MY YEAR BEGAN WITH a fulltime job at an energy trading company. But I knew my days were numbered. I’d spent six years trading, working with clients and helping to manage risk, all while being surrounded by smart and fun people. But as side gigs, I’d also spent several years writing about finance and teaching as an adjunct professor. Writing became my passion—one that didn’t mesh well with my day job.
That’s how, in January, I found myself embarked on an uncertain endeavor: focusing solely on financial writing and university teaching. It would turn out to be a year of semi-retirement for me—an odd thing at age 34. My final semester teaching was in the spring, while freelance writing only took up 10 hours a week or so.
What did I do with my ample free time? Hit the golf course? Sit on the beach? Travel the world? None of that. My golf clubs lay dormant and I only visited the beach to take weather observations during hurricanes. I did take a quick trip to Atlanta in July—for a CFA exam-grading volunteer event.
Instead, I settled into a daily routine of writing for an hour or two first thing in the morning, then reading investment research reports and articles in The Wall Street Journal and on Morningstar.com. Exercise, walks and listening to countless financial and behavioral podcasts filled my afternoons, along with responding to the occasional client email. My evenings were quiet and short, sometimes diving into finance books. I would hit the sack by 8:30 p.m., so I’d be up early to write during my “high performance” time of day.
Notice how none of these activities included other people. That was my folly. I even knew that going in. Last March, I wrote an article detailing the perils of FIRE, the financial independence-retire early movement. It sounds amazing to have the financial freedom to leave a fulltime job and do as you please. But I learned through hard experience that a pre-retiree must develop a game plan for life after work. Here are five keys to a successful semi-retirement—not all of which I nailed:
1. Socialize. I wrote last March, “I need to stay active and social. No two ways about it.” Be social? I earned a big fat “F” on that one.
2. Stay active. I crushed that—I haven’t missed a day of exercise and I savored the Florida sun as I walked many miles daily. I’ve also been getting plenty of healthy shut-eye.
3. Remain productive. My business has grown and it more than pays the bills. I am able to contribute the max to my solo 401(k) and IRA this year. I plan to continue with my various side gigs.
4. Keep learning. I love reading and researching. It might be the most fun part of my day. Time flies when I’m writing and reading. I’ve also gotten used to listening to podcasts at 1.8 times regular speed—a big win.
5. Break routines. Routines are sometimes good. They’re like mental shortcuts to help us focus on more creative and important tasks. For me, I can get so beholden to a routine that I stress about missing a step. With every day feeling kind of the same, I’ve tried to ignore the clock and go with my gut more. Memories are not made with checklists. Spontaneity spices up life.
Why didn’t I socialize more? As an introvert, I rarely pounce on opportunities to get out of the house and go make small talk with acquaintances. In hindsight, the social benefits of fulltime work are something I didn’t fully appreciate. Chatting it up in the break room or on the trading floor, while not the most productive use of time, is almost like part of the benefits package.
From a business point of view, my year as a freelance writer has been fantastic. I’ve worked on many interesting projects with smart people, all through email, phone calls and Zoom. I believe my financial writing has improved, thanks to large doses of helpful and positive feedback. Nothing feels better than when I deliver something of value to clients.
But my year as a FIRE poster child is drawing to a close. I’ll most likely be working fulltime again by early 2022. It won’t be in energy trading or managing a portfolio. Instead, I’ll be doing what I think I do best—writing about investments and communicating financial issues.
Over the past year, I’ve learned some valuable lessons about what works for me and what I struggle with. I envy those in the FIRE crowd who find fulfillment in life without a fulltime job. But right now, that isn’t for me. My goal for 2022: To use the extra income from my new job not to invest every last dollar in tax-advantaged accounts and index funds, but to be intentional about getting out and about more.
Mike Zaccardi is a freelance writer for financial advisors and investment firms. He’s a CFA® charterholder and Chartered Market Technician®, and has passed the coursework for the Certified Financial Planner program. Mike is also a finance instructor at the University of North Florida. Follow him on Twitter @MikeZaccardi, connect with him via LinkedIn, email him at MikeCZaccardi@gmail.com and check out his earlier articles.