Finance

How an early retiree traveling the country in his RV joined FIRE

Fortune is looking to interview retirees about life after leaving the work force. If you’re interested in sharing your story, email senior writer Alicia Adamczyk at alicia.adamczyk@fortune.com.

Since Chris Miller retired last year at the age of 54, he hasn’t thought about work much.

Instead, he wakes up, makes coffee, and spends three hours with his tablet, reading the news and watching TV. He’ll check his to-do list—though most things can be pushed to another day—maybe exercise or play some pickle ball, and see if any of his friends are able to meet up.

It’s starkly different from the three decades he spent working as a software engineer, not that he minds. His retirement shifted his priorities. He’s spent his time traveling with his wife Michelle—who retired three months before him—around North America in their RV, watching 19 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, tinkering around the house, and even building a retirement calculator to help other people figure out how much money they’ll need in retirement. Michelle spends her days volunteering and fostering kittens.

“Every day feels like Saturday,” Miller tells Fortune.

It’s been a big, but welcome change. Miller logged long hours in the tech industry for most of his career, which allowed him to save significantly. When his company announced layoffs were coming last year, he decided it was time to take a break and negotiated a “favorable” severance package, which helped ease his transition into retirement (it’s also a common tactic among early retirees—if you can pick when you retire, you can optimize your exit package).

Miller started maxing out his retirement contributions in his 20s, but it wasn’t until around age 30 that he became “obsessed” with the concept of retirement and how much he would need to save to live a comfortable life. At the time, he lived in Southern California and watched as Silicon Valley workers made out like bandits during the Dotcom Boom. He decided to move north to try to get in on the gold rush. He got a job as a software engineer at a startup and “had dreams of getting rich immediately.”

That didn’t happen; the Dotcom Boom was quickly followed by the Dotcom Bust. Miller worked at four different startups, none of which were hugely successful. Eventually, he decided to stay put at a company he liked well enough and try to build wealth the old-fashioned way. “I saved my pennies and invested wisely,” he says.

Courtesy of Christopher Miller

In his free time, he discovered the FIRE—financial independence, retire early—movement through blogs like Mr. Money Mustache and went all in on early retirement.

“I knew I didn’t want to wait until 65” to stop working full time, he says. “I was doing my own spreadsheets and calculations, that was my hobby.”

Miller declined to share how much he saved for retirement. But between him and his wife, it’s enough to live in a house in the Bay Area and travel in their RV on an annual withdrawal rate of around 4.5% to 5%, even in a down market like 2022. While he may decide to go back to work one day, he says he doesn’t need to financially if they keep their lifestyle the way it is now.

Finding purpose outside the 9-to-5

When he first retired, Miller was worried that his life would lack purpose. And while there are some days he isn’t as busy as he would like, remembering the things he disliked most about the corporate world—the commute being a big one—helps put things in perspective.

Plus, taking it easy isn’t so bad, he’s finding. After a lifetime of working, it’s okay not to be “uber productive” all the time.

“People are worried they’ll become couch potatoes, others find new passions. I’m in the middle,” he says. “I have all this free time and I use half of it to relax and half of it to do things I didn’t do before. I have no regrets about that.

“I’m happy to spend three hours drinking my coffee in the morning,” he adds.

He’s also found purpose in helping others reach their retirement goals. Miller encourages other workers to run a so-called Monte Carlo simulation, which is a type of analysis that helps project whether an investor will have enough retirement income given a range of possible market conditions and other details. It’s not a perfect analysis, of course—nothing can be—but it is considered more thorough than a standard retirement income calculator that only assumes a standard rate of return each year.

Spending a few hours running the numbers every now and then can help other savers stay on track. He also advises those interested in financial independence to track their spending meticulously so they will accurately know how much they’ll need in retirement.

“When you retire, you’re choosing to freeze your lifestyle expenses, they can’t really increase after you retire,” he says. “Be ready to make the conscious decision to always be living that lifestyle and never more.”

And keep following your financial progress even after you retire. “Be prepared to make spending adjustments if things are looking down,” he says. “I’m hoping to buy a Tesla next year, but I’m deferring that gratification until our investments fully recover.”

Even those who didn’t work as a software engineer for decades can figure out the math that works for them, he says. “Somebody else who has half the net worth of me, that doesn’t mean they can’t retire, they just have to live on half the budget,” he says. “Maybe that means living in a different state, or a smaller house. There’s always some math that works in any situation.”

Courtesy of Christopher Miller

Finally, Miller says early retirees have to be sure they’re “willing to trade money for time and possibly lose out on what fulfills you in life.” In the U.S., work gives many people a sense of purpose (particularly high earners). But just because you’re not working full time doesn’t mean your life will lose meaning—it may just take on a different one.

“When I was working, there were a lot of things I wished I could do that I just didn’t have time for. RV travel was number one on that list, and now I’m just living that dream,” he says, noting he’s currently on a 47-day trip across Canada. He and his wife have friends who also travel with their RVs, and they are aiming for a few weeks-long trips each year.

The Chris Miller of 20 years ago wouldn’t believe he gave up his career for RV travel and pickle ball tournaments. He’s even turned down some offers of contract work over the past year because he’s enjoying his commitment-free days.

“Right now, I’m really enjoying the lack of responsibility and the notion that I can wake up every day and just decide what to do that day,” he says. “I’m following my heart, I’m doing the things I’m passionate about.”


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