5 Life Lessons from Our First Year of Early Retirement

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5 Life Lessons from Our First Year of Early RetirementIt’s time to share some life lessons I’ve gone through in my first year of early retirement.

Exactly one year ago today, I was at the office on the last day I would ever work in my career again.  It was New Year’s Eve, 2018 and it was the day before my retirement officially began at the sweet age of 43.

My career in IT started back in 1999 and lasted almost 20 years.  I started as an unexperienced Systems Engineer, but with training and experience, I became a confident engineer over the first handful of years.  Then in 2005, I was promoted to be the manager of the engineers, which I did for the remainder of my career.

It’s wonderful though that I’ve been able to put all that behind me.  I’m grateful for my time and experience with the company, but I was 100% ready for a change.  Financial independence made that possible and I was able to retire from my career at the end of 2018.

I’ve had an amazing year of changes and life lessons since then.  Some things went according to plan and some didn’t, but overall, I couldn’t imagine a better year together with my family.

Today, I’d like to step back and share some of those life lessons from my first year of early retirement.


What’s transpired over the year

It’s been a tremendous first year of early retirement and we’ve been so busy enjoying it that’s it’s flown by in no time…


Other than retiring, moving to Panama was obviously the biggest change in our lives.  We spent so much time planning this trip and selling our house along with all our stuff that I felt like the day would never arrive.

Well, it did.  And it’s lived up to our expectations.  The country is beautiful, the weather is marvelous, the locals and expats are friendly, and the pace is much simpler.  There’s been so much to love and it’s hard to find things that we don’t.

July adventure (plus more time in August)

Before we headed off to Panama, we decided to take a month to have some fun which we dubbed our July adventure.  We didn’t have a home of our own any longer so we spent time staying at different places – some free and some not.  We did all sorts of fun things:

  • Kelleys Island
  • Great Wolf Lodge
  • Cedar Point
  • Kelleys Island (again!)
  • Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
  • Vacation in South Carolina
  • A night in New Orleans
  • 3 weeks with my brother and sister-in-law in Texas

It was an incredible experience for all of us and the memories will last forever.  Best of all, it only cost around $800 more than what would have been a normal month of spending!


Imagine how much change occurs when you sell everything you own and move to a foreign country.  Now throw in the transition to homeschooling for the year and see how that goes.

That’s exactly what we did and it’s been an adjustment for all of us.  There are pros and cons but it was the smart play for us to do, at least for this year.

Traveling back to the U.S.

In mid-November, we went back to the U.S. to comply with the tourism rules in Panama.  But more importantly, it allowed us to spend a month with friends and family.

We had a great time with everyone but it was so exhausting.  We spent almost every day/night out with different friends and family.  Believe it or not, going to the bar or having a beer with people almost every day gets a little tiresome.

When we head back to the U.S. in June of the coming year, we’ll probably try to do bigger periodic get-togethers with larger groups in an attempt to make it a little easier on us.

A cruise and back to Panama for the holidays

We ended our U.S. trip with a Caribbean cruise.  It was wonderful as always (albeit pretty windy) but we were ready to finally get back to a bed we could call our own.

Flying directly back to Panama would have been too easy.  So instead, we flew from Florida to Costa Rica… and then we took a bus from Costa Rica to Panama!  It saved us thousands and was the first time we ever got to step into Costa Rica.

We arrived just in time for the holidays here in Panama.  We got to experience our first Christmas here and Faith loved every minute of opening presents.  Then we attended a huge parade on Christmas night!

5 Life Lessons from Our First Year of Early Retirement - Boquete Christmas Parade
Sure the parade started a couple of hours late, but I think that’s kind of the norm here. It was really fun though and it was still going strong when we left about 2 hours into it!

We’re excited to go to a New Year’s Eve party tonight followed by some fireworks at midnight to wrap up the year!

So with all that said, life’s perfect, right?

Haha, close, but nothing’s perfect!  Things are always what you make ’em, but here are some of the life lessons that our first year of early retirement has presented…


Life lessons… #1: Your spending WILL change in retirement

This should be one of the life lessons that’s obvious to expect.  Things change once you retire:

  • No more work expenses – No more driving to and from work, no need to buy clothes for work, and no more eating lunches with coworkers (if you’re not a brown bagger).
  • No more subsidies – Was your work providing a nice subsidy on healthcare?  That’s likely out the door.
  • More time on your hands – That could lead to more eating out or maybe more cooking at home.  Perhaps you start traveling more throughout the year or become a snowbird.
  • New hobbies or interests – With that extra time comes an opportunity to explore your life.  Trying out new interests and developing new passions is so worthwhile and something retirees get to spend more time exploring.

These are mostly good things… but they can cost more money.  Or they can save you money (like cooking at home).

Projecting your retirement expenses is really just going to be an educated guess and almost a shot in the dark.  How in the hell do you figure out how much you need to retire then?

Take your existing expenses into considerations, try your best to figure out what’s going to change, and then push the number higher to be safe.  You do the best you can and then give yourself a healthy buffer.  That’s all you can do.

In our case, moving to Panama threw things out the window.  We honestly only had a ballpark of what things would cost us here.  I was guessing about $30k per year to live comfortably… well, I was off by a lot.

Our October expenses were our first opportunity to see a “normal” month of spending.  And that number makes us think our expenses will be around $42k per year.

That difference could be a dealbreaker in retirement.  However, we had planned our annual expenses as if we were living in the U.S. so that still gives us plenty of breathing room.

If we decide to move back from Panama down the line though, things will likely be much tighter for us.

Know that your spending in retirement will not be the same as it is during your working days and plan accordingly.


Life lessons… #2 You can’t do it all at once

I struggled so much during the first few weeks of January.  I had built up a massive to-do list over the years of things that I’d get to one day.  And in my mind, that “one day” was once I was done working.

So when I left my job, I was ready to jump right into things.  It was time to start checking everything off the “someday” list.

Except it didn’t happen.  Sure I was able to knock a couple of things out, but it was taking time – time in which I now had almost 50 hours more of every week.

What the @#$%’s going on?!  Why can’t I get this all done?

I couldn’t sleep and I was stressing.  Yeah, that’s right – I no longer had to go to work but I was more stressed than I’d been in ages.

It took me a few weeks to finally understand what was causing the stress, but this was it.  I couldn’t sleep because I didn’t feel like I was getting enough accomplished.

Once I understood that though, I was able to put things into perspective.  I didn’t need to get everything done at once.  I could and should just focus on doing one thing at a time before moving onto the next project.  I now have all the time in the world.

And that helped.  I started to sleep better and life was good again… great actually!  And after a few months of being settled here in Panama, I had knocked out so many checklist items that now I really feel like a rockstar!

I still have a lot more to do, but I’ll just keep at ’em, one at a time.


Life lessons… #3 Find a balance between work and play

This is one of the life lessons that seems to spawn off of lesson #2.  It’s also something that’s been a little difficult for me to get a handle on.

As a working man, I was losing close to 50 hours a week between my job and the commute.  That took a lot of time out of my week.

Then suddenly, I became free from that time burden.  Since then, I went down the path of trying to complete everything I wanted to get done all at once (#2 of the life lessons).  Over this past year, I’ve become a little better at handling these things one at a time.

For a Type A personality though, sometimes it’s hard to just enjoy the moment rather than be working on something… working on anything really.  It’s just how my mind works.

And that’s fine to have that trait as a part of my life.  In fact, it’s important that it’s a part of my life – drive and motivation are what keep the brain going.  The projects I have plans to work on are things that will expand my mind and give me a sense of purpose.

But essentially, the biggest catalyst for going after early retirement was to be able to spend more time with my family.  This is particularly important while my daughter is young and actually enjoys her time with dear old Dad.  That’s likely to disappear once those teenage years show up.

Just spending time together playing a fun game of Uno – more valuable than any project I could ever come up with!

Now that I have more time, I don’t feel that burden of not getting some task accomplished while I’m spending with my family.  At the same time though, I do want to check some items off my lists.

So what do you do?

The key, of course, is balance.  Sometimes that’s easier said than done, but it’s still essential to strive for that every day.  When you’re old and gray, you’ll look back at the good times and fond memories and everything else won’t matter.


Life lessons… #4 Your career doesn’t define you

I don’t miss my job.  I mean, I really don’t miss it in the least.  And that surprised me a little.

I anticipated that there would be days when I would miss certain aspects of the IT world and the day-to-day happenings in the office… but I don’t.

That’s not a problem in my book!  Not going to work every day easily became part of the normal.  It’s rare that I even think about the fact that others are at work when I wake up in the morning.

But spending almost half of my life in IT makes it a definitive part of who I was.  When friends and family have computer problems, I’ve been the person they generally turn to for help.

That’s actually a little funny considering I was never a desktop technician – I was an engineer that focused on networking and servers.  And even then, I moved to management and haven’t done any fieldwork since 2005.  That’s a lifetime in IT!

It’s taken me some time to realize (and to help friends and family realize) that I’m not the go-to computer guy anymore.  I still enjoy tinkering every once in a while with something new, but Windows is not something I want to spend my time looking at anymore.  It’s overly-bloated and it’s overkill for most people.

Almost everyone I know should be using a Chromebook for home use – they’re simple, fast, less expensive, and they just work.

Each of us uses a Chromebook here in our household and guess what – life is great.  I’m not spending all my time troubleshooting stupid Windows issues anymore.  And because of that, I now have time to explore so many other things in life.

I can now focus on chasing after different interests such as:

  • Writing (both on this blog and more books in the future)
  • Getting back into art and music
  • Learning martial arts
  • Playing Racquetball
  • Coding (yeah, I know that’s computer-related, but it’s still a different beast).
Teaching my girls how to play racquetball…

It’s much easier to separate your career from you once you’re retired, but it’s still hard when your former job is what people tend to associate you with.  Realizing that you’re not what your job was is an important step to happiness.


Life lessons… #5 Finding YOU takes time

Piggybacking on another of the life lessons (#4) is that now you need to find who you truly are in life.

I’m one of those people who feel like I have a higher purpose in life to serve… something big.  The problem is, I don’t what it is yet.

Some of you have may have already found your purpose and some of you may not even care about this.  Either way, you’re in or on your way to a position of joy.

For Lisa and Faith, volunteering to help take care of animals seems to be their calling.  I admire that, but it’s just not my thing.

Faith’s a regular Doctor Dolittle…

But for me, I’m not there yet.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m happier than I’ve ever been.  Life is rocking and we’re so blessed to be where we are that I can’t even express it!

That’s part of the problem though.  We’re in such a great position in life and now I want to give back – not necessarily financially as in a donation, but in some other way.

I thought retirement would be a quick solution to that problem, too.  Suddenly, I have more time so I can make some magic happen… not so much.

Well, it hasn’t been the answer yet.  Having more of this extra time in retirement is critical, but I think I need to figure out the “what” first before I can figure out the “how.”

And that’s part of the process of finding myself.  Realizing what makes me tick and what would bring the most joy to myself while helping others exponentially is not something I know yet.

While we were traveling, I watched “Tent City, USA” on Amazon – a documentary worth watching.  It’s focused on homelessness in the U.S. and that seems to be an area (along with hunger) that bothers me tremendously.

I have a feeling that I’ll end up doing something related to one or both of those problems, but I want to figure out a way to make it more worthwhile than just spending small amounts of time here or there… I want to go all in.

That’ll take some time and soul-searching, but when I figure it out, you know you’ll be the first to know.

So there you have it – five life lessons from our first year of early retirement.  It’s been a fantastic year and now that I’ve gotten better at the adjustment of early retirement, I’m excited about making 2020 a year of growth.

It’s going to be a year of learning new things, trying things out of my comfort zone, and just becoming a better person all-around.


Make 2020 the year of your dreams – if you’re not happy with something in your life, remember that only you can change the path you’re on!


Thanks for reading!!

— Jim

You know you wanna share this!!

14 thoughts on “5 Life Lessons from Our First Year of Early Retirement”

  1. Congrats Jim! And Happy NY!

    Sounds like you guys have gotten in a groove. Thanks for sharing your overseas adventures for folks stuck back in the states.

    I plan to go back to work in 2020 and start making some money again!


    1. Thanks, Sam – I read about you going back to work. Part of me is shocked, but the other part wonders if I’ll ever want to go down that path as well at some point. Right now, I’d say “not ever going to happen”, but you never know!

      Good luck to you and have a happy New Year!!

  2. Jim, you guys had a busy year. Congratulation on staying retired! 🙂
    IMO, a lot of your issue is due to being a manager. You’re used to scheduling and driving the minions to accomplish various goals. You’re trained to always ask for more and more and not do any work. Ha ha ha!
    Well, it sounds like you’ve adjusted back to being a normal person so that’s good. That’s the great thing about FIRE, you can do what you want at your own pace. Autonomy is the best thing about it.
    I’m sure next year will work out very well for you guys.
    Happy New Year and good luck!

    1. That’s funny – I never considered the motions of being a manager having an effect on my wanting to do more. That could actually ring true as I seem to have always found myself in middle management throughout my life. Then again, maybe it’s my personality that makes me “middle management material”! 😉

      Have a great New Year’s and a fantastic 2020, Joe!

  3. re: lesson #3 – I’m with Jack Welch on the work-life choices, which often create imbalances https://blogs.wsj.com/juggle/2009/07/13/jack-welch-no-such-thing-as-work-life-balance/ Chromebooks are a good fit if you’re comfortable with cloud-everything. If you need the power and versatility of Microsoft’s vast ecosystem, plus unconnected apps, industrial-strength gaming, additional storage and computational power, a Windows 10 PC is likely the better fit.

    1. To give the full quote from Welch for other readers, it’s “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.” I’m not sure I agree with him. It depends a lot on what your work actually is, but in many cases, I think you can and should create a separation between the two. That doesn’t apply to every career, but if you can, that balance can be what keeps a person sane.

      Unfortunately, though, there are some careers where making a choice between work and home life can cost you a promotion or something along those lines. In those cases, it’s important to determine if it’s worth it or not.

      I agree completely with your point about Windows 10 providing a lot more power and versatility. I’m blown away by how far Windows has come over the years. That said, I would guess that maybe 75% of people don’t use their home computer for more than the Internet. And in those cases, a Chromebook is a perfect fit. For the rest, Windows (or Mac) is a better choice.

      Thanks for the comment, Jennifer! Have a wonderful New Year!

  4. I wonder if part of your stress is not missing your old job but is missing doing some work for pay. I never miss the stress of running a huge chemical complex and I’ve been retired for four years. But I also stepped straight from that job into some consulting gigs that pay me a significant amount for a day or two of part time work a week. While I don’t miss my old job I think I would miss being productive if I didn’t have the side gigs now. I put up some security lights on the house yesterday. It went fine but it doesn’t feel the same as getting paid $250 an hour to do some consulting that takes the same amount of time. I got my board to agree on hiring a new college president the day before, lots of unpaid hours went into that project, and while hugely important it doesn’t satisfy like my last consulting project, not even close. It may be that you haven’t isolated the true cause of that anxiety, and that you need some kind of paid work to fulfill that accomplishment drive inside of you that unpaid work just can’t do? I’m not you, so I am probably off base, but if you find that you have a nagging feeling that you aren’t getting enough done maybe some freelancing in a technical area would be worth exploring.

    1. I could see how that might actually be something that comes into play. I’m with you 100% that getting paid to do a job seems a lot more satisfying than not getting paid to do it. If things go the way I want, 2020 will be the year I get to do a lot more with this site. That’s already something I really enjoy and if the money follows, that definitely ain’t gonna hurt that feeling of joy! 🙂

      After that, we’ll see what happens. I have a few ideas of some things I’d like to do as well, but with the amount of time our family spends together, I’ve haven’t had the opportunity to pursue anything else yet. I think this year I’ll have more time to explore these things now that everyone’s feeling a little more comfortable here in Panama doing more of their own thing.

      Have a great New Year!

  5. Great list of life lessons, and Happy New Year Jim!

    I had similar learnings in my own first year of going without a traditional job. It was a real eye opener!

    Give Faith and Lisa my Holiday/New Years greetings! Wishing you guys the best in 2020. 🙂

  6. Great lessons Jim!
    I also always wanted to give back and didn’t have anything magically ‘hit me’.
    I’m actively searching out ways to give back new instead of passively waiting for something to find me.

    I have lots of ideas so far but haven’t pulled the trigger on anything big.

    Here’s hoping you find YOUR animal shelter in 2020 🙂 Cheers

    1. Haha, I did almost put that in there (along with a couple others) because we really did love hanging out with you guys! I think next time we’ll need to stay longer so we can justify it as a bigger experience. 😉 Or, even better, maybe you two need to make your way down here for a vacation… that would definitely be a fun experience that would earn its own post!

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