What we learned from a 6 month “early retirement dry run” career break
You know the feeling if you work a 9 to 5. It starts creeping in when your weekend has barely begun. Before you can properly recharge from the workweek, you’ll have to get up on Monday and continue the grind. Will I be doing this for the rest of my life?!
My husband and I have been on the FIRE journey for the past decade. We are rentvestors meaning we don’t own a home, choosing instead to invest our money to help us reach financial independence much earlier than the traditional retirement age of 65. While we are not secretive about our life choices, we don’t exactly talk about them with friends and family. Like any other newly married couple, we field questions of “When are you buying a house?” and “Are you having kids?” At times it’s easier to dodge these than to be truthful that we don’t want what they think we should want.
Choosing the FIRE lifestyle means working just as hard as I would if I had a mortgage to shoulder or kids to support. At the end of the day, it’s to realize a lifestyle that I think would make me happy. Unlike some of my friends, I don’t have visions of being in my old age surrounded by offspring at gatherings to strengthen familial bonds. Neither do I share the kind of vision promoted by some FIRE bloggers of traveling the world unencumbered by offspring.
Being on the FIRE journey made me feel special like I was in some secret club but the more I saw people around me achieve milestones that were visible and tangible, the more I questioned what all this hard work is for. Simply telling myself that I’m doing it for “freedom” was no longer enough to push through the stress of remote work during a global pandemic. As I approached burnout, all I wanted was to be freed from the day-to-day anxiety caused by my job.
In October 2021, I decided to quit my stressful tech job with nothing lined up. Initially, I just wanted to focus on recharging but after some discussions with my husband, we decided that this would be the perfect time to figure out what I’d do if I didn’t need to work for money. We called it the “trial FIRE” career break. Mine lasted 6 months and this is how I did it, what I’d recommend, and my learnings along the way.
For this to work, I knew that I needed a decent chunk of time to establish a completely new routine. 3 months would have been too short as by the time you finish recharging from the grind, you’d need to start thinking about job hunting, leaving very little time to establish your early retirement routine.
When I decided to quit, I had about 6 months’ worth of expenses in my savings account. It is typical for a contractor like me to have a safety net in case my contract is terminated early. I began saving some of my paychecks earlier on and over time it grew. Instead of putting that money into our investment portfolio, I decided to use it to fund the break. This meant that I could give myself half a year off but it also meant that I wouldn’t have anything extra to treat myself or help with achieving our FIRE goals.
My husband had to accept this change too. After several discussions, to my surprise, he suggested we pivot to coast FIRE. This meant that our goal to retire early would be pushed out but he could be more relaxed about his workload and enjoy life more without feeling guilty. This helped to establish a new and much slower pace of life with fewer rules around what we had to do with every dollar earned.
It also meant a change in mindset and the introduction of uncertainty. Instead of sprinting towards a finish line, we stopped at the halfway point and didn’t know when and if we would start running again. For me, it was important to stop, take a breath, and see what’s beyond the finish line so that whatever I saw had the potential to motivate me to start running again. And I’d rather do that with my partner by my side than be left in his dust.
I wish I could tell you that quitting my job was easy. It was actually one of the hardest things I’ve had to do because there were so many risks involved. During this time, I spoke to a career advisor and a counselor through the company’s employee assistance program. It helped me realize that I was not set up for success in my role and I had failed to establish boundaries. For a couple of weeks I continued working to try and emotionally detach from what I couldn’t control. When that didn’t work, it became clear to me that the risk to my mental health would be much higher if I stayed.
- The FIRE journey is not necessarily a straightforward one because you are human and you need to prioritize periods of rest. Financial goals need to adapt to your capacity to reach them, not the other way round. It shouldn’t be something that forces you to push beyond your physical and emotional limits.
- Help your partner understand this and find ways to adapt your approach that works for both parties. Communicate how much time you think you need for your break and how you expect to contribute financially during this time. You may need to negotiate these parameters with your partner and things might even get heated. Have compassion and patience for their perspective as you are affecting their future too. Bring the conversation back to how this could help both of you in the long term.
- Quitting a job is a process that involves understanding the risks of staying versus leaving to make an informed decision that, above all else, is the most conducive to your wellbeing.
- Saving up for a break is one aspect of setting yourself up properly. The other is to set the right intentions. I asked myself to find out what I’d be doing if I was financially free. In essence, it’s about uncovering what living fully and authentically looks like to you.
Month 1: allow ample time to recharge physically but the emotional recovery may take longer.
“I wish I could take a break.” I remembered these words on the first day of my break. They were uttered by someone I was sad to say bye to when I quit my job. What made me sadder was knowing that most people do not have the luxury to call time on a routine that is no longer serving them.
While a part of me was excited to figure out my new lifestyle, my batteries were completely depleted and my body would not co-operate. I was lying on the couch because I didn’t have the energy to do anything. I learned that the only thing to do immediately after burnout is to rest unapologetically.
In Devon Price’s book “Laziness Does Not Exist”, he uses the example of a pet chinchilla to make the argument that one does not need to be productive to have worth. So why then does seeing oneself as perfectly acceptable and lovable while blobbing on the couch seem like such a radical idea?
When deeply reflecting on my life, it became obvious that I was using my work successes to give me a sense of purpose and meaning. It became central to my identity and self-worth and helped me mask deep-seated insecurities that I felt especially as a minority in my society.
Unable to be productive, I became the human chinchilla. As the days passed, little by little my energy levels returned and I was able to function again. Being able to meet my basic needs like cooking nourishing meals to heal my body felt like an achievement. My husband praised my efforts to keep up with housework. Friends who wanted to chat could call on me during the day and people I knew in my industry encouraged me to share my stories as a mentor.
These were indicators from my network that I had value beyond employment. Through small acts of service that aligned with my values and energy levels, I was able to start uncoupling my identity from my job and let my actions outside of a job speak for who I am.
- It takes time to reach a place of burnout and it will take time to restore your battery levels. The first phase is to recover physically by resting unapologetically. Don’t put a deadline on it. Your body is working to heal you from years of built-up anxiety and stress.
- Once your energy levels are back up and you begin to function again, it can be easy to fool yourself into thinking you’re ready to dive back into work. However, the emotional side of burnout is more complex. It may involve working through internal issues around self-worth. You may also have experienced toxic workplace traumas that need to be addressed. Working with a therapist or counselor at the early stages of a career break can help you to clarify what healing needs to occur.
- Being on break does not necessarily mean you have more time for others. You simply have more time to make up for the lost time you should have used on yourself. Remember this if people in your network have the wrong idea about your availability and start making unreasonable requests.
Months 2–3: spend quality time with loved ones. It can be a form of meaningful work.
After a month of rest, my husband and I received news from New Zealand of a family emergency. With no hesitation, we packed our bags after successfully securing a managed isolation quarantine spot. The news was sudden but the timing was perfect. I was not beholden to a job and could immediately tend to our loved ones’ needs.
It’s hard to describe the emotions that bubble up upon seeing and reconnecting with family after a long period of separation. Perhaps you have recently experienced something similar where everything feels the same until it doesn’t. The global pandemic has affected each of us in different ways and how we choose to deal with it can be jarring to an outsider looking in.
At the same time, going from an independent 31-year-old to suddenly living back at home can drive anyone crazy. Within the walls of my childhood bedroom where the eyes of Orlando Bloom posters used to stare back at me, I attempted to help my parents reconcile their expectations of me with who I’ve become.
In a similar vein, I had to let go of my memory of who they were before the pandemic and accept how they have changed as a result. Our eyes kept meeting but we weren’t being seen.
As a Kiwi Asian family, the dinner table is where we gather but conversations can sometimes feel forced. Love is not expressed through words but is ingested with a dip of soy sauce and vinegar. Without a job, I had time to start some tough conversations with my parents and siblings during the day which would sometimes last for hours.
One of my favorite moments happened after cooling down from a yelling match with my Mum. What I perceived to be her disappointment in me resulted in a request for her to be my friend. I told her that sometimes I just needed her to listen without judgment and see me as a grown woman with independence rather than someone who needs protection.
When she finally heard me, I immediately felt seen as a person rather than a shadow of the daughter she idealized. As a result, I was able to become the friend she needed in this time who also needed her in return.
Eventually, anger gave way to understanding. As my relationships began to heal, I found my voice: how I choose to live my life and how it differs from yours is a cause for celebration, not derision. I would leverage the same courage it took to break the generational mold to figure out my post-work routine.
- Freedom is luxury without meaning. True luxury is being in a position to support your loved ones when they need you the most.
- So you finally have more time to spend with loved ones. The energy it takes to work through any deep-seated issues can be like a full-time job. Healing familial relationships is an extension of the healing journey that early retirement could enable.
Months 4–5: establish a new routine.
We make plans and God laughs. One of the many dreams thwarted by the pandemic was the desire to slow travel our way around Southeast Asia. While being back in New Zealand wasn’t exactly slow traveling, we experienced what it would be like to have multiple locales to call home.
By the time we returned to Melbourne, I was already past the midpoint of my career break. I would wake up without an alarm and my calendar was empty. It was like a blank canvas for painting the masterpiece that is my dream life.
Like the initial strokes of a drawing which help set the structure, I started with simple to-do lists. They included things I had been putting off for years like trying veganism and checking in with my doctor. I organized them into three categories: “life admin”, “health” and “side hustles”.
Then a routine started developing as I honed in on the types of work I wanted to do for fun and that gave me a sense of accomplishment. They were: career coaching for early-stage UX professionals, building a digital mental health journaling service, and writing personal essays.
I was guided by a personal mission statement (companies have them, so why shouldn’t I?): “Help every person tell their story for the betterment of humankind’s potential.” Being in service of this mission made each day feel purposeful, structured, and exciting.
In terms of how I worked, it was dictated by my energy levels. Instead of forcing myself to start at a particular time, I had the whole morning to do whatever I felt like. When I felt like working, I’d pick a task from the “side hustle” list to tackle with no time limits so I could get into flow state. Making progress was a bonus, not an expectation.
When I didn’t feel like working, I procrastinated. Eventually, I learned to let go of the guilt around not producing “enough”. I already had enough because I was healthy, safe, and at the top of the Maslow pyramid.
- Time affluence can be a double-edged sword. Not having a way to spend your days meaningfully can be a source of anxiety. Simple tasks like helping around the house can be a good way to test your energy levels before incorporating more activities into your new routine.
- Having a personal mission can help you determine what to incorporate. If you don’t have one, ask yourself, “What’s a problem I feel so strongly about that I want to solve?” or “What’s something I am uniquely placed to be able to help others with?”
Month 6: confirm your early retirement lifestyle and uncover your definition of “freedom”.
A common icebreaker question is “What would you do if you won the lotto?” Now I can confidently say that I would still like to work but on my terms. I would choose projects I care about and still have time to travel, do coaching, look after my husband, hone my plant-based cooking skills, and write about how the FIRE journey helped me to live a healthier, more meaningful life.