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Is being a couple the hardest thing about early retirement planning?

Planning for something you've not done before can be pretty difficult. And I'm not even talking about my van/camper conversion idea, although that really is something I have no clue about!

Instead, I'm thinking back to my early retirement decision when, four years ago, I sat with a pen, paper and even a whiteboard trying to plan what early retirement would look like and figure out whether I should go for it.

All I really knew was that I'd had enough of the big corporate world and wanted to do something different. What that different should be was hard to tie down.

My planning naturally focused on the things I was worried about:

  • What would my new life look like - what would I do / would I be bored?

  • Would I get lonely?

  • What would it cost/could I afford it?

While they were my concerns ahead of time, the reality is that I haven't been bored, I haven't been lonely and the cost has been comfortably affordable for our investments pot. Maybe that's because I did have some semblance of a plan, even if it was somewhat lightweight.

So if those three things haven't been the hardest thing about early retirement, what has? In my case, it's figuring out how my early retirement life and dreams fit into the life of a couple i.e. how to get the life I want while my other half, Sally, gets the life she wants too.

In last week's post I touched on how, although I'm not a minimalist (yet), I can see the attraction. Sally on the other hand, doesn't. A question I got asked is how couples deal with these types of difference in views. I guess it's by compromising, in this case, me trying to ignore some of Sally's stuff that she's collected and not put away and Sally biting her tongue as I tidy her stuff up before she's finished using them. In fairness, this might be to do with some OCD tendencies that I have more than anything else!

But I think the couples dilemma is interesting, for example, what happens when a couple have different ideas about early retirement? That resonates because my early retirement decision has highlighted a number of differences between Sally and myself that hadn't previously existed. For example:

  • I wanted to retire early so that I could do other things | Sally wanted to carry on with her teaching job

  • I wanted to leave Dubai, where we were living and working | Sally was happy there and would rather have stayed

  • I wanted to travel | Sally wasn't so keen

  • I want to do things that are a bit out of the ordinary and a little adventurous (at least by my definition) | Sally is happier with the status quo

  • I want to have a plan, at least an outline for the next year or two, even if it might change or be misguided | Sally is either less keen to make a plan or less clear what it should be and less willing to risk a misguided plan

These differences didn't exist ahead of my early retirement. Now that they do, it makes parts of our couple life more can see from the picture that Sally can get a bit frustrated at me...particularly when I use this photo🤣

It was easier for us to be on the same page pre FIRE. For a start we had to work, so that's what most of our time and energy went into. We also brought up our children, another big common goal. Outside of these things, time was limited and/or we were too tired to do much.

Financial independence changed that. I'm no longer too tired and there's a plethora of new and different choices available to me. But I've also got to figure out how these new opportunities tie in with what Sally might want. Does she share my newly found interests? If she wants to work, how would that fit in? So far, we're not always finding simple solutions to these and other questions.

Compromise can be part of the answer, but I remember the saying that compromise often means that nobody really gets what they want. It's therefore not always the best answer. For example, when I travelled to California, Costa Rica and Colombia for three months last year, Sally was with me for just one third of the time because she's less excited by the travel. That was our compromise, but the part when I travelled alone was less enjoyable than when we travelled together. It was a compromise and it felt like one.

Then there's my campervan idea - something I feel I want to do even if it may be a misguided idea. I figure it's better to give it a go than look back in the years ahead and say "if only..." or "I wish...". Sally's agreed to it, but half of me thinks that's just to shut me up. If that's the case, it's not ideal. We'll hear her views on the subject in a future post so maybe we'll find out then.

We've had endless conversations on what our life should look like, but it's still a work in progress to find the right answers. Having those conversations can be quite difficult.

That's not to say that FIRE isn't still great, it is, and I wouldn't wish to turn the clock back. But it is to say that in terms of my original early retirement planning, the what will I do, will I be bored, will I be lonely and what will it cost questions focused too much on the "I" word. What I missed was "how will WE make this work as a couple?". Maybe that would have helped me realise that the two parts of the couple didn't have identical wish lists.

It could be that our life as long term expatriate workers makes Sally's and my circumstances an exception. We've lived and worked in countries that were only temporary homes, knowing we would have to leave at some point? What my early retirement did was influence the timing of our departure and combined the big change of my early retirement with a second big change of moving countries shortly after.

I'm sure the expat thing made things more difficult for us but, even so, my focus was on the "I" part of my early retirement too much, ignoring the affect it might have on our life as a couple. Equally, Sally's main concern was whether we could afford for me not to work and I suspect she expected my early retirement wouldn't really change her life. Both our positions were naive. Maybe you'd say that's obvious and that we were foolish not to think otherwise. But that's what we did and I suspect if we made that mistake then others could do likewise.

So, if I had a do-over of my early retirement planning, the lesson I've learned is that the same attention should be placed on the "we" part as on the "I" part, even though it was only me who was retiring early. Like I mentioned earlier, early retirement life is good and I wouldn't want to turn the clock back, but there's no doubt that it's been a huge change for us both, and as a couple we're still trying to figure some of the decisions out.


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