Life

This 38-year-old retired in the Arizona desert with his wife: How coronavirus changed life in early retirement

Our off-grid home in the Arizona desert
Steve Adcock

You'd think that, for a couple who retired in their 30s and lives in a small town — in the middle of nowhere — of about 2,200 people, the coronavirus pandemic probably hasn't affected them very much.

That's not entirely true. Here's how COVID-19 changed our finances, relationships and daily routines in early retirement:

Social distancing brought us closer

Around 2016, after setting aside 70% of our tech salaries, my wife Courtney and I quit our jobs and retired early in Tucson, Arizona.

But just last year, we had to get acclimated to our new retirement setup: an 800-square-foot solar home on 10 acres of land in Cochise County. One perk about living off-grid is that it allows us to be incredibly self-sufficient. We have a septic system in place, collect our own rainwater and generate electricity through our own solar panels.

But it can get pretty lonely compared to city life. We have 360-degree views of nothing but mesquite trees and bush scrub, and our closest neighbor is a half-mile away. Beyond that, we can't see another house for several miles.

...spacious towns aren't permanently shielded from the spread of COVID-19.

It's not all bad: Being a community of strangers who almost never interact with each other, in addition to having no mass transit, long lines or dense crowds, makes social distancing a lot easier.

Strangely, however, over the past few weeks, the need for social distancing has actually brought us closer together. Each time Courtney and I head to the grocery store, we'll first call our neighbors (especially the elders) to ask if they'd like us to pick anything up — and vice versa. It saves us from the hassle of frequent 45-minute drives to the store (the nearest Costco is an hour-and-half away). 

This is important because small, spacious towns aren't permanently shielded from the spread of COVID-19. As experts, including Andy Pekosz, a professor of immunology at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, have noted: While small towns don't get very many outside visitors, the people who live there drive to larger cities all the time. So unless we make containment efforts and limit those trips, we're more likely to see a local outbreak.

For the most part, social distancing has really changed the vibe of our town — in a good way. It used to be, "There's that guy we always drive by on our way to Home Depot." Now it's, "That's Hank! Let's wave to Hank!"

Our money situation...and backup plan

Since the pandemic, we've been surviving entirely off our three years of living expenses (that we saved in a high-yield savings account before quitting our jobs) to avoid selling stocks in a down market.

Steve and Courtney Adcock retired in their 30s
Courtesy of Steve Adcock

As early retirees, a big part of our financial lifestyle revolves around our investments. For the past several years, we've lived off dividends and capital gains in the market. But the crash in the aftermath of COVID-19 put a halt to most of that.

We're now reinvesting dividends, but our net worth has dropped by hundreds of thousands of dollars since the pandemic. Easy come, easy go, I guess!

About 60% of our money is in long-term investment accounts, such as our 401(k)s and IRAs. We also have a Vanguard brokerage account we can access, but hopefully it won't come to that.

To stay on the safe side, we're significantly cutting back on spending. But we know the market will rebound. It always does. If things go back to somewhat normal within the next three or four months, we're hoping to have enough stock in the market to enjoy a nice recovery.

Canceled travel plans and new daily routines

Courtney and I love to travel, so we didn't plan on being home as much. In fact, the main reason we worked so hard to retire early was to travel the country full-time in our 30-foot Airstream trailer. 

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, we had cancel all the trips we planned (and already booked) for this year.

As everyone knows by now, it isn't easy trying to stay put — and busy — at home. Courtney has been organizing and cleaning a lot, which is a near-constant activity when you're married to someone like me! Meanwhile, I've been spending more time in my home office, where I work out and blog about personal finance.

We are eternally grateful to be in the position we're in. We know many people are struggling — with finances, illnesses, losses — and we don't take our lot in life for granted. 

We're also trying to limit our daily news intake by distracting ourselves in the kitchen. Since we've haven't had much luck finding our go-to items at the grocery store, we've had to get creative with whatever is available and has a long shelf life. (There's a world of recipes for canned beans and hard grains online, which I never knew about until now!)

Then, every evening at around sunset, we sit outside and enjoy some beers together. No phones allowed. We talk about everything, from funny things that happened that day and our ever-changing goals to upcoming home improvement projects and future plans.

It's nice to know that even after being married for years, there's always something new to learn about each other.

This, too, shall pass

We are eternally grateful to be in the position we're in today. We know many people are struggling — with finances, illnesses, losses — and we don't take our lot in life for granted. 

But this, too, shall pass. And when it does, we'll appreciate being together so much more. We'll enjoy the hugs — or elbow bumps. We'll find excitement in getting to eat at restaurants again. More importantly, we'll deepen our relationships and greet all our neighbors by their names.

Steve Adcock is a financial expert who blogs about money and retirement. A former software developer, he retired early at the age of 35. He has written for MarketWatch, Forbes and Business Insider. Follow Steve on Twitter @SteveOnSpeed.

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This couple retired in their 30s and travels full-time in an Airstream trailer
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