quits. Retire. Retire, then help your neighbor in whatever way that you can if you feel motivated.
After all, you’ll now have the time to do just that. 🙂
What advice do you have for those wanting to retire?
You need to want it. Really want it.
That might sound like an easy thing to achieve, but it’s much tougher than a lot of people realize. You need to want it bad enough that it becomes your main priority. You gotta want it MORE than going out to eat every week, or living in ritzy parts of town or taking expensive vacations.
A lot of people like the idea of early retirement, but when it comes right down to it, they don’t want it bad enough to actually make the changes necessary to make it work. A lot of people want to retire early, but not a lot of people want to put in the work to do it.
Once someone has decided that they want early retirement bad enough – and are committed to making it happen, they instantly transform into a person who’s consumed by that overarching goal. Saying “no” to invitations to spend money at social gatherings – though difficult at first, becomes easier. Investing becomes automatic. Frugality gets to be second nature.
And, these folks are much more likely to do whatever it takes to achieve early retirement.
Before you begin this process of early retirement, commit to yourself that it’s your #1 priority. It’s gotta be #1 or you’ll probably lose interest and move on to something else.